Authors: Jon Mayhew
The Demon Collector
For Branwell Johnson,
who read my earliest ace adventures
Part the First
Part the Second
Also by Jon Mayhew
Moloch, horrid king besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, passed through fire
To his grim idol.
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Part the First
‘Now answer me these questions three,
Or you shall surely go with me.
Now answer me these questions six,
Or you shall surely be Old Nick’s.
Now answer me these questions nine,
Or you shall surely all be mine.’
‘Riddles Wisely Expounded’, traditional folk ballad
Edgy Taylor screwed his eyes shut and felt his stomach churn as the carriage wheels crunched over the boy’s body. The trap rattled round the corner, its pony wide-eyed, foaming at the mouth. The young girl driving had lost the reins and leaned perilously out, trying to grab them as they flicked and trailed along the street. The horse screamed as its iron-clad hooves rolled the boy in the mud and bounced his skull on the hard cobbles.
Edgy’s little white terrier, Henry, gave a yap of alarm. The boy had been looking over his shoulder and had run blind into the path of the trap. But there could be no mistaking the expression on his face when he turned back.
Someone had been chasing him.
The trap clattered on down the street, out of control. Edgy caught a last glimpse of the ashen-faced driver and then it was gone.
Folk in the street stood motionless, staring at the groaning, twisted body. Carriages rattled distantly in other streets but silence froze this one. One or two onlookers peered cautiously, shook their heads, then broke the spell, pulling their hats or bonnets down, fixing their eyes firmly on the pavement and hurrying on. Henry gave a whine.
Edgy ran forward and cradled the boy, lifting him out of the filth that coated the street. Water leached up Edgy’s trouser legs, freezing his bottom half.
The boy looked much the same age as Edgy – thirteen, maybe fourteen. Blood matted his curly brown hair and smeared his face.Well-dressed, Edgy thought. The quality of the boy’s suit shone through the muck and dirt that now caked it. Thick material, hand-stitched, neatly crafted bone buttons. His eyes flickered and he gave a strangled gasp.
‘Don’t worry, mate,’ Edgy said, trying to sound reassuring.
The boy gave a wet, gargling choke and glanced down at his slowly opening fist. A triangle of bone lay in his palm. The boy lifted his hand, offering it to Edgy.
‘You want me to take it?’ Edgy asked, frowning at the scrap.
‘Keep it safe . . . Salomé . . . Moloch . . . fire . . . death . . .’ the boy croaked. ‘Don’t . . . let anyone . . .’
Edgy took it from his slick palm. ‘I’ll get some help and . . .’
But the boy shook his head, his eyes widening as he looked over Edgy’s shoulder. His back arched and his face contorted, then he fell slack, his head lolling.
‘Someone help!’ Edgy shouted, but people were quickly about their business. Henry gave a snarl.
‘Problem, young man?’ a voice chimed behind him.
Stuffing the fragment into his coat pocket, Edgy glanced over his shoulder. Still crouched down, the first thing he noticed was her shoes.
Pointed. Shining. Black.
How was that possible? Even on a frosty winter evening, the mud from the road splattered everyone, lady or commoner. Henry bared his teeth and crushed his body against Edgy.
Edgy’s eyes tracked up from the unstained hem of her long black dress. Embroidery and lace. Waist sucked in at the middle. A fine chin, her china skin and red lips smiling at him. Black hair raked into a tight bun. And those eyes, as green as envy.
Edgy nodded to the boy in his arms. ‘Ran under a trap. Didn’t stand a chance, ma’am.’
‘No,’ she said, her smile slipping into an imperfect grimace for a second. ‘He didn’t.’
Edgy knelt in the busy street, twitching under the woman’s steady gaze. ‘I dunno what to do, ma’am,’ he said, nodding to the body again. ‘Can you help?’
The woman looked puzzled for a moment and then gave a short laugh. Edgy didn’t like her light manner – after all, this poor lad had just been killed. It was horrible.
‘Oh, him,’ she said, wrinkling her nose and wafting a dismissive lace glove. ‘Just drag him to the gutter. They’ll collect him soon enough.’
‘But . . .’ Edgy said, dumbfounded. The cold pinched at his damp legs. ‘I can’t do that.’
‘Well, you can’t sit in the street all evening, can you? And are you going to bury him yourself?’ Her eyebrows formed a perfect arch.
Edgy gritted his teeth. She spoke as if he were an idiot. Henry whimpered and slid behind Edgy.
‘I don’t s’pose I am, ma’am, but –’ Edgy began.
‘What do they call you?’ the lady cut in. ‘Your name. What is it?’ Her tone was light but there was a steeliness to it.
‘Edgy, ma’am. Edgy Taylor,’ he replied.
‘Yes,’ she said, as if confirming his answer. Her head tilted to one side. ‘Do you know how old you are, Edgy?’
‘Well, I’m not rightly sure,’ he muttered. ‘Twelve, thirteen perhaps?’
‘Nearly thirteen. My, my, how time flies. It’s your birthday soon. Did you know that?’
‘No, ma’am.’ Edgy gave a shake of his head. What was she on about? How could she know when his birthday was when even he didn’t?
‘February the fourteenth. A very significant day,’ she giggled and put a lace-gloved hand to her mouth.
‘I never knew that was my birthday, ma’am,’ Edgy said.Best to humour her.
‘And what do you do for a living, Edgy?’ She beamed down at him, twirling the handle of her umbrella in her hand.
‘I’m a prime collector, ma’am,’ Edgy muttered. He could feel his cheeks burning as she stared at him. Into him.
‘A prime collector?’ She raised her eyebrows again.
‘I collect dog sh— droppings, ma’am.’ Even over the stink of the sludge Edgy knelt in, her perfume caressed his face. ‘I sell it to the tanners, ma’am. They use it to cure the hides into leather. They mix it in a big vat, stick the animal skins in it . . .’
She raised a delicate hand. ‘You collect dog droppings?’ A solitary wrinkle furrowed her perfect forehead. ‘This world gets more hellish every day.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ Edgy’s eyes scanned the cobblestones.
‘Riddle me this, Edgy Taylor,’ said the lady, bringing her face close to his. The scent of violets and rose water made his head swim. ‘What goes up a mountain and down a mountain but never moves?’
‘Sorry?’ He frowned, shaking his head.
‘It’s a riddle, silly. What goes up a mountain and down a mountain but never moves?’
‘A riddle?’ Edgy knew what it was and he knew the answer. He just hadn’t expected some toff to riddle him while he held a dead body in his arms. Talon delighted in beating the answers to riddles into him. ‘A path. A path goes up and down a mountain but never moves!’ A glow of guilty pride warmed him in spite of the cold and the dead boy. At least he was good at something.
‘Very good,’ the lady nodded, beaming. ‘And what is it that everyone is born with, some die with, but most die without?’
‘This is stupid,’ Edgy spat and shuffled into a squat.
‘Come on, come on.’ She clicked her dainty fingers. ‘What is it that everyone is born with, some die with, but most die without?’ The lady straightened up, waiting for the answer. Her eyes grew wide and she flashed a row of straight, white teeth.
‘I dunno, ma’am.’ He couldn’t think, what with the cold and the strangeness of the situation. ‘A nose?’
‘You’re going to have to do better than that.’ Her voice became flat, disappointment pulled at the corners of her mouth. ‘And remember, it’s dangerous to give your name out to any old stranger, Edgy Taylor. You’re mine now by rights but I’ll let you run free for a while longer. It won’t be long now. See if you can find out the answer. Good day.’
She swept away into the hurrying crowds.
‘Now what was she on about, Henry?’ Edgy muttered, staring after her. Henry gave a whine.
All that talk of riddles and birthdays made him feel nervous. Riddles always reminded him of Talon. Talon. Edgy shuddered. A devil of a man. Talon took all the muck he collected. Gave him a roof, a crust and a good kicking in return. Everybody else thought he was a decent man, but Edgy knew his true nature.
A rattling of wheels snapped him back to reality as a black funeral carriage rolled up behind Edgy. A hawk-featured undertaker grinned down on him from the driver’s seat.
‘You keepin’ ’im warm, son?’ he laughed, clambering down from the carriage like a huge thin-legged spider.
‘Saw ’im go,’ Edgy said and laid the broken body down gently. He shivered and twitched his head as he stood up. ‘Kind of felt sorry for ’im.’
‘Ah well, I reckon I’ll take ’im. Dressed smart. Looks like he worked for rich folks. Might feel guilty and pay for a modest funeral,’ he sniffed, tapping his foot against the dead boy’s thigh as if he were assessing a second-hand cart. ‘Can always sell his clothes at the least.’ He hefted the body up and dumped it into a coffin on the back of the carriage.
‘That’s ’orrible.’ Edgy stared at his scuffed boots.
‘That’s life, mate,’ the undertaker said, slamming the lid shut on the box, ‘and death.’ He clambered back on to the carriage and gave Edgy a nod. ‘Evenin’.’
Edgy watched the hearse vanish into the twilight. Was that how it ended? Limp and lifeless on the back of a cart?
He stared down for a second. A wobbly reflection peered back at him from a shimmering puddle. It was hard to tell if his face was brown from years of outdoor life or from the muck that smeared it. The tight mouth and permanent frown line between his thick eyebrows gave him a worried, suspicious kind of look. No wonder they’d called him Edgy. Not a handsome chap, that’s for sure, with his thick mop of black hair. The reflection shivered in the scummy water, twitched and licked its narrow lips.
Henry gave a grumbling whine and stretched, pressing his cheek against Edgy’s calf. Edgy stroked the fur, grey from life on the streets, the brown and black patches faded.
‘That’s life, Henry, old chap,’ Edgy said, scratching behind the dog’s ear. ‘Apparently. Come on then. Let’s go and see what delights Mr Talon has in store for us tonight.’
He shook himself and stamped on his reflection; water had soaked through the holes in his boots ages ago.
Folks of all classes now pulled their hats – toppers or flat caps – low and turned their collars against the cold fog that drifted up from the river to fill the night. The fog muffled everything, turning passers-by into indistinct shapes. The shouts and cries from the alleys seemed closer somehow.
Images of the accident and the strange woman turned over in Edgy’s mind. The sliver of bone felt warm in his pocket as he flipped it between his fingers. Why did the boy want him to take it? And what had he said? It sounded like gibberish to Edgy.
A huge square shadow parted the mist, blocking Edgy’s path. He skipped sideways into the gutter to avoid being squashed. It was a cage on wheels. As the cage trundled past in the swirling fog, Edgy could make out a fox curled in one corner. A rabbit nestled close to it and a hawk rocked on a perch above them. Edgy read the sign above the cage:Happy Families – The Lion Lies down with the Lamb.
Hardly a lion, Edgy thought, looking at the mangy fox huddled in the filthy straw. He’d seen these street attractions before – animals that normally devoured each other caged and trained to live in peace. The rich kids loved them. Edgy would watch them pulling their mothers, fathers or nannies over to the cage, begging for a farthing to see the animals. He’d watched the indulgent smiles of the parents with a sting of envy.
Happy Families. Edgy sighed.A mother or father. That’d be nice. Anyone who cared, really. Anyone but Talon.
Edgy prayed Talon would be asleep or blind drunk tonight. Or better still, dead.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
A Dangerous Stranger
What is it that everyone is born with, some die with, but most die without?The lady’s riddle teased Edgy as he dodged the ghostly figures that emerged from the mist. He shivered and glanced around. For a moment, he had the strangest notion he was being followed.
People cursed and side-stepped Edgy as he shuffled his way across London Bridge.Nothing like carrying a sackful of dog muck to clear your way, he thought, allowing himself a humourless grin. His face dropped as he turned a corner and the sulphurous reek of the tanning yards clogged his nostrils worse than the stink of the Thames or the streets.
This whole part of the south bank smelt foul. Here jam makers boiled vats of sugar and fruit in crumbling workshops next to slaughterhouses and tanning yards that spewed yellow sulphurous clouds, thickening the already choking fog. The smell was a sickening mixture of sweet quince jam, meat, offal and tanning agents, and it drifted from the workshops and yards whose blackened brick walls loomed over Edgy.
A narrow alley took Edgy away from the hustle of the streets and into a shadowy maze that twisted and turned. Rough, broken-toothed men propped up crumbling walls and eyed him as he passed. He paid them no heed. There weren’t many folks who would roll him in the mud to steal what he was carrying. Besides, he was fast on his feet if he needed to run.
Edgy ducked into a small yard. His shoulder ached with the weight of the bag, full and heavy. He dragged it over his head, twisting his face away from the contents. Nobody wants ten pounds of dog muck tipped over themselves. He heard the filth slither from his bag and slip into a metal vat set in the ground. It bubbled and mixed with the rest of the foul concoction. The smell caught the back of his throat. He had never got used to it. Tomorrow he would be knee deep in the cocktail of excrement and urine that he’d collected from across the city, treading the raw hides into it to soften them.Something else to look forward to.
The tannery building itself rose above the yard some three storeys. The red-brick front was dotted with small windows and hatches with pulleys and winches for bringing goods up to higher floors. The huge oak doors stood slightly open.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, Edgy thought. This was where he met the sharp end of Talon’s tongue and the hard end of his boot.Why not run away?The thought occurred to Edgy every day. But where to? Into the darkness of the London streets to have his throat slit? Into the Thames to mudlark and be drowned? There was always the workhouse. Edgy had seen the pale, grey-faced children through the bars. Why would he go there to cough his final hours away as he died of some wasting disease? And what would become of poor Henry? No. At least they were dry and warm among the curing vats.
Edgy scurried through the wooden doors. Henry scampered close to him, the sound of his clicking claws echoing back down from the shadows of the workshop’s high-vaulted ceiling. Wet hides dripped and festered on the ropes that stretched between the building’s slimy walls. And there, among the piles of skin and hoof and bone, sat Talon, bottle in hand, glowering.
It was trouble, Edgy knew in an instant.
Edgy tried not to look at him. He knew what he would see. Talon’s eyes burning like coals deep in his twisted face. Skin crimson and bubbling like lava. Horns sprouting from his head.
Was Edgy the only one who could see what he was? Customers didn’t flinch as they did business with Talon. Once, as a young boy, Edgy had mentioned it to Bill Fager, the rosy-cheeked landlord of the Green Man Inn, who used to drop by from time to time. Edgy had told him about the horns and the hooves and the red skin.
‘You’ve a good imagination, Edgy Taylor, I’ll give you that,’ Bill had said, smiling and shaking his head. Then he’d leaned forward and whispered in Edgy’s ear, ‘Better not go tellin’ anyone else such tales, son. They’ll carry you off to Bedlam.’
Edgy glanced up, snapping back to the present. Talon ran a blackened tongue around his cracked lips and beckoned with a long, taloned finger.
‘Where you been all this time?’ he spat. ‘Talkin’ to pretty ladies?’ Talon wrinkled his pointed nose.How did he know?‘Don’t try denyin’ it. I can smell her on you . . . roses and violets.’
Henry trembled at Edgy’s heel, ears back. He’d seen the business end of Talon’s hoof before.
Talon stood up, swaying a little from the drink, towering over them. His cloven hooves clattered on the stone floor beneath his leather apron. His sinewy muscles bulged through his shirt.
‘I dunno what yer mean! Don’t ’urt me, Mr Talon,’ Edgy yelped. ‘I collected a load today, I been workin’ ’ard, sir!’
‘You’ve been answerin’ riddles.’ Talon cuffed Edgy with his gnarled fist, sending him sprawling. ‘I can tell!’
He stooped close and Edgy could smell his beery breath, see his crooked, yellowing teeth.
‘Well, riddle me this, Edgy. What has nails but can make a hammer, no rope but can make a noose?’ His fingers tightened around Edgy’s neck. ‘A hand? That what you’re trying to say? Well done. Won’t help though. I’m sick of wet-nursin’ you. Waste of bloomin’ time anyway ifshe’sgonna check up on yer every ten minutes. Dunno what she’s thinkin’ of, drawin’ attention to yer like that.’
What does he mean?It sounded as if he knew the woman. Edgy’s breath whistled through his constricted throat and the blood thundered in his head, stopping all thoughts as darkness edged into his vision.
‘Stop that at once!’ a reedy voice barked.
Talon’s fingers slackened and released Edgy. Gasping and spluttering, he fell to the floor. Air and life flooded back into his body. Henry leapt over, licking at his face.
Talon stared across the workshop. His face was a picture – and not a very pretty one. His jaw hung slack, a string of spit drooled down his pointed chin.
‘Envry Janus,’ he whispered. His red face seemed to pale. ‘The Stonemason . . .’
A little old man with long white hair, a tight black suit and pointy boots stood in the doorway. He wore spectacles with red lenses and held a small metal tube in the palm of his hand.
‘Hello again, Thammuz. How’ve you been keeping?’ He smiled and pointed the tube at Talon.
‘No, don’t!’ Talon cried and turned to run, tripping over Edgy in the process. Cursing, he scrambled to his feet and grabbed Edgy’s lapels. ‘Edgy,’ he gasped, his voice thick with fear. ‘You gotta ’elp me – he’ll kill me.’
Edgy’s stomach twisted at his touch. ‘Get off me! Leave me alone!’ He slapped and punched at Talon’s arms and face.
Talon threw Edgy aside, pleading with the man. ‘Janus, don’t, I’ll do anything . . .’
‘Tell me where it is then.’ Janus’s wrinkly face was still scrunched into a smile.
‘I can’t,’ Talon groaned. ‘If I knew I’d tell yer, I swear.’
Janus shook his head and pulled a cord at the back of the tube. A muffled bang echoed around the tannery. What looked like a dirty grey snowball hurtled from the tube and smacked Talon in the face. The groaning demon span on his heel, his red skin turning instantly grey, his movements slowing. Edgy cowered against the side of a curing vat as Talon reached out. The greyness was spreading, covering his entire body.
‘Edgeeeeeeee . . .’ Talon wheezed, like a clockwork toy running out of spring. Then he froze, his face petrified into a beseeching grimace, a statue of Talon.
The cheerful, kind-faced old man blew the smoke from the end of the tube, snapped the tube shut like a telescope and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.
‘What did you do to ’im?’ Edgy peered at the statue that had once been Talon and gingerly tapped its solid grey mass.
‘Don’t worry, young man, he’s ossified – turned to stone. He won’t hurt you again,’ he said, beaming at Edgy as if he was meant to understand. ‘I’ll have some men come round and pick him up later.’
‘But . . . why?’ Edgy picked Henry up, rolling his ear between his finger and thumb.
‘He’s a demon,’ Janus said simply, pocketing his spectacles and turning to leave. ‘I collected him.’
‘A demon?’ Edgy stepped towards him. His heart leapt. Then he wasn’t mad after all. Henry’s ears flattened back.
‘That’s right,’ Janus chuckled as he strode into the alleyway, his arms folded behind his back. ‘Now run along and do whatever it is you do.’
‘Y’mean hewasa demon? A real devil? Is that why he had horns and red skin?’ Edgy called after him. Janus stopped as if he were on the end of a leash and it had just been given an almighty tug. ‘I thought I was barmy but you could see the horns too?’
Janus turned slowly and, placing his red spectacles on his wrinkled face, looked Edgy up and down. ‘Talon didn’t just look like a man to you?’
‘Sometimes when he was working or asleep he looked like an ordinary cove.’ Edgy gazed at the open toes of his scuffed boots. ‘But most of the time when he was angry and beat me, I could see the horns and stuff. I thought it was just me. Thought I’d lost me marbles, like.’
‘Well, Thammuzwasa demon of wrath,’ Janus mumbled, rubbing his chin. ‘More likely to give himself away when he lost his temper. What’s your name, young man?’
‘Taylor, sir,’ he said, twisting the last remaining button on his ragged woollen coat. ‘Edgy Taylor.’
‘And you worked for Thammuz? What did you do?’
‘Collected . . . stuff, went on errands, solved riddles for ’im.’
He snapped to attention and peered closer. ‘Riddles?’
‘Yep.’ Edgy frowned and twitched under his gaze. ‘Seems I’m quite good at ’em . . . usually. Talon was always asking me riddles, then scribblin’ down the answers. He taught me t’read so’s I could learn more. From books and such. Always on the lookout for new riddles was Talon.’
‘Fascinating.’ Janus paced around Edgy, looking him over like a farmer inspecting a prize bullock. He stopped and clapped his hands together. ‘Tell me, how old are you?’
That question again?Edgy squirmed, shaking his head a couple of times. ‘Nearly thirteen, sir.’
Janus smiled and nodded as if he were impressed with the answer. ‘Well, Edgy Taylor, I think you should come with me. There’s nothing for you here.’ He prodded his finger into Edgy’s shoulder and peered down his ear. ‘I think you might be . . . useful,’ he added thoughtfully.
For a moment Edgy was flummoxed and looked at Henry, who stared back with dark-brown eyes that mirrored Edgy’s anxiety. ‘Sorry, sir,’ he stammered. ‘But I think I’ll go me own way, if it’s all the same to you.’
Edgy ducked under Janus’s arm. He ran down the alleyway, risking a backward glance. Henry clattered after him but Janus just stood and stared beyond him.
Something was wrong.
Edgy looked forward to glimpse ebony horns curling from a green forehead and orange eyes burning from the shadow of a heavy brow. At first he thought it was Talon. But it was another demon. Huge. Blocking his path. The creature towered above him, much larger than Talon ever was. Between its scowling eyes, a single red flame flickered and spat. Scrabbling on the slick cobbles, Edgy slid into it, bouncing back on to the hard ground. It was as if he had run into a brick wall.
So with his finger dipped in blood,
He scribbled on the stones,
‘This is my will, God it fulfil,
And buried be my bones.’
‘Childe the Hunter’, traditional folk song
A Place of Safety?
The demon’s heavily muscled arm swung down. Edgy rolled aside, springing to his feet. It lashed out again and missed, giving Edgy a split second to duck and run. Henry yapped and snapped at the demon’s ankles as it launched itself forward in pursuit.
‘Can’t you, y’know, turn him into stone or somethin’?’ Edgy yelled, pulling at a stack of barrels that stood at the side of the alley as he ran towards Janus. They clattered to the ground, sending the demon sprawling. ‘What’s he got against me?’
Janus was fiddling with the tube and cursing. ‘Damnable ossifier’s jammed,’ he spat.
The demon gave a low chuckle and pointed at Edgy. Edgy stumbled forward, tripping as the sole of his boot came off. He hissed at the sudden cold on his feet.
‘Careful, Edgy, it jinxed you,’ Janus shouted, stuffing the ossifier into his pocket. ‘Probably did the ossifier too.’
The demon picked itself up and strode towards Edgy but Janus jumped into its path, hurling a white powder at it. With a bellow of the rage, the creature threw its arms up to shield its face. Janus’s fingers gripped Edgy’s upper arm.
‘Come with me,’ he said firmly, dragging Edgy to his feet. ‘And run – I think there’s more than one.’
Two more demons appeared in the otherwise empty alley, similar in size and appearance to the first. Flames danced on their foreheads. It was all the encouragement Edgy needed. Janus scattered more of the white powder in a line across the alley and then broke into a sprint.
‘Come on, Henry!’ Edgy yelled, chasing after Janus. Henry gave a final yap and hurtled to Edgy.
For an old man, Janus could certainly move. Edgy panted for breath as Janus clattered down the alley and into the main street, sending a party of ladies screaming as he barged into them. Touching the brim of his crooked top hat, Janus bowed and set off at a brisk stride. Edgy hurried after him, his ragged boot flapping and slapping the ground.
‘They’ll be more careful in this crowd,’ Janus muttered, his breath billowing in white clouds and merging with the fog that still shrouded everything. ‘Demons like to keep themselves secret.’
Edgy glanced back. The dim outline of one of the demons weaved and pushed its way through the mass of people that teemed around it.
‘They’re behind us,’ Edgy hissed. ‘’Ow come nobody’s makin’ a fuss?’
‘People don’t see demons like you do, Edgy,’ Janus panted. ‘They only see some rather rough-looking workmen or maybe nothing at all. Demons often use some kind of disguise butyoucan see through it.’ He looked over his shoulder. ‘Come on, we need to move more quickly.’
‘Where’re we goin’?’ Edgy called after him.
‘A place of safety,’ Janus shouted back without slowing.
Edgy caught up with Janus, who shoved a small sack into his hand.
‘It’s salt,’ he said. ‘Demons hate it. It burns them. If one of them gets near you, let him have it.’
Janus led them towards the river. The earthy, sewer stench of the Thames returned to mask the stink of the hide-curing yards. Something flapped overhead and Janus glanced up.
‘Damn, they can fly too,’ he muttered. ‘Get ready for trouble, Edgy.’
The fog boiled and parted as the demon thudded to earth. It lunged at Edgy, cracked black talons raking the air in front of him. Edgy dropped to the ground and rolled between the demon’s legs. His eyes caught a glimmer of something metallic in the sludge of the gutter. A cast-off horseshoe! With a grimace, he snatched at the metal shoe, pleased to feel a couple of nails still protruding sharply through it. He held it in his clenched fist so that the sharp nails poked out between his fingers.
The demon had spun round to face him now and made another lunge. This time, Edgy stood his ground. A stink worse than the Thames, worse than the tanneries, blasted over him as the creature’s face drew near. Edgy noticed the cracked, scaly skin, the boils and puss sliming the demon’s cheeks. Then he lashed out in disgust, punching into the hideous face with all his might.
Edgy’s stomach lurched as he felt his knuckles scrape crusted flesh. The nails sank into the creature’s cheek. With a howl, the demon fell back, clutching at its face. The flame on its brow faded for a moment. Henry sank his teeth into its ankle.
Janus clapped his hands together and grinned.
‘Well done, lad,’ he called. ‘Iron. A pure element of the earth. Demons don’t like that either. Now run!’
Shadows thickened and closed in as tall tenements blotted out the night sky. Every now and then they passed through an arch, sloshing their way across flooded courtyards.
‘Blimey, Henry,’ Edgy panted. ‘We’ll never find our way out of this maze!’ Henry looked up and gave him a little whimper.
‘Not far now,’ Janus said, pausing for a moment and gasping for breath. ‘But we’re not out of the woods yet.’
‘What do they want?’ Edgy asked, bending double and leaning against a crumbling brick wall.
‘You, it seems,’ Janus replied, frowning. ‘Though I’m not certain why. Did you see that flame on their brows? That’s the Fire of Moloch. Nasty creatures.’
Instinctively, Edgy’s hand slipped into his pocket and closed around the sliver of bone that the dying boy had given him. He’d mentioned the name Moloch too.Is this what they’re after?
The sound of footsteps moving through the quiet alleys behind them startled Janus into a jog.
‘Have you lived at the tannery all your life?’ he called over his shoulder.
‘S’pose so, it’s the only place I know, really,’ Edgy panted. ‘And pickin’ up dog muck is all I’ve done since the day I could walk – all I was good for, so Talon said. He always said he’d found me.’
Janus looked back again. ‘Your parents?’
Edgy shook his head. ‘Dunno.’Happy families. Edgy tried not to think about them but the thought filled his heart with longing.
‘Edgy – that’s a curious name,’ Janus said, his speech broken as their pace took his breath.
‘They called me that on account of me always lookin’ nervous, twitchin’, like,’ Edgy called back. ‘Anyone’d twitch if they lived with a demon.’
‘Hmmm,’ Janus said. ‘I wonder why Thammuz kept you.’
‘Dunno that either. Talon always said I wasn’t right in the head.’
‘You aren’t mad, Edgy, you have a gift,’ Janus said. ‘Which may be why there’s so much interest in you.’
Before Edgy could say anything in reply, they ran out into a square. A grimy street sign told him this was Eden Square though it didn’t look like any kind of garden he’d seen before. Not a tree or a blade of grass to be seen. In the centre stood a grotesque bronze statue of Satan raising a defiant fist to the skies. A warehouse with huge wooden doors and shuttered windows rose up to his left. To his right a ramshackle tenement loomed over him. In front of him a block of a building squatted, filling one whole side of the square. In the dim light, Edgy could just make out columns and pillars standing to attention right along its front.
‘This,’ Mr Janus announced, waving a hand at the building as if it were the eighth wonder of the world, ‘is the Royal Society of Daemonologie!’ He paused for a second and then added, ‘Unless you want to be reacquainted with the handsome fellows behind us, I suggest you follow me inside.’
Edgy hesitated, his eyes flicking back to the gaping door of the tenement building.
The footsteps pounded closer behind them.
Edgy followed Janus a few paces behind as he bounded up a steep flight of stone steps that led to the front of the Society. Edgy picked Henry up and hugged his warm body close. He licked at Edgy’s ear and buried his head under his chin.
Two black doors stood tightly shut, their brass fittings dull and unpolished, matching the gloom of the square. Edgy read the brass plaque next to the door:The Royal Society of Daemonologie.
‘Now if we can just get some attention,’ Janus said, pulling on the bell handle several times.
‘You’d better hurry, Mr J.,’ Edgy muttered, glancing back down the steps.
Two dark figures had broken out of the alley opposite and were stalking across the square towards them. Janus saw them too and hammered on the door. Grinning, the hideous creatures drew closer.
As I went out to take a walk,
Between the water and the wood,
There I met with a wee, wee man,
The weest man that ever I saw.
Thick and short were his legs,
And small and thin was his thigh,
And between his eyes a flea might go,
And between his shoulders were inches three.
‘The Wee, Wee Man’, traditional folk ballad
The Idle Butler
‘Thought you’d escape us, did you?’ hissed the first demon as it mounted the steps.
The second followed close behind. They glowed faintly green and veins pulsed through their wet, slimy skin. Their long faces twisted into wicked grins of pure malice.
Edgy hugged Henry to him and pressed his back against the peeling black doors of the Royal Society. Across the square, he noticed the third demon staggering out of the mist, one bloody hand over its left eye.
‘The main thing to remember about demons,’ whispered Janus, his face close to Edgy’s ear, ‘is that they thrive on fear. It gives them power. Don’t show them that you’re afraid.’
‘I’m not,’ Edgy hissed back, shivering and twitching. ‘I’m terrified.’ Henry gave a whimper and buried his head under Edgy’s arm.
Janus turned and hammered more fiercely. ‘For God’s sake, Slouch. Open. This. Damn. Door. At. Once.’
‘No one answerin’?’ sniggered the second demon. ‘Looks like you’re stuck.’
‘Ask them a riddle,’ Janus whispered.
‘What?’ Edgy spluttered. ‘What is it with riddles and you lot?’
The demons crept forward.
‘Demons love them,’ Janus snapped. ‘Just do it. Quickly!’
‘Righto,’ Edgy muttered. He raised his voice, trying not to let it crack with fear. ‘Hey, you demons! What does everything do all the time?’
The demons stopped, looking around in feigned surprise and pointing to themselves. They glanced at each other and leered. Edgy shuddered at their needle teeth, the blackened gums.
‘A riddle?’ hissed one.
‘I hate these new-fangled riddles. What’s wrong with a little bit of poetry?’ said the second.
‘What’s wrong, can’t you answer?’ the third said, grinning at his friends.
‘Of course! I just wanted to see if you could,’ snapped the second. ‘I prefer the more metaphorical riddles, that’s all.’
‘What is it then?’ Edgy asked, his heart thumping as he glanced back at Janus, who was still battering at the door, kicking and punching it.
‘Easy,’ said the first demon. ‘Everything . . . grows old all the time.’ Then it launched itself forward at Edgy.
‘Slouch, we need to come in. Now!’
Janus’s yells were cut short as the double doors swung open and he and Edgy tumbled inside. The first thing that hit Edgy was the heat from indoors. The second was the cool marble floor as he fell flat on his back. He found himself looking up at a black ceiling decorated with stars. A clawed hand gripped the tail of Edgy’s coat but he yanked it back as the doors slammed shut. Edgy heard a cry of anger and a yelp of pain.
Janus was on his feet. ‘Blast your eyes, Slouch. We could’ve been killed out there. What do you think you’re playing at?’
Janus ranted on but Edgy only half heard him. He stared at the hall in which he lay. It had five sides and a door sat in the middle of each wall. Brilliantly coloured paintings twisted across the panels of the walls: demons fighting, feasting, laughing and weeping. Red skin and gold crowns blended with flame tongues and blue lightning bolts. Edgy didn’t know where to look next. Every wall seemed to move and shimmer. A golden pentagram glowed in the centre of the black marble floor. Henry gave a low growl, drawing Edgy’s attention to the object of Janus’s rage.
‘You’re all right now, aren’t yer?’ groaned a weary, wheezing voice. Edgy’s stomach lurched. An impossibly tall, thin demon loomed over Janus as he continued his tirade.
‘No thanks to you, you lazy ingrate. Words fail me, Slouch. I . . . I . . .’
‘Well, that’ll be a first,’ grumbled the demon, shoulders sagging with the effort of speaking.
Edgy relaxed a little. This one wasn’t like the demons outside. He wore a butler’s suit but it was a size too small; the cuffs ended well above the wrists and the jacket would never have buttoned up. A strip of lank, black hair lay plastered over his otherwise bald head. His long face, wide nostrils and large, downturned mouth gave him a look of resignation and sadness.
‘Don’t get clever with me! What on earth were you doing?’ Janus snapped.
‘Sittin’ down there,’ muttered Slouch, pointing at a rather worn-out sofa that had exploded at the seams.
Janus pulled his black coat off and removed his hat, tutting and shaking his head. He offered them to Slouch, who stared at them for a long time before extending a slow, lazy finger over in the general direction of the coat stand. Janus pursed his lips and stamped over to the stand, flinging his coat and hat at it.
Slouch turned his sad eyes on Edgy. Weariness suddenly pressed on Edgy’s shoulders. His eyelids felt heavy.
‘You’ll have to forgive Slouch, Edgy,’ Janus said, fixing the demon with a glare. ‘He’s a demon of sloth. Not given to any exertion, if he can help it. Why the governors appointed him Head Butler, I’ll never know.’
‘Why does he work for you?’ Edgy asked, shaking himself awake as Slouch began to snore. ‘An’ what’s a demon of sloth?’
‘Heis.’ Janus grimaced at the slumbering demon. Then he frowned and drew Edgy close. ‘Some demons have joined the Royal Society of Daemonologie. Not all of them are out to get us.’
‘What’s wrong with him? Why’s he so lazy?’
‘Sloth,’ Janus spat. ‘Most demons are connected with a certain sin. You know what sins are?’
Edgy nodded. ‘They’re bad things to do . . . like stealin’ or murder.’
‘True, true,’ Janus agreed, ‘but they’re also ways of feeling – being envious or greedy. Sloth is laziness. Demons enjoy encouraging these sins in mankind but often they fall prey to the sins themselves before they get that far. Slouch is a prime example.’
‘If he’s that lazy, why does Slouch work for you?’
‘He hardly does any work for us.’ Janus cast a baleful eye on Slouch. ‘His own idleness keeps him here. We’d be glad to see the back of him.’ The old man raised his voice so that Slouch could hear. ‘He could walk out of the front door any time.’
‘Couldn’t be bothered,’ muttered Slouch from his sofa.
The mention of the door made Edgy twitch and glance at it. Janus followed his gaze and smiled gently.
‘Don’t worry, Edgy,’ he said. ‘The Royal Society is protected. The demons can’t come in. Nice work with the riddle back there, by the way. Quick thinking!’
‘It wasn’t that good. They got it. An’ now I can’t get out neither,’ Edgy scowled. ‘Not while they’re sittin’ on the doorstep.’
‘Then you may as well be our guest, Edgy Taylor,’ Janus laughed, gripping the lapels of his jacket and standing on tiptoe. ‘A good meal inside you, a bath and bed might make you a little better disposed towards us. Follow me.’
Janus charged out of the reception hall and through the nearest door. For a moment, Edgy stood in the hall, staring after him.What’s his game then? Why all the interest in me, I wonder?
Henry gave a whine and looked up with anxious brown eyes.
‘Well, there’s not much else I can do,’ Edgy said to him, then scurried after Janus.
Henry barked and clattered after him across the marble floor, pausing only to cock his leg on Slouch’s sofa.
‘Keep up, young man,’ Janus said without glancing back, as he marched up a panelled corridor lined with portraits. Edgy looked at them, shivering. Sombre old men in black skullcaps stared down at him with disapproval. Small spheres hung from the ceiling, glowing warm and red, giving a twilight feel to the place.
‘Ah, you’ve noticed our lighting system.’ Janus beamed back at him. ‘Not gas, no, no. Hellfire, courtesy of the Illuminati Lighting Company. Burns for a thousand years. Can’t see why they haven’t caught on . . . might be the smell, of course.’
Edgy sniffed at the slightly eggy smell that hung about the corridor. Every now and then a door interrupted the dark oak panelling. Pipework coiled and swerved around the doorframes, the gentle hissing cutting through the silence. No one passed them or came out of the doors. Janus seemed unconcerned by it all and strode ahead with the same fixed smile.
‘Don’t like this place one bit, Henry,’ Edgy muttered as he hurried after Janus. ‘As soon as them demons have shifted, we’re off.’
Henry gave a low whine, his ears alert as he scanned the walls.
‘A bit safer than outside, eh?’ Janus said, throwing a smile over his shoulder at Edgy. ‘And warmer. We’ll swap those rags you’re standing in for something a bit more presentable.’
Edgy glanced down at his ragged torn trousers and coat, sniffing at the dog smell that emanated from them. His boot flapped where the sole had come off and holes gaped at his knees and elbows.
‘Here we are,’ Janus said and stopped, taking a sharp right into a small room lined with shelves. Clothes lay neatly folded in piles on each one. A little blue-skinned demon, half Edgy’s height, sat on a stool in the corner of the room darning a sock. He jumped up when Janus entered.
‘Ah, Professor Janus.’ The man bowed low, his long nose almost touching the floor. Pointed ears sprang out from the side of his large head. He wore striped trousers and a tailcoat that touched the ground at the back.
‘Evening, Trimdon. This is Edgy Taylor. He’s stopping for the night, maybe longer. I’d like to show him around.’ Janus beamed. ‘I want him scrubbed, fed and kitted out for me. Back in half an hour.’
Janus disappeared out into the corridor. Trimdon slicked back his hair with his fingers and beamed at Edgy.
‘Pleased to meet you, Master Taylor.’ Trimdon bowed low again.
‘Yeah, charmed,’ Edgy said, eyeing the little man.
‘And this is?’ he said, smiling down at Henry. To Edgy’s surprise, the dog wagged his tail and licked the back of Trimdon’s hand.
‘Erm, Henry,’ Edgy said. If Henry trusted this strange little demon, he thought that maybe he should too.
‘Pleased to meet you, Henry.’ Trimdon nodded and then bowed to Henry. ‘If you go through that door behind you, you’ll find a tub of warm soapy water awaits.’ Trimdon bowed again, then narrowed his eyes as he looked Edgy up and down. ‘You get a wash and I’ll pull out some suitable clothing for you.’
Edgy backed through the door and found himself in a tiny cupboard room. A tub of water filled the room and a three-legged stool stood beside it. He peered at the steaming tub and dipped a hand in the water, pulling it out quickly.
‘Blimey, Henry, ’ot water,’ he grinned. ‘I can’t remember the last time I ’ad a wash, let alone a full soak!’
Henry jumped up, forepaws on the side of the bath, dipping his nose in the foam. For a second, Edgy thought about the vats at the tannery – a knee’s depth of urine and excrement. He sniffed at the fragrant bubbles that swayed on the surface of the water.
A cough from behind startled him. Trimdon had his head round the door. ‘You get undressed and climb into the water. Use the soap and the scrubbing brush to get the dirt from your skin.’ He gave a brief smile. ‘Don’t worry, you aren’t the first young man to be frightened of a bath – and you won’t be the last, I’m sure!’
The door clicked shut and Edgy undressed, piling his crusty clothes on to the stool. He pulled out the sliver of bone and the bag of salt Janus had given him and put them behind the bath out of sight.
Henry watched with tilted head as Edgy lifted a cautious leg and dipped his toes into the water. Edgy’s skin prickled and tingled. He wasn’t sure if he liked it at first. He inched in, gasping at the warmth that engulfed him.
‘Lord above, I’ve never felt so hot in all my born days,’ he panted.
Gradually, his breathing returned to normal. Aching muscles stretched and relaxed in the heat. He blew a few bubbles at Henry, who jumped and snapped at them.
‘You’re as mucky as me,’ Edgy said with a laugh. He grabbed the little dog and dragged him in. Henry gave a yelp and sank under the water, only to bob up again, fur spiky, tail wagging, splattering suds and water everywhere.
Edgy slipped his whole head under, revelling in the feeling. When he came up for air, Trimdon must have been and gone as a suit of black wool hung on the back of the door, along with a shirt of thick cotton and a pair of boots that shone in the candlelight.
‘Maybe this ain’t such a bad place after all,’ he said to Henry, climbing out and rubbing at his tingling skin with a clean, dry towel.
The terrier gave a muted bark and sniffed the air, licking his lips. The smell of warm, meaty gravy drifted into the room. Edgy’s mouth watered.
‘A feast, Henry,’ he whispered, pulling on shirt and trousers, drawn by the aroma of food. He snatched up and pocketed the salt and bone fragment.
When Edgy emerged, Trimdon stood holding a plate of pork chops, mashed potato and gravy.
‘Tuck in, Master Taylor,’ Trimdon said, his pearly teeth gleaming even in the red glow of the hellfire lamps.
Edgy smacked his lips. He sat with the plate on his knee, devouring the feast, throwing Henry chunks of the chops whenever he pawed the air for more. Edgy had never tasted anything like it. Food at the tannery was stale crusts, cheese and gruel. Now and then, Talon would get a few bones and boil them up but Edgy had never had such succulent meat.
‘So, Mr Trimdon,’ Edgy said, his voice thick with gravy, ‘you been with this Royal Society long then?’
Trimdon smiled and inclined his head. ‘About a hundred years.’
Edgy’s eyes widened.
‘I know, I know,’ Trimdon smiled, patting his little beer belly, ‘I hardly look old enough. The Society has been like a family to me.’
‘What kind of demon are you, Mr Trimdon?’ Edgy asked. ‘If you’ll pardon the question.’
‘A domestic demon.’ Trimdon puffed out his chest. ‘I watch the hearth and keep a fire burning. We’re not all about pitchforks and hellfire. Why I –’
But Trimdon was cut short by Janus, who popped into the doorway and stood there beaming.
‘Perfect fit, Trimdon, another job well done,’ he smiled, testing the quality of Edgy’s suit material with his finger and thumb.
‘Thank you, sir.’ Trimdon seemed to grow another inch as he stood tall, hands behind his back. ‘Hand-stitched, finest quality.’
‘Right then, young man,’ Janus said, taking Edgy’s shoulder and leading him into the corridor. ‘Let’s show you to your room. You’ll soon feel at home.’
‘Now listen, Mr Janus –’ Edgy started to say.
A blur of red hurtled down the passage. It seemed to Edgy that the hellfire lights had detached themselves from the ceiling and were flying towards him.
‘Vandal! Thief!’ someone screeched.
Edgy felt a dull pain in his stomach and found himself rolling backwards across the floor as long red fingers closed around his throat.
There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell,
There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell,
And he had a bad wife, as many knew well .
Then Satan came to the old man at the plough :
‘One of your family I must have now.
It is not your eldest son that I crave,
But it is your old wife, and she I will have .’
‘The Farmer’s Curst Wife’, traditional folk ballad
A glowering red face snarled down at Edgy, its long nose pressed against his. Orange eyes burned with fury and stubby little horns butted his forehead. The fingers tightened and, for a moment, it was as though he was back in Talon’s merciless grasp.
‘Give them back, you thief!’ snarled the demon, pinning him to the floor. ‘Where have you hidden them?’
‘Spinorix!’ Janus yelled. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’
‘Ask the little worm!’ Spinorix spat. ‘He can tell . . . Owwwwww!’
The demon suddenly loosened his grip on Edgy’s neck and turned. With a snarl, Henry had sunk his teeth into the demon’s tail. Edgy, feeling the creature’s balance shift, pushed forward, sending him sprawling on to the polished floor.
A small demon with large, floppy ears lay before Edgy. He was red from head to foot – red skin, red suit and tie, red hair greased back and plaited in a ponytail. His eyes were wide and he panted heavily as he tried to stand up. Sweat trickled down his furrowed brow and round his short horns. Spinorix tumbled sideways, his tail still firmly gripped by Henry’s teeth. He writhed and wriggled, swatting at Henry ineffectually.
‘By the sweetbreads of Cerberus! Call him off, call off this hound of hell!’
‘Don’t see why I should,’ Edgy snapped.
‘Please, I beg you. Professor Janus, tell him to release me!’ Spinorix whined.
‘That’s up to Edgy. What were you thinking of, attacking him like that?’ Janus said, putting his hands on his hips.
‘Ow, oh, owww,’ Spinorix moaned.
Edgy shook his head and clicked his fingers. Henry dropped the tail immediately. Spinorix jumped up, tears coursing down his red cheeks.
‘Well?’ Edgy demanded, copying Janus’s pose.
‘I’m sorry, I thought you were the other boy,’ Spinorix began.
‘Other boy?’ Edgy said, frowning. ‘What other boy?’
Janus gave an embarrassed cough. ‘We had an errand boy –’
‘A thief!’ Spinorix hissed, massaging his tail. ‘He’s been taking things from the exhibition hall.’
‘Now you can’t be sure of that, Spinorix,’ Janus said, pursing his lips. ‘Perhaps you’ve just mislaid . . .’
Spinorix went a deeper shade of crimson. ‘With respect, sir, I do not “mislay” valuable artefacts.’ He trembled and gripped his tail tightly. ‘Things have gone missing and where’s the boy now?’
‘You’ll have to forgive Spinorix, Edgy, he’s an imp and as such is prone to melodrama. As for the boy, he’ll turn up, I’ve no doubt,’ Janus murmured, frowning at Spinorix. ‘Anyway, who’s watching the collection now?’
The imp’s colour drained. With a squawk, he turned on his heel and clattered down the corridor. Janus gave a chuckle and watched him vanish.
‘A dedicated imp but a little excitable, I think. Spends far too much time in the exhibition hall,’ Janus said. ‘I’ll take you to your room now.’
Edgy thought of the boy he’d seen die only hours before. He had a smart suit. Black. Woollen. Perfect stitching. Just like his new one.
‘Ah, good evening, Madame Lillith,’ Janus smiled, looking beyond Edgy.
Edgy turned. A round lady, her hair pulled up in a tight bun, swept the tiled floor behind him. She looked up from her work with narrowed eyes. Her brush scraped the tiles with short, vicious strokes, her green silk dress swishing in time to them. She watched them pass.
Henry’s head flicked back and forth with the brush; his tail wagged to the same rhythm. He gave a playful yelp and snapped at the brush. Madame Lillith stopped and glared at him.
‘Sorry.’ Edgy smiled as her eyes bored into him. ‘C’mon, Henry. Leave it.’
Edgy heaved a sigh of relief as they turned a corner and left her behind. For a moment he forgot the boy in the street. As they walked, Edgy felt the floor slope downwards. The lower they went, the plainer the decor became. The walls in this part of the Society were plain plaster rather than wooden panelling.Servants’ quarters.
‘She’s a demon of envy,’ Janus explained as they walked on. ‘Anything you have, she wants it.’
‘Didn’t you say that demons are meant to makeussin?’ Edgy wondered aloud.
‘You’re absolutely right, Edgy, but, like Slouch, most demons fall prey to their own weaknesses first. Madame Lillith is so eaten up with jealousy that she’s practically human. It’s only a matter of time before mortality sets in. It happens to a lot of demons. Ah, here we are . . .’ Janus said, swinging open a rough plank door to reveal a small room with a table, wash-basin and jug.
On the bed sat a pale young girl, rubbing her hands and fingers as if she were trying to get warm. She jumped up, startled.
‘Sally, what’re you doing in here?’ Janus frowned.
The girl folded her arms defiantly. She was about Edgy’s age and quite pretty, he thought, though very pale. Edgy would have called her long, wavy hair blonde but actually it was white. Her dress, which was tied up with a ribbon around her thin waist, was white. Her boots and stockings were white too. Everything about her was white but not a clean-laundry kind of white. It was more of a bleached, faded white.
‘Just resting,’ she sniffed, sounding quite cheeky to Edgy’s mind. ‘Idorest sometimes, you know.’
‘Well, you can’t rest in here, young lady. This is Edgy Taylor. It’s his room now,’ Janus said with raised eyebrows.
Sally’s eyes widened and Edgy couldn’t help noticing the dark circles underneath, as if she hadn’t slept for a week. She stamped her foot.
‘It’smyroom – it has been since 1735,’ she yelled, stamping again. ‘Why can’t he go somewhere else?’
‘You know full well that we’re short on beds, Sally, and you don’t actually need yours.’
‘It’s not fair,’ she snapped and punched her hands down at her sides. ‘Just because I’m dead –’
‘Dead? Is she a ghost, Mr Janus?’ Edgy whispered, hugging Henry, unable to take his eyes off her. Now he came to think of it, she didn’t look quite right. A bit too thin and gaunt.
‘I am here, you know,’ Sally said with a gasp. ‘And, no, I’m not a ghost. I’m a revenant – there is a difference!’
‘Well, whatever you like to call yourself, go and haunt some other chamber,’ Janus snapped back at her.
With a squeal of outrage, Sally flew into the passage and Janus shut the door on her. Edgy could hear her yelling and raging outside as Janus scratched his head.
‘Sorry about that, Edgy,’ he smiled. ‘I’d forgotten about Sally.’
‘But she said she was dead,’ Edgy whispered, looking sidelong at the door, trying to ignore the curses being hurled at its other side.
‘She’s right, really – she’s a revenant. A returned one. Not a spirit or phantom as we might imagine but one who has died . . . and then come back.’
‘She can’t walk through walls or anything then?’ Edgy asked, eyeing the door again.
Janus shook his head and sat on the bed. ‘She’s flesh and blood . . . kind of. Sally was brought back over a hundred years ago by Glassten Lustenbrück during his investigations into the afterlife. A very clever man – I still have his notes, some of his experiments were quite ground-breaking.’
‘Don’t suppose Sally was particularly impressed,’ Edgy murmured, feeling sorry for the girl.
‘What?’ Janus muttered. ‘No, I suppose not. I’d not really thought of it that way.’ He sat in silence for a moment, as if ruminating on the idea, then shook himself and jumped up. ‘Anyway, it sounds as if she’s gone for now. If she bothers you again, just let Trimdon know. Try and get some sleep – you’ll need all your strength tomorrow. Oh, and I got you this.’
He pulled a small book from his pocket and presented it to Edgy. He took a deep breath. Nobody had ever given him anything apart from harsh words and cruel blows. Now here he was – clean, clothed, fed and being given a gift.
‘That’s all right, sir,’ he said quietly. ‘You’ve been too kind already.’
‘Nonsense, my boy.’ Janus beamed at him, placing the book on the bed. ‘I’ll leave it here. You get some sleep and we’ll talk in the morning.’
Janus left, closing the door gently behind him.
Edgy picked the book up and shivered. It felt warm in his hands. Not like the warmth that came from being in someone’s pocket but warm like a living thing.
‘Everyday Daemonologie,’ he read aloud, ‘Or a Demon a Day.’
The book, covered in black scales, glistened in Edgy’s hand. The shifting colours within it reminded him of the swirls of oily blue and purple he’d seen on the wings of black beetles.
He glanced out of the small window and into Eden Square. Three dark figures sat hunched around the statue of Satan.
Edgy lay on the bed but sleep didn’t come. He flicked through the book. It wasn’t like any book he’d seen before – not that he’d seen many. Edgy wasn’t sure he liked it but it fascinated him. Certain articles jumped out at him again and again. Others he skimmed through once and then they couldn’t be found again no matter how hard he searched.
He flicked through woodcut pictures of huge demons locked in combat, armies of devils bearing cruel weapons, assembling on vast plains. Titles such asGetting the Best out of ImpsandAsmodeus Proposesjostled withThe Role of the Governing Body at the Royal Society, until his head whirled with jumbled-up facts.
‘Imps are the most minor of demons,’ he read aloud, totally engrossed. ‘Usually the lost souls of unbaptised children or babies kidnapped by demons. Imps are the workforce of hell. They make fiercely loyal friends and annoyingly obstructive enemies.’ Edgy thought about Spinorix and his anger about things going missing.
Another passage caught his attention:
In 1797, Hector Corvis, seventh Earl of Rookery Heights, invited a hooded stranger to install panelling to the Royal Society. Bizarrely, once this stranger had finished, fellows of the Society soon found themselves lost in their own building. It was the associate demon Asmodeus who discovered that because of the demonic decor one had to think of the appropriate location to find one’s way there, as he was often fond of saying, ‘Just think where you might be tempted to stray and you’ll find yourself there . . . but one still has to walk.’ Typical demon capriciousness.
Edgy looked down at Henry, who lay curled at the foot of his bed. ‘Well, that settles that,’ he murmured. ‘This place is a nuthouse. First thing tomorrow, we’re off, demons or no demons. It’s all well and good livin’ like this but I’ll take me chances, I think, Henry, old chap.’
Henry gave a contented whine and buried his muzzle in his chest. Gradually the events of the day took their toll on Edgy and he fell into a restless, dream-filled sleep, chased by demons and dead boys, carriages and the grinning face of Janus.
Devils can’t be driven out with devils.
The Exhibition Hall
Grey shafts of morning light coaxed Edgy out of his sleep. He stretched. Normally at this time of day he’d be shivering at the cold and rubbing his hands together, but every inch of the Society glowed with heat. Edgy felt good – well fed, clean and dry. He’d never been able to say that. Henry yawned and shook himself, jumping off the bed. Edgy rubbed the condensation off the tiny windowpanes and peered through.
Mist made the surrounding buildings grey and indistinct. A white frost cloaked Eden Square but the three demons had stayed close to the Satan statue. Edgy could see steamy breath clouding around their curling horns as they stamped out the cold. One of them glanced up, making Edgy pull back from the window, his unease creeping back.
‘Still there, Henry,’ Edgy murmured. ‘How are we goin’ to get away from this place?’
He picked up the book and stuffed it in his pocket. The heat stifled him, made him feel trapped. Edgy reached for the latch of the door.
‘Let’s go an’ find a way out, shall we?’
He opened the door and gave a yell. Sally stood right in the threshold, making Edgy fall back. She must have been standing with her face pressed against the door to be so close when he opened it. Henry barked and scampered off down the corridor into the gloom.
‘Henry!’ Edgy called, but he had vanished. ‘Look what you’ve done now!’
‘Well, you shouldn’t have taken my room!’ Sally’s ice-blue eyes burned and she stood glaring, hands on hips.
‘I ’aven’t taken your stupid room – I’m not stoppin’.’ Edgy picked himself up from the floor. ‘But if Henry comes to any harm, you’ll wish you were properly dead!’
Sally’s face crumpled. A sadness swept across it. She turned and stalked off down the passageway.
‘I already do,’ she said, without looking back. Edgy could hear the tears in her voice but he hurried in the opposite direction in search of Henry.
If Edgy hadn’t seen the daylight through his bedroom window, he wouldn’t have known whether it was day or night in the gloomy corridors.
‘That dog’s got himself lost, good and proper,’ he muttered as he crept through the tangling passageways.
Remembering that reference in the book, he tried to think his way towards Henry. He hissed with annoyance – why did the exhibition hall that Janus had talked to the imp about yesterday keep slipping into his mind?
The corridor twisted to the left and a bulky shadow twisted its way around the curved wall. A scraping, swishing sound followed it.
Edgy stopped dead. His heart pounded.
The noise became louder.Swish, scrape, swish, scrape.
Edgy started to back away from the corner.
The swaying green bulk of Madame Lillith appeared behind the grotesque shadow, sweeping with vicious strokes as she went. She froze and glared at him.
‘Give ’im to me,’ she muttered, though her mouth remained a tight line in her round prune of a face.
‘What?’ Edgy stammered. ‘Who?’
‘Your dog.’ She craned her neck forward, leaned on her brush and jabbed her thumb behind her. ‘I want ’im. Give ’im to me.’
‘Henry?’ Edgy said. He barged past her and ran round the corner.
A round hallway opened before him and Henry cowered in the centre, looking from right to left.
‘Henry!’ Edgy called, crouching to meet him as he came bounding forward. He leapt into his arms, licking his face and battering the floor with his tail. ‘That ’orrible old bat ain’t havin’ you!’
Edgy looked up. Two enormous doors stood before him. Golden rivets held thick, polished planks together. A brass plaque shone out on the left-hand door.
‘Exhibition Hall,’ he read out loud. ‘Well, I’ll be . . .’ He thought better of finishing the sentence and gripped the huge, round handles. Dragging one of the doors open, he poked his head round it and yelled in terror.
A huge skull with curling ram’s horns leered down at Edgy with teeth like six-inch nails. He stumbled backwards, tripping over Henry, and lay in a ball, eyes squeezed shut.
Henry’s bark echoed around the hall but all else was silent. Edgy opened an eye. The skull hovered over him as still as a statue. Chancing both eyes, he peered up and fell flat on his back, laughing at his own cowardice.
‘It’s some kind of exhibit,’ he said to Henry, who cocked his leg on a statue of a dragon that flanked the door to show how concerned he had been. The wired-together bones of some long-dead demon loomed over them, claws outstretched, jaws wide. ‘It had me fooled.’
Beyond the skeleton, rows and rows of glass cases, display cabinets, statues and vases dotted the enormous hall. Various gargoyles and fiends dangled from the ceiling, suspended by steel cable.
‘Fascinating, isn’t it?’ Janus said, appearing from behind a display cabinet. Edgy gave a start and put a hand to his thumping heart.
‘Mr Janus, you frightened me ’alf to death,’ he said, clearing his throat. ‘Look, I’m sorry an’ all that but I’ve got to go. It’s a bit . . . mad round ’ere.’
‘Let me show you around first.’ Janus smiled as if reading Edgy’s mind. ‘It may answer some of your questions and make more sense.’
Janus led Edgy further into the hall and stopped at a huge fireplace. No fire burned here but a portrait of an unsmiling man hung above it. His eyes fixed Edgy with a sombre glare. In one hand he held a skull, in the other a crown. He was sitting on a golden chair draped with an ermine cloak. Piles of books towered behind him.
‘King James I of England,’ Janus said, ‘founder of the Royal Society of Daemonologie. He gave it the Royal Charter in 1605.’ Janus waved his hands around the hall. ‘We collect and study demons of all kinds, their habits, their history, their biology, everything about them.’
‘What for?’ Edgy muttered, glancing sidelong at a leering ossified demon.
‘Knowledge, Edgy,’ Janus said, raising his eyebrows. ‘Knowledge is power. King James realised that. To defeat your enemy, you have to know him. James I was a great scholar and was keen to defeat the powers of darkness.’
‘So you fight demons?’ Edgy murmured. ‘Then how come there are so many wanderin’ around the building?’
‘Not any more.’ Janus smiled and shook his head. ‘Ours is a scientific cause now. We study, observe and sometimes collect them.’
‘Like you did with Talon?’ Edgy grimaced as he remembered Talon’s twisted, ossified face.
‘That was regrettable,’ Janus said, sighing. ‘More often we encourage demons to join us and become “associates”. That way we can work with them to understand their nature.’
‘What about the demons who don’t want to be collected or join up?’ Edgy asked.
Janus shrugged. ‘There was a time when it was all-out war. Demons didn’t like the Society at first. And the early fellows saw themselves as the last crusaders. They could afford to – the Society was stronger then. These days, we can usually reach a compromise.’
They wandered among the display cases and statues. Janus stopped every now and then, pointing out an artefact or a specimen.
‘The more we find out, the more questions there are,’ Janus murmured, his eyes shining. ‘Riddles and complexity, Edgy. Riddles and complexity.’ He traced his finger across the handle of an ornate dagger. ‘Demons love riddles. Life is a game to them, dangerous – often fatal – to mortals, but that doesn’t bother them.’ He lifted the dagger, its blade flashing red in the hellfire light. ‘In fact, they envy our mortality sometimes.’
‘Righto,’ Edgy said, unsure what to say.
His head began to spin as Janus showed him skulls and spears, enchanted talismans and fragments of bone, telling the story behind each one. Edgy forgot about the demons waiting for him outside, his need to leave or the last boy.
‘Can’t demons die then?’ Edgy asked at last.
‘They can be turned to stone with our ossifiers. The ball they fire is a combination of salts and pure elements of the earth, whereas demons are creatures of fire and light. We don’t know how ossifying works and we don’t know if it truly kills. In theory, you could chop demons into a million pieces and then put them back together again and they would come back to life.’
‘And what about this?’ Edgy murmured, touching a demon skeleton on a stand. It looked human apart from the skull, which displayed razor teeth and long spiral horns. The chin came to a sharp point too. There was a hole in the top of the skull. A perfect triangle.
‘Oh, that.’ Janus waved a dismissive hand. ‘Just the bones of Aldorath. Nothing much . . .’
Edgy looked more closely at the skull. Something bothered him but he couldn’t think what. Janus’s voice lowered and he spat his next words out, making Edgy jump.
‘My illustrious brother found them. Such a fuss over nothing. They made him chancellor on the strength of those mouldy old bones. Chancellor!’
‘Your brother?’ Edgy muttered, raising his eyebrows.
‘Yes, Lord Mauldeth.’ Janus spoke through gritted teeth. ‘Not happy with just our family title, being the eldest and all that. Oh no, he has to muscle his way into the Royal Society.’ The fire died in his eyes. ‘Anyway they’re just the bones of a demon, that’s all.’
‘Righto,’ Edgy murmured.
‘There was a time when demons ruled the earth . . .’ Janus’s voice became distant and he looked far beyond Edgy. ‘The great arch-demons waged war, multiplied, built huge cities. Do you want to hear a story? A story from the dawn of time, passed down from the mouths of demons themselves?’
Edgy listened, spellbound by Janus’s sonorous voice.
The fields were green, as green as could be,
When we from His glory fell;
And we His children then were brought
To death and near to hell.
‘The Moon Shines Bright’, traditional folk carol
The Legend of Satan and Moloch
‘Many ages ago, before Man was turned away from the Garden of Eden, the earth was fresh and blue-green, sparkling in dew so fresh that God wasted many a foolish hour smiling down on His creation.
‘But beneath all this, in Stygian depths, Satan ruled supreme in the kingdom of hell. He sat on his throne of obsidian in his palace of beaten gold, basking in the searing heat of the lava flows, enjoying the spit and hiss as molten rock poured over ash flows and pooled around him. His queens and consorts huddled, adoring, at his feet.
‘Demons sang his praises in beautiful, haunting voices. Have you ever heard a demon song, Edgy Taylor? Its beauty would break your heart and drive you mad. They fought each other to be in his presence, plunging one another beneath the seething, flowing earth, to Satan’s delight.
‘Men and demons are like fires in the dark – bright and hot. Every now and then a spark of anger or hatred would flare up, then flicker into the blackness and die. But one demon, Moloch, caught hold of his spark, a smouldering ember that he clutched to his heart. He blew on it with a bitter breath, whispered his grievances to it and it grew into a furnace cupped in his gnarled palms. The fire of hatred burnt into his veins and consumed his heart.
‘When God had thrown Satan and his rebellious angels down into the pits of hell, it was Moloch who had wanted to continue the battle, to rise up once more and crash like a fiery tide upon the walls of heaven. But Satan had counselled deviousness and trickery, knowing that they could never beat the Almighty.
‘“Better to confuse and corrupt man, the Almighty’s pride and joy,” Satan had said and set off to tempt and torment humankind.
‘“Better the field of battle than to skulk in the shadows, whispering obscenities into the ears of village idiots,” Moloch hissed to himself.
‘Day after day, Moloch crouched in his dark cave of ash and stared out.
‘Week after week, Moloch wondered,why should Satan sit upon that throne?
‘Month after month.What gave him the right to be worshipped by the other demons?
‘Year after year.He is no better than the one God, demanding our tribute and adulation!
‘Century upon century added heat to Moloch’s anger, until one day he burst forth and threw himself at the startled Satan.
‘Demons howled in despair as Moloch plunged the great Satan into the molten lava. Satan had never been challenged. He never expected to be. He was unprepared. Moloch cast Satan into his dark cave of ash and sealed him in.
‘Satan hurled himself at the dark cave walls. Mountains threw themselves up into the sky. Satan pounded his prison confines. Hills rolled across the earth’s crust like waves. Finally, Satan threw himself to the floor and despaired, weeping bitter tears that flooded from his cavernous gaol, leaving salt seas between the mountains.
‘In his grief, Satan tore at himself and gouged at his flesh. In his madness, Satan shaped the skin, blood and nail he ripped from himself. He fashioned limbs and eyes, horns and teeth. He laughed and tormented the creatures in the darkness and they grew to hate and fear him, even though he had fashioned them from his own body.
‘The demons hated and feared Moloch too. He had thrown down the great Satan. He was preparing them for a war against heaven, a war they could never win. He was leading them to their destruction.
‘Yet who could oppose Moloch? The demons were all too afraid, too craven to stand against him. They crawled at his feet, begged for his favour and mercy.
‘All except one.
‘Salomé. Satan’s queen. She stood proud in the blue-green world and defied Moloch – until he decided to cast her into Satan’s pit.
‘“Do what you wish,” she cried. “At least I’ll be with the true master.”
‘In a rage, Moloch broke open the seal of Satan’s cave. Sensing freedom, all the creatures of the pit spewed forth, blinded by the daylight, battering into Moloch’s face. Seeing his weakness, Salomé plunged her fist deep into Moloch’s chest and tore out his heart.
‘“You have been loyal,” Satan said to Salomé. “You can have any gift you wish.”
‘“Give me Moloch’s heart that I may keep it hidden and separate from his foul body,” replied Salomé. “ That way he will never rise again.”
‘“Very well,” Satan agreed, “but you must protect it and every thirteen years you must show me that you still have it safe.”
‘He knew that if she wished she could replace Moloch’s heart and bring him back. So Satan hid Moloch’s body from prying and disloyal eyes. And to this day, nobody knows where the body lies.
‘Salomé, her wish granted, feared Satan’s distrust. She knew that only if she held the heart of Moloch could she keep the ear of Satan. So Salomé hid the heart where nobody would ever find it. Not even Satan himself.’
A spell of silence hung over the exhibition hall. Janus sighed and lowered his head as if exhausted by telling the tale.
‘So has anybody found them? Moloch’s heart or the body?’ Edgy whispered. The names echoed in his mind. He could still hear the boy gasping them out with his dying breath.
‘Some say it’s only a story,’ Janus muttered, his gaze distant. ‘Fools! I’ve worked long and hard to prove that Moloch exists and to find his body. But recently my investigations have become more than academic.’
‘What d’you mean?’ Edgy said, frowning.
‘Salomé,’ Janus whispered. ‘She exists. I’ve seen her. She wants Moloch’s body. I think she seeks to bring him back, to destroy this world and the next.’ He grabbed Edgy’s wrists, squeezing them until they hurt. ‘And I think you can help me stop her –’
A short cough interrupted Janus and made Edgy jump. He turned to see a grey, sullen old man huddled in a long coat. His lined, wrinkled face seemed to be losing the fight with gravity, so droopy were his jowls. His eyes looked dull and watery. Not a curl of hair grew on his head; he reminded Edgy of a boiled egg that had gone off.
‘Who’s this, Janus?’ he murmured, stooping over Edgy and looking him up and down.
‘Edgy Taylor. I brought him in yesterday,’ Janus said. ‘Edgy, this is Mr Sokket, a fellow and one of the governors of the Royal Society.’
‘My God,’ Sokket muttered, making an even longer face than Edgy thought possible. ‘Your last employee’s not cold in his grave and you find a replacement. Let’s hope he lasts a bit longer.’
‘I’m not workin’ for ’im, sir,’ Edgy said, trying not to twitch. ‘I’m just waitin’ for a chance to leave.’
‘Very wise, boy,’ Sokket said. ‘And don’t forget the governors’ meeting later, Janus. I think your presence will be required after yesterday’s excitement.’
Sokket walked out of sight, leaving Edgy staring after him, open-mouthed.
‘Don’t worry, Edgy,’ Janus grinned as Mr Sokket’s final mutterings faded down the corridor. ‘Mortesque Sokket is one of life’s eternal pessimists, never disappointed when everything goes wrong. Mortesque has a taste for the macabre. And to think he’s on the board of governors when I’m not! It makes my blood boil, Edgy.’
‘But he said something about the other boy,’ Edgy said. ‘Is he dead?’
‘Sadly, yes. We found out this morning. But it’s nothing for you to concern yourself about.’ Janus smiled back at him. ‘The poor lad was a bit careless, that’s all. Didn’t keep his wits about him. Now you strike me as an altogether more . . . cautious kind of chap.’
‘Damn right I am,’ Edgy snapped and stalked off towards the main doors to the exhibition hall. ‘I’ve been strangled by an imp, called a thief, seen ghosts an’ demons an’ governors who tell me I’m gonna die, an’ you tell me it’s nothing to worry about?’
‘Edgy?’ Janus called after him. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Out of this madhouse,’ Edgy called back. The clicking of Henry’s claws echoed off the high ceiling of the hall.
‘But the demons at the front,’ Janus shouted urgently, ‘they’re still there.’
‘There must be a back door,’ Edgy said.
‘Stop! It’s too dangerous out there,’ Janus called after him.
‘An’ it’s safe an’ sound in ’ere?’ Edgy called back and stalked past the displays and demons out of the hall and into the corridor. ‘I’ll take me chances with the demons if it’s all the same to you, sir.’
Falsehood is the devil’s daughter,
And speaks her father’s tongue.
The Snake and the Library
Edgy strode down the corridor, trying to orientate himself so he was walking towards the rear of the building. He twitched and blinked in the gloom. He wanted to be out of this strange place with its jealous demons and dead girls who yelled at you. Janus had clothed and fed him, true – but the boy he’d seen die had worked here, he was sure of that now.
‘Not goin’ to end up like that,’ Edgy murmured to Henry. ‘Nah. Let’s get out of ’ere while we still can, I reckon.’
Edgy stopped. The corridor ended in tall, thick double doors. He squinted at a brass plate on one of them.
‘Library,’ he read aloud. Henry gave a low growl. ‘Well, we don’t want that – we want a way out. What did that book say? “Think where you might be tempted to stray”? Somethin’ like that.’
Edgy doubled back and took a left turn but more double doors blocked the way. Another sign read:Library. He turned back again, walked right. More doors.
‘Another library. Somethin’ is goin’ on ’ere, Henry,’ he muttered. ‘I think we’re meant to go in.’
Edgy pulled open the door and stepped through.
‘Blimey,’ he gasped, staring open-mouthed at the scenebefore him.How did I not notice this from outside?
A vast dome curved above him like St Paul’s Cathedral. It glowed with a deep translucent blue like a midsummer night sky. The walls reached up to the dome into the distance, lined with bookshelves. Ladders and walkways zigzagged higher and higher, vanishing into the shadows. Edgy’s head spun just looking up. A maze of bookshelves also filled the floor of the hall. Each shelf looked to be composed of living branches, twisting themselves into compartments that housed thousands of books. Dark leaves sprouted from the bookshelves and trembled in the warm breeze. Black apples clustered among the leaves. A thin mist drifted around them. Edgy wandered further into the library, Henry trotting at his heel, panting.
‘Funny library, this, old chap,’ Edgy murmured, leaning on a nearby desk.
He shivered as the sound of gentle weeping drifted out of the mist. Hazy white human figures darted from shelf to shelf, pulling books out or running skeletal fingers down the spines. A spectral man floated over to a pile of volumes and ran milky white eyes over the titles. He was dressed like a gentleman but all colour had drained from him. He reminded Edgy of Sally except the outline of the bookshelves, desks and tables shimmered through his transparent body. Tears coursed down his long, scarred face and he ground his teeth in anguish as he turned over cover after cover.
‘They seek one book. They will never find it,’ hissed a voice above Edgy.
He turned with a start. Henry gave a yap and Edgy followed his gaze to the top of the nearest bookshelf. A huge, black snake hung from the gnarled branches of the bookcase. It curled and looped around the branch time and again but its tail vanished into the shadows.
‘Why not?’ Edgy asked.
‘I do not wish it,’ the snake hissed, shifting its coils. ‘They are my lost souls. They sold themselves to me in life. Now they pay their debt. What do you seek, human boy?’
‘Erm, nothin’. I couldn’t get away from ’ere, that’s all. It seemed like I had to come in,’ Edgy muttered. ‘I’m looking for a way out of this place.’
‘I know but are you sure that’s what you want?’ the snake whispered, flicking its black tongue out. ‘You are full of questions, boy. I can taste your curiosity – and your uncertainty. What do you want to know?’
Edgy glanced at the apples and the leaves.
‘Do you see the fruit?’ the snake said, slipping down the trunk that made the side of the bookcase. ‘Not many can. Few can see me unless I allow it. But what better place to house books than in the Tree of Knowledge?’
‘The Tree of What?’
‘No,’ the snake’s wide mouth formed a grin, ‘the Tree of Knowledge. You know . . . Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, biting the apple and all that nonsense. If you choose to believe it, of course.’
‘And this is that tree?’ Edgy asked, hardly able to believe it. ‘Are you . . .him? The devil?’
The snake weaved across the dusty, woodblock floor towards Edgy but still its tail never left the shadows of the shelves.
‘It could be that tree and I suppose I’m old enough to be him,’ the snake said, as if it hadn’t considered that before. ‘But who I am doesn’t matter. I am the library, I bring knowledge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and that’s just how we like it. A little piece at a time.’
‘Righto,’ Edgy said, trying to look like he understood.
‘So you want to leave?’ The snake stopped at his feet. ‘What about Salomé?’
‘What d’you mean?’ Edgy said, trying not to give anything away.
The snake swayed his head from side to side. ‘Oh, come along, Edgy Taylor. Do you think you’re here by accident? Mr Janus needs your help. Why are those demons outside so keen to catch you? Don’t you know?’
‘Do you?’ Edgy said. ‘I thought you brought knowledge.’
‘I do,’ the snake snapped, rearing up. It looked like Edgy had hit a sore spot. ‘I knew you were curious, Edgy Taylor. The answer might be here. Care to look for it?’ The snake’s eyes narrowed. ‘I could find the information for you if you’ve got something to . . . exchange . . .’
A lost soul drifted by, blinded by tears, battering through the pages of a book in a desperate search.For what?Her white hair billowed, blown by a spectral breeze, her sobs echoing in Edgy’s ears. He shook himself. How did the snake know his name? Did it know everything?
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll work it out for myself, thanks very much.’
‘Well, call in any time. I like you, Edgy Taylor. You’ve got a sharp mind. You’re always welcome.’
Edgy watched the snake uncoil and slide back into the shadows, merging with the books in the shelves so that it became part of them. Soon it was invisible but for a pair of amber eyes burning from the bookshelf.
‘I’m sure you’ll find a way out, one way or another.’ The eyes faded and vanished.
The huge hall echoed with the muted cries and sobs of the lost souls as Edgy trekked back towards the great main doors and out into the corridor.
A small window hung open, allowing a rare draught of cold air to cut through the stuffiness of the Society. Edgy peeked through the thin, leaded frame. He looked out on to a narrow alleyway.Probably the side of the building. With a bit of a squeeze he could be through it and away before anyone at the front could see him.
‘Whatever the answer is,’ Edgy murmured to Henry, ‘I’ve ’ad enough of demons an’ devils an’ snakes.’
He leaned out of the window, lowered Henry on to the ground, then straddled a leg over the sill of the window and flipped into the gloom.
Lie there, lie there, love Hennery,
Till the flesh rots off your bones,
And that pretty girl in Merry Green Lea
Thinks long of your coming home.
‘Young Hunting’, traditional folk ballad
Every noise made Edgy shiver and twitch as he crept down the alleyway. Mud squelched loudly under his boots; his breath sounded to him like a blacksmith’s bellows. He glanced left and right, waiting for the hideous demons to pounce on him from every shadowy doorway, to come snarling through every blackened window, but nothing moved.
Edgy reckoned it was mid-morning but the grey twilight of the winter streets was as confusing as the ruddy glow of the lights in the Society. The alleys here twisted and doubled back on each other. Henry trotted ahead, leading Edgy deeper into the tangle of claustrophobic streets. The occasional cry made Edgy flinch but he saw nothing more threatening than ragged children trying to snatch morsels of stale bread from each other.
He stepped into a small yard littered with planks of rotten wood and old barrels. A rusted pump stood in the centre, surrounded by a puddle of green water.
‘I think we’ve done it, Henry,’ he muttered, still on the lookout. ‘I think we’ve left them demons back at the Society.’ He allowed himself a brief smile.
Henry gave a fretful whine and peered up, his eyebrows knitted with concern. Edgy scanned the courtyard for any signs of life or movement.
The windows stared down on him, black and lifeless. A few bubbles popped on the surface of the scummy puddle. Edgy stepped forward, craning his neck to see to the bottom. It was inches deep. Nothing could hide under there. He sidled along the side of the yard, pressing his back against the walls of the slums that formed the square. The water bubbled again.
Then, in a fountain of slime and scum, something burst up out of the puddle as if it were as deep as a lake. Henry gave a bark and Edgy froze as the demon hovered above them, flapping its bat-like wings and splattering water all around.
It was one of the creatures that had chased Edgy yesterday. Green and glowing slightly, the flame flickered between its thick eyebrows. The Flame of Moloch. Edgy shuddered and twitched, wiping the spots of slime that rained down on to his cheek.
‘Be brave,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Don’t show yer fear. That’s what old Janus said . . .’
The demon gave a deep chuckle and lowered itself to the ground, the beat of its wings ruffling Edgy’s tousled hair.
‘On second thoughts,’ Edgy said, ‘run!’
He launched himself away from the wall as the demon lunged forward. Edgy twisted his body to avoid collision. With a hiss of frustration, the creature smacked into the wall. Edgy clattered out of the courtyard and down the nearest alleyway.
Left, then right, Edgy ran without thinking where he was going. Henry panted at his side. Behind them powerful wings pounded the air. With a breathless sob, Edgy doubled his efforts. The downdraught of the flying demon chilled his sweaty neck. He could feel its claws graze the back of his head as he ducked forward.
And then, suddenly, Edgy burst out into the main street and the crowds. He risked a backwards glance, clipping the shoulder of a protesting gentleman as he did so. It was enough to show him that the demon stood at the mouth of the alleyway.Why has it stopped?
With a groan, Edgy crashed to the ground, just managing to shield his face with his hands. The dirt and gravel between the cobbles scoured his palms and took the air from his lungs. For a moment he lay still, gasping to breathe.
‘Did you forget to count?’ snarled a fierce voice. Edgy looked up to see the other demon leering down at him. ‘There’s more than one of us, remember?’
Edgy bit his lip. He should have realised. Only one had chased him – the others must have been heading him off all the time. He’d been tricked. But he could still only see two of them. Henry barked and snarled, snapping at the demon’s ankles, but the creature ignored him.
‘You ’ave something we want,’ said the first demon, catching up with them.
‘I don’t know what yer mean,’ Edgy gasped. ‘What could I ’ave that you’d be interested in? Why don’t you leave me alone?’
But the demons weren’t looking at him now. Instead they stood to attention, jaws slack, eyes wide. Henry was staring too, body rigid, one paw raised, a low rumbling growl sounding in his throat.
‘Why, if it isn’t Edgy Taylor,’ a voice chirped. ‘I hardly recognised you in those fancy clothes.’
Edgy, still sprawled on the floor, looked up to see the same young lady he’d met yesterday. Black hair tumbling down her shoulders, cheeks dimpled by a crimson-lipped smile.
‘The Royal Societyislooking after you, isn’t it?’
‘Salomé,’ gasped one of the demons, falling to one knee. The second demon appeared reluctant but his companion pulled it down as well and it didn’t give too much resistance.
‘Leave us,’ the woman said, snapping her fingers and waving her hand impatiently. ‘Go.’
‘But the boy . . . we have spent many days hunting him. We –’ the first demon began.
‘I said leave.’ Salomé’s perfect smile fell, her lips tightened. ‘Or do I have to tear your hearts out and feed them to this mutt?’
Henry bared his teeth at Salomé and the two demons. They rose and bowed slowly, then backed off into the crowd and vanished.
‘Not the same as it used to be,’ she sniffed, pulling a black lacy glove on to her hand. ‘But they still show some respect.’
Edgy twitched as he clambered to his feet. His heart pounded. Pressing his hand to his pocket, he felt the pouch of salt that Janus had given him still nestled there next to the shard of bone.
Salomé, the Demon Queen. She’s after Moloch’s body but what does she want with me?Edgy pondered for a moment.Whatever it is, it can’t be good.
Salomé spoke again, cutting through his thoughts. ‘Names are valuable currency, young Edgy, I told you that last time we met.’ She giggled, pacing around him. Wherever she stood, the crowds parted like a stream around a rock, staring ahead, oblivious of her. ‘The fools at the Society give their names like loose change. I never give my name freely but you know who I am by now, I suppose.’
Edgy muttered, ‘Well, I could have a good guess’, then pushed the nearest passing gent into Salomé and darted off in the opposite direction. Henry’s claws clattered alongside him. His new boots slapped the cobbles, hobnails sparking as he stumbled round a corner and into a dark alley. He slammed his back against the wall, panting for breath. After his previous chase, Edgy had little energy left.
‘Have we lost her?’ Salomé said, appearing right next to Edgy and imitating his wide eyes and heaving chest. She giggled like a young girl playing kiss chase.
Edgy bolted back into the crowds, rolling through mud, scurrying under barrows. He pitched into another alleyway.
‘This is so exciting,’ she said with a squeal and a skip.
Again he ran, dodging around walkers and street sellers, sending a juggler flying, skittles and balls bouncing into the street and startling horses. Edgy’s body ached. He couldn’t run any more. He dived into a deep porch at the side of a shop.
Salomé appeared behind him once more.
‘You are funny, Edgy Taylor.’ She beamed, slapping her hands to her knees. ‘Much more fun than that other boy. He didn’t last ten seconds.’
So the boy had been running from Salomé. Now Edgy knew what had happened to the other boy and that was not going to happen to him. He stuffed his hand into his pocket and grasped Janus’s pouch of salt. He needed to get close if this was to work. He remembered the woman’s riddle. Janus had said that demons love riddles. Talon had taught him so many . . . maybe that would distract her just enough.
‘What can cure but is no remedy, white as snow but melts it, invisible in water unless you taste it?’
‘A riddle, Edgy? Oh, I love riddles! Have you found out the answer to mine yet? It would fascinate you.’ Salomé still bent towards him as if she were playing with a toddler, hands on her knees.
‘What’s the answer tomine? Or is it too hard for you?’ Edgy taunted, taking a step closer.
‘Hmmm.’ Salomé tilted her head and put a gloved hand to her dainty chin. ‘It can cure but isn’t a remedy? Cure must mean to preserve, like a ham.’ Her face was close, Edgy could smell her perfume. ‘It’s white and melts snow and you can taste it. Of course I know! It’s s—’
Edgy didn’t let her finish but lashed out his fist and gave her a faceful of the answer.
‘Damn your black heart, Edgy Taylor!’ Salomé screamed, throwing her hands to her eyes.
Edgy turned and ran, not waiting to see how much damage he’d inflicted. He hurtled up the street, fear powering him along. Faces blurred as he flew past countless gentlemen and ladies. The cries of the street sellers flew by as he dodged and weaved among the crowd, desperately trying not to look back.
Finally, he slowed. It seemed safe. Henry’s sides heaved as he looked up, his tongue dangling from his mouth, puffing hot breath like a steam engine.
‘I know,’ Edgy sighed, sitting down on a shop doorstep and stroking Henry’s ear. Henry was right to feel nervous. It seemed that Salomé could find him whenever she wanted. The demons would soon be on his trail again and he couldn’t escape them. ‘I ’ate to admit it but we’re stuck, good an’ proper.’ Edgy looked up. His stomach tightened. ‘An’ it looks like we’ve got company again.’
Grinning with anticipation, the two demons pushed their way through the pedestrians towards Edgy. Edgy sat, all his energy spent, and watched as they advanced. With a grimace, he pulled himself up, clinging to the frame of the shop window as the world began to spin.
The elfin knight sits on yon hill,
Blowing his horn loud and shrill.
‘I love to hear that horn blow;
I wish him here that owns it and all.’
That word it was no sooner spoken,
Than elfin knight in her arms was gotten.
‘You must make to me a shirt,
Without thread, shears or needlework .’
‘The Elfin Knight’, traditional folk ballad
Henry’s shrill bark echoed in Edgy’s ears. Sharp talons dug into his shoulder and he felt himself being dragged to his feet. The crowds in the street bustled by, oblivious to the demons.
‘Take him,’ hissed a demonic voice. Edgy couldn’t distinguish between the two demons. Their twisted faces swam before him, merging, leering, gnashing their razor teeth. The flames flickered on their brows, dancing as if in victory.
‘Our names will be forever on the lips of Lord Moloch,’ said the other, ‘if this is the child –’
A muffled thud cut the demon’s sentence short. Edgy blinked, shaking the stars from his dazed eyes. The demon stood before him still gripping him by the shoulder of his jacket, but a puzzled frown creased its pock-marked brow as it wiped grey sludge from its upper arm. The creature’s eyes widened in horror as the grey stain spread up its neck. Edgy tried to pull away but the demon’s grip on his coat tightened. Gradually it froze, the demon’s eyes becoming marbled, then lifeless and blank.
A second bang sounded in the street. Glancing left, Edgy watched as the second demon writhed, trying to escape the dirty snowball that splattered wetly on to its back. Little by little, its movements died down to a slow dance, then it too froze altogether. A statue.
Edgy hung by his coat, half suspended from the ossified demon’s closed fist. He wriggled to get free but the jacket was pinched tight around his armpit. The demon statue rocked on its heels, threatening to fall forward and crush Edgy. One or two passers-by began to stop and stare, open-mouthed, at the spectacle that had appeared before them.
‘Just popped outta thin air,’ shrieked a flower girl, craning her neck at Edgy as he tugged at the trapped fabric of his jacket. ‘It’s a blimmin’ miracle.’
‘Garn! Some kind o’ trick,’ sneered a passing street cleaner, leaning on his brush and spitting into the gutter. ‘Chuck ’im a coin.’
The growing crowd parted and Janus appeared, placing the smoking ossifier back into his waistcoat pocket.
‘Now you have to decide, Edgy Taylor,’ he said, sawing furiously at the shoulder of his coat with a penknife, ‘what you’re going to do. You’ve put me to a lot of inconvenience today, not to mention a small amount of personal danger. It wasn’t easy tracking these demons down, you know.’
The thick material gave way with a ripping sound and the statue keeled backwards, shattering into pieces on the unforgiving cobbles. Edgy flinched.
‘I-I’m sorry, Mr Janus,’ Edgy stammered. His head swam and his thoughts jumbled up on top of each other.
‘Apology accepted, lad, though what the governors will make of three ossifications in two days, I don’t know.’ Janus shook his head and pursed his lips for a second. Then he snapped his head up and fixed Edgy with a flinty glare. ‘Now what’s it to be? Are you going to take your chances here on the streets? Or are you willing to come back to the Society and work for us? I need your skills, Edgy.’
‘Work for you?’ Edgy asked, his jaw sagging. ‘Y’mean like a job?’
‘Exactly,’ said Janus, pocketing his knife. ‘Your abilities would be invaluable to the Society and you’ve proved yourself to be fast and resourceful, if a little headstrong. I was going to offer the position to you this morning but you waltzed off – and ruined a perfectly good jacket. What do you think?’
Edgy didn’t get a chance to reply. The third and final demon sprang up from behind Janus. Its long, warty fingers closed around his neck and yanked him off the ground, sending the penknife and ossifier clattering from his pockets to the ground.
‘I’ll wring this devious old buzzard’s neck, then rip your heart out,’ it sniggered.
A tall gent stepped forward to challenge what he saw as a large ruffian taking hold of an old man. The demon swatted him away with its free hand as if he were a fly.
Edgy lunged forward and snatched up the ossifier. It felt clumsy and alien in his hands, like a collapsed telescope. He wracked his brains.How did Mr Janus open it? Which way does it point?
Janus made a gargling sound.
Edgy tugged at the tube and it opened with a metallic click.
A trickle of blood oozed from Janus’s mouth.
Edgy aimed the tube and a cord tumbled from the back.Did Mr Janus pull this?
The professor’s face bulged blue as he kicked feebly for his freedom.
Edgy yanked at the cord and the ossifier produced a bang, winding Edgy and sending him stumbling back, away from Janus.
The grey sludgeball whirled through the air. For a moment, Edgy feared he had missed as the ball arced left but the demon was huge and still in its path. It splattered on its shoulder. Janus’s eyes widened as he realised what was happening. Edgy ran forward. If the demon ossified with that grip then Janus would surely die. If he could break the grip, all might not be lost.
Edgy pressed down on the demon’s greying thumb. Its eyes grew milky as life ebbed away. He could feel the stoniness creaking up its arm through its wrist. The creature slackened its grip slightly as it solidified and Edgy pulled at the fingers. Janus slumped to the ground, blood rushing to his face.
The demon stood, arm extended, solid. Stone.
Edgy crouched down. ‘Come on, Mr Janus, don’t die,’ he muttered, cradling him and slapping his cheek.
Janus coughed and spluttered, spraying Edgy as his eyes flicked open. He struggled to his feet, propped up by Edgy.
‘That was close, Mr Taylor,’ he said, his voice hoarse. ‘You need some target practice with the ossifier but thank you. You saved my life.’
‘We’re evens, then. You saved my life, I saved yours,’ Edgy said, extending his hand. Janus shook it weakly and nodded. ‘Now that it’s up to me if I stay or go, I’d like to accept that job if it’s still on offer?’
Once more, Edgy lay on the rough bed in Sally’s room. Something had changed when he had saved Janus’s life. He didn’t feel trapped now. The demons outside had gone but Janus had given Edgy the impression that the danger was far from over.
‘This woman you told me about,’ Janus had said as he limped back to the Society. ‘The demons called her Salomé?’
‘They did, sir,’ Edgy replied. ‘They bowed to her. Is she really the Demon Queen?’
‘She is,’ Janus had said, his voice barely a whisper. ‘Things are shaping up, Edgy. Rumours abound among my demon sources. They say she seeks the corpse of Moloch. She already has the heart. Think of the havoc she could wreak if heart and body were reunited.’
A prickle of dread had run up Edgy’s spine. ‘What do we do, Mr Janus?’
‘We find Moloch’s body first,’ Janus said, then frowned and chewed his lip. ‘But do me a favour: don’t mention Salomé to anyone. The governors won’t believe us until I have proper evidence and we don’t want anyone questioning your sanity again, do we?’
Edgy shook his head. ‘No, I’ve had enough of people doin’ that.’
Now Edgy rolled over on his bed and sighed. He had never been praised before. No one had ever told him he was useful and now Janus thought he was needed to stop Salomé from destroying the world. Maybe the Society could become his family, like it had Trimdon’s. Edgy smiled.I won’t let Mr Janus down.
He flicked throughA Demon a Day, trying to find any reference to Moloch. However, the book was being obstinate. Every time he turned a page, it seemed to be the same story. With a sigh, Edgy rolled on to his stomach, flattened the page and began to read.
In the early days, when the blue-green world was fresh and sparkled in the morning sun, Satan wandered among the forests, whistling and planning his next outrage against the Lord.
As he stood in a glade dappled with sunlight, the sound of baying dogs shattered his thoughts. A wild boar burst out of the undergrowth beside him and fled through the trees. Soon the bark and howl of the pack grew nearer. Satan’s eyes glowed. There was bloodlust and excitement in that sound and in the bellow of the human voices urging them on.
A pack of hounds surged into the glade, filling it as the sea drowns a rockpool. They leapt around Satan, almost knocking him off his feet. He laughed and stroked the lashing tails as they swished past him.
Three men in furs came close behind. They held spears, sharp and pointed.
‘Forgive my dogs, sir,’ said the tallest and strongest looking of the men. ‘They did not see you in their excitement.’
‘You are gracious.’ Satan nodded. ‘I would have cursed anyone who dragged my dogs from the scent.’
The man merely nodded and smiled back. ‘It is wise to befriend strangers, for sometimes they prove to be devils or angels in disguise. Join us in our hunt, sir, and share the spoils.’
So Satan joined the hunt and after many hours of scrabbling through bushes, clambering over rocks and splashing across streams, they cornered the boar in a narrow ravine deep in the forest. The beast’s sides heaved for breath. Blood streamed down its sides and matted its fur. The men’s eyes glittered dark and deep. They held their spears as steadily as they could.
And Satan watched in envy.
The men closed in as the boar snorted and stamped the ground ready to charge.
Satan knew why this was exciting.
With a last roar of rage, the boar hurled itself forward. The men stood firm, hurling their spears.
They could die, Satan thought. That’s what makes this exciting. They have a game. They have danger. He himself – a creature of light and flame – could never die. Nothing could hurt him.
That night Satan sat at their campfire and shared their meat but it tasted like ash in his mouth. How could he enjoy anything again? For him, everything was so easily gained. To these men, every moment was precious because it could be taken away in a second by the turn of a stag’s antler or a stumble of their horse. That’s what made life sweet.
He took the hunter’s dagger and held it above the flame.
‘I swear that whoever uses this dagger against me shall find that it can take my life,’ he declared and handed it back to the hunter. ‘But whosoever kills me will also die.’
‘I will guard it,’ said the hunter, staring wide-eyed at the stranger at his campfire. ‘I shall keep this dagger a secret. None shall take arms against you, sir.’
‘Oh they will,’ muttered Satan, glancing around at the hunter’s men. Some glanced down, unable to meet his gaze. ‘For men talk. Men boast. Rumours spread. And there will be those who seek the Devil’s Dagger. Those who would gladly die to slay me. Whether for fame and glory or for their weakling God, they will seek that dagger and seek to kill me. That dagger will bring misery to every generation of your family unless you throw it away. For men brag. And none will brag more than those who have supped with the great Satan and lived to tell the tale!’
And with that, he leapt up and ran into the night. Suddenly, Satan felt alive again. Excited. He was mortal – slightly. What a game was this! He could be killed and that made everything sweet.
Edgy frowned. What did this have to do with anything? He turned the book over in his hands. Its cover glittered in the ruddy light. Snakeskin.
A banging at Edgy’s door made Henry bark. Edgy leapt off the bed and swung the door open to be greeted by Sally, pale and serious, arms folded, her head to one side.
‘Look, if it’s about this room –’ Edgy began.
‘Never mind that,’ Sally muttered, giving a cruel grin through clenched teeth. ‘You’re to come with me. The governors want to see you and it’s trouble. I reckon I’ll have me room back within the hour.’
All saint without, all devil within.
Edgy followed Sally through the silent corridors. Stuffy portraits stared out from the shadows. Henry kept at Edgy’s heel, his ears back, glaring at Sally as she stalked ahead of them. One portrait caught Edgy’s eye. It was filled by a portly-looking gentleman with serious eyebrows and a black fur cloak. The shadows seemed to swirl behind him, shifting somehow as if something lurked there.
Sally glanced back. ‘Don’t gawp at them,’ she snapped. ‘There’s trapped demons in them paintings. Look too hard and the creature inside might leap out and drag you in.’
‘Blimey,’ Edgy said and threw his eyes to the floor. He fell quiet for a while, trying not to look at anything.
‘Oh yeah.’ Sally gave a bitter laugh. ‘Full o’ surprises is the old Society of Daemonologie, I should know. Some charmin’ customers walked these corridors in days gone by, I can tell you.’
Edgy’s stomach turned over.What are these governors like? What are they going to do?
They stopped at yet another oak-panelled door. Edgy had lost track of the twists and turns of the passages.
Sally drew a breath and knocked twice. A muffled voice bid them enter. Edgy sat Henry down outside and went in.
The governors sat around a long, polished table laden with food. Three men and one woman. He recognised Sokket from their encounter in the exhibition hall, sitting there pulling a sour face at a bunch of grapes. The others were murmuring to Janus, who stood in front of the table. More portraits dotted the panelled walls of this grand room. A large one hung over the glowing fireplace. The sober features of James I stared down at him.
‘The boy, Lord Mauldeth,’ Sally said to the tall, dark gentleman at the centre of the table. She gave Edgy a sharp shove, making him stumble.
‘Thank you, Sally,’ Lord Mauldeth said, looking down his long nose at Edgy. A cat sat on Mauldeth’s lap, as haughty as the lord. ‘Now, boy, tell us your name.’
‘His name’s Edgy Taylor –’ Janus began but a fat, red-faced man sitting next to Mauldeth cut him off.
‘Can’t he speak for himself, Envry?’ the man bellowed, huffing and puffing. ‘He’s got a voice, what?’
‘Very well, Plumphrey.’ Janus inclined his head but Edgy could see flashes of red on his cheeks.
‘My name’s Edgy Taylor, sir,’ he said, his voice sounding dry and squeaky. He felt stupid and small in front of these grand people. Maybe Talon was right and picking up dog dirt off the street was all he was good for. He twitched his head.
‘Can’t you keep still, boy?’ Mauldeth said, as he scratched the cat behind its ears.
‘No, sir. Sorry, sir. It’s just something I do,’ Edgy said, avoiding Mauldeth’s gaze. Edgy didn’t like him already.
‘Probably brought cholera in with him off the street,’ grumbled Sokket, heaving a huge sigh. ‘Or some other malady. Wouldn’t be surprised if we’re all dead by dawn.’
‘Don’t be so melodramatic, Mortesque,’ said the lady next to him.
She easily filled her end of the table, looking taller and wider than any of the men in the room. Her wiry brown hair stuck out in all directions, a wild curly mass that she had obviously tried but failed to contain with pins and bands. She struck Edgy as being brown in every way – brown eyes, brown skin, brown tweed clothes. She reminded him of a huge tree.
‘Don’t worry, Edgy. We’re pleased to meet you,’ she said. ‘I’m sure Envry has a very good reason for ossifying three demons and bringing you into our midst.’
‘He always does, Professor Milberry,’ Plumphrey said, slapping the table, his moustache bristling. ‘That’s the trouble!’
‘Yes, little brother, do tell us.’ Lord Mauldeth’s sharp features twisted into a smirk. He snapped a biscuit in half. ‘Why did you compromise the security of the Royal Society so flagrantly?’
‘I believe the boy may be useful,’ Janus said, ignoring Mauldeth’s accusation. His neck was red too now, Edgy noticed.
‘Hmmph,’ snorted Sokket. ‘You said that about the last one and look what happened to him –’
‘Bernard.’ Milberry’s brow creased into concerned furrows.
‘What?’ asked Sokket, obviously confused.
‘He had a name,’ Milberry snapped back. ‘Bernard Green.’
Edgy’s stomach churned again as he thought of the boy crumpled in the mud of the street.Bernard Green.
‘Yes, well. A simple case of carelessness crossing the street,’ Janus said, shaking his head. ‘That wasn’t my fault.’
‘No, it never is,’ Sokket muttered, ‘but someone always ends up dead, don’t they?’
‘That’s not fair,’ Janus said.
The room fell silent for a second. Edgy tried to swallow but his throat felt so dry that he ended up coughing and spluttering.
‘And then there’s the budget,’ Plumphrey said, sitting back heavily in his chair and making Edgy jump. ‘We’ll have to pay for the last one’s funeral, y’know. And then can we afford to feed another mouth? Do you realise the size of the food bill for this month alone?’
‘Yes, well, if you insist on collecting demons of gluttony, then we will be eaten out of house and home, won’t we?’ Janus said. His whole face glowed red now. ‘You only collect them because it’s so easy. All you do is invite them to a slap-up meal and then clap the irons on them!’
‘How dare you?!’ Plumphrey roared, jumping to his feet and knocking his chair backwards. The cat leapt from Mauldeth’s lap. Sokket just shook his head and threw the grapes down in disgust.
‘Gentlemen.’ Milberry held up her hands, casting a shadow over Plumphrey. ‘We should conduct ourselves as fellows of the Royal Society. This is not some public house to brawl in.’
‘Apologies, Anawald,’ Plumphrey coughed. ‘But he’s always mocking my collection.’
‘Envry.’ Milberry raised her eyebrows at Janus. ‘You said the boy might be useful. Tell us how.’
‘Yes.’ Janus straightened his waistcoat down and gave an embarrassed cough. ‘I found the boy, having tracked down Thammuz, Scourge of the Innocents, captain of twelve demon legions.’
Edgy frowned at Janus. He’d never heard Talon described in that way.
‘We are aware of Thammuz’s status,’ Mauldeth cut in, picking up a glass of port. ‘The boy was with him?’
‘He was,’ Janus said, ‘and – what’s more – Edgy has demon sight.’
Edgy stared, blank-faced, at the panel of governors who leaned forward as one and raised their eyebrows at him as if they’d been told he could juggle live canaries.
‘So you can see demons, can you, boy?’ Plumphrey asked, twisting his moustache.
‘I think so, sir.’ Edgy’s voice sounded croaky again.
‘Can you seealldemons?’ Mauldeth said, rotating his glass and staring at it through the candlelight.
‘Well, I could see Mr Talon, the one you called Tha . . . mmuz, all red like and with horns. He’d get proper angry and beat me, you see, sir.’
‘Well, well, a demon with a bit of respect for discipline at last.’ Mauldeth grinned.
Edgy didn’t see anything funny. He looked away from Lord Mauldeth, trying to ignore the sting of tears in the corner of his eye.
‘And the ones that chased me,’ Edgy said, coughing roughly. ‘I could see them quite plain, sir.’
‘Ah, yes, Janus ossified them too.’ Mauldeth raised an eyebrow at his brother.
‘One thing at a time, Mauldeth. How do you think he’s come by this talent, then, Envry?’ Sokket’s codfish mouth drooped as he sniffed in Edgy’s direction.
‘I don’t know yet.’ Janus shrugged. ‘He’s not a demon himself, so far as I can tell.’
Almost in unison, the panel donned the red-lensed spectacles that Edgy had seen Janus wear earlier. They stared hard, looking him up and down. He coughed and looked at the floor, trying not to meet their gaze.
‘These are Hades Lenses, Edgy,’ Milberry explained, smiling and lifting her spectacles so he could see her warm brown eyes. ‘Some demons disguise themselves as humans – well, as all kinds of things really, cats and goats, even teapots and saucepans. The lenses can see through most glamour spells that demons use. We don’t need them inside the Society as most demons reveal their true nature to us here but outside it’s a different matter.’
‘He doesn’t look like a demon,’ Plumphrey muttered, pulling off his specs.
‘Areyou a demon?’ Sokket leaned over the table and squinted through the lenses at Edgy.
‘No!’ Edgy snapped. ‘Erm, no, sir, I’m not.’
‘He says he used to help Thammuz solve riddles too,’ Janus said, nodding and pointing a finger in the air.
‘Good at riddles, eh, lad?’ Mauldeth sneered. He raised one eyebrow and smiled triumphantly. ‘Tell me then, what is as ancient as the earth but only one month old?’ He sat back in his chair, looking sidelong at his fellow governors with a self-satisfied grin.
‘The moon, sir. Beggin’ your pardon, sir,’ Edgy muttered. He felt awful answering so quickly but it was an old riddle and simple really.
Mauldeth’s neck went red this time and Janus beamed at his brother’s discomfort.
‘He has you there, Mauldeth,’ Plumphrey chortled. ‘How do you do that, lad?’
‘I don’t know, sir. Tal . . . Thammuz taught me to riddle as a nipper, sir.’
‘Riddles are the basic currency of demons, Edgy. They greet, trick and challenge each other with them, trade with them, all kinds of things. Demons love complexity and challenges. It is said that a demon can never resist a riddle,’ Milberry said, noticing Edgy’s confused expression and taking pity on him. ‘Being good at riddles is a must when dealing with demons.’
‘Either that or being a good shot with an ossifier, eh, little brother?’ Mauldeth said, sipping at his port and shooting a barbed smirk at Janus. ‘Four in two days. It’s getting to be like old times.’
‘I had no choice.’ Janus gave Edgy a meaningful glance. ‘I had to ossify them.’
‘Youhadto?’ Milberry asked, narrowing her eyes.
‘They were threatening the boy,’ Janus said. ‘I suspect they would have killed him.’
‘You know we only use ossification as a last resort, Envry.’ Milberry looked stern. ‘How can we encourage more associate demons if you go around killing them?’
‘One almost killed me,’ Janus said quietly. ‘If it wasn’t for Edgy, it would have.’
‘So the boy saved your bacon, eh?’ Mauldeth said, regaining some of his composure.
Edgy could see Janus’s jaw muscles tighten as he bit back a retort.
‘Well, I for one would be happy to see more of these blasted creatures turned to stone,’ Plumphrey muttered, breaking the tension. ‘I remember Thammuz. Very fond of sending plagues of buttock boils to make people miserable.’
‘Could he do that?’ Sokket went a lighter shade of grey.
‘He’s nothing more than a stone gargoyle now, Mortesque.’ Mauldeth shook his head. ‘Your buttocks are safe . . . from him, anyway.’
Sokket shuffled in his seat and glanced sideways at Plumphrey. ‘It’s just that, well, remember the curse of the whistling flatulence back in thirty-two? Most embarrassing . . . and inconvenient.’
‘Lasted a month.’ Plumphrey’s red face faded to a mild pink and a haunted look came into his eye. ‘The shame . . .’
‘You think we can use the boy?’ Milberry gave Janus a hard stare.
‘Think of it: he could detect demons without them knowing. They get wise to the Hades Lenses. One sniff of a pair of red spectacles and they’re off!’ Janus said. ‘And he’s a sharp wit with the riddles.’
‘But the budget –’ Plumphrey began.
‘Give over, Roland,’ Mauldeth yawned, filling his glass again. ‘We’re rolling in cash – hardly anybody in the government even knows we exist.’
‘But if there was an audit?’
‘When was the last one?’ Milberry cut in.
‘Not sure, really,’ Plumphrey said, glancing around the room and shuffling through some dusty old documents in front of him. ‘Ah, here we are . . . 1703,’ he said, drumming his fingers on the table.
‘Go on then, Envry.’ Mauldeth raised his glass to Edgy. ‘Have your servant boy. All agreed?’
‘But try to avoid any more ossifications,’ Milberry said. ‘We simply must get away from our past reputation. We are scientists, observers and recorders – not demon hunters.’
The panel grunted and murmured in a fairly positive way. Janus nodded, grabbed Edgy’s elbow and steered him out of the door.
‘Shouldn’t we record it in the minutes?’ he heard Plumphrey say.
‘When were the minutes last taken, Roland?’ Sokket asked with a weary roll of his eyes.
‘Oh, er, 1705 . . .’
A smirk crept across Edgy’s face.
‘Try to keep him alive this time, Envry, there’s a good chap,’ Sokket called after them.
Edgy’s smile faded.
Trotting after Janus seemed to be becoming a habit. Edgy looked down at Henry, beginning to understand how he must feel as Janus stamped down the corridor.
‘Well, that went better than I expected,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘But did you hear the pompous oaf?’ Janus put on a nasal drawl that sounded surprisingly like his elder brother. ‘Have your servant boy. You see why I don’t tell them my concerns about Salomé, Edgy? They wouldn’t understand. I was so pleased when you guessed his riddle right off. Ha! That put his nose out of joint!’
‘Just doin’ what comes natural, sir,’ Edgy said, blushing with pride. Mauldeth deserved the humiliation, he thought. Janus was right. Mauldeth was a snob. At least Janus treated Edgy with some respect.
‘Good man.’ Janus grinned over his shoulder. ‘Right, get some rest and report to me first thing tomorrow. You’re now officially an employee of the Royal Society of Daemonologie! And our first mission is to find out where the corpse of Moloch lies.’
O, where are you going to?
I am going to my school.
O what are you going there for?
For to learn the word of God.
I wish you was on the sands.
Yes, and a good staff in my hands.
I think I hear a bell.
Yes, and it’s ringing you to hell.
‘False Knight on the Road’, traditional folk ballad
The First Errand
‘Thought you weren’t coming back,’ Sally muttered, standing by the door to his room one morning. For all her saying she wasn’t a ghost, Sally did a grand job of haunting Edgy’s bedroom.
‘Yeah, well, it’s not that bad, is it?’ Edgy snapped, barging past her. ‘Three good meals a day, indoor work an’ clean clothes. An’ I don’t have to do anythin’ more dangerous than climb a ladder to get a heavy book from a high shelf.’
‘That’s whathesaid too,’ Sally hissed.
Edgy froze as he closed the door. He could feel the cold draught of her gaze. ‘Who?’
‘Bernard,’ Sally whispered. ‘Thought it was all beer an’ skittles until he got his skull caved in . . .’
Edgy twitched. ‘That won’t happen to me,’ he croaked, trying to sound brave.
Although he’d been there less than a week, Edgy already had a rough idea of the layout of the upper floors of the Society. By day, he kept busy, carrying books for Janus and cleaning his study, and the fellows sent him scurrying about the passages with memorandums and letters. By night, he would sit beside Janus as he pored over ancient manuscripts, searching for any clue as to the whereabouts of Moloch.
‘Take this to Professor Plumphrey and be quick about it,’ Mauldeth would snap. He glowered at Edgy whenever they met and, to make matters worse, Henry was banned from Mauldeth’s quarters because of the chancellor’s bad-tempered cat.
‘Tell Trimdon that I need more roast chicken,’ Plumphrey would bluster, barely acknowledging Edgy, while Sokket would just stare at him or leave notes as if he couldn’t bring himself to actually talk to him.
Milberry was different, though. While the other fellows’ rooms – and even Janus’s study – were dull, with leather seats and book-lined walls, her office teemed with all manner of plants and flowers. It was like a small forest. Vines tumbled from pots on shelves, huge palms sprouted from massive vases. Small finches even flitted among the branches of some of the larger specimens, and in the centre of all this sat Professor Anawald Milberry.
She had been writing at her desk when Edgy first entered the room. She stopped and smiled at him. Edgy smiled back.
‘And how are you settling in?’ she said, taking the memorandum from Edgy.
‘Fine, ma’am,’ he replied, glancing around at the thick foliage that filled the room. Had he just seen a pair of emerald eyes glaring out from one of the bushes to his left?
‘Don’t worry, Edgy,’ Milberry smiled, running her stubby fingers through her brown wiry hair. ‘The demons I collect are friendly on the whole. They’re nature spirits. Quite harmless unless provoked.’
‘Right, ma’am,’ Edgy nodded. He wasn’t convinced. Looking more closely, he could see that some of the plant specimens actually had eyes and mouths deep within their foliage.
‘They’re my family,’ she said, picking up a watering can and pouring its contents into the nearest plant pot. She turned and frowned, looking at Edgy with kindly concern. ‘Do you have any family, Edgy Taylor?’ she asked.
‘No, ma’am,’ he said, scraping the toe of his boot on the tiled floor. He looked up. ‘Have you, ma’am?’ He flinched. The question had just come out. He hadn’t meant to ask. She would think him so impertinent.
Milberry gave a sigh and a shrug. ‘Only these,’ she said, waving her hands at the plants that surrounded her.
‘I’m sorry, ma’am. I shouldn’t have asked,’ Edgy said, blushing under her gentle gaze.
Her face crinkled into a kind smile. ‘Not to worry, young man, you and I are in the same boat, it would seem. We can look after each other,’ she said. Her expression became serious. ‘So tell me, have you been out yet?’
Edgy frowned. ‘No, ma’am.’
‘Well, just take care when you do,’ she said, with a look of concern. ‘Don’t get drawn into any of his mad schemes . . .’
‘No, ma’am,’ Edgy said, backing out of the room.
Janus had shown Edgy nothing but kindness since he’d taken him in. Only yesterday, he’d spent a whole morning showing Edgy the exhibition hall in more detail, telling him stories of arch-demons and sprites, of angels and devils. Spinorix had followed them around, eyeing Edgy at first but his cold stare seemed to thaw as Edgy’s interest became apparent. And Edgywasbecoming more interested.
‘It’s a fascinating world, Edgy,’ Janus said, his eyes gleaming. ‘There’s more to discover than we ever can and stranger things than we can imagine.’
‘D’you think I’ll be able to make a discovery one day, Mr Janus?’ Edgy asked, his heart pounding with excitement.
‘If I have anything to do with it, young man.’ He nodded, patting Edgy’s back. ‘You’ll be at the heart of the greatest discovery yet.’
Two weeks later, Janus summoned Edgy to the entrance hall on an errand. Edgy hurried up there to find Janus pacing back and forth by Slouch’s sofa. Slouch’s feet poked up over the arms of the chair. Loud snoring echoed around the hall.
‘Now, keep your wits about you,’ Janus said, rummaging in his jacket pocket. ‘I have a letter here. I want you to take it to a business associate of mine.’
‘Right, sir.’ Edgy swallowed hard.
Outside. Janus was asking him to venture outside, where Salomé and the Cult of Moloch were. He glanced down at the address.
The Emporium of Archaic Antiquities
13 Jesmond Street, London
Evenyule Scrabsnitch? What kind of a name is that?
‘Is it safe, sir?’ Edgy gulped.
‘You don’t need me to tell you that it mightn’t be a straightforward task. You know that not everyone is well disposed towards the Royal Society. You might meet a bit of . . . mischief on your way. But you’ve proved yourself to be resourceful and quick on your feet.’
Edgy gave a brittle grin. ‘Don’t worry, Mr Janus, I can handle meself in the streets.’
‘I know you can, Edgy, but if you meet Salomé again . . .’ Janus’s voice dropped to a near whisper ‘. . . then run. Run for all you’re worth and don’t let her see that letter.’
‘No problem,’ Edgy said, trying to sound casual, but he couldn’t help shuddering. He felt the blood drain from his face.
Janus had spent long hours questioning Edgy about his encounter with Salomé. He wanted to know what she looked like. How she moved, spoke, laughed. How she dressed. What she said. Everything.
‘You did well to escape her last time. She is a truly crafty demon. We know what she wants and she might be curious about what we know.’
‘I wouldn’t give nothin’ away, Mr Janus, trust me.’
‘Don’t even talk to her, Edgy, just throw your salt and run,’ Janus continued, stuffing a small leather sack of salt into Edgy’s hand.
‘Righto, Mr Janus,’ Edgy whispered, pushing the letter and pouch into his jacket pocket.
A gloomy silence hung over the dilapidated Eden Square. Edgy shivered at the bronze statue of Satan, its face contorted with rage. He looked at the letter again. The address would take him back over the river. He hadn’t been north since the day Bernard died.
The busy streets soothed Edgy’s nerves. Here he was one of many. Part of the crowd. Harder to pick out.
When he reached it, Jesmond Street buzzed with mid-morning activity. The busy throng of shoppers, beggars and costermongers squeezed past each other trying to keep safely away from the carriages and carts that clattered up and down the cobbles.
‘The place is heavin’,’ Edgy muttered to Henry, sidestepping a portly gentleman who tutted and swished him away with his cane.
The shops stood proud and well kept. Edgy spotted a milliner’s shop, all lace curtains and glossy, painted woodwork, and a tailor’s, dark and respectable. Halfway up the street, wedged between these buildings like a drunk at a temperance meeting, stood Scrabsnitch’s Emporium of Archaic Antiquities.
‘Blimey, Henry,’ Edgy said. ‘I dunno what sort of place this is, but it don’t look very high class.’
Wooden planks shuttered the windows to Scrabsnitch’s shop and pedestrians tiptoed through the shards of glass that littered the pavement. The place looked like someone had set about it with a sledgehammer. Edgy made his way to the door and pushed it inwards with a loud scrape followed by a tinnypingas the rusty bell announced his arrival. The inside of the shop looked no better. Edgy’s feet crunched on more glass. He lifted Henry up and picked his way past wrecked display cabinets, smashed chairs and scattered, torn books.
‘Hello?’ he called. ‘Mr Scrabsnitch?’
Cold metal pressed at the back of Edgy’s neck. Circular.The muzzle of a gun?
‘Don’t move,’ creaked an old voice behind him. ‘This musket is loaded with silver. Sees off most supernatural types, I’ve found. Now, tell me who or what you are.’
Call not the devil, he will come fast enough unbidden.
‘Mr Scrabsnitch?’ Edgy said hoarsely, his whole body shaking and twitching.
‘Who wants to know?’ asked the voice behind him.
‘My name’s Edgy Taylor. I’m from the Royal Society of Daemonologie.’
‘I’ve not met you before,’ croaked the voice. ‘Any proof?’
‘I-I have a-a letter,’ Edgy stuttered, desperately trying not to twitch too much in case the gun went off. ‘It’s in my jacket pocket, sir.’
As a hand snaked round Edgy’s stomach and reached for his pocket, a growl rumbled in Henry’s throat.
‘Henry, no,’ Edgy hissed, but Henry snapped at the hand.
With a yelp of pain, the hand was snatched back and Edgy heard a crash as whoever it was stumbled backwards. Flinching, Edgy turned to see who had been holding him at gunpoint.
Amidst the wreckage of a glass cabinet sat a thin-looking man. He wore a faded silk smoking jacket and carpet slippers. His hair billowed out from his head in wild grey wisps and he looked as devastated as the shop. A silver candlestick dangled from his free hand, the other was rammed firmly in his mouth, covering the bite.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Edgy muttered, eyeing the candlestick. ‘Henry was just watchin’ out for me.’
‘No, no, it is you who must forgive me, young man,’ he said with an air of slight embarrassment. He stared at Edgy with sad, droopy eyes. ‘IamEvenyule Scrabsnitch. I was bluffing, as you can see, but I have to be cautious.’ He shook life back into his bitten hand.
Edgy sighed with relief – Henry hadn’t drawn blood.
Scrabsnitch continued, ‘My emporium is usually a little unkempt, but not this bad. I’ve had some unwelcome visitors recently. Goes with my line of work.’ He glanced around, looking for a suitable home for the candlestick he held, then shook his head and dropped it on the floor. ‘It’s taken me weeks even to get it back to this state. I think I may be getting too old for it all.’
Edgy spluttered on the dust that mushroomed up from the floor and handed Scrabsnitch the letter. Henry gave a low growl but Edgy held his muzzle.
Scrabsnitch looked down at the letter. ‘So, you’re the Mr Taylor that Envry Janus has been talking about.’ His eyes twinkled over the top of the letter. ‘I’ve heard good things about you, young man.’
‘Oh, well,’ Edgy said, casting his eyes down and hiding his blushes.
‘You’re a talented chap,’ Scrabsnitch said. ‘Tell me, can you see demons everywhere?’
‘Most places, I reckon,’ Edgy said. He felt uncomfortable talking about it. Until not long ago, he’d thought himself to be insane. ‘But they don’t seem to be everywhere.’
‘Not as many of them as there were, I suppose.’ Scrabsnitch’s face drooped once more and he fell silent for a moment. Edgy wasn’t quite sure what to say. Scrabsnitch snapped his attention back and said, ‘Anyway, I believe you’re a bit of a whizz at riddles too?’
‘Mr Janus exaggerates,’ Edgy smiled. ‘It was just somethin’ Talon, the, erm, demon I worked for, somethin’ he insisted on.’
‘Why, I wonder?’ Scrabsnitch frowned thoughtfully. ‘Was he preparing you for something, do you think?’
‘I dunno, sir.’ Edgy shrugged. ‘He used to come back from the pub sometimes, quite uppity, like, wakin’ me up an’ demandin’ the answer to a riddle he couldn’t solve. Used to get a rare beatin’ if I couldn’t solve it.’
‘You poor boy.’ Scrabsnitch looked genuinely appalled. Edgy thought of Mauldeth’s cynical retort at the governors’ meeting. ‘Which public house did he frequent?’
‘The Green Man, it was, sir,’ said Edgy. ‘He owed the landlord Bill Fager a few bob, so I believe.’
‘Who?’ Scrabsnitch narrowed his eyes and peered at Edgy.
‘Fager, Bill Fager,’ Edgy said. ‘He was always in debt to Bill. Never shut up about it. Why, sir?’
But Scrabsnitch had jumped up and was ransacking a tabletop full of junk. Eventually, he found a blank sheet of paper and began scribbling feverishly. ‘I think Mr Janus might be interested in the name you just gave me, Edgy,’ he murmured as he wrote. ‘There is a rather powerful demon called Belphagor whom your employer might be eager to meet. Bill Fager, Belphagor? Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Old Bill Fager, a demon?’ Edgy mumbled as Scrabsnitch straightened up and handed him the hastily scribbled message. ‘But I’d ’ave seen him, y’know, horns an’ all that, wouldn’t I?’
‘There are demons and there are demons, Edgy,’ Scrabsnitch said, raising his eyebrows. ‘Some are more powerful than others. Maybe Belphagor’s magic is stronger than most.’
‘What would Mr Janus want with this Fager bloke?’
‘It may just be part of the puzzle that Janus is trying to solve, Edgy. Now, the book he ordered.’ Scrabsnitch turned and with surprising ease for a man his age clambered up a ladder that leaned against a bookshelf. ‘A puzzle laced with danger . . .The Legends of Moloch,’ Scrabsnitch muttered. A hush fell over the room for a moment. Henry whined and Edgy shook himself.
‘Begging your pardon, but why danger?’ Edgy whispered, glancing around the wrecked shop as if eavesdroppers crouched behind every display cabinet.
‘An arch-demon. A destroyer,’ Scrabsnitch replied. ‘Moloch is a demon of obsession and possession. He was the one demon who would wage total war on God, even though he knew it would end everything. Association with him seems to bring a certain compulsion and fanaticism. It’s not by chance that the Cult of Moloch has so many adherents.’ Scrabsnitch paused, staring through Edgy. Then he shook himself and said, ‘I have the volume up here – fortunately it wasn’t damaged.’
‘Righto,’ Edgy murmured, looking up at the old man and shielding his eyes from the dislodged dust.
‘You tell Mr Janus to tread carefully,’ Scrabsnitch said, heaving down a thick, leather-bound book and passing it to Edgy. ‘Moloch can take hold of the wariest soul. And it is becoming something of a favourite topic for Mr Janus.’
‘Well, forgive me for sayin’ as much, sir, but I reckon Mr Janus, bein’ a collector an’ all, knows what he’s doin’,’ Edgy said. A stab of annoyance made him twitch and shake his head. ‘He’s been good to me.’
Scrabsnitch paused, mulling over Edgy’s words. ‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ he said, nodding. He took the book and wrapped it in thick brown paper, then slid it into a sack. ‘But I’ve met a few obsessives in my time. They never come to a good end.’ The old man stared off into the darkened corners of the emporium.
Edgy shivered. ‘Well, if you’ll excuse me, sir,’ he said, teasing the sack out of Scrabsnitch’s fingers and slinging it over his shoulder. ‘Mr Janus’ll be keen to see me back.’
Scrabsnitch’s eyes snapped back to Edgy, making him jump. ‘Wait,’ he hissed, pushing Edgy down behind a three-legged display cabinet. ‘Someone’s peering through the window, hard to see through the grime . . . A woman . . . dark hair . . .’
‘Salomé,’ Edgy gasped. ‘Mr Scrabsnitch, I’ve got to hide!’
‘Salomé?’ he said, his eyes widening.
‘I’ve no time to explain,’ Edgy said. ‘But she seems to be after me.’
‘The back door,’ Scrabsnitch said.
‘No, she’ll be on to me like a flash,’ Edgy muttered, remembering the chase in the alleyways.
‘Upwards then,’ Scrabsnitch snapped, looking to the ceiling.
‘But Henry –’ Edgy began.
‘Put him in the sack with the book,’ Scrabsnitch said, guiding Edgy across the shop to a side door. ‘Go up the stairs to the attic. You can make your way along the rooftops there – it may just give you a head start.’
With a shove, Scrabsnitch sent Edgy staggering through the door and up the first few steps. As the door shut behind Edgy, he heard the muffled tinkling of the bell and started up the stairs as fast and as silently as he could.
Edgy didn’t have time to take in his surroundings as he hurried upwards. He had a vague impression of fusty decay, worn carpets, peeling walls and then he was in an attic room cluttered with more junk, packing cases, stuffed animals and rusted suits of armour. He squeezed through the room and bundled Henry into the sack before lifting the groaning sash window and gasping at the cold wind that slapped his face. Henry yelped and squirmed in the sack as Edgy tied the top with some curtain cord and secured it over his shoulder. He would need free hands for this.
Edgy had seen some children on the rooftops last year. They’d been thieving lead from church roofs and had escaped from the peelers that way. Edgy had been impressed and had imagined himself skipping across narrow alleys and sliding down slick slates.
Now his head spun and his feet felt like they’d been cemented on to the narrow brick causeways that ran along the eaves of the buildings. Henry wriggled, making the sack feel leaden and pulling Edgy in every direction. He teetered on the edge of a grey slate roof. Something gave way under his foot. A loose brick tumbled down through the air below him. Edgy windmilled his arms, bending double and straightening time and again.
And then he slipped.
With a yelp, Edgy slapped his hand out to catch hold of the black line of the gutter. Fire seared up his shoulder and he heard his knuckles crack as his descent jerked to a halt. For a moment, Edgy dangled by one arm, dazed and yelling in agony. The cord holding the sack and Henry cut into his shoulder. He swung his other arm up and grasped at the cast-iron gutter with both hands. It was cold, full of moss and slime. How long could he hold on for?
‘Edgy Taylor, whatareyou doing, you silly sausage?’ Salomé peered over the edge of the roof, leaning on an umbrella. Her face split into a childish grin. ‘You ran away from me and that funny Mr Scrabsnitch tried to shoot me with a candlestick. What larks we’re all having!’ She hitched up her lemon-yellow skirts and squatted down close to him. ‘I remember this rooftop being built. Oh, it must’ve been thirty, maybe even forty years ago.’
The cold metal gutter numbed Edgy’s knuckles.
‘The man who laid that brick – you know, the stone that fell from under your feet? He was a lazy, careless worker. I made sure of that.’
Edgy’s breath grew ragged as his head fell forwards, crushing his own windpipe. His shoulder felt ablaze as he struggled to hold on. Salomé frowned and put her dainty finger to her red lip.
‘Oh, and the man who fixed this gutter ran out of screws but couldn’t be bothered going back down for more so he missed a few out.’ Salomé’s red lips pursed into a neat smile. ‘I made sure of that.’
With a metallic groan, the brackets holding the gutter buckled, snapped and swung out away from the wall. Suddenly Edgy was dangling in mid air high above the ground. Sweat trickled down his back.
‘Ooops.’ Salomé’s eyebrows rose in perfectly plucked arches, her mouth a round ‘o’ of pretend surprise. ‘But the man who worked down there – the one who fitted the pointed iron railings directly beneath you – he was a God-fearing man. He did a good job.’
The street beneath Edgy swung to and fro as the gutter creaked and shifted again. The lines of the paving slabs, the edge of the road, the railings rocked and see-sawed. The gutter sagged. Henry’s weight in the sack dragged at him, burning his shoulder.
Salomé’s face screwed into a hard scowl. ‘You see what you’re up against, little boy?’ she hissed. ‘Whole lifetimes of corner-cutting, settling for second best. All to serve me. That was a nasty trick, throwing salt in my face. I was very disappointed in you.’
Salomé beckoned with her finger and, as if it were alive, the gutter began to swing back to the wall of the building. Edgy lost his grip, slipping along the slimy ironwork towards the broken end of the gutter. Then his head hit the wall and, for a moment, all was darkness and weightlessness.
This is it, he thought.I’m going to die.
Fair Eleanor, she sat still.
It wasn’t long till she saw
Her own dear seven brethrens
All wallowing in their own blood.
Fair Eleanor, she sat still.
She never changed a note
Till she saw her own father’s head
Come tumbling by her foot.
‘Earl Brand’, traditional folk ballad
A sudden jerk opened Edgy’s eyes.
Salomé had his waistcoat scrunched in her fist, her arm outstretched supporting him as though he were weightless. A button from his jacket vanished to the street below. Edgy heard it clink against the railings that speared up beneath him and felt sick.
‘Wait,’ he gasped. ‘Wh-what clings tight to hand or nose, from toady slime it grows, as quick as it’s here, it goes?’
‘A riddle?’ Salomé’s eyes glowed a deeper green. Slowly she eased Edgy back on to the rooftop and dumped him flat on to the tiles. ‘Oh, Edgy, you are naughty. You know I can’t resist a riddle.’
‘If you can’t get it,’ Edgy croaked, straightening up and sitting next to her on the roof ’s edge, ‘you must let me go.’
‘Oh, you are clever, Edgy Taylor,’ Salomé smirked at him. She dangled her booted feet over the edge of the roof and kicked them like a child on a grown-up’s chair. ‘But I know it, you see. It’s a wart. A wart clings to face or hand and then one day it’s just gone!’
Edgy’s heart plummeted. He felt as though he were falling all over again.
‘Just give me the letter, silly,’ Salomé giggled. She leaned over and pulled out the letter from his pocket. ‘That’s twice you’ve lost to me. Have you solved my first riddle yet?’ Her eyebrows rose as she scanned the letter. ‘Oh, I see. Mr Scrabsnitch suggests a revitalising pint of ale at the Green Man Inn, does he? Fascinating.’ She carefully folded the letter and slid it back into Edgy’s pocket. ‘What’s Mr Janus going to think when you tell him about our meeting?’ She smoothed Edgy’s hair and whispered, ‘You could lie. Say you managed to run away or tell him you out-riddled me.’
‘You mean,’ Edgy said in a hoarse voice, ‘you’re gonna let me go?’
Salomé laughed and wrinkled her nose. ‘Of course I am. You’re the best fun I’ve had in centuries. I only wanted to look at the letter. I could have tortured it out of that old goat Scrabsnitch but where’s the fun in that? Just don’t get too interested in Moloch – it’s not healthy.’ She jumped to her feet and, putting her hands behind her back, skipped up the roof. Edgy sat as if cemented to the roof edge, slack-jawed, watching her vanish over its apex.
It took Edgy a full hour and a half to clamber down from the rooftops. His feet seemed to slip with every move and each step was torture. His body ached with dangling from gutters and his clothes were covered in soot and bird muck from the slates. Shame burned in his gut like a furnace. He’d wanted to please Janus. How could he tell him that Salomé had taken the message from Scrabsnitch so easily? Henry tumbled from the sack with an indignant yelp and shook himself.
‘Sorry, old friend,’ Edgy said. Henry gave another shake and licked the back of his hand.
Edgy should have run from corner to corner, hiding behind fruit barrows and slipping into shop doorways. But what was the point? Salomé could kill him with the flick of her finger. A tall lady passed by, laughing out loud, making him flinch. Tears stung his eyes.
A grey rain pelted down on Edgy as he trudged across Eden Square and up the steps to the Society.
‘Been busy?’ Slouch muttered from his sofa as Edgy staggered into the hall, soaking and dishevelled.
‘Yeah,’ he muttered. ‘How ’bout you?’
‘Rushed off me feet,’ Slouch yawned. He stopped and a frown slowly spread across his wrinkled brow. ‘What’s in the bag?’
Surprised, Edgy pulled the book from the sack and showed himThe Legends of Moloch.
Slouch gave a shudder. ‘ReadThe Legend of Aldorath and Moloch,’ he said. ‘It’s my favourite bedtime story.’
Edgy grimaced, slumped on the floor and rested his back against the sofa. The book fell open at the chapter he wanted. Edgy began to read silently to himself.
‘Not like that,’ moaned Slouch from deep within the sofa. ‘Read it aloud. Like I said, it’s my favourite.’
Heaving a sigh, Edgy began to read to the dozing demon.
The Legend of Aldorath and Moloch
Aldorath was a young demon who loved nothing more than making mortals dissatisfied. It was all he lived for. He was never happier than when whispering into a new bride’s ear, pointing out how her new husband snored so loudly at night and belched at the dinner table. He revelled in making young children dream of the toy their parents could never afford. Any misery Aldorath could think of, any reason to be miserable, he would whisper into mortal ears. As far as he was concerned, life was good for him when it was not satisfactory for mortals.
Then one day he woke from a particularly poor slumber. He scratched his backside and belly as he wondered who to discontent today.
And something strange happened.
As he stood thinking, an emptiness, a feeling that something was missing, overcame him. Yes, he could go down to the old woodcutter in the forest and make him wish his son wasn’t such an idiot. But what was the point? Yes, he could visit the bakery and make the baker raise his prices and put chalk in his flour so he could make enough profit to buy a wig. But where was the challenge in that? Was this all life had to offer?
Aldorath had made himself discontented and there was nothing he could do.
Or so he thought.
One day, as he sat on a tree stump, sighing, Satan chanced by.
‘And what is your complaint, my fine demon fellow?’ Satan asked.
‘I’m fed up and bored,’ said Aldorath, not recognising Satan, who never sat still long enough to have his portrait painted. ‘I’m tired of making mortals discontented. I want a challenge!’
‘Well, if it’s a challenge you want,’ laughed Satan, ‘then a challenge you shall have.’
‘Anything,’ said Aldorath, ‘if it will make me happy again.’
‘Very well.’ Satan gave a toothy grin. ‘Somewhere in this blue-green world, I have hidden the body of Moloch. Find it. That is your challenge.’
‘And what if I find it?’ Aldorath asked, worried now because he’d realised who he was dealing with.
‘You won’t,’ Satan said, raising his eyebrows at such a stupid question. ‘I have hidden him well. You’ll never find him.’
‘Oh, won’t I?’ Aldorath loved a challenge as much as the next demon. ‘But just supposing I did? What would you do then?’
‘I’ll probably skin the flesh from your body and scatter your bones across this blue-green world, so be sure you don’t.’ And with that, Satan vanished.
Aldorath pondered Satan’s challenge. On the one hand, he couldn’t resist such a quest. On the other, he could never win. Common sense told him to forget about it and carry on being discontented, but demons are weak creatures and victims of their own vices. After much anguishing and agonising, Aldorath decided to search for Moloch’s body.
Long years passed and stretched into decades. Aldorath wandered the blue-green world hunting for the lost remains of the arch-demon Moloch. He swam among strange sightless fish in the blackest, deepest ocean ravines. He crawled and hacked his way through the thickest jungle floors.
But he didn’t find Moloch.
Long decades past and stretched into centuries. Aldorath stumbled through blinding white blizzards, feeling his way with icy blue claws. He flew over mountain tops, soaring with eagles as he scanned remote passes and valleys.
At last, after many lifetimes of Man, he found the Demon Lord Moloch, though nobody knows where that was.
Satan was furious when he found out that Aldorath had found Moloch. He sent his fleetest demons to catch him, ordering, ‘Stop him before he speaks to anyone and bring him to me. Tear out his tongue before he can speak to you or you will perish too.’
The demons flew faster than arrows and caught Aldorath, tearing out his tongue as they were commanded. Satan threw Aldorath into the deepest caverns of hell.
I’m doomed for sure, Aldorath thought to himself.Satan doesn’t want anyone to find Moloch, but I’ll show him.
And while Satan held him captive, Aldorath carved a map deep into his own flesh, into the very bone of his skull. A map showing where Moloch’s body lay.
I can’t tell anyone myself , thought Aldorath, but one day someone will find my bones and then they will know.
True to his word, Satan had Aldorath’s flesh hacked from his body and scattered his bones across the blue-green world.
No one has found them to this day.
‘Until Lord Mauldeth, that is,’ Edgy muttered to himself, remembering Janus’s outburst. He pictured the skeleton as he had seen it the other day, standing in the exhibition hall.
A perfect triangle cut out of its skull. Edgy’s eyes widened as he realised. He dropped the book. A perfect triangle where the map would be. He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out the sliver of bone that the dying boy had given him. It was a perfect triangle and it had marks and squiggles on one side. Part of a map. The skull had a map on it. A map showing where the body of Moloch lay. Or at least part of it. He’d been carrying it all the time! The rest was carved into the top of the skull. All Edgy had to do was link the two together and they would have the location of Moloch’s body. For a moment he sat there, imagining Janus patting him on the back. The thought was so sweet after his bitter humiliation at Salomé’s hands.
Trembling, Edgy scrambled to his feet, but a blur of red rocketed into the entrance hall, knocking him back down.
‘Spinorix!’ Edgy snapped. ‘What the ’ell are you playin’ at?’
‘I didn’t know who to turn to . . . Mr Janus would tell the governors and Sally just laughed.’ The imp’s face was streaked with tears. He gripped his long red tail in his fists and twisted it like a dishcloth. ‘It’s happened again,’ he sobbed.
‘What has? What are you on about?’
‘Something else has gone missing, Edgy.’ Spinorix stared up at him with wide eyes. ‘The skull of Aldorath. It’s vanished and when Lord Mauldeth finds out, he’ll ossify me!’
True Thomas lay on yon grassy bank,
And he beheld a lady gay,
A lady that was brisk and bold,
Come riding over the ferny brae.
True Thomas, he took off his hat,
Bowed him low down till his knee.
‘All hail, thou mighty queen of heaven!
For your peer on earth I never did see.’
‘O no, o no, True Thomas,’ she says.
‘That name does not belong to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
And I’m come here for to visit thee.’
‘Thomas Rhymer’, traditional folk ballad
The great arched ceiling of the exhibition hall echoed with the sound of Spinorix sobbing. Edgy looked down at Henry, who looked back with furrowed brows. They stood before a perfect skeleton, the bones wired together into a standing position. Perfect but for the fact that its head was missing. Two strands of thick wire stuck out from the top of the spine where the head should sit.
‘Well, it wasn’t me who took it so yer can get that idea out of yer head,’ Edgy said, giving a rough cough while Spinorix sat and bawled like a baby. Edgy noticed a handkerchief in his breast pocket and handed it to him.
‘Thank you,’ Spinorix sniffled and blew his long nose into the hanky. He seemed to blow for ages and then offered the slimy remnants back to Edgy.
‘No, no, keep it,’ he smiled, trying not to wrinkle up his nose. ‘My pleasure.’
‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ Spinorix sighed, his eyes wide and expectant as if Edgy was going to jump up with a solution. Edgy stared back awkwardly.
‘Look, Spin, you’ve got to pull yourself together,’ Edgy said at last. ‘Lord Mauldeth won’t ossify yer.’
‘He will,’ he groaned. ‘Or worse, he’ll send me down to the boiler room and I’ll stoke coal for eternity.’
‘They have imps stoking up the boilers?’ Edgy raised an eyebrow. No wonder it was so stuffy and warm all the time. Edgy could imagine imps zealously piling coal into the boilers down below as if they were stoking the furnaces of hell itself.
‘Never mind that,’ Spinorix wailed. ‘Do you know how many decades it’s taken me to work my way up to be curator of this collection? I hope Lord Mauldeth does ossify me – better that than the shovel!’ The little imp threw himself down and beat his crimson fists on the tiled floor.
‘How often does he come down here for a start?’
‘What?’ Spinorix stopped sobbing and stared up at Edgy.
‘Well, does he come every day? Once a week? Will he notice, is what I’m askin’ yer?’
‘Will he notice?’ Spinorix began wailing again. ‘Of course he’ll notice. He doesn’t come down very often, but when he does, he’ll see. I mean, you can’t miss it. If it were a toe or a vertebra . . . But the head!’
Edgy gazed around the hall, desperately scanning the room for some inspiration. Finally, his eyes rested on a display cabinet full of horned skulls. He strode over and wrenched open the door.
‘How about if we use one of these?’
Spinorix jumped to his feet, his eyes so wide Edgy could barely make out any of his other features. ‘Use one of those?’ he spluttered. ‘Just slap another skull on top of the body of Aldorath? Just like that?’
‘Yeah,’ Edgy said. Henry whined, licking his lips as Edgy rocked the skull in his palms.
Spinorix groaned. ‘It was bad enough when that horrible boy cut a hole in it . . .’
‘What did Lord Mauldeth say about that?’ Edgy said, thinking of the piece in his pocket.
Spinorix gave an embarrassed cough and twiddled his fingers. ‘Well, you see, I hadn’t quite plucked up the courage to tell him about that.’
‘I reckon you have a choice,’ Edgy said. ‘You can go and tell Lord Mauldeth –’
‘No,’ Spinorix gasped. ‘He’d never forgive me.’
‘Well then, you can either leave it as it is and hope nobody notices or,’ Edgy tossed the skull to Spinorix, who gave a shriek as he caught it, ‘you can stick that on, which’ll buy us more time to figure out who is nickin’ all this stuff and get it back!’
Spinorix jumped up and down on the spot, the points of his ears wobbling. ‘Oh, you mean you’ll help me find them? Thank you so much! I knew it wasn’t true what they said about you,’ he gabbled, shaking Edgy’s hand.
‘Who? Said what?’
‘Oh, I just heard Sally grumbling to Slouch, that’s all.’ Spinorix went a deeper shade of red, if that were possible. ‘I didn’t join in. Backbiting isn’t my style.’ He glanced away from Edgy’s gaze. ‘But she said you were just the sort to go waltzing off with someone else’s head.’
‘I bet she did,’ Edgy said, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. ‘What did Slouch say?’
‘Not much,’ Spinorix sniffed. ‘Couldn’t be bothered.’
‘Right, let’s get started,’ Edgy said. ‘We need to find the skull that will fit the best. An’ we’ll need a pen an’ ink . . .’
It took longer than he’d hoped. Spinorix took ages rummaging around in drawers for a pen and once that was achieved, some of the skulls they selected wobbled on the wired spine and fell off. One clipped Spinorix’s toe, making him curse and hop around the hall. Finally, Edgy stood back and admired the new head. Spinorix bobbed and weaved nervously around him, jumping up on his shoulder at one point to get a better view.
‘There,’ Edgy said, trying to keep his voice bright. ‘Looks like the real thing to me.’
‘How would you know?’ Spinorix muttered. ‘No one’s going to be fooled by that scribble on the top of it.’
He did have a point. The skull they’d chosen was a little small for the body and Edgy’s attempts at drawing a map on the top of the skull were smudged and clumsy.
‘It’s hard to draw on a curved surface,’ he said, stiffening at the complaint. ‘Anyway, it doesn’t have to be perfect, just less obvious it’s missing so we’ve got a bit of time.’
‘And how are we going to catch the thief?’ Spinorix’s eyes glowed and he grabbed Edgy’s sleeve. ‘Have you worked it out?’
Edgy glanced at Henry, who cocked his head as if he wanted to know the answer too. Things had just got a bit more complicated. Edgy had imagined himself fixing the triangle of bone back into the skull and presenting it to Janus with a flourish. But now he had to find the skull first – and whoever had taken it. Edgy’s eyes widened.And if Mr Janus reads the book, he’ll find out about the skull and want to see it!
Before Edgy could speak, Janus came striding into the exhibition hall.
‘Ah, there you are,’ he said, ignoring Spinorix. ‘Did you get my book?’
‘The book?’ Edgy twitched and nodded to the volume. He had set it on top of a display case right next to the bones of Aldorath.
‘Yes, that’s what I sent you for, wasn’t it?’ Janus said, peering at Edgy. ‘Is something the matter? Did you have any trouble on your errand?’
‘No, no,’ Edgy lied. He couldn’t stop Janus getting the book. ‘It’s there, sir. Sorry, I was goin’ to bring it straight to you but Spinorix distracted me.’
Spinorix’s knees buckled. He clasped his hands together and looked despairingly at the false skull. Janus seemed oblivious.
‘Never mind, never mind,’ he snapped, skipping over to the book and flicking through the pages. He clenched his fist and shook it triumphantly in the air. ‘This is excellent. Excellent!’
‘There was this too, sir,’ Edgy said, pulling Scrabsnitch’s message from his pocket.
Still staring at the book, Janus took the letter. Long seconds crept by. He was lost inThe Legends of Moloch. Edgy stood, glancing sidelong at Spinorix, who just stared at the skull. Edgy gave him a swipe with his foot, making him yelp.
Janus looked up, startled, and gave a grin. ‘This is superb news, Edgy,’ he said, scanning the letter. ‘I think we should pay a visit to the Green Man Inn tonight!’
‘Righto,’ Edgy said, giving a thin smile.
The story of Aldorath was halfway through the book. At least Janus wouldn’t have time to read up to that point today. But it was only a matter of time. Edgy had to find the skull before then or Spinorix would be in deep trouble – and so would he.
Satan couldn’t get along without plenty of help.
The Green Man Inn
The Green Man public house stood at the end of a narrow, twisting alley near the leather market. Tall warehouses flanked it, making it look like a drunk hanging from the shoulders of two friends. The roof sagged, the windows slanted. Everything looked as if it would slide into a stagnant heap at any moment. Dark shadows crossed and weaved across the grey of the pub’s misted-up windows. A magic lantern show of drinkers and merrymakers. The murmurs, cheers and laughter rose and fell from inside.
Janus tapped his foot impatiently as he stood in the shop doorway opposite the pub.
‘Scrabsnitch should be here by now,’ he said, pulling a fob watch from his pocket and squinting at it.
‘What’re you goin’ to do, Mr Janus?’ Edgy said, huddled behind him, staring across the road at the glowing windows. He wished Henry was with him but Janus had insisted he stay at the Society. ‘Are we going to try to capture Mr Fager? Will you ossify ’im?’
‘Ideally, we’ll just chat to him,’ Janus muttered, tapping his watch. ‘We don’t have to ossify him. There are other ways, you know.’ He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a round pebble, blood red and pulsing with a gentle light.
Edgy stared, bewitched by the crimson glow. ‘What is it, Mr Janus?’
‘This is a demon pearl. If you throw it at the right moment, you can trap a demon inside it.’
‘Inside?’ Edgy said, his eyes widening. ‘How’s that possible, sir?’
‘The pearls are collected from oysters that cling to the bottom of the marsh fed by the River Styx.’ Janus rolled the pearl between his finger and thumb. ‘The theory is that pearls are formed around impurities and demons are the ultimate impurity. Throw the pearl at a demon and it absorbs him. Once trapped inside the pearl, the demon is in debt to anyone who frees him.’
‘But why,’ Edgy began, wondering if it was a wise question, ‘why not use them instead of ossifying demons?’
Janus pursed his lips for a moment. ‘I don’t like ossifying demons, Edgy, but sometimes even a pearl won’t do. Besides, demon pearls are rare to find and so are not cheaply spent.’ He paused as the muffled, shabby figure of Scrabsnitch emerged from the shadow on the other side of the alley. ‘Anyway, why ossify or use a pearl when I have Riddle Master Edgy Taylor at my side? Sharpen your wits, Master Taylor, we’re going to meet Belphagor.’
Edgy’s heart sank. Him? Riddle Master? Not after his terrible performance with Salomé on the rooftops.
The scrunch of Scrabsnitch’s boots on the rough ground of the alley brought Edgy back to attention.
‘Good evening, Mr Janus,’ Scrabsnitch said, raising his top hat. His voice was muffled by the scarf that covered his face.
‘Good evening, Mr Scrabsnitch,’ Janus replied. ‘Care for a flagon of strong ale and some demonic banter?’
‘Very much so,’ Scrabsnitch murmured. ‘I need some strong drink after my encounter with her ladyship.’ Janus stared blankly at Scrabsnitch. ‘Didn’t Edgy tell you of our close call today? Salomé herself, I believe, came into my shop after this young man, but he was too fast for her and took off across the rooftops!’
‘No,’ Janus said, narrowing his eyes at Edgy. ‘He didn’t mention it at all . . .’
‘I didn’t want to bother you, Mr Janus an’ I got away, no problem,’ Edgy lied.
‘I fear the boy is just being modest, Mr Janus,’ Scrabsnitch grinned.
Janus gave a smile and ruffled Edgy’s hair. ‘You may be right, Scrabsnitch,’ he said. ‘Now let’s get inside and see this demon. We’ll watch Edgy in action!’
Edgy groaned inwardly.Why don’t I just tell them the truth?He’d thought he was so clever at riddles but Salomé had beaten him twice now. What made him think that this Belphagor would be any easier? He was a fraud and now this demon would show him up. Before killing him or taking his soul, that is.
The heat from the crush of bodies in the pub hit Edgy as Janus pushed the door open. The wave of noise and the smell of unwashed bodies, gas lamps, tobacco smoke and ale jostled his senses, making him screw his face up.
Most of the drinkers appeared human but Edgy noticed the odd hoof or tail poking out from the mass. Edgy stood flanked by Scrabsnitch and Janus. The hubbub stopped and all eyes turned on them as they stepped further into the single room of the pub. The crowd parted before Janus like the Red Sea before Moses, a corridor of craned necks and curious eyes with, at the end of it, the burly, red-faced Bill Fager leaning behind the bar.
‘Evening, gents,’ he said, grinning through his bushy, handlebar moustache. ‘How can I help you?’
Is Janus wrong?This landlord looked human to Edgy. But, as Janus had said before: ‘There are demons and there are demons.’
‘What d’you see, Edgy?’ Janus asked, donning his Hades Lenses. ‘Looks ordinary to me. His glamour spell must be strong.’
Edgy shrugged. ‘Just old Bill, sir.’
‘Look harder, really peer at him,’ Janus whispered.
Edgy squinted at the landlord. The burly man’s outline blurred for a moment and a shadowy horned silhouette flickered briefly into view.
‘Wait a minute, sir,’ Edgy muttered. ‘I can see somethin’ now.’
‘Is that you, Edgy Taylor?’ Fager said, frowning and straightening up from the bar. ‘Didn’t recognise you with those fancy clothes on. Where’s Mr Talon these days?’
‘Ask him a riddle,’ Janus hissed, elbowing Edgy.
‘Excuse me, Mr Fager,’ Edgy said. ‘Could you tell me, what walks around all day on its head?’ Fager looked blankly at him. Edgy turned to Janus and said under his breath, ‘See, he must be human. He hasn’t got a clue what I’m talkin’ about.’
‘A horseshoe nail, that’s what walks about all day on its head,’ Fager said, making Edgy turn back.
The man’s outline shimmered and flickered again. Edgy glimpsed spiral horns, furnace eyes.
‘He’s our man, Mr Janus. Or not, as the case may be,’ Edgy said out of the corner of his mouth.
Janus beamed and turned to address the creature at the bar. ‘Belphagor, we know who you are. We would like to talk to you. To ask you some questions and invite you to join the Royal Society of Daemonologie.’
Belphagor stepped back from the bar, seeming to grow, his outline indistinct and flickering. ‘Royal Society, eh? And how d’you propose I join? As one of your statues to decorate your precious exhibition hall?’
‘Believe me,’ said Janus, holding up a hand, ignoring the growing murmur of the crowd at Belphagor’s shimmering change, ‘we no longer ossify demons.’
‘Try telling that to Thammuz, Janus,’ Belphagor spat. A ram’s head replaced his slicked-back hair and chubby face. ‘Or should I say, Janus the Stonemason. That’s what they used to call you, wasn’t it?’
Janus slipped his hand inside his pocket. ‘All we want to do is talk.’
But Belphagor’s attention had shifted to Edgy. ‘And you seem full of yourself, Edgy Taylor. Riddling’s a dangerous game. Never know what you might lose. Now you’ll riddle with me.’
My father left me three acres of land,
Sing ivy, sing ivy.
My father left me three acres of land,
Sing holly, go whistle and ivy.
I ploughed it with a ram’s horn,
And sowed it all over with one peppercorn.
I harrowed it with a bramble bush,
And reaped it with my little penknife.
I got the mice to carry it to the barn,
And thrashed it with a goose’s quill.
I got the cat to carry it to the mill;
The miller, he swore he would have her paw,
And the cat, she swore she would scratch his face .
‘Acre of Land’, traditional folk ballad
Edgy’s heart pounded. Belphagor meant business, that was for sure.
‘Riddle me this, Edgy Taylor,’ the demon hissed. ‘What runs but never tires?’
‘Water,’ Edgy said.
Mustn’t get distracted, he thought. He had to fire another riddle back. This was how Talon used to do it. Back then if Edgy lost he got a beating. This time it could be worse.
‘What eats but is always hungry?’
‘Fire,’ Belphagor hissed back. ‘What sings a song that spells disaster?’ He cupped his hands in front of him. A pile of writhing maggots appeared in his palms.
‘Wind,’ Edgy said.
Belphagor blew into the wriggling pile before him. A whirlwind of maggots and flies filled the pub, blasting Edgy off his feet and sending the drinkers into chaos.
‘Lord above!’ howled a bargirl, half stumbling, half blown towards the door.
‘’Ere, what happened to Bill?’ yelled a toothless old man, gripping his hat and rolling under a table.
Screams and shouts deafened Edgy as tables overturned and glasses shattered. Chairs whirled around in the putrid storm, crashing through windows, shattering mirrors. Edgy curled into a ball, covering his face. Bodies fell over him, voices swore as people struggled to get out of the pub.
And then silence, punctuated by the odd groan or curse.
Edgy peered up.
The pub looked like an explosion had gutted it. Chairs and tables lay splintered in pools of spilt beer. Long shadows flickered in the light cast by small fires started where gas lamps had been smashed. A thin mist of smoke gave the whole room a hazy, dreamlike quality. Most of the patrons had stampeded out of the door, but one or two bodies lay scattered like the wrecked furniture.
Belphagor sat cross-legged on the remnants of the bar, his spiral horns and ram’s head raised imperiously over them. His muscles flexed under a glistening blue skin. Edgy picked himself up, dragging mushed-up maggots out of his hair and ears. He retched and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
Janus staggered to his feet, rubbing his head and groaning.
Scrabsnitch stood in the corner of the room, extracting a crushed beetle from his frizzy beard. ‘I’m getting too old for this, that’s a certainty,’ he grumbled.
‘Don’t worry, old man,’ Belphagor said, his voice deep and rumbling. ‘Your miserable life will soon be at an end.’ He strode on cloven hooves towards Scrabsnitch, who cowered in the corner.
‘But it’s my turn!’ Edgy yelled. ‘What can you catch many times but once it’s let out, you can’t catch again?’
Belphagor stopped, looked at Edgy and frowned. ‘Say the riddle again,’ he snorted. Edgy repeated it. Belphagor’s eyes flamed. ‘Give me some time,’ he said.
Edgy remembered the first time he had met Salomé and clicked his fingers like an impatient schoolmaster. ‘Come along!’ he snapped, trying to keep the quaver out of his voice.
‘No! Wait, let me think. A cold, a tiger . . . I don’t know,’ Belphagor roared, his eyes wild as his guesses. He stamped back and forth in front of Edgy, punching his blue fist into his palm. ‘Tell me the answer. You’ll have cheated somehow, that’s for sure!’
‘It’s breath,’ Edgy said, risking a grin.I’ve done it. Outsmarted the demon. ‘You can catch your breath but once you let it out, you can’t catch the same breath again.’
‘So simple. Yet it defeated me. You are sharp, boy.’ Belphagor stared down at him, nodding. Some of the fire had left his eyes, but his ram’s head still made Edgy shudder. ‘Very sharp. Watch you don’t cut yourself, young man.’
‘And now, Belphagor, you must submit to us,’ Janus said, stumbling forward through the wrecked tables and chairs. ‘We seek the body of Moloch.’
Edgy frowned and turned, blinking at Janus.
‘My debt is to the boy,’ Belphagor said.
‘And the boy works for us,’ Janus snapped back. ‘Now tell us where it is.’
‘Is that what you want?’ Belphagor asked, his orange eyes boring into Edgy’s. ‘You could have riches, more than you can imagine. You would never be hungry again.’
‘The Society keeps me fed,’ Edgy said honestly. ‘And Mr Janus ’ere looks after me. Tell ’im what he wants ter know.’
‘Well said, Edgy,’ Janus beamed, clapping his hands.
‘A poor choice,’ Belphagor said. ‘I don’t know where Moloch’s body is. Only the great Satan knows that. But I’ve heard tell that it lies frozen in a land of snow and ice.’
‘That’s all?’ Edgy murmured.
But Janus’s eyes grew wide and excited. ‘It certainly narrows things down a little, Edgy.’
‘You aren’t the first to ask this,’ Belphagor said. ‘A certain demon queen by the name of Salomé was riddling me this very afternoon. I imagine she wanted to know much the same thing. Honestly, the number of times she sent that dolt Thammuz in here, trying to out-riddle me.’
Edgy’s heart skipped.Salomé sent Thammuz?
But before he could speak, Belphagor leaned close to him, making him flinch. ‘You’ll not beat me again, boy,’ he hissed, throwing himself forward through the pub window.
Janus fumbled in his pocket and hurled the demon pearl after Belphagor, but it flew wide and bounced feebly off the blackened frame.
‘He’s gone,’ Scrabsnitch said, peering out into the empty alley.
‘But we’re another step closer,’ Janus whispered.
‘All he said was that Moloch’s body was frozen in a land of snow and ice,’ Scrabsnitch replied. ‘That could be either end of the earth.’
‘It takes time, Evenyule, my friend, but sooner or later the pieces of the puzzle will all fit.’ Janus stared out into the darkness. ‘And then imagine the excitement, the glory. To have not only proved the existence of arch-demons, but to have a specimen. Can you imagine the look on my brother’s face then?’
Edgy felt like a conquering hero as he made his way back to his room in the Society. He’d out-riddled a demon as easily as he’d shown up that snob Mauldeth.
He was so lost in his daydream that he turned a corner and almost ran into the man himself. Mauldeth loomed over him, glowering. Edgy’s mouth went dry.
‘You look very cheerful, Mr Taylor,’ Mauldeth sneered. ‘A fruitful trip out with my little brother?’
‘Er, yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. I mean, nothing much to report, sir.’ Edgy nodded and bowed. Why did he feel like some kind of village idiot when he was in front of this man? Janus didn’t make Edgy feel like that.
‘Well, something’s put a spring in your step. Probably feeding you too much,’ Mauldeth said. He lowered his face close to Edgy’s and whispered, ‘Just be careful. Don’t get too involved with my little brother’s madcap schemes. You can always come to me if you have any concerns.’
‘No, sir. I mean, yes, sir,’ Edgy said, trying to nod and shake his head at the same time.
Mauldeth strode past Edgy and off down the corridor. Edgy stood and watched him disappear.Stuck-up toff, he thought. They’d show him. Madcap schemes indeed. Their discovery would make the scattered bones of Aldorath look so pathetic that Mauldeth wouldn’t be able to hold his head up at the Society again. As if Edgy would go scurrying to him at the first sign of trouble!
Henry greeted Edgy at the door with a wagging tail.
‘All we ’ave to do now, Henry, old chap,’ he muttered, stroking the dog’s ear, ‘is find that bloomin’ skull before Mr Janus reads about it in the book and we’re made.’
The night, the night is Halloween,
Our seely court must ride
Thro’ England and thro’ Ireland both,
And all the world wide.
‘Tam Lin’, traditional folk ballad
The following morning found Edgy deep in thought about the skull and where to find it. In his mind it all seemed connected. Whoever had stolen the skull didn’t want Janus to find Moloch. Why else would they take it? Once he’d completed his morning tasks, he would go straight down to the exhibition hall and talk to Spinorix about any suspicions he might have.
He opened his bedroom door to find Sally standing there as usual.
‘Haven’t you got anythin’ better to do than to ’ang around ’ere?’ Edgy said. Henry cowered behind him.
‘There’s no law against it, is there? Besides, I’m good at houndin’ people – you wanna watch out,’ she retorted, folding her arms and slumping against the wall. ‘An’ anyway, Trimdon wants you to deliver the hell turkeys.’
‘Hell turkeys?’ Edgy repeated, forgetting his grudge for a second. ‘What’re they?’
‘Disgusting’s what they are,’ Sally snorted. ‘Don’t you know nothing? The imps down below eat them.’
‘Down below?’ Edgy liked the sound of this less and less.
‘Yeah, in the boiler room.’ Sally screwed her face up. ‘It’s where you belong, if you ask me.’
‘Well, I didn’t ask you,’ Edgy snapped and stamped past her, followed by Henry, who crushed his belly to the floor and pressed his ears back as he passed her.
The smell of the turkeys greeted Edgy before he actually saw them. Ammonia, stripping the skin from his nostrils only to make way for the aroma of rotten eggs and decaying meat. Only worse. It filled the corridor as he approached Trimdon’s room. The little demon stood with three cages stacked on a trolley and his fingers squeezing his pointy nose.
The creatures inside looked as bad as they smelt. Fat, featherless bodies squeezed together behind the bars, wrinkled skin dotted with a few downy quills as if they’d already been plucked. Their long, scaly claws clicked on the floors of the cages, their big heads bobbed and long, bubbly wattles wobbled as they crushed to the sides of the cages to stare at Edgy. Their large, liquid eyes and cruel, curved beaks made Edgy shudder.
‘Hell durkeys,’ Trimdon said, holding his nose. ‘Don’t doe how ibs cad eat dem.’
Henry jumped up at the trolley, licking his lips and making the turkeys cry out – a cross between ahootand akark.
‘Where are they from?’ Edgy asked. The smell was bad but he’d experienced worse in his prime-collecting days.
‘Hell, ob course,’ Trimdon said.
‘Is it a real place?’ Edgy asked. ‘Is that where you go if you’ve, you know, been wicked?’
‘Is hard to exblain wib by dose blocked,’ Trimdon said, evading the question. ‘It is a blace though, kind of.’
Edgy shook his head, wondering if he would ever get a straight answer from a demon. The turkeys gave a startled cry as he lifted the trolley, their cries increasing as he moved off.
‘Where do I take ’em then?’ he asked.
‘Down below.’ Trimdon pointed to the floor with his free hand and then to the pipes that clustered along the roof of the corridor. ‘Follow the red pipe. Oh, and be careful – the lower lebels of the building are less, erm, well-policed, shall we say. And you’re going to the lowest lebel.’
Edgy had become quite familiar with the upper levels of the Society but he had not yet ventured downstairs. Many of the upper rooms lay empty and shrouded in dust sheets, slowly decaying and out of use. The lower chambers were mainly for storage and the archiving of materials. The functional part of the building. He wondered what Trimdon meant by ‘less well-policed’. Were there marauding demons down there? He followed the red pipe.
‘Keep an eye out, Henry,’ Edgy muttered. Henry licked his lips and stared at the hell turkeys. Edgy shook his head. ‘How can yer? They’re ’orrible.’
Hoot, the hell turkeys cried.Kark.
The pipe veered right into a long, twisting flight of stairs that led downwards.
‘Oh joy,’ Edgy murmured, looking from the wheels of the trolley to the stairs.
CLUNK!Hoot!BANG!Kark!Deeper underground, further down he went, banging the trolley and making the turkeys jump. Henry snapped at them as they squawked. Edgy cursed, sweating with each step.
At the bottom step, Edgy leaned on the trolley, panting. The corridor before him sloped down even further.
‘No more steps though, boy,’ he said. Henry wagged his tail and trotted ahead.
The gloom increased as he descended; the hellfire lamps seemed feeble in these passages. Rough-hewn flagstones replaced the usual black-and-white marble floor tiles of the ground floor. Everything here seemed much older; the doors that led off the corridor were studded with iron and topped with stone arches. The echo of Henry’s panting and thehoots andkarks of the turkeys bounced off the bare stone walls, which felt dry and coarse when Edgy put his hand against them.
He stopped in front of a huge iron door twice his height. Rivets the size of Edgy’s fists reinforced the dull metal and held it on two hinges as thick as his thighs. The wordsBOILER ROOMhad been etched into a brass plaque. He reached out and grasped a large handle. The door felt hot. Edgy pulled and the hinges squealed as it opened.
The heat hit Edgy first, followed by a bright red light and the stink of burning coal. It was like opening an oven door. He shielded his eyes and peered in. Seven imps, very like Spinorix in appearance – small and red – scurried around a huge metal fire box. Inside a furnace roared loudly. The imps took it in turns to shovel coal from a mountainous pile into the box. One rammed his shovel into the black heap while another heaved his coal into the small doorway in the front of the box. Sweat glistened on their ruddy skin. Their horns and tails reflected the infernal glow. Every now and then Edgy heard the hiss of steam as it blasted from a valve in the pipes that snaked their way from two massive boilers that filled half the room. The imps didn’t pause for one second.
‘Hello?’ Edgy called over the din.
‘Can’t stop,’ one imp yelled back. ‘Break our rhythm. Gotta keep this thing boilin’.’
‘Dump ’em there and then get out,’ snapped another imp as he threw his load into the furnace. ‘And move it – you’re letting all the heat escape! Don’t want the governors to freeze, do we?’
The imps gave a wicked cackle in unison but never stopped scooping and throwing the coal into the furnace.
Edgy raised an eyebrow but wheeled the turkeys into the room. Their cries were lost in the rumbling of the furnace. The heat seared his cheeks and hurt his eyes. He tipped the turkey cages off the trolley and dragged it out. With a grunt, he swung the door shut and leaned heavily against the wall, panting for breath. Henry looked longingly towards the door and the turkeys behind it.
As he rested, a breeze blew across his cheeks. Edgy closed his eyes and savoured the cool caress. It felt so welcome. And was there something else – a sound, singing? Edgy strained to listen. Distantly, he heard a wordless song, slow and mournful, yet beautiful too. It called to him.
A smile played on Edgy’s lips as he drifted down the corridor. The singing grew louder, more distinct; a slow melancholy tune, a single voice.
The breeze felt refreshing, soothing. Edgy’s smile grew. He loved the singing. He loved the chill of the breeze. He noticed, with mild curiosity, a brass door set into the rough wall that marked the end of the corridor. It was slightly ajar. The song came from beyond it. It invited him in. Henry whined and growled, making Edgy frown.
‘Quiet, boy. Listen – it’s calling me.’ Edgy took a step forward. The singing grew louder. ‘I have to go. I want to go . . .’
He was being drawn and there was nothing he could do to stop himself.
From a closed door, the devil turns away.
Professor Milberry appeared from behind the door and clanged it shut behind her. Edgy started as if he’d woken suddenly from a dream.
‘Edgy, what are you doing here?’ She stared down at him, her brow furrowed with concern.
‘I was deliverin’ turkeys. I heard . . . singin’.’ Edgy shook himself. His head felt fuzzy and vague. Slowly he came to his senses. Milberry bent down and brought her face level with Edgy’s. She ruffled his thick black hair.
‘You must never go through that door, Edgy,’ she said. ‘It is highly dangerous.’
‘Why? What’s behind it?’ Edgy asked, peering over her shoulder at the door.
‘Tunnels,’ she replied. ‘Miles upon miles of tunnels, in fact. A Maze. Once you go in, you’d never find your way out.’
‘But that singing – it was beautiful.’
‘The creature doing the singing is not so pretty,’ Milberry said, shuddering. ‘The Echolites – for that is what they are called – inhabited these underground caverns eons before the Society excavated and extended them. Though, usually, they tend to lurk in deeper passages. What’s bringing them to the surface, I couldn’t say.’
‘The Society dug the tunnels?’ Edgy asked.
Milberry gave a wry grin. ‘In the early days, the first fellows believed that hell lay beneath the earth. They thought the best way to wage war on evil was to find it, to dig it up.’ Her swarthy face grew grim and pale. ‘All they found were the Echolites. Hideous creatures who lure the unsuspecting into the dark and then devour them. In the end, the Society lost so many fellows it was decided to seal the tunnels up.’ Milberry nodded to the door behind her.
‘It’s a huge door,’ Edgy said.
‘It has to be. The Echolites aren’t the only things lurking in those tunnels,’ Milberry said. ‘It was fortunate I happened to be down here when you came. Who left the door open like that, I couldn’t guess. Now let’s get you back up to the more respectable levels.’
She turned a huge key in the lock and took Edgy back up.
The rest of the day passed without event, but Edgy had no opportunity to visit Spinorix until early evening. However, on his way to the exhibition hall, he bumped into Mortesque Sokket.
‘Ah, so you’re there, are you?’ he muttered. ‘I need you to polish the furniture in my office – getting frightfully dusty. Hop to it now!’
Edgy cursed under his breath. Tiny artefacts littered every surface of Sokket’s office and everything wore a thick coating of dust. As he wiped and cleaned, he imagined Janus reading the book with widening eyes and then rushing to the exhibition hall.
Edgy’s hand swept over the cover of a book from the library. It lay on the desk, the snakeskin cover smooth and glistening. The title shone out in silver:The Legends of Moloch.Why does Sokket have a copy? Is he trying to find the arch-demon’s corpse too?
‘What are you doing?’ Sokket appeared behind Edgy and planted a hand firmly on the book, covering the title. ‘You aren’t paid to read the books, boy. You’re here to clean.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Edgy nodded and twitched his gaze to his feet. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘Should think so too,’ Sokket sniffed. ‘Now clear off.’
Edgy ran from Sokket’s study back to his room.
Madame Lillith shuffled around the corner, swishing her broom as she went. She glared at him, her amber eyes aflame. She looked down at Edgy’s boots.
‘Wish I ’ad a pair like that,’ she spat and swept on past him.
Edgy stared after her. He shook his head as he found himself at his bedroom door. This whole building and everyone in it was beyond him.
A picture stood propped up against his bed. Its gold frame glimmered in the feeble light of the room. It looked like one of the portraits from the corridor walls. A stern man with a long, scarred face sneered at him. He didn’t seem quite so grand staring up from the floor instead of down from the wall. Edgy peered harder. Henry whined and scraped at the door. Edgy ignored him. Something about the man in the picture looked familiar.Where have I seen that long face? Why would someone put a picture in my room? For safe-keeping?Henry barked.
‘Quiet, boy, I’m thinking. Just wait,’ he snapped. Maybe the portrait had fallen off and someone wanted him to put it back up in the morning. Then it struck him.
Edgy had seen the man in the picture haunting the library. He was one of the lost souls drifting among the books. The dark background behind the man rippled. Edgy blinked. A chill realisation wrapped itself around his shoulders, prickling his scalp.How stupid can I be?Sally had warned him not to look too hard at the portraits and here he was staring into one. But now he couldn’t move his eyes.
The blackness at the man’s shoulder swirled like water down a hole. Edgy’s heart pounded. Two huge luminous eyes glowed from the centre of the spiral. Edgy stood transfixed in the middle of the room. A clawed finger wriggled through the opening gap in the picture, then another. Soon a whole hand and a hideous face poked out of the portrait. Henry barked and clawed at the door. Edgy stared at the emerging creature, fascinated, unable to look away.
Expressionless orbs dominated the head. Sabre-like teeth poked up from a thin, downturned mouth. A few strands of lank green hair drifted from its scabby, green head. Henry growled and barked at the creature but it kept its gaze on Edgy. It pushed a skinny shoulder through and started to wriggle its way free from the picture. The canvas clung to it like a thick mud. All this time, the creature fixed him with its gaze.
A terrible stench of stagnant water filled the room and Edgy noticed that the scene behind the man in the picture was a black pool with dead reeds poking from its slick surface.This must be where it lives, he thought.
It slapped one foot on the floor of the room, leaving a puddle of stinking black water. It reached forward with long, clawed fingers and Edgy caught a glimpse of the pool behind it. Pale faces beneath the surface. Bloated with staring eyes. A strange calmness came over him. Henry’s barking faded into the distance.
It’ll drag me into the picture and drown me in the pool too. There’s nothing I can do.
The bedroom door flew open with a bang, waking Edgy from his stupor. Henry yelped, spinning round. A cold hand gripped Edgy’s arm at the elbow and yanked.
‘Get out of there!’ Sally yelled, pulling at him.
Edgy felt wet fingers slap around his other arm at the wrist. Edgy struggled against the creature’s grasp. A sickening, sabre-toothed grin cracked its face. Sally heaved again and his shoulder burned with the strain. Edgy wrenched back again. The creature’s face fell as it slid on its slimy feet and they inched back, but its grip remained as firm as iron. Edgy’s shoulder felt as if it would come out of its socket. Sally and Edgy pulled again but the creature just slid closer. Edgy lashed out with his foot only to have that grabbed too.
‘Don’t let go, Sally,’ he sobbed.
His calmness had quickly evaporated. Now Edgy wriggled and pulled with all his might as the creature tried to edge back towards the picture with him in tow.
Henry darted and yapped at the creature. For the first time it snarled down at him. Henry snarled back and it lashed out with its webbed foot. At the same time, Sally gave a huge tug. Edgy screamed as pain lanced up his shoulder. The creature tottered and fell to the ground with a wet slap, losing its grip. Sally and Edgy tumbled out through the door and into the passageway. Edgy lay there, stunned, feeling Sally’s cold breath on his cheek, her icy fingers still gripping his arm.
The creature unfolded its skinny body, preparing to spring forward, but Sally leapt up. Edgy just glimpsed Henry bounding towards the monster, teeth bared, and then Sally threw herself forward, slamming the door shut.
‘No!’ Edgy panted, scrabbling to get up. ‘Henry’s still in there!’
An unholy howl filled the air. Edgy could hear Henry yelping and barking. Something smashed against the door.
Then all fell silent.
He who sups with the devil should use a long spoon.
A Strange Bargain
Pushing Sally aside, Edgy ripped the door open. Darkness filled the room. The creature had gone. The picture lay on the floor ripped to pieces, its frame snapped and bent double against the wall. Henry lay on his side, his ribcage heaving. A little trail of blood trickled from his mouth. He didn’t get to his feet but his tail flicked feebly as Edgy crouched by him. He hugged the wounded terrier, feeling the dog’s heart beat weakly against his chest.
‘Henry, poor Henry,’ Edgy sobbed.
‘Is he badly hurt?’ Sally said, her voice faint.
‘Can’t see any cuts but he can’t move and his breathing’s getting weaker,’ Edgy said, scuffing at his eyes with his sleeve. ‘Who could help him?’
‘I don’t know.’ Sally bit her lip. ‘Professor Milberry works a lot with nature spirits but I don’t think she knows much about animals.’ She kicked the frame of the picture with her foot. ‘What were you doing with the picture in the first place?’
‘It was in the room when I arrived. Someone must’ve put it ’ere,’ he muttered. ‘Anyway, there’s no time for that. What am I going to do about poor Henry?’ The dog gave a whine and lapped at Edgy’s cheek.
‘I told you, I don’t know. There’s nobody in the Society with that kind of knowledge.’
‘Knowledge,’ Edgy said.The snake will know what to do.
He bundled Henry up close to him and ran out of the room. Sally ran behind, her feet tapping as Edgy’s boots rang on the tiles.
‘Where are you going?’ she called after him.
But Edgy didn’t answer. Henry’s breathing grew shallower with every clattering footstep.
‘Come on, old chap,’ Edgy panted, trying to cushion him in his arms from the jogging up and down. ‘Hold on.’ Henry’s eyes flickered and closed. His breathing became more rapid. ‘Hold on, boy, hold on.’
Edgy gritted his teeth and tried to remember his way. But suddenly the door to the library loomed before him. Edgy slammed against it, dashing into the blue twilight of the hall, and stopped so abruptly that Sally crashed into his back.