ONE: A Shadow At His Heel
The man wore the most wondrous purple coat, the lining of which was stitched with stars and moons. He moved with fluid certainty; a silk ribbon cutting through the air. His name was Carlisle. It was a name he gave himself, having murdered the last person to know his actual name some three-hundred years previous.
Carlisle was many things.
He was a liar. A scoundrel. A villain.
He was a secret. An opportunist. A restless wanderer.
But at that moment, he was something he was most unaccustomed to. Carlisle was afraid.
A moon as pale as his skin shone down. It threatened to give him away, so he took refuge in a doorway shaggy with peeling paint. Under normal circumstances, he’d have muttered an ancient word or two and clicked his fingers, robing himself in an unnatural shadow, though to do so on this occasion would have been futile. In fact, he may as well have set off a flare and screamed, ‘Look over here! It’s me!’
He wasn’t even supposed to be in London; that’s what irked him the most. Carlisle had been in Edinburgh, orchestrating a most diverting and bloody turf war between a family of succubi and a mob of soul vampires, when news that an individual named on his Murder at the Soonest Opportunity list had been spotted skulking the streets of South London reached his ears. A flying visit, that’s what Carlisle had intended. A quick hunt, a knife-thrust to the back, a boot heel grinding into a skull, and off he’d go.
But no. Because within hours of returning to the capital, everything had gone to hell. And so, the running.
Carlisle pressed his back against the door and—not for the first time—wished he still had his artefact. The axe that once gave him all of the power he knew he deserved. He had never felt the need to run when it had been his.
A footstep. A patch of night moving at the end of the street.
‘I’m so hungry, Carlisle. Won’t you join the feast?’
Carlisle gritted his teeth and ran.
His long coat was a windsock in the breeze as the midnight streets smeared by. This was absurd. He was Carlisle! Had he not tangled with creatures fashioned from purest nightmares? Had he not bested angels? Had he not once been the rightful king of the Uncanny Kingdom? He may have been deposed from his throne after little more than three weeks, but still, the point stood. Now he was nothing but a sewer rat once more, scampering from the light.
‘When Mr. Trick comes to town, all of the Uncanny shall fall and frown.’
Carlisle grimaced at the words and ran faster.
He could feel the magic washing past him, heading towards the man, the thing. London was submerged in magic; a rough stone at the bottom of a gentle stream. Normally, this magic travelled in lazy waves down streets and alleyways, but today it surged. Today it was a storm-swollen river that had broken its banks. Because today, Mr. Trick had come to town.
So Carlisle ran even as the magic fought to slow him, fought to push him into the gaping maw at his back. The one that wanted to taste and chew and swallow.
‘Do not run, Carlisle. Come lie betwixt my teeth.’
Nothingness nipped at Carlisle. His pursuer was drawing in all the magic of London. Drawing it in like a black hole draws in light. A world without magic to swim through; the very idea beat a dread drum deep within Carlisle’s chest. Because Mr. Trick wanted it all. Every last speck of magic the city had to offer. He wanted to rip it from the air, from flesh and bone and sinew, and gobble it up, leaving nothing but the empty ordinary behind.
Carlisle took streets at random, heading in no particular direction other than away. Meanwhile, his quicksilver mind searched for a way out. There was always a way out. If there was one thing Carlisle was good at (and there was not one, there were thousands), it was extricating himself from a tricky situation. And yet, on this occasion, all routes out of London seemed beyond reach. A hex had settled over London, trapping all of the Uncanny that sought to flee. Each time Carlisle found himself leaving the city, he would take a step and be transported back into the guts of the place, many miles from safety.
Why was this happening? What grudge the beast had with the Uncanny of London, Carlisle did not know, though he did not judge him for it. More than once, he had considered burning the old city to the ground, even if just to liven up a particularly dull Tuesday afternoon.
In his haste, Carlisle crossed paths with a man also eager to escape the city. The man was young and strong and terrified. Carlisle could tell just by looking at him that, given the opportunity, he would live a life full of love and good deeds.
‘Where is it?’ asked the man, on the verge of exhaustion. ‘The last door to Other London… where is it?’
Carlisle broke the man’s legs and arms by way of reply and tossed him in the direction of the advancing Mr. Trick.
‘Was that really necessary?’ asked a buttery voice as Carlisle stopped in a graveyard to catch his breath.
‘I needed to buy some time,’ he told the wizard.
Giles L’Merrier, the aforementioned wizard, was an imposing sight. L’Merrier was a large man in every respect, his corpulent frame draped in silken robes, his head a hairless bowling ball with drill-bit eyes. Coal shovel hands rested upon his stomach, thick fingers interlaced.
‘You are running out of time, thief,’ said L’Merrier.
‘Nonsense,’ Carlisle replied. ‘I have at least three minutes before the creature catches up to me. I once murdered a family, removed and polished their spines, and left them piled neatly by the fireplace in less time than that.’
Carlisle did not enjoy the way his heart was beating. The way it clawed at his chest like a prisoner at a cell door.
‘Now is not the time for pride,’ said L’Merrier. ‘You have no choice.’
Carlisle laughed and rounded on the wizard. ‘I always have a choice. On a good day, I have eight or nine.’ He chose not to admit that today was not a good day.
‘You cannot defeat him, and you cannot outrun him. Not for long. There is only one recourse.’
Carlisle tilted his head, hooding his eyes in shadow. ‘Other London.’
‘I am about to barricade the last remaining door.’
‘Quite the plan, to quake like priests in their hidey-holes as the Queen’s men come a-knocking, bonfire at the ready.’
‘It is the only way, trust me.’
Carlisle’s eyebrows fought to escape the confines of his head. ‘Trust you? The man who burned the Newcastle Coven to ash?’
The wizard’s great head lowered. ‘It was… infested.’
‘So say you. Judge, jury, and executioner.’
‘Carlisle, I am near. I can smell your magic; it makes my stomach rumble.’
Carlisle prepared to run once more, only to find a large hand hitched to his shoulder, scrunching the fabric of his coat. ‘How dare you lay your hand upon—’
‘You must go to Other London,’ said the wizard. ‘If you do not, this shall be your end.’
Carlisle pulled away and whirled about to offer a retort, but found he was alone. ‘Damn him!’ he cried.
Carlisle ran once more, leaping over ivy-gripped tombstones as he went. If he had been in a somewhat gloomy state of mind before his chat with the wizard, he was now positively crestfallen. Because—and the thought made him want to take an ice pick to his brain—L’Merrier was right.
He dropped to his haunches and, with a practiced move, pulled a small metal tool from his pocket, jammed it into a sewer cover, and slipped into the darkness below.
Could he truly hide behind a locked door? Could he accept the confines of L’Merrier’s city? To live as a bird trapped in a cage, forever? The very notion almost caused him to evacuate his stomach.
A splash in the near distance announced his pursuer’s continued interest.
‘Run, rat, run.’
‘Not much of a conversationalist, are you?’ replied Carlisle, his boots slapping through the inch-deep river of filth.
He knew these sewers. This was his domain. He was born within this ancient stone network. Would he face his end here, too?
No man alive knew the sewers better than he. If there was one place he stood a chance of losing the beast, it was within this grimy underworld, surely?
Ahead of Carlisle, cutting him off, a figure began to coalesce. It began as thick, choking smoke with a writhing form at its centre, then the smoke clenched around the dark shape and the beast stepped forward.
Trick was a man and a woman and an adult and a child. Faces rippled across his skull and numerous limbs thrust briefly from his torso like hands desperately reaching out from beneath a raging sea. The beast was not one thing, he was a multitude. An ever-shifting, ever-uneasy mix of eyes and feet and teeth. To look upon him, to even try and make sense of him, was to test one’s very sanity.
‘Hello, Carlisle. Has the running ceased? Is it time for dinner?’
Carlisle’s hand ignited. A stream of blue fire erupted from his palm and surged towards the thing in front of him. It proved a desperate, petulant act that only served to whet the beast’s appetite further.
‘You know,’ said Carlisle, ‘that’s really not fair.’
Mr. Trick’s whole head was a mouth now, chewing and slurping at the magic Carlisle fed him.
‘Yummy. Please, mother, may I have some more? And more? And more?’
Carlisle’s eyes landed on a rusted ladder bolted to crumbling brickwork. He swept upwards, gritting his teeth so hard that his gums wept red. The running was futile, but what else could he do? Carlisle knew nothing else. It was his nature to escape. To survive. To always find a way out.
And at that moment, he had but one way to do so.
The wizard’s way.
He roared every curse he knew. He cursed the sky, the moon, the stars as he raged against the inevitable. Against his acceptance of it.
The final entrance to Other London awaited him. The door was made of weathered oak with metal rivets dotting its surface. It bore no handle. It stood six-feet tall and four-feet wide. It was located on an exterior wall of Westminster Abbey, though it had stood there long before the abbey. It was invisible to anyone but those with the eyes to see it.
Carlisle stopped a few feet from the door. The portal was ever so slightly ajar. Inviting. Tempting. He could taste the air of the place that hid beyond; it tasted of hops, of cloves, of oats, and brick dust. It tasted of a hundred thousand different types of magic.
It tasted like death.
‘Do you believe you can hide behind doors?’ asked Mr. Trick, who did not know the power of the portal Carlisle hesitated before. Did not know the sacrifice a great wizard had made to make it so.
‘Oh, Carlisle. I shall huff, and I shall puff, and I shall eat you all! All! All!’
‘You know, you really are a tiresome oaf,’ replied Carlisle, then pushed the door open, stepped across the threshold to Other London, and closed it firmly behind him.
His eyes scanned the place he would now call home.
His entire universe from this day forth.
Carlisle’s throat grew tight and he felt himself turn cold.
TWO: Hello, David, Goodbye
On the same night Carlisle was being hunted through the streets and sewers of London, a witch’s familiar wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and surrender.
Stella Familiar’s cheek pressed against the pavement as oblivion whispered in her ear. She could taste dirt, taste blood. The black hole was eager to claim her, and why should she resist it? Hadn’t she done enough? Hadn’t she earned a rest? She’d lived longer than most and fought the monsters that threatened her city with all of her heart. Fought them all and beaten them all.
All but one…
With a grunt, Stella pushed herself into a sitting position and leaned against the damp alley wall. She spat to one side, clearing her throat of blood.
‘It’s okay. Hey, look at me, you’re okay,’ said a nearby voice.
Stella wasn’t alone. Of course she wasn’t. Detective David Tyler was with her. Always with her.
‘I’m…’ Stella’s world tilted and blurred, and for a moment she was done with it all.
A hand stroked her hair, cupped her face, and brought her back.
‘You can’t give in. No matter what, do you hear me?’ said David.
‘I can’t do it. I can’t beat him.’
‘Yes, you can. He tried to break you when he killed your witches, and it only made you stronger. Remember that.’
Stella saw her witches as she’d found them all those years ago when Mr. Trick had first come to town. Her witches, her creators, torn to pieces and scattered around the coven, the walls painted in their blood. It had broken something in her. Something that could never truly be fixed.
She’d tried to fix it, though. Tried to make Mr. Trick pay for what he’d done. Tried to carry on in her duty to defend the people of London from the worst the Uncanny world had to offer, but in the end it had only led to this: to pain, to death. To all like her—all those with magic in them—running for their lives as a creature she failed to stop came to eat them all.
‘Hey, hey, easy.’
David was holding her now, cradling her head in his arms. Had she passed out for a time? He was fuzzy around the edges. Detective David Tyler. Her friend. How ironic that the best thing in her life only became a part of it because of the worst thing. Because of the monster that murdered her witches. A man without a whisper of the impossible inside him had helped her track down Mr. Trick and exact revenge. An ordinary man thrust into her world of magic and mayhem.
He’d saved her. More than once, in fact. Her witches were murdered, but she never had to be alone; not in friendship and not in battle. David had given that to her. He shouldn’t have. He should have run as far away from her as possible.
‘I believe in you, do you hear me?’ said David.
‘What he did to them… I can’t stop him, no one can. Mr. Trick is…’ Stella was finding it hard to breathe. Broken ribs scraped against her lungs.
‘It’s okay, it’s okay. Easy.’
She tried to slow her breathing, tried to pretend her body didn’t feel like an open wound full of glass.
Mr. Trick was back, and he was worse than ever. Already, a thousand Uncanny dead. Two thousand. Three. Who could keep count? He wanted all of the magic of London. Those in other towns, other cities, watched but did nothing. Shrank back for fear of becoming the next dish on his menu. She’d begged for help, even though it made her want to curl up in shame. She’d asked the Cornish Coven, The Gathering of Liverpool. She’d asked the Northern Guild of Magicians, made a request of The Edinburgh Flock of Warlocks. She’d asked them all and more besides, but they’d brushed her off. Said it wasn’t their fight. Said it would only bring doom upon them. This was London’s predicament, and London’s alone.
The magic of the capital was his desire and Mr. Trick meant to swallow it all.
That’s not to say some didn’t try and help. Many did, hearts brave, magic fierce, ignoring the advice of their covens. They came, they fought, they were broken. Again and again, they fell as somehow Stella kept going. It was almost as if Mr. Trick wanted it that way. Wanted her to see them scrubbed out, each adding an extra weight of shame to her shoulders. He didn’t want her to leave the dinner party early.
But now it was almost over.
‘I can’t stop him. Can’t.’
‘You will,’ said David. ‘I know you will. You don’t have a choice.’
There were screams nearby, sharp and hopeless. Mr. Trick was eating again.
‘Need… we need to go,’ she managed.
David looked in the direction of the scream. His head dropped.
‘David… we have to…’
He looked at her with a crooked smile on his face, a sad look in his eyes. Somehow, in that moment, she knew what was about to happen.
He cupped her head in his hands and took a deep breath, eyes closed. When he opened them again, the sadness was gone. His eyes were bright, his smile brighter still.
‘One day, you’ll stop him for good. Not today, not for a long time, but you will. I know you will.’
‘You know,’ said David, ‘there’s something I always wanted to say to you. I suppose it’ll have to be now.’
‘We can leave… we can run, David…’
‘I wish we could, but that’s not an option. Not for me, anyway.’
He leaned towards her and his lips pressed against hers. They were warm. Tender. After what seemed like an eternity, after what seemed like a few seconds at most, he pulled away and smiled. ‘I love you, Stella Familiar. And do you know what? I think you love me, too.’
He stood and Stella reached out, tried to pull him back down to her.
The screams were getting closer now. How many more had fallen that night? How many were left standing?
David Tyler laughed and looked at her with nothing but love in his eyes. ‘Look what you turned me into, Stella. All this was much easier when I was a coward.’
‘Don’t worry. Please don’t. I know what I’m doing. For once in my daft life, I know what I’m doing.’ He stepped away, then paused, looked back. ‘We really were a great team, weren’t we?’ One last smile. One last knife to Stella’s gut. ‘See you around, Magic Lady.’
‘You were never a coward.’
She reached for him again, slid to one side, couldn’t push herself back up.
Then he was gone, and this time, the only scream Stella heard was her own.
Other London is published August 10th.