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Emily awoke in Charlotte’s bed, a little groggy but otherwise not the worse for wear. Charlotte’s insistence that they drank a lot of water before going to bed had apparently seen off the worst part of the hangover they should have had. Sunlight streamed in through the curtains, the reason for Emily being awake even though she was certain it was far too early on a Saturday morning to get up.
Evidently, Charlotte didn’t think the same, as when Emily rolled over to grab her phone she noticed that she was alone in the bed. Picking up the phone, she confirmed that it was a little before eight am and groaned. She wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, but she was aware now that she was far too awake for that to be an option.
After throwing on one of Charlotte’s night-shirts, she left the room. On the landing, she noticed that all the other bedroom doors were open with the exception of Joe’s, from which she could just make out a low, guttural snoring sound.
Downstairs, everywhere was silent and there was no sign of any life until she went into the kitchen. There, she found Katie sitting at the table with an empty cereal bowl by her side. She was staring off into space whilst swinging her feet under the table. Cŷn had been lying on the floor, watching Katie’s feet, but when Emily entered the room he bounded up and padded over to her with his tongue lolling out of his mouth.
Emily scratched the hell-hound behind the ears, then leaned over Katie. It took a few seconds for the young girl to register her presence and then to move her head and look at her. When she did, she beamed.
“Hiya Emmy!” She said brightly.
“Hiya Katie.” Emily smiled back. “Do you know where your big sister is?”
“Charley had to go to…work. With mummy.”
“Oh, okay.” Irritation at being abandoned wrestled with excitement at the new knowledge about what ‘work’ was for Charlotte. It was still something she wanted to see and know more of. She pushed that aside for the moment, looking at the empty bowl by Katie. “Have you had breakfast, hun?”
Katie nodded enthusiastically and handed the bowl to Emily. “Yep! All done!”
Again, Emily couldn’t help but smile even as she looked at the other empty bowl, the silver one on the floor bearing Cŷn’s name. “What about him?”
“Daddy fed him before going into the garage.”
Emily was glad of that, because having seen Myles do it before she wasn’t too keen on the idea of handling a bloody steak for a slobbering hell-hound. The news that Myles was in the garage, most likely working out, also meant that once he came back in she might be able to get some idea of how long Charlotte was likely to be and whether it was worth waiting around.
In the meantime, coffee and toast seemed like a very good idea.
Charlotte and Hazel were just outside the city centre, at a very unusual crime scene. Behind the blue and yellow cordon established by investigation agency Mersey-Detect, there was blood on the walls and floor of the side street, including some which had been used to daub occult symbols. But there was no body to be found.
“Bodies being moved from where they were killed isn’t uncommon,” one of the detectives told them. “But usually, we have to identify the original murder scene from the slightest traces of blood and struggle, or if we’re lucky from CCTV or drone footage. Here, since they’ve made no effort to clean up the scene it makes you wonder what the purpose of moving the body was at all. But the symbols on the walls are the reason we called you in.”
The detectives at the scene were all dressed in drab suits, with their company detective badges clipped to their jacket pockets. The crime scene itself was guarded by uniformed Mersey-Detect officers, the company logo on the epaulettes and front left of their jumpers. The only things setting them apart from security guards were the Tasers and retractable batons holstered on their belts.
Hazel nodded her thanks to the detective, then gestured to Charlotte before stepping forward to get a closer look at the crime scene. There were two sets of shoe imprints in the blood on the floor, which the detective had already advised had been catalogued for analysis. Samples had also been taken in the hopes of finding out who the blood belonged to.
“What do you reckon?” Hazel asked.
Charlotte knelt by the blood and sniffed, as discretely as she could. The blood was mostly dry, but the scents that lingered were still strong enough for her to say with confidence, “The blood’s human, all belonging to a single person. Which means any struggle was rather one sided.”
“Hmm.” Hazel used her phone to take pictures of the symbols on the walls and floor, sending them off straight away to somebody who would know better if they meant anything.
“There’s something else too. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, cause it’s almost completely faded. But there’s a smell like … like burning flesh and rotten eggs. No, sulphur.”
“Great.” Hazel muttered.
Charlotte stood up and examined the markings on the wall. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“Some of those symbols look familiar. They’re Enochian – the angelic language; I saw enough of it during the War to recognise it on sight. But I’ve never seen it used like this before. When I saw it, to be honest, I thought it looked more like the work of somebody obsessed with the occult rather than anything actually supernatural.”
“No. It’s not just the smell of sulphur. I can feel something coming from these markings.” She stood up and held her hand out several inches from the wall, feeling the vibrations running through her fingers. “There’s some kind of raw power behind them. They’re more than just some psycho killer’s satanic fantasy.”
“We need to find out what this is as soon as possible then.”
Charlotte nodded her agreement.
“Okay, come on. I don’t think there’s anything else we need. The rest we can leave to the police.” Hazel walked back over to the detective and told him, “It looks like this is for us to deal with, detective.”
He nodded to Hazel and Charlotte in turn before signalling to the officer at the cordon to let them back out. As he raised the tape, just like on the way in, the officer leaned a little too close to Charlotte and she hurried through with clenched fists.
“You’d best let Emily know you’re not going to be back at the house any time soon.” Hazel said. “Duty calls.”
Charlotte wanted to know what was responsible for the scene that they had just left behind. The smell of it appeared to be trapped in her nose, and her fingers still felt weird from the vibrations that had come from the walls. Something incredibly powerful, and no doubt malicious, had been there that needed stopping. But still she found herself protesting.
“We’re not gonna find this thing in broad daylight first thing in the morning, surely.” She said.
They had just reached Hazel’s car around the corner from the crime scene. Hazel stood at the driver’s door and looked across the roof at her daughter. Her expression was sympathetic.
“No, probably not. But we need to figure out what it is before we find it, so that we’re properly prepared to take it on.”
“And there’s not enough people in the Hole who can do that?”
Hazel let out a breath and frowned. She climbed in the car, and Charlotte followed suit.
“Mum, I’m not saying I wanna abandon my responsibilities or anything. I just…”
“I know. You don’t want Emily to feel like you’ve just ditched her for work. But she’s your best mate. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Your best mate. Charlotte bit back a retort and sighed. There was a lot she really needed to talk to her parents about, starting with Emily. She couldn’t even say why she had put it off for so long, since she was almost certain that they would be supportive. Emily was the one who had good reason to fear telling her parents, not Charlotte. Yet it hadn’t happened, and as ever now was hardly the time to have that conversation.
As they drove off, she texted Emily. ‘Really sorry, babe. Looks like I’m stuck on the job a while.’
The drive was a short one, back into town.
Eighteen years before, the road between Lime Street Station and St George’s Hall had been the main thoroughfare for buses and taxis into town. But the area had seen an awful lot of death and destruction during the war, earning it the unofficial nickname of ‘Armageddon Plaza.’
In the reconstruction once the city had been retaken from the dead, however, that nickname had become the area’s official title. The entire area had been pedestrianized, and the Memorial built over what had been the centre of the major intersection. It consisted of a broad, low stone slab covered by a bronze plaque bearing the names of all those who had died fighting in the Battle of Stonehenge. On top of the main slab, a marble column rose up twenty feet, with a winged demon on the top of it and a man driving a sword through its stomach. Four smaller monuments were arranged around the Memorial so that the column was the centre of a compass and they were its points, each one depicting angels clad in Roman-style armour who faced the column with their swords raised.
The Plaza also contained several benches and two fountains comprised of grilles in the ground from which water was pumped up. The fountains also doubled as air vents for what Charlotte, Hazel and most others who knew of its existence referred to as The Hole.
Much of the reconstruction of the city centre had involved work below the ground. This was due to the tearing down of the column now represented on the Memorial, which stretched several miles below the surface to an ancient demonic tomb which covered a square mile under the city. The division of labour in the rebuilding project was such that even most of those who had built the place didn’t know that it existed. Its outer walls and foundations were constructed as part of the rebuilt underground rail network, while its interiors were built by trusted Guild contractors.
Hazel drove into the basement level of a nearby multi-storey car-park, and then past an electronic barrier down to a sub-level where only those in the Guild parked. Charlotte followed her to a steel door, which opened only with a swipe of Hazel’s pass card into a lift. The lift had buttons from zero, where they were, down to minus seven. Hazel pressed for minus two.
On the second floor down, the lift door opposite the one they had entered opened and they walked into what looked like an ordinary office building. A corridor led off from the lift with a number of doors coming off from it, there was a well-trodden blue carpet under their feet and several notice boards on the bare stretches of wall. It being early in the morning, there was hardly anybody about.
“I’m gonna grab a brew first.” Hazel announced as they stepped out of the lift. “You want one?”
“I wouldn’t say no, like.” Charlotte said.
With that, Hazel veered off left towards the kitchen whilst Charlotte headed straight down the corridor to the double doors at the far end. This was the library, one of the largest rooms in The Hole, with the shelves reaching from the floor to the ceiling. In the corner of the room, she found her aunt Jess at a computer, with a small table next to her holding several heavy texts all weighted open at specific pages.
Jess was in a wheelchair, having lost the use of her legs at the Battle of Stonehenge. She had broad, strong arms both entirely covered in tattoos, and short but thick hair which was dyed black. She looked more like Joe than either of her nieces, but the familial resemblance was still there nonetheless.
“Alright kiddo,” She said by way of a greeting as she saw Charlotte. “Not got too big a head today, I hope?”
“From the alcohol or from my results?”
“From either, you piss-head genius.”
Charlotte grinned at that. “My head’s exactly the size it should be. Promise.” Her grin faltered when she glanced at the books Jess had opened on the table and caught sight of the marks she had seen on the alley wall.
Jess followed her gaze. “Yeah, pretty grim stuff. I take it your mum’s here as well?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” Hazel said as she came through the door carrying two freshly-made coffees. She handed one to Charlotte. “What did I miss?”
Jess glanced at the coffee in Hazel’s hand. “Nah, I’m alright thanks, I’ve already had a coffee.” She glanced at Charlotte and winked, and despite the obviousness of the joke, Charlotte had to bite back a titter.
“Oh, don’t start. I knew you would have.” Hazel said, gesturing to the books. “So?”
“Leaving aside the Enochian for the mo, those pentacles are derived from Renaissance-era occultism and black magic. Arranged in that particular formation, they’re used as part of the ceremony of communion with the dead. Or they are if they’re drawn without blood. Add in the blood of a fresh kill, and you have a path into the afterlife.”
“What, like heaven and hell?” Charlotte asked. She knew her dad had seen both, but even so she still found it hard to accept them as more than religious concepts.
“From the descriptions I found in testaments of people claiming to have done this, and I don’t necessarily think they’re all legit, it sounds more like She’ol.”
Charlotte took a moment to recall where she knew that word from. Then she remembered that her dad had been there too. “Where the dead go before heaven or hell.” She said aloud. “Why would they want to go there?”
“Necromancy.” Hazel said, eyes lit with dawning realisation. “The body of the person they kill is used as a vessel for whoever they bring back, because longer dead bodies can’t hold a fully formed consciousness. But the Guild hasn’t recorded contact with a necromancer for over a century and a half.”
“And this isn’t an ordinary necromancer now,” Jess said, “If there is such a thing. Those Enochian letters alter the ritual considerably. As far as I can tell, though I’m not any kind of expert on this by a long shot, it still gives the necromancer a route into She’ol. But…”
“But they’re going there for something else.” Charlotte finished. “I could feel the power of the spell and smell sulphur in the blood. Whatever has been put into the body of whoever this necromancer killed – it wasn’t just a departed soul.”
Joe woke up feeling as though his brain was too big for his skull and his throat had been scraped with sandpaper before some small rodent had used it as a toilet. The sunlight coming in through his curtains felt like far too much, a fire igniting the steady doom-doom-doom of pain in his head rather than the warm light of day.
He rolled over and reached for his phone. Seeing that it was just after midday, he groaned and clutched at his head. The pounding in his temples got suddenly louder and faster, until he realised that it was somebody knocking on his bedroom door. He groaned again.
Rather than go away, his dad pushed the door open and stepped inside. Cŷn followed behind him, bounding up onto Joe’s bed in order to lap at his face with a long, rough tongue. Joe curled up into a ball, trying to shield his face with one hand and push the hell-hound away with the other. Neither action was particularly effective.
“Arrgh! Stop! Dad, why are you doing this?” He cried out.
“I’m not doing anything.” Myles said, though the amusement in his voice was clear enough.
“Get him off me then!”
There was a pause, and what Joe was sure was disguised sniggering, before finally Myles put his hand on Cŷn’s back and ordered him to get down. He did so with a reluctant whine, though his tail was still wagging.
Completely awake now, despite his own wishes, Joe sat up and glared first at the hell-hound then at Myles.
“Good night last night?” Myles said, still with a smirk on his face.
“What do you want?”
“You. Up.” When Joe groaned, Myles shook his head. “It’s self-inflicted, so don’t get mad at me. I’ve gotta go in and I need you to look after Katie.”
“Okay. Fine. How long you gonna be?”
Myles rolled his eyes. “I’ve left money for you to get tea from the chippy.”
“Aw, thanks dad. You’re the best.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Myles shook his head. “Just don’t leave your sister alone!”
Once his dad had left the room, Joe checked his phone again. This time, he wasn’t looking for the time but to see if he had any messages. There were four; at four in the morning Greeney had sent him a Snapchat of his toilet covered in sick with the caption ‘Sign of a good night?’ Ten hours later, he had followed up with a text saying ‘Ignore that Snapchat. Soz.’ Another lad he knew from school had sent him a text which was clearly meant for a girl called Jo. Nikki had sent a group message to all of them saying that her mum was having a barbecue on Sunday and she needed them to come to keep her sane.
There was nothing from Serena, though. Not that he had thought there would be, yet; he would have to get in touch with her. He looked up her profile on Facebook, but then hesitated from pressing the ‘add friend’ button. The last thing he wanted to do was look over eager, like he was stalking her or utterly desperate or something.
Once he was dressed and downstairs, he found Katie sitting in front of the television. It wasn’t on, and she was just staring at the blank screen while tapping her hands on the floor. She would be miles away in her own head, he knew, on some or other adventure.
Joe knelt beside his little sister and waved a hand in front of her face, careful not to touch her when she wasn’t expecting it.
“Hiya Joe.” She said. She wrinkled her nose. “You smell funny.”
He made a show of sniffing at his armpits and then recoiling from them, getting a laugh out of her. “Ugh! Never mind that though, where were you this time?”
“I was under the sea.” She said. “I had to wear a helmet and an air tank so I could breathe, but the people down there didn’t. Their city sunk to the bottom of the ocean hundreds of years ago and they evolved gills. I was helping them chase off bandits who rode seahorses and were trying to steal their dolphins.”
“Well,” Joe mused. “I’d be mad if someone tried to steal my dolphins.”
Katie giggled. “You don’t have any dolphins.” She said, as if it should have been obvious. “If they did they would tell you to shower.”
Taking the hint, he showered and changed before coming back downstairs. Still, he didn’t know what to say to Serena, or when. As well as fretting about looking too keen, he also didn’t want to seem like he wasn’t bothered at all. But he had no idea where he might find out what the right thing to do was.
He put on an episode of Celestial Sleuthing that had recorded yesterday. It was a Nickelodeon cartoon about a group of pre-teen angels sent to earth to investigate crimes by a gang of young vampires. Despite the ridiculous premise, it was really well written and Joe enjoyed watching the episodes with his younger sister. His dad sometimes watched it too, although his mum always made fun of him whenever he did.
As they watched, Joe thought about the night before and kept looking at his phone, hoping for inspiration on what to say to Serena. There was a tightness in his chest and a fluttering in his stomach which grew the more he thought about it. But still he had no idea what to say, or whether it would be too soon.
“What you doing?” Katie asked him, in the middle of an advert break.
“You keep looking at your phone and you look nervous.” Katie was perceptive, sometimes spookily so.
“Oh, nothing. Just – I met a girl last night…”
“Ooh! Is she pretty?”
Joe grinned stupidly. “Yeah, she is.”
“Oh, well, don’t worry. You’re not really ugly or anything.”
He laughed. “Thanks, sis. That’s not what I’m worried about, though. I don’t know what to say to her.”
“Why don’t you say ‘hello’?” The look on Katie’s face was puzzlement, as if he was a level of stupid that she couldn’t quite grasp. At that moment, he sort of felt like it.
“Thanks Katie.” He put a hand out, though only ruffled her hair once she leaned her head forward to indicate that she was okay with him doing so. “You’re my favourite sister, you know.”
“I know.” She said with a shrug, as if there was no other way things could be.
So Joe sent Serena a text that simply said, ‘Hey.’ He held it a minute or so and stared at it, worrying whether it was too casual or non-committal. But eventually he decided that he was just being stupid and pressed send.
In the next half an hour, Joe felt like time had frozen. Celestial Sleuthing finished and, seeing that he was preoccupied, Katie turned the TV off and stared at the blank screen so that she could return to her adventures under the sea. He tried to take his mind off the wait for a reply by browsing on the internet, but nothing held his interest for more than a minute and he kept returning to staring at his text inbox where a reply had still yet to come through.
Finally, his phone buzzed and his heart leapt into his throat. Except it was only a spam email, which he deleted while huffing angrily at the screen. He was just about to leave his phone on the couch and put some food in the microwave as a distraction, belatedly remembering that he had still yet to eat today, when his phone buzzed again and this time it was her.
He stared at it dumbly for a moment, before realising that he had gotten Serena’s number but not given her his.
‘Sorry, this is Joe.’ He replied. ‘From last night.’
Her next text came almost right away. ‘Oh hey cutie. Good night last night.’
A thrill ran through him then, and he was vaguely aware that once more he had a big stupid grin on his face. ‘Yeah. We should do it again sometime.’ He texted.
‘Deffo. How are you set for Thursday?’ Again, the reply was almost instant.
More texts went back and forth, too many to count. Joe microwaved himself two burgers and two boxes of chips for a mid-afternoon breakfast, he ordered himself and Katie takeaway pizza for tea, he took out the bins and took the clothes from the tumble dryer up to his parents’ bedroom. But all of that was background noise as he spoke to Serena by text until well after midnight when for the third time in two hours they convinced each other that they ought to go to bed. His parents and Charlotte may have come home at some point before then, though he couldn’t be sure.
He was seeing Serena again, and nothing else really mattered too much in comparison.