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The Phenomenals: A Game of Ghouls, Page 2

F. E. Higgins

  Silently, smoothly and reluctantly, Vincent drew his own weapon, a treen dagger carved from Gaboon ebony. His heart was heavy. ‘Only amateurs steal with violence,’ his father used to say. ‘A real thief comes and goes like a shadow. There is no need for anyone to be hurt.’

  Vincent sized up his opponents. He could see from the merchant’s quivering lip and shaking hands that he had no stomach for a fight. The governor, however, was another matter.

  ‘Come out, boy,’ called Leucer. ‘I know you’re in there.’

  Vincent steadied his breathing and tightened his grip around his knife. ‘Sorry, Father,’ he said silently, ‘but this is the way it has to be.’ The cellar was windowless, there was only one way out and Leucer stood between him and it.

  Light glinted off the shining barrel of Leucer’s pistol as he advanced, but Vincent still had the element of surprise. He took a deep breath, issued a mighty roar and rushed head down at the oncoming enemy.

  But before either could strike a blow or fire a shot, there was the most tremendous rumble and the cellar shook violently from side to side. The ground shuddered like the stiffened legs of a donkey being pulled where it didn’t want to go. Vincent was amazed to see a ripple cross the floor, like a wave in a pool. Everything seemed to be moving.

  Over the deep roaring there came the higher-pitched noise of glass breaking. Wine bottles, shaken from the racks, were crashing one after another to the hard stone floor, shattering on impact, showering Vincent and Leucer and the merchant with their aromatic contents. Corks were popping at random and shooting around the cellar. Vincent thought this was what it must be like to be under fire from a hundred pistols.

  It was impossible to stay upright and all three fell to the ground. Vincent found himself lying only feet away from Leucer, staring straight into the man’s eyes. Leucer was holding on to the wine rack with one hand and brandishing the pistol in the other.

  ‘Got you now, you scullion!’ roared the governor. He took aim as well as he could under the unsteady circumstances and Vincent could see his finger starting to squeeze the trigger. Desperately he tried to get to his feet. Then, unbelievably, a jagged-edged chasm opened up in the floor between them. The force of the fracture sent Leucer rolling helplessly in one direction and Vincent in the other.

  As quickly as it had started, the rumbling stopped and the ground settled.

  Clouds of dust swirled around the room. Panting and coughing, Vincent got to his feet. Leucer was on one knee across the chasm, searching the sticky, glass-smithereened floor around him for his weapon. He snarled at Vincent as his hand closed over the pistol.

  ‘So long, guv,’ said Vincent with a grin and a wink. Then, as Leucer aimed the pistol at his head, he bounded over the prostrate merchant and made good his escape through the doorway, the ringing report of pistol fire in his wake.



  Citrine reached up to scratch her head and uttered a small sound of irritation. Whatever was in the hair dye was causing her head to itch. She pulled her hood forward again, just brushing her silver browpin with its onyx stone. It gave her a little comfort. Few Degringoladians went without some sort of protective talisman: bejewelled browpins or large-stoned rings were favoured by the rich, men and women alike; earrings or less ostentatious pendants were worn by others.

  She looked up again at the dark building a hundred yards or so down the street: the Capodel Townhouse, the finest house in the city. She used to stand on the balcony and count the beams of the lighthouse until her father returned from the manufactory. Her heart hardened at the memory. That was before Cousin Edgar had so cruelly betrayed her and forced her out of her home. Now two burly guards stood stolidly on the other side of imposing wrought-iron gates.

  ‘Looks like nanyone’s home,’ said Jonah beside her.

  ‘Edgar’s probably at the Bonchance Club.’

  ‘You know Vincent can get in, take anything you want. By the multitudes of mackerel in the seven seas, his thieving skills have not let us down yet.’

  ‘Hmm,’ murmured Citrine, thinking of the collection of browpins, among other things, that she had left behind in her old bedroom. She hadn’t quite got the measure of Vincent Verdigris yet. Yes, he provided well for them all; food and drink and a whole raft of practical items that were lacking in Folly’s now rather crowded tomb-home, and he loved to tell tales, tall tales, but she couldn’t help feeling that the outward bravado was a mask, that there was more below the surface.

  Folly, however, was a different kettle of fish. She was a listener, not a talker. She nodded at Vincent’s stories, but withheld her own. Citrine suspected she had plenty to rival his. Vincent wouldn’t like that. He was the sort of fellow who couldn’t resist a challenge, no matter how uncertain the outcome.

  ‘We should get on to Suma’s,’ urged Jonah, interrupting her thoughts. He was growing anxious. The Degringolade Urban Guardsmen (DUG for short but more often referred to as Urgs) were extra vigilant these days, all on the lookout for the Phenomenals, and of the quartet he was undoubtedly the most recognizable.

  ‘I just wish I knew what Edgar is up to,’ said Citrine quietly.

  Jonah looked at her sideways. And whether or not your father really is dead.

  It was snowing again as they hurried away. Citrine was slightly ahead of Jonah and reached the street where they had parked the Trikuklos first. It was not an easy conveyance to conceal, but Jonah had reached up and quenched the nearby lights to that end. She was only feet away when a figure stepped out from behind it. She slowed, recognizing the silhouette of the cap of a member of the DUG.

  ‘Is this your vehicle?’

  Jonah, lagging behind, heard the voice and backed off. ‘Codtails, an Urg!’ he muttered, making the word an expression of disgust.

  Citrine swallowed hard and wiped melting snow from her face, suddenly aware of a burning sensation spreading across her cheeks.

  ‘Someone has vandalized the street lights down here. Dangerous times. You’ve heard of those Phenomenals?’

  Citrine nodded earnestly. ‘I don’t want to come across one of their lot!’

  The guardsman held up his standard-issue manuslantern to look at her more closely. ‘Hang about, lass, what’s that on your face?’

  Citrine saw then that her hand was streaked with black. Her cheeks were now stinging painfully. Domna! The dye!

  The Urg’s expression changed slowly, as if he was wrestling with a tricky mathematical problem. ‘Your hair, it’s changing colour!’ he said dully.

  Citrine looked down at her hair, to her horror now streaked with red.

  The Urg took a step towards her and his face lit up. He had worked it out. ‘Domne! You’re the red-haired Phenomenal! You’re Citrine Capodel.’

  He put his whistle to his mouth, but before he could blow it Jonah loomed large and rushed him, knocking him to the ground. Then he dragged Citrine into the Trikuklos and was already pedalating away even as she struggled to pull the door to.

  ‘They already believe you’re a murderer,’ said Jonah grimly. ‘Adding assault of an Urg to your record won’t make much difference.’ Then, seeing the distressed look on her face, he added, ‘He’ll be fine. I saw him get up in the mirror.’

  The pair fell silent and did not speak again until they reached Mercator Square. Jonah manoeuvred the vehicle between the stalls, finally stopping at the side of a black kite wagon set back from the main thoroughfare. A large corvid on the roof eyed them intelligently. ‘Let’s not be too long,’ warned Jonah, ‘or Folly’ll be complaining.’

  Citrine smiled briefly. She knew what Jonah meant. The atmosphere in the Kryptos was becoming a little strained. Folly got tetchy when her guests went out and didn’t come back at the appointed time.

  She raised her fist to knock, but before her knuckles could make contact with the wood the door was swiftly opened and Citrine’s heart soared at the sight of Suma Dartson, the finest card-spreader in Degringolade.

sp; ‘My, oh my, but what a time it’s been,’ declared Suma, pulling them both in and closing the louvred door behind them (no easy task with a fellow the size of Jonah in the way). She picked curiously at a strand of Citrine’s straggly black and russet hair.

  ‘The dye ran,’ explained the bedraggled girl.

  Suma handed her a damp cloth to clean up, and while Citrine engaged in her ablutions the old lady turned to Jonah. ‘Dear Jonah, or should I call you “Brute”!’ she said. ‘Your names and pictures are all over this city.’

  Behind her, Citrine’s face fell. ‘We’ll leave, if you think we might get you into trouble.’

  Suma looked shocked. ‘Oh, my dear, I would never turn you away! You’ll want your cards spread, I expect. I’m ready.’ She nodded to a felt-topped card table. ‘But first, tell me, what exactly happened to you all down at the Tar Pit? The Degringolade Daily is not a paper where truth and reality are harmonious bedfellows.’

  Citrine sensed, as usual, that the wrinkled old lady knew more than she let on, but indulged her. Quickly she related everything that had happened since her last visit: how Edgar had betrayed her and brought about her imprisonment; how Jonah had saved her from the noose (and then saved Vincent from Kamptulicon and Folly from the Lurid at the Ritual of Appeasement); and about the discovery of her father’s empty casket in the Capodel family tomb.

  ‘And now,’ she ended, on a note of quiet despair, ‘we’re fugitives. I still don’t know if my father is dead or alive; I have been convicted of murdering poor dear Florian, father’s solicitor; and Edgar has inherited everything. Folly says Leopold Kamptulicon is a Cunningman – she knows about these things – and that he and Edgar and Governor d’Avidus are plotting something terrible.’

  Suma put her arm round Citrine’s shaking shoulders and spoke gently. ‘’Tis no wonder you’re out of sorts. You have been treated most unfairly.’

  Jonah slid down in a chair near the stove and rubbed his rough hands together to warm them. The sound was like a carpenter planing a plank of treen. A whistling started up and Suma took the kettle off the stove. She made three mugs of tea and handed them around.

  Jonah asked, ‘What do you know of Leucer d’Avidus? Does he ever come to you?’

  ‘If he did, I couldn’t tell you,’ replied Suma. ‘My clients expect privacy, you understand. I can only say of him what I read in the paper.’

  Jonah snorted. ‘Hah, the Degringolade Daily never has a bad word to say about him. He’s filthy rich, that much is known to all, from the spoils of the Tar Pit. Though Poseidon knows how he came to own it – it’s on Degringolade land.’

  Citrine noticed that his voice sounded different, somehow clearer, and realized that for once he didn’t have his coat collar pulled up around his scarred face.

  Suma’s brow creased. ‘The water, or perhaps I should say “tar”, is rather muddied when it comes to Leucer d’Avidus and his business interests.’

  Citrine was no longer listening: her attention had been caught by something else: Suma’s leech barometer. Inside the tall bell jar on the shelf, twelve black bloodsuckers were writhing themselves into a frenzied knot, slime oozing out from between their sinuated bodies.

  ‘Nothing is behaving as it should,’ said Suma. ‘The Lurids are almost silent, the corvids on the Kronometer are very unsetded and the leeches have been knotting like that all day.’

  Citrine shuddered and averted her eyes from the glistening entanglement. ‘It’s giving me nerves just looking at them,’ she muttered. ‘Can we spread the cards now?’

  Jonah had succumbed to the soporific warmth of the wagon and drifted off into oceanic reveries. Suma lit a carved candle in the middle of the card table and Citrine pulled up a stool. She placed a green bag in front of her, but Suma stopped her.

  ‘I have some new cards I would like to try. Wenceslas found them in the Caveat Emptorium. They’d been there so long he couldn’t remember where they came from. But we’ll use your maerl dice.’

  Citrine took four small stone-like objects from her bag, each with a different number of sides, and rolled three across the table. She totalled the vertical lines on show, five in all, then she threw the remaining thirteen-sided piece of maerl. It tumbled to a standstill with the symbol of a spider uppermost. ‘Arachnoid spread,’ she said, and arranged ten of the faded purple-backed cards in a pattern on the table.

  Citrine was hopeful that for once the cards would hold some good news. She picked five from the spread, turned them over one at a time and laid them in a straight line. On the turn of the fifth she uttered a little sound of surprise. ‘It’s some sort of beast! That card’s not in my deck.’

  Suma sucked noisily through the gaps in her teeth. It was not unusual to come across new cards. All packs included a set of standard characters, but the rest differed from region to region.

  ‘It’s certainly an ugly thing,’ she began, but was immediately interrupted by a loud squawk and a scrabbling noise from the roof. Suddenly the wagon wobbled dangerously and threatened to go right over.

  Citrine reeled and grabbed at the table. Suma gripped the armrests of her chair in alarm. Jonah awoke, wide-eyed and staring, and jumped to his feet crying, ‘Batten down the hatches! Rope her, lads, rope her!’ before realizing that he was not in a storm at sea but in Suma’s wagon.

  A deep rolling roar filled their ears and the wagon shook violently for a full thirty seconds. Citrine recovered her balance just in time to prevent the leech barometer from smashing to the floor.

  And then it was all over.

  Citrine straightened cautiously. ‘Domna, was that an earthquake?’

  Jonah, a little embarrassed by his performance, scooped up a set of scattered Cachelot teeth and replaced them on the shelf.

  ‘This is Degringolade,’ said Suma, as if that was all the explanation needed.

  Badly unsettled by the quake, the cards forgotten for now, Jonah and Citrine were anxious to leave.

  ‘Come back whenever you can,’ said Suma, bustling them down the steps. ‘And don’t forget Wenceslas Wincheap at the Caveat Emptorium. He will gladly help you with anything you need. A fellow in his trade knows more ’n most folk about the doings in this city. Just mention my name.’

  People were coming out of their houses and shops. A small crowd had gathered under the Kronometer, pointing and gabbling excitedly. The luminous hands were just approaching Mid-Nox, but the black pendulum that usually hissed softly from left to right was still. For now, time in Degringolade was no longer measured by the Kronometer; it had stopped.

  ‘Go,’ urged Suma, ‘before you’re seen.’

  The old woman stood on the steps and watched the pair pedalate away. She looked again at the beast card in her hand.

  ‘Katatherion,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘depicted in slumber, a great danger waiting to be woken.’



  Leopold Kamptulicon stood on the charred and desolate edge of the Tar Pit of Degringolade and looked out across the oily black surface of the lake. He allowed himself a moment or two of self-indulgence as he recalled again the incredible sense of power that had engulfed him – yes, engulfed; there was no other word to describe the feeling – when, at his very command, he had watched the Lurid of Axel Harpelaine assume the body of his living sister, Folly. It was a sight Leopold would never forget. It might have been a short-lived triumph, Jonah – the ‘Brute’ – had made sure of that, but he still took great pleasure in knowing what it was like to have a Lurid completely under his control.

  He tutted and shook his head. Luck was a fickle lady and she had chosen that night of all nights to play with him. It was undoubtedly serendipity that the random Lurid he had summoned from the horde out on the tar was Folly Harpelaine’s brother. This blood tie ensured that Folly could easily be used as a vessel for Axel’s restless spirit. In fact, she was even better than his original choice, Vincent Verdigris. But then all this good fortune was countered by the fact tha
t the Mangledore, the herbally steeped and ritually waxed severed hand of an executed criminal, belonged to that very same brother. When the Brute had tossed it into the lake, Folly had been instantly released from Kamptulicon’s power.

  Who in Aether could ever have imagined such a twisted set of circumstances?

  ‘Only in Degringolade,’ muttered Leopold as he watched again in his mind’s eye the Mangledore sailing in a perfect arc through the air to land in the sticky sucking muck. And as he re-imagined it sinking below the surface, so too his heart plummeted in his chest.

  Leopold blamed everything on Vincent, the thieving wretch with the metal arm. At the time he had been delighted to catch the young intruder in his underground Ergastirion, the workshop where he kept his Supermundane paraphernalia, but the boy was proving to be more trouble than he was worth. True, it wasn’t Vincent who had actually tossed the Mangledore into the tar and thus ruined all his plans, but he had masterminded it all; Leopold was convinced of it.

  ‘I should have killed him when I had him strapped up in my chair,’ he muttered. ‘Freezing his fingers off was far, far less than he deserved.’ On top of all that, Vincent had stolen his book, his precious Omnia Intum.

  ‘And the one-handed cullion still has it,’ hissed the thwarted Cunningman, unable to hold in his venom any longer at the thought of the powerful book, a book even he did not fully understand, in the hands of a lowly Vulgar. ‘I will get my book back,’ he vowed to the night, ‘if I have to throttle every domnable one of those Phenomenals.’

  Kamptulicon could feel the residual heat of the fires through the thick soles of his boots, so he started to walk along the shore. He went slowly, raking absent-mindedly through the detritus with the metal-tipped point of his staff.

  It was a relatively new acquisition, supporting both his body and his ego. He thought it gave him a degree of gravitas. Kamptulicon was concerned that he had lost some of the respect he had previously commanded, and undoubtedly deserved. Hadn’t he given Leucer what he had asked for, namely an embodied Lurid? And in doing so he had demonstrated that Leucer’s dream, a legion of such Lurids under his sole command, utterly biddable and needing no earthly sustenance, was close to becoming reality. That still hadn’t stopped him grumbling (‘grummling,’ sniggered Leopold) about the subsequent farrago at the Tar Pit.