Black Powder, Black Magic

The writing group got a look at this last night, so I’m now posting it here.

For those of you coming in late, I posted Chapter One here, so you can go read it and catch up.

Now, without further ado, I present:

Chapter Two

The carriage hurtled down darkened country lanes, bouncing over holes and wheel-ruts with teeth-rattling impacts that made Blake question the sanity of the driver. Blake had seen the man only briefly when they had left the stable, standing aside from the open door to the carriage’s interior, the gleaming silver buttons on his voluminous coachman’s cloak an odd contrast to a rough-featured face that would have looked more at home in the rookeries of Cheapside than in the driver’s seat of a Gentleman’s carriage.

Love had ushered him quickly into the dark interior of the vehicle, an enclosure of velvet and silks that smelled faintly of tobacco. The brutish driver had shut them in, followed by a slight rocking of the vehicle as he climbed up into his seat. A gruff voice growled “come on, then,” the horses obeyed, and the carriage moved out onto the London streets.

Blake found himself again drawn to the faces of the crowd as the carriage passed, clattering over the cobblestone streets. People ran errands, milling to and fro, carrying home the day’s groceries, making deliveries to the offices and homes of the wealthy, or simply going about their own business. Small groups stood on street corners, talking about the day’s events, or plans for later that evening—all of them oblivious to the wonder of a dead man, watching from a passing carriage.

That was hours ago. They had left London by sundown, leaving the smells and the noise of the bustling city behind them, moving south and east. Night fell, and the roads became narrower and narrower as they went. Love sat in silence during the journey, at first watching Blake with a barely-suppressed air of amusement, then of anticipation. When the expected barrage of questions failed to appear, Love appeared to resigned himself to contentedly passing the time by smoking a cigar, lit from the fire of the carriage lantern.

Blake was familiar with cigars – English officers had adopted the practice during service in Spain, and brought the habit back with them, where it had become all the rage among the upper class. What perplexed Blake, though, was where this familiarity came from. No matter how hard he tried, any attempt to recall events before this morning’s hanging was met with a grey cloud, mirroring the haze that curled around Love’s cigar. He could not recall his life before that moment, and yet, like the cigar, there was knowledge in his mind that would come when bidden.

The smoke wreathed around Love’s head, as he sat back into the cushions of the carriage. At the breakneck speed they were currently traveling, his was the more comfortable seat, with his back to the rear of the carriage, while Blake, facing him, struggled to avoid being pitched forward by every bounce and rattle of the journey. As Blake watched the smoke curl, he finally broke the silence:

“Who was the Dark Man?”

Love looked surprised by the sudden question, and then perplexed. “Sorry?”

“The man with the pipe,” Blake said. “At the hanging.”

“Ah,” Love nodded, drawing more smoke from his cigar, and releasing it in a puff. “Dark Man. Oh, yes…that’s very good. Very good indeed.” He chuckled to himself.
“The man with the ornate pipe, whom you so melodramatically call ‘The Dark Man’ is Étienne de Villaret –or, to be more precise, Étienne, Baron de Villaret. He’s the tenth baron, in fact – managed to hold on to the family title throughout ‘La Terreur’, when everybody else was getting chopped by the mob.

“He’s un sorcière. Napoleon’s chief purveyor of the Black Arts, in fact. His family has been steeped in the stuff since well before the Revelation.”

Blake stared. “I’m not about to discount the existence of magic—after all, I’m a dead man, sitting here in a carriage, talking to you—but you’ll have to forgive me: Revelation? Do you mean Biblical?”

Love smiled. “I’m sure some view it as such. No – the Revelation is what those of us “in the trade”, as it were, call the events surrounding the discovery of the Rashid Tablet.”

“Never heard of it,” said Blake.

“Of course not,” replied Love. “It was never made public knowledge. You’ve heard of the Rosetta Stone?”

Blake nodded. The stone, inscribed with a royal decree in Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek, had been uncovered by French soldiers in Egypt in 1799. It had become a valuable relic, allowing the language of the ancient Egyptians to finally be deciphered. The British took possession of it upon the defeat of Napoleon’s forces in Egypt – Blake had a sudden memory of seeing the stone in the British Museum.

“The stone was found near the town of al-Rashid,” said Love, sounding to Blake’s ears like a prim schoolmaster, “which, in Greek, is called Rosetta. But it wasn’t the only object found.

“Beneath the stone was a second tablet. This one far more earth-shattering in its eventual consequence. Simply put, it was the Key. To everything. The formula that laid bare the secrets of magic. The missing ingredient, if you will, to all of the ancient objects and documents which described the magical process. With the information on that tablet, suddenly everything else fell into place. Sumerian summoning rites, the Judaic kaballah, Medieval grimoires, all of it based on a common principle which we had lost to time….but somebody had written it down.

Love put his hand out, palm up, in the space between him and Blake. Blake watched as a small globe of fire, like a sun, but no bigger than a child’s marble, grew into existence in the air above Love’s hand, the incandescent light throwing deep shadows in the plush interior of the carriage.

“Once the French realized what they had, they rushed it out of Egypt, of course, ” Love continued. “We were lucky, though. One of our agents got a look at the tablet, and managed to make a rubbing of it. Since then, we’ve been playing a very dangerous game of move-countermove with Bonaparte. Battles fought not only with cannon and soldiers but with the very forces of Creation itself.”

Love grabbed the ball of light out of the air, swallowing it up in his palm and throwing the carriage into darkness once more. He took a drag on his cigar, the red embers of the tip a pale imitation of the light that had just filled the chamber. He exhaled, and grinned wickedly at Blake. “It’s all terribly exciting.”

Blake sat, turning away from Love to look out into the night, the occasional tree branch whipping past the window in the dim light of the carriage lanterns giving the only indication of the countryside they passed through.

“Well!” Love huffed, flicking his cigar ash out the window. “Nothing? No reaction at all?”

“With all due respect, Doctor,” said Blake. “I recently find myself risen from the grave. I’m afraid that on the scale of shocking revelations, everything else fairly pales in comparison.”

He turned back to face Love. “Why me? Why would a French baron be so interested in me?” He left the addendum to the question unspoken, yet still hanging in the air. Love perceived it instantly.

“A French baron….or The Ministry, for that matter, hmm?” Love took a final puff on the cigar and then pitched the remains through the open window. “Fair enough, Mister Blake. A worthy question. To be blunt: you represent a much-sought-after commodity. A man of your skills, raised from the dead, is a instrument of the highest value.”

“Why?” Blake demanded, growing tired of Love’s obfuscation.

“You’ve died, Mister Blake.” Said Love. “You’ve died and yet you’ve come back, and a man in your condition can not be targeted, affected or detected by magical means. You are entirely immune. Null and void.” Love spread his hands out before him in a there-you-have-it gesture, as if his explanation were the most natural thing in the world. “You are the perfect agent. The rarest of gems.”

“So de Villaret was here to prevent The Ministry from acquiring such a gem?” Blake’s voice breathed scorn.

“Something like that, I suppose…..but who can fathom the Gallic mind?” Love smiled again.

“And what if the gem doesn’t wish to be plucked, Doctor? I have no wish to aid the French, but what if I don’t want to be your agent, either?”

Love’s face darkened, his eyes suddenly hard. “If you were to turn down our offer of employment, Mister Blake, I’m sure that it could be quite easily arranged to put you right back where we found you.”

The dandy’s threat hung in the air like the smoke from the now-absent cigar. To Blake’s astonishment, he felt no anger towards his fellow passenger. Somewhere, deep in a forgotten corner of his mind, a sense of purpose grew. He did not know how, but he knew that he had somehow served the Crown in his previous life – and not only was it fitting for him to do so now, given that the Crown had given him a second chance at living, but he found himself also driven by a personal sense of duty as well.

Before Blake could formulate his thoughts enough to say anything to Love, the splintering crash of wood against wood assaulted their senses, and the carriage was violently rocked to one side, seeming to careen along on two wheels for a moment before slamming back down to Earth. There was a sudden outburst of extremely blasphemous cursing from the driver, barely audible beneath the high, horrible sound of terrified horses.

A second impact sounded, this time rocking the carriage to the opposite side. Much harder this time – for an awful instant, it seemed as though the vehicle would pitch over onto its side. The driver’s whip sounded, a sharp report which urged the panicking horses into more frenzied action, accelerating the carriage even further – a feat which Blake would have previously considered impossible.

Doctor Love fought to steady himself against the violent rocking, and drew aside the heavy curtains from the small rear window of the carriage. Through the aperture, Blake could see that they were being pursued by something out of a fevered nightmare.

The thing chasing the carriage was at least fifteen feet tall, bounding after them with a powerful, loping gait on legs of wood and rope, coiled and bunched into an approximation of muscle and tendon. It was shaped something like a man, this abortion of nature—built from tree limbs and stones; worked through with the creations of man: rope and cloth and metal. Its arms swung wildly at the carriage as it continued its relentless onslaught, sometimes scraping against the vehicle with the screeching sound of chalk against slate, and other times hitting more solidly, rocking the cab with a jarring shudder.

Worst of all, however, was the thing’s head – a large pumpkin, impaled on a jutting angle of wood or metal, the carved, rudimentary jack-o-lantern face given horrible, certain intelligence and wreathed in a baleful glow that surrounded it like the mark of some unholy saint.

Blake watched in horror as the thing bounded towards them, and suddenly leapt into the air, rising above the carriage and out of view. He managed to shout “It’s trying to get in front –“ before there was a massive impact, and Blake and Love were sent ricocheting off the interior walls of the cab as it flipped over. The world became a chaotic whirlpool of wood and velvet, silk and glass, flesh and bone.

When the turning stopped, it took Blake a moment to realize what had happened. His ears were ringing from the crash, yet through that, he could hear the terrible screams of the horses. The carriage lay on its side, windows broken and splinters of wood jutting dangerously from every surface. Love lay partially entangled with him, rising now to shake some clarity into his senses.

Blake leapt upward, ignoring the complaints of his bruised muscles, and drew himself through the door of the carriage, which now served as the roof of their makeshift shelter. He could see the thing, lit by the unwholesome fire that surrounded its jack-o-lantern head, as it chased down one of the horses that had broken free of its yoke during the crash.

The horse was lame, obviously injured during the violence of the impact, but it galloped for its life, tearing muscle and snapping tendons in a vain effort to outrun the unnatural predator. The light from the grinning pumpkin glistened upon the foaming sweat that marked the horse’s flanks, before the monster brought both of its heavy arms crashing down upon the horse’s spine. Blake heard the wet crunch, like tearing the joint from a Christmas goose. The horse fell in a pile of flesh and muscle, the creature smashing into its ruined meat again and again until there was nothing recognizable left.

Then it turned and looked at Blake.

Deep within the hollow holes that served as its eyes, Blake saw not only the gleam of intellect, but a hideous recognition as well. This thing knew him.

The corners of the gash-like mouth split slightly further into what could only be interpreted as a smile. It rose from the pulverized remains of the horse, and began to stride purposefully back towards the carriage.

Blake looked around him. To return to the carriage interior offered no safety – the thing that destroyed a horse so easily would find no challenge in obliterating what little shelter the wreckage provided. To the front of the carriage, the second horse, still entangled by the ruined yoke and reins, cried piteously as it wallowed with two broken legs.

Below him, Blake could see what was left of the driver. The top half of the man’s body jutted out from under the carriage, everything below his waist pinned under the wreckage. The wounds to the man’s head most likely meant that he had been killed long before the vehicle had come to rest upon him. His dead hand still clutched at the tools of his trade, a broken length of the leather reins.

The tools of his trade….

Blake scrambled to the front of the vehicle, where behind the driver’s seat was a long box. He glanced up – the creature was still moving toward him, its limbs working in a dreadful approximation of human motion. Blake kicked the hasps of the box, which burst open, spilling its contents onto the road: a bottle of whiskey, a pair of gloves, a tinder box used to light the carriage lamps….and a blunderbuss.

The weapon of a coachman, used against robbers and highwaymen…the blunderbuss lay on the road, a small horn of powder beside the weapon’s flared, trumpet-like barrel. Blake jumped down from the wreckage, ignoring the shouts of Love from within.

“Blake – what in god’s name are you doing?”

Snatching up the weapon, Blake began to prime it with powder, his hands going through the familiar motions with no conscious thought: Pour, tamp, prime. He knelt down by the corpse of the driver. With a certainty borne of desperation, he began to tear the man’s buttons from his cloak, and stuffed them, a handful at a time, into the fluted barrel of the blunderbuss, tamping them down with the ramrod. Drawing back the flintlock, he turned to face the monstrosity, which was nearly upon him.

The creature reached forward with its powerful arms, revealing hands built from rusted and forgotten tools. Scythes and forks and shears and saws plunged into the flesh of the screaming prone horse, and tore it in two. Blake was showered with a deluge of hot gore, shocking against his skin in the cool night air. The malevolent grin of the pumpkin split even wider as the creature reached its dripping hands towards Blake.

Blake triggered the gun, the flint striking the priming pan with an audible click. For a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, nothing happened. Then the spark caught the small amount of exposed powder that had not been soaked by the horse’s blood, and it flashed into life with a small rushing noise, quickly smothered by the loud explosion of the main charge in the weapon igniting. The bell of the gun’s barrel hurled forth a gout of flame and thick grey smoke, the flash momentarily blinding Blake, and the report ringing in his ears.

The pumpkin burst apart, and in that instant, the wreath of corrupt fire blew out like a candle on a windy night. With that, the component parts of the creature’s form, still glistening with the warm blood of the horses, collapsed into a pile at Blake’s feet. On the wind, there was the faintest sound of a howl of inhuman outrage, but then it was gone.

“Silver buttons.” Blake turned to see Doctor Love climbing down from the carriage wreckage. “Capital instincts.”

“It seemed right,” Blake replied. “Where the hell were you?”

“Attempting to extricate myself from the wreckage, naturally.” Love brushed bits of wood and glass from the sleeves of his coat. “Some of us aren’t as well-suited to all of this exertion, you know.”

“I thought you said that I couldn’t be detected by magic? That thing tracked us well enough.”

Love steepled his fingers in front of his lips, his expression dark. “Yes. Yes, it did. I wish that I had an answer for you, Mister Blake, but I do not. However, I would venture that it seems that the Baron De Villaret hasn’t quite conceded defeat. I suggest that we get moving – the night is long and dark, and we have some miles to go before we reach our destination.”

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