The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
THE EATER OF THE DEAD
December 30th, 3am
The owl flaps softly from branch to branch ahead of John, guiding him onwards through the dark landscape of the spirit world, as patterns swirl, coalesce and separate in the starless sky above him. The trees thin, and he is walking over bitter grey sand, soft voices plucking in his ears.
Eventually the owl circles about a small cairn, seven rounded stones heaped on one another. It has no need to alight, but merely keeps circling as John approaches the cairn and squats down before it.
Only a heartbeat passes, and they are all around him: Mike, Andy, Rachid, Craig, Geordie, Big Tony and Kez. Not like how it had been before, but closer than at any time since. Everything here is vibrant, busy, the air around him – if it is air – seething with frustration.
‘Hey, Iain – nice job on that St John bitch,’ comes Mike Childs’s voice. ‘You won’t believe what that piece of shit did to me, back in 98 or whenever it was.’
‘I believe you , mate. She was capable of anything. Sorry I was too slow for all of you, guys, but I got the woman that gave the orders. She may even be around here somewhere now.’
‘Not yet. We’ve been looking out,’ says Geordie menacingly. ‘But she might have gone to a different place maybe.’
‘Anyway, we’re going after one of the leaders of all this, and hopefully other teams are taking out more of them. With a bit of luck you’ll be having some pretty pissed off company shortly! Not too sure whether it’ll be the bad guys or us! I’ll see you soon whatever happens. Gotta try and talk to someone else now.’
‘OK, Iain. You take care now,’ says Andy. ‘Don’t you be rushing to join us here just yet – you’ve still got that Swedish bint down there, remember?’
‘Vouko…’ Although John has not mentioned her name aloud these past days, she has never been more than a hairsbreadth away from his mind.
He shakes the mood off, sprinkling a handful of sand on the cairn – there are no more stones – and turning to leave. The owl swoops down around his head. ‘Can you help guide me to non-humans here as well? I’m searching for one that was known as Alexander the Great whilst he was with us.’
‘He is once more in the mortal realm,’ comes the owl’s quiet, soothing voice. ‘He has taken flesh again.’
‘Shit! I didn’t know they could come back. Sure as hell hope one of the other teams is taking care of that, then,’ mutters John.
Rupert hears out George’s excited retelling of Blaize’s message, and says coolly ‘Oh, I think we’re alright chaps. Karyn told me she was planning on doing something to Blaize. This sounds like it.’
‘Oh!’ says George. ‘Nice of her to keep us posted.’ He starts to clear up the blood that by now has stopped issuing from Professor Westwood.
Rupert continues excitedly ‘But I have news of my own, chaps. I just spoke to Shareena. Seems she has Arabella’s soul inside her. She won’t release it unless we give the spaceship back. Good job Karyn got the ship then isn’t it?’
‘It certainly would seem to be,’ agrees Sean, looking at Rupert with what, if not respect, is at least some way short of the usual contempt. ‘Exchange the ship for Arabella’s soul, then? Maybe we can use a little insurance… like a bomb… carefully planted, with a timer set to give enough time for the exchange and a little to spare…’
Rupert is doubtful. ‘I’ve just read the entries on the ’net about killing an Ylid. Seems that the only one we can use is the idea of getting two Ylids together in one place and filling them through with dubhium followed by anti-dubhium. They explode, as I’m sure you remember from Mexico, Sean, although you seem to have decided not to mention it.’
Sean, perhaps fortunately, is off in an explosive-bedecked world of his own, his eyes misty and distant. ‘Set up a few surprises at the exchange point… a couple of tin cans with bombs placed about the area... might help distract that big monster which is sure to appear…’
‘Git,’ mutters Rupert under his breath. Then a thought suddenly strikes him. ‘Oh God! Sarah! They mustn’t kill Sarah! We’ll have no access to the Watcher at all then! Hold on!’ He grabs for the phone.
John stirs back to wakefulness to hear Donald’s voice: he is talking on his mobile phone, one hand holding the wheel. ‘Hi, Rupert.’
Rupert’s voice can just about be heard at the other end. ‘Look old chap , whatever you do don’t kill Sarah.’
Donald lets out an alarming cough and the car swerves sharply across the fortunately empty road. He manages to regain control as John grabs for the wheel, pulls over onto the hard shoulder and stops the car.
‘Sorry, Rupert – thought I’d better pull the car over and stop. What was that again?’ He motions to John to keep quiet.
‘I said DON’T KILL SARAH – should be easy enough even for you two. All you have to do is simply not pull a trigger. Just turn around and come back to Daphne’s: we’re meeting there to discuss the final plan.’
Donald thinks very hard for a spilt second, meets John’s eyes briefly, and says ‘Don’t kill Sarah, eh? Right you are then – see you at Daphne’s.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Oh – what would happen if, say – and this is just theoretical mind – if we did kill her?’
Rupert’s crackly voice sounds baffled ‘Eh? Look, what the hell are you talking about you idiot? Did you kill her or not?’
‘Not to worry, leave it with me,’ says Donald swiftly. ‘I’ll see you back at Daphne’s.’ He turns the phone off before Rupert can reply.’
Donald looks at John ‘Shit.’
‘We could say she was dead when we got there.’
‘Then who shot me in the gut?’
‘Better tell him the truth, then. He’s bound to find out sooner or later.’
‘I’d rather later than sooner,’ says Donald darkly.
John shrugs. ‘OK – when should we tell him, then?’
‘At Daphne’s. If we’re both there, chances are he won’t do too much.’
John raises his eyebrows – to hear hard-man Donald speaking as though he is afraid of Rupert’s wrath is an oddity – but makes no comment.
Donald glances down at the wound Sarah gave him. ‘Got shot for nothing. Bollocks.’ He sighs. ‘John, can you drive for a bit? I need to lie down in the back.’ He pauses. ‘An amazing thing’s happened to me. We did a job in Glastonbury, and… this ghost… from the Grail type thing… seems to have attached herself to me. I thought I’d lost her in Egypt, but she’s healed me! – if I can contact her again we might be able to use her against Nef.’
‘Whatever you say,’ says John amiably, climbing out into the chill night to change over. Far be it from him to point the finger at other people’s odd spiritual beliefs.
Donald lies down on the back seat, but instead of relaxing and preparing for sleep, he concentrates hard, remembering the trance-state Arabella taught him, and how to swim upwards towards it.
Slowly his consciousness slips into what can only be described as blackness, although it has tangible form, eddying around him. A source of light draws nearer, or perhaps he is drawing nearer to it, and as it approaches he sees with relief that it is the beloved, pure form of the Grail-maiden.
Her voice is clear and sweet, at once unearthly and stirring. ‘Lancelot, I hope you are well again. It must be the decades that have passed by – you would have avoided that, many moons ago.’
‘Er, yes, thanks for the help back there. I thought I was a goner. In fact, thanks for all your help lately – my friends and I have really been in some trouble. Um, where am I?’
‘I brought you to me: your carriage is rather small, and your companion Gawain, whose brothers were killed, he would have been alarmed. I am glad I have been able to help you against that foul and menacing demon-dragon. I am so glad I managed to pull you out of the light… you handled yourself well against the beast, though. Tell me, you have some new companions – who is the one with the little chap on his shoulder? He is rather odd… is he a true knight?’
‘Oh, Sean… Yes, he’s a warrior like myself. We have fought for different causes, but this one pulls us together,’ Donald finds himself talking back to her in her way of speech: she seems to prefer it, even if it does sound ridiculous.
‘I understand. What brings us together now?’
‘An ancient evil – I do not fully understand it, it is powerful. Her name is Nefertiti. I don’t suppose you have heard of her or her kind? – Ylids?’
‘Ylids?’ repeats the maiden wonderingly. ‘What an uncouth word that sounds. Are they Gaels?’
‘Worse: they are all over the Earth. There are various groups of warriors assembled to stop them.’
‘But surely your weapons can best her? They are more powerful than any sword, if I remember back to Glastonbury.’
‘Yes they are, but she has power unlike anything I have seen before. She can do evil things to my loins, and she can take over my mind with images. When we confront her, can you keep my mind clear? – just keep talking to me, regale me with stories past? With you in my mind, she will have a difficult task taking me over. Even better, you could appear on the battle-field and assist us.’
‘I can try,’ says the maiden doubtfully. ‘But I fear I can do nothing for your loins if she turns on them. I suggest a more armoured codpiece.’
‘Um, quite… well, if you can just try to hold her away from that region, I would be grateful.’
‘Again, I will try for you Lancelot.’ She looks at him quizzically. ‘I notice you have slipped back to your strange dialect: it is very difficult for me to understand you like this.’
‘Oh, my apologies – language has changed much since your time.’
‘I can tell, from the profanities you use.’ She nods wisely. ‘I think your friend steering your carriage needs you: he keeps shouting your strange alias.’
As though a door has been opened, John’s voice suddenly booms into the darkness. ‘DONALD, wake up, you lazy sod!’
‘Oh, right…’ Donald sees the maiden start to dim. ‘I will contact you again nearer the time. Before I go I wanted to ask you where you were when I went to Egypt? I thought I’d lost you.’
‘My powers only extend to this realm of Arthur’s,’ she replies sadly.
‘Oh, I see. Right then… er, bye.’
The grail-maiden fades away leaving Donald alone in the darkness.
‘Hello, how do I get out of here?’
‘…’ Donald feels himself being pulled out of the darkness.
‘What were you dreaming about? You weren’t half talking strange,’ asks John curiously.
‘Oh, er… just trying to get some outside help.’
‘George dear, what are we going to do about that?’ Daphne gingerly indicates the still form of the late Professor Westwood.
‘Oh, er, sorry, dear,’ says George, snapping out of his reverie. ‘I suppose I hadn’t given it all that much thought.’
‘Well, you can’t leave it in my living-room! Should I call the police?’
‘Um, I’m not sure that would be wise, just at the moment.’ George looks around for Rupert, but he is bent over Arabella squeezing her hand. ‘Tell you what, we’ll shove it in the van, we can get rid of it somewhere.’
‘George! That was a human being, a man who died doing his best to help us! You can’t just sling him over a bridge as though he were a bag of rubbish!’ Daphne is outraged.
‘No dear, of course not,’ soothes George, although in fact that is exactly what he plans to do. This story has enough loose ends already.
By the time Donald and John arrive at Daphne’s house, everyone is dead-beat but excited. Rupert and Sean have been planning the ambush, Daphne and George laying out Professor Westwood. Only Mahmoud, banished to his room so as not to be upset by the body, has been getting any sleep.
That changes as soon as Donald comes in the door: he nips upstairs, wakes the boy, and tousles his hair. ‘How’s Auntie Daphne been looking after you, then?’
‘She wouldn’t let me see the dead man,’ Mahmoud says sulkily.
‘Don’t worry, I expect you’ll see plenty more in time. They all look pretty much the same, anyway.’
John calls up after him ‘Donald!’ Then he turns to Rupert. ‘Rupert, Donald and I have to tell you something.’
‘Let’s go into the garden,’ says Donald nervously, reappearing at the foot of the stairs.
‘And wake the neighbours?’ inquires Rupert. He follows them outside, and glancing from one to the other, sees their guilty looks. ‘So, what happened with Sarah?’
Donald squirms. ‘Well, what if, for the sake of argument …’
Rupert instantly loses his thin veneer of cool. ‘Stop this doubletalk, knob-brain! What the hell are you talking about? Where is Sarah, and is she alive or not?’
‘Well, I’m afraid John sort of killed her…’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake! Typical moronic behaviour! Well I’ll have you know that this could screw up the entire success if the mission. If it does I’ll be wearing your bollocks around my neck next time we meet.’
Donald winces. ‘Well, actually I got shot, Rupert, and it bloody well hurt..’
‘Don’t expect any sympathy from me!’
‘You were too late too warn us, mate,’ says John calmly.
Rupert strides around the garden, clenching and unclenching his fists furiously. ‘Donald the Hit Man Dick Head and John the Army Wuss. Dickhead Duo Incorporated. Call Dickheads if you want a job done really badly. Ring 0800 KNOB HEAD! Well, get stuffed the both of you.’
‘Good news, though,’ says Donald brightly. ‘My helper’s back – the grail maiden healed me up good and proper. She’s back, and I think she can help us.’
‘She helped you? Shame!’ retorts Rupert sarcastically.
‘Anyway, we left a symbol of Nef on Sarah’s forehead. They should work out who it’s from, and come after her.’
‘Oh God. Preserve me from idiots with a sense of initiative. Well, we’d better go back inside, or Daphne’s neighbours really will have something to complain about, rather than just the usual shagging noises. I’ll explain my plan.’
‘Right, gather round, everyone,’ says Rupert, who seems to have forgotten his anger at Donald and John in the excitement of his new plan. ‘It’s all about the amulet. It prevents anyone wearing it from being affected by her powers, so if she wears it, it should dampen down her powers enough so we can kill her! Excellent!’
‘Nef mentioned that your dad thought he was clever – because he had the amulet hidden away?’ muses Sean. ‘It could be that important – a bargaining tool perhaps? But more use to us as a weapon or an energy source…’
‘But who will bell the cat?’ inquires George. ‘She’s not going to just put it on.’
‘It stands to reason,’ says Rupert impatiently. ‘I will have to be the one to put the amulet on her. She’s an arrogant bitch. If I give her the spaceship and tell her she’s wonderful she’ll believe it. Then I slip it over her wrist and you lot kill her.’
There is a brief silence. ‘That’s rather exposing you, old chap,’ says George awkwardly. ‘I don’t imagine she’ll be happy.’
‘But hopefully the amulet’ll cripple her,’ says Sean, rather doubtfully. ‘It appears to be an energy source or some kind, maybe it absorbs energy from things around it and releases it… just thinking about Marty and his car going up: there was a battery present in the car.’ He shrugs. ‘Not sure, we never really found out much about what was going on there!’
‘More worrying is that the amulet is cursed, supposedly,’ says George. ‘Look what happened to your father.’
‘And to Marty,’ says Donald.
‘He didn’t have the amulet when he was killed!’ exclaims Rupert.
‘No, because you took it off him,’ points out Donald.
‘Our only hope is to chuck everything we’ve got at it, and at her, and hope it goes up,’ says Sean reflectively. ‘O’course, if it’s an energy source that she’s been after, we’re stuffed.’
Donald says ‘We should set explosives in the ship, too: if it looks bad for us, we can blow it up. It won’t kill her, but it will really piss her off… it might be our parting shot to her, I suppose. Sean, I’m sure you can manage this. We need contingencies, something to blow the ship up if we fail, something we can set off ourselves if we’re still alive but making a run for it that sort of thing – you can deal with the finer details, just let us know what you plan.’
‘No problemo, as we used to say in Mexico,’ says Sean calmly. And you know what happened there, Shamus reminds him. Give these guys guns and they’ll only start shooting at the wrong moment!
As if on cue, George draws Donald and Sean aside. ‘Have either of you chaps got something a little more powerful than this pop-gun?’ He produces the .22 pistol previously gained from Donald. ‘Only, if we are actually going to try to kill Nefertiti, I shall need something that can kill an Ylid, not a weapon that would struggle to pierce a carrier bag.’
Donald cheerfully hands over a .44 Magnum. ‘Here you go, me old son, the most powerful handgun in the world, as a very wise man once said. Plenty of stopping power in that. Just try and remember if you fired five or if you fired six!’
‘Thanks!’ says George heartfeltly, checking the action.
He heads over to Rupert, who is pacing up and down excitedly. ‘Anything for you, Rupes me old mate?’
‘There’s no point in me holding any weapons. She’ll be so close to me she’ll see them, and then my story’s blown. No, I’ll be unarmed. At my signal you lot jump out and kill her.’
‘OK, your decision.’ Donald steps closer and speaks quietly. ‘ You know that it’s you she wants as her bloke, not your brother. You might have to be prepared to… do what you have to… to stop yourself becoming her slave – are you ready to do that?’
Rupert blinks rapidly as he takes Donald’s meaning.
Donald adds, rather too matter-of-factly for Rupert’s liking, ‘Cos if you’re not, I can do it, if you want – bearing in mind I might be horribly mutilated at her hands.’
‘Good plan,’ says Sean. ‘I’ll give him a dead-man’s hand as well. It’ll set the bomb off if his heart beat stops.’ Rash though this plan sounds, he reasons that he can knock up something that looks the part in a few minutes. If Rupert believes it is real, so will Nefertiti.
‘Sean,’ says John. ‘You couldn’t rig up some sort of a timer to those explosives, could you? One that needs resetting by remote every ten or fifteen minutes to stop it going off. I’m just thinking that if we rig it as a command detonation and Nef controls us we won’t be able to blow it. But if she grabs control and just stops us from doing stuff unless ordered then it’ll blow on its own.’
‘Fair enough,’ says Sean. ‘Although if she can read our minds and maybe force us to enact the command anyway…’
‘Well, look on the bright side eh? – maybe she can’t.’
‘By the way, chaps,’ announces Rupert, ‘she’s got to release Arabella first. If she doesn’t, then I’m not putting the amulet on, and we’re not killing her. Understand?’
‘Are you sure about that?’ asks John. ‘Shouldn’t we kill her anyway?’
Rupert glares at him. ‘That’s the way it is. Like it or lump it.’ More constructively, he adds ‘And we have to take Arabella along with us in our own vehicle, so that we know for sure whether her spirit has been released.’
Karyn is wishing she’d never thought of going undercover at Nefertiti’s place. This maid stuff is really irritating her, to put it lightly. She’s not some ‘little woman’ that runs around the house after people.
‘Girl! Come here and fluff these cushions again,’ cries Nefertiti imperiously.
Karyn stifles a sharp retort and grudgingly obeys. ‘Why don’t you get some sleep, mistress? You’ve got a big day tomorrow.’ And you don’t know the half of how big, she adds to herself.
Nefertiti fixes her with a glare. ‘Mind your own business! How do you know what I am doing tomorrow?’
‘Er, you told me, mistress. Lunch at Buckingham Palace?’ Karyn replies nervously.
‘Ah. Yes, I did. Very well, then. But you must keep a still tongue in your head if you are to serve me well.’
Nonetheless, the Ylid seems to take Karyn’s advice, and quickly dozes off to sleep.
This is fortunate, as it means Karyn is able to answer her phone in privacy, when it rings a few minutes later.
‘ Hello Karyn dear. Sorry to tear you away from your housekeeping. I’ll wait a moment, while you finish off your dusting, if you want.’
‘Very funny, Rupert. What do you want?’
‘Well two things, actually, old girl. Firstly, we’re going to confront Nefertiti at her place at around three am on the morning of the 31st. Can you tell your friends with the van with the spaceship in to deliver it to Nefertiti’s flat, say at two thirty? We’ll meet it there. If you can assist in any way at all then please do.’
‘No problem.’ Karyn thinks. ‘Oh, there’s a charm I was taught, that I could put on the amulet so that the next person to wear it won’t be able to take it off. That’d allow everyone to pump as many bullets into her as they like to put her down.’
‘Nice idea, but I don’t think it’s going to be possible to get the amulet to you in advance. Maybe you could work the charm up and put it on at the moment of handover? Anyway, the other thing, well I’d like you to do me a big favour. Can you ring up Scotland Yard, say at two fifty tomorrow morning? Tell them that there is a foreign power trying to undermine the stability of the British government. The foreign power is based on the island of Nauru, and works through a man called Geoff Blaize at… well, you know the address. Tell them that they are called SITU and they have cells of agents who are asked to cause trouble throughout the country. Tell them they have to act quickly to arrest Blaize and stop these evil people. Also maybe say that the people in Nauru need stopping as well.’
‘I certainly don’t mind dropping him in it,’ says Karyn. She has no great loyalty to SITU. ‘But why me make the call, rather than one of you?’
‘It’ll be better coming from there where Nefertiti is. When they trace it and find out that she’s dead, and link it to Blaize, he’ll be in the doodoo. Serve the pathetic git right. We smash SITU at the same time as we kill the Ylids. Serves the Servitors right. I mean if the Ylids are really trying to leave Earth, why on earth would the Servitors want to stop them? We’re not being told the full story here, by anyone.’
Karyn umms wisely, although she has no real idea whether Rupert is talking sense or just being paranoid.
‘Anyway, I’ll say goodbye dear heart. Oh, by the way, there’s some dust on that surface to your left, and I do need some washing done myself so… OK goodbye!’
By the time these last syllables are uttered, Karyn has thrown the phone across the room, where it has satisfactorily exploded against a rather fine Arabic-looking wall-hanging.
Preparation continues throughout the day, and it is late before the group are ready to make their move.
Donald turns to Mahmoud. ‘I’ll be honest with you, kid, I don’t know if you’ll see me again.’
Mahmoud’s eyes grow wide with fear.
‘If I don’t make it out of this one, go to this address: they’ll look after you. Tell them I sent you,’ Donald hands Mahmoud a scrap of paper. It’ll give me an incentive to stay alive if I know where he’s going, he thinks to himself.
Mahmoud bursts out crying and dashes upstairs, clutching the piece of paper to his heart.
‘Is that a tear in your eye there, old boy?’ George enquires curiously.
‘Nah,’ replies Donald, composing himself and stubbing out his cigarette. ‘Just smoke.’ He lights another one. ‘Tell you what though, George, I’m scared: don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. Not even in Egypt, when the Brotherhood were pounding on me. Things just worked out, didn’t they?’
‘They certainly seemed to,’ agrees George. ‘But now we’ll be up against the source of all that – the being that was behind it the whole time.’ His normally cheerful expression is solemn. ‘I don’t mind telling you, it gives me the willies all right.’
Sean has busily packed a shaped charge onto a broom handle. ‘Use it as a spear,’ he explains. ‘Get it in the monster’s mouth, maybe throw it and hit an eye!’
‘That sounds like you’re already too close for comfort,’ says John.
‘Yeah. I was thinking about maybe trapping it in a stone circle, if we’d had the exchange at Stonehenge or somewheres. Or we could have got some Egyptologist dude to draw us an ochre circle like the one at the warehouse, to confine it. Still, too late for that now.’ He scratches his head, with the other hand carefully emptying the charge from a rifle cartridge preparatory to packing it into an empty tin can. ‘Funny, none of the other Ylids have had pet monsters, but plenty of ’em could change appearance. Maybe it’s her, in another form? How else could the monster get to Arabella’s flat, in broad daylight, unless it could transform? She’s the old bastard’s girlfriend, or she’s the Queen of Egypt, or she’s a great big monster, or…’ He falls silent, glancing at Daphne.
‘D’you still not trust Daphne?’
‘I’m just thinking it was very convenient how she directed us to Sarah, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t Nefertiti have wanted that, so that we’d eliminate the opposition?’
‘She couldn’t have known we’d eliminate them, though, surely. We might have teamed up with them, if it hadn’t been for…’
Sean nods doubtfully, taping an impact fuse on the base of the can to complete his makeshift rifle grenade. ‘Where was Daphne while we were meeting with Nef in her flat?’
But John does not know the answer to this question either.
It is a very cold 0300 hours on the morning of New Year’s Eve when the tired but excited operatives liaise with Karyn’s Mysteria troupe outside Nefertiit’s flat. The van containing the spaceship is handed over, and the Mysterians depart quickly: they have no wish to be caught up in the trouble doubtless shortly to ensue. George casts a glance upwards at the neighbour flats: they are likely to experience a rather rude awakening. Still, it’s for their own good really: they wouldn’t choose for Nefertiti to become Queen, if they had the option.
Rupert gives all of this little thought, pacing up and down excitedly, determined and thin-lipped. He leans past Sean, who is busily hiding caches of explosives around the ship, and says ‘I’d like to do something before we start, if I may.’
He takes out his mobile phone and types in a number. ‘Blaize old bean, it’s me Rupert. How the devil are you?’
‘Rupert, I thought I’d persuaded you not to ring me at this time of night unless it was important.’ Blaize sounds tired and annoyed.
‘OK, how about a little quiz to wake you up?’
‘I’m not in the mood for games. If you need…’
‘Question one,’ Rupert interrupts. ‘Where am I now, and question two, what is this?’ He tings the metal of the spaceship with his thumbnail.
‘Look, if this is all you wanted to…’
‘No, no, don’t give up, that’ll spoil the whole fun of it.’
‘I’m going to hang up now…’
‘OK, you’ve talked me into it. I’m standing outside of Nefertiti’s house, and I’m touching the spaceship that some of our friends stole from you the other night.’
There is a pause. ‘What did you say?’ Blaize’s voice is quiet and menacing.
‘You heard me. Don’t try to thank me, Blaize. Listen, a last farewell. I love you, Blaize, and I want to have your babies. Byeee!’ He closes the phone.
Donald hides behind a dustbin, the others doing likewise. He concentrates on summoning the image of the Grail maiden into his mind. ‘Are you ready up there? Remember, just help me keep my mind clear – I know you are strong enough.’ I really don’t want to die, he adds silently to himself.
‘For Queen, country and Daphne!’ George mutters. Try as he might he has been unable to think of any less suicidal plan.
Rupert takes a deep breath, walks up the outside stairs, and rings on the bell.
Karyn is already awake when the doorbell goes, having just phoned the police: the desk officer sounded more than a little suspicious at her wild tale of international intrigue, but promised to set an inquiry in motion.
She knocks on Nefertiti’s door, and finds her already awake, sitting up in bed. ‘He is near: I sense him,’ says the Ylid. ‘Or perhaps it is this foolish girl within me that senses him.’ She looks piercingly at Karyn. ‘We will settle this now, one way or the other, girl. If your friends are wise, they will conduct this exchange and all of us will leave this place happy.’
Karyn swallows, hard. It is apparent that her imposture has not entirely taken the Ylid in.
‘You do not make a very good maid, by the way,’ Nefertiti adds absently, as she climbs out of bed. ‘you are too hasty and slapdash. But I do not imagine you intended to make it a career.’
‘Damn right I didn’t!’ exclaims Karyn. ‘I’m a writer normally.’ Why she feels this urge to justify herself to the Ylid now, she does not know.
‘Well, you will continue to watch your tongue and your manners while you are in my service, writer or not. Unless you can find me a genuine maid as replacement.’
Clad in a heavy silk dressing-gown, she walks to the front door, Karyn trailing behind. ‘Open it, girl!’
‘Look, Shareena, I understand your scepticism about me, so I decided to prove my loyalty. I am and will always be your obedient consort. To prove it I have brought you the spaceship now, in advance of the New Year. I want you to know in what high esteem I consider you.’ Rupert certainly gives the impression of sincerity – as much as he ever does about anything.
Nefertiti smiles slowly. ‘Good. I am glad you have chosen to end this foolish resistance.’
Rupert gestures down at the open back of the van. ‘Behold, my gift to you. This will prove to you as nothing else can that I love you and will remain always your loyal consort.’ As he speaks, a vivid image flashes before his eyes: his brother Charles, broken-hearted with disappointment. He irritatedly dispels the image: it has certainly been put there by Nefertiti, presumably as some sort of test, rather than emanating from his own feelings.
‘I do not need proof of that, Rupert. Now your decision has been made, I can ensure it persists.’ She smiles widely, gazing down at the ship. ‘But thank you for this token.’
Rupert drops awkwardly to his knees in front of her. ‘Oh great Nefertiti. I love you so. Please, now I have shown my loyalty, be beneficent towards me and mine. Release Arabella’s spirit. It is but a shadow of your own, and can offer no threat. I beseech you, oh great one.’
‘Goodness knows it is scarcely doing me any benefit,’ sighs the Ylid. ‘Very well, I release the pallid thing.’ She makes a strewing gesture with both hands, and speaks three clear syllables in what is presumably Ancient Egyptian. As she does so, Rupert feels himself curiously dizzied.
Down in the team’s own van, parked safely around the corner, Arabella’s still, troubled form convulses, gasps and shudders, her eyes twitching beneath their lids.
Rupert had been expecting a great surge of relief at the accomplishment of this major goal, but he is perturbed to realize he feels no such thing. In fact, he feels quite unconcerned as to Arabella’s fate. He grits his teeth. ‘Shareena, my partner into the future, please may I kiss your hand?’
‘Of course you may, my faithful consort and first subject.’ She offers him her right hand.
Rupert takes her hand in his left, and draws the Punt prayer disc up into his right. He kisses her hand, and makes to slip the disc into it. But, to his horror, his right arm will not obey him: it skulks, cowardly and recalcitrant, down at his side.
Rupert’s eyes widen with dismay, and Nefertiti smiles down at him munificently.
Karyn, realizing at once that the plan has gone wrong, darts around Nefertiti’s side onto the cast-iron landing, and mutters a swift charm.
Nefertiti strikes her aside with her left hand, sending her tumbling down the stairs. She starts to chant again, this time in a lighter voice, almost singing. Her magnificence grows, like a nimbus about her.
‘Bugger!’ mutters George. He has had a premonition that something like this would happen. Oh well, weather the storm and take it like a man! He sights carefully along his forearm, and fires, the Magnum’s detonation shockingly loud in this quiet London morning.
The bullet strikes Nefertiti, but apart from swaying her slightly has no effect.
‘Open up, for fuck’s sake!’ spits Sean. ‘Just hit her with everything!’
‘We can’t! If we hit Rupert, we lose all chance of taking her down!’ snaps John. He takes careful aim and puts three rifle bullets into the vicinity of the Ylid’s head. Again, there is no significant effect.
Nefertiti sketches a quick, complex sign in the air with her left hand – her right is still occupied with Rupert, although it is not at all clear who is holding whom – and the air in the mews starts to shimmer and sparkle, swiftly taking on form and solidity – Ammit, Eater of Souls, in all her hideous and terrifying glory, comes into gigantic flesh, scale and hide, snapping her starlit jaws hungrily.
‘Lord save us now!’ mutters Sean, hastily pouring out a libation of good Irish whiskey, for the benefit of the local spirits, whatever they might be. He empties his handgun at Ammit, who roars – that will wake the neighbours, if the gunshots haven’t – and takes up the grease gun at his feet. At least this means they’re not the same, Shamus assures him. So the monster shouldn’t be as tough to kill as an Ylid, boy. ‘But we’ve got to take both of ’em down,’ Sean groans.
Donald grits his teeth – there is a blank spot in his vision when he tries to look at Nefertiti, put there by the Grail maiden, who is doing her best to keep the Ylid’s distracting glamour from tweaking his loins, but the monster is something he understands. He yells, and opens up on it with his sub-machine gun. Bullets spray and splatter all over the mews, bouncing off Ammit’s scaly hide.
A nonsense rhyme from George’s youth comes to him: ‘I shoot the Hippopotamus / With bullets made of platinum / Because if I use leaden ones / His hide is sure to flatten ’em.’
Rupert is still bent on his knee over Nefertiti’s hand, clutching it in a grip like death, struggling desperately to cling to some vestige of his will against the overwhelming feelings of love and adoration that are sweeping over him. This isn’t the way it’s meant to be, a tiny inner voice plaints. Not like this – not giving in to her, not giving her what she wants. When did you ever do that, for anyone, never mind an Ylid? Slowly, inch by inch, his right hand, still clutching the disk, tendons standing out like knives, edges out of his pocket.
Karyn, at the foot of the stairs and behind Ammit, groggily comes to her knees. Donald tosses her a handgun, which she catches reflexively, but she can see that it will be no use against the beast.
‘Here!’ barks Sean, dropping his gun and snatching up one of the two explosive-packed broom handles. He throws it to George, and grabs up the other himself. He yells incoherently at Ammit, and thrusts the broom towards her gaping maw.
Ammit, moving with surprising speed for her bulk, seizes the broomhandle in her jaws and snaps it clean off, jerking the end out of Sean’s hands. The charge falls to the floor and spends itself harmlessly cratering the tarmac. ‘Fuck!’
Ammit advances on George, who is paralysed with dismay, twisting his broomhandle aside to prevent her seizing it, but getting backed into a corner. He can feel the warm, sweet fetor of her breath on his face.
Donald’s face convulses with fury as he sees George weakening. ‘Feeling old, George? No wonder Daphne shagged me – she needed something a bit more lively!’
George’s face goes quite white with fury, and he savagely jabs the broomhandle upwards just as Ammit turns her head to snap at him.
At the same moment Rupert, sweat bursting out on his forehead, wrenches his right hand forward and onto Nefertiti’s. As the Punt disk touches her flesh, her chant falters, and her aura fades slightly. ‘I love you to death, bitch,’ he grates, forcing his unwilling lips into the sounds.
Nefertiti tenses and recoils, as John, still alert from his more distance vantage, puts two more shots into her. This time he sees blood start to ooze from the wounds, although nothing like the effect he would have expected on a human.
The Ylid suddenly jumps over the rail, shaking her arm to detach Rupert, he clinging on in desperation, all his muscles locked.
Just before she lands, the percussion cap on the end of George’s broom connects with the back of Ammit’s throat, and a horrid wet explosion blows a great chunk out of the rear of the monster’s head. It sways, totters and slumps in a dismal heap, slowly steaming in the chill air.
Rupert almost faints in pain as he crashes to the street, still clinging to Nefertiti, who has landed agilely and easily herself. But the shred of will he still has knows that he has to retain his clasp on her hand, the disk trapped against her, shattered leg or no shattered leg.
John and Donald are now both pumping bullets into the Ylid’s upper body, blood bursting out all over her as she sways back and forth under their fire, but the determination on her face is almost tangible as she drags Rupert over towards the van and her ship.
‘No, you don’t!’ exclaims Karyn, realizing what Nefertiti is trying to do. She darts for the cab of the van, none too steady herself – wrenches out the keys, and slings them down the lane, as the Ylid gasps in fury.
Nefertiti, her beautiful face now a terrifying mask of rage – the Grail maiden has recoiled from Donald’s mind, now that there is no longer any danger of him being attracted to this monster – steadies herself against the back of the van, her free hand reaching out for the hull of the ship.
‘Fuck that!’ exclaims Sean, and reaching into his jacket, he presses the command button.
At once the van explodes into a greasy fireball, shot through with purple and blue flames as the unusual metals of which the spaceship is constructed ignite. There is a series of deafening reports.
Neertiti is briefly silhouetted against the blaze, then goes up like a torch herself, drawn into the fireball.
Rupert is blown backwards and fetches up against the kerb, striking it very awkwardly and landing loosely, his head sprawling and his eyes rolling back blankly.
‘You’ve killed him!’ exclaims George, whose face is still pale. He raises his gun hand, and, to Donald’s horror, empties the last two chambers into the back of Sean’s head, which disintegrates bloodily.
Shamus scampers merrily ahead of Sean over a grassy plain. Come on, boy, come on. Fiddle music is playing, and people are dancing. Sean feels the years and the weight fall off him, and sees old comrades to either side, reaching out for his hands. That;s the end of all that, then. What happens next? Only time will tell.
‘He never saw it coming, just like the victims of his murdering bastard friends,’ spits George.
Donald backs away from George slightly, holding his hands out placatingly, as John jogs up to see what’s going on. ‘I didn’t touch her, honest mate. I just needed to pull you out of Nef’s influence to keep you going. Daphne’s a great girl – ask her, nothing happened… ooops, I mean I tried, we were both drunk, but she loves you – so nothing happened.’
George dismisses Donald with a gesture and bends over Rupert, whose life is fading fast. ‘Thank Christ we killed the bitch,’ he is just about able to faintly mutter. ‘Look George I just want to say you’re a great chap and I think the world of you. Check Arabella – if the kid’s OK, I want you to take care of it. Help Arabella raise it. I’m naming it after you, you know. George Oberon Damien de Montfort. Initials GOD. Appeals to my sense of humour, as does Damien. Second coming and all that.’
George nods, wiping a tear from his eye. The dead Ylid continues to blaze, and police sirens sound in the distance. Karyn has gone to fetch Arabella, who has now returned to consciousness, and guides her through the carnage to join him over Rupert’s sightless eyes. ‘I’m also fond of Donald, though you may not credit it. Like his tactlessness. It’s like myself, a bit. John’s not a bad chap either. Karyn? Well she’s a good bit of totty.’ And with Arabella and George silently clutching his hands, Rupert bids a last farewell to the mortal realm.