We're pleased to present original fiction from contributor David Calvert. David has written some of our most treasured stories, including Dispatches. He's sent us another which is already one of our favorites, an imaginative tale of an unlikely heroine on a most daunting quest.

Fiction

THE BOOKFINDER   By David Calvert

In a small semi-detached house in the suburbs of London, Mrs. Brady sat alone, as usual, at her kitchen table. Pouring another cup of tea, she resumed browsing through the pages of a book she had recently located for a client.

      "Impregnated a woman at a hundred and three... oh dear," she said absently , the words hanging in the stillness of the kitchen. She reached for another biscuit, tapping it three times against the side of the dish to knock off crumbs. With an elegantly worked fine silver bookmark, she flipped over another creaking page. Adjusting the fit of her glasses, she continued. "Oh my... I don't like the sound of eating that." She nibbled on the last of the biscuits and poured a little milk in the dish. "Lived to a hundred and sixty nine... goodness me."

      The gentle thump of soft cat paws landing on the table top was a pleasant coda to the kitchen's silence.

      "Hello, Mr. Kipling. I didn't think you'd be too far from a hot stove on a night like this." The cat purred and spooned the milk with his tongue. Gently closing the thick bound cover, she removed her glasses and gently massaged the bridge of her nose with thumb and little finger. Using the table for assistance, she stiffly stood up and stretched. Checking a number from her waiting list of current clients by the phone, she dialed. "Hello, is that the Mure residence? This is Mrs. Brady... you requested my book finding service."

      "And did you find it?" rasped a frail voice.

      "Yes, I have the book in question with me now, Histoire des Personnes Qui Ont V'ecu Plusieurs Se'cles, et Qui Ont Rajeuni, bit of a long winded title, I know, but it's the one you're looking for. The 1753 first pressing of Monsieur De Longuville Harcouet's text on longevity recipes."

      "Its condition... are all the pages there?"

      "Excellent. Though its cover being replaced in Brussels, 1823, threw me off the scent. But all the print works are there."

      The frail voice grateful, payment and exchange procedures were made. Hanging up the phone, she ticked the name off her list. "Another satisfied customer, eh Mr. Kipling?"

      After supper, Mrs. Brady prepared herself for bed. Dressed in her nightgown, curlers in hair, Mr. Kipling and a hot water bottle under either arm, she made her way upstairs. As she passed the phone, it rang.

      "Who the devil could that be at this time of night?" She stared at the phone as it rang annoyingly the third time. Tutting and shaking her head, she decided which of the two objects tucked comfortably under her arms to put down. With her free hand she picked up the phone. Mr. Kipling continued up the stairs, mewing discontent for her decision.

      "Hello?" she said cautiously.

      "I wish to speak to Mrs. Brady... The Bookfinder."

      Feeling a sudden chill, she clutched the hot water bottle closer to her bosom. "Speaking," she said pertly.

      "My name is Collins... Mr. Collins, and I desire to engage your service, which I have heard praisingly about..."

      "Well, Mr. Collins, I don't know which of my clients recommended me to you, but I'm sure they didn't tell you to phone me at this time of night."

      "Forgive me for any bad timing and manners on my part Mrs. Brady. I'm not in town very long, you see, and the book is needed immediately for my research."

      "I'm sorry, Mr. Collins, but there are other people in line for books before you," she said firmly. "Let me remind you that this is not some common street service I do. I am very fussy about my clientele and the books I handle..."

      "Precisely, precisely, exactly what I mean. I wanted to tell you that I'm a collector, and like you, Mrs. Brady, a fine connoisseur of books. I was hoping to give you an invitation to my private library... it will put to shame any that you've ever seen." The chill in his voice had gone, replaced by an excitement familiar in its origin, that was unavoidably contagious for Mrs. Brady.

      "I've seen some well-stocked private libraries in my time," she said confidently.

      "I tell you no word of a lie..." the caller said eagarly. "For example, I'm sure you're familiar with Fabrica De Humani Corpori."

      "First publication?"

      "Naturally. 1543, Switzerland."

      The line was silent for a moment. Mrs. Brady was impressed. She cleared her throat. "Well... I'm not riding busses this time of night, I know that."

      "My driver can be over immediately to pick you up."

      "You better tell him to come round in an hour, no sooner mind, I don't want him catching me in my curlers."

      "Certainly. Just as you request."

An hour later, a stretched black cab pulled up, whisking Mrs. Brady into the night. The Bookfinder had cliental from all stations of life: The Vatican, literati, public libraries and even royalty at some time or other had needed her service. She had often rubbed shoulders with aristocracy in elegant surroundings, though all the time secretly feeling that real wealth is in one's reading. Whether they were after a first printing of Catcher In The Rye, with its original plain maroon paper jacket, or one of the two hundred Gutenberg Bibles printed in 1456 by Johann Fust, The Bookfinder would deliver. Now inside the warmth of the black cab, Mrs. Brady thought it peculiar she could see through the windows when on the outside, but on the inside looking out, the windows were tinted. Rolling down one of the windows an inch, she peeked out. Through the blustery draught she could see they were crossing Waterloo Bridge over the Thames.

      Mr. Collins was true to his word. He sat almost hidden behind a desk piled high with books in a private library that surpassed any other that Mrs. Brady had visited. He was a very slender man which exaggerated his long face, black hair beginning to betray age by going grey around the ears. He was dressed in a smoking jacket and other apparel from the turn of the century, which Mrs. Brady found agreeable with such a stern-looking character.

      It was the capacity of the library that held her attention. She hovered around the desk, not wanting to be seated for the moment. Three large walls were crammed with books, while a butterfly menagerie, encased in a beautifully-crafted display, covered the whole of the fourth wall. "May I?" she asked Mr. Collins, gesturing towards the shelves.

      "Certainly. Be my guest."

      She made a zigzag pattern towards the shelves, tempted by one title, then another. "I am absolutely amazed," said Mrs. Brady, returning a book to the shelf while pulling on another.

      "I do class myself as fortunate," said Mr. Collins, smugly.

      "Roger Bacon's treatise on The Secret Work of Nature And Art, 1254-for this he was imprisoned for sorcery." Tenderly she stroked the cotton and linen pages, revolutionary for the change over from parchment. Oblivious to the nodding approval of Mr. Collins, she continued to pick out books. A Roman codex, a sixteenth century first printing of Xenogenesis, by the Mad Abbot, with its original flayed human skin cover. And here, a copy of Canterbury Tales from the Caxton Press. She cradled the book.

      It wasn't until a servant brought tea for them both that Mrs. Brady finally sat on the other side of the desk, looking at Mr. Collins through a gap in the pillars of books. "Most impressive," she said, unable to stop her gaze from wandering the room. "Now. What is the book you're looking for?"Out of the corner of her eye, Mrs. Brady was almost certain she saw one of the larger specimens in the glass case close its wings, then reopen them.Mr. Collins offered her a glass of sherry. She politely declined, but noticed the steadiness in his hand as he poured his drink.

      "I'm not sure when it was written," he said, gently sipping the sherry. "But I believe the original text was of Egyptian origin, written on clay tablets, the earliest date I can actually place it anywhere is Babylon, third century B.C. That was where it was copied onto a scroll and given its first title, The Ichabah. Then it was taken with many other spoils of war to Alexandria, somewhere around 323 B.C."

      "Alexander The Great's India campaign?" Mrs. Brady said absently, straining her eyes for further movement in the menagerie.

      "Correct. From there I regret I loose its trail."

      "What about the Roman occupation of the city by Julius Caesar? It was part of the Empire by 40 B.C- couldn't they have taken it?"

      "For the last four years I've checked all existing records of books in the libraries of Imperial Rome at that time. There is nothing. If it survived, Mrs. Brady, or perished in the flames of declining civilization, you will find out for me."

At 9:00 A.M the next morning, Mrs. Brady walked into the British Museum and flashed her library card in a doorway marked 'authorized personal only.' Assistance was eagerly offered.

      "Hello, Mrs. Brady. And what can we do for you today?" Taking a short list from her handbag, she handed it to the assistant.

      "There you go, Mark. You better get one of your friends to help you with the last one on the list, it's very big and cumbersome."

      Mark looked at the list. "Mmm...your after a real old one this time. Eh, Mrs. Brady?"

      "It would seem so, Mark." It wasn't long before Mrs. Brady was sitting at a well lit desk with several books on it, in deep concentration. The staff knew better than to disturb her when she was researching. The Bookfinder studied all options, the most prominent being that The Ichabah followed the trade routes into Persia, possibly as far as India. But its fate was still shrouded in mystery. After several hours she reluctantly closed the last of the books on her desk. A part of the puzzle is missing, she thought. She had exhausted this approach. She checked Mr. Collins' list of books that he had already gone through on titles in ancient Roman libraries. His search had been thorough. She made another list, handing it to the assistant on duty. Sifting through a pile of miscellaneous ledgers of Rome dating from 300 A.D, The Bookfinder paused, drawing the document under the light.

       It was a work order for a book binder dated 425 A.D, commissioned by the library of Imperial Rome for a shipment of scrolls from Alexandria. The Ichabah was one of them. Mrs. Brady inhaled deeply through her nostrils, savoring the smell of musty books. She sighed, content with the first foot hold gained. On its arrival to Rome, The Ichabah was sent to the work place of Phileros Eumolpus, where the scroll was divided into pages and given an ox skin cover and a new name in Latin, Absconditus Ocuius.

       "The Hidden Eye," she whispered to herself. "It never reached the library shelves of Rome, Mr. Collins." The book under its new title was transported back to Alexandria. Not good, she thought, well aware of her history. Alexandria fell in A.D 636 to Omar, Third Caliph of Islam, who ordered the books of the fabled library to be used for heating the city's baths. Being thrown day and night into the furnaces, the books lasted six months. The only way Absconditus Ocuius could have survived was to be taken to Islam, perhaps finding its way to Jerusalem. The Bookfinder had a hunch.

      Another list was made and more books were brought to her table. Absconditus Ocuius emerged once more in history like a seasoned traveler of time. When Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, the book returned with them to Paris, eventually to become the property of The Templar Knights. She emerged from the pages. "Paris is the place to look."

      It wasn't Paris but close enough. The Bookfinder picked up the trail soon after arriving in Bordeaux, within the private collection of Monsieur Pei're Dreash. Absconditus Ocuius became the property of Geoffroi De Villeair. Soon after coming into its possession, De Villeair was condemned by the synod of Paris, along with fifty-one other Templars, and put to the stake in 1311. His family, fearing further persecution, moved the estate to Dole, where the book eventually came into the custody of a young and promising student, Cornelius Agrippa, in 1503. Now it was getting easier. Chronicles, ledgers, documents, all as brittle and brown as autumn leaves, were becoming plentiful. The Bookfinder followed the archival paper trail across Europe to the library of Dr. John Dee, astrologer to Elizabeth the First, eventually ending up in the royal treasury. There, the book stayed for centuries. In 1887 Queen Victoria generously donated the library of Dr. John Dee to the British Museum.

      Books vaulted in the British Museum, especially the Dee collection, were most familiar to Mrs. Brady. There was no chance Absconditus Ocuius had slipped past her scrutiny over the years. Mrs. Brady, well acquainted with the libraries of many members of royalty, knew the book didn't reside in those libraries either.

      Thanking Monsieur Dreash for the use of his library, The Bookfinder once more set off across Europe, this time with only the vaguest of hunches to go by: the integration of German and British royalty at the turn of the century meant many artifacts changing hands. Three days later in Berlin, Mrs. Brady found that Absconditus Ocuius had resided in the libraries of two of Germany's regents until the first World War, where the book found its way into the Museum of Berlin. On her arrival in Berlin, she had already checked a list of books in the Museum's vault with no success. Her options were narrowing. While meticulously combing through duplicated documents of the Nuremburg war trial, in the public records office, she came across a charge sheet of various art and religious objects plundered and lost by The Third Reich. Absconditus Ocuius was one of the listed. At the time of its disappearance it was in the care of one of The Reich's archaeologists, Karl Gumpendorfer, who was studying it, along with many other ancient documents. Books are hard to find. People are easy, she thought to herself with satisfaction.

In the city of Rotterdam, Holland, Karl Gumpendorfer waited impatiently for the last customer of the day to finish browsing through the book section of his antique shop before closing up. He was a little more irritable than usual, due to a phone call he had received not twenty-four hours ago. He coughed loudly, hoping to prompt the woman's choice. A few years ago he would have hurried her out of his shop, uncaring for her business. But times were difficult. He drummed his fingers on the cash register and with a sigh brushed back his thin grey hair as the old woman approached, empty handed.

      "May I tell you, Herr Gumpendorfer, you have an excellent selection of books... though I fear you may have over priced your Hans Christian Andersen collection," said Mrs. Brady.

      "It's popular," he said brashly. "Was there something you were looking for in particular, Fraulein?"

      "Yes... well it's a bit of an oddity, but I feel sure you may of come across it at one time or another. Absconditus Ocuius?"

      Karl Gumpendorfer brushed passed Mrs. Brady, hastily turning the sign around in the window. With his hand shaking more than usual, he locked the shop door. "Who sent you?" he said accusingly, wiping the mist from the window and peering out. "It was you on the phone the other day, wasn't it? Talking about that damned book?" He turned and faced her.

      "My card," she said.

      "Mrs. Brady, Bookfinder?" he said, baffled.

      "That's correct. I am presently engaged by a client for the location of the Ocuius. No one has 'sent me,' Herr Gumpendorfer."

      Karl Gumpendorfer pulled a pair of spectacles from his top pocket and continued to study the card before eyeing Mrs. Brady with the better bifocal. She had sounded much younger on the phone, he thought disappointedly, but visitors lately had been few and far between. Mrs. Brady followed him into the small living space in the back of the shop.

      "Forgive me for the mess," he said, removing a pile of books from a chair, adding them precariously to another pile. "Books seem to be the only friends I have of late." Mrs. Brady dusted the chair with her hankie, and sat herself down. Herr Gumpendorfer sat across from her. "I want to make something clear, Fraulein Brady, I was never a member of the Nazi Party."

      "I assure you, Herr Gumpendorfer, I have not come here to be judgmental. The book please. If you do not have it, which is what I suspect, please tell me about it." Karl Gumpendorfer looked a little disheartened at not having his confession heard. "Absconditus Ocuius," prompted Mrs. Brady.

      "Well..." he started slowly. "The book came into my department's possession only once and never again. It was three years before the war broke out, Absconditus Ocuius was one of several books of the occult that were delivered to my office, I was to study and catalogue them. Bergman, a colleague who I shared the office with, and I were working late one night. Bergman had the book open and was having difficulty translating it when there was a loud crash in the corridor. I left the room to investigate-it was one of the new girls, she said the tray flew out of her hands. I was helping clean up the mess when I heard Bergman scream."

      Gumpendorfer reached for the bottle he had been eyeing while telling Mrs. Brady his tale and poured himself a glass. "I ran back into the office. Bergman was dead. His whole body plastered round the room, from floor to ceiling. Filing cabinets, desks and books hovered in the room as if suspended by thread. In the center of the room stood a creature not of this world, Absconditus Ocuius tucked under its arm. I only saw it for a moment-it disappeared with the sound of water being sucked through a plug hole. When it had gone, the furniture crashed back to the floor."

      "Tell me, Herr Gumpendorfer, what did this creature look like?" Mrs. Brady asked intently. Gumpendorfer poured himself another drink, his hand trembled as he brought the glass to his lips.

      "Hideous, hideous. And the stench... It wasn't tall, it stood about four foot, but had a kind of squat appearance. It wore armor that looked like it was damaged by fire and war, though it didn't wear a helmet. Oh... how I wished it had worn a helmet." He looked down into his empty glass.

      "Describe it man, describe it."

      "A thick neck with a shaggy mane..." he said, moving his face close to Mrs. Brady's. She could see the red rim of sleepless nights around his eyes as he continued. "And the head of a horse, an ugly neighing horse..."

 Back in the library of Mr. Collins, Mrs. Brady finished telling him her findings and the fate of Absconditus Ocuius. The whole time she had been speaking, Mr. Collins stood with his back to her, staring into the butterfly menagerie. It was some moments before he spoke, and when he did it was with a disappointed sigh. "My servant will show you the door, Mrs. Brady," he said bluntly. "Please inform him of your expenses and time."

      Mrs. Brady remained motionless sitting at the desk. Mr. Collins turned stiffly around, raising an eyebrow.

      "Mr. Collins... forgive me prying, but I have been in the book finding business for over forty years now. Never have I come across an occasion when a book disappeared under the arm of a neighing creature. I do believe you know more about this particular abduction than you are willing to let on. I can still be of help, Mr. Collins, but I need to know all the facts."

      He turned back, staring into the menagerie.

      "Agaures, Grand Duke of Eastern Hell, that is the creature Herr Gumpendorfer describes. At one time they were all under me, I had control of the whole realm." Mrs. Brady nodded smugly to herself. She had already formed an opinion on Mr. Collins. Though he seemed likeable, possession of a library such as his was almost a supernatural event.

      "Then without doubt, you must be..."

      "Lucifer, yes. But please, Mr. Collins is fine. You see Mrs. Brady, things haven't been going too well just lately. A bit of civil unrest in the ranks, you could say. It was time for change. I had fallen from grace and now I had the desire to find His favor once again. Demons from the lowest pits of hell, who at one time feared me, said I was going soft. Soon every jackal-headed jester wanted to become a demigod. There was a coupe. So many factions were fighting each other, I had little choice but to abdicate."

      "What does Absconditus Ocuius hold for you?" asked Mrs. Brady.

      "It is one of many books and relics I still seek. Hidden within its folds is the secret of my redemption." He heaved his shoulders in a sigh. "But if Agaures has the book, all is lost."

      "Mr. Collins, Mr. Collins..." beckoned Mrs. Brady, attempting to pry his stare from the menagerie. "...Lost..." he said mournfully, gazing into the glass case.

      "Mr. Collins, you requested my service, and I still offer it to you now." Mr. Collins twisted slowly around and faced Mrs. Brady, squinting in disbelief.

      "You? Enter the realm?"

      "If that is required, Mr. Collins."

Mrs. Brady left Mr. Collins' house with two objects he had given her; a stone tablet with a symbol on it, which would gain her entrance to the dark realm, and a small golden twig which would insure her safety as long as she possessed it. She was driven to the Thames. The driver told her he was ordered to wait until her return.

      Walking down the worn steps of the embankment, The Bookfinder paused at the river's edge, breathing in deeply the cold night air. Following Mr. Collins instructions, Mrs. Brady removed the stone tablet from her handbag and dropped it to her feet, close to the water. Bringing her foot down on it she felt it break brittly under her heel.

      Nothing. Seconds went by. The chimes of Big Ben, off in the distance, reverberated into the night. Midnight. How fitting, she thought. Absently she counted off the chimes. On three, she noticed a delicate mist rising from the shattered tablet. Soon the mist was rolling across the water, enveloping her. The seventh chime was muffled and the eighth silenced. Everything became still. A splash caught Mrs. Brady's attention. She stared into the thick bank of mist where the sound came from. A shape began to form. A barge glided from out of the mist, punted towards her by a tall, thin figure. When close enough, she stepped boldly onto its deck, holding the golden twig defensively before her.

      "You need not protect yourself from me," said the thin figure. "I am only Charon, ferry man across this river." With little effort he pushed the barge from the shore with his pole. Relaxing her guard a little, Mrs. Brady looked over the hand rail into the water. Though swirling mist obscured her view, she thought she saw pale contorted faces staring up at her from beneath the waters. The barge came to a halt. Charon gestured towards the shore, and Mrs. Brady set foot in Hell.

      Darkness surrounded the land and a path of unwavering parallel edges stretched into the blackness.

      "Perhaps you could tell me which direction is east?" said Mrs. Brady, turning to Charon.

      He had already silently pushed off and was barely visible in the mist. She heard in a faded whisper.  "I am only the ferry man..." before he disappeared.

       Inspecting the black soil on both sides of the path, Mrs. Brady knelt down and dug her hand into it. Charred and void of all life, it seemed as though the whole area had been incinerated. Something flapped above, swooping in the darkness. From a distance came isolated, horrendous howls of torment and pain, rolling across the desolate landscape. Clutching the golden twig tightly, Mrs. Brady began to journey along the path and was engulfed in the darkness. Eventually in that strange netherworld, Mrs. Brady approached a crossroads.

      In silvery light, like that of an overcast full moon, she thought she saw a figure in the middle of the crossroads. A statue, she thought, scrutinizing its stillness. Converging warily on the statue, Mrs. Brady noticed it had three faces. Two were in profile and one stared in her direction-the face of a pretty maiden, smiling widely.

      "And what do we have here?" said the maiden-face in a condescending voice. Before Mrs. Brady could answer, the second face, that of a young girl, twisted its vigilance towards Mrs. Brady.

      "It's a little old lady," said the young child-face innocently, her eyes widening in toying curiosity. The last face, that of a withered crone, jerked violently round to gaze upon Mrs. Brady.

      "She's buggered, buggered," it chuckled.

      The Bookfinder composed herself and stepped forward. "You must be Hecate. Your master mentioned you."

      "My master, my master," said the maiden, offended. "If you mean that old goat in hiding, he has never been master over me. I have no loyalty to him and pick no side in this war for Hades. My kingdom is the crossroads I guard, and that is where we come back to you." The sinister smile returned to the maiden's lips.

      "Well, you see, I'm in rather a hurry. If you could just direct me to the east..." said Mrs. Brady, edging cautiously around Hecate.

      "The east!" cackled the crone. "Fool. I will not help you," snapped the maiden. Her head lunged forward, while the feet seemed rooted. "For your insolence, I will turn your intestines into writhing worms that will take eternity to eat themselves from your stupid vessel."

      "Yes, yes," the child laughed, "the wriggly worms!"

      The maiden stared in triumph at Mrs. Brady, and then frowned. "You are protected?"

      "Yes," Mrs. Brady said curtly, pulling the golden twig from her pocket. "And if you will not answer my question, I have much to do and bid you farewell."

Continuing along the path, Mrs. Brady tutted at the commotion she left behind. The crone heckled her with obscene language, the child wailed like a brat, the maiden pleaded for them both to shut up. It was not long before Mrs. Brady noticed more movement ahead. Coming towards her at a steady marching pace was an army at least five thousand strong by her reckoning, their columns disappearing into the infinite horizon. Mrs. Brady curiously wondered why she felt no fear, watching the advancing legion of Hell. Judging by the excitement in the ranks, they had already spotted her.

      In each column, the foot soldiers wore simple leather armour. The column leaders wore metal armour elegantly fashioned. Each wore a unique animal helmet; boar, wolf, bear, the variety was stunning. As they neared, it soon became apparent to Mrs. Brady that they weren't wearing helmets and the snarling, salivating heads were their own. Riding on mounts of half-starved horses, giant beetles and horned toads, they approached. She could see that each foot soldier carried a long pike, and were distinguished by their proboscis-type faces. Winged demons, leaped ecstatically from the ranks to hover in the air above. Mrs. Brady held her ground, confident of the protection Mr. Collins had provided her. Soon, a bustling circle of foot soldiers surrounded her, leveling their pikes.

      One of them, pulling a skinning knife from its belt, stepped towards her. The creature got no more than a few paces before a hammer the size of an anvil came down squarely on its head, splashing surrounding comrades with inky sludge. The weilder of the hammer pushed his reptile mount through the mob, crushing those who didn't scatter fast enough under foot. His voice boomed out, which momentarily surprised Mrs. Brady. He had the head of a raven-she'd expected more of a shrill shriek.

      "Back, back vomitus bile." His mount pushed its way towards her, taking any in its way and gulping them down like a gannet swallows fish. The mount halted in front of Mrs. Brady. The raven-headed rider leaned forward jauntily in his saddle, towering over her, the hammer still clutched in his fist, the width of a shovel. An axe and broad sword were strapped to the back of his breast plate, two dirks hung from either side of a thick belt round his hips. "I'm sure they waste their time meddling with you," he said. "To get this far-you must have some sort of protection?"

      Mrs. Brady produced the golden twig. The raven's eyes lit like embers in the black plumage. "Do you have word from the Dark Prince? Has he come to his senses, ready to claim back his infernal kingdom?"

      "Mr. Coll... I mean your Lord Lucifer, is making plans. That's all I know. Are you still loyal to him?"

      The raven laughed heartily, sliding the hammer into a sheath in the saddle. "I am Duke Malphas. I have fought many battles under the banner of the Prince in his absence. But now, I battle purely for my own profit and gain. And as you see, I am mid-venture." He urged his mount forward, carefully steering round Mrs. Brady. "Onward," he boomed to the column. "Give my Lord my regards, if you ever return to his place of hiding. Tell him I regret I cannot offer him my loyal assistance, but have my own pain to wage."

      "Before you go, Duke Malphas, could you tell me which direction is east?" Mrs. Brady asked in feigned innocence, knowing well the ruler of the east had gained many enemies in this war. The Duke jerked his mount to a stop.

      "Why east?" he said curiously, cocking his head like a parrot.

      "I'm looking for Agaures."

      Something resembling a smile appeared on the Duke's beak. "Stay on this path and take the right fork. That will take you to his fortress. But beware, there has been much fighting in the east. Keep your protection on you at all times, it shelters you from fear and even the stench of this abode. But you may still be vulnerable to temptation."

      "Thank you, Duke Malphas. It's good to see common courtesy exists even in this place."

The constant dimness of the desolate landscape made it impossible to track time and distance. Mrs. Brady finally reached the blackened walls of Agaures fortress. She would have gotten there much quicker if not for the carnage and bodies she had to clamber over, failed attacks on the fortress. Walking around the perimeter, looking for entry, Mrs. Brady came to a damaged section of wall with a siege tower still propped against it. Fighting had been most vicious here, judging by the mounds of butchered bodies. Mrs. Brady climbed the steps of the leaning tower. On the battlements, she surprised a work party of large ants. They had pink human arms and were harnessed to giant granite blocks they dragged laboriously. She moved through them unhindered, but not unnoticed.

      A mantis-headed overseer of the operation, who had been flogging the ant creatures, rasped incoherently through slobbering mandibles as he challenged Mrs. Brady. Walking towards her menacingly, bug eyes dipped, the mantis raised his whip, ready to lash her. Before his arm was fully raised, the whip left his hand in a convulsion. Flames flickered from the joints in his armour, molten tears of ocular fluid streamed from his melted eyes. An internal furnace raged within him. His armour clattered to the floor as his body turned to embers and ash, no longer able to support its weight. So was the fate of several others in the fortress who dared accost Mrs. Brady in the same manner.

      Holding the golden twig before her, trying many doors in a torch-lit corridor, Mrs. Brady eventually pushed open an oak door leading to a library, which she found unoccupied. The room was lavishly decorated-thick carpets with the fluid pattern of oil on water rippled with every step. Tapestries and drapes hung from the walls. In the rafters, stone gargoyles looked sternly down. Wasting no time, Mrs. Brady scanned the bookshelves with an expertise shared by few. Finally, she gently eased a book from the shelf, and held it in triumph.

      Absconditus Ocuius. As Mrs. Brady turned to leave the room, a book high on another shelf caught her eye. It was not the value of the book, or its luminescence sparkling, that drew her to place Absconditus Ocuius and the twig absently on a table. It was fairy tale enchantment. A book from her childhood, the first book she had ever laid her eyes upon. Standing on tip toe, one hand supporting her, she reached for the beautifully illustrated, 1912 printing of Gulliver's Travels. A shadow passed over her. Before Mrs. Brady could turn and grab her protection, a gargoyle swooped nimbly onto the table beside her, clutching the twig in its taloned hand. Mrs. Brady watched helplessly as the gargoyle flapped high out of reach. The book still possessed her. Reaching for the shelf, she suddenly stopped and bit her lip. The book was no longer there. In its place, a dull black leather bound text, Dante's Inferno.

      The library door swung violently open. An insane neigh of delight ruptured into the room. Agaures stepped forward, summoning the gargoyle to perch on his outstretched arm. The protection no longer in her grasp, Mrs. Brady grimaced in disgust as she drew up her nostrils the foulest of smells. Also, though not betraying it to Agaures, she felt the stir of fear churning her stomach. Mrs. Brady tried to take a step back from the bookshelves, but found the carpet no longer rippling under foot, instead holding her fixed like tar.

      Agaures fingered the golden twig jubilantly. "Is this the best he can do? An old woman?" he said, gloating. Shaking his mane, he snorted loudly through wide nostrils and stepped closer. "What value are you and the book to he, old woman?"

      Mrs. Brady composed herself. "Clearly, the 'he' you refer to is a much more refined person than you'll ever take form of."

      Twisting his cumbersome horse head side on to Mrs. Brady, he beamed at her with a brown, bloodshot eye. "I will be victorious in this war, reuniting the Dark Realm. I will open the scourge of Hades itself upon humankind." He rolled back thick lips, exposing a rotting smile long in tooth.

      Mrs. Brady braved a smile in return. "I believe I placed a wager of four pounds and thre'pence on a character like yourself once. I was told he was a favorite. He never even made the distance."

      Agaures kicked over a table in rage, the gargoyle flapping franticly to the rafters above. "I care not for this wit you produce at the moment of your expiration." He stamped his foot and fumed through his nostrils. "Here, the fate of the living is by far worse than that of the dead..."

      One of the mantis-headed guards burst through the library door in a panic. "Duke Agaures, there is movement on the battle plain."

      "Then finish the wrenches off," Agaures retorted angrily to the interruption. "Slowly."The guard humbly drew from the room, bowing and closing the door as he left.

      "Now what would the worse fate be for you...?" said Agaures, thoughtfully scratching his bristly chin. He paced the room.

       "Could anything be worse than being stuck in your company?" she said with feigned boredom. Hope was abandoning Mrs. Brady like sand from an egg timer, replaced by dread. Staring defiantly at Agaures, a nervous twitch began pulling at one of her eyelids.

      "You, old woman, will serve me," Agaures said slyly. "In the upper world, you will be a puppet of chaos eternal. The coin you reap will be the suffering and pain of humanity, by your own hand. But first... I must teach you how to truly appreciate pain." Agaures summoned a guard. "Fetch me a brazier of hot coals and irons," he commanded.

      Mrs. Brady felt her knee tremble. She struggled to move, but it seemed only to delight Agaures more. The brazier was brought to the library, an assortment of pokers and irons glowed red within its heat. The mantis-headed guard who tended the hot coals passed Agaures a thick pair of leather gloves. Pulling from the coals a poker with a vicious hook on it and a pair of pincers, Agaures waved them in Mrs. Brady's line of vision. "There is an art..." said Agaures, examining the glowing hook, "...to peeling a face from its skull, and keeping the expression of terror on its lips. When I am done, you will beg me to return your mask of torment."

      Mrs. Brady was ready to fall on her knees, to plea, whimper, jibber to Agaures for mercy. Her last bit of courage kept her from doing so, but even that was diminishing fast. Moving in closer to Mrs. Brady, Agaures lifted the hook to her forehead, preparing to pincer back the sizzling skin. As the hook drew near, Mrs. Brady felt her eyebrows frizzle. Inexplicably, Agaures stopped. He cocked his head sideward and pricked up his ears. There was a commotion in the corridor, shouts and screams.

      Two thunderous blows came down on the library door as it buckled and erupted into splinters. In the shattered doorway, his hammer in hand, stood the raven-headed Duke Malphas, bloods of various color clotted in his plumage and splashed upon his armour. Fierce fighting raged in the corridor behind him, proboscis-head and mantis in combat. One of Agaures men, mortally wounded, leaped on Duke Malphas' back—the duke flipped him over with ease, bringing the anvil-sized hammer down on the body, pummeling it below floor level. Malphas struggled with the hammer, his victim holding it tightly with what life remained. Seeing an opportunity, the guard tending the coals drew his sword and charged. Abandoning the hammer, Malphas took his axe and in one swift move sheared off head and right shoulder of the guard, drenching his plumage further. Through out the ruckus, Agaures looked on, petrified like a horse in a burning stable. It wasn't until Malphas strode boldly forward that Agaures acted, swinging the hot iron wildly. Within seconds, Agaures arm, still clutching the iron, flopped to the floor, severed at the elbow. Malphas grabbed him by the mane as he shrieked out in pain, then plunged his head into the brazier.

      Malphas turned to Mrs. Brady, still firmly holding Agaures head into the hot coals. "Ahh. Mrs. Brady, how good to see you again."

      "I... I believe I'm in your debt Duke Malphas," she said weakly. "'Tis I who am in your debt." He tugged Agaures from the brazier, allowing him to splutter ashes from roasted lips. "Many times, Mrs. Brady, I have laid siege upon this fortress, and failed. It was you who inspired me... you, a frail mortal, willing to pass into this realm and enter Agaures' fortress." Malphas dunked Agaures muzzle back into the coals, up to his bulging eyes. "I was hoping you would take his attention from the battlements."

      "Well... yes, I certainly did that all right..." said Mrs. Brady, free from the carpets entrapment. She reached for the twig, feeling much better with it back in her possession. "If the Lord of Darkness saw fit to send you on his mission, then I once more have great trust in his character and judgement."

      "That reminds me," she said, picking up Absconditus Ocuius from the table, tucking it under her arm. "Forgive me Duke, it's been most interesting, but I really must be off." Although Agaures had stopped resisting, Malphas continued to hold him by the mane into the glowing coals.

      "Then to make haste, Mrs. Brady, my Flying Death's Head Legion will escort you to the river. Tell the Lord of Darkness when you see him his banners fly over Eastern Hell... and I, his obedient servant, await his further instructions." Malphas bowed as Mrs. Brady was escorted from the room by the vulture-headed commander of the Flying Death's Head Legion.

Emerging from the mist and stepping onto the bank of the Thames, Mrs. Brady became aware of the chime of Big Ben. Had any time has passed? she wondered. Mr. Collins' driver was still waiting.

      Although still dressed in starchy, turn-of-the-century garb, Mr. Collins' appearance had changed. Now he seemed a younger man, barely in his twenties, with long hair and sideburns. Over a glass of sherry in his library, Mrs. Brady related her story. He listend attentively, transfixed with every lurid detail. At the end of her story, Mrs. Brady produced Absconditus Ocuius, placing it in front of him, allowing herself some pride in her accomplishment.

      "Excellent," Mr. Collins said. He brushed his fine hair from his face, delicately tucking it behind his ear and opened the book on his desk. "I'm sure the book holds the key to my redemption, though I believe it is your collaboration, Mrs. Brady, that has been most beneficial. Through you, I have achieved the unquestionable loyalty of Duke Malphas himself and regained a strategic part of my territory."

      "I am glad to of been of assistance to you, Mr. Collins," said Mrs. Brady, finishing off her sherry. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have a hungry cat at home to feed." She stood up.

      "Of course, of course," Mr. Collins said, standing courteously himself. "My driver is once more at your disposal."

      "Thank you," she said, turning and walking towards the door.

      Mr. Collins cleared his throat nervously. "Er... perhaps we'll meet again, Mrs. Brady?"

      "Perhaps, Mr. Collins," she said opening the door on her way out.

      "Tuesday?" he said in a low voice, almost a plea. "Four-thirty, afternoon tea?"

      Mrs. Brady stopped and turned. She looked at the youthful face of Mr. Collins, staring back expectantly. She looked at the rows of magnificent books shelved in his library from floor to ceiling.

      What the devil, she thought. "Tuesday it is, Mr. Collins."The End.

© 2000 Midnight Graffiti. All Rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced without the written permission of...blah, blah, blah. Who are we kidding? If you want it, you'll copy it, won't you? We don't really mind. Maybe you just want to share it with your buddies or read it off line. We have no real problem with you downloading, reading, sharing and telling all your friends about us. Just don't try to pretend YOU wrote it. Because we'll know. And we'll TELL.

BACK TO CONTENTS