“What’s his name? Spork?”

— Thomson



 Step 4 – Apocalypse

The woman’s name is Maxx, Ashley realises. They hurry after her as she strides swiftly into the depths of the cave, apparently unaffected by either the blue light, the sparkles, or the wisps darting around her.

They have almost caught up when Maxx enters a vast cavern. The floor of the cave is covered in rows of white-garbed cultists. They are chanting wordlessly, a great sighing sound that ebbs and flows as the tide. They sway in time with the chant, making the floor of the cave seem to surge and retreat.

Ashley stops, overwhelmed by the urge to join them. Beyond the carpet of seated people is a natural rock pedestal, and on that is a triple-legged stand, the legs curved like crescent moons. Nestled in the top of this is a bowl, and in the bowl is a fiery blue orb that gyrates and dances even though it seems to be still. Next to this, Blavatsky stands with her head thrown back in ecstasy, her arms raised to the heavens beyond the roof of the cave. Slightly behind and to her right stands Strunk, observing intently.

Thomson suppresses Ashley’s urges, but has a battle on their hands. They fight their own inclinations, and the internal conflict leaves them clumsy and struggling to think clearly. Strunk watches with interest as Thomson totters across the floor of the cave and stumbles close enough to speak.

“What… What’s happening?”

“This is the Interface,” he says, his tone suggesting that it happens every Saturday night and the whole world knows about it. “Interesting that you haven’t joined them. I can tell you want to.”

“Yes, yes I do, but I need to know more. What’s the Interface?”

“That is when we join together to create one will, one power, one focus.”

“What for?”

“Because we are more powerful together than we are apart.” He says this as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world and Thomson has disappointed him by needing to ask the question. They have the strongest feeling that he is aware that Thomson is not who they claim to be.

“Then why haven’t you joined them?”

“Oh, I would fry your tiny little fuses. I am too strong.”

“But if you’re so powerful, why do you need all of us?”

He sighs, as if bored. “Some things are better when the power comes from elsewhere. If you had a boat with an outboard motor, you wouldn’t hang on to the back and kick.”

Thomson is utterly confused. “But you that’s because an outboard motor is more powerful. You can’t swim faster than an outboard.”

“Not for steering, it’s not. A motorboat left to its own devices will go round and round in circles.”

Thomson feels like they are missing some aspect of this argument that would reveal some weakness, but is having a hard time thinking clearly enough to work out what it is. They approach Blavatsky. No joy there. Marina is entirely subsumed in whatever is going on.

“Why don’t you join in?” Strunk suggests, and his tone is oily now, sleek and mellifluous.

“My mind is my own,” Thomson says.

“Of course it is,” he purrs. “Everyone’s mind is their own. They have found a common purpose, that’s all. And once practise is over, they will go back to being their ordinary individual selves.”

With that, all of Thomson’s resolve crumbles in the face of Ashley’s excited enthusiasm, and they find a spot amongst the tightly-pressed, swaying cultists. Immediately, they are drowned in an ecstatic sense of oneness with the universe. Nothing seems important except love and compassion. Anything capable of harbouring hate and enmity seems small and insignificant compared with the great, universal consciousness that experiences and offers nothing but love. Time disappears, becomes meaningless against the great infinite Now. All is One and One is All and All is Love and Love is One.

The blue light in the cave immediately becomes brighter still, as if someone dialled a dimmer switch all the way up.

Uncounted hours later, Thomson finds themselves fading out of the collective ecstasy. All around them, cultists are murmuring quiet, joyous congratulations and expressions of mutual joy at this experience. Thomson threads their way through the milling crowd to find Blavatsky. Strunk is till there, and now he looks at them with an intense, predatory, hungry stare.

“Ashley!” Blavatsky exclaims. ” I was not expecting to see you here. You have only just joined us.”

“I know,” Thomson says. “I’m really sorry, but I felt somehow drawn to be here.”

“Please don’t apologise. With your sensitivity, it is hardly surprising that you should find your way here.”

“What was that?”

“The Interface. We join together as one.”

“What for?”

“To summon the Great Eel, of course,” she replies with a light, bubbly laugh. “She will arise and spread Her loving oneness to everyone in the world.”

“Oh? Oh! I see! I thought we were just becoming our best selves.”

“But we are, my dear.” Her eyes are bright, shining, ecstatic. “The Great Eel brings us to our best selves. Not just us, but everyone in the whole world!”

“Oh! Right, of course. When is that happening?”


“May I join you?”

“Of course! You would be most welcome.”

With that, she turns back to her conversation with Strunk.

Thomson does not wish to try persuading Blavatsky that Strunk is evil with Strunk and his bodyguard standing right there, so follows the rest of the cult members filing slowly out of the cave. When they reach the outside, they are startled to discover the sun has risen. Birdsong fills the air, along with the rustling of the leaves. The air is fresh, the soft breeze a delight after the thick, intense atmosphere of the cave. All around them, the cult members who made up the Interface are acknowledging their own and each other’s experience with soft exclamations of “Wow!” and “That was amazing!” while not polluting the experience by attempting to discuss it further.

Thomson moves a little to one side and speaks for the benefit of whomever may be listening on the airwaves. “Guys? Are you there? Can anyone hear me?”

Up in the cliff face, some 100m or so above and somewhat to the west, John is reading a file that was emailed to him by Darling only a few moments ago. It details what the Covenant knows about Strunk, which isn’t much, and includes such illuminating comments as:


His movements are difficult to trace. We know he spent time in the Urals in his twenties, having become interested in the Dyatlov Pass incident. He is known to have visited Nepal for an extended period, and to have attached himself to the family of a highly-regarded American diplomat for a time, in a relationship that one Hunter[1] described as:

“Fifty percent Rasputin, fifty percent Damien from that movie the Omen, one hundred per cent rotten as the inside of Satan’s ass after a dose of my Aunt Beryl’s hot chile tacos.”

[1] Jensen Colorado, Unit 34 (retired).

He was supposed to be in Covenant custody on a Russian island, and somehow nobody knew that he’d escaped. The Covenant had dispatched a team already, it says.

Bea and Maya are talking about how they could possibly retrieve John’s baseball bat from the car, so they can use its magnetic properties against the Orb.

“Have you got car keys?” Bea asks Maya.

“Of course I’ve got car keys. I wasn’t going to just leave them in the boat in the cave we might never go to again.”

“So, if we can get the keys to Thomson, they could go and get the bat for us.”


“They can hot wire a car, I bet. Drive over, get the bat.”

“Or maybe,” John says wryly, looking up from his reading, “Maya could fly back to the car with the keys that she already has.”

“But how would she carry the bat back? It’s way heavier than the maximum carrying weight of a shapeshifter herring gull.”

“But then she’d be In. The. Car. She could drive back.”

“And then would have to get into the compound somehow. It’s way too risky.”

“And Thomson hot-wiring a car and stealing it, then bringing back a baseball bat isn’t?”

“What’s that noise?” Maya interrupts. “Can you guys hear something?” She looks around, checks for pockets on the wetsuit, then realises the sound emanates from the mask in her hand. The other two have lost or abandoned theirs. “It’s Thomson!” She holds the mask up to her face while John scans the horizon for flying sharks. Or sharknadoes. “Hey Thomson!”

“Oh thank God. Where are you?”

“We’re in a cave not far from you, on the estate. I can see your tree from here.”

“You’re here?”

“Yeah. We came in through the cave system. Underwater.”

“There were sharks,” John grumbles loudly.

“Sharks?!” Thomson’s voice sounds oddly metallic through the mask’s speakers.

“We’ll tell you about it later. What are you doing? What happened after you picked me up and moved me out of your way?”

“Yeah, look, I’m really sorry about that. I don’t really remember doing it.”

“I was not impressed, Thomson. We’ve got to talk about personal space.”

“Yeah, I’m really, really sorry. I wasn’t myself.”

“I see. Well, we’ll talk about it later. What happened after that?”

Thomson hurriedly describes what happened in the cave, watching for any sign that anyone is paying attention to them, while Bea fires questions like bullets. “Was Gawain there? Were you affected by the sparkles? Were you being mind controlled?” They see the Landrover that brought Maxx to the cave drive past, Maxx driving with Blavastky, Obsidian and Strunk as passengers. They are heading for the main house. “I don’t know what to do, guys,” they say. “Should I come and find you? Can I get to you?”

“We’re about 100m up,” Maya says. “We could lower you a rope, though. Or you could try getting through the cave.”

John leans out as far as he can without being obvious. He sees a stream of white-robed cultists winding towards the farm buildings from somewhere to the left.

“They can’t be too far away,” he says.

“I don’t think we should leave Thomson out there by themselves,” Bea says. “I don’t like the sound of any of that. They are too vulnerable to Blavatsky’s mind control tricks.”

“That’s true,” Maya says.

“On the other hand, maybe they could find us a magnet, seeing as how John left his baseball bat back at the car.” She stares pointedly at John.

“All right,” he protests. “How was I supposed to know that Merlin’s heap of junk would turn out to be useful after all? I swear I am going to hurt that man. Freakin sharks.”

“Bea’s suggesting you find us a magnet,” Maya says, explaining that the Orb casing is potentially vulnerable that way.

“Well, don’t most cults have like PA systems?” Thomson muses. “I haven’t seen one, but I haven’t been looking. All I’d need to do is pull a big speaker apart to find a magnet. Also, I think that amulet is important, as well, and he can’t wear it all the time. Surely he takes if off in the shower? Maybe I should sneak in to his room and look for it.”

“Into Strunk’s room?” Bea asks. “That sounds dangerous.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Thomson says. “What about you. What are you going to do?”

“We’re not far from the main entrance,” Maya says. “I think it’s important that we stop this ritual before it starts. If we get in there, we can maybe see a way to sabotage it. Maybe break the Orb or steal it or something. Is the cave where we were last night?”

“Yes. Just keep going.”

“There’s the plan, then. We’ll go and try to sabotage the Orb. You go and try to steal the amulet.”

“And find a magnet,” John says.

Thomson signs off and heads back across the estate to the big house. They approach from the rear, entering via a back door that leads through a boot room into a utility room. A door on the right hand side opens to reveal steps going down into cool darkness. Probably a wine cellar. They decide not to explore to find out.

Through a big farmhouse kitchen, where it looks like the cook has set up prep for breakfast before stepping out — Ashley provides a vision of a young man from the local village having gone off for a smoke behind the disused coal store — and then through a corridor into the front of the house, Thomson can hear Luna muttering under her breath at the front desk. Ashley senses Luna’s annoyance and upset at not having been invited to participate in the Interface.

They need to get past the desk — the stairs to the next floor, where Strunk’s room is, are past reception, on the other side of the small seating area.

Ashley takes a deep breath, then walks up to the desk. “Luna! Hi! I didn’t see you last night. I was so surprised!”

Luna frowns, creases furrowing her perfectly smooth brow. “You were invited? But you only just got here!”

“Well, I wasn’t invited so much as just turned up, but I was so surprised that you weren’t there. I was expecting to see both you and Topaz, you are such great people, but no. But I tell you who was there. That guy. What’s his name? Spork? I think he poisoned Marina against you. I think he’s evil, and I want to prove it. I need to get to his room. Could you maybe let me past and not tell anyone?”

“You know, I have always thought there was something off about that man,” Luna says, putting her hands on her hips. “Do you think he’s to blame for me not being invited?”

“I’m almost one hundred per cent sure of it,” Ashley says. “He said something not very nice about you to me, which I won’t repeat, so don’t ask me to.”

“Well!” Luna’s universal love and compassion apparently has its limits. “You go right ahead. His room is on the next floor, right at the end of the corridor. I won’t say anything. Unless he directly asks me. I wouldn’t be able to stop myself if he asked directly. He’s very powerful, you know.”

“I wouldn’t want you to put yourself in harm’s way. Just, maybe don’t volunteer that I was here?”

“I can do that,” Luna says, “if there’s a chance it will reveal the truth about him to Madame.”

“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have any big speakers, would you? Like for a PA or a sound system?”

“I mean, there’s this thing,” Luna indicates the portable CD player on the shelf behind her. “But big speakers? I guess there’s the old ballroom. They have musicians there sometimes for live events, and they have speakers and amps and things for that.”

“Great. Thanks!”

Thomson hurries up the stairs. When they reach the top, they hear voices coming from Blavatsky’s closed study. One of them is male and using words longer than grunts, so there’s a good bet that’s Strunk.

They pad quickly but quietly along to the room at the end. It’s locked, but Thomson is a dab hand with lockpicks and has the door open in a jiffy. The room is large, sumptuous, with antique furniture including a mahogany desk, bedside cabinets, and an en suite with a luxurious bath.

Wasting no time, Thomson flings open cupboards, rips the covers from the bed and upheaves the mattress. Then almost unbelievably, they yank open a drawer and feel a sharp, white-hot stabbing pain in their palm followed by the wet warmth of blood flowing over their skin. They look down, and the amulet is embedded in their hand. The blood flowing from the wound flows back towards the amulet, in defiance of gravity, and disappears into it.

Thomson swallows hard. This was unexpected. They hurry out into the corridor and find a fire escape opposite. The door opens with a shove of one shoulder, and they take the stairs as fast as they dare before running out of the house.

“Guys!” they yell, panting, breathless. “I’ve got the amulet! It’s stuck into my hand!”

From the house comes an enraged roar. A great wave of pain and anger and furious loss surges into Thomson’s back like a tidal bore made of raw emotion, nearly knocking them over.

They run.

The rest of the team uses the rope to get down and pick their way across another field of scattered boulders before climbing up the far side. The sparkles are growing in intensity again, as irritating and distracting as midges. They squeeze into a narrow, tall crack, which leaves them just enough room to sidle through crabwise.

Eventually, after what feels like hours of scrambling and spelunking, they emerge tired and bruised into the back of a large cave. Ahead of them, the cave system disappears into darkness, but here there is a high roof and daylight coming from an opening way off to their right, hidden by a curve in the rock.

“Hey, I know this place, ” Maya says. “This looks like where I was when I left Thomson.”

“Looks like there’s a way out over there. Might be able to get some reception. Guess we’d better try checking in to see if Igraine managed to get anything useful out of Merlin,” John says.

The team moves to the front of the cave, where the sunlight enters. John creeps far enough round the corner to get a couple of bars on his phone and fires off a quick text.

Igraine responds almost immediately. No, Merlin does not know how to stop brain-eating magical mosquitoes.

“Well that’s just great,” Bea says, irritated. “What use is he?”

They head back into the cave. There are plenty of footprints to follow, and it’s not long before they find the cave where the ritual must have taken place. There is a brazier in which the embers are still glowing, and a strange pedestal raised up on a natural rock dais.

But no Orb.

“Dammit,” Bea says. “Where is it?”

“Maybe they don’t keep it here,” John says. “Too easy to get to.”

“Or someone else has taken it already?” Maya says hopefully. “Maybe Gawain?”

“He’s addled,” Bea says dismissively. “I don’t trust him.” She examines the pedestal and finds a gap in which they could hide a magnet. If they had a magnet. “Do you think Thomson has managed to find a PA system?”

“I don’t know. And our comms gear won’t work down here,” Maya says. “I guess we’re going to have to hide out here and try to disrupt the ritual before it starts.”

Suddenly, Thomson’s voice sounds in their heads.

Guys! Hey! Can you hear me?

Maya holds her diving mask to her ear. It’s not coming from there. It’s inside her head.

“Did you hear that? Sounded like Thomson.”

John shakes his head and thumps himself above the ear with the heel of his hand, as if trying to dislodge water. “Not just me then. That was freaky.”

Can you hear me?

“Yes?” Maya says hesitantly. “Can you hear us?”

Yes! Thank God. I’ve got the amulet. And… Oh no. He’s coming. He’s coming after me.

“Run, Thomson. We’re in the cave where you left me. We’ll come to meet you. Run!”

Thomson runs as fast as they can. Their senses have expanded, their sense of personal space now covering acres. As the amulet throbs in their hand, they can pinpoint every single other living soul on the estate. Including Maxx and Strunk in the Land Rover behind, coming up fast. He is a red-black mass of seething fury, but she has the ice-cold, diamond hard emotional blankness of someone who cares nothing for any life other than her own and her master’s.

Their team is not far, now. They can see John coming towards them, at the mouth of the cave. They will him not to come any farther. Their only hope now is to find the orb and destroy it.

John stops, and Thomson sprints towards him. The Land Rover is mere metres away, churning up the grass as Maxx thrashes the gears and drives far too fast over the lumps and bumps under the trees.


As Thomson catches up, they both run into the cave, Thomson’s breath coming in hard, painful gasps. The whole team moves further underground, away from the squeal of a Land Rover coming to an abrupt stop. Away from Strunk.

Thomson senses him coming into the cave, senses Maxx pushing ahead of him. Perhaps something in their newfound telepathy offers a warning, perhaps it is merely a lifetime of training and finely honed instincts, but when Maxx arrows one of her throwing knives at Maya, it merely clips her arm.

Maxx lets out a strangled scream of frustration.

Bea unloads both shotgun barrels. The sound, trapped inside the cave with them, is physical, like being inside an explosion. Maxx staggers, falling to the floor.

Strunk races towards them across the cave floor. Sensing the power gathering around him, Thomson turns and combines the lessons they learned from Topaz and the power of the amulet. There is an almost silent whump, the sound made by the largest, fluffiest pillow landing on the softest duvet, and the air in the cave seems to crystallise for a moment. Strunk flies backwards into the cave wall as if yanked on a wire and crumples.

“Wow,” Thomson says. “Okay. That happened.”

“What’s going on with you?” Maya asks, shocked.

“I don’t know. Something about this place. And the amulet. I think it’s giving me powers.”

“Well we should get the damn thing off and destroy it,” Bea says decisively, taking Thomson’s arm.

Thomson pulls their arm away. Inside their thoughts, the amulet whispers seductively about all the things they could do together. “No, I think I should keep it for the time being. We might need those powers.”

Bea frowns. “Wrong answer. We need to destroy that thing. Look at it!”

“No,” Thomson says. “I’m keeping it. Just for a little while. Just until this is over. Did you find the Orb?”

“We went to the cave where they had the ritual, but it wasn’t there,” Maya says. “We don’t know what’s happened to it.”

“It’s definitely down here somewhere,” Thomson replies. “I can feel it.”

Bea huffs, unwilling to admit there might be value in Thomson keeping the amulet. “Can you lead us to it?”


“You go first, then,” John says.

“I’ll bring up the rear. With the shotgun,” Bea says.

They pass through the ritual cave. On the far side of the cave, they enter a passageway. As they press on into the dark, headlight beams illuminating the uneven rock in an ever-moving, shifting topology of brightness, the sparkles begin to grow dense again; but not only is Thomson immune, they seem to make the brain-eating speckles easier to tolerate for everyone else. Underneath the scrape and scuff of feet and clothes on the cave walls, behind the pants and grunts of effort, the cave system delivers the unmistakeable sound of someone else making their way through the cave, sometimes close, sometimes distant, sometimes both at the same time.

They have to hurry.

Further on, water emerges from the rock to their left, a narrow cleft of lambent turquoise.

“It must be down here,” Bea says. “I think the orb is making the water glow. It was so bright when we were in the lake because it was active. We must have been in that lake when Thomson was taking part in the ritual. When I saw the orb, it was over water like this.”

“I think it’s close,” Thomson agrees.

They emerge from an angled clench into an open area that Bea instantly recognises. This is the lowest part of the cave she managed to reach when they first encountered Bert. The water has re-emerged on their right, now, and shimmers with a pearlescent duck-egg blue that is so bright it fills the cave with something like daylight. Hovering over the water is the orb, back in its casing now, vibrating. In some ways it looks like a racehorse quivering in the starting gates, eager for the off.

Or a dog straining at its leash to get at a rabbit.

“I wish we had that damned baseball bat now,” Bea mutters. “I don’t suppose you got a magnet, did you Thomson?”

“No, I didn’t get a chance,” Thomson says, finding themselves drawn towards the orb. The amulet in their hand feels warm, almost alive, throbbing with a beat resembling a pulse. It whispers to them through their bones, urging them to pick up the orb, to touch it, to hold it. They reach across the water, take the orb in hand. It shudders against their skin, the casing moving, splitting…

“What the FUCK do you think you are DOING?” Suddenly Gawain is there, absolutely furious. He snatches the orb from Thomson. “Is that the damned amulet? Have you bonded to it? You IDIOT.”

“Which one are you?” Bea demands, shoving herself between Gawain and Thomson and releasing the safety catch on her shotgun.

“Which one do you bloody think?” Gawain responds with a snarl. “Do you want to know the colour of C’s underwear as proof or something? You need to get that damned amulet away from the orb.”


“Because the amulet will activate the casing,” he says with an exaggerated sigh, as if explaining something completely obvious to someone completely stupid. “The casing will activate the portal. If you want to summon a bunch of aliens masquerading as Elder Gods who will suck out your brains before going on to enjoy the delicious taste of the rest of humanity, then that’s the way to go about it. But I will kill you first if I have to.”

“Strunk’s behind us,” John says. “We need to destroy it.”

“Did you bring a magnet?”

“Did YOU?” Bea retorts.

Gawain looks sheepish for less time than it takes to blink, but Bea sees it.

“If we get out of here, then we can find one,” Maya says.

“Give me the amulet,” Gawain says.

“No!” Thomson cradles their hand protectively. “I won’t let you take it!”

“I can’t take it. But you can give it to me freely.”

“No. I’m keeping it.”

“We don’t have time to argue,” Maya says, exasperated. “You go ahead, show us the way.” She nods to Gawain. “I’ll take the Orb. Thomson, you stay at the back with Bea. Let’s keep these things apart.”

“All right,” Gawain says, after a slight hesitation. He hands it over and Maya feels a sting in her palm, like salt on a graze. “If he’s behind you, we’d better hurry.”

They follow Gawain as he leads them up out of the cave system. “Hurry!” Bea yells, hearing distorted footsteps and panting breath echoing in the twists and turns of the rock behind them.

They emerge in the clearing with the picnic table. Standing there is Blavatsky and Obsidian.

“Oh, Ashley. How could you do this?” Blavatsky cries.

“I had to. I know you had the best intentions, but Strunk is evil. He was usurping everything you were trying to achieve!”

“Oh, I can’t believe that. Did you not experience the ecstasy of the Interface?”

“He was tricking you!” Thomson says. “He was going to use the power of the Interface to summon a demon! Look!” They hold up their hand and show the amulet, joined to their hand like a leech, feeding. “This is his! I got this from his room!”

Obsidian grunts. “I knew it,” he mutters.

Behind them the gate swings open with a clang. Strunk pushes his way through, Maxx right beside him. Strunk’s face is murderous, rage reddening his features.

Thomson backs away from the power they feel gathering, the amulet pulsing as it gathers its own power. Gawain pulls his gun and fires, clipping Strunk; Maxx flings a knife straight as an arrow, and it plunges into Gawain’s neck. He collapses.

Bea unloads her shotgun into Maxx. At point blank range, the double-barrelled blast catches the woman in her chest and she flies backwards, crunching into the side of the mountain. As Bea reloads, John hefts his cudgel and swings for Strunk, catching him round the side of the head. He staggers and falls, dazed.

Bea walks over, stands astride him, and aims her shotgun straight down.

“Not his head!” Maya cries as she hurries to give first aid to Gawain. “Aim for the centre of mass!”

Bea shifts her aim downwards a fraction, then unloads both barrels. Strunk’s chest explodes.

John eyes up Blavatsky and Obsidian, then vanishes down the path.

“You felt that, right?” Thomson says to Blavatsky, almost pleading. “You felt that power, that energy. That was wrong. It was bad. And what you were trying to do… You can’t make that decision for everyone in the world like that. It’s tyranny, no matter how good your intentions.”

“I…” Blavatsky appears heartbroken. “I suppose you are right.”

“I am right. That kind of thinking is what makes people like him.” They nudge Strunk with one toe.

John returns, sweat beading his brow. He’s tossing a metal disc the size of his palm in one hand.

“Let’s see that orb,” he says to Maya.

She holds out the encased orb, and he touches the metal disc to it. The casing cracks and falls apart, dropping to the ground. The orb inside floats free, hovering like ball lightning. Maya grabs it from the hair and tucks it into a pocket.

“Can you do that?” John asks.

“Do what?” Maya asks innocently. “Where did you get the magnet?”

“Let’s just say some naughty vandals might have found Blavatsky’s car parked up on the road and smashed up the sound system. Terrible thing.”

“How awful,” Maya says mildly. “Can you get a medevac for Gawain? I haven’t got any signal on my phone.”

“Already done,” he says. “Got a special button.” He shows Maya the emergency call button he pressed as soon as he saw Gawain go down. “You need to get a better phone, Maya.”

“And we have to get that amulet off Thomson.”

“Can I not keep it?” Thomson wheedles. “Just for a little while. We could… We could study it. Take it back to a lab. See what it can do, what it’s made of.”

“Listen, Strunk just walked out of a covert Russian prison that was on a damned island. Do you really think that the Covenant can keep something like that safe? Do you think anyone can keep something like that safe?” Behind his back, he adjust his grip on his cudgel.

“And looks what it’s doing to you,” Bea says. “You’re just as likely to end up locked in a lab somewhere yourself.”

That seems to change Thomson’s mind. Being locked in a Covenant lab and poked endlessly by Merlin’s crew is not an attractive prospect for anyone.

They grasp the amulet with their free hand and, wincing, pull it off.

“Put it down there,” John orders, indicating a rock.

Reluctantly, Thomson does as they are told. John takes the end of his cudgel and pounds the amulet into fragments and dust.

“Now what?” they say. “Where’s the car?”

“At the other end of the cave system,” Bea says. “Miles away.”

As the rapid thwuk-thwuk-thwuk-thwuk sound of a helicopter announces the imminent arrival of the Covenant’s medevac chopper, John saunters over to Blavatsky.

“Any chance of a lift?”


“Don’t use the axe! You might puncture the boat!”

— John


The Same Thing But Aquatically

Ashley sets off after the woman. Maya tries to stop her, but Ashley grabs the seagull, firmly but carefully, then sets her down outside the cave before hurrying into the weird blue light inside.

Pissed off, Maya launches herself into the night sky and heads through the dark to where she’d agreed to meet John and Bea.

When they get there, they are standing outside the cave. There is no sign of Gawain.

“Hey,” she says, after transforming back into her human form. “Thomson took off into the caves to see what was going on. They were acting really weird. I tried to stop them, but they actually physically PICKED ME UP and MOVED ME OUT OF THE WAY.”

“Do you mean under the influence weird?” Bea asks.

“I don’t know. I tried to stop them once by flapping at them, and it worked. The next time, it didn’t. They were really determined, so I thought I’d leave them to it.”

“And you couldn’t tell whether they were being controlled by someone?”

“No. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Well, we didn’t have much more luck with Bert,” Bea says, and then explains what happened when they met him.

“I think it’s time we report to C,” John says.

It’s a little after eleven, but Igraine answers nevertheless. “Good evening, John.”

“Hi. We’ve got some news, It’s pretty urgent. Is C available?”

“Just one moment.”

No hold music this time. C’s voice replaces Darling’s in a matter of seconds. “As you are calling this late, I shall not ask if it is important.”

“We managed to talk to Gawain again and get his real personality. He said to tell you that Sebastien Strunk is back. That you didn’t manage to deal with him properly last time, and he’s up to his old tricks.”

A moment of pregnant silence from the cellphone’s tiny speaker. Grasshoppers zing in the velvet darkness of the boskage.

“Oh dear,” C says at last, and in that understatement is carried a mere hint of how calamitous she has found this news. “Strunk is evil, or as close to anything in this world that could be described as evil as it is possible to get. He is powerful, he is cunning, he is intelligent, and he is ruthless. We thought we had managed to banish him for good. Apparently not.”

“Gawain said he was protecting the Orb from Strunk,” Bea says.

“And well he might. It is vitally important for the safety of the world that you stop Strunk. He has a penchant for summoning Elder Gods. Not the soap opera melodrama of the Ancient Greek gods or the Norse. The H.P. Lovecraft — misogynistic racist bigot that he was — limitless eldritch cosmic horror kind of Elder God. Will suck your sanity through the orifices in your head and leave you in a world of endless suffering kind of Elder God. I would not be exaggerating to say the safety and future of the human race is at stake.”

“No pressure then,” John mutters.

“Do you need anything? Our resources are at your disposal.”

“Information on the Orb would be handy, so we know how to stop it,” Bea says.

“Do you have any photographs?”

Bea’s expression turns sheepish. “No. The magical defences must have been interfering with me being able to think straight. I just attacked it. I can describe it to you.”

“Maybe Gawain has taken a picture?” John suggests. “Has he sent one in?”

“Not to my knowledge. I will have Merlin access his cellphone, assuming it is not too far underground for him to reach.”

“Just in case, though, it was about half again as big as a tennis ball, and had blue light coming from it, but it looked like a piece of technology, not magic.”

“Hmm. I know of devices that can be used to change the effect of a magical item, but it’s not like Strunk to use one. He is a sorcerer. Still, I will let Merlin know.”

“And it has a terrible effect on people. It made Gawain forget who he is.”

John and Maya exchange a glance. Didn’t Gawain just go so deep into his cover he wasn’t able to switch it off again?

“And it did different things to other people. Maya… And John, was… John, tell C what it did to you.”

John briefly describes what happened in the cave.

“Thank you for that,” C replies at last. “I will pass that information to Merlin. Now, do you need anything? Any equipment or help?”

“Could you get us a boat?” Bea asks.

“A boat!” John scoffs, but C does not treat this request as ridiculous.

“Of course. I shall arrange to have one sent out. Text the location you want it to be delivered. Anything else?”

“I need a knife,” Maya says. “Just a knife. Not one of Merlin’s. And we could use a couple of Maglights.”

“I understand. Again, text Field comms your requirements.”

“I’d like a cudgel,” John says. “Just an ordinary wooden cudgel. Nothing magical. Nothing enhanced. Just a heavy wooden stick for hitting things with.”

“I am sure we can manage that.”

“Can I get… What are those spikey metal balls? You know? For hitting things?” Bea asks.

“A mace?” John says.

“Yes! One of those.”

“No,” C says. “You may not. Far too much likelihood of you hitting one of your teammates.”

“Dammit. All right. A shotgun then.”

“Very well. I shall have those items sent to the location you specify. If you think of anything else, text it to the usual number.”

After C hangs up, the team spread their maps on the car bonnet.

“We’re here,” John says, his finger stabbing a point on the map. The solid beam of the torch makes the text difficult to read, and his hand throws a deep black shadow on the paper. “The hotel is here. We had been planning to try up here.” He points at a section of the cave system to the north-east.

“Yeah, but there’s no easy route to get there. It’s on the other side of the mountain,” Maya replies. “From what C says, we don’t have time. When I was with Thomson, that woman said they were doing their last practise before they attempt the ritual.”

“We could just go back to the hotel,” Bea says.

“Yeah,” Maya says. “Just push our way through.”

” I don’t think that’s a good idea after what happened last time,” John objects. “It’ll attract too much attention. We don’t know if that Figgs bloke would tell the Cult we were there.”

“True,” Maya agrees.

“What about here?” John says, moving his finger across the page to another entrance north of the hotel. “It even says it’s an entrance.”

“We’ll go there, then,” Maya replies. “We should go now. It’s at least half an hour to get there, and we need to scout it out before the Covenant delivers our equipment.”

This is the tourist entrance to the cave. Now, the digital clock on the Range Rover’s dash clicking over to 01:02, it is pitch black save for the stars overhead and a single spotlight illuminating part of a sculpture that sits like a giant arrow fletching outside the cave.


Within the gaping maw, they find a locked gate.

“Shame we broke the lockpicks, eh Bea?” John says.

“Yeah, but we’re getting new ones.”

They return to the car to wait and catch some much-needed sleep.

A couple of hours or so later, gravel crunches as a Range Rover identical to their own pulls up. It is towing a trailer. The driver gets out, cap jammed low over his face, and knocks on their window.

“Hi,” says John.

“Got any ID?”

“Our car is exactly the same as yours,” Bea exclaims. “Who else would we be?”

“We don’t have a monopoly on black Range Rovers, love,” the man says dryly.

Maya hold up her ID and her distinctive Covenant credit card. The man snaps a photo with his phone.

“Great stuff.” He goes back to the trailer, unloads a box that’s bigger than he is, then drives off without saying another word.

Maya gets out her axe and heads for the box.

“Don’t use the axe! You might puncture the boat!” John exclaims.

Without a word, Maya carefully uses her sharpened axe to first lift then slice through the plastic strapping, and they unpack the box.

Inside are a pair of collapsible canoes. Each comes in three parts, the parts nested inside one another. There is a wrapped bundle containing the other items requested, including a sawn-off shotgun and a sledgehammer handle.

John and Maya decipher Merlin’s instructions, which appear to have been written as a stream of consciousness in his native Norwegian while he was drunk, then translated into English using Google by one of his crew. Once the two craft are assembled, they have two Canadian-style canoes, with cargo compartments doubling as buoyancy in the fore, aft, and forming the middle seat. Each boat is light enough to be carried easily be any one of them.

“God’s teeth, these had better not be magical,” John mutters.

After shoving all the packaging into the car, they portage the two canoes to the cave entrance, where they pick the lock and file inside.

The first cave is filled with reproductions of the early cave art found in the depths below. Dim lights at ground level  offer just enough light to see by. They stick to the walkway, then find another door at the end of a long, artificial tunnel. Bea unlocks this, and they descend into the deep.

They find water quickly. It is cold but doesn’t have the bone-freezing chill of a melted glacier, and there is nothing ominous or oppressive that they cannot ascribe to merely being deep underground. Bea and John climb into one of the boats, Bea taking up her station at the prow with a Maglight and her shotgun. Maya has the other boat to herself. They find caving helmets with lights in one of the cargo spaces, the high beams picking out the gnarled surface of the rock.

They set off into the cave.

Time loses its meaning. John grumbles, but it is only his stomach complaining about not having had much more than a bag of crisps and a ham and cheese sandwich. The only other sounds are their own breath, the splash of the paddles, and the soft lap of water against the hulls.

They gradually become aware of a blue glow beneath them, and sparkles dancing in the air. The glow is dim, not enough to see by, and the sparkles are widely separated, like stars seen through high, thin cloud on a moonless night.

Suddenly, the boats bump into a wall, the collision nearly sending Bea into the water. Below them, the blue light shines brightly from what looks like a gap in the rock .

Maya rummages in the cargo holds and finds a slick, grey outfit. It resembles a wetsuit, but is both more flexible and yet somehow more robust. She also finds a mask with a tube sticking out the top like a snorkel, and an inner mask that seems to go over the mouth and nose.

“Looks like we’re going in,” she says.

John finds another couple of suits in a cargo space in his and Bea’s boat.

“This doesn’t seem like a very good idea,” he says.

“I don’t see what option we have,” Bea says. “We’re not going to be able to get in via the Cult’s estate. God knows what’s going on with Gawain. The hotel’s a write-off and only gets us to water in any case, and the other entrance is on the other side of the mountain.”

John pushes his boat away from the wall. After a few seconds, it once again bumps against the rock. A current definitely flows into the gap below them.

“Well, I’m going,” Maya says, wrapping her phone in a waterproof pouch. John holds her boat while she strips off and wriggles into her suit. “What about you, Bea?”

“Oh yeah,” Bea says, holding up a rubbery garment. “This looks like it should fit.”

“What about you, John? Are you coming, or are you going to sit here in the dark by yourself and wait for us to come back?”

“You know, that’s not my only other valid option,” John protests, but he takes off his shoes and, once Bea has finished struggling into her suit, he takes off the rest of his clothes and works the other suit over his body.

Bea finds a larger drybag and seals her shotgun inside, while Maya forms a loop in the end of a length of Merlin’s light, thin rope. John packs another length into the same tow-bag that Bea is using for her shotgun. Fixing the loop around a rocky outcrop, Maya slips into the water.

“Should we try to bring one of the boats?” Bea asks.

“We’d have to flood a couple of compartments,” John says, “And I don’t fancy trying to get it out at the other end. We need to move fast and light. Better off leaving it here.”

Maya pulls her mask down over her face and ducks under the water. The other two follow suit.

The gap is a narrow tunnel. There isn’t enough room to turn around, and they have to move through the space with their arms out in front of them. Maya goes first, then John, followed by Bea. The masks have bone-conductor speakers built into them, and the inner masks are rebreathers fitted with mics, so they can talk to one another, but mostly all they can hear is the rasping of their own breath and the occasional grunt of exertion.

John is claustrophobic, and for a while he wrestles the burgeoning panic into submission, but when they have been working their way through the tunnel for at least twenty minutes, it starts to get the better of him. He slows down, breathing in short, hard, panting gasps. His rebreather starts gassing out, and bubbles drift from the snorkel above his head, covering the tunnel roof in rippling patches of liquid silver.

As Maya tries to talk John out of his impending panic attack, they hear something underneath her voice. Or is it in the water? It sounds like… A cello?

Dun DUN. Dun DUN. Dun DUN.

Bea twists her head  to look over her shoulder as far as she can. She thinks she sees a swirl of movement out of the corner of her eye. It’s a shadow where no shadow should be, something making the dim blue glow surrounding them dimmer still.

There’s a tale, a story, a rumour told by Hunters who have been fortunate — or unfortunate — enough to have encountered Merlin’s particular brand of support. A tale told in bars, when they should happen to find themselves sharing war stories, or to amuse each other on long flights to obscure places. A tale of a Hunter unit once dispatched to infiltrate an island fortress, or to recover a mysterious object from a sunken ship, or to dispatch a sea monster in its watery lair. These Hunters were given equipment to enable them to operate underwater. Rebreathers.

Only, as is so often the case with Merlin’s equipment, there was a fatal flaw.

The rebreathers summoned sharks. Even where sharks could not possibly exist.

Especially where sharks could not possibly exist.

“I don’t want to worry you guys,” Bea says. “But MOVE!”

She pushes against the tunnel walls with her feet, and shoves John’s feet with her hands. Ahead, Maya accelerates, using fingers and toes to push, pull and thrash her way to the tunnel exit.

The three of them emerge into a vast pool of ultramarine. John strikes for the surface in a frantic scramble of powerful but clumsy breaststroke. The suits maintain neutral buoyancy, and Bea turns to watch the tunnel as Maya swims up to John at a more leisurely pace.

John has ripped his mask off and is gasping in deep, wheezing breaths.

“Bloody fucking MERLIN!” he swears.

They are in an underground lake around 200m in length by 50 in width. It glows with an intense, pure blue. Above them, in the air, silver sparkles dance in drifts like mayflies made of mica. The water is deep, and goes right to the cave wall, apart from where there is a dark, irregular slash at the far end.

Bea pops up a metre or so away. John turns, alerted by the noise, and behind Bea he sees a dark shape; a fin in the water.

He drops his mask and sprints for the other end of the lake in an untutored front crawl. His mask, transparent silicone, is quickly lost as it drifts down into the light.

Bea looks round and sees what might be a moderately sized sturgeon breaching the surface before diving back down into the water.

“Is there such a thing as a cave shark?” she asks.

“Maybe,” Maya asks. “And if there wasn’t, there is now.”

They follow John to the other end of the lake, keeping hold of their masks.

When they get there, John is lying on his back on the gritty, fine silt of the beach.

“There had better by a way out of this cave that doesn’t involve going in the water. I am NOT going back,” he says.

He picks himself up, and they follow a narrow, tall gash in the rock until it opens out into a vast boulder field. The sparkles are growing denser, but the light here is more orange than blue. At the far side of the boulder field is a steep slope up to a ledge, and the shadow above the ledge suggests there might be a way through.

They pick their way across the boulders but find that the rubber booties of their suits lack enough grip to climb the slope . The ground there is soft and slippy. It’s like trying to climb a hill covered in knee-deep, damp talcum powder.

Bea takes the other rope from her drybag and then, with Bea on the bottom, Maya in the middle, and John on top, they form a tower against the slope, giving John just enough reach to get his fingertips around a rocky edge and pull himself up.

The sparkles swarm him like hungry mosquitoes, but this time he somehow is able to brush off their influence. He finds a sturdy looking stalagmite and ties the rope around it, then throws the loose end down the slope so Maya can haul herself up.

When she gets to the top, the sparkles swarm her. She tries to brush them away, almost squealing, then runs in a mad panic further into the cave, just as Bea approaches the top herself. The swarm attacks Bea; Bea heaves and heaves on the rope, somehow not managing to make progress, until suddenly she overcomes whatever is holding her and sprawls onto the ledge.

The shotgun tied to her waist had become trapped between two boulders. The waist strap snapped, and now her shotgun is still down at the bottom of the slope.

“We have to get Maya!” John says.

“I’m not leaving without my gun!” Bea yells, and starts slithering back down the slope.

John hesitates for only a moment before running after Maya. There is a short, wide, low-ceilinged tunnel, then another great cavern. The floor of this one is perhaps ten metres below the balcony ledge on which he stands. The whole cave is flooded with light coming from his right. Instinctively, he heads in that direction, and finds Maya standing in an opening in the cliff, looking out over the estate.

He takes in the view. The sun is low on the horizon, but already blazing yellow white with the promise of a warm day. The birds are singing in the trees, which shiver and rustle in the wind. John has never heard as sweet a sound as the territorial avian yelling and the gentle psithurism; nor felt anything as glorious as the warmth of sun on his cheeks. This is his way out, even if it does mean going back for the rope.

“Got a message on my phone, ” Maya tells him. “It says, ‘We have lost your signal. We are unable to reach you. We have pertinent information. Contact ASAP.’ I haven’t got a signal, Is yours any better?”

John’s phone is Covenant standard, rather than Maya’s Nokia 3210. He fishes it from inside his suit, and it starts buzzing.

“Same message here,” he says. “But I want to go and get Bea, first. She’s freaking out as well. Turns out she suffers separation anxiety when she doesn’t have any weapons.”

They head back into the cave. As they make their way along the balcony, they spot Bea lowering herself over the edge, as if she’s found a way down to the cave floor.

“Bea!” John shout-whispers. It echoes around the cave, weirdly distorted. BEAbeabeabeabeabeabea.

Bea looks round. Stones scatter as she adjusts her grip. She makes no attempt to climb back up. John realises she has the rope. He can see it bulging at the top of her pack.

“BEA!” he yells.


“John!” She starts climbing back up, and he hurries over to help. “I got the rope. I bet you’re glad I went back for my shotgun now.”

“We could have got the rope anyway!” he tells her. “We’re all at the top of the rope. You don’t need to climb back down a rope to retrieve it. You just reel it in. Good grief, those sparkles must be eating your brain!”

He takes her by the elbow and all three of them go back to the opening in the cliff face.

“Wow,” Bea says. “Is that the estate?”

“Yeah, ” Maya replies. She points with one finger. “That’s the tree where I met Thompson.”

Bea’s phone buzzes as it finds a signal, and, remembering he is to call in, John hits his speed dial. Jane Darling picks up before the phone has had a chance to ring.

“John!” she exclaims, her voice oddly muffled. “Sorry, I’m just eating a pancake. I’m so pleased to hear from you. We were worried. You’ve been dark for hours.”

“We’ve been in a cave,” John says, putting her on speaker. “It was indeed very dark. I got a message saying there is pertinent information.”

“Let me see what comes up against your team… Right. Information flag. Says Merlin retrieved a single photo from Bert’s data. Has identified what appears to be an adaptogenic casing around a portal orb. He has heard of similar devices found in Russia, which is where they last had a confirmed sighting of Strunk. Such a casing can be used to modify the target of whatever magical item is inside. His best guess is the orb is meant to provide access to one thing, but this will change that to another thing. Like opening a door and finding Penge instead of Mornington Crescent”

“Well, that sounds terrible.”

“Is there anything you need?”

“Information on how to stop this orb, with or without the casing, would be helpful.”

“Apparently these casings can be vulnerable to strong magnetic fields.”

John remembers his baseball bat, currently back at the car where he’d left it as the useless lump of Merlin crap he’d thought it was. “Grrreat.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes!” Bea exclaims. “How do we deal with the sparkles?”


“Yes! They’re like mosquitoes, but magic.”

“There are magic mosquitoes?”

“No! They’re not mosquitoes. They’re like little sparkly things. They do things to your brain. I think they’re the things that got Bert.”

“Very well. I shall pass a message to Merlin that you need advice on… magic brain-eating mosquitoes that may or may not have affected Gawain. Anything else?”

“No,” John says tiredly. “Not right now. Just tell C that we’re heading back into the cave, so if you lose signal, we’re underground.”

“Wait, John. Don’t you think you should stay where you have a signal until I can get the answers to your questions from Merlin?”

John and Maya exchange a glance. John looks at the sun. They don’t know when the ritual will take place, but if the rehearsal was at night, surely the main event will be too? It can’t be much after 7am.

“Sure, Igraine,” he says. “We’ll wait until you call. Just… Be quick, aye?”


Black Forest Gateau

“You brought a rock to a gun fight?”

— John


The Cake Is Not A Lie

Marina takes Ashley down to reception and asks Luna to fetch them more appropriate clothing. Luna comes out with a bundle of white clothes.

“I’m pretty good at telling size,” she says, “but if anything doesn’t fit, let me know and I will find something else for you.”

“I’m sure these will be fine, thank you.”

With clothes in hand, Marina leads Ashley to the first row of terraced cottages. There are about three rows in this part of the estate, although there are more elsewhere, and each row has about twenty houses in it. Each ‘house’ is little more than a cell containing a bed, a desk, a storage chest, and a bare shelf. A small bathing area and toilet has been added to the rear of each cell; presumably, the richer members didn’t enjoy the concept of a shared bathroom. Either that or the cult doesn’t want to make people feel too uncomfortable. At least, not at first.

Thomson has been assigned number 11.

“Now, Ashley, you know we don’t allow any electronic devices on site. Anything you brought with you, I will take and lock away for safekeeping during your time here.”

“OK. I’ll just go and get changed first, so I can go through my pockets properly and make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

“Very well. I’ll wait here for you.”

Thomson goes into the tiny house and shuts the door. They quickly change and then scan the space for somewhere that might prove safe from snooping eyes. Under the storage chest, they see a suspicious floor tile. Lifting it, they find an old Sony Walkman cassette player containing Donna Summer’s I Feel Love – The Collection. The tape barely moves when they press play — it has been there a long time.

Thomson stashes everything they don’t want found, debating for a while whether to try concealing their gun under the yoga pants. The material is baggy, but it’s also fairly thin, so they decide to hide the weapon. The only thing they keep is the earpiece and a burner phone. Luna knows they had a phone, but it’s unlikely Marina is going to check whether the phone they give her is the one they showed Luna.

Ashley goes back outside and hands the burner over to Marina.

“Thank you,” Marina says. “Now, let’s go and find Topaz. I believe she has developed some exercises that should help you work through your blockages while being adapted to your intense sensitivity.”

“That would be great!” Ashley says with enthusiasm.

In the cave, Bea holds up her hands in a placating gesture. “Quartz,” she says. “Bert! Thank goodness we found you. What are you up to?”

“Who are you?” he demands, gun never wavering.

“I’m… Look, you don’t know me. C sent me. How much do you remember?”

“What do you want?”

Bea swears. “Great. Look. Do you remember C? Do you remember your name?”

“I’m Quartz. Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?”

“C sent us. You were here to infiltrate the cult, but you went dark. So C sent us to bring you back. One of our team has managed to infiltrate the main compound, and we came here to see what was what.”

“Are you spies?” He seems agitated. “Spies and traitors!” he yells, taking a step forward. “We have enough spies and traitors! Get out! Get out!”

“Okay. Okay. I’m going.” Bea turns to leave and allows herself to stumble. She grabs a rock from the cave floor and then whips round and hurls it at Quartz’s head.

He leans slightly to one side, and it whistles past his skull, parting his hair. His eyes narrow. He aims the gun between Bea’s feet and fires. The shot reverberates around the vast echo chamber, the loudest thing Bea has ever heard in her life. It feels like it has ruptured her eardrums. The bullet kicks up dirt, turning the air gritty.

“Try anything like that again,” Quartz says, although Bea can barely hear him over the ringing in her ears, “and next time I will not miss.”

He gestures with the gun to indicate she should precede him.

“All right. All right! I’m going!”

She makes her way back to the cave entrance, still trying to convince Quartz she’s on his side.

Maya and John hear the gunshot from where they are sitting outside at the picnic table. It is so loud, at first they wonder if there has been a cave collapse, or Bea has set something off down in the depths of the cave. They move cautiously towards the cave entrance, and before too long see Bea edging her way out, talking to someone over her shoulder.

“It’s all right, QUARTZ,” she says loudly, so Maya and John can hear. “I’m leaving. You don’t need to HOLD THAT GUN ON ME any more.”

Quartz waits until she has stepped through the gate, then closes the gap. “You’re right,” he says. “I don’t.”

He heaves the gate shut with a clang and locks it, pocketing the key, before retreating far enough into the cave that they can no longer see him.

“DAMMIT!” Bea exclaims. She peers through the gate. Is that the dull glint of a gun she can see just as the light fades completely? Maybe.

“What was that? What happened?” John asks.

“That was Bert. He’s completely forgotten who he is!”

“What happened down there? You said something about a gate to hell and then told me to leave,” Maya says.

“Well, I have a magical armour, and I could protect myself from the effects of the magic down there, but I couldn’t protect you. I got way down deep into the cave and there was this orb hovering over the water. The weird thing about it was that it looked like a piece of technology, not something magical. Even with my armour, I physically couldn’t get close to it. Lost my damn bolas trying to knock it off its perch. I could only stay down a couple of minutes. Then, on the way back, Bert attacked me.”

“That gun didn’t look too good,” John says.

“Well. To be fair, that was my fault. He wasn’t listening to me, so I threw a rock at his head.”

“Wait. You brought a rock to a gun fight?”

Bea rolls her eyes at him. “What I want to know is, how is he surviving that? He seemed completely unaffected.”

“Maybe that’s why he can’t remember who he is,” Maya suggests. “Maybe that’s the effect it has on him.”

“It didn’t have that effect on you, though, did it? What did it feel like to you?”

“I don’t know about you two,” John says, “but it felt to me like my bones were turning inside out.”

“Same here,” Maya agrees.

“I didn’t get as deep as you, but it got me all turned around. Just as well you did send Maya out,” John says. “I was stuck in there until she grabbed me and brought me out, but I didn’t forget who I was, just where I was.”

“I just don’t think that it was what caused him to forget. He just seems to have gone really deep into his role. I don’t understand how he can be down there,” Bea says.

“Maybe the Orb has chosen him as its guardian or something,” Maya says.

Bea looks dubious, but it’s as good an explanation as any.

“So what do we do now?” John says.

“We should probably report to C,” Maya replies. “Then we can think about where we go from here. There’s no point trying to get back into the Cult. Oh, and we got the report back from Dakota on the amulet. He says the picture was of a page from a book. Some of the text is Enochian, which is the language used by angels, and the symbols are something that could be used for summoning an Elder God. It’s really old, and the god hasn’t been summoned in a very long time.”

“Oh. Right. Not good,” Bea says.

“I’ll do the honours then, shall I?” John says reluctantly.

Covenant issue phones have encrypted calls and C’s office on speed dial. It rings for a few moments and then C’s PA, Jane Darling (codename IGRAINE), answers.

“Hello John,” she begins, “do you—”

But John is already giving her a run-down of what they’ve found so far. Darling waits for him to finish, then says, “Do you want to speak to C?”

“Do I have to?”

“No, John, you don’t have to. I can’t force you to. I do not have a gun to your head. Bullets do not travel down the tiny holes in a microphone to emerge from the not-so tiny holes in a speaker.”

“I suppose I’d better,” John says, as if he doesn’t quite believe her.

“I will see if she’s available.”

Darling puts him on hold, and John turns on the speakerphone so they can all listen to the acapella yodelling Darling currently has set to torment people.

“John,” C says. “You have something for me?”

John is obliged to repeat it all again.

“Going native is always a risk with Gawain. I’ll have a word with his…” she pauses, as if looking for the right term, or a term that will do for the present company “…counsellor. And have you heard from Thomson? Is the only contact you’ve had from them when Maya dropped off the communicator?”

“Pretty much,” Maya says, “although they sent us a photo of a book they found. I sent it to Dakota and he says—”

“Yes, he sent me a copy for the file. I have read his findings. Well, keep up the good work. Let me know if you make any further progress. I’ll be in touch about how to handle Gawain.”

She hangs up, and John looks at his phone in disgust. “Fat lot of help that was, ” he says.

They head back down to the car. Maya rummages around and finds a GPS unit as well as several maps of the area — including what appears to be a simplified map of the caves. The writing on it is old French, faded copperplate and careful block lettering. The hotel entrance is at the west end, and the cult’s compound nestles in the middle  of the almost-horseshoe shape formed by the two main arcs of the system. Another branch heads off to the north-east, and there are some side branches and additional complexes to the south. Where they have just been is part of the south-east branch.

“We could try getting back in through the hotel,” Bea says. “Or look for another entrance. See? That could be one there.” She indicates a mark up in the north-east branch.

“Sounds like a plan,” Maya agrees.

They lay the cave plan out and compare it to the other maps, trying to find a route that will get them to what they think is another entrance. It’s on the other side of the mountain ridge. They’ll have to find a way round.

“Maybe we should just go back to the hotel,” Bea says. “Do you think Merlin has put a portable canoe in here somewhere?”

“Not sure I’d want to use a portable canoe that Merlin had built even if he has,” John mutters.

“Look. Why don’t we go and get something to eat while we think about it?” Maya says. “I’m starving.”

“You’re always peckish!” John replies, eliciting groans from everyone else. “Let’s go then.”

Back at the compound, Marina takes Ashley to meet Topaz. Topaz leads Ashley on what turns out to be quite a long walk across the estate and through the trees to the edge of the mountain. They avoid the main entrance to the cave system and go to a smaller cavern further along the cliff. It goes back about 10m into the rock, and is a rough, irregular teardrop in shape, the space overhead narrowing into a crack that disappears into the mountain, just as the rear of the cave pinches into darkness. The floor of the cave has been covered in a thick layer of pristine white sand, and crystals and windchimes hang from irregularities in the cave walls. Candles have been stuck everywhere there is space to stick them, and the flickering light reflects from and refracts through the gently swaying crystals, covering the white sand in dancing colours.

Topaz sits Ashley down and takes them through a couple of hours or so of various exercises involving lots of different breathing patterns, visualisation, and self-awareness exercises. To Ashley, it feels both as if hardly any time has passed and it is years later when Topaz finishes with a final relaxation exercise.

“Before we go, has Marina spoken to you about the Great Eel at all?” Topaz asks. She speaks easily, but Ashley can tell there is some hesitation here, a slight nervousness or wariness, as if she is taking a risk in asking this question.

“No, not really. Why?”

“It’s just that, well, some people can become confused about what we are trying to achieve here. They can let their own gifts, their talents, blind them to the reality and lose their groundedness.”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

Topaz stands and brushes sand from herself, then starts pinching out the candles, each one darkening with the slight hiss of dampened fingers and a smell of carbonised wick. “You are very new here,” she says. “It’s just that, with you being so sensitive, I was concerned that Marina might try to accelerate your path into one of the more advanced groups. It’s good to keep somethings in mind, to stay grounded, even if we are granted extraordinary gifts.”

Ashley can’t tell for sure whether Topaz is referring to them or not but is inclined to think she’s talking about Marina.

“What sort of things? It would be good to know, so I can make sure not to stumble from the right way.”

“Let’s just say that it’s important to remember that this is all metaphorical. Some of us might be tempted, might even have succumbed to the temptation to consider it real. But the Great Eel is not real in the sense that you or I are real, Ashley. The exercises we do here, the work we do, is about personal empowerment, not literally summoning an actual giant eel. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes I do,” Ashley says, relieved. “Thank you for that excellent advice. I will remember that the work is metaphorical and stay grounded.”

“Good.” Topaz finishes snuffing out the candles. It’s dark outside, the moon glimmering shyly through the leaf canopy .

“If it’s all right, I would like to walk back by myself,” Ashley says. “Take the long way round, to give myself a chance to process.”

“Of course. Stay away from the entrance to the main cave system, though. It’s very, very easy to become lost.”

“I will.”

Topaz sets off towards the residential area with a purposeful stride.

Thomson leaves the cave and follows at a slower pace and on a slightly less direct path.

“Can you hear me?” they say, assuming that anyone noticing them talking will think they are talking to their spirit guide.

After a while, Maya responds, her voice weirdly distant but close at the same time. “Hey Thomson! How are you?”

“I’m good. Just walking back to my room. Thought I’d better check in. By the way, you’re my spirit animal now.”

“Your what?”

“Spirit animal. I had to come up with a reason for you visiting me as a seagull, and they bought it.”


“I’m hoping there’ll be something better for dinner than the leaves and berries we had for lunch. I’d better go.”

“Okay. Keep in touch!”

As Thomson arrives back at the accommodation, the man who spoke to them at lunch approaches.

“Hey. Remember you said you’d let me use your phone,” he says.

Thomson’s phone is hidden in the floor of their room. Feeling like it would be unwise to lie and say they’d handed it over to Blavatsky, they say, “Are you sure that’s what you want? You’ve already been here for two weeks.  You’ve made so much progress in that time. Do you really want to undo it all now? And for what?”

The man looks taken aback. “I mean. I suppose… When you get down to it, the internet is a dumpster fire of hissing scorpions. I’m only here for another two weeks and… I have to confess, I haven’t really missed facebook. Certainly not twitter. I just wanted to look at kitten photos. But once I get out of here, I could get an actual kitten instead.”

“You absolutely can do that. Then, instead of looking at vacuous photographs that are little more than clickbait to trip a dopamine signal in your brain, you can form a meaningful relationship with another living being and bring light and joy into the world.”

“You are so right. Thanks. Thank you!”

He walks away, dazed, looking like someone who has had an epiphany.

Later, with no dinner in sight, Thomson decides to go for a walk to stave off the hunger pangs. It’s approaching 11pm, and everyone else is in bed. They fetch their gun out from its hiding place, then debate whether to put their own clothes on. It would probably be less suspicious if they were found and were wearing their cult clothes., though, so stick with obvious white.

Out into the cool night they go, following a vague instinct and trying to avoid any smelly man camps.

As they set off in search of some food, John’s phone rings. The caller ID says MERLIN.

“Oh gods,” John says. “What the hell does he want?” He thumbs the call accept button. “Hi Merlin.”

“John! Team!” Merlin bellows. “I understand you’re having trouble with Gawain. Not at all unusual, this is why we put a tracker on him, of course.”


“What you need to do is say the following: Looking at the cake is like looking at the future. Until you’ve tasted it, what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late. Then give him some cake. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

“Excuse me?”

Looking at the cake is like looking at the future. Until you’ve tasted it, what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late. Ha ha ha ha ha. Then cake.” There is a pause. “Oh, you don’t have to laugh, that’s not part of it. I amuse myself, that’s all. Doesn’t matter what cake. Any cake will do.” Another pause. “Best if you can get him to eat it, though. Right? Great stuff!”

There is a long beep and he hangs up.

“I guess we’d better find a patisserie,” Maya says.

“I don’t think even French bakeries are open this late.”

“Well, a supermarket then. He said it didn’t matter what kind of cake. We can just pick up some chocolate buns or something.”

They drive into town and find a supermarket. They are about to go in to find some food and some cake when a voice hisses from somewhere in the back of the car.

“Hey guys!” They sound like they’re trying not to make too much noise.

Maya rummages through the road trip detritus, piles of maps, and scattered kit for the comms box.

“Are you there? Can you hear me? I can’t be too loud in case someone hears me.”

“Hey Thomson!” Maya says, finding the box and thumbing the switch. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m good. This place is amazing, but I think the dude with the amulet is trying to take over and do something bad. Although they don’t seem to serve dinner. I’m starving. Thought I’d go for a walk.”

“Fancy some company?” Maya asks.

“Yeah. That would be good, actually.”

“We’re heading to a supermarket to get food. We need to take cake to Gawain.”

There’s a long pause before Thomson’s voice sounds, slightly treble-heavy through the speaker and clearly confused. “Right?”

“I’ll tell you later. I can bring you something if you like?”

“That would be great.”

John is already inside, and Maya can just about hear him through the open door, yelling, “Excusez moi! Je cherchez le gateau!”

“Get some roulade!” Maya calls to him, before saying to Thomson, “OK. Don’t walk too fast.”

Maya heads inside, where John and Bea are choosing cakes. They grab a selection of pastries and savoury snacks then head back to the car.

“Will you be able to find the cave entrance?” Bea asks.

“It’s a long way to fly to the new entry point,” Maya says, putting a couple of cupcakes into a small plastic bag.

“No, we’re going to the last one, to find Bert,” Bea says.

“Are we?” John is surprised.

“We might as well.”

“Oh, sure. I can find that okay,” Maya assures them.

“Right. So you’ll go see Thomson and we’ll go get Bert.” Bea repeats the plan, as if needing the confirmation that they all have the same one in mind.

“Yes,” Maya agrees. “I just need a plastic bag or something to take some food to Thomson.”

John digs around for a small bag while Maya gets changed. He puts a couple of cakes and un demi jambon-beurre into a bag and Maya grabs the handles in her beak. She flies once round the car to test the weight and balance, then heads off towards the Estate.

Avoiding the rookery, even though corvids are better sleepers than seagulls and are unlikely to be up and about, Maya soars low over the trees, looking for a solitary figure wandering through the trees. Soon enough, Thomson’s ghostly white clothes glimmer through the darkness near the tree where Maya had found them earlier.

“Oh, you’re a life saver,” Thomson says as Maya lands and drops the bag at their feet. They cram bread and cake into their face. “Mmm. Oh yeah, this is good.”

Maya transforms herself back into a human. “So, how’s it going?”

“It’s going great!” Thomson says. “The woman who runs this place, Marina, she’s amazing. She is super cool. And all she really wants is for people to be their own empowered selves, you know? I feel like I could learn so much here. But there’s this dude with the amulet, and I’m almost completely sure he’s up to something, although he hasn’t done anything actually to me, you know? He could have said something about me finding the book, but he didn’t, and I actually find that really suspicious. And there’s Topaz, who is also really cool. She was giving me some one-to-one training earlier, and she told me I had to beware not to fall into the belief that what’s happening here is real. She said that it’s important to remember that what we’re doing is metaphorical, and it’s about personal growth. She said there are some people here who believe they are really summoning something, and I think that might be what the man with the amulet is trying to do. I think he’s trying to use people here, people Marina has trained to use their power, and he wants to summon something. Something bad.”

“You think that this Blavatsky woman is okay?”

“Yeah! She is really trying to look after me. ”

“Are you sure you’re all right, Thomson? This doesn’t sound like you. This is a whole other side to you I’ve never seen, all this meditation and stuff.”

Maya doesn’t try very hard to conceal her scepticism, but Thomson is oblivious.

Thomson waves a dismissive hand. “Oh sure. My parents were into all of this stuff. I basically grew up on a commune. It’s kind of nice to revisit it.”

Maya tells Thomson what Dakota said about the book page Thomson photographed.

“That kind of supports my thoughts about what’s going on here,” Thomson says thoughtfully. “Maybe the amulet dude is trying to summon the Elder God.”

“Oh, and we found Gawain. He’s gone deep undercover and nearly shot Bea.”

“Oh wow.”

“Yeah. Merlin gave us a code phrase to use to try to snap him out of it, which is why we were buying cake.”


“Yes. It’s part of the technique for trying to get him to remember himself.”

Thomson bites into a blueberry muffin. “Sounds like a very specific post-hypnotic suggestion. You know, so no one could accidentally force him out of deep cover by saying something like ‘heliotrope’ at just the wrong moment.”

“Could be.”

They carry on walking, following a path that leads — eventually — to the main part of the estate, where the big house and the accommodation blocks are, but which currently runs parallel to the rocky foot of the mountains.

Thomson becomes aware of a pull, as if they were a compass needle held close to iron. As soon as they pay attention to it, it becomes stronger, more alluring, less resistable. It feels important.

“Sorry, Maya, I have to…” They don’t know how to explain this. “I feel like I have to go over in this direction. There’s a strong draw. I don’t know how to describe it, but I have to go.”

” I’m coming with you.” Maya transforms herself back into a seagull.

“Fine,” Thomson says. “Maybe just walk or something, though? Having a companion animal is one thing, but I think they might suspect something if you start living on my shoulder like a pet parrot.”

They begin walking in the direction their internal compass is pointing, and Maya takes to the air to follow.

John hefts his baseball bat. It’s their only weapon. They wander up the path to the gate to where they last saw Quartz, and Bea sets at the lock with the picks.

“DAMMIT!” she exclaims, as the pick breaks in half, the pieces falling on the ground. Unseen, sparkles drift in the darkness of the cave, some of them even passing through the bars of the gate. “Now what?”

“I could have it with my baseball bat?” John suggests dubiously.

“I don’t see what other choice we have,” Bea says with annoyance.

He takes a few steps back, then attacks the gate. A the bat swings, the enchantment kicks in. It accelerate, smashing into the hinges, and smacking the gate back against the wall of the cave so hard it bends with a loud CLANG and a screech of tortured metal. Sparkles swirl in its wake, and John finds he can’t pull it free and, suddenly, his watch slides off his wrist to stick to the bat. All of Bea’s pocket change shakes free from her jacket and flies to stick on the bat, even though it’s non-ferrous. John finds himself being dragged towards the bat by his belt buckle. All metal is affected. The gate groans and creaks as it tries to fold itself around the bat.

“Shit!” he yells. “Bloody Merlin!”

“What’s happening?” Bea exclaims.

“It’s the bloody base bloody ball bloody bat!” John says, fumbling with his phone and trying to hit speed dial without losing it to the intense magnetic attraction.

Merlin picks up almost at once. “What what?” he booms.

“Your bloody baseball bat has turned super magnetic! What do we do?” John yells.

“Oh. Sorry about that. Thought we’d ironed that one out.” He audibly strokes his beard, then catches his own unintended pun. “HA HA HA HA HA. Ahem. Use a minor cantrip to de-enchant it. That should solve the magnetism problem, although it will lose the enhanced qualities as well, of course. You should get them back in an hour. Probably. Cheerio!”

“Bloody Merlin! Bea. Can you do an enchant weapon on this thing and, I dunno, unenchant it instead?” John asks, desperately sliding across the ground, pulled by belt buckle and phone.

Bea mutters a cantrip as another coin works free from her pocket and flies to the baseball bat. That last coin takes just enough pressure off John for him to hold his ground until the cantrip is done and the baseball falls in a dead weight to the ground.

He picks it up. It no longer feels light and lively in his grip. It’s the weight of a medium sized sledgehammer, and he can feel every gram of it.

From the depths of the cave comes the sound of footsteps. More than one, by the rhythm, although that might be the echoes braiding around one another in the cave’s complexity.

“Uh-oh,” John says.

Bea motions for him to go on the other side of the cave entrance, where he won’t be seen. He hefts his deadweight baseball bat, regretting having brought it. She stands on the other side of the cave entrance, cradling cake. John mugs a SERIOUSLY?? expression and Bea shrugs. Her bolas is gone. What else is she supposed to do?

As the footsteps grow closer, they sound heavier, louder. It’s not a person, it’s a giant.

John tightens his grip on his baseball bat.

After what feels like a lifetime of waiting, an enormous figure emerges from the cave. It spots Bea.


“Wait…” Bea says, holding up one hand. “What?”

This is Twin 2, whom Bea afflicted with a bad case of wet shitty trousers before the team unceremoniously barbecued his brother. And he’s not stopping.

John whips round in a crouched swing at Twin 2’s ankles. The giant is moving fast, attention entirely on Bea, and doesn’t see him. He falls fast and hard, sprawling in the dirt until a collision between his head and a particularly sharp rock brings him to a stop with a meaty, sickening thud.

“Oh,” John says. “That’s… Not really had I had in mind.”

“Oh well,” Bea says. “It was him or us.”

“You.” They both turn at the sound of another voice. It’s Quartz, and he’s looking at them both with unconcealed contempt, his gun a slick black source of death and pain.

Bea holds out the cake. It’s a Black Forest Gateau. She has cut a slice.

“Looking at the cake is like looking at the future. Until you’ve tasted it, what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late.” She proffers the plate. “Go on, have a bite.”

Quartz’s gun wavers, the muzzle drifting to point towards the ground. His expression becomes conflicted, confused.

“What… What did you say?”

“Looking at the cake is like looking at the future,” John repeats, slowly and carefully. “Until you’ve tasted it, what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late.”

Bea breaks off a piece of the cake and practically forces it into the Section 7 agent’s mouth.

“Who are you?” He swallows part of it, but spits out most, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and eyeing it suspiciously, as if he’s expecting poison.

“More to the point, who are you?” Bea asks.

“I have no reason to tell you.” His eyes are sharp now, suspicious rather than paranoid.

“Are you Bert?”

“That depends on who is asking.”

Bea starts to get exasperated, but John says, “Is your name Bertram St Joh Cholmondleigh Featherstone-Hawe?”

Gawain relaxes a little, his stance going from say one thing wrong and I will kill you to this is a dangerous situation, but you are not my enemy. “You’ve read my personnel file. What are you doing here?”

“You went dark, man,” John tells him. “We were sent to find out what had happened to you.”

“Just you?”

“No, there are another two of us in the team. One of them has infiltrated the cult.”

“Infiltrated… Are you mad? Does this hunter have any magic powers? Are they powerful in the occult?”

“Not that we know,” John says with a shrug.

“Listen to me. Tell C that Sebastien Strunk is back. We didn’t take him down last time as we thought. Tell her. She will know what I mean. He is subverting the cult to gather enough power to summon his abomination of a god Yigg. If he succeeds, it’s the end of everything. The human race is finished. I’ve been stopping him getting close to the Orb, because without it he can’t enact his plan, but he needs to be stopped. Permanently.”

“The Orb!” Bea exclaims. “How are you able to be close to it?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well, maybe,” Bea says, angry now. “We’ve got a job to do here too , you know.”

“I…” He breaks off, uncertain again. “I don’t know. Something that Marina did. I can’t explain it. Something to do with blood, perhaps…” He stars at the ground for a moment. “You said there were two others. Where is the other one?”

“She’s flying in to check on our undercover hunter,” Bea says.

“Flying? Is Merlin supplying microlights to hunter teams these days?”

“Not exactly.”

“Explain.” He almost barks this order, and Bea finds herself explaining almost without deciding to.

“She can transform herself into a seagull. She’s flying in as a seagull.”

Gawain’s expression turns dismayed, then hardens. “You fools! You are sending someone who is capable of that kind of magic in there and you think they won’t be able to tell? They will take her and use her to fuel their plans. Why the hell is C using such barely competent hunters?”

“Harsh,” mutters John.

“You need to get them out. Both of them. There’s no time to waste. Get in touch with C and give her my message, but get your teammates out!”

He turns and starts heading back into the cave.

“Wait. What are you going to do?” Bea asks.

“I have to make sure Strunk doesn’t get near the Orb. Right now, there’s nothing more important than that.”

“What if you lose yourself to your cover? Again?”

“That’s a risk I’ll just have to take. But for future reference, I can’t stand chocolate.”

He returns to the cave and forces the gate shut again.

Ashley’s sixth sense leads Thomson and Maya to the main entrance to the cave complex. Ashley goes inside, drawn by the potent signal. Maya hangs back until she can no longer see Thomson, then heads into the cave.

Ashley sees the cave filled with a blue light. It is intense, the colour of the third-eye chakra, Ajna, the chakra of intuition and imagination. It fills them with excitement, a desire to belong, to participate. They hear chanting, a glorious, endless sound ; numerous voices with one aim, one goal, their combined effort washing through the cavern with no pause for breath.

As they move deeper into the cave, the feeling grows, this desire to belong, and they begin to see wisps of light flitting through the blue, like swallows made of mist.

Maya jumps up in front of Thomson, flapping and squawking, trying to turn them back. She can see the blue light, and hears some deep chanting noises, but that’s it.

“Get off!” Ashley says. “I need to see.”

Maya keeps flapping, and the ghostly swallows grow in number as the chanting grows louder and the blue becomes more intense, almost to the point of tingling on their skin. Sparkles form in dancing clouds like mayflies.

Maya stops, unwilling to progress any further, sure that Thomson wouldn’t go on alone.

Just as they are about to turn a corner that would put Maya out of sight, Thomson kicks a corner of Ashley’s mind into paying attention and they decide to turn back. Maya can’t wait to get out of there and goes on ahead. Thomson follows, wondering if this is the right thing to do.

As they exit the cave, a jeep pulls up. A woman clambers out. She is tall, blonde, dressed to enhance her naturally generous curves, and has a smirk on her carefully-painted lips. Knives glint at her belt, and she carries herself with the ease of someone trained in martial arts.

“Hello, pretty pretty,” she says huskily. “What are you doing here?”

Ashley swallows. They are not supposed to be here. “Well, I was walking back to my accommodation when I experienced the profound feeling that I should be here,” they say.

“Really?” The woman arches one eyebrow. “Well I think you should be here, too.”

“Why? What’s happening in there?”

“It’s the big Interface practise before the main event, darling.”

She smiles the kind of smile that could bring susceptible persons to their knees. and then walks into the cave.

Ashley realises that this woman means them no harm. Her one and only priority in life is looking after… Sebastien. She might be prone to jealousy, but only if she believes someone is intruding on her space, and her space is Sebastien, whoever that is. The man with the amulet. She is his bodyguard, lover. Paramour.

And she’s going inside to keep him safe while he makes sure he has the people he needs primed to help him summon Yigg.

And now Ashley wants to go back inside, whether Maya agrees or not.

An image showing occult symbols
The photo Thomson took – NOT an amulet, Maya.

Dakota submitted a copy of this email for the mission file. See to it would you please, Darling?


RE: Thomson’s photo

OK, so you said this image was an amulet, but the image was probably a book of some description, and there was more than one image on the page…

We’ve talked about this. You need to be SPECIFIC.

One of these images is alchemical. It’s part of the tree of life, a sort of Kabbalistic map showing how to give the magician (or alchemist, if we’re being pedantic) the power of God. Or a god, anyway. Immortality and enlightenment.

The one on the top left is Enochian, which is angelic script. That’s the language used by angels when they want to write notes to each other. If Archangel Gabriel scribbled his shopping list on a PostIt, it would probably look like that. Well, not that like, because that’s a summoning nonagram.

In Enochian.

Ask yourself: what kind of being would angels want to summon? I mean, how badly do you have to piss off an angel for them to summon something other than an angel to come along and do their work for them? How dirty does a job have to be that even angels, not known for being averse to some pretty heinous works (we do remember pillars of salt etc, right?) would want to summon something else to do it instead?

And what would that look like when it arrived?

Underneath is some random collection of occult symbols — an alphabet of sorts.

The clearest image on the page is the symbol of an obscure Elder God called Yigg. When I say Elder God, I mean the King in Yellow, Mountains of Madness, eldritch horror from the cosmic beyond kind  of Elder God. Maybe the kind of Elder God an angel would summon if they thought, “Boss, I love you dearly, but dude this shit is awful and Imma gonna have to ask a favour from someone with even fewer scruples than I’ve got, my man.”

This stuff is old, too. I had to call up the Covenant and get one of their people to look in the main Archives, because the schism happened after this was written.

Yep. That old.

I don’t think this Elder God has been summoned since before the Schism. I bet he’s really bored and just itching to get back out into the world. This page seems to suggest that someone able to summon this god would achieve immortality and the kind of power that would make an actual angel sit up and take notice.

What the heck have you found out there, Maya?



“There’s only so much vaguely fishy digestive juice Thomson would be prepared to put in their ear”




John turns the crisp packet upside down and shakes it, then offers it to Maya so she can fetch out the last of the paprika-flavoured crumbs. He drops the earpiece into the crisp packet and folds over the top, then hands it to Maya. She takes it in her beak and flies once round the vehicle to make sure it doesn’t interfere with her flight too much, before flying off towards where she last saw Thomson.

As she soars towards the tree under which Thomson was sheltering, she passes by a rookery. The rooks and jackdaws spot her and the shiny crisp packet, and descend en masse, croaking and cawing. They mob her, attracted by the shiny crisp packet. Despite her best efforts to fend them off, a particularly bolshie rook smacks her over the head, and she drops the crisp packet, only for an opportunistic jackdaw to snatch it out of the air and fly off with it.

With no other option available, Maya flies back to the car.

“What happened?” John asks, not expecting to see her again so soon.

“I was attacked by some crows,” she says. “I lost the transmitter.”

“What? You?” John starts laughing. “But you’re a great big herring gull! You’re a ninja in feathery form!”

Maya’s feathers are ruffled even though she’s not currently wearing them. “There were loads of them!” she protests. “And they were huge! And vicious!”

“If you say so. Well, I guess we’d better see what else we can find to replace the transmitter.”

John goes digging through the accumulated roadtrip detritus in the back of the car and eventually finds something that looks like the chopped-off end of an earbud. It’s not as small as the lost one, and it would be visible from the right angle, but it’s got to be better than nothing, right? Maya finds a small, handheld unit that makes a series of rapid clicks like a sperm whale homing in on a giant squid when she points it at the various bits of electronic wizardry in the Section 7 kit.

“This was made by Merlin, wasn’t it?” John says rhetorically. “So it’s magically enhanced. I dread to think how it will go wrong.” He remembers the underwater breathing apparatus that attracted sharks, even if sharks didn’t even live in that area. Those things could attract sharks in a landlocked freshwater lake. What the hell will one of his comms devices do? “Suppose it must have decent range on it, though.”

Maya pulls a receiver/transmitter from the case. It’s a box about the size of six audio cassettes stacked together. “We can bring this with us and find out.”

Everyone agrees that the crisp packet plan was somewhat flawed, and they don’t have any more crisp packets anyway, so this time Maya just takes the earpiece in her beak, careful not to swallow it down into her crop. There’s only so much vaguely fishy digestive juice Thomson would be prepared to put in their ear.

She avoids the rookery on her way back to Thomson, and lands on the far side of the big tree from the yoga class, which is still going on. She walks carefully around to where Thomson is still sitting, mindful of Topaz watching Thomson, and paddles around on the grass a bit as if looking for worms before lowering her head to set the earpiece on the ground within Thomson’s reach. She wanders off, pecks a bit at the ground for the sake of appearances, then launches herself back into the air and heads back to the car.

Thomson reaches with one hand to feel where Maya had obviously left something, careful not to look at what they’re doing in case Topaz asks to see what they picked up. It’s something small and feels vaguely electronic; they stuff it in their pocket for later.

Just in time; class finishes and Topaz comes over.

“How are you feeling?” she asks with genuine concern. “You seem to be finding everything very intense.”

“Yes, sorry. It’s just this place. It’s great, but I find it very overwhelming.”

“You must be very sensitive,” Topaz says. “I shall have a word with Marina and see if we can come up with some exercises that will suit you better without being too intense for you to cope with.”

“That would be wonderful, thank you.”

“Did I see you talking to a seagull just now?”

“Well,” Ashley says, “A seagull landed very close to me and came over. I couldn’t say if I was talking to it. I’ve always got on well with animals. I seem to have a calming effect on them.”

“Do you think that the seagull might have had a message for you? Had you considered that it might be what we call a companion animal, some sort of spirit guide?”

Ashley’s eyes widen. “I hadn’t considered that at all. Do you really think so?”

“Well, we wouldn’t normally expect to see a seagull here in the mountains so far from the ocean, and it came very close to you, so I would say it’s a very strong possibility, especially given how sensitive you are.”

“That would be wonderful. I never dared to hope that something like that could happen.”

Topaz smiles almost fondly. “We have a library in the main house, and while Marina doesn’t really like people using it unsupervised, I’m sure she will make an exception for you. I will tell her you need to read up on companion animals.”

“I’d be so grateful.”

“Good. Come on, I’m sure it must be time for lunch.”

Back at the car, the rest of the team consider what to do next. Maya plays with the volume controls on the receiver, turning it all the way up until she can hear what sounds like rustling noises. “Seems to be working,” she says with a shrug.

“I suppose our only other option is to go to the cave where C said they last tracked Bert,” Bea says. “We don’t have any more leads.”

The others agree.

They check the map and then navigate back onto the D8 and drive until they’re as close as they can get. Parking up at the side of the road, they find the track that leads into the woods, towards the mountain. It’s not a long walk, but it’s a hot day, and they are high in the Pyrennees. The air is filled with the scent of greenery and the songs of birds proclaiming their territories – presumably in French, although it doesn’t sound that different from British birds.

They follow the stone track until eventually they reach the cave entrance. It is blocked off by heavy iron bars, the door locked with a sturdy padlock.

“Did you bring the boltcutters?” Bea asks.

John pats his pockets. “Strangely enough, no.”

They all traipse back to the car.

At lunch, Ashley is sitting down at a long wooden table set out in one of the courtyards near the small houses where the guests stay. Everyone around the table is dressed in white except for them. The table is loaded with a vegan feast of fresh vegetables, fruits, salads, nuts and grains, most of which look like they were probably grown on the farm. They glance to the top of the table, where Marina Blavatsky is listening to Topaz murmuring something close to her ear. She looks straight down the table at Ashley, then turns to the man sitting on her left and says something to him. With a start, Ashley realises that he’s not wearing white, either. He is dressed entirely in black, and the only adornment on him is an amulet hanging around his neck. He meets Ashley’s gaze and, with a smirk, tucks the amulet under his shirt.

The team gets back to the car, moderately hot and bothered, and have a rummage. Maya finds some lockpicks in the Section 7 kit, but Bea insists on bringing the boltcutters, just in case. They also find a few more Merlin toys — a nanofibre rope around 150m long, gossamer thin and feather light, and a compact grappling hook that folds up into a tiny package, like origami.

John shakes his head. “I dread to think how those might go wrong.”

They head back to the cave.

The padlock does not succumb to the boltcutters. Maya hands Bea the lockpicks.

“We know you have something of a dark past, Bea. I’m sure you learned how to pick a lock at some point.”

It’s not necessarily a good thing that Maya knows about Bea’s past — the Sect has a very firm stance on black magic and evil things in general, after all — but Bea gets the lock open and they push the gate. It clangs loudly in the echo-chamber of the cave.

At lunch, Ashley’s pocket makes a loud, metallic noise that reverberates oddly. The man sitting next to them leans over, furtively trying to catch their eye.

“Do you…” He seems hesitant to speak. “Do you still have your phone? Was that a notification I just heard? Could I… Could I maybe borrow it? I’ve been here for two weeks. They haven’t let me even glance at mine since I got there. I haven’t spoken even to my family in all that time. Do you… Do you have facebook? Or twitter even? What’s happening in the world? I feel so lost.”

“This isn’t a good time,” Ashley says.

“Later then? I’m in house number 3.”

“Um… Maybe. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Oh, thank you. Thank you.”

He turns away, as if pointedly ignoring them will make up for him actively soliciting illicit electronica.

Back at the cave, the team creep into what is clearly part of a vast network of tunnels and caverns inside the mountain. Maya takes the transmitter-receiver box from her pocket and thumbs the mute switch. “Should probably have done that earlier,” she says.

Progressing further inside the cave, they come across what appears to be a shallow pit inside a cage. Lying in the bottom of the pit are skeletal remains. Some of them look human, but the others don’t resemble anything currently living. They look old, but Bea recognises a particular kind of accelerated aging in the bones, in the way they aren’t fossilised but delicate and frangible, almost like packed dust. Someone summoned something here, some creature, and then locked it in a cage with a human and let them fight to the death. Maybe one of them survived the fight, maybe neither did; with the remains in this advanced state, it’s impossible to say.

They move on into the cave.

The cavern system becomes more complicated, and it is difficult to tell which way to go. The footprints they have been following head off in multiple directions, and there is every danger of becoming lost down here. They scuff dust from the floor, and it sparkles oddly, like tiny flecks of impossibly bright glitter caught by a powerful arc lamp. Magic is happening down here. There’s probably some sort of magical protection.

Maya checks the receiver, but the only noise it makes is a pffzzzt pffzzzt pffzzzt… pffzzzt pffzzzt… pffzzzt pffzzzt pffzzzt pffzzzt… pffzzzt.

The dust seems to drift in one particular direction, following gentle air currents, and so they decide to track that movement into the cave.

At the compound, Ashley is finishing her lunch with some fresh fruit when Blavatsky comes over. The woman crouches slightly next to Ashley’s chair, and again Ashley feels that comforting sense that nothing bad could possibly happen.

“Topaz tells me you would like to read about companion animals.”

“Yes! I was visited by a seagull, and Topaz suggested that perhaps it had a message for me, and I should try to find out what it is.”

“An excellent suggestion. Come with me.”

She takes Ashley’s hand and leads them to the house, then upstairs to the third floor.

“The library is here,” she says. “My office is just next door. The section on companion animals and spirit guides is over there. If you need anything, please just come and find me. My door is open.”

She goes into her office, leaving both doors open, and Ashley enters the library. It’s much tidier than Bea’s, and not as well stocked. There is room to move, for a start, and no piles of ancient texts and random scrolls lying higgledy-piggledy all over the place.

They’re not sure where to begin, but Thomson decides it will be nowhere near the section on companion spirits.

Further into the cave, and the team begins to feel uncomfortable. There is a sense of something crawling inside their limbs, an itch they can’t scratch; the feeling of being surrounded by midges but unable to swat them away, or a mosquito entering the ear when hands are bound. The further they progress, the worse it gets, until John can’t stand it any more.

“I feel like I need to claw my skin off,” he cries, close to panic. “I need to get out of here!”

“This is serious magical protection,” Bea says. “I need to know what’s down there.”

“I can’t stay. I need to get out!”

“Well, look. You take the communication box and head back outside, see if you can hear what Thomson is doing,” Maya says. “I’ll stay with Bea.”

“OK,” John says, snatching the box, turning on his heel, and booking it.

Maya and Bea carry on, each step making it harder and harder to resist the urge to tear their flesh from their bones with their fingers, their teeth, anything.

Even each other.

In the library, Ashley takes the opportunity to put the earpiece in, wiping gull spit off it on their jacket. Scanning the shelves, they find a pair of what appear to be leather-bound books — what kind of leather they dare not contemplate. They are ancient, battered, and the pages are made of vellum or… Again, best not to think about it. The language is unfamiliar, but the imagery is half Agrippa, half Voynich manuscript. Leafing through, Thomson finds a symbol that they recognise from the amulet that the man next to Blavatsky was wearing. They can’t read the text but recognise some of the other symbols in this section as being the kind of symbol someone might use to form a pact with a demonic entity. Summon the demon, make a bargain, wear their symbol for as long as the pact is in place. Power, riches, long life… The usual.

They quickly dig their phone out and take a picture, sending it to John and Bea because Maya’s still stuck with her stupid Nokia 3210 and it can’t handle pictures.

Saw a guy wearing an amulet, and this is the symbol. Might have a pact with a demon.

Footsteps in the hall outside thud towards the library. That’s not Blavatsky. Blavatsky wafts. Ashley is supposed to be finding out what the heck a seagull means as an animal companion, and Thomson hurries to put the books away before they are discovered.

John follows his own footsteps out of the cave, but before long he realises he should have reached the cage by now, and he hasn’t. He glances at the ground and realises the only footprints that belong to him are behind him, and they all point in the direction he’s facing. Looking around, he doesn’t recognise this part of the cave.

He carefully scrawls an X in the dirt, turns through 180° and follows his own footprints back in the direction he has just come, never looking up from the trail. When he reaches where his steps head off in another direction, he draws another big X in the dirt, then follows those, hopefully in the direction of the cave entrance and safety.

The closer they get, the more familiar this sensation is to Bea. A long time ago, so long it feels like another lifetime, she was in South America, making a decent living working freelance for a number of underground crime syndicates. Each of them thought they had her exclusive services, but she went where the money was, and if someone was willing to pay, well…

One of the crime bosses had acquired, by means about which she had never thought it prudent to ask, a skull. Not an ordinary human or animal skull — he could have had as many of those as he wanted for pocket change — but something else altogether. This was only vaguely human, with a low, flat cranium that swept back from a heavy, anvil-like brow like the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. It was covered in strange symbols that were impossible to copy, so badly did they hurt the eyes. They seemed to move and shift, shimmer as if in a heat haze, following impossible, contorted lines that didn’t exist in normal space. They were not drawn, or carved: they were part of the bone itself. Inside the eye sockets flickered the colours of flame, of molten rock, of iron heated to melting. It gave off an intense, bone-curdling heat, and it was impossible to remain within the same room as it for more than 5 seconds without wanting to tear your own eyes out.

The skull, with the right incantations and some of the type of ingredients that people don’t usually offer willingly, would open a portal to Hell. The effect of the skull by itself was bad enough; being locked in the same room as the open portal had caused one victim to bite the flesh off his arms, all the way down to the bone. They kept it in a lead box, and Bea had developed a magical protection so that she could get into the room where they kept it, take it out of the box, and get out again before she did herself harm. Her one stipulation had been that she only ever had to go in there when there was no one else in the room. She didn’t want to see it in use. She’d heard enough stories on the street to know what they did with it.

Give them their dues: they’d always made sure there was nothing left of what they’d been doing when they’d asked her to go back in and put it away again.

They reach the point where they physically cannot go any further. Chemical reactions that have stopped biology self-immolating since the dawn of time see to that. Every primordial instinct in every cell brings them to a grinding halt.

“Listen,” she says to Maya. “I think I know what’s down there, and I have ways to keep myself safe, but I can’t protect you. You have to go back.”

“What do you mean?” Maya asks. “I’m not letting you go down there by yourself.”

“You must. I can protect myself, but I can’t help you.”

“I don’t understand! How could you know what’s down there? What do you mean? I’m not leaving you!”

Bea bites back on the frustration, knowing that it will make her more vulnerable. She doesn’t want to tell Maya what’s in her past. It is utterly incompatible with the Sect’s mission. Who knows what it would do to their relationship. But what choice does she have? “Look, I used to work for this guy who had a skull that would open a portal to Hell. I think that’s what’s down there. Or something like it. It feels almost the same. I have magical protection I can use, but it only works on me. You HAVE to go back!”

Maya forces another couple of steps forwards, but falls back immediately.

“All right,” she says. “We need to talk about this later.”

She turns and runs.

Bea takes one of her magical pouches from her pocket. She hadn’t thought she’d need this one on this trip.

Thomson is still trying to remember where they found the books when they feel the hairs prickle on the back of their neck and there is the unmistakeable sensation of not being alone in the room.

They turn round, and the man who had been sitting next to Blavatsky at lunch is standing there watching them. His gaze is open, frank, intense, unguarded, unapologetic. Most people only meet someone else’s gaze in conversation, and even then it is not constant. This man looks at Thomson as if they are a laboratory specimen.

“Some extra-curricular reading, I see,” he says. His voice is smooth, warm, exuding a confidence that is almost electrifying. This man walks into a room and owns it, no matter the room, no matter the company.

“I…” Thomson stumbles and Ashley takes over. “I was looking for something on animal companions and I felt drawn to these books. There was something in them that just called to me.”

“And you’ve read them, I take it?”

“I’ve looked at them. I can’t claim to have read them.”

“Hmmm.” He smiles, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes. They are dark and deep, almost black, and it seems impossible a smile would find space inside them. “Marina told me you were sensitive. She must have been right. Most people couldn’t even find those books.”

“What… What do you mean?”

“I could bring your friend Luna in here, tell her those books were in here and I wanted them, and she still wouldn’t be able to find them. That you could suggests something odd, don’t you think?”

“I don’t understand.”

“No. I don’t expect you to.” He perches on the edge of a table and drums his fingers on the edge. The amulet is still tucked safely under his shirt; Ashley can see the chain around his neck. “I imagine Marina will be along shortly to find out what you’ve learned about companion animals.” There’s something supercilious in the way he says it, as if he doesn’t really believe they exist. “I think you should probably have something to tell her, don’t you?”

Without waiting for a response, he leaves the room.

Feeling like that could have gone a lot worse, and that was quite possibly the best person to have found them reading the wrong books, especially those books, Thomson finds the place on the shelf for the two volumes, then starts riffling through some books on animal magic.

Maya finds John stumbling around between several stalagmites. He walks into one, rebounds, turns, walks until he hits another one, rebounds, turns, walks until he hits another one… He’s like a Roomba that can’t find its way out of a bunch of furniture.

Mayra grabs his arm and keeps going, dragging him with her out of the cave. They only stop once they can see the sky.

“Whew!” John says. “Thanks for getting me out of there. I don’t know what happened. It was like I was mazed, or something.”

“Probably something to do with the magical defences. At least you didn’t drop the box.”

John still has the comms box in his hand.

“No. There is that. Where’s Bea?”

“She said something about a portal to Hell and being able to counteract it or something.”

“A portal to WHAT?!” As John’s phone picks up the nearest cell tower, it buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out and reads the message. “Speaking of Hell, I’ve got a message from Thomson.”

Maya leans over and looks at it. “We should forward that to someone. Here. I’ll give you Dakota’s number.” She pulls up his contact details on her own phone and shows them to John.

“Okay. What do you want me to say?”

“‘Found this picture of an amulet, can you find out about it’?”

John dutifully types his message into the phone and hits send.

“Hopefully he’ll be able to tell us what it means,” Maya says.

The park themselves on the picnic table by the cave entrance and settle down to wait for Bea.

Ashley looks up when Marina Blavatsky comes into the room and sits gracefully on one of the chairs.

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

“I think so,” Ashley says. “I’ve learned that seagulls are social, and they look after their family, but they don’t like to be too close — herring gulls don’t like to touch each other like other gulls do, and they keep a ‘safe distance’ from others of their kind. But they don’t like to be alone, either, and they only really fight over food, or to protect their eggs and chicks. If there’s more food than one bird can eat, they call all the other birds to come and share.”

“It sounds like your gull friend was giving you advice on how you can be part of this community,” Blavatsky says, clearly moved.

“I have to say, this really does speak to me,” Ashley says.

“It seems to me that the gull was saying that you do belong here, and you can be part of our community and share in our greater mission, but we need to make sure you have your personal space.”

“I think so. I’m so glad you feel that way too.”

“I think I shall speak with Topaz and we shall come up with a programme for you that you can work on that involves less personal contact than we would generally advise for someone with your particular blockages. Especially given how sensitive you clearly are.”

“That would be marvellous.”

“I’m so pleased we had this chat,” Blavatsky says. “Shall we go and see about getting you settled in?”

As they walk out of the library, Ashley realises they sense nothing in Blavatsky that would have come from the man with the amulet. Thomson had thought maybe the man was acting as a power bank for Blavatsky; a contractor she’d brought in to amp up her abilities. But Ashley can’t detect anything like that.

And Thomson begins to wonder what it means that they can tell.

Bea hefts the pouch in her hand, then hurls it at the ground by her feet. It explodes in a cloud of sparkly, rainbow-coloured dust, and she feels the terrible effect of whatever is down there move into the background. It’s still there, but muted, muffled, like hearing someone speak in another room.

She follows the increasing intensity — the thaumobars — deeper into the cave, aware that she doesn’t have long before this armour wears off. The sheer intensity of this dark magic field will wear it away.

Another couple of hundred metres in, and she finds another pool of water in a cavern. It glows with intense sapphire light. There is a rocky outcrop in the middle of the water and, hovering above the outcrop, an orb. It rotates slowly, eldritch blue glimmers emanating from odd shaped cut-outs on its surface.

She can’t get any closer. Her armour isn’t potent enough to combat the magic here. Grimacing, she takes her bolas from her pocket and lets fly. It hits the orb squarely, but the rope parts, and the pieces fall into the water.

With a muttered curse, she realises there’s nothing more she can do here. She can’t get any closer, and her armour is starting to fade. She quickly scans the cavern, looking for clues, but it’s becoming harder to concentrate, and images she had thought long-forgotten are introducing into her thoughts.

She turns and heads back out of the cave.

It’s such a relief to be out of the most intense part of the dark field that the mazing has little effect on her. She makes it out through the stalagmite maze and past the cage no problem.

Just as she’s feeling the sense of relief at making it out turn to frustration at not being able to accomplish more, she hears footsteps behind her. They are running.

She spins around.

Quartz is sprinting towards her. His expression is stone cold, his eyes murderous.

And he has a gun.



“I can’t believe this mush is coming out of my mouth.”

— Bea



Marina Blavatsky escorts both agents to a small room somewhere at the back of the hotel, just off the wine cellar. It is small, and they need to descend steps to get there, and that is all either of them can say, lost in the balm of her presence.

“I understand you wish to join us at our Sanctuary,” Blavatsky says in the soft, earnest voice of someone who understands she needs to make people believe in her. And it’s so, so easy to believe, her calming presence emanating a sense of peace and contentment. “What is it you seek?”

“Oh!” Thomson says as Ashley. “I have been experiencing some blockage in my heart chakra. I have tried for a long time to resolve it myself. I’ve done a lot of work on it, but I just can’t seem to clear it.”

“The heart chakra is commonly blocked by our exposure to the ills of the modern world,” Blavatsky says sorrowfully. “War, conflict, our destruction of nature — all these things serve to make our souls sick and our hearts ache. Tell me, do you have any negative experiences in your base chakra?”

“No,” Ashely replies, clearly grateful for this blessing. “I feel entirely grounded. The power flows up from my basal charka to my solar plexus, but then my heart chakra blocks it reaching my third eye.”

“I am sure we can help you reconnect your higher vision to your root,” Blavatsky says. She turns to Bea. “And what about you, my dear? How do you think we can help you?”

“Well, I’m just out here for some rest and relaxation, really,” Bea says. “Your retreat seems like a nice place.”

“We don’t offer mere rest and relaxation,” Blavatsky says, letting her expression reveal a trace of disappointment. “Our Sanctuary is for people who wish to work on self-improvement and reconnecting to the One-Consciousness of their Higher Selves.”

“Yes, well, I just need some R&R, really, and Ashley is keen to go, so I thought I’d come along with them as your retreat just seems so great.”

“Hmm. Well, I think it would be better if you stayed here for a while and perhaps gave some serious consideration as to how we could help you improve yourself,” Blavatsky says. “Meditate upon your lost connection to One-Consciousness, and I will return in a day or so to see how you are getting on. But you, my child,” she smiles serenely at Ashley, and her smile is like an ancient deity sending a sunbeam to pierce a stormcloud, “you can come with me.”

Blavatsky leads Ashley from the small room and back into the cellar, and to a stout metal bulkhead in one corner. Bea hurries after, saying, “No, really, I want to stay with my friend,” and is stopped at the door by a couple of great hulking lads who do a very effective job of blocking the way. Each one of them looks like three gorillas stuffed into a human suit, and they are implacable.

“I need to go with my friend,” Bea says. They remain impassive. “Look, I’ve got her phone, if you’d just let me past for a moment so I can give it to her…”

They might as well be statues.

Cursing under her breath, Bea kicks one of them hard in the shin, and, when he bends to brush the dirt from his trouser leg, snatches some hair from his head. He doesn’t seem to notice.

She turns and draws a rough sketch of him in the dirt on the floor of the cellar. Head, arms, legs, a torso like a brick shithouse… That will have to do. She scatters the hair over the sketch and, with a sharp, violent movement of one finger, scores a line though his stomach.

This is rough and ready dark magic. With a more detailed poppet there is all sorts she could do, but with this brief sketch the effect is mild, if unexpected.

The man she kicked makes a noise like a blocked sewer. It comes from his abdominal region. He clutches his gut, and there is an almighty flapping, farting sound from the vicinity of his trousers. The sound is accompanied by a stench as foul as Satan himself eating rancid eggs then letting out a vast and potent bottom burp in the lower depths of Hell.

The guard’s face turns bright red, and he runs off in the direction Blavatsky took Thomson. His twin turns to watch him go, an expression of disgust on his face.

Bea takes the opportunity to slip past the guard and head on into the cave.

There is an area of dirt covered by lots of footprints heading in both directions, as if this route in and out of the hotel has been used by many people, or a few people for a long time. On the left is an area of water, glowing with a soft, greenish-turquoise light, the colour of oxidised copper. On the right, the cave wall is set with irregular, distantly-spaced amber downlighters, which give enough light to see but not so much that night vision is destroyed.

Following the path, she comes to a wooden boardwalk, which tracks around the side of the cave, over the water. Following the stench, as much as anything else, Bea is about 200m into the cave when she hears a metal clang, as of a bulkhead door being shut.

She has seen enough, and without her kit there’s not much she can do. She heads back to get the others.

Thomson-who-is-Ashley accompanies Blavatsky all the way through an underground grotto. The lights are an exquisite amber glow that sets off the stalactites and rocky fissures to aesthetic perfection, and the water is a calming, blissful shade of tropical blue. They pass through another metal door and reach a sturdy wooden landing stage. Ahead, the cave is flooded with that same pristine water, but there is a boat waiting for them. They climb in, the boat held steady by a man with the height and muscle of a bodybuilder, and then he gets in behind them and punts them down through the cave.

Perhaps they travelled for minutes, perhaps they travelled for hours. It is hard to say, wrapped in the blissful contentment of Blavatsky’s presence. Eventually, they disembark onto another small, underground beach, then leave the cave system by an exit Thomson recognises from the video Maya shot in her seagull scouting run.

There is a car waiting — a luxurious 4×4, probably a Range Rover. It takes them to the villa where the team first registered their interest in coming to stay.

Blavatsky ushers Ashley into a spacious room where the colours are soothing tones of oatmeal and ripe wheat. A delightful scent of sandalwood and cypress suffuses the air with the healthy, calming aroma of a luxury Scandinavian spa.

“So. Tell me more about your blocked heart chakra,” she says, patting a seat.

“As I said, my heart chakra just feels blocked. I can’t get in touch with my third eye properly. It’s very frustrating. I’ve tried everything, and I really hope you can help.”

“I’m sure we can. You see, our personal power is like water in a river. It needs to be free to flow, free to find the pathway to our own personal enlightenment, and that path can be different at different stages. We become stifled by the trappings of the modern world, and substitute personal growth for acquisition and power over others rather than power over ourselves. We see this kind of blockage here very often. I would like to introduce you to my partner, Obsidian. He has a powerful kundalini energy that is most potent in these cases. Would you like to meet him?”

As they listen to this, Thomson constructs a partition inside their minds, channelling every childhood experience of living in a commune with hippy parents who once fed them mushroom tea to demonstrate to a friend having a bad trip that it was his own fault for not getting his karmic balance sorted out before trying to talk to the mushroom people. Thomson had a great time. Now it is Ashley who is open to everything Blavatsky says, and the more Blavatsky talks, the more Ashley thinks she has a point. Well of course her heart is blocked. Look at all the terrible things happening in the world. And maybe the things they said to the receptionist when they first arrived hadn’t been made up, maybe they only thought they were inventing them to get on the inside. Now they are here, it seems only right that they get that blockage sorted out so they can achieve ever greater levels of insight.

“Yes!” Ashley says. “I would love to meet him.”

Bea runs back through the cave and meets John and Maya, on their way down the steps having failed to find either Thomson or Bea in the bar.

“They’ve got Thomson!” Bea says. “We were looking at the picture, and this woman just wafted in and she put her hands on us and… Guys, I think she has magic abilities. It just felt so right for her to touch us.”

“Slow down,” John says. “What happened?”

“This woman! She came and touched us and took us to another room. Thomson started talking about heart chakras and — I can’t believe this mush is coming out of my mouth — and how it was blocked and she couldn’t see through her third eye any more or something. Then, when she talked to me, I just told her I wanted some rest and relaxation and she lost interest. Just like that, I feel like I snapped out of it, but she took Thomson.”

“Where?” Maya asks.

“Down there. There’s a cave. I couldn’t follow because there were a couple of goons blocking the ay, and by the time I managed to get past them, Thomson and the woman were gone.”

“Time to gear up,” Maya says.

They run upstairs and get some weapons, Maya going as far as donning her armour, then they head back down to the basement.

“What’s that on the floor?” Maya asks. “Looks like some black magic has been going on down here.”

Bea shrugs. John looks suspicious.

The door is a thick steel bulkhead, the type found on submarines. This time, although the two goons have gone, it is locked.

“What do you think, John? Would your baseball bat take care of that?” Maya asks.

“I don’t know. It looks pretty thick.”

“How did you get through the gate at Codona’s?” Bea asked. “That was a spell, wasn’t it?”

“It was an orb with a door opening spell bound to it. I don’t have it any more.”

“Okay, but what about dragon fire? Would that maybe weaken it so John could have at it with his baseball bat?”

“I suppose it’s worth a shot. My dragon fire isn’t like a welding torch, it’s more of a flood. I don’t think it’s hot enough to melt the steel. It didn’t melt the brass plate from the vampire’s coffin, but we could have a go.” She looks around the room. It’s not very big, certainly not for a minibus-sized dragon, but she should just about fit if she lets her tail go up the stairs. “You guys had better give me some room. I don’t want to squish you.”

Bea and John make room, and Maya squeezes her dragon form into the wine cellar. Bottles smash. Half a dozen bottles of 153 Chateau Lafite Rothschild spills their heady contents into the dirt, making wine connoisseurs everywhere weep. A number of fine cheese smear into the walls as shelves crack and racks splinter. An aged ham is crushed into the ceiling overhead.

Maya turns her flame onto the door for a couple of minutes. The stone bakes. The cheese melts and toasts. Eventually she is squashed into a very expensive, burnt red wine fondue. She turns back into human form and brushes melted cheese off her shirt.

“Aw, man,” John says, as he gingerly tip toes back into the wine cellar. “Now I really fancy a cheese toastie.”

He approaches the door, settles his stance, and swings. Right at the apex of the curve, the baseball bat accelerates, almost leaping from his hands, and smashes into the door. The heated sandstone crumbles around it, weakened by the heat driving moisture from the interstitial spaces, and the door flies into the cave. It lands in the water with a splash. Water drenches the wooden walkway and the dirt beach.

Under the cooked cheese and boiled wine is a distinct eggy smell, along with the unmistakable aroma of barbecued pork.

John pulls a face. “Oh no. I know what else smells like barbecued pork.”

They carefully enter the cave. As they do, a pair of shoes floats up from where the door landed in the water. A greasy slick spreads on the water.

“Ew,” is John’s only comment. He avoids looking down into the water.

“We should check,” Bea says.

“Check what?” John pulls a face. “You want to go down in the water and see if Goon Mark II is still alive?”

“Was it just his shoes that floated up?”

Wondering what else Bea might be considering, John says, “Yes.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then.” Bea nods, satisfied. “Let’s go.”

Ashley’s eyes widen as Obsidian enters the room and stands in front of the window looking out onto the surrounding shrubs. He is more than 2m tall, with long, brown hair, a chiselled jaw, blue eyes, and a lean, muscular body of which entirely too much is on show as a result of the fact he is wearing what looks like a loincloth made of torn chamois leather.

“Obsidian leads our Men’s Primal Power meditation groups,” Blavatsky says. From the way she looks at him, and he at her, there is more to the relationship between these two than conning gullible hippies out of their life savings in the promise of self-improvement.

“You know,” Ashley says, in response to the frantic prompting from their more sensible alter-ego Thomson, “I’d really like to learn how to do this myself.”

“Oh, I understand entirely,” Blavatsky tells them with a sympathetic smile. Is that a hint of superciliousness underneath, though? “But unblocking such things when you are the one who is blocked is next to impossible.”

“Even so, I’d really like to try. I think I’d feel more empowered.”

“I do understand, but Obsidian is blessed with exceptionally potent, powerful kundalini energy, and is particularly skilled at clearing blockages of this nature.”

“Um, yes, but I’d feel much more able to channel my own power in pursuit of my higher calling if I did this myself, rather than accepting what someone else did for me.”

Blavatsky sighs a little. “Unblocking something like this is expecting a river to unblock a great dam that has been built across it. The river may not be able to find enough energy, partially because of the dam, and it takes someone else to come along with pick and shovel or, when it comes to it, explosives, and unblock it. Only then can the river use its own power to find its true path. That is all Obsidian wishes to do for you. Remove that dam so your power can flow into its correct path. He will not choose the path for you. He is particularly powerful at such things.”

“All the same—” Ashley is almost squeaking now. In how many ways and how many times do they have to say no?

“Very well,” Blavatsky sighs. “I can see you are uncomfortable, no doubt a symptom of the very blockage you have asked us to help you remedy. Would you prefer if I introduced you to one of our meditation groups, and you can work away at it yourself? Perhaps after you’ve chipped enough of the loose material off the edges, you’ll feel ready for Obsidian to clear the rest for you.”

“Oh yes. That would be super, thank you,” Ashley says, unable to contain her relief.

Blavatsky goes to Obsidian and murmurs something in his ear. He grunts, wordlessly, and leaves the room. A moment later, Luna from reception comes in.

“Luna, show Ashley to one of the kundalini yoga meditation groups, please.”

“Of course, Madame,” Luna says with what looks like a slight bow.

Luna gestures for Ashley to precede her, and guides them from the villa.

“I’m so thrilled you were able to join us,” she trills once they are outside.

“Yeah,” Thomson says, a little shaky in the aftermath of what feels like a very close call. “Nice to see you too.”

Down in the cave, the rest of the team finds another door. It’s the same as the first: a metal bulkhead door, waterproof, as if someone expects the cave to flood at some point and is trying to stop water flooding up in the hotel. Maya gives the wheel a shove. It shifts a little — the door isn’t locked — but it’s too stiff to move. Probably needs someone with the strength of three gorillas.

“Should have brought some of that rendered fat,” Bea says, earning horrified gasps.

“You’re getting worse, Bea,” John says.

Bea grabs the other side of the wheel from Maya and, with John keeping time for them (much to Bea’s irritation), they get it open.

On the other side of the door Is a small beach with a wooden landing stage built against it. The air is bitterly cold, all the heat sucked away by the glacier-melt water.

“You’ve got your sword, right?” John asks Maya. “Is it…” He breaks off laughing. “Is it a long one?”

Maya rolls her eyes. “It’s a two-hander, John.”

This does not help.

Eventually John manages to explain that he wanted to use it to check how deep it is, but the water is incredibly clear and they can see it is at least eight feet where the small quay disappears into the water, and probably gets deeper beyond that.

“And they went down there?” Maya asks. She kneels to test the temperature of the water. Icy cold.

“Must have had a boat,” Bea says. “No boat here, though. We could swim.”

“The water is SUPER cold,” Maya tells her. “And we don’t know if those lights go all the way, or if there are other side passages, ways to get lost.”

“Well, what if you go down there in your seagull form?” Bea asks.

“I don’t think that’s the best idea.”

“They’re bound to be going back to the compound, right?” John says. “I mean, we know that’s where they’re based. We don’t know our way through this tunnel, we can’t call Thomson because there’s no reception down here and we don’t even know if they still have their phone on them. We can’t use GPS to find our way for the same reason. So maybe we should just go back to the compound in the car and look for Thomson that way. You know, like sensible people. Not that we’re especially know for being sensible, but still.”

“Yeah,” Maya agrees, peering ahead into the depths of the cave. It really is very cold and dark down there. “Let’s grab Thomson’s stuff and go.”

Luna takes Ashley over to one of the meditation groups on a large, grassy area between the potato field and the woodland that buffers the working estate from the mountains. Around a dozen people, men and women, all dressed in white, are gathered on and around a white blanket next to what looks suspiciously like a Maypole. Luna crosses to a lithe, athletic blonde woman with glowing skin and perfect, toothpaste-advert teeth, and whispers something to her. She rises gracefully to her feet, like a ballet dancer, and comes across to where Ashley is waiting.

“Hello Ashley. I am Topaz. I am the leader of one of our Kundalini Yoga groups and Luna tells me Madame has suggested you join us for the day while you get your bearings. I know this place can be overwhelming at first.” She smiles a toothpaste smile. “Have you done yoga before?”

“Yes. Not this particular type of yoga, but I have done yoga.”

“Excellent. You should feel right at home.” She gestures to the blanket. “Have a seat. Would you like some tea?”

There is a glass urn in the middle of the blanket. If that’s tea, it’s not the kind a builder would be pleased to see in his mug. The liquid has a greenish-yellow tint to it, and there are flowers and herbs swimming around in there.

“Thank you,” Ashley says. Luna nods to Topaz and then strides away towards the villa.

Topaz pours a glass of tea from the urn and hands it to Ashley. Thomson sniffs it. Chamomile, certainly. Maybe nettle. Some mint, a touch of cinnamon, ginger and… Oh my. That’s artemisia. Pungent, intensely herby, incredibly fragrant in the way you know means it’s bitter as all hell. Thomson isn’t sure what the wormwood is supposed to do — they’re pretty damn sure it’s not to expel parasites — but is 100% certain they do not want to drink it. They pretend to take sips while tipping it surreptitiously onto the grass.

Once the cup is empty, Topaz stands and claps her hands. “All right, class, time to begin.”

They start in child’s pose, which is unusual. Topaz has them breathe in and out, and in and out, and then moves into a variation on Sun Salutation. She says, breathlessly, “Now breathe in and feel the grounding energy of the Earth beneath you rise up and connect with your root chakra. Feel it rise up and in and up and…”

Thomson chokes and scrabbles back from their mat. Topaz notices and tells the rest of the class to carry on.

“Are you all right?” she asks, concerned.

“It’s just… Maybe the tea? All so…” Thomson exaggerates their shakiness and pretends to lose their balance. “Overwhelming.”

“That’s all right. These things can affect us like that. Let it wash over you. Come, sit by this tree. Lean into the tree.” She sits Thomson-Ashley down on the grass in the shade of a large sycamore. “Feel the tree. Be one with the tree. Let its strength nurture and sustain you. Let its mighty length give you strength. Breathe with the tree. Be the tree.”

“I will,” Ashley says, breathlessly. “I will.”

Topaz goes back to class but continues to watch her latest pupil keenly.

As Bea, John and Maya emerge from the cave system into the cellar, they find George Figgs clutching his hair in the middle of his ruined cellar, wailing.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?” he screams, frothing at the mouth.

“Us? Nothing,” John says.

“Oh. Hope there was nothing valuable in here, ” Maya adds, poking a cheesy splinter with her toe.

“There was an ENTIRE CASE of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1953 down here. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH IT WAS WORTH?”

“Not much of a wine drinker,” John says with a shrug.

“What did you DO? Did you bring EXPLOSIVES into MY HOTEL?”

“Don’t be silly,” Bea says. “Looks like rats to me.”

“Rats? RATS? Look at the cheese! The wine! Le jambon! Ma charcuterie!” He pulls some hair from his head. “Rats would not do this. IT IS NOT FRENCH.”

“Um.” John scratches his head. This guy is taking it pretty hard.

“GET OUT!” George screeches.

“Yeah, we were just going to get our things and—”


“Wait,” John says, as if he has forgotten something. He reaches over to the wall and drags his finger through some melted Camembert. He sticks it in his mouth. “Yum.”

George screams. It sounds like a pig with its tail caught in the barn door. He chases them out of the cellar. “You will pay for this! I will charge the damage to that ridiculous credit card you carry! Don’t think I didn’t recognise it!”

The team run upstairs, grab their things, and leave.

“Wow,” says John. “He was a bit dramatic.”

“Yeah,” agrees Maya. “I wonder what his problem was.”

“So, shall we go and look for Thomson?” Bea asks.

They drive back to the compound and park in a layby near a small wood, pulling as far off the road as they can get without running over the fence.

“Seagull?” John asks.

“Seagull,” Maya confirms. She sheds her armour, because the carrying capacity of a gull is only about a kilo, and armour doesn’t vanish in quite the same way that clothes do when she changes.

Taking off, she circles around the perimeter of the estate in the same way she did before. She sees fresh tyre tracks at the cave entrance and, edging into the wind, drifts slowly over a grassy area where a group is participating in some very loud and grunty yoga of a type she doesn’t recognise. A pair of feet are just visible under the canopy of a nearby tree, and, on a hunch, she drifts lower still and closer to the tree, as if scouring the grass for worms.

It’s Thomson all right. Maya lands on the far side of the tree and waddles around to where they are sitting.

Thomson spots the gull. “Maya,” they whisper. “If that’s you, do the seagull tippy-tap dance.”

Maya papples the grass as if looking for worms.

“Oh thank God,” Thomson mutters. “Listen, I’m okay. I think I’m good on the inside here and can learn a lot.”

Maya does the patter dance again to show she understands.

“I’ll see what I can find out,” Thomson says.

Maya waddles back round the tree then takes off, running across the grass to build up speed.

Back at the car, she updates the others.

“We need some way to stay in touch,” Bea says. “Do you think they’ve still got their phone?”

“Maybe. Let’s hope they’ve got it on silent,” John says, although Thomson always has it on silent. “But it would be pretty obvious and they might take it off her.”

“Maybe there’s something in the surveillance kit,” Maya says.

They dig around and find a tiny two-way transmitter-receiver, small enough to disappear inside an agent’s ear.

“Cool. But how are we going to get it to them?” John asks.

“I’ll just change back into a seagull and take it to them,” Maya says. “Have we got a backpack that might fit? We should have asked Merlin to make a seagull sized backpack.”

“It would be pretty obvious if a seagull went up to Thomson wearing a backpack and they had to dig around inside it. How about this instead?”

And he holds up an empty packet of Benuts 3D Bugles. Paprika flavour.

“Perfect,” says Maya.



“Mystical, self-centred do-goodery that attracts the kind of person who can afford a jade egg to put in their unmentionables.”

— C


At 3am in the morning, UK time, all team members receive a text message informing them to report to their nearest airport. There they are collected by private Lear jets.

Maya is surfing in Malibu, so it takes her a little longer to arrive, but eventually the team is re-united at a tiny private airport that appears to be near Toulouse. Merlin, the Covenant’s Head of R&D, is there to meet them. Everyone bundles into a minibus with blacked-out windows, and they drive several hours to the Covenant’s European Strategic Command, ESiC, a mediaeval castle perched on a forested hillside somewhere in Aquitaine, France.

C is waiting in her office, and when they arrive wastes no time.

“Congratulations on your first mission,” she says coolly, before adding, “I’m still waiting for your report.”

“John has been remiss in not filling that in,” Maya replies with a shrug.

C narrows her eyes but says nothing further on the matter. She tosses a file across her expansive desk: a plain manila folder with TOP SECRET stamped on the front.

“Do you remember the Dracula cosplayer with whom Thomson instigated an argument on your last mission? Went by the name of Professor Peacock.”

“I had a very good reason for starting that argument,” Thomson protests, but C holds up one hand.

“I do not doubt it, and I am not interested in taking you to task over it. That man was one of our own: a member of Section 7, part of our undercover division.” She observes the team for a moment. “It was your first mission together. We were hardly likely to send you out there without a backup plan. You didn’t think we would normally be able to source a fake fire engine to clean up your mess at such short notice, did you?” She taps the file. “His name — his real name — is Bertram St John Cholmondleigh Featherstone-Hawe. Codename Gawain, but known to us as Bert. Bert is one of our most experienced agents. We sent him in to investigate a cult called the Sons and Daughters of the Eel, as they have been attracting a lot of high rollers, and we’d heard they had got their hands on some sort of powerful object. That was about three weeks ago. He went dark eight days ago. We need someone to go and get him back. And retrieve this object, whatever it is. Think you can manage it?”

“Oh. Is that all,” John says.

“What can you tell us about this cult?” Maya asks.

“Think Scientology meets New Age. It’s all about personal development and auric cleansing. Mystical, self-centred do-goodery that attracts the kind of person who can afford a jade egg to put in their unmentionables. Instead of finding out if you were a space clam in a past life, and being told which engrams you need to erase, you find out the mistakes you made in a previous cycle of the karmic wheel and how to unburden yourself of the weight that’s holding you back from universal consciousness.” C rolls her eyes. “You know the type. They believe the Norse myths referring to Jörmungandr in reality refer to an entity they call the Great Eel. All sea monsters, loch monsters, wyrms, worms and wurms are the Great Eel. All dragons” —she nods at Maya— “seals, whales and dolphins, squid, nautili and octopodes, jellyfish, snakes, dachshunds, mongeese, stoats and weasels are manifestations of the Great Eel.”

“And the object?”

“We really don’t know anything about it. Only that it is potent, valuable, and the kind of thing we wouldn’t want to see in the wrong hands.”

Maya takes the file and leafs through it. “Where was he last seen?”

C produces a map with a location marked deep in the Pyrenees. “His tracker was last recorded there, which is about 6 miles from the compound where the cult is based. It appears to be the entrance to a cave system, so you might wish to start at the compound.” She taps the map. “Merlin is waiting for you in case you need additional equipment. Try not to make a mess this time.”

C bends back to her work. The meeting is over.

Merlin hurries them all back into the bus, and they drive a couple of hours to EFOC — European Field Operational Command. This is an ancient fortress in the foothills of the Pyrenees, walls within walls enclosing tiny houses and creeping vines, wiry old trees clinging on to the scraps of soil they can find.

And, underneath, an entire modern complex of training facilities, lecture rooms, monitoring stations and…

The Armoury.

As they enter a vast room stuffed to the gills with every weapon known to man and some Merlin invented while sitting on the toilet, Merlin bellows at an unfortunate tech.

“Count to THREE, man! THREE shall be the number of the counting!”

There is a puff of smoke and the tech looks sheepish.

Someone is firing stakes at a wooden dummy using a compressed-air delivery system. Someone else hurls discs like hockey pucks across the floor: they float, skimming across the ground before coming to an abrupt halt and sticking. The air above them shimmers in a way that hurts the eyes.

“So what can I do for you?”

“Well,” John says. “I could really do with something better than a broken hockey stick. Do you have anything like a bludgeon?”

“We have EVERYTHING like a bludgeon!” Merlin booms, leading John through to the next part of the room. There is an entire wall covered in truncheons, nightsticks, retractable cudgels, baseball bats with nails in, baseball bats without nails, and staves. “Well. Other than the staff of the Cerne Abbas giant.” He pulls his beard, lost in thought, a wistful look in his eye. “But I WILL have it one day!”

“I’m sure you will,” John says, distracted by a metallic baseball bat.

“Ahh, good choice!” Merlin says as John selects it. “It has a magnetised liquid core. Beautifully balanced, easy to carry, relatively lightweight. As soon as the inbuilt accelerometer detects a swing, it releases the liquid to the tip, greatly increasing the angular momentum.”

“Does it need maintenance?” John asks.

“No!” Merlin scoffs. “Almost entirely passive.”

John walks over to one of the straw dummies. The techs move out of his way and line up to watch. He takes a gentle swing, and as the bat hits the apex of its curve it suddenly accelerates and smashes into the straw dummy so hard the dummy explodes. Fragments of straw fill the air. The techs all give a round of applause.

“Excellent taste, young man!” Merlin exclaims. “Hardly anyone ever gives it a second glance.”

“I could use a silencer for my 9mm,” Thomson says.

“What sort of silencer?” Merlin strides to another part of the room and pulls out a drawer approximately 3m wide, about 15cm high, and at least 2m deep. It keeps going into the wall. It is lined with various silencers sitting in slots in the grey foam insert.

“Just something to make the noise less noticeable,” Thomson says.

“Because we have all sorts. Magical ones. Laser sights. You name it, we’ve got it.”

“Magical ones?”

Merlin pulls the drawer out further and selects a dull grey silencer with arcane script on the side. “This one is resistant to magical interference.”

“Oh! I like the sound of that.”

“And what about a laser sight? Very practical.”

John starts laughing. “The kind of thing that would help when one of your team-mates is lying on top of a wendigo and you’re trying not to shoot him in the head, for instance?”

“Ha HA! Yes! I LIKE you, young man!” Merlin bellows. “Precisely that.”

“I’ll take it,” Thomson agrees. Merlin hands over another silencer that is almost identical, but has a narrow tube mounted on top.

“Have you got any surveillance gear that would fit a seagull?” Maya asks.

For a moment, Merlin is completely nonplussed, then he starts muttering to himself. “Seagull… seagull….” He looks up at Maya. “Is it a pet? Do you have it here? Is it a herring gull? A tern? An albatross? I need to know what size it is.”

“Well, you tell me,” Maya says, and transforms.

Everyone in the facility stops to stare.

“OH! OH I SEE!” Merlin rubs his hands together. “Very good! IVAN! Where’s Ivan?” A small, mousy man in a lab coat scurries over. “Where’s that rat cam set up?” Merlin turns back to the team. “We were experimenting with using rats as infiltration agents. Very small, intelligent, trainable. Turns out easily distracted, too.”

Ivan returns with what is effectively a shrunken GoPro on a tiny harness.

“Excellent. See if you can get that set up for Maya, will you? Adjust the straps or something.” He grins. “Now. Bea.”

“I’d quite like some bolas, if you’ve got any.”

“HAVE WE GOT ANY?” He leads Bea across to a big box. Lifting the lid, it is full of various thrown weapons and bits of thrown weapons, including boomerangs, spear throwers and, yes, bolas. “Now. What kind would you like? Exploding?” He waits with a hopeful expression. Bea shakes her head. “Magical?”

“No, just plain bolas, please,” Bea says.

Merlin grunts, yanks out a set of balls on a cord and thrusts it into her hands, already distracted by something more interesting.

“Is that working for you?” he asks Maya. Maya squawks as Ivan adjust the straps around her wings. “You’ll have to get someone to help you put it on. Unless you have thumbs. Do you have thumbs in there?”

“It’s all right,” John says. “I can help.”

“Excellent! So. Some transport. Do you need transport? Of course you need transport. We flew you out here.”

“What have you got?” Bea asks

“What do you want?”

“Anything fancy?”

“We don’t have any Aston Martin DBs, if that was what you were thinking. We don’t give those out to Hunter teams, they always end up wrecked.”

Maya, back in human form, says, “I think a 4×4 will be most useful.”

“You have one of the Toyota Hilux then. They’re practically immortal, and we have them fitted out with passenger space, GPS, comms units etc.”

“What colours have you got?” Bea asks.

“Any colour you like as long as it’s black.” Merlin bumps fists with John.

“Oh, and can we have one of the Section 7 surveillance kits?” Maya asks.

“You’ll have to sign for it,” Merlin says, scratching his head. “Those kits are mainly for Section 7. We don’t normally give them to Hunter teams because you lot are so hard on kit and C says you’re forever forgetting to clean up after yourselves, so then we have to send in another team to retrieve the equipment.”

“That’s all right,” Thomson says, pressing their thumb to the PDA.

She tries calling Alistair, to see if the Sect has any information that can help, but the call doesn’t go through.

“We have some serious EM shielding around this place,” Merlin says. “Far too much sensitive equipment not to. Wait until you’re a couple of miles out and maybe you’ll get some reception, although it’s always a bit patchy in the mountains.”

Later, out on the road, John is driving while Bea fiddles with the sound system, Maya looks at the file and Thomson tries to find out some more about the mysterious Cult by texting their NetFriend, Titan.

Mock up of a text chat

“Bert’s going by Simon Templar on this assignment,” Maya tells the others.

Bea snorts.

“So, where do we go first?” John asks.

“How about we go look where Bert was last seen?” Bea suggests.

“Well, that was just his satellite tracker, so we don’t know if he was seen there, and it’s just a cave. So maybe start at the compound,” Maya says. She tries again to get hold of Alistair, but this time it just rings out. “He never picks up when I want him to.”

The “compound” turns out to be a vast estate butting up against the mountains, entirely surrounded by a wall at least 2m tall. Even from the road, it’s clear the cult has a working farm, along with vineyards, an orchard, vegetable fields, and a couple of acres of fresh green wheat ruffling in the wind.

The team leaves the truck parked up on the road with most of their equipment safely locked inside, and wander up the long, unmetalled drive to the chateau. They see various people going about their business, all dressed in loose white clothing. All keep their faces turned away and refuse even to look at the team.

The house as been refurbished as what looks like a boutique hotel. They walk into reception and Bea dings the bell on the reception desk. A young woman comes out from the office at the back, also dressed in white, a picture of health and vitality, with clear, soft skin; long, honey-blonde hair; and sparkling blue eyes. She smiles with plump, glossy lips.

“Time to send in John to charm her,” Bea whispers.

John sighs.

“Bonjour Mesdames, Messieurs. Comment allez-vous? Je m’appelle Luna. Comment puis-je aider?”

“Oh! Hello! We were just in the area and we heard so many good things about the place, we thought we would stop in and see for ourselves,” Thomson says.

“Goodness. It is so rare for people in the area to recommend visitors here,” Luna says in flawless English. “Here is our brochure.” She hands over a very glossy, thick book with a soft focus photograph of white candles and a pile of soft, white towels on the front. “Would you like one each? We have more.”

“Yes please,” Bea says brightly.

Luna hands out three more brochures and indicates a small seating area where there is some bottled water and what look to be seaweed crackers.

“Perhaps you would care to take a seat while you see what we have to offer.”

The brochure lists various treatments, from hot rock massage to aromatherapy and various more personal treatments that has Maya dropping her brochure in disgust while John turns it around to various angles in an effort to work out what is supposed to be happening.

“Do you do Reiki?” Maya asks.

“Oh no,” Luna says, her delightful forehead creasing in an adorably worried frown. ” Our Spiritual Leader disagrees with Reiki, as it involves an act of permanent disfigurement of the energetic body. We have our own school of touch and energy-based healing that is more effective and does not require the practitioner to submit to permanent scarring of their soul casing.”

The team tries very hard to remain straight-faced.

“This all looks delightful,” Bea says. “Do you have any vacancies?”

“I am afraid this isn’t a resort. This is a retreat. We are not open for drop-in services.”

“Then perhaps you could give us a tour?” Maya asks.

“Yes. Of course.”

Luna takes them on a short walk around the farm, from where they can see the people working in the fields and the vineyard. The team quizzes Luna about what sort of things happen there, and discover that the estate acts as a haven for the Sons and Daughters of the Eel. The Great Eel will one day arise and unite the world in peace and one-consciousness, and everything the cult (not that they call themselves a cult) is doing is to further that mission. People come to stay for a minimum of one month, so they can “work to release their burdens” over a full lunar cycle. Anything less and they wouldn’t feel the benefit. Some people stay longer, perhaps for years or even permanently. Occasionally they may start to run out of space, and then the residents will be offered the opportunity to experience one of the other facilities. They have retreats all over the world, including American Canada, Japan, and Russia. As far as Luna can say, this is the only one in France.

“We came because one of our friends said he was going to be here.” Bea says. “Simon Templar.”

“I can’t say I recognise the name,” Luna replies. “But then many of our guests leave their ‘real world’ names behind when they come here, as those labels anchor them to their worldly burdens and can be obstacles to achieving oneness.”

“Can we check the register?”

“We do not have a register. This is not a hotel.”

“Have you seen him? Tallish, wavy brown hair. English. Looks like Colin Firth.”

“We have many guests from England,” Luna says politely, although her tone is cooling.

“Maybe we could show you a photo.”

Thomson pulls out their phone and finds a photo of Bert, then holds it out to show Luna. Luna takes a couple of steps back, her tiny button nose wrinkled in disgust.

“We do NOT permit such devices here. They pollute the energetic body and distract our higher selves from attaining one-consciousness states. None of our guests would bring such a thing here.”

“That might be why he’s not answering his phone,” John mutters.

“It’s not going to bite you!” Bea says impatiently. “Just look at the picture and tell us if you have seen him.”

“Look,” Thomson tells her. “I’ve put it in airplane mode.”

Luna glances at the image. “Well, I suppose that could be one of our guests. He is known among us as Quartz.”

“It’s just, he said he’d be here and we thought we might meet up,” Thomson says.

“Oh, I doubt that would happen,” Luna replies, shaking her head. “Our guests would not wish to expose themselves to external influences, such as that.” She indicates Thomson’s phone with revulsion.

“Well have you seen him lately?” Bea asks.

“Not for a few days.” Luna is working to remain polite, but they can see she is uncomfortable and becoming annoyed.

“Where could he be?”

“It is possible he has gone on a meditation retreat. There are several men’s primal power groups among us at the moment. They seek to cast off societal restrictions and retune their one-consciousness with their true selves.”

“Could we visit one?” Bea asks. “I mean, can we walk over and have a look.”

“No! They are spread out across the estate. They form fortuitously and organically and are not planned. They can last a few hours or many days.”

“And anyone can just form one of these groups, can they?”

“Long-term residents are free to form groups as they wish. New arrivals and recent inductees would have to be part of a group led by one of our more experienced brothers. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

“We’d like to stay,” Bea says. “It seems wonderful here.”

“Yes!” Maya chimes in. “Delightful.”

“Well I am sorry, but this is a retreat. It is not possible for guests to arrive spontaneously, especially if they are not members of our movement. There is an induction process to go through.”

“Can we arrange that?” Bea asks.

“I can speak with our Spiritual Leader and tell her that you would like to join us.”

“That would be marvellous. Is there somewhere nearby we can stay?”

“Yes, there is a small hotel we recommend to our guests. We normally expect them to arrive the day before coming to the retreat. If you will accompany me back to our Centre, I will give you the address.”

Back at the house, Luna prints the hotel address on a small piece of blank paper, using a pencil, and hands it over.

“Thanks very much. We’ll just wait for you to get in touch then,” Bea says.

“Can I take a name, so our Leader knows who to ask for?”

“Oh! Yes of course,” Thomson replies. “Ashley. Ashley Smith.”

“Our Leader will be in touch.”

The team say goodbye and turn to head back to the car. John stumbles over his own feet and, as he does so, catches a glimpse of something shiny inside a bush by the side of the track. He allows himself to fall and snatches the object from the bush as he does, palming it and shoving it in his pocket.

The team heads back to the car.

John has found a small camera, which Thomson identifies as the kind people put on wildlife traps. It has on-board memory in the form of an SD card. Whoever planted it was expecting to come back. It matches the camera in the Section 7 surveillance kit, so it’s likely that Bert put it in the bush. They extract the SD card and load it into Bea’s Tuffbook.

It’s full of photos. All of them are taken at night. They start at around dusk and the time stamps are at all hours between then and dawn. Every photo shows one or more of the commune residents, each of them in long, white clothes. Scanning quickly through them, they find one that might be Bert. It’s hard to tell, though, because he is flanked by two tall men. All three are wearing the same flowing white clothes. It was taken three days ago. After he went dark.

“This place is too big to survey on foot,” Maya says.

“Could we bring the car in?” Bea asks.

“Bit obvious, don’t you think?” John replies.

“Time to test out the rat cam,” Maya says.

They drive the car a short distance away and Thomson checks over the gear.

“It’s got a wireless transmitter, but the battery pack is tiny. Not much power,” they say. “We could transmit realtime to Bea’s Tuffbook, but we’d only have a range of about a mile, which is useless. Better to use the microSD card, and then Maya can go as far as she needs to. I’m sure we can entertain ourselves.”

Maya transforms into a gull and John helps her get into the camera harness.

Soaring over the compound, Maya sees 1 a number of smoke columns swirling up into the purple sky 2. Swooping closer, she is startled by a burly, sweaty, naked man emerging from a tipi-like tent, taking a rock from a nearby fire, and going back inside. Steam puffs from the opening at the top of the tent. The same thing happens when she flies close to the source of the next smoke column, and she decides she’s seen enough naked men for one day.

At the back of the estate, where it begins to encroach on the mountains, she spies a cave entrance, low and squat in the sheer rock. She lands to have a look inside, but the light fades rapidly and gull vision is optimised for diurnal acuity.

On her way back to the truck, Maya sees ranks of people on a grassy field performing exercises that look a little like Chi Gung or Tai Chi, but not like any form of either she has ever seen. They are all dressed in white and moving with eerie synchronicity — so precise and accurate in the matching of their movements that it looks less like a field of different people and than a camera effect created by filming one person and copying them over and over and over.

She heads back to the car.

John helps her out of her harness and she changes back to human while the others examine the film she recorded, then they drive in search of the hotel.

After a quick stop for a bite to eat and some coffee, they find the hotel. It’s a little ramshackle, the sign over the door somewhat off-kilter. It reads Hôtel de la Manche. Manche is the name of the town, possibly because it comprises two streets either side of a river.

The team head inside. Standing at reception is a dapper man with a moustache. He gives off a faintly creepy vibe. This is George Figgs, the hotel owner.

“Bonjour,” he says, in a notably English accent.

“Hello!” Bea says. “We were just at the sanctuary up the road and they suggested we stay here while we wait for an induction.”

“Of course,” he says, in a received pronunciation accent he clearly has to work to achieve. “Are you all together?”

“Yes.” Maya says.

“And will that be separate rooms or…?”

“Depends on how far our budget stretches!” Maya laughs. “I think we would probably get into trouble for anything more extravagant than twin rooms.”

“Very good.” He scans through his book and lifts some keys from hooks behind him. “Adjoining rooms.”

“Thank you,” Maya says. “Say, you haven’t seen our friend Simon Templar, have you? He came to the commune a couple of weeks or so ago, and we were supposed to meet him but haven’t heard from him.”

“No, I can’t say I recall the name,” the man says.

Thomson leans forward and whispers in Maya’s ear. “He’s lying!” Thomson can always tell.

“Are you sure? Show him the photo, Thomson.”

Thomson shows George the photo of the missing agent. George leans over the counter and studies it carefully.

“No,” he says at last, “I can’t say I recognise him.”

“That’s very odd, because the girl at the sanctuary said people stay here the night before going there.”

George merely shrugs. “As I told you: I can’t say I’ve seen him.”

He looks shifty, his eyes darting sideways to glance at a painting on the wall. It’s an old oil painting, nothing special, depicting a mounted man driving a spear into a massive wild boar.

Thomson leans over and whispers in Maya’s ear. “He’s still lying, but sort of not. He literally means he can’t say.”

“All right. Thanks anyway,” Maya says.

“A name, please?” George inquires.

“Ashley Smith,” Thomson tells him.

“Very good. And now for payment. Cash or card?”

“Card,” Maya replies, pulling out the Covenant Amex. It’s fully transparent, with a holographic shimmer. George can’t quite hide the widening of his eyes when he sees it. Payment complete, Maya says, “John, shall we fetch the bags?”

While Maya and John head back to the car to collect their things, Bea and Thomson stroll over to the painting to take a look at it. It is, as noted before, nothing special. There is an uplighter at the bottom and a downlighter at the top, to show it better, but it’s not really a good enough painting to be worthy of the attention.

As they try to work out what the deal is with the painting, a woman steps up behind them. She places one hand on each of their shoulders and, somehow, this doesn’t seem rude or threatening or undesirable. Instead, a gentle warmth emanates from her, welcoming and soothing.

“Hello,” she purrs. “I understand you wish to join us at our Sanctuary. Welcome both. Come with me, please.”

And she leads them away into the depths of the hotel.



  1. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNlC6812KNM  for a really interesting demonstration of the width of a seagull’s field of view.
  2. Gulls have an additional cone in their retinas that allow them to perceive a wider range of colours than humans. See http://www.spwickstrom.com/gullfaq/ (which also specifies the maximum carrying weight of a seagull as 1kg, while rat cam weighs in the region of 200g, in case that should be important).