Undisclosed location, The Kingdom of Britain, The Upper Tier of the Inner Cosmos, February 14 2015 CE.
Saturdays in the Kingdom of Britain are a mix of a holiday and a market day. It is a day when shopkeepers work and I suppose farmers work but other people spend time on other pursuits. The small town centre near the train station was busy with people and I could feel Bernard’s tension rising within him. Demon’s are predatory creatures. Hell is too dense with them to say that they are solitary creatures but in their natural form they are not social creatures. The live off the souls that descend to their tier and the competition for sufficient sustenance is intense. Possession assuages that hunger but it takes years of cohabiting with another soul for the aggression to abate.
Esquin was calmer. He was beginning to adjust to the change in tier and he had long since become used to crowds during his second life as a naval commander in the busy metropolis of Isobard. The town was closer to the urban scale he was comfortable with. I was more on edge, not only out of fear that Bernard may suddenly turn murderous but also that Sir Pangolin’s disguise was so limited.
The marvellous phone that Priya had gifted me had a map that carefully directed us towards our goal. As we headed away from the town centre, we walked through quieter streets full of houses with neat gardens and leafless trees.
“Are you warm enough?” I asked Sir Pangolin. The sun was visible through the clouds but the air was chilly. We had eaten food on the train that I had purchased from Marks and Spencer’s at the railway station where he had boarded early that morning from London but I was worried for Sir Pangolin’s health after the traumatic transition through the tiers.
“Stop mothering me for good’s sake!” snarled Sir Pangolin, which did not leave me feeling any more reassured about the state of his well being.
After an hour of walking, the suburban streets shifted to a road that wandered through farmland. The buildings that formed the complex where the museum was housed were visible in the distance. A mix of blocky concrete and glass offices and older factory buildings made from dark red bricks.
I had seen bicycles in the town and I regretted now not attempting to persuade Esquin to commandeer a set for us all. We could have cycled this distance in more comfort and in a shorter time. However, I’d not felt sure how to broach the topic and I suppose I was concerned that Bernard would simply slaughter the first cyclist he saw as an expedient way to gain a bike.
The car park was empty. I suppose the corporate aspect of the campus was away for the weekend. There was a sign indicating that both the museum and the old house were open for visitors. There was little sign that anybody was intending to visit other than ourselves. Priya had warned me that if we’d arrived on the Friday, there would be parties of school children roped into educational visits. Today though would be quiet. That carried its own dangers, as we would be far more noticeable. Not that the museum keepers would be expecting a gang of other world thieves to arrive, I hoped.
Signs led us to one of the antique converted factory buildings. A section of wall had been replaced with a glass entryway. Automated doors swished open invitingly but not without a snarl from Bernard. Esquin paused at the threshold and commanded: “Bernard and I will do all the talking.”
A young woman in a crisp suit offered us a cheery “Good Morning!” but she was clearly trying to avoid staring at Sir Pangolin.
“He is our son,” said Esquin unconvincingly.
“It is a stars war thing,” said Bernard, trying not to snarl as he spoke but failing.
“That’s lovely,” said the woman, sounding unconvinced but bound by the geas of good customer service to pretend that there was nothing odd about this quartet of strangers. “Entrance is free on Saturdays but the museum and the house close at 12 pm. The ‘Story of Soap’ interactive exhibition is closed for renovation.”
“Where are the archives?” snarled Bernard impatiently.
“I’m sorry but the company archives are only accessible by appointment,” replied the woman, now somewhat ruffled.
“We would like an appointment for the archives,” said Esquin in a more conciliatory tone.
While they spoke, I whispered to Sir Pangolin: “There is a door over there marked ‘no access’. I can feel the pull of something that way, I think at least a level below us.”
Sir Pangolin nodded.
“I think it must be a tunnel back down the tiers. If we get separated, head that way. I’ll find you there.”
Sir Pangolin looked at me sharply as if he was about to disagree but then nodded.
“I’m sorry but I’ll have to ask you to leave!” the woman at the entrance desk had finally given up attempting to mollify Esquin and Bernard and had become alarmed by their increasingly aggressive tone. Bernard gave a literal growl in response and the woman screamed and then fled out through the still open sliding doors.
“Damn it,” said Esquin.
“You should have let me speak,” I remonstrated, “Bernard isn’t equipped for diplomacy.”
“Just use your sixth sense or whatever it is to find that sphere.” Esquin grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me forward.
“I can sense it on the next floor upwards,” I replied, which was true in so far as I could sense something up there and I really hoped it was the Sphere as the situation was had already spiralled beyond the quiet visit I had hoped for.
“Bernard, guard the door and the pangolin. I’ll be back shortly with the sphere.” said Esquin. I noted that he said “I” not “we”.
Esquin and I headed to the open steel staircase that led upwards. Behind us I could hear the sound of boots heading towards the building. Looking back I could see five black garbed security guards running to the entrance. Bernard looked around him. There was a kind of cordon near the entrance desk formed by a soft red rope and some kind of low metal stand. Bernard grabbed the stand and tore the rope from it. Two-handed he prepared to wield it as a weapon. The guards came to a sudden halt. They did not seem to be armed with anything at all: not halberds, not swords, not even quarterstaffs.
The conflict at the entrance passed out of my sight as I climbed the stairs. At the top Esquin was looking around unsure of which direction to take. “This way,” I said, pointing to a section entitled “Early Days: The Ferguson Brothers”. The exhibits were about the original soap factory and the enigmatic Ferguson brothers who had started it. I say ‘brothers’ but as one of the first exhibits explained only one of them was ever seen in public: Samuel Ferguson. He’d set up a small mining operation on this site and then (oddly) shifted to soap manufacture.
“What is all this crap?” said Esquin irritably.
“It’s a history of what your predecessor was up to,” I explained. Esquin peered at a sepia picture of Samuel Ferguson and nodded. “I see…yes, maybe. There’s something about the eyes…”
He was right. There was a world weary haunted look to his eyes that if I’d been more observant I would have seen in Esquin’s also. It was the look of a passenger who had been trapped on a journey for too long and now only wished to leave the carriage or boat on which they were travelling.
There were more shouts from the entrance and Esquin looked up. “We have to hurry,” more to himself than to me but I had already found something vital. With a gasp I strode over to another display case. Entitled “Corporate Mysteries” the information card described the secrecy with which Samuel Ferguson kept his source of supplies. To exemplify this was a large ledger illuminated by soft lighting. It was open to a page with a cryptic map. Without any bearings or known landmarks, the map was an enigma but I recognised it as a close sibling to the Ferguson Brothers map.
“That’s not the sphere,” said Esquin coming up close to my shoulder.
“No, but it may help us find it if it isn’t here,” I replied.
“The map makes no sense,”
“It’s layers. Each page is a different layer of depth in the tunnels that Ferguson must have dug beneath the Alakline Sea,”
Esquin shook his head. “That also makes no sense. He’d need men to dig those tunnels and bring the stuff back. Any route between tiers would leave men unconscious.”
“Samuel Ferguson found away or rather the demon inside him did,” I explained.
“And then hid it from Hell?” mused Esquin.
“Exactly! This is a bigger find than your sphere Esquin. This could be a manual to safe passage between all the tiers,” I said and in doing so I knew I was possibly betraying every soul to the machinations of Hell but I needed a Esquin’s help still.
“Let’s get the book out of there,” he decided.
“You do that and I’ll keep looking for the sphere.” Esquin looked at me warily as I suggested this, so I added “There is only one way in and out of this section and you’re right next to it.”
“Go,” said Esquin motioning for me to keep looking.
I didn’t have to go far. Around a corner after a set of exhibits showing tools and equipment for various stages of the soap making process was green glass sphere, about a hand span in diameter. The exhibit stated it was a “lucky charm” that had previously sat above the entrance to the factory from “parts unknown”. I could feel the alchemical power inside it pulsing like the heartbeat of a kitten.
Behind me was a crash of glass and a short laugh from Esquin. He’d taken the direct approach to opening the glass case to get the book. I ran back to him excitedly but didn’t mention the sphere. He was happy to hand the book over to me, it was clear I couldn’t get very far with it. I was hungry to look at the maps inside but we then interrupted by an impossibly loud voice from outside.
“Armed police! Put your weapon down and lie flat on the ground!”
Esquin ran out from the section we were in and over to a window that overlooked the entrance. Sure enough there was a police van and multiple police officers with what I knew to be guns. I doubted either Esquin or Bernard would be familiar with the weapons the officers were armed with.
“Damn it,” swore Esquin as he watched Bernard snarl and walk forward out of the entrance to confront the officers.
An officer with a kind of trumpet device shouted out his orders a second time.
“Final warning! Armed police! Put your weapon down and lie flat on the ground!”
Bernard stalked forward brandishing the steel pole in one hand now. He had taken only two more steps when the police opened fire.
Bullets ripped into the demon and he howled like, well, like a demon and staggered backwards. Abruptly the sound of gunfire stopped. Cursing Esquin ran back to the stairs to get a better view of the entrance.
I knew I should take this moment to grab the sphere and make my escape but I lingered as if hypnotised by the sudden wave of mechanical violence. Bernard staggered to his feet, his body marked with bloody holes. The police officers shifted their stance awkwardly, surprised by the apparently dead man standing back up again. Bernard shook his head slowly like a dog waking up and then his body began to ripple and grow.
Outside of Hell a demon has no true form. Only within the constraints of the most inwardly curved of the tiers can a demon grasps at material existence but Bernard was in a part-way state. The body he possessed was losing its capacity to hold him. In theory, given long enough, the demon would become diffuse and eventually not even have sufficient coherence to be as insubstantial as a soul. He would, in the end, sublime into nothingness — returning to the void from which he’d formed. Yet, in-between times the dead or dying body help enough presence to give shape to the demon inside but with fewer limitation than it had before.
His skin bubbling, Bernard transformed into a vision of his own pain. A growling distorted nightmare of a monster whose size began to tower over the astounded police officers. After hesitating they opened fire again.
Tearing myself away from the scene outside I rushed back to the sphere. With nothing else handy, I swung the book at the glass case. It bounced ineffectively against the glass. I swung the book again but with more force and aimed the corner of the spine at the centre of the glass. There was a minute crack. I swung the book a third time with all the force I could muster and finally the glass shattered.
Gingerly to avoid the pointed shards still in the frame, I reached in and grabbed the sphere. The alchemical force nearly overwhelmed my senses but I recovered my wits and headed back to the stairs with the ungainly book under my arm and the sphere clutched precariously in my hand.
The now monstrous Bernard was being held back by gunfire. He had managed to grab at least one police officer and had thrown him bodily at the glass wall of the entrance. Esquin had taken that opportunity to take the gun and body armour from the injured (possibly dead) man. Whatever else he might be, Esquin was adaptable and had quickly mastered the nature of the weapon he now had. He fired occasional shots towards the police who were retreating from the advancing Bernard.
I couldn’t see Sir Pangolin but I trusted that he had heeded my advice and escaped to the ‘no access’ door. Sure enough it was open. I stepped inside and was nearly eviscerated by Sir Pangolin’s claws. He’d stopped his blow when he had seen that it was me.
“Wedge the door shut!” I said.
“On to it!” he said and looped a rope around the metal bar that ran horizontally along the centre of the door. This he tied tightly to a near by railing, making it impossible to open the door from the other side without great force.
Around us where brick walls and a utilitarian metal staircase leading downwards. I shoved the sphere into my satchel so that I could better grip the unwieldy book.
“Let’s go.” he said and down we went.
One thought on “Chapter 25: The Museum”