Evening fell over Kingsford and the high street slowly emptied of people. Businesses shut their doors and only the handful of pubs and restaurants stayed open to customers. Teenagers congregated near the Fat Fish, a chip shop that tolerated their presence as long as they bought chips and did not cause too much trouble. The town's men retired to the Kings Head or the Swan to drink away the stresses of the working day. A few of them chose to go down to the old High Street and drink at the Green Man, the town's oldest pub, with its heavily carved sign in the shape of a leaf moulded face. Aiden and Brendan's father invariably ended up at the Man if he went drinking in town. He usually wound up debating some facet of local history that was probably petty and irrelevant but which he felt was important enough to enter into arguments with the Kingsford Tower Society, the local history group that took its name from the ruined tower near the town's centre. It was the same beat that the town had marched to for centuries, unchanged through enclosures, industrialisation and even the arrival of the modern age.
Tonight, though nobody was likely to notice it, there was something different in the town. Amongst the litter, the chip wrappers and pop cans, that tumbled down the Colchester Way there was an interloper; a curiously shaped rag. It was a long, tatty thing that trailed several tails behind it, and was covered with white marks that might have been letters or runes but were so obscure that even an Oxford Linguistics Don would have trouble understanding them.
If anybody had been observing they would have noticed that the rag was slightly different to the rest of the rubbish. Whilst it, for the most part, followed the rest of the trash, scuttling along the pavement and over lumpy cobblestones there was something odd about it. Occasionally it was almost as if it paused in its travels, even when the wind blew, driving its discarded companions forward, the rag would hang in place, as if there was something more to it than a ripped, ratty piece of cloth. Of course if anybody had noticed it they would have dismissed the observation as ridiculous. Pieces of litter did not pause and almost seem to look around. They certainly did not rise up against the wind, spreading their tails about them and turn slightly this way and that, as if they were seeking something. Nor did they rush across the road, in defiance of the weather to blow further down the street, on the other side. Such things are impossible, the observer would tell themselves and they would either forget all about it or reserve it for an amusing anecdote of the type that gets recounted only after enough drinks have been consumed that tongues are loose and nobody will believe what you say anyway.
As it was the only person to pay attention to it tonight was Brendan. His train had been delayed and he was walking briskly home, with a view to taking the shortest route possible and sharing a beer with his brother. He reached the high street and stopped as the rag blew past him in the light of the dying sun.
Something about it attracted his attention, a slight and undefinable essence, he supposed, although he could not be sure that the word was correct: there was simply a feeling of strangeness that emanated from scrap. It was as if it had a presence on another level, identifiable by an extra sense beyond the normal five. As he watched it rose above the other litter, almost to the height of his face, and hung vertically in the air.
Cautiously he stepped towards it and at his movement it span about to face him.
“Who is the stripling? Why does he notice the poppet?” The voice of the old mage, Feydo, echoed about the dark, vaulted chamber at the top of the Crimson School's highest tower. He, along with his apprentice, Alastair, and Darian, the envoy from King Oberon's court, stared into a deep marble basin, large enough to accommodate a giant. Steam rose from it, laced with the scents of various herbs that aided with concentration and the ability to perceive things that lay beyond the realm of sight.
“Another mortal, master, that's all.” Alastair said hastily. “I don't imagine he even sees our emissary, he's probably looking at something else.” All the same, he ushered the poppet further down the street at haste, sending it flying along with the tails flexing to steer it more swiftly.
Beside him Darian shifted uneasily. “How can this take so long? The town is barely anything, a speck of no importance and yet we have been sat here for hours whilst your spy flutters about doing nothing.”
“Hold your tongue, popinjay,” Feydo growled. “You don't understand the deeper mysteries nor the purpose that we work to.”
“Then explain it to me, or dismiss me so that I may work some feeling back into my buttocks!” The courtier snapped. If his blades had not been confiscated at the school's gates he would have been sorely tempted to draw his rapier there and then.
“Peace, Sir Darian,” Alastair said, placing a placating hand upon his sleeve. “It is simple, we must work within the laws of the realm we seek to influence. At this stage, we cannot simply animate a stone or a tree and send it to crush all in its path until we find the vixen, or take over the mind of a human; we must work within nature's patterns.”
Darian rose and stretched. “So what you're saying that our magic is almost useless for the task at hand, is that right? We cannot use it for anything beyond what, influence?” He began to stalk towards the high Gothic doors in disgust, “I'm sure his Majesty will be delighted to learn that even the finest arcane school in the realm can do nothing to actively destroy that traitorous thief! I'm sure that he will overlook your failure, since you tried so hard.”
Bitterness stung his words, he did not truly care for the School's fate but the glorious future of Darian Morgannason was suddenly less a shining path than one strewn with thorns, which led downwards to a destination labelled Disgrace. The King had not so far shown much in the way of forgiveness to those that disappointed him. Even minor failures were judged harshly; the General who had failed to capture Yelena was working a long stretch of hard labour in the Winter Mountains, mining ice and snow to send to the Blistering Desert, where the summer never faded and water was almost impossible to come by. Darian feared that if he failed, his next posting would be the governorship of the place; to be stuck in the feral heat with nobody but the various savage tribes of nomadic goblins and djinn for company.
He reached the doors, put his hand to push them open and screamed as intense heat bit into his skin. He pulled his hand away, staring in disbelief at the scar that spread across his palm.
Feydo's voice rumbled across the room, “I did not give you leave to go, courtier.” He rose, cross-legged in the air; steam pulling up from the pool and condensing under him until he was sat firmly upon an incongruously white, fluffy cloud. With a gesture he propelled himself across the chamber. “You did not listen,” he admonished. “We are not engaged in a fruitless search at all, we simply seek the obvious, something to act as our agent in the mortal world.”
“Which would be what?” Darian demanded angrily.
“We will know when we find it. One does not hurry magic.” Feydo replied cryptically.
“Master, it has found something!” Alastair shouted from the other side of the room and the others sped back to their places to stare into the boiling, bubbling water.
The dog was big, heavily muscled under its glossy coat. A basket muzzle constrained its mouth but even so it was barking as best it could at the piece of rag that hung above it, hovering just out of reach. The beast lunged up at it, but the rag kept just out of reach.
Brendan stood at the edge of the Green Man's beer garden staring at the scene in bewilderment. He had pursued the strange cloth as it hurried through the town, moving faster once it realised that the youth was following it. The thing had made a sudden bolt for the pub, as if something had drawn it to the old, medieval building. It had hovered about the sign for an instant before suddenly rising over the roof and down into the pub garden at the building's rear.
Now the patrons, most of them old men, were staring out into the garden to see what was causing Mungo, Fred Cooper's dog, to make such a racket.
“What the hell's wrong with your dog, Fred?” The landlady Lisa Bannister asked nervously; she did not like dogs overly much, especially not the big type. She had read in the paper about another child being killed in a savage dog attack only last week; her thoughts were drawn to her own children, sleeping upstairs.
“No idea, daft animal,” Fred said and strode to the back door, “Hoi Mungo, down!” His tone brooked no disagreement, in normal circumstances that would have been the end of it. Mungo was a good, well trained, dog; he obeyed his owner.
Tonight though, things were different, all the obedience training in the world would make no difference. The rag seemed to make a decision, it darted forward and settled onto the dog's back.
“Wait,” Brendan ran forward. “Leave him alone!” He had no idea why he did such a thing, but the sense that had alerted him to the rag's presence also told him that no good could come of what it was doing.
The rag writhed on the dog's back, the tails spreading over its short black fur. Where they settled they seemed to meld, shifting slightly as if they were looking to find the right place. Slick ichor seemed to rise from the beast's body, tentacles of dark purple matter rose and fell between the animal and the piece of cloth.
Brendan grabbed at the rag, trying to pull it off, ignoring Fred Cooper's cry of, “Brendan Fletcher, what are you doing with my dog?” The cloth felt slick; it was clammy and unnaturally warm, as if it were a living creature. He struggled to grip it, it slipped from his grasp and he realised that less and less of it was rising from the dog's flesh.
Mungo barked furiously, louder and louder. Brendan was suddenly aware of how much the dog's jaws gaped. There was a ripping noise, the muzzle split, falling useless and broken to the ground.
Fred Cooper came running out of the pub, as fast as he could. “Mungo, down! I said down damn you.” He glared at Brendan, “And as for you, when I see your father ...”
His voice faded away as the dog, Mungo no more, snapped his head around. Brendan made a last grab for the rag but it was gone, reduced to nothing more than a pattern in the dog's fur. The last tentacles writhed and settled down into the beast's flanks, vanishing completely.
Fred tried again, “Mungo.”
The dog ignored him, turned towards Brendan, a deep growl rumbling in his throat. A wrench of his neck snapped the chain that tethered him to the pub's veranda, his collar came away in scraps as his throat grew thick and mastiff like. He took a step forward, head dipping maliciously, eyes shining with a terrible green light; eager to be rid of the pest of a human that had harried the thing that bonded to him, whispered to him and slowly ate away at his mind, would keep eating until the dog was a hollowed out puppet fuelled only by faerie magic.
The last of the sun's rays' vanished beneath the horizon and there was only the night and the dog. Brendan made his decision, turned on his heel and ran.
“Mungo?” Fred Cooper asked, but the dog was gone, running after the blonde youth, over the back wall and away into the rest of the town.