The Hand and the Eye
by Ashley Lierman
The beast swiped at her, making her stumble. As it advanced, its features filled her vision: in this dim, only red glowing eyes, blue-white curls of flame on every panting breath, the silhouette of its batlike ears and bristle of hair and swirling cloak. Its claws clinked off stone as it closed the final step, pressing her with the malign heat of its body to the wall behind in a crush of bustle and crinoline. She could smell the foul air from its lungs, laced with phosphorous and sulfur, and its light and heat illuminated her face.
Milly punched it in the belly two brisk, swift times. The air hwoofed out of it just as comically as it ever had from any mortal man, although this time with the unfortunate side effect of singeing her hair and dress a bit. It doubled over, bringing its head within reach, and she wasted no time in grappling it into a tight locked hold in the crook of her elbow, giving it a few jabs in the softest parts of its face for good measure.
“If you could look a bit sharper, Johnny, that’d be grand!” she called over its howl of protest, and then had to twist away and let go as it slashed out with its claws. Hair had fallen into her face, and she blew it away.
“I’m sorry, I’m trying!” came John’s voice from over by the ruined fireplace, along with a lot of frantic scrabbling and clunking sounds. “I—I dropped the book.”
Milly rolled her eyes, but refrained from comment—in large part because the beast was driving at her now with its head lowered and shoulder thrust, meaning to scoop her up and toss her. She dodged under, landing another hit in its guts but glancing off with the jab to the neck, now that its head was tucked down. It was intelligent, certainly, though also definitely not used to fisticuffs. It whirled on her with a shake of its cape (or were those wings?), snarling, and then crouched to jump again—she shifted her weight and readied her hands, meaning to catch it —
“There! There—” The voice surprised both of them into pausing, and then cleared its throat hastily, assuming a touch of artificial depth. “I-I stand in stead of… of the one to whom you are bound. On his behalf and in the name of Yeshua, spirit, I license you to depart!”
The beast had just begun to turn toward the source of the voice, and Milly doubly poised herself to grab it… but no sooner were the words spoken than it froze in apparent surprise, and then seemed almost to relax. Its form began to lose substance, to become blurred and confused with the air around it, and then to dissipate as though it were a gas. Soon it was nothing but a darker place in the swirling dust, and then not even that.
John let out an audible, high-pitched breath, and Milly let go her fighting stance and held breath in one heave. She armed sweat from her forehead, heedless of the sweat-stains her mother would scold over. Sweat was probably the least of her mother’s concerns at this point, anyway; her dress was ripped, scorched, and maybe bloodied a bit in over a dozen places. Her hair had all but fallen entirely out of the graceful, swooped knot it had been coaxed into this morning, too, and she scraped at it with her fingers as she began picking her way through the broken furniture toward John.
“Dropped the book?” she repeated, and what pride John had been starting to beam at her fell away into shamed dismay and then indignance. “Really, Johnny. Aren’t you meant to be memorising the ciphers?”
“I’m trying, but it’s hard!” He struggled the tome closed and set it down gently this time, although still with a hollow boom—it really was far too heavy for him, and Milly struggled to keep hiding her smile. “There’s thousands of them, I can only do so many—”
“Well, you’re going to have shape up eventually. Not to mention you shouldn’t go round dropping things that are probably worth more than you cost to feed.”
John, who had stayed bent to start scrubbing the pentagram from the floor, whirled on her again at that in perfect betrayal. “I didn’t mean to—” He broke off, though, staring up at her, and then seemed to deflate. “…Please don’t tell him.”
“I really should, you know.” Her smile was getting away from her by now, though, although that just seemed to deepen John’s pleading frown. “If you can’t learn to handle yourself in the field, you oughtn’t—”
“Miss Joshi? John? Are you quite all right?”
That voice stopped both of them, turning them toward it. A moment later Professor Melmoth followed it in from the hall, slightly out of breath, holding his hat on with one hand. He smiled to see them, and Milly returned it, straightening up away from John.
“We’re all right, Professor,” she said. “Did you find the source?”
“Yes, I believe so. It is here, I should judge—or it was.” He glanced around at the burnt and water-stained walls, and then back at the two of them. “The conjuration is long since closed, and the caster no longer on this plane. A novice even when he was; the working is clumsy. I imagine the poor devil who summoned these creatures didn’t outlive his own work.”
John looked stricken, and Milly imagined she could understand the feeling—but she’d already snagged on another point. “…These creatures? You mean there’s more than one Spring-Heeled Jack?”
Professor Melmoth glanced at her, mildly surprised. “Hm? Oh, yes, most surely. At least a dozen, perhaps more. Based on past reports, they have been spreading out toward the countryside throughout this century; more and more the attacks have been in the outer provinces. I suppose the London air does not agree with them.”
“So we’re probably going to have to do that again at least ten more times?” Professor Melmoth gave her a look she thought might’ve been a bit amused, but she didn’t even give him time to answer before sighing. “Lovely.”
“But you were successful? Did you encounter any difficulties?”
She could all but feel John twitch beside her, and spoke before he had the chance. “Not at all,” she said, and met Professor Melmoth’s eye with a broad smile. “Little Johnny did a wonderful job filling in. Couldn’t have been better.”
The look of pure slack surprise John shot up at her almost spoiled it for both of them, but then he dropped his gaze and swallowed, shuffling his feet. “Er, well,” he said, his voice never rising above a mumble. “…Milly did the difficult part.”
“As always,” Milly agreed, cheerfully, and set her hand on John’s head atop his cap. He tolerated it very patiently for once, she was amused to note. “But no harm done.”
“Well, I am most relieved to hear it,” Professor Melmoth said, smiling. “I do apologise for leaving you two to your own devices, but it was only the depth of my faith in you both that permitted me.” He tipped his hat to Milly and patted John round the shoulder, smiling between them, in spite of how low he had to dip for the latter. It made John glow all the same, and again Milly couldn’t help smiling.
“Have we done for tonight, then?” she said after only a moment, though. “I have to run the shop tomorrow, and Mother and Auntie’ll fret.”
“Oh, yes. Quite right.” The professor took his pocket-watch from his waistcoat for a glance, and then stowed it away again with a brief smile. “When we reach more civilised streets, I shall hire a carriage, and John and I shall escort you home. The hour is far too advanced for a lady to be traveling unaccompanied.”
Milly thought of pointing out that the lady in question was currently loosing makeshift wrappings from around her bruised knuckles and had put a demon in a head-lock not a quarter-hour hence, but then decided against it. If experience had taught her one thing, it was that on certain points, Professor Melmoth was not to be swayed. “That’d be very kind of you, Professor, thank you. I’m worn out as it is.”
“Thanks, Milly,” John muttered under his breath, sheepish but pleased, as soon as the professor had gone on ahead. Milly only laughed, and plucked his cap off his head as they followed to ruffle his hair.
“You owe me one now,” she said, and only laughed harder as he grabbed it back and hissed at her to quit.
It was after midnight by the time the carriage bumped down the cobbles of Milly’s fishy-smelling little street. John had fallen asleep on a patient Professor Melmoth’s arm, mouth wide open and snoring into a faceful of sleeve, which made Milly grin and vow to horrify him with a recounting of the moment at the first opportunity. The professor disengaged himself gently when they stopped, and stepped out first to offer Milly his hand, as always. No one else in the world had ever offered Milly a hand to help her anywhere, but Professor Melmoth, as in so many things, set his own standards.
“The Inner Order meets tomorrow evening,” he said to Milly once they were out on the street, keeping his voice low. The cab-driver sat waiting in his seat beyond, only separated from them by the shifting mists the warmer weather had brought. “I shall send them word of our findings as soon as I arrive home, and make certain that your good work is commended.”
“Make sure you put in Johnny’s too,” Milly said, and grinned back at his answering smile. “Thank you, Professor. That’s gracious of you.”
“The least I could do.” He glanced at his pocket-watch again, and grimaced. “And I apologise again for returning you home so late.”
“Oh, that’s all right. How the time flies, eh?” She dipped him a wry half-curtsy, ragged though she was, and he took her hand and bowed over its knuckles, which she permitted with no more than a minimum of exasperation. “Tell Johnny good-night for me.”
“I shall. And…” A brief conflict was waged on his features, then smoothed to sheepishness. “…Well, perhaps you oughtn’t give your mother my best.”
Sure enough, she’d crept no more than two steps into the dark house before she spotted the candle-light in the sitting-room, and then the rush of footsteps froze her in a wince. Then her mother was in the doorway staring at her, all dressing-gown and frayed frizz of white hair and forbidding expression, candle flickering in one hand between them.
“Where on earth have you been?” she demanded, in tones barely hushed. Milly steeled herself, though it’d be no match against the granite ahead.
“Helping Professor Melmoth,” she said—trying to keep her voice down, even if there was no point now. Her mother’s brow drew down even further, though, lips compressing.
“At this hour? And look at the state of you—” Looking down Milly’s hair and dress, which she’d tried only in vain to put in some semblance of order in the carriage, sweeping the candle down to follow her eyes. “It’s too late at night for nonsense, Milly. You’ve been fighting again.”
Milly made a business of resigned sighing; half a truth might not be better than none, but it was usually a sight more convincing. “What if I have?”
“Oh, it’s nothing to me, I’m sure! Only my daughter consorting with harlots and beggars who strip off and thump each other for all sorts to gawp at—If your father were only home—”
“If Papa were home, he’d probably laugh himself sick and tell me to give ’em a few for his sake,” Milly said, crossly. Her mother gaped at her a moment, flushed, ready for a fresh bout of fury… and then she pressed her lips together. But a moment later, even that couldn’t stop the laughter bursting through them, and it seemed to take all the tension out of the moment on its back.
“He probably would, wouldn’t he,” she admitted, weary and amused in spite of herself, as Milly’s lips twitched up in answer. “I haven’t the slightest idea why I go on trying to bring him into things. …Are you hurt, girl? Whose blood is that you’ve got all over you—my word. Come sit down, I’ll go to the pump.”
“Mum, I can do that,” Milly said before she could get far, though, catching her arm gently. “I’m all right, I promise. I really was mainly helping Professor Melmoth, I just… stopped by on my way home.”
“Well, what on earth that man thinks he’s doing having you trotting out at all hours—” But that, at least, she cut off with a shake of her head before it could go the way of a tirade. “Just wash up and get to bed. I need you minding the shop first thing.”
“I know, mum, I remember.” She kissed her mother’s cheek, on impulse, and was a little amused and a little hurt at how she flinched a bit. But it was so often that way, with them, wasn’t it. “You’d best go to sleep too.”
“I will, I will.” Waving her off, and setting down the candle by the pump in spite of all Milly’s protests. “Your Auntie Meena’s already in bed like civilised folk, mind you don’t wake her when you go up.”
She washed as best she could in her bedroom by the light of her own candle, wincing as she tried to comb the night’s snarls out of her hair; listening all the while through the wall to her mother and aunt’s voices in the room they shared when Milly’s father was away sailing, questioning and reassuring in a tangle of broken English and broken Hindi. They had both been worried, then. Well done, Milly.
She sighed, and flopped down in her one of the room’s two narrow cots, arms sprawled and eyes trained up on the cracks and cobwebs of the ceiling. Professor Melmoth and John would be back to the professor’s university apartments by now, little Johnny roused just enough to stagger off to bed—he was too big now to be carried there anymore in Professor Melmoth’s arms—while perhaps the professor sat up in his study, hatless and in shirtsleeves with a bit of port, muttering to himself over incantations and ancient texts and his lectures for the morning. And perhaps somewhere out in the quiet roads of the provinces, a bat-winged demon was springing out of the hedges to terrorize some village woman out of her wits, or even drag her off into the night for good.
“A dozen of the things,” Milly muttered to herself as she dragged herself up to blow out the candle, and to wrangle herself into bed properly under the covers, eyes already closed. “Like the cat littered under the bloody porch.”
She managed to escape from the haberdashery stall in early afternoon the next day; her mother turned up to spell her after she and Auntie Meena had done the washing they’d taken in, and sent Milly home to help Auntie Meena cook supper. Milly actually headed a few streets toward home just to entirely evade suspicion, before turning about and going the opposite way. The carriage Professor Melmoth had sent for her was already waiting at the appointed street, and she dozed in her seat on the way west, dreaming tangles of demons’ breath and missing buttons.
The driver took her straight to the dons’ hall at the university, and she hurried in and up the stairs, hitching her plain skirts and trying, as always, not to feel far too small and cowed in the face of the vaulting oaken scrollwork and plush carpets and glaring portraits of stuffy old founders. So intent was she that at the top of the stairs, she almost went head-first into a gentleman just passing by in the hall: a portly old fellow with mustaches like a walrus’s, who she thought had the office across from Professor Melmoth’s. They both caught up short, he with much huffing and snuffling, she nearly losing her footing and toppling back down the stairs.
“Beg your pardon, sir,” she said, her eyes turned down, catching her breath. When he’d recovered from his surprise, though, instead of excusing her and going on his way like she’d thought (and hoped), the old fellow peered in at her closer, instead. She was half a head taller than him, standing so close, but he didn’t seem to be much aware of that.
“Well, I say, what’s this? Whatever’s become of Maggie?”
She frowned, looking up at him in spite of herself. His face was ruddy, his hair and whiskers white: a walrus dressed as Father Christmas, to be specific. “I’m… sorry, sir, I don’t understand—who’s Maggie?”
“Our usual day maid! Has she been taken ill? It would be a shame to think—”
“Professor Robeson,” came Professor Melmoth’s voice then from behind, though, blessedly. Professor Robeson turned, and Professor Melmoth stepped forward to them from the doorway of his office, with a smile that did not touch his eyes. “I do hope I’m not interrupting. No doubt you remember Miss Emily Joshi, my assistant?”
The moment for which Professor Robeson froze completely, like a living statue, was brief but a bit guiltily satisfying. “But of course!” he exclaimed, finally, giving her only the most cursory of glances with his smile. “Yes, yes… Miss Joshi. Yes. A pleasure as always, of course.” He looked between the two of them chuckling for a moment, as though he had temporarily forgotten how to speak, before settling on Professor Melmoth. “What times we live in, eh? These Hindoos, coming to attend our English universities? And women besides. Well, I expect I don’t have to tell you, given your people, after all… It’s the dawn of a new era, I should say. Most exciting. Marvelous.”
“I quite agree, Professor,” Professor Melmoth said, his lips still shaped into a smile. He nodded to Milly then, holding his open hand back toward his office, although his eyes never left Professor Robeson’s. “If you’ll excuse us…?”
“Oh, yes! Of course.” Chuckling more, all the while. “Yes, I should also… hem. Your pardon.”
It wasn’t until Professor Melmoth had shut the office door behind them and gestured Milly into a seat that the professor broke his rather thundery silence. “I most sincerely apologise,” he said, and his voice sounded tight although his back was toward her; he was already rounding his desk to the far side, collecting up papers as he went. Milly shrugged, even though he couldn’t see it.
“For what? Not boxing his ears outright?”
That made Professor Melmoth look up sharply—and then crack in a broad smile, even a laugh, in spite of himself. He looked far younger when he did both, making the spread of peppery grey from his temples and lines around his eyes look more like stage make-up than truth. “Something like that,” he said, and looked at least a bit easier when he straightened up again. “Might I offer you tea, perhaps? I, er… I blush to say it rather, but one of my more, erm, overzealous students was so kind as to gift me with a box of chocolates. Naturally I could hardly refuse, but if you would care—”
But Milly was laughing so hard by now he could scarcely get a word in edgewise. “Oh, dear, Professor Melmoth, lecturing girls not ten years now and already breaking their hearts!” That really did make him blush, quite violently, which just made her laugh harder even as she tried to squeeze words through the giggles. “Professor Robeson will be so disappointed this is all his new era’s come to.”
“She was grateful for my counsel on her mythological treatise,” Professor Melmoth said, stiffly, bright red; and this time Milly was sent into gales from which she took long minutes to recover.
“Anyway, I’ll give tea a miss this time, I think,” she said, once at last she had. “What needs doing today, then?”
But Professor Melmoth shook his head, crossing round the desk again to the hatrack; he doffed his tam and replaced it with his hat as he spoke. “Nothing, thank you,” he said, and Milly frowned. “Rather—you will recall that I mentioned yesterday night that the Order was to meet this evening?” She nodded, still frowning, and he went on with a bit of a sigh. “They… ask that you grace them with your presence. And I with you.”
Milly’s mouth quirked. “I don’t imagine they ask much of anything,” she said, but relented at his abashed look. “Did they say what for?”
“I’m afraid not. It is, after all, their preference not to explain whenever possible.” That made Milly grin, although Professor Melmoth maintained all available dignity. “I apologise on their behalf for the presumption.”
“You’ve nothing to apologise for, Professor. Why are you always apologising for when other people’ve been rude?” He didn’t answer that, but then, she supposed she hadn’t expected him to. “I’ll come, anyway. What am I going to do, say I’ve got a previous engagement?”
Professor Melmoth chuckled, but there wasn’t much humour in his eyes. “I would make your apologies, if you so chose.” She waved him off, though, smiling, and he inclined his head with a small sheepish smile. “We should be on our way presently, then. The meeting begins at sunset, and we haven’t much daylight left to us.” He removed his gown and hung it up neatly, shook and tugged out his shirtsleeves before putting on his frock coat instead. “Are you prepared?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But…” He glanced over at her, brows raised, and she frowned back. “…Isn’t Johnny here? I thought he must’ve just gone to get your letters.”
“Ah.” He paused, his gaze inward for a moment before fixing on her again, still and serious. “No, John did not accompany me today. I… thought it very likely he would desire to attend the meeting, and I would not wish to disappoint him.”
“You shouldn’t just make him wait home like a little boy, though, Professor,” Milly said, a touch reproving. “It’s not really any kinder. You know he’s serious about joining the Order one day, don’t you? He’s told me so.”
That brought Professor Melmoth up short again, and he looked at her, well nonplussed out of whatever he’d been about to say. “…Has he?” She nodded, and he sighed, and went back to adjusting his collar only slowly. “Well… I appreciate your concern, Miss Joshi. Truly. But for my own conscience’s sake, and his poor father’s, neither can I hasten the day.”
She opened her mouth to say something in reply—but by then, he had finished settling himself, and opened the office door. And if there was one thing she had learned, it was that on certain points, Professor Melmoth was not to be swayed.
“Shall we?” he inquired, gesturing through. And there didn’t seem anything for it but to get to her feet, and go.
The Temple of the Order was to outward appearances a brownstone, quite ordinary and indistinguishable from those to all sides of it. When the professor tapped an intricate rhythm on its door with a mix of knuckles and palm, however, a panel slid open at eye-level, and an equally complex sequence of murmured passphrases and incantations were spoken from either side. Then at last, a butler dressed well above the apparent station of the house opened the door to them, ushering them both inside with a pass of a white-gloved hand.
Inside, the windows were all covered with heavy velvet, no drop of daylight permitted. They followed candle-lit hallways toward the rear of the house, the air dark and hot and close, heavy with perfumed smoke. Milly had only been this far inside one time or two before, but she recognized the ornate double doors that they reached, knew to wait while the professor wrapped himself in a black robe from those hanging outside and then gave her another to settle around herself. It made the heat stifling and sweat began to drip down her back at once, but she tied the cord around her waist without protest, although a bit of an inward sigh. And after that, he pulled open the doors and led her inside.
The room, as always, was dominated by a massive table—possibly a dining-table when meetings were not in session? To be honest Milly had no idea if this house was actually a dedicated temple at all times, or the dwelling of one of the Inner Order—upon which a variety of objects had been laid: candelabras, a jewelled sword point-down toward the door, a chalice of water, fruit and nuts and wine, sketched pentagrams and lettering in Judaic tongues and hieroglyph. Lamps burned in sconces all around the walls, so the room blazed with light but flickered with shadow. It lent the illusion of movement to the eight black-robed and -hooded figures who stood immobile all around the table, at the compass points. Each held a heavy staff, and when Professor Melmoth and Milly had come fully inside the room and closed its doors, each began to beat his against the floor, interspersed with the beginnings of chanted words Milly couldn’t understand. One swung a censer from his hand, and in total the air of the room was like a solid thing, a soft wall that suffocated.
“The Order in the Inner receives the son of Abraham, one hand among our many,” the furthest of the figures said, presently, as the ringing echo from the last beat of the staves died away. “The Order in the Inner receives the Eye of Horus, our sacred defender. The Hand and the Eye are as one, and penetrate beyond the veil. The Eye perceives what the Hand uncovers, and with its gaze, purifies.”
There was another round of chanting and beating, with which Professor Melmoth this time murmured along. “Let the hall and the members be purified with water and fire,” another hooded figure spoke, and the one with the censer and another who took up the chalice moved at once, swinging the one around each figure and touching water from the other to hooded foreheads. “Let us bend our voices to the North, to the South, to the East and West. Let our council be held; let it maintain us in our search for the quintessence, for the Stone of the Philosophers, for True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness, for the protection of our plane and the stewardship of the arcane arts.”
And the rest was all chanting, and striking staves off the wooden floor with a single hollow boom, as the water and smoke made their way around the room. Milly tried to hold her breath as the censer-swinger passed by her, but even so barely kept herself from bursting out coughing; the worst she did was a few strangled chuffs in her throat while her eyes watered, and even that was enough to draw a swift disapproving glance from Professor Melmoth. Well, let him look all he liked. Maybe he’d been at this foolishness long enough to learn to breathe smoke, but she certainly hadn’t.
Finally the man with the chalice and the one with the censer returned to their places, and then they all turned in each direction one at a time, chorusing more words in languages Milly didn’t know and wasn’t entirely sure weren’t made-up. She turned when they did, though, if only for the sake of not sticking out too badly. And then they were all facing front again, and each of the hooded men with a staff struck it ten or twelve times more, she was never sure… and then the one furthest away lifted a bell from the table-top and rang it.
“Bit over-warm in here, isn’t it?” he said this time, and lifted the hood off his head to reveal his iron-grey hair and jovial, jowled face. He unwrapped himself from his cord and robe as well as he continued to speak, to a plum vest, white ascot, shirtsleeves and watch-chain, tailored trousers. “The spring and the summer are always a bit trying, eh. I say, Zvi, would you mind terribly finding Bartles and asking him to air out the place, and bring in a bit of gin? Oh—and lemonade for the young lady, of course.”
Professor Melmoth’s hesitation was plain, his glance darting to Milly at once; but he seemed to defeat it swiftly enough, nodding even as he began removing his own robe. “…Of course, Lord Bailey.”
“There’s a good chap.” The look the professor shot Milly on the way out of the room was more apologetic, this time, but Lord Bailey appeared not to notice. He had already handed off his robe to one of the other members of the Inner Order, as they all unrobed themselves as well and shuffled about in a minor bustle, putting away their instruments and accessories. The entire effect resembled nothing so much as a group of overgrown school-children, cleaning up their play-yard at the teacher’s behest. Apart from Lord Bailey and the one narrow, aristocratic woman dressed in veils and ruffles, Milly couldn’t tell them apart to save her life; they were all gentlemanly sorts at least fifteen years Professor Melmoth’s senior, and seemed to fade into a blur in front of her vision. As they arranged themselves and sat down at the table, their conversation, too, seemed only intermingled snatches:
“—the club this week-end, Mrs. Eddington is quite—”
“—bit poorly, she’s not as young as she once was, but the horse-doctor was of the opinion that—”
“—hadn’t stuck his fool neck out so far to begin with, the whole matter would never have become so—”
“Please, sit down, Miss Joshi,” Lord Bailey said, rising above the rest and startling her a bit. It was more than a bit alarming to find him looking at her across the table when she raised her eyes; she had never spoken to any of these men before, or even been around them, without Professor Melmoth as chaperone. He was already seated, and though his gaze was not unkind, neither did she seem to entirely interrupt it before it reached the far wall. “You’re most kind to join us on short notice.”
“I…” She wound up looking back down at the table, too discomfited for anything else. “Thank you, Lord Bailey… I mean, no, Lord Bailey, you’re—kind to invite me.” That last ended almost swallowed in her throat. He didn’t seem to care to respond to that, though, and neither could she find anything to add, so at last she only sat down in one of the two chairs set at the end of the table. The table’s edge seemed to rise very high on her chest, as though she were a little girl trying to sit with the adults, her legs swinging free down below.
It had been two years now she had been attached to the Order, since she was seventeen: when two vile sorts had been killed at the docks trying to steal cargo when they were blind drunk, had been buried in the little church plot just round the corner from Milly’s family home, and then had begun to be seen to roam the streets at night, standing outside houses and tenements and softly calling the names of those inside. Milly had thought it was all a cruel prank by the boys down the street who had always called her foul names, and finally gone out at night to try to catch them at it; she had always been fearsomely strong and quick, called “a healthy girl” and “naturally athletic” by her mother and father only to hide their sheer alarm, and had looked forward to giving them a good piece of her mind when she found them. But what she had found had been the dead criminals, dreadfully pale and empty-eyed and grinning, and the fight she’d had to give them hadn’t been much of a pleasure. Enough so that when, terrified out of her wits and hiding in a stinking alleyway, she’d been ambushed by an out-of-breath, well-dressed gentleman who came at her babbling about “revenants” and “unholy spirits” and “disinterment of the body and removal of the head,” she’d just about taken his head off instead, by reflex.
But even if Professor Melmoth hadn’t been immediately been able to allay her suspicions, the little boy of maybe eight who’d come puffing along behind him carrying the professor’s books had done a lot more work toward that cause. And somehow, by the end of it, they’d all three been fast friends—and Milly had been brought before the Order Professor Melmoth served, and informed that she fit the description of someone called the “Eye of Horus” they had apparently been keeping a lookout for. And since then… well, everything seemed to have only got more and more complicated.
It was rare that the Inner Order actually bothered to speak to her, though. More often they were content to simply relay their orders through Professor Melmoth, and let her get on with the business of thumping spooks and spirits on her own.
To her vast relief, Professor Melmoth returned presently, with Lord Bailey’s man following just behind with a tray. The professor took his seat beside Milly, with a murmured apology that she waved off, and the butler circled the table distributing the drinks. Without comment or discussion, Professor Melmoth and Milly swapped their gin and lemonade at once one for the other, although Milly was a bit relieved that Lord Bailey didn’t appear to notice.
“Excellent,” said Lord Bailey a moment later, with a small approving noise as he sipped his gin. “Now that that’s settled, I should like to call this meeting to order.” The conversations around the table began to die down at that, although only grudgingly; he gave them time, his gaze meanwhile settling down the table on Professor Melmoth and Milly. “As I was just telling Miss Joshi, Zvi: thank you both for attending on such short notice. Unfortunately, the matter in question is one of some urgency.”
Professor Melmoth tilted his head, frowning. He’d taken off his hat to raise his hood earlier, like all the men in the room, and it was most peculiar for Milly to see him bare-headed. Exposed, his dark hair was very brief; as protection, John had told her once in confidence, against its natural tendency toward most alarming curls. “What matter would that be, my Lord?”
“The matter of the devil you and Miss Joshi dispatched yesterday evening, called ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ by our moronic popular press.” Lord Bailey sipped again, appearing to gather his thoughts. “Or rather, the matter of the creature’s brethren, who you deduced were also released onto this plane in the same summoning. It was at first my intent only to commission you both to travel outside London to exorcise the remaining creatures, now that we have come to understand the nature of their apparition. However, our Madame Sarkozi—” This with a nod to the veiled woman, who nodded back, only the shape of her nose visible like a blade under silk—“has been in conference with the spirits all morning, and has brought some disturbing new information to light.”
“These beasts are intelligent, as we had concluded,” Madame Sarkozi said, taking the floor smoothly at Lord Bailey’s cue; she had a deep dry voice from beneath her veils and drapes, although Milly had never been able to help noticing she didn’t sound even the slightest bit foreign. “They may, however, be far more so than even we had guessed. The spirits have revealed to me that a complex blood-rite is nearing completion, with the very site into which the creatures were summoned as its locale. The working may have been as long as a decade in the making, which leads us to believe that some creatures may have permitted themselves to be sighted in such striking ways, by prominent members of the village communities, in order to mislead observers into thinking there was only one beast, and that it was traveling away from London proper. All the while, however, others must have remained in the city unseen, and taken sacrifices from those undesirable populations whose word would be neither heard nor lent credence if it was.”
“I have made certain inquiries with Scotland Yard, and it seems there have been many more disappearances among the city’s beggars, orphans, toshers, and—your pardon—fallen women than would be considered ordinary,” Lord Bailey added. “The police had scarcely been aware of the phenomenon until I brought it to their attention, as a high mortality is considered to be expected among such miserable creatures, and few such absences tend to be reported.”
“What end is this ritual meant to serve?” Professor Melmoth asked, his brow creased. Lord Bailey set down his gin, looking grave.
“That of opening our plane of existence to a far larger invasion by their kind,” he said. “So many of them, indeed, that they would swiftly overrun the human race and make our world their own.”
That brought a moment’s silence down over the table. Professor Melmoth sat in it for a moment, that frown still on his face, before speaking again. “And you say the center of the working is the tenement into which the creatures were initially summoned?” Lord Bailey and Madame Sarkozi nodded.
“Er—” came out of Milly unbidden, and then she tried not to cringe when it directed all attention to her. “I—I’m sorry. I beg your pardon. But—if that’s true, why wouldn’t Professor Melmoth have sensed it when he was finding out where the demons came from?”
“Blood magic is invisible to the living, even sorcerors,” said one of the other Inner Order members; and he wasn’t the only one around the table to show a little smirking smugness or impatience. “This is why we must rely on the assistance of our spirit guides. Has Professor Melmoth not sought to further your education in these matters, Miss Joshi?”
“Miss Joshi has been rather too engaged in protecting this plane from monsters and Hell-fiends to learn principles of the occult that have no bearing on her work,” Professor Melmoth said, unable to hide only the slightest fine edge of rebuke. The man he’d addressed looked none too pleased, but Professor Melmoth went on too swiftly for him to protest. “And her question does raise another troubling matter: neither did I sense that other demons had been present in the tenement of late, apart from the one we confronted, which should most certainly not have been invisible to me. Of course I do not question the word of the spirits, Madame Sarkozi—” which appeared to mollify Madame Sarkozi out of whatever frowning censure she’d been about to make—“but I wonder if, though that location may be the intended site for the portal, the creatures may be conducting the ritual itself elsewhere.”
“Perhaps even distributed across several locations, if it’s as complicated as it appears,” Lord Bailey agreed, nodding. “Most insightful. We shall investigate; and may we call upon you both to do the same, and seek to bring an end to this menace?”
“As always, Lord Bailey.” Professor Melmoth paused then, though, as though with some thought. “Madame, did the spirits also inform you as to when this ritual was to be concluded?”
“Their revelations are often opaque to the living mind.” Madame Sarkozi spread her hand, spindly and elegant. “I believe, however, that it was their intent to indicate that the work would be complete at the next new moon.”
“In approximately a fortnight’s time, then.” Professor Melmoth sighed, just slightly. “Not a great length of time, but let us hope it will be enough.”
“Indeed,” Lord Bailey agreed, and reached for the bell in front of him again. “With that decided, shall we consider this meeting concluded?”
The murmur of agreement that heralded the bell’s chime seemed calm and amiable enough; but when Milly glanced at Professor Melmoth’s face again, it was very tight indeed. And in all that room of peculiar characters, she knew full well which one she trusted most.
“A fortnight,” Professor Melmoth said, in a low voice, once they were back in the carriage. Milly looked over at him to find him gazing out the window, having spoken apparently mostly to himself. “It would be quite enough to bear if I had an idea where to begin to look.”
“Can’t Madame Sarkozi’s spirits just tell us where all that blood magic’s being cast?” Milly asked. “I mean, they seem to have had enough to say in the first place.” Professor Melmoth’s eyes turned to her, though the rest of him stayed still, and his mouth quirked in a half-smile before he looked out the window again.
“Perhaps with more time and spiritual consultation, we can locate the general area. But unfortunately spirits are very poor with street addresses.” He sighed, tilting his head (now behatted once more) back into the seat. “And I’d much prefer to have some direction a bit sooner than that.”
“Well…” Milly thought, gnawing at her inner lip. “…Lord Bailey mentioned it was mostly beggars and prostitutes who were disappearing, didn’t he? People without homes?”
Milly hesitated for a long moment more… and then just let out the breath she’d been holding, and went ahead. “Then I have an idea where we might begin looking. But you have to promise not to tell my mother.”
The boxing matches had been in decline since before Milly had discovered them, and had been forced deeper into abandoned buildings ever since the rookeries had begun to be torn down. The one to be held on the following dawn was in a burned-out old factory, gritty with dust and powdered stone, its dark shapes of scaffolds and rusting junk half-lit by jags of gaslight through the broken windows. Milly led Professor Melmoth picking their way through the sleeping bodies of those who’d either be fighting or betting come daylight, peering at faces as best she could in the dim. Finally she held up her hand to stop the professor, and crouched down, heedless of her skirts dragging in the dust.
“Edna,” she half-whispered, and shook the shoulder of the woman sleeping up against the rear wall, her face pinched even in sleep as though looking for a fight. “Edna, it’s Milly. Wake up, please.”
For a moment Edna only lay where she was, tossing a bit to escape Milly’s hand; she stayed firm, though, and eventually Edna’s face pinched even tighter and then squinted its eyes open. They were bright pinpoints of light in her dim-lit face, blinking at Milly as she grunted some unknown query.
“Edna, it’s me, Milly,” Milly said, and tried on a smile. “I’m sorry to wake you, and for the bother, and all, but—I need to talk to you.”
Edna just looked at her a moment longer… and then her bright gaze contracted down into a scowl. “And what good’ll that do me?” she said, in a foggy croak. Her Irish brogue was even thicker in half-sleep. “Ain’t you got all you want off me already?”
Milly looked down, her smile faltering. “…Look, I know I haven’t been to the fights in a while. My mum’s given me no end of trouble—” Edna snorted, pushing herself blearily up along the wall, and Milly cut herself off there. “I’ve been busy. That’s all. But this is really important. Can you just come for a walk for a bit?”
“Don’t feel like walking,” Edna muttered, glaring away off to one side. “I feel like going back to fucking sleep.” Milly thought she could actually hear the professor’s intake of breath at that, and at any other time might have laughed herself sick in the bargain; but for now she only took a breath, and looked up again, trying to catch Edna’s eye.
“What if it were a walk you were well-paid for?” she said, working for that smile again. And that, at least, turned Edna’s gaze just a little bit back to hers.
“That’s a different story,” she allowed at last, and put a hand to her head with a grimace even as she began to struggle to get up. “Not long, though. Need me sleep before I do Nettie Cole down.”
Professor Melmoth looked extremely uncomfortable by the time Milly led Edna back to where he was waiting, but although Edna gave him a plainly curious looking-over as well, neither of them said anything about each other for the moment. The three of them only went outside, not disturbing any of the other sleepers, passing out the ruined doors and into the mist like spirits themselves.
“So talk, if you want to talk,” Edna said once they’d walked well clear of the building, her mouth full of the apple and bread Milly’d saved for her from her speedy supper with the professor. “I done told you to be quick.”
“I know you did, and I won’t mince words.” Milly skirted around to face her, bringing them up to a pause with Professor Melmoth still trailing behind. “Edna, have you heard of anybody disappearing lately? People from the matches, or some of the other girls who work on the streets near you?”
Edna gave her a long truculent look at that, and then went back to munching on the apple: not really the reaction she’d expected in either direction. “‘Course. Happens all the time to our sorts. Nobody ever paid much mind or ever will, I expect.”
“But more than usual, lately?” Milly pressed. “Anyone that surprised you?”
She didn’t think she’d get an answer to that for a long moment, Edna just eyeing her… and then Edna rolled her shoulders in what might have been a shrug, looking away. “Tim Decker. Couldn’t see the sense in anybody doing for old Tim. Did decent work outside the fights and never did anybody no harm.” She paused to chew a moment, maybe thinking, maybe just hungry. “Dirty Mary, too. I’d’ve said she could knock down the Devil Himself if he took after her.”
“But they’re gone, too.” Edna jerked her head in a curt nod, tossing the bare core aside with one hand and ripping into the bread with the other. “Do you know where they were from? Or where they could be found most often?”
“Not Tim. Mary worked up on Ratcliffe by Tobacco Dock. Had a couple toughs she went round with, helped her roll ’em time to time.” She shrugged as she chewed. “Nobody’s really from anyplace, mainly. What d’you want to know for?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Edna stared back at her apologetic smile for a moment, and then snorted and looked away again. “Have many others been disappearing from Ratcliffe Highway, do you think?”
“Not since they’ve been tearing down St. Giles. Most of ’em ain’t there to start with, most nights. …Heard some talk from further on down, though. Maybe some still, yeh.” She finished the bread, and went about sucking clean her fingers next. “So who’s your fancy gentleman, girl?” she asked in between—so out of nowhere Milly could do nothing but blink for a moment. Gesturing over her shoulder at Professor Melmoth hovering, while trying to keep a substantial distance. “You marrying up like a proper lady, ’s that why you’ve not been about?”
“Oh, not bloody likely,” Milly said, startled into it—which sent Edna at once into a loud, hard, surprised laughter. She joined it after a moment, helpless, even while Professor Melmoth cleared his throat quite pointedly from within earshot. “N-no, he’s—nothing like that, he’s a friend of mine. We… well. We’re trying to figure out what’s happened to some of the people who’ve disappeared.”
Edna glanced at her again at that, surprised, even as she was catching her breath. “What in Hell for?”
“Because not everybody pays no mind,” Milly said, a touch thinly. “But also… I told you you wouldn’t believe me. But I’m about to ask something that’s going to sound foolish, and it’s actually very serious, I promise you. Edna—” Taking a breath. “Have you or anybody you know ever seen Spring-Heeled Jack?”
Edna stared at her for a very long moment. Long enough that it actually, perversely, made her hopeful: that perhaps Edna would clutch at her throat and whisper How did you know, that she would stumble out the whole story in little gasps and runs of terror, that they would hold each other and she’d kiss Edna’s dirty cheek and they would solve the whole matter, save the suffering and protect the weak. She was still, she would suppose later, vain and naíve enough to believe that all might be permitted, that it might happen that way.
“I’m going in,” was what Edna muttered instead, and turned at once back toward the factory. Milly was so surprised she actually let Edna take a few steps before realizing what was happening, and jogging after to catch her arm.
“Get your hand off me!” Edna snapped back, and wrenched it aside and out of Milly’s grasp—countering with a jab toward Milly’s face, while she was at it. Milly was dimly aware of Professor Melmoth taking a step toward them, bursting out something in alarm, but it was too slow; she’d already blocked Edna’s fist, slow enough to be clumsy but still turning the strike aside before contact. It was, she had time to think with the start of an ache deep in her chest, a move Edna had taken pains to teach her well.
“I’m going in,” Edna said on a panting snarl of breath, all the same, wrenching away from her again. I’ve had enough talking to witless girls and bloody rich bastards for one night.”
“I’m only asking—”
“Aye, some letter to the papers, or some story to tell, or some other damned thing,” Edna snapped back, cutting her off. “The things these ignorants believe or whoever you’ve got to save us from. Might be you’re even saying something real—”
“But it’s foolish and you’re foolish, and I’m done.” Drawing herself up now, tall and strong; spitting more words than Milly, dazed, thought she’d ever heard Edna say at once. “Just ‘cause I taught you to fight don’t make me your pet monkey, Miss Milly. I’ve a match at sun-up and I’m too old for ghost stories and rich folks’ games. And I don’t know you. You ain’t been around here in nigh on a year and I don’t know you a bit.”
Milly opened her mouth to say something else, hotly, tearfully, hurt or anger… and then just closed it again, and clenched her teeth around the sour taste. “At least let me give you your money,” she said, softer, after Edna’s retreating back. Edna paused in the midst of stalking away, although without turning around.
“I don’t want it,” she said, and didn’t look around. “I don’t want nothing to do with you.”
And then she started walking again; and this time, there seemed to be no choice but to let her go.
“It is not a sociable one, this life,” Professor Melmoth said, quietly, as the cab jounced along the cobblestones on its way back toward less forbidding climes: his voice breaking the silence that had lain between them, thick and heavy, since they had trudged back together from the factory to the street, broken only for directions to the driver. Milly looked up at him to find him looking out the window, his face difficult to read in its occasional light. “It isolates us from those outside it. There is much we cannot tell, nor much less explain.” He glanced over at her for a moment, and then turned fully, to face her. “I would not have chosen it for you, had the choice been mine to make.”
“I know,” Milly said. She looked down at her hands a moment, and then sighed, long and hard. “She’s better off without me, anyway. …My mother and aunt’d be as well, honestly.”
“I don’t believe that they would say as much, were you to ask.”
But Professor Melmoth’s voice as he said so was far too gentle; and she couldn’t meet his eyes.
“The Highway, then?” Milly said after long moments, when she could lift her head again—when blinking rapidly had cleared all the water away from her eyes. The professor gave her a brief smile, though it was quickly traded for a graver expression.
“So it would seem.” He paused, and glanced out the window. “…But first, home, and to bed. One more night of this in a row and I do believe your mother will have the police called on me.”
That won at least a tired little chuckle out of Milly, although it wasn’t perhaps all he’d hoped for. “I’ll talk her down before that, I promise. You should get home to Johnny, though.” She hesitated a moment, and then added, considerably lower: “Thank you, Professor.”
She didn’t mean for getting her home early, and they both knew it. But neither spoke of anything more for some time.
They set off for the docklands the next evening—John included, which took Milly a bit by surprise when Professor Melmoth first helped her into their carriage. When she glanced over at the professor, though, he only gave her a slight smile and shrug, and she stepped inside without comment, supposing it was none of her business really. From John’s rather grim greeting and resolute crossed arms, anyway, she thought she could guess at what the full story might have been.
Professor Melmoth stopped the driver when they were still in some of the more respectable areas north of the docks, and they went on foot from there. Much of what had once been the rookery at St. Giles might have been demolished now, but the streets were still seedy and hostile in the wake of the work, with dark silhouettes moving among the half-cleared structures, and the fetor of human filth still heavy on the air. They made their way in a column, Milly and Professor Melmoth putting John between them without hesitation or discussion, until they had obscured themselves in the shadow of one of the taller buildings.
“They have passed nearby,” Professor Melmoth said in a half-whisper, stopping them with his upraised hand. “The rite I may not be able to sense, but the creatures themselves are quite unmistakable. A bit of good fortune on our side at last.” He closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep, long breath, and murmured unintelligibly at some length, swiping a complicated pattern with the tips of two fingers in the air in front of him. Then he opened his eyes, and turned deeper down the alley. “This way—”
He led them several blocks, almost to the water, and at last to an old warehouse in apparent disuse since some time: the store-house of some small shipping company that had been elbowed out by larger competitors in recent years, Milly thought. She’d heard her father talk about it often enough, in those rare weeks he was home on leave. It was shabby and dusty but largely untouched by vandals, which the longer she thought about it seemed a curiosity enough in itself. The professor paused in front of it for a moment, and then hiked up the broken paving-stones straight to its doors, tracing another set of symbols on them and speaking softly. After another moment of stillness, he stepped back from them, and returned to Milly and John.
“I believe that, whatever business our Spring-Heeled Jacks have had in this place, it has been enacted here,” he whispered to both of them. “Or if not here, then close by; but this seems a likely candidate.” Milly nodded, and he hesitated a moment, glancing over his shoulder, before giving her a regretful sort of look. “The doors are quite firmly locked, however, so… I fear we may have to prevail upon you, Miss Joshi.”
Milly stared at him a moment, and then, finally, sighed. “Of course. Protecting the entire mortal plane, socking spirits in the jaw, and breaking and entering, that’s old Milly. Heigh ho.”
She plucked up her skirts, though, before Professor Melmoth could have any opportunity to apologise again, and edged around to the side of the building, squinting up at its features through the dim. It was well down the eastern wall that she found what she’d been looking for, or something like it: a rickety ladder up to a platform, from which led to another door, this one smaller and less sturdy in appearance. Once she’d clambered up, it was a simple matter to hike up her skirts and petticoats, brace herself on the wall to one side, and kick the door in with a loud clash and screech of wood.
Whereupon she was immediately met with a wave of stench so strong it hit her like a physical blow. It was, she realised dimly as she stumbled back, hand pressed over her mouth, a smell she had sensed outside, and taken for just more of the general odor of the streets; but in full force from the darkness inside, it was clear it was no ordinary foulness. A charnel-house reek, explosive and overripe and rotten. The discardings of a butcher shop, left abandoned to the hottest of all summer days.
Professor Melmoth and John were coming around the warehouse after her now, and she pulled back from the door as far as she could to call down to them, in a sort of raised whisper: “I think you’re right about the place, Professor. You’d better come up.”
As they came closer, though, she caught the professor’s eyes, and cut her own gaze toward John for an instant—and looked back at Professor Melmoth with a slight shake of her head. His expression flickered just long enough to show that he’d understood, and then he paused, turning to John.
“Please wait here for us, John,” he said, smiling as though to head off John’s immediate look of startled outrage. “We’ll only be a moment. Keep to the shadows, and call for me at the first sign of trouble.”
“I’m meant to be helping!” John protested, though, as soon as he could get a word in. “And it’s hardly even any safer down here!”
“Yes, but we need a lookout, Johnny,” Milly said, taking pity—leaning out over the ladder so she could keep her voice low. “If anyone, or anything came along, they could take us by surprise easy without you here.” John’s face was still set in a frown as it turned up toward her, but he did seem at least slightly mollified. Professor Melmoth patted him on the shoulder, anyway, and climbed up the ladder after Milly. She could see him hesitate on the platform, as the smell hit him too; and then he had only taken out his handkerchief with perfect composure, offering it to Milly before pressing it over his own mouth and nose when she declined.
They slipped inside, onto a wooden scaffolding with steps down to one side, toward the open warehouse floor. The light they’d let in from outside just barely illuminated the shapes of it enough to navigate by. It took a moment of adjustment to see that on the other side of the scaffolding was another set of doors, no doubt to the upper floor’s storage area. With her sleeve pressed against her nose, Milly glanced over at the professor; but he only nodded, scarcely visible in the dim. And, with no other choice, she sighed, and opened the doors.
The stench was at once murderous, gagging and unbreathable, but that was nothing to the sight that awaited them inside, once their eyes had resolved the dim. Milly could scarcely swallow her strangled sound of horror back down into her throat, and Professor Melmoth made a soft, hissing sound into his handkerchief, and then they both only stood still, looking.
The vast room inside was heaped with corpses, piled high with corpses: stacked and tossed together like discarded lumber, gore streaked carelessly along the walls and floors. Nearer the bottom of the heap, almost entirely obscured, they looked skeletal, skulls stragged with hair and bones stuffed inside moth-eaten clothing, rotted here for many years; nearer the top were ones that looked fresher and more ripe, their bodies still bloated with putrefaction, their faces still frozen in final wretched gapes. Milly was so briefly stunned, so unable to believe her eyes, that it took her a long time to realise there was another, smaller heap off in one corner of the room, paler and fleshier. And a long time still more to realise what it was that was peculiar about the heap of bodies, apart from the obvious: they all had only one hand, the other ending in a stump of bone or black blood.
“There are so many,” she whispered. Professor Melmoth nodded never taking his eyes away.
“More than a hundred, I would say. Poor and desperate, and no doubt not much missed.”
“This is horrible.” She took a step closer, in spite of herself, not wanting to see but needing to, in some strange corner of her mind. “Did those creatures do this? They must’ve, mustn’t they? …How did nobody know?”
“The ritual will not be invisible only to sorcerors. It may even dissuade the eyes of common folk entirely. And the hands…” He gestured toward the smaller pile, much though Milly wished he wouldn’t. “That is a most curious detail. Telling, perhaps.”
“Look here,” Milly said, stepping a bit closer—barely even listening to him, unable to break the hypnosis of her horror. Approaching, and pointing to, the body of a large sturdy woman with curly dark hair under a cap, her expression trapped forever in wild-eyed terror, and the glimmer of steel still protruding from her rigoured fist. “She had a knife; I suppose she meant to fight back, but never had the time.” She paused a moment, staring, and then tried to shake herself at least enough to turn back toward Professor Melmoth. “Do you know, I think that might be Dirty Mary herself. Her face looks familiar; I might’ve seen her in the matches back when I used to go.”
Professor Melmoth nodded, although he looked distracted himself as he stepped closer. “She isn’t the only one, at any rate. Look there, and there, if you would.” He was right, Milly saw; there were more knives, long and short, and even a pistol scattered and discarded on the floor beyond. “Certainly not a helpless lot, these. The creatures may hunt them in packs.”
“I don’t want to think of it.” She turned back to the professor after a moment, relieved all over again to look away. “You said the hands might be telling. What did you mean?”
“Well… I cannot say for certain. Not yet.” He hesitated a moment, and then turned back to Milly, leaning their heads closer to lower their voices. “But there was a ritual performed by the Order’s predecessors, centuries ago, in which I’ve taken a particular interest. A very powerful spell of protection was cast over the city of London, patterning the city into the shape of a symbol called the hamsa—the hand of Miriam. …Mary, I should say; your pardon.” Milly only waved this off, though, to hide her bafflement. Professor Melmoth raised one hand, grave, and pressed its three middle fingers together, splaying his thumb and smallest finger to either side. “Shaped thusly. It is a ward of protection and a defense against curses and evil magic. Drawing on the city’s natural ley-lines and magical energies, it has protected London from facing a great deal more harm than it might have otherwise. But…” He cast his gaze over the pile of corpses and that of hands, frowning, thinking. “This location, as I recall, is at the heart of one of the outer ‘fingers’ of the working. And the site where the creatures were summoned, now that I think on it, lies within the area of the ‘palm.’ And with the removal of the hands taken into account… I would say it is very likely that the creatures’ intent is to profane the hamsa, and by breaking its protections, so open the portal. The hand itself has significance to the hamsa’s power, of course—and if they chose victims whose hands have shed blood themselves, in their turn, that would increase the weight of the desecration. Hence how many appear to have been armed.”
“Well, that at least gives us a place to begin,” Milly said, after a long moment’s pause to consider that. “We can go to these bits of the—hamsa?—one at a time, and try to find where the beasts have been putting the bodies. If you’re right.” Professor Melmoth nodded—although not without a bit of a skeptical look, Milly couldn’t help noticing. “They’re not done, though, are they? If the ritual won’t be complete until the new moon, they’ve got more people to kill for it before then.”
Professor Melmoth spread his hand in an elegant, helpless gesture. “It is difficult to say. If my theory is correct, however, it is clear why the ritual has been so long in being performed: the investment of energies required to produce such carnage could easily have taken a decade or more.” He straightened a little, thinking. “We should—”
They both wheeled toward the door as one, and had no need to exchange looks; at once they were running, back out onto the scaffolding and toward the door and platform outside, newly heedless of the stench. John’s voice called again as they went, harrying them onward. They burst outside to see him below them on the ladder, climbing it toward them… and two of the Spring-Heeled Jack beasts a bit away on the ground, darting and bounding toward where he had been.
Milly never hesitated: she straight at the edge of the platform, and leapt off it. On her drop down she blew by John on his climb up, and then she had landed in a crouch—and then bare seconds later the creatures were on her, both springing into the air and then down upon her. She struck at the first one to reach her and knocked it back, even as the other’s jaws snapped at her and she threw an elbow into its face. She closed with them as they fell back, keeping them occupied and away from the ladder: dodging the fury of their claws, striking and shoving and grappling them away from grips on her hair and skirt. Only when one wheeled her around and knocked her back against the wall, her teeth clicking in her head, did she finally see that John had reached the platform, and been gathered back behind the tail of Professor Melmoth’s coat. The professor himself, meanwhile, had begun to move his hands again, drawing shapes on the air and chanting in a much louder voice than before, energy drawing in around him like a faint tingle of lightning on the air.
Then the creature that had thrown her obscured her vision, battening on her, and she was preoccupied: slapping aside its blows, snarling, trying to land blows in its misshapen face. Sense and reason dissolved into a confusion of strikes and dodges, darkness and shifting motion, bristled fur under her hands and hot sulfurous breath stinging on her face and making its skin stretch and ache. She struggled to break free, to find some more space, her strikes landing a bit wild now —
And then she was striking at only air. The creature had no time even to howl before the energy that had been collecting around Professor Melmoth swirled in on it instead, and swept it out of reality like nothing more than a puff of smoke. The other, which had abandoned its companion to harrying Milly and turned to bound and leap at the ladder instead, was gone an instant later. John had been cringing behind the professor at its approach, and now went lax in his surprise, peering round and down to examine the now-empty street. His eyes met Milly’s, where she stood panting against the wall, and then she broke the gaze to wipe her sweating forehead and lean forward on her knees.
“Are you all right, Miss Joshi?” Professor Melmoth called; he’d already turned to clamber down the ladder with John close behind, glancing back at her and up at John by turns. They both rushed over to her when they reached the ground, just as she was straightening up again. “Are you injured?”
“No, I’m well—” She winced, pressing her cooler hands to hot, aching cheeks. “Phew, that was a bit closer than I like it, though, I should say! Thank you, Professor.”
“That was incredible, Milly!” John said, and she looked down and softened at once to see him unusually wide-eyed. She smiled back, as best she could, chucking him lightly on the shoulder even as she kept trying to catch her breath.
“And well watched, Johnny. We’d have been in a real scrape without you, just as I said.” John looked down and muttered something, a bit pink, but looked largely unconvinced. No doubt remembering having to run for his life and shout his head off for the professor. Milly patted his shoulder one more time, before turning back to Professor Melmoth.
“That’s three,” she said, a bit lower now. “If we can keep this pace, things might not be as bad as they seem.”
“Let us hope,” he said, gravely, and stepped back to gesture them both on. “We should be on our way for now, however. The commotion may bring more human undesirables down upon us.”
“Normally I’d say I’d welcome a bit of that, but I think I’ve had my fill for the night.” Milly pushed hair out of her face, and ushered John along, following slightly behind. Professor Melmoth fell in beside her after a moment, and she hung back a bit to put a little distance between them and John—though not too much, of course.
“Are you quite certain you’re well?” the professor said in a murmur, without ever looking at her—alert as always. Milly hesitated a moment, and then sighed, shaking her head.
“Yes, quite. Just… worried.” Professor Melmoth glanced over at her, and she looked back, frowning and biting her lip. “…You said they might be after those who’d shed blood in particular, didn’t you? By fighting or killing?”
“I believe so, yes.”
She hesitated another moment at that, before finally finding her tongue again. It was the way he was looking at her, she thought, that made it more difficult than it might have been. “I’m worried about Edna,” she said at last, in a burst. “And the others I know from the matches, but…” She trailed off there, however, unable to finish. The professor didn’t answer for a moment, though she had no idea what was in his face; she couldn’t seem to raise her eyes from the ground.
“Entirely understandable,” he said, his voice softer now but difficult to read. “I would suggest, however, that we are already well at work on the task of protecting her. The best way to do so will be to put an end to the creatures, and to the ritual.” And not by getting anywhere near Edna or anyone else ordinary, or trying to warn them, probably with the same disastrous results as last night. It was easy to see the sense in it, of course, but her mouth soured a bit at one corner, all the same.
“I know,” was all she said, though, and sighed. “I do. Let’s just… move quickly, eh?”
Professor Melmoth nodded, and when this time she could risk a look at his face, she found it grimmer than ever. “On that point, Miss Joshi,” he said, “we could scarcely be more in agreement.”
She arrived at Professor Melmoth’s office the following day to find John tidying the bookshelves and organizing papers, while the professor himself spread out a map of London over his desk and muttered over it. Once he had Milly for an audience, he overlaid it with a sheet of transparent drafting-paper, upon which had been drawn the hamsa he had spoken of the night before: an approximation of a hand in the position in which he had held his own, but so simplified and yet decorated it looked more like one of the trinkets from the Orient her father would bring her back from his voyages. Professor Melmoth placed it so that its palm nestled south of the Thames and its three long fingers pointed northwest beyond the river, into the northern reaches of the city, and she could see how its outermost finger to the east overlapped the docklands, and the rest of its shape roughly encompassed London’s.
“Here is where the creatures were released,” Professor Melmoth said, tapping the center of the eye-shape sketched in the hand’s palm. “And here, where we found their site of desecration yesterday evening.” This time he tapped the outer finger, and Milly nodded. “I propose that we next investigate the three innermost fingers. Should my theory prove correct, we will find a similar site within their bounds.”
“Those are bl— very large fingers, though,” Milly said—then paused to make a rude face at John when he grinned cheekily at the averted oath, while Professor Melmoth affected not to see. “How are we to find the right exact spot in all of those? Surely you can’t mean to wander through the whole thing mumbling at the spirits?”
“Naturally,” Professor Melmoth said, with possibly the slightest indignance. “But I think there may be means by which to simplify the matter. We know that the creatures have been preying on paupers, and most often those with some violence in their natures; therefore we may be able to target our searches to the poorer and more criminal areas of the three fingers. To begin with, as we move west from the docklands, we might focus our attentions near the base of the finger, which would be near… ah…”
“Whitechapel,” Milly finished, with a slow, sour smile, once Professor Melmoth had hesitated and then trailed off entirely, lips pressed together and avoiding her eyes. “Well. What luck. You can come round for tea and then look in all our cupboards for corpses. That’s sure to raise Mother’s opinion of you, Professor.”
“I think where you live is nice, Milly,” John said bravely, into the silence that followed, and that at least caught her by surprise enough to make her smile. Professor Melmoth also seemed more able to catch his footing once it was said, smiling at her with veiled eyes.
“Quite right, John. But there are less pleasant areas than that of Milly’s home, which might afford us further information.” He hesitated another moment, and then added, a little lower, “Your pardon, Miss Joshi.”
“Oh, it’s all right. At least you’ve some idea it’s not all one, which I couldn’t say of most people where you come from.”
“I fear you may be right.” The professor turned to John then, though, ushering him away from the desk. “John, would you be so kind as to go and have a carriage brought round for us? We should make haste while the daylight still remains.” John nodded, brightening just at having something to do, and darted off, leaving Milly to hover and prepare while Professor Melmoth collected up the map and overlay.
“Do you suppose any of those fine lords in the Inner Order would even let me inside, if they knew I came from Whitechapel?” Milly asked presently, as she reached for her cape: the slight sour taste still lingering in her mouth. “…Well, I suppose if the colour of my skin hasn’t made them bar the door already, that might slide as well.”
Professor Melmoth had looked up at her over the map by now, and there was something in the set of his face she never saw when John was present; something not so gentle at all. “As recently as when I was a boy, they would have barred the door to me, for how until my father’s time my family name was Malmuth and not Melmoth,” he said, quietly. “While using the ancient scripts of my people in their summonings, just the same.” He paused a moment, shuffling at the papers with his mouth in a tight line, before looking up at her again. “I have told you, surely, that John’s father was my bitterest rival as well as my dearest friend—a sorceror worth ten of me, unparalleled by any soul I have ever met? And yet when first I introduced Brogan Leary to Lord Bailey, his Lordship’s only comment afterward was: ‘How generous in friendship you are, Zvi.’” Another pause. “I have often wondered, however, whether he might have taken Brogan aside to make precisely the same observation. Of a Jew and an Irishman, which is the more generous in friendship to the other? A far more worthy riddle, I think, than a simple hand laid over a map; and most likely more insoluble.”
She had no answer for any of that, of course. After a moment, Professor Melmoth sighed, and passed his hand over his brow before straightening up to look at her directly. “…I apologise again, Miss Joshi, and this time only for myself. I mean only to say that you should not tether your worth to the opinions of men who know nothing of you. And that is a category in which I include myself, as a coward who balks at the streets you call home, for fear the Eastern Jewry who dwell there will meet his eyes and one may know him for what he is: the knife in all their backs. Its hilt inscribed: you see, for I am more unlike these, so the more I am like you.”
Milly gave that, as well, the long and respectful silence it seemed to deserve. This time, though, at last she said: “I don’t think I’d presume to know any more of you than you do of me, Professor. All I know for certain is all I’ve ever known: we’ve work to do, and it’ll go better together.”
She held out her arm, as she spoke. And though Professor Melmoth only stood for a moment, quite fixed in place, looking at it… in time he smiled, and stepped forward, and folded it into his own.
“Then you are the wisest of us all, as I have always suspected,” he said, patting her hand, and kept his soft smile even as she rolled her eyes. “Let us see if John has us to rights.”
The shape of the hamsa took them further west than Milly lived, anyway: deeper into the mazes of alleys and tight clusters of tenements where families slept on top of each other in single rooms, and through streets that actually became familiar to her again because they were near to places where the boxing matches had been held. Professor Melmoth caught the creatures’ traces after a little under an hour of fruitless, frustrating wandering; and then they were off, on a chase, trying to make themselves inconspicuous as they dodged down streets and between the loitering poor and lines for work.
They had been led far afield, and the sun set, by the time they first caught sight of one of the beasts down an alleyway: a dark flutter that might have been taken for a cape, disappearing around the far corner. At the sight of it, without pausing for discussion, Milly took off at a full run around the corner—to find nothing there, and only a flap of motion on the nearest rooftop, silhouetted against the sky.
“Oh, you bugger,” Milly muttered, and then turned back to hiss over her shoulder at Professor Melmoth and John, still pelting toward her around the building’s side. “I’m going ahead—catch up when you can!”
“Miss Joshi—” the professor began to call back, out-of-breath and alarmed, but it was already too late. Milly had paced back, hitched her skirts into her hands—modesty was for people who weren’t hunting demons, by her reckoning—and taken a running leap at a heap of old crates and bricks piled carelessly against the building’s wall. She caught a second’s uncertain footing on it, launched herself up again, and caught a casement on the second story, pressing herself upward until she could swing a leg up. And from there, after a second to catch her balance while she was standing, she was able to spring up again, and fetch a good grip on the edge of the roof’s lowest eave. And up, and over, heedless of whatever the professor was snapping at her from below. She wasn’t about to stop now, not when they’d come so far.
The creature had put some distance between them, but she could see it clearer from here: a darting dark shape on one of the higher roof-tops, up ahead of where she’d jumped. She took off toward it with her skirts bunched in her hands, easily making the jump to the next roof with her running start. She skirted chimneys and dodged crumbling mortar, eased around a peak, raced to close the gap. They were above the worst of the mist up here, and the moon was beginning to rise as she ran, painting their chase in a sour yellow light through the city’s soot and smoke and wet.
She lost track of how far they’d gone or which direction before too long, and could only hope the professor could track her better than she could herself. Her heart pounded in her throat, chest heaving with air. The beast ahead of her took twists and turns and fantastical leaps, and she followed as best she could—sometimes darting down a sloping roof that went sidelong or sweeping out to one side where the footing was safer, but always keeping it within her sights. And then finally, the creature took one more leap overside, and disappeared altogether—down into the gap between buildings again, with a phosphorescent burst of breath at its mouth. And Milly raced to the same edge, pell-mell, and jumped down blind.
Her landing put her behind the thing’s back down another side alley, as it stalked forward, slower now. Beyond it, at the alley’s mouth, she could see the glow of street-lamps, and human shapes moving mistily in their light: women, milling and gaudily-dressed, in the doorways and shadows by the broader road. They were hard to make out from here, but the alley was dark, and no doubt they could see nothing of what was coming.
Milly set her jaw, and ran straight at the thing, not giving herself time to deliberate. It half-turned when she drew near, alarmed—and then she was on it, launching herself into the air at it and landing hard on its back. Her weight knocked it forward, both of them tumbling out of the alley, and right into the midst of the harlots on the street-edge. Busy locking one arm around the creature’s neck and the other under its clawed arm, though, Milly was only half-aware of the women squalling and scattering like a flock of pigeons, the gaping wide-eyed looks on painted faces.
“Evening!” Milly called over the creature’s shoulder, for sheer cheek’s sake, as it ducked under trying to throw her off—and then hauled it back by her grip around its neck and into the alley again, and out of sight. The mouth was clogged in instants with gawkers, though, in silhouette against the gas-lamps, but she had no time to be concerned with that. The beast was grunting and snorting and raging like a wild boar, blowing its fire into the air hard enough to burn her arm, and went staggering back against her weight to slam her back up against the wall of the building behind. She hissed and spat curses, but held on like grim death, clinging with her arms and knees and raining punches into its chest with the hand she’d pulled up under. Her boots both kicked at its sides as if it were a balking horse. It wheeled around, clawing at her, spinning until she was dizzy, trying to find a way to throw her off —
And then finally she heard the blessed sound of Professor Melmoth’s voice chanting words in some forsaken tongue, and felt the crackle of air and energy displaced around her. And before she could let go or prepare in any way, the creature’s solidity was melting inside her arms—and then gone, dropping her in a bruising tumble to the paving-stones.
“Why thank you,” she said, pointedly and reprovingly, when her flattened chest would draw a bit of air again and she could draw herself up on her knees. “I don’t think there was such a rush you couldn’t warn me, you know.”
“I apologise,” the professor’s voice said, which she supposed she could have predicted; footsteps thumped toward her as she rubbed her aching back, and then Professor Melmoth and John were around her, both quite out of breath, and the professor helping her to her feet. “Although I might present the counterpoint that neither was it necessary for you to take to flight from the start.”
“I caught it, didn’t I?” She dusted herself off a bit, and tried to catch her own breath, turning to face them. “Was that all, then? Or—”
“What in the bleeding hell is going on here?”
The voice—the familiar voice—startled them all out of their course at once. For the first second Milly chastised her ears, certain she had misheard and conjured a little fantasy… but then she turned, and looked, and little though she wanted to credit her eyes either, it was true: Edna, Edna herself, was marching up the alley toward them. Dressed for her night-time profession, of course, her strong back and arms draped in frills and square jaw softened with paint, but still as furious as the last time Milly had seen her, if not more so.
“What’s this, then?” she snapped, coming right up to Milly to prod her in the chest—something Milly had been taught better than to accept from her in the ring or out of it, if she hadn’t been so thoroughly flabbergasted. “What in the devil are you doing here? You frightened the wits out of all them out there—” This swinging her arm widely behind her. “Are you mad? …Are you following me now? What’s the matter with you?”
“No, I didn’t—” Milly started, but could scarcely gather her tongue in order. Before Edna could stampede over her, though, the worser thing happened: Professor Melmoth, after appearing to gather his courage and all his reserves of gallantry, stepped in.
“Miss… Edna, if I may—”
“You may bloody well not,” Edna said, and cast an arm out that knocked him effortlessly back against the wall behind him. He landed with hat slightly askew, all shock in his face and with his own breath a bit knocked out of him. Milly flared at once, perhaps to no one’s surprise more than her own—stepping up and pushing Edna back, this time, with all the sure footing she’d lacked before.
“None of that, you leave him be! If you want to have it out, then have it out with me—don’t take after my friends.”
Edna stared at her for a second—and then her lip curled in a sneer. “Your friends,” she repeated; and cast only half a dismissing glance over Professor Melmoth, still catching his balance, and not even that much at John, who was trying his best to stand his ground and not hide behind Milly’s skirts. “I might tell you a thing or two about—”
And that was when the other two creatures dropped from the rooftop, and the nearest in a single blow sent her sprawling.
Milly was stunned into stillness for only an instant—and then she was running again, at the beast that stood over Edna, knocking into it with all her weight and sending it crashing into the wall. It lost its wind with a grunt that again sounded almost comically human, although the gout of flame that accompanied it was anything but. She was vaguely aware of Professor Melmoth trying to recover himself enough to perform the rites again, John running somewhere behind her; but much more aware of the creature catching its balance and grappling at her arms, and its fellow bearing down on her, Edna, and the mouth of the alley all at once. Milly clamped around the first beast and whirled with it into the other’s path, trying to kick at it even as she wrestled. The women watching from the street were crying out again in alarm, and shrinking back, but not nearly far enough away for her taste.
“Professor!” she shouted over the shoulder of the thing she had arms locked with, having to hop a bit to see past it—interrupting Professor Melmoth in the midst of beginning to cast. He looked up at her, startled and short of breath, and she only jerked her head backward, toward the women behind her. Fortunately, he understood at once, and caught hold of John’s arm to pull him running past, out of range of the fight and toward the staring crowd. The second of the beasts tried to swipe at the professor when he came near enough, but Milly broke free to fetch it a good strong blow in its misshapen face, knocking it away.
Edna, meanwhile, had been knocked to the ground against one wall; one of the monsters drove Milly backward and she saw her there, barely pushed upright and gaping at the scene, face drained and drawn and eyes wide. Unable, from the look of that brief glance, to speak or move. Milly struck the nearer creature and then had to dive into the way of the other, losing a shoulder of her jacket to its shredding claws for her pains. They were surging around her, trapping her in, trying to do for her so they could get to the rest.
“Edna!” Milly shouted over her shoulder, in the second between one blow and the next. “Edna, get up, I need your help!” The beast that was nearer her now took advantage to slash at her, and she only just bent herself out of the way in time to avoid being gutted by its claws. She sent it stumbling, and risked a glance over her shoulder again: Edna hadn’t moved, and only sat cringing away from them all three, open-mouthed and paralysed with horror. Milly’s temper flared, but she had to turn her attention back to the front again in only an instant, to thump the creature that was trying to get by her in the gut. “Edna!”
Still nothing. She heaved in a great breath, and grabbed the devil she’d hit around what passed for its waist, whipping it around. Putting them both into position so that she was fighting facing Edna, instead of showing her back, and letting the demon’s gruesome countenance loom down over her instead.
“Look! Watch me! Look at it!” Having to huff out the words between her gasping breaths, as she went after the thing with both fists flying; the one behind tried to grab her around her neck, and she had to pause a moment wrestling its arm away. Every instant she could spare her eyes, she tried to meet Edna’s gaze. “They’re only—flesh—no worse than any tough in the ring—” She punctuated that with an elbow in the belly of the one behind her, only to growl in frustration and lunge after the one ahead as it tried to throw her backward. “I can’t hold them both myself—get on your feet and help me, damn you!”
For a second or two more she thought it was a lost cause. There was no motion, no sign that Edna had been heartened, or even heard. Then, at last, in the midst of her wrangling she saw slow motion from the corner of her eye; and almost dropped her guard fatally in her surprise, when she saw that Edna was pushing herself up to her feet along the wall. Still pale and staring, her limbs all but quavering under her… but rising, trying to square her shoulders, set her jaw. Even raise her fists. She still only stood where she was, though, seeming too pinned to the spot to come forward—until Milly threw off one of the beasts and it stumbled in Edna’s direction, and whirled snarling on her, fire licking up around its jowls. Edna made a thin wordless sound of a kind Milly had never even heard from her before; but she also knocked its arm aside and threw a punch to counter, perhaps out of sheer habit. It connected, at any rate, and if it was perhaps a bit weaker than ordinary, it was still enough to startle the creature and make it stumble.
The other creature’s neck wrestled into both her arms, Milly could spare the time to look over a time or two, now. She could see the way Edna stared first at her fist and then at the thing’s fearsome, flaming visage, at its feet and head… and then the way Edna’s stance widened, her shoulders relaxed with new confidence. The way her tight defensive clutch melted into a ready stance, as familiarity replaced fear. And then she struck out again, with more certainty this time; one, two, and three, dodging between the thing’s claws and giving it such a pounding that it reeled. And then, at last, Edna looked more than certain. She had, all at once, the same vicious joy Milly had seen so many times at the matches growing on her face.
“Only flesh,” Edna agreed; and, as she stood off with the monster for a second’s space, ripped aside first one and then the other side of her bodice, and stripped both it and the chemise beneath to her waist. Her upper half exposed, she looked even more at home and sure: freed as she would be for a far more ordinary fight. “And not even that for long, eh?”
“Oh dear,” Milly could barely hear Professor Melmoth say from the head of the alley, faint with scandal—but she was grinning far too hard by now to pay much mind.
When the beasts had been well-pummeled and then thoroughly dismissed, they four found themselves sudden heroes to a shaken mob of fallen women; they were coaxed along to a tidy and rather pleasant (if quite overwhelmingly perfumed) crib above the street, where Milly and Edna were sat upon the broad bed to have their wounds tended, and John and Professor Melmoth both made much of and made desperately uncomfortable in turn. Edna still seemed a bit dazed and quiet, although she refused the brandy they were offered, and Milly wound up taking both their share on principle. It had been, for her part, a night beyond compare.
“Is everyone all right, Johnny?” Milly asked, when John came in with fresh wet rags for the woman tending to them, who’d introduced herself as Ellie. He nodded, glancing round behind him.
“Yes, I think so. Professor Melmoth had them all stand well back.” He peered at her, frowning. “You’ve got a big lump, you know.” Milly flapped him off, sighing.
“I know, I know. Hush about it.” Ellie tsked and pressed a rag to the lump in question, and Milly winced and shot a brief cross look up at her before looking back at John. “Are you all right, then?”
“Well, I ought to be,” John said, morosely, and looked down at his feet. “I didn’t do anything.”
Milly frowned, straightening up a bit and briefly dislodging Ellie’s hand. “Now, don’t say that. You helped keep these ladies safe, didn’t you? Didn’t he, Miss Ellie?”
“Never seen such a brave little gentleman in me life,” Ellie agreed readily enough, casting a fond (if distracted) smile over at John in between dabs at Milly’s face. In spite of all her paint and colourful dress, with that look and tone she more resembled a nurse or schoolteacher than the grave social ill people were always wringing their hands about. She wasn’t much older than Milly or Edna, but Milly found herself wondering if Ellie had children of her own. It seemed rude to ask.
John, meanwhile, had turned his gaze down to the floor, but he looked as much unhappy as modest. “I don’t like always having to run and hide,” he said, in undertone, and dropped abruptly to sit at Milly’s feet, his knees propped up and back leaned against the bed. “You’re so strong and Professor Melmoth is so amazing, and I can’t do anything. I wish I were more like you. I want to help and I just get in the way.”
“Well, you’re only a boy,” Milly said, reasonably enough, she thought. “Everyone gets better at things when they’re grown-up. You will too.”
“Professor Melmoth doesn’t even want me to join the Order when I grow up,” John said into his knees, his muffled voice sullen. Milly hesitated a moment, thinking carefully about how to answer that.
“…No, he doesn’t. He has his reasons, though. And not that he doesn’t think you’re any good, believe me.” John only looked back down, though, the misery on his face heartrending, and Milly sighed. “…Johnny, listen to me. Do you know the most important thing about being strong, to me? It’s not hitting demons or knocking down doors or any of that, I promise you.” John glanced up at her again, frowning a little, and she smiled back and lay her hand on his head. “It’s protecting people. It’s knowing I can keep my mum and aunt and friends from getting hurt, when awful things happen. And other people, too.” She gestured around a bit with her other hand, at Ellie and out toward the flat’s main room where the other women were chatting and teasing the poor professor. “And you did that much already tonight. No need to be any different than you are.”
John was still frowning at her by now… but he did look a little bit soothed, at least. He opened his mouth to say something, and then just closed it again, and got to his feet. “I’ll… go get some more rags,” he mumbled, without looking up—and then hesitated for a moment, before bursting out: “I wish you were this nice all the time, Milly.”
And then he was scampering off, leaving Milly to lean out after him indignantly, disturbing Ellie’s work again—although no more so than her smothered laughter. “What! Johnny! You little wretch—”
“Oh, I think he’s spot on,” Edna said—the first she’d really spoken since they’d arrived—and Milly looked over to find her grinning lopsidedly, through a swollen eye. “You’ve all the grace of a cat down a well, most times.”
“And you’re both made of sunshine and honey?” Milly snapped back… but by the time it was halfway out of her mouth, she was laughing, and so was Edna. She could only even try to calm down when Ellie thew up her hands and declared she was going to help that sweet boy with the rags, since it was plain that some two foolish girls couldn’t keep their bloody heads straight.
“Is this what you’ve been about that’s kept you away, then?” Edna asked, when she managed to recover herself, once they were alone. “Fighting off demons out o’Hell with that wee thing and the fancy fellow?” Milly shrugged, the bit of a smile left on her mouth still tugging at its corner.
“More or less.”
“It’s a good job I taught you how to throw a punch, then, eh?” That made Milly grin a bit, and broadened Edna’s crooked smile—although a shadow still lingered in her eyes, and stayed there for a moment more of silence. “…And me thinking you’d just got too good to be seen with the likes of me.”
That faded Milly’s smile at last; but after a moment more, she found she could replace it with a more melancholy one, at least. “It was never anything like that,” she said, after letting another pause hang on the air. “I wanted to tell you, but…” She couldn’t finish that, though, and the way Edna looked down and away showed she’d been understood, anyway. They sat quiet for another moment, side by side, the voices in the next room chattering on around them.
“But on the other hand, someone told me recently,” Milly said, at last, “that I shouldn’t let it decide what I’m worth what other people think of me. And I don’t think you should either. Including me.” She paused a moment, and then a laugh burst out of her, so much on its own that it took her by surprise. “Probably especially me. I’m nobody, really.”
“I don’t think that’s so,” Edna said. And when Milly looked up to meet her eyes, Edna covered her hand with her own; and after another few seconds, they were smiling foolishly at each other again.
“Would you like to sleep at my house tonight?” Milly asked, all in a blurt, after another few seconds—and then tumbled over herself following that up. “I’m not trying to be rude or feel sorry for you or anything. I just mean, there’s an extra bed with my father away, if you’ve not got a better place. Or if you have, that’s very well too. I only thought I’d ask.”
Edna didn’t look angry when Milly risked looking at her, though; instead, her eyebrows looked to be trying to disappear up into her hair. “That wouldn’t get your mum’s dander up?” she asked after a pause, as much cautious as caustic. Milly snorted, waving her hand.
“Of course, but I don’t mind. Her dander’ll do whatever it wants in spite of me, anyhow.” That actually surprised Edna into laughing a bit, and somehow that led to her nodding, meeting Milly’s eyes with a tiny smile.
“Well, all right then. If you’re offering.”
That was when Ellie returned, though, and they sat patient through another round of being cleaned up before finally escaping, rescuing the professor and John and making their way back out. They walked together toward Milly’s street, and Edna and John fell to talking while Milly and Professor Melmoth made their way along behind, in a companionable quiet.
“That makes six,” Milly said into it after a few streets, and smiled at Professor Melmoth’s inquiring look. “Half of them now. Do you suppose the rest might just give in now their numbers are so low?”
“A pleasant thought, but not one I would care to wager on.” The professor’s small smile faded quickly, though, as he looked out ahead, ruminating. “We may not have found another of their charnel-houses tonight, but we did at least delay their hunting in this region. I believe we should move onward to the final finger tomorrow evening; I wish to be certain of my theory before attempting to break the enchantment.”
“If you think so, I don’t mind.” Milly walked on beside him for a moment, and then turned an impish grin back in his direction. “Though I’m not so sure you aren’t just afraid you’ll swoon, if we run across any more sin and vice.”
Which left him spluttering, of course, and her laughing, and then she had raced on ahead to pester John and Edna; and she and Edna made their way home to sneak in past Milly’s mother and aunt, and in the end they lay talking in the cramped bedroom so long that they fell asleep in the same cot anyway, embracing like sisters in the small dark hours.
And that was how it was that the next morning when Milly woke, she found Edna washing her face in the basin; and when she heard Milly stirring Edna turned and smiled, her pale brown hair loose over her freckled shoulders and looking sleepy and sweet in her borrowed nightgown. And said, without preamble, “Are you and those going to look for more demons tonight?”
“Er…” Milly was caught off-guard, still half-asleep, and took the time to sit up and push back her hair before she responded. “…Yes, we are. Why?”
And Edna’s smile turned even oddly shyer, and looking away, she said: “Then can I come with you?”
To his credit, Professor Melmoth took Edna’s reappearance that night with aplomb. He looked startled briefly when she climbed into the carriage behind Milly, but recovered himself quickly, and only smiled at her with a soft “Good evening.”
“Hullo, Edna!” John said from beside her, and for his part he seemed in fact quite pleased. He seemed to have taken a liking to Edna the night before, even though she’d laughed at him when he’d puffed up and told her he was a proud Irishman himself, and told him that even if he weren’t still in short pants, he sounded about as Irish as Queen Victoria. “Are you coming along with us?”
“Erm… I hope you don’t mind, sir,” Edna said, to the professor; she at least had the good grace to look abashed for once. “Only I was telling Milly, I’d like another crack at them devils. Ain’t forgiven ’em for scaring the wits out of me girls yesternight.”
“Why, that is very well indeed.” Edna glanced up at Professor Melmoth, and seemed startled by his broad smile. “Another arm can only aid our cause; especially as the hour, I fear, grows late.”
“Beg pardon?” Edna asked, almost in undertone, and looked round at Milly as much as at the professor. Milly patted her shoulder, settling in the seat beside her.
“We’ll explain on the way.”
And so they did, as the driver went their way west, around the bend of the river. The parts of the city they passed through early on were far wealthier than those where the past few nights’ urgent work had been done, Milly couldn’t help but notice, and then soon after that they were more so than anywhere in the city she had ever been before, even more than where the Inner Order met. She caught Edna peering out the carriage windows now and again in frank alarm, and sympathised entirely.
Professor Melmoth, meanwhile, began to behave most peculiarly after they had reached the area of the other outer ‘finger,’ as demonstrated on his map; he began to frown, at first, checking their location frequently, and then the frown deepened after he performed his motions and murmurings for magical guidance (which only increased Edna’s alarm, although she tried very gamely to hide it). “No, surely not,” he could be heard to mutter to himself, peering out the window as well; “no, no, impossible,” a few streets later, and then “but that’s absurd” after a few moments more. Milly and John and Edna all only glanced round at each other, but kept silent, throughout his growing agitation. Milly expected none of them entirely knew whether they wanted to understand.
By the time Professor Melmoth stopped the driver at what must be their destination, he was quiet again; but his expression was more deeply troubled than Milly thought she’d ever seen it before. He only stepped out of the carriage and wordlessly helped each of the others down, and then stood at the edge of the street, staring up at the building they had stopped in front of: a massive, towering house and garden that took up an entire corner of the street, facing on the edge of Green Park. The park itself stretched out into darkness beyond in the evening dim, their backs to the shadows and faces washed in light as they all stared up.
“What is this place, do you know?” Milly half-whispered to the professor, not even certain why she felt she should lower her voice. He only stared up at it for a moment longer, his face difficult to read; and then answered with his eyes still fixed, never turning.
“Yes,” he said. “This is where, by far,the strongest traces of the creatures’ presence can be found.” He paused for a moment, seeming to gather his breath. “It is… also Lord Bailey’s personal residence.”
That sent them all into silence for a moment.
“Well,” Milly said, at last—not certain she should but not able to bear it any longer. “You could fit an awful lot of corpses in there, I suppose. You’d think he’d have noticed, though, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” Professor Melmoth said after another heartbeat of silence; but he sounded distracted and without humour, and his brows were drawing down tighter, tighter than ever. “One would.”
And, without another word, he set off toward the door. And for Milly and the rest, there seemed to be no other choice but to follow him.
The gate creaked shut behind them, and the professor’s knock boomed off the massive doors; but long though they waited, there was no answer. After some time, Professor Melmoth tried its overlarge, ornate knob… and it turned easily in his hand, opening to a crack of interior darkness before he could stop short. He hesitated for another moment, and then seemed to firm himself, and half-turned to nod to the rest of them. And then he pushed the door open, and slipped inside, with them behind.
Inside the foyer it was entirely dark: only the glow from outside, through the thick front windows, lined out the shapes of luxurious appointments and towering stairs. They crept in, along the path of a plush rug, to the center of the room, into a square of dim light cast in window-shape on the floor…
And then a burst of blue flame broke through the darkness ahead and to one side, followed by a staggered array of some five more, all around. The stink of sulfur wafting, all at once, on the air.
Milly grabbed for Edna’s hand, and darted forward to put them both in front of the professor and John—but before she could move any further, a lamp was lit on the landing of the stairs above. In its light a shadowed, smiling face was revealed, peering down on them. The sight of it brought Milly—and all her half-formed ideas about a surprise attack on his Lordship and family or hidden basement rooms filled with the dead—to a full stop at once.
“Ah, Zvi,” Lord Bailey said, standing over them still dressed in his tails and ascot. “You never do disappoint me, you know. You have come so directly to the bait I set that I scarcely had time to prepare a welcome.”
“What have you done?” the professor said, in a tight, soft voice, ignoring the monsters advancing toward them. Lord Bailey cast him another brief, inquiring smile.
“I? Only the execution, I’m afraid. The concept was my late father’s, and much of the foundations.” He walked at a leisurely pace around to the center of the railing, the lantern bobbing and painting his shadow on the wall. “But then, it was he who was required to spend the life of a very faithful servant in summoning these creatures to our plane; so I suppose I should give credit where credit is due.”
“That ring,” Professor Melmoth said sharply all at once, almost interrupting him; and when Milly looked up for a moment from the creatures’ slow approach, she saw that his hand holding the lantern did indeed wear a large ring she had never seen before, of dark metals and jewels that glinted in the light. “Can that be the Seal of Solomon?”
Lord Bailey’s smile spread and stretched, into a smirk. “Sharp as always, my dear man. Another legacy of my father’s: kept in our family treasury for generations, awaiting just such an occasion. And combined with the destruction of the hand of Mary, quite poetic, is it not?”
“You are controlling them.” Another backward glance from her ready position told Milly just how quickly the professor was thinking, even as he had pulled John automatically to his side. “This rite is your bidding, not their own will. But why? Why bring a plague of evil spirits down upon this world?”
“Not a plague,” Lord Bailey said, his eyes boring and burning down in the lantern-light. “An army. Endless hordes of these creatures, and at only my own beck and call. Need you even ask such a foolish question?” He spread his free arm, grandly, the lantern swinging and casting them all in strange shadows. “I would be set higher than governments or gods, could restore in one word what in this glorious nation has fallen into decline. Look at the good I’ve already visited upon our fair city, and only in passing on my way to victory: the removal of hundreds of its vilest, foulest elements. And with a great deal more efficiency than our tiresome reformers and officials, I should say.”
“You killed hundreds of people with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep night, and now you’re boasting about it?” Milly snapped upward—although barely taking her eyes off the Spring-Heeled Jacks, the two of which in front had now borne down on her so close that she could meet their muddy red eyes. “Oh, indeed, a hero to bleeding queen and country, you are.”
That turned Lord Bailey’s gaze toward her, though—and once it was there, she wasn’t certain it was something she had wanted. “My point precisely,” was all he said at last, his eyes flicking back to Professor Melmoth’s, with a slight gesture toward Milly. “Such a degenerate creature, set as the Eye of Horus in our Order? It will be my pleasure to have the power to eliminate such injustices.”
“And such as my own membership, no doubt,” Professor Melmoth said, before Milly could even explode in fury; his voice was still pale and thin, but its threads of anger were now unmistakable. “How it must have pained you all this time, to bear up with degeneracy on all sides.”
For a moment Lord Bailey only looked down on him, with a slight, unpleasant smile. “Well, not for much longer,” he said, at last; and touched a finger, deliberately, to the ring. “Good night, Zvi. I do regret your ward, I suppose—but even he in time would have grown into only another stain on this green and pleasant land…”
There was only a space of seconds before he began to walk away again, before the creatures stopped closing and lunged—but it was enough time for Professor Melmoth to catch Milly by her arm, and pull her back toward him. And hiss, into her ear: “Cut me a path.”
And then all was chaos. The monsters had leapt, a bounding cacophony in the air of roars and fire and fury, bearing in on them. Edna was shouting, John crying out something else—Milly threw herself toward the side where the professor stood, and could only blindly hope for Edna to hold off the center. She met the first creature with a strike, fended off the next to the side with another. Calculating as best she could at such speeds: driving them apart, to one side or the other, with the flurry of her fists and kicks. And then finally aware of the professor seizing his chance and moving behind her, coat flapping as he raced past, darting through the opening she’d made and up the stairs.
Milly could barely see over the heads of the demons crushing in on her, the blinding flare of fire on all sides, but the light of one of the beasts’ breath caught Lord Bailey above, turning in surprise, as the professor came running up behind him, with his hat knocked off and coat swinging. He did not even stop moving when he flung his arm wide with a shout of ancient words, and a burst of power drove from his hands at Lord Bailey’s face. Barely in time Lord Bailey managed to cast the lantern aside and repel the attack; and then the professor had come up short and they were squaring off, attacking and counterattacking, swirls of energy and wisps of flying spirits tearing around them and blasting at one another. And then Milly’s attention was forced back to the matter at hand, as claws sizzled pain down her upper arm, and she cursed and returned her gaze to the fight.
Below, she and Edna, back-to-back and ringed in foul Hell-beasts, fighting for their very lives; above, Professor Melmoth and Lord Bailey, locked in a sorceror’s combat that filled the air with smoke and wind. The fallen lantern burned on atop the stairs, illuminating both halves of the struggle in dancing light and shadow. Milly could think of nothing else but dodging and trying to strike, driving back claws from herself and from Edna, but in the back of her mind, in time, she could feel despair gradually set in; two of the things at a time had been nearly too much for her before, and six against two now were entirely untenable. They were hemmed in, only able to flail themselves winded to keep from being shredded outright. And Professor Melmoth was skilled, but so much Lord Bailey’s junior—and against the master of the Inner Order, traitor or no?
She fought until her vision went red, dark spots in front of her view of tangled hairy limbs and burning breath and red eyes. Edna was also flagging, her breath loud in Milly’s ears and weight leaning hard against her back. In desperation at last she could only look up to the top of the stairs, hoping against hope —
But the sight there was even worse. The professor was pinned against the casement on the far side by now, Lord Bailey advancing on him, driving him back with one blast after another. The crackle of his power lit up the room far beyond the lantern’s reach, making him seem to glow himself at its center. His face was frozen in a sneer of contempt, his eyes blazing. Professor Melmoth stumbled, at last, on too wild a dispersal of a burst of power, and Lord Bailey closed in. He drew back his hand behind him for leverage, preparing to drive in with another perhaps fatal strike —
And a small hand reached from the shadows behind him, and neatly plucked the ring from off its finger.
For a moment, everything seemed to pause. Lord Bailey froze in place, not quite seeming to understand at once; his predatory sneer dissolved, slowly, into a lax gape of surprise. Professor Melmoth, crouched against the casement, also seemed riveted to the spot as he stared. Moreover, the devils themselves stopped moving, letting a sudden deathly quiet fall in lieu of their snorting breath and roars. The one that had been about to slash at Milly let its paw fall away, and though she and Edna kept their guard up they were both quite still, thunderstruck and staring at their silent opponents.
And then the beasts, almost as one, whirled around in a chorus of roars and snarls, toward the stairs. They bounded and leapt forth, in one terrific spring, at the landing, ascending the full height of the staircase in a single step. As John fell staggering back, the ring still clutched tightly in his hand, and then turned and ran away down the stairs, Lord Bailey turned with numb slowness on the spot, to face their approach —
They were on him at once, a flock of crows descending on carrion; those dark capelike wings surrounded him in a flurry, more growls and guttural shouts nearly drowning out his scream. Then thick, horrid tearing sounds Milly thought would haunt her to her grave, and the screams spiking higher, louder, to the wails of a banshee in a nightmare. All that could be seen was a frenzied writhe of dark motion, a hideous boil of it, and the occasional splash of blood across the carpet or the rail. John nearly fell down the last stairs, white and wild with shock, and ran to her, and without hesitation both Edna and Milly bent to catch him into their arms, Milly pressing his face into her torn jacket. She stared over his head for a moment longer, unable to look away; and then shut her eyes, and pressed her own face into John’s cap, instead. She could feel Edna’s face, hot and still heavy-breathed, do the same into her shoulder a second later.
And then the professor’s voice reached her ears, out of breath but still strong and true: calling unfamiliar words, intoning strange chants. The soft rush of energy and air. And Milly could open her eyes again, and saw nothing at the top of the stairs but Professor Melmoth standing to one side, still catching his breath against the wall, and the bloodstains that Lord Bailey’s demise had left behind. No more than that on the floor, even; whatever had been left of him had gone back with the rest of the demons, to wherever they’d come from, in their grasp. A fate perhaps worse than even that particular death.
Edna was straightening up now, and John stirred against Milly’s breast. She drew back to arms’s length with his shoulders in her hands, smiling as best she could into his pale and dazed face. “You did it, Johnny,” she said, and brushed mussed hair from under his cap out of his eyes, then just caught him round the head. “You did it! You saved all our lives.”
“And the world in the bargain,” Professor Melmoth agreed, coming down the last of the stairs toward them at a slow and limping pace. John blinked and looked round at him, his comprehension appearing to begin to return. “Marvellously done, John. We all owe you a debt of gratitude beyond what we can pay.”
“It… was nothing, really,” John said, having to pause and clear his throat only once; he still looked rather shaken, but now there was at least a flush of pleasure beginning to work its way across his face, a smile coming to his mouth. He stood away from Milly at last to hold out his hand, the too-large ring cupped in its palm. “Here, Professor.”
“Thank you.” Professor Melmoth collected it into his hand gingerishly, and then took out a handkerchief to wrap it in. “The Inner Order will want this for evidence and study, I suspect. …And to destroy it soon after.” He tucked it away inside his coat, a grim cast to his face. “Such power should not be made available for mischief.”
“When you meet with the Inner Order about it, do you suppose you could ask if Edna can join up?” Milly asked the professor with a bit of a smile, after they’d collected themselves up and were on their way out of the house. “Two Eyes would be better than one, wouldn’t they?”
Professor Melmoth paused on the front step a moment, to gaze around out into the night, before turning his own small smile back on her. “You make a most valid point,” he said—surprising her a bit. “Assuming, of course, you would be interested, Miss Edna?”
Edna appeared to consider this. “Would it mean getting into scraps with devils every night?”
“Not necessarily,” the professor started to say, hedging; but at the same time, Milly said over top of him, “More or less, usually.” Edna looked between them a second, frowning—and then her face split in a grin.
“Sounds all right to me,” she said. Both she and Milly beamed back at the professor, who smiled and shook his head.
“I suppose I could make inquiries, then. …After a new Master of the Order has been selected, of course; I imagine very little will be decided in the immediate future.”
“Maybe you should be the new Master, Professor,” Milly said, cheerfully, linking her arm through Professor Melmoth’s again before he could respond, and patted his arm and smiled up at him at his startled look. “Show them just how badly all our degenerate races can get in their way, if we’re of a mind.”
“Yes, thank you, Miss Joshi,” he said, with a heavy sigh, but smiling; and it was no good anyhow, since by the time he did she was already laughing, the sound ringing off the mansion’s outer walls as her head tilted up toward the clouds and stars.