Armitage lit a cigarette as he surveyed the street. It looked like a normal residential road, albeit one that got more than its fair share of traffic. Terraced houses lined the street, tucked behind little gardens, and up ahead lay a bridge that passed over the railway line. So far, so suburban. It was hardly the picture of a site of dark magic, though it was surprising how many secrets a neighborhood like this could hold.
He scowled, wishing he was in a pub with a pint and a bag of pork scratchings. At least that would be warm, the November night was bitter. He was only here because there were stories of a spectral hound stalking the area, driving the local dogs crazy at all hours of the night. Part of his new job as the local Occult Scene’s Sheriff was to poke his nose into such matters and fix them; lucky him. He’d known things would have to change but hadn’t imagined he’d end up the magical equivalent of the janitor, picking up the dog turds.
‘Let’s see if we’re in Hound of the Baskervilles territory,’ he said, taking another look around.
There was a sudden barking a couple of streets over and he headed towards it. The row of houses was honeycombed with alleyways and as he entered the nearest alley’s unlit darkness, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Another dog started to bark, and another, more hounds joined in until it felt like the whole neighbourhood shook with the sound. As lights flickered on in the houses, the dogs’ voices were joined by their owners’ – effing and blinding their pets into silence. Was it like this every night? If so, why weren’t the mortal authorities involved? Admittedly, the police would be less useful than a chocolate fireguard in this situation, but he was surprised it wasn’t on their radar and police cars weren’t patrolling the area ready for Spot to start up.
Turning a corner, he saw something bounding away, a ghostly dog far bigger than any living hound. ‘What the hell?’ Darting after it, he rounded a corner as the spectre leapt a fence and howled. Armitage’s blood froze at the sound and goosebumps broke out on his arms. It wasn’t the sound of a normal animal, but eerie and unsettling, like something unnatural. He sniffed, but the air just smelt of… dog strongly enough that it made him cough.
Swinging himself over the fence the dog had cleared, he caught his foot on its top and tumbled down into the garden on the other side. Face met the paving slab in a painful encounter. ‘Ouch,’ he muttered and lifted his head to look around.
The dog – standing close by – took a pace towards him, it loomed in the night, and Armitage suddenly realised just how big the spectral beast was. Not just bigger than any living dog, but probably larger than anything dog-like since the Ice Age. Despite that, it wasn’t at all lupine. Its face was more like a mastiff or St Bernard’s, so much so, he half expected to see a cask of brandy slung around its neck. Disappointingly, there was nothing there.
‘Just when I could use a drink.’ He pushed himself up. The dog took a step closer until they were eye to eye. Its nostrils flared as it took in his scent and its mouth lolled open, allowing a ghostly tongue to escape. ‘What the hell are you?’ Armitage asked, allowing it to examine him. ‘More to the point, why are you here?’ Tentatively, he reached out a hand to pet the dog, but it sensed his movement and backed off, barking. That only set all the other animals off again, and the neighbourhood exploded with noise.
Armitage flinched at the volume. ‘Easy Fido, I don’t mean any harm,’ he said as if the dog could understand him. ‘I just want to know what you’re doing here.’
Fido backed away, still barking. Its tail wagged wildly, though, and the magus felt a wave of confusion as he tried to determine how it felt. He held out his hand again, hoping it was happy.
In response, Fido turned and bolted over the fence into the next garden, gathered itself and sailed over the next three or four. The furore from the other dogs grew louder and Armitage pressed a hand to his forehead. He sighed, ‘That isn’t helpful.’
He set off on its trail more gingerly, conscious of the ache in his face. He was lucky he hadn’t knocked a tooth out, but the experience made him realise pursuing the ghost dog wasn’t going to achieve anything. It might make the interloper happy, but that wasn’t really what Armitage wanted. He wasn’t here to play babysitter but to exorcise the thing.
At least, he thought, the spirit didn’t feel malicious. If anything, it felt like an overgrown puppy who wanted to play, but the magus knew he wasn’t cut out for racing over fences in pursuit of Clifford the Big Red Dog’s scary cousin. Rather than give chase he went back to the alleyway and followed the line of houses. Fido was easy to track, wherever it went the dogs got louder; Armitage just had to follow the sound.
A couple of minutes later he caught up, finding the hound standing in front of another figure. A familiar-looking figure, a grubby girl, stood in a fighting pose with her cricket bat held in both hands. Emily. Another magus, though she never admitted to that, thought her job was to kill monsters. Fido appeared to qualify. Lucky Fido.
Emily’s eyes widened as she saw him. ‘What are you doing here?’ Her voice was unfriendly, she’d seen the Baphomet tattoo on his arm and didn’t trust him. As far as she was concerned, he was going to Hell, and he suspected she’d like to send him there herself.
‘Trying to deal with Fido, here,’ he replied. ‘Have you thrown that club for him yet, he might bring it back to you?’
Her nostrils flared; she couldn’t do his sniffing trick, but she appeared to have something similar. ‘No hellfire,’ she said. ‘You didn’t summon it up, then.’
He scowled. ‘I thought we were past that. I don’t summon or cast.’ That was true to an extent, he was happy to do both if he could hide his essence from the world. That was a legacy of an ill-spent youth and some poor decisions that ultimately led to him disappearing off the map for a decade.
Fido looked between the two of them, probably wondering who was going to play with it. Its tail still wagged like a metronome and its eyes were wide and friendly.
‘Then why’s this thing here?’ she asked, losing none of her cool.
‘How should I know?’ Armitage said ‘I haven’t seen anything like it before. Why are you here?’
‘It’s a monster,’ she said with a shrug as if that settled everything.
He cocked his head to one side. ‘You sure about that?’
‘It shouldn’t be here, menacing ordinary people.’ She glared at him. ‘It’s not Godly.’
Armitage sighed; he’d wondered when that argument would surface. ‘It’s just a dog, even if it’s massive. That doesn’t make it evil.’ He lit another cigarette and blew a smoke ring. ‘That said, it’s best if it doesn’t stay here. Without knowing how it’s here, there’s not much either of us can do about it.’
Fido yawned, sat down, and turned its head to look soulfully at Armitage. He could sense its confusion, its new “friends” were starting to bore it with all their talking. He took a step forward and the spirit’s tail began to thump against the ground. Its tongue lolled from its mouth, and it thrust its head towards him for a stroke.
‘Why don’t you just take it home?’ Emily sniped.
‘The landlord doesn’t let me have pets,’ Armitage replied, sarcastically, and bent down to examine the ghost dog more thoroughly. It was a mishmash of breeds and features, a Frankenstein’s Monster of dogness without the stitching or the bolts. The form worked or at least held together sufficiently that nothing looked out of place, except the tail which looked too fluffy for the rest of the spirit’s form. A stray and mutt, the spirit was pretty much what it seemed as far as he could tell. The scent that came off it was still… just dog. There wasn’t a whiff of Hell, Faerie, or any other realm about the entity. He frowned, where was it from in that case? Was there an otherworldly realm where the idea of a dog dwelt until something drew it out? If so, this seemed a very strange form to take; rather than something more Crufts-worthy. Then again, who was he to dictate such things? It was likely that when all the ideas of what made a dog collided, you ended up with something strange.
Emily hefted the cricket bat, which glowed with her magic. ‘Get out of the way so I can send it back to wherever it came from,’ she said. She swung and, in the split second between her stroke and the bat connecting with its target, the dog… wasn’t there anymore. The space it had been sitting in was empty, but a startled woofing emanating from the main road, followed by a growl, indicating that it understood what had happened. From the sound of it, Fido wasn’t happy anymore.
‘What did you do that for?’ Armitage demanded. ‘You could have hit me, and you scared it off.’
‘I told you it shouldn’t be here!’ she said. ‘You think I’m stupid, don’t you?’
‘I think you’re headstrong and don’t know what you’re doing,’ he snapped back. ‘We might not find it again!’ He blew smoke savagely from his nostrils and pushed past her towards the sound. Just what he needed, a stroppy teenager who didn’t understand that not everything could be solved with violence. He threw a black glance back in her direction and kept walking.
He didn’t see Fido when he reached the main road. It was lurking somewhere, he guessed, probably trying to work out whether he and Emily were trustworthy. Armitage hoped he was still seen as a potential friend, at least. With nothing else to go on, he walked up to the bridge. As he drew near, he realised little bags dangled from its railings. They looked like the padlocks lovers attached to the bridge over a canal at the back of the Mailbox shopping mall in the city centre. That was a testimony to everlasting love, but this was something different. A single sniff confirmed the bags contained dog mess. In his mind, a penny rolled into place.
‘Oh, you stupid bastards,’ he muttered. ‘No wonder it thinks this is home.’ Unwittingly, the local dog walkers had created something guaranteed to draw the spirit here, if only because of the scent and the sense of ritual they’d invested into their walks. That was the problem with magic, everyone thought there was a secret to it. The truth was it often manifested as ordinary—if repeated—patterns of behaviour. Doing something enough times wore a groove into the local reality and that attracted unwanted attention from things outside.
Emily joined him and pulled a face. ‘That’s gross,’ she said. ‘Why would anyone do that?’
Armitage shrugged. ‘Laziness, probably.’ He took a step forward to look closer. ‘This is what brought Fido here, though.’ He looked over at her. ‘Or at least, it probably is. The dog walkers more or less laid out the welcome mat for an entity like him.’
‘Gross,’ she repeated. ‘Surely this would happen in other places, though?’
He nodded, absently. ‘There’s probably more to it, though the cliché about calling things through your thoughts and actions is usually right. Fido would have needed something else to open the door.’ He rose and spotted something else on the railings on the opposite side of the road: a decaying posey of flowers and a much-chewed teddy bear. Someone had died here, knocked down off a bike or run over by an overly enthusiastic driver. Grieving relatives had set up what was effectively a shrine and the combination of the dog turds, the ritual of tying the bags to the bridge, the death and the shrine had combined.
‘That’d do it,’ he said. Deaths were always puissant, the act of releasing living energy was an all-too-common way to power spells, even when you didn’t know you’d created one. In this case, it had opened the door for Fido to come in. They crossed the road to inspect the site, and Armitage bent to pick up the ragged teddy bear. It was missing an eye and both its arms had been ripped to shreds, their stuffing exposed.
As soon as Armitage’s fingers brushed it, Fido appeared at the end of the bridge and started to raise hell. The dog spirit sent up a clamour, barking at the top of its voice to send a clear message that the teddy was its property. No wonder the toy was so chewed up.
Armitage steeled himself and picked up the soft toy. Fido rushed towards him, barking furiously.
The magus held out a hand and the dog skidded to a stop in front of him, still barking and its tail beating in the air. The woofing was still angry but, when Armitage brandished the toy, a sliver of friendliness crept back into the spirit’s demeanour. On an impulse, Armitage raised the teddy over his head and threw it. ‘Fetch,’ he shouted, and Fido ran in the direction he’d lobbed its toy.
‘What did you do that for?’ Emily demanded. ‘We could have had the thing.’
‘Are you still fixed on hurting it?’ Armitage asked. ‘It’s not going to do any good.’
She punched his arm. ‘What’s your idea, then?’
He gritted his teeth and inhaled sharply. ‘Dropping you in front of a train sounds good.’ He turned his attention back to the dog, who was bouncing back with the toy and dropped into a crouch. ‘Here Fido, here.’
‘You’re going to play with it; that’s going to get it to move on, isn’t it?’ There was a note of resignation in the hunter’s voice. ‘You stupid prat.’
The spirit rushed up but backed away as Armitage reached for the toy. It growled but wagged its tail. All appeared to be forgiven and they played tug of war for a moment before Fido released its trophy and looked at Armitage expectantly. His role in things was clear, so he threw the battered toy again and watched as the spirit hound legged after it. It seized the teddy and shook it excitedly before it bounded back. They fell back into the same ritual, one familiar to any dog owner who’d taken their pet to the park. Back and forth the bear flew, though it lost an arm in the process, and Fido showed no sign of tiring. The spirit was so excited it didn’t seem to realise Armitage and Emily were next to the spot it had wormed its way through into the material world.
After about twenty minutes with no sign of the game ending, Armitage asked, ‘Do you know how to open a gate?’
She frowned. ‘I don’t do magic.’
Yeah, right, he thought but just managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes. ‘You’d better start throwing the bear, then.’
‘Me?’ she sounded startled at the suggestion. ‘I don’t want to touch it.’ She wiped her hands on her filthy jeans.
‘What’s wrong, you can’t get any grubbier.’ He pointed in the opposite direction, ‘Throw it that way, see if it tires Fido out more.’
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked, as she stepped up to take his place with palpable reluctance.
‘I’m going to try and send Fido home,’ he replied and turned towards the posey of flowers as he fished his grimoire and a small torch out of his pocket. This was going to be risky; he didn’t have anything to disguise his energy so any magic he cast would be like a flare on a clear night for anyone looking for him. Hopefully, the demons he’d sold his soul to when he was young would be looking the other way. If not, he was probably screwed. Come to that, Fido and Emily probably were too. He should have asked his girlfriend, Jet, for a power stone but he’d thought this would be a quick, easy, job. Ha-bloody-ha.
He found the spell he needed in the grimoire, took a piece of chalk from another pocket and started to mark the sigils for a gate around the dying flowers, holding the torch in his teeth. After he had inscribed the correct symbols, he drew a deep breath and willed his consciousness to shift further into the magical world.
The air grew thick with pollution from industrial chimneys. Here, the city was marooned in the Black Country Queen Victoria had visited, choked by soot and smog that left it permanently dirty. It hung in a time when respiratory diseases were rife, and every building was black as sin. The sky was choked with smoke and clouds, without a star in sight. It was history now but, one layer of reality up, the miasma and smog still lingered. Armitage shivered, remembering what Birmingham had been like in the 1970s when he was growing up. A little better, but not much. At least he could see the gate, a shining slit cut into the fabric of reality, that hung right in front of him. This was the door Fido had entered through, the one he and Emily had to send the hound back home through.
Absently, he turned his head to look at Emily and saw her shining with light as she hurled the teddy bear down the road. In this state, accessing a higher plane of reality, she wore a crown of fire. Her cricket bat looked more like a sword.
‘Do you know how to create a lure?’ he asked.
‘A what?’ she looked over at him, her eyes widened, and she retreated a step back. ‘I thought you didn’t—’ she started.
‘What choice do I have?’ he replied. ‘You can’t, I usually don’t, but if we want Fido to go home, one of us has to do what’s needed. Unless you’ve got another magus on speed dial?’
She shook her head. ‘You know I don’t. Magic isn’t clean.’
And yet you cast spells every day, Armitage thought. ‘Try,’ he said. ‘Think of it as drawing your quarry to you and let your intuition do the rest.’ He paused, then added, ‘Just make it quick, eh? I don’t want to do this for much longer.’ The longer he held the gate the more likely it was something would notice him.
He turned back to the gate and swallowed loudly as he saw the obsidian sky behind it. Was it his imagination or had it darkened? He sniffed, half-smelling dog poo and Emily – who needed a shower – while the stench of historical pollution lingered too, unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. No brimstone, at least, but he didn’t want to hang around tempting fate.
There was a prickle of energy behind him coupled with a fierce exhalation of breath and a muttered prayer. The air tasted of fire and frankincense in a way that was all Emily. The crown flared above her head, while a line of lights shone different colours along her spine. If she ever got over her ignorance and fear, she’d be a phenomenal magus.
Prayer complete, the bear shone with a complicated pattern that emerged from inside its stuffing. Fido was transfixed and followed the bear even more closely than it had before, ensnared in the hunter’s lure. Emily threw it over the dog’s head and Fido took off after it.
‘How come it’s not tired?’ Emily asked.
‘If you were the idea of a dog, would playing fetch tire you out?’ he asked. ‘Give it four more throws down the street and on the fifth, chuck the bear through the gate.’
She nodded, and he realised she’d slipped into the same half-aware state as him, able to see both levels of the city. ‘It’s a bit small isn’t it?” she asked. “How’s he going to fit?’
‘Let me take care of that,’ he said and drew a breath, ‘Just hurry.’
Fido bounded back, once, twice, and three times. Caught in the lure, the dog could do nothing else. Armitage felt a stab of guilt, the spirit hadn’t been doing that much harm, but Emily was right. This wasn’t the place for it and it would be happier back home.
The hunter threw the bear one last time with an over-shoulder hurl, like she was competing in the shot put, and turned to Armitage. ‘Ready?’
He nodded but truthfully, he was distracted. Part of his mind was searching for his “creditors”, ready to cut and run at the first sign of them. He hadn’t survived this long without a good instinct for self-preservation.
As he heard Fido running back, he pushed the gate wider. A rush of wind blew in his face, stinking of wet fur and animal dung. His power spiked as he made the aperture larger, and he felt it rush into the night sky, creating a beacon. A stray thought crossed his mind, what did he look like in this state? Ten to one, he wasn’t wearing a crown of fire.
Sweat burst out on his brow and ran down his face. His heart beat harder, and his hands shook from the strain of opening the gate. This was no easy magic but a way to force the world to open its chrysalis enough to allow contact with another realm. Frankly, it needed a stronger health warning than a packet of smokes. Holding the gate’s shape in his mind he pushed it wider, gritting his teeth from the effort. ‘Hurry, I can’t hold this long.’
‘There’s a good boy,’ Emily said to Fido, ‘Who’s a good boy?’ She reclaimed the toy. ‘You wanna go again, do you?’
Fido barked and bounced in anticipation, as the hunter pretended to throw the toy over its head. It whirled to give chase but stopped as soon as it realised, she hadn’t thrown the bear. Spinning back, it rushed her, rearing onto its hind legs.
As it did, Emily manoeuvred the bear in the air, again pretending to throw it, and the massive spirit followed first one way and then the other. It was so intent on the teddy bear Armitage almost feared the lure had worked too well and braced himself for the hound to snatch it from Emily’s fingers before she made the final throw.
The hunter had the same thought, and retreated a step before she shouted, ‘Fetch.’ She made a final throw and cast the teddy bear, tumbling, through the gate. Fido howled as it realised what was happening but, caught on the lure Emily had cast, it had no choice. With a leap, the spirit followed its chew toy and plunged through the gate out of the world.
Silence reigned for a moment and Armitage drew a deep breath. He froze. The scent of brimstone hung ever so slightly in the air. Something had noticed him. Something was coming.
Panic seized him and the sweat on his brow turned cold. He squeezed his fists shut and gabbled the right incantation so fast he almost stumbled on the words. The gate slammed closed, and the beacon winked out as his power coiled back into his body. He quickly chanted the text in the book to seal the gate and cleanse the area and shut his senses down. The upper reality, Birmingham’s historical nightmare, vanished from sight. Stars twinkled in the sky above him, suddenly, and he sighed with relief.
The hint of sulphur vanished, but even as he pushed the spiritual world away, he thought he heard a scream of frustration. They had seen him or at least sensed him, and they would know where he was now. It would only be a matter of time before they came hunting. He looked around and fear skittered across his mind. Demons were powerful, what would exhaust a magus was a mere cantrip to them. His heart thundered in his chest, and he steeled himself to run. No matter that he wouldn’t get far, avoiding his former patrons had been his only goal for over a decade and he wasn’t going to give up now.
It was only when he realised there was nothing out of place that he collapsed against the bridge, exhausted. He pressed a hand to his temples and fought back tears of relief. That had been close.
Emily was breathing hard. Her magical self had disappeared, but she was flushed in the face and bent double, with her hands on her knees. ‘Did it?’ she started to ask.
He nodded but waited to recover before he spoke. ‘It’s gone. The gate’s shut too. Let’s get out of here.’ He pushed himself off the railing with a yawn and started to walk toward the city. ‘I think I’m going to sleep for a week.’
‘Me too,’ Emily said. She paused and added, ‘Thanks for not letting me kill it. It may not have belonged here, but it wasn’t a bad dog.’
‘No, it wasn’t,’ Armitage agreed and hunched his shoulders. ‘Just a bloody exhausting one.’ He glanced back, nervously. There was still no sign of anything demonic, but he worried he’d just sent out invitations. Come to gloomy Birmingham to reclaim a lost soul, let’s have a party. B.Y.O.B., bring your own brazier.
‘Yeah,’ the girl agreed and fell quiet. Something changed in the air, the moment of unity had passed. The wall of distrust that separated them reasserted itself. Both magi felt it slide back into place, but neither mentioned it. They weren’t friends and they were both worn out from the night’s exertions. They walked on, in silence.