Shadows In Darknes

Shadows In Darkness is the second book in the series with Dynamic Skull.
Bert now has an assistant who isn't quite normal...

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7. The Requiem Ball

     There was a box on the table when they walked into Bert’s house.  It was done up with a ribbon that was tied into a bow.  Marlena opened it, took out a beautiful black dress.

     ‘Wow.’ She said

     ‘Normally, Ed Fireblaze, the tailor, would have been happy to make a dress,’ Bert said, ‘but all his spare time is invested in tracking down Anna Bleeding, his girlfriend.  So I thought I’d spoil you.’

     ‘This is… wow.’

     ‘I’m glad you like it.  We leave for the ball in twenty minutes.’ He said.  “The Requiem ball is a party that takes place every year in my Uncle Gordon’s house, to celebrate the death of the evil Calibre Stynes seventeen years ago.”

     She glared at him. ‘I have to wash my hair.’

     ‘Then you had better hurry.’

     She showered in the bathroom that had been specially installed for her.  As she did her make-up, she checked herself for scars and bruises.  Apart from the bandage on her forearm there was nothing to report.  She would have liked to have gone to one of the S.A.M doctors rather than making do with stiches and a bandage, but mortal problems meant mortal solutions.  A physical injury that can be photographed and documented would help the guards in their procession, whereas an injury that disappeared overnight, would only help Marlena look better in the dress.

     Not that she needed any help as far as that was concerned.  The dress was long and slinky, strapless, silk and chiffon.  Her shoes were gorgeous.  Boy, she wished she hadn’t got into a fight with a group of mortals just after her first kiss.

     She stepped into the living room and Bert, wearing the sharpest tuxedo she had ever seen complete with black gloves and a white scarf, tilted his head to her.

     ‘You’re late,’ he said

     ‘I’m beautiful.’

     ‘You’re always beautiful.’

     ‘I’m always late, too.’

     Bert put on his hat, black to match the tux, and they walked out of the house.  He opened the car door and she slipped in.

     They left London city, heading north, passed the turn-off for Walthamstow and continued on to Bert’s Uncle Gordon’s house.  There was no-one guarding the gate, but even so, Bert slowed to a halt.  He took their passkey from his pocket, a gold disc, no bigger than his palm, and pressed it between his thumb and forefinger.  Once it started to glow, they drove on, and Marlena glimpsed figures standing in the darkness.  Men and woman, dressed similarly to Red-hoods but in black, with twin sickles in sheaths on their backs.

     ‘They’re ‘Torments’,’ Bert said. ‘Red-hood - trained private security.  Only the richest can afford them.’

     They got out of the Mercedes.  Bert had a stern word of warning with the valet, and they walked into the house.

     Marlena imagined that this was what a high society party looked like – people in expensive clothes sipping champagne and laughing politely.  The only difference was that, here and there, there were examples of the extraordinary – an otherwise sombre gentleman with green hair, a woman in a shimmering dress with shimmering skin, a man with claws, and a walking skeleton that had just passed her.  The richest and most influential sorcerers in the world.  Marlena could feel the power the moment she stepped in the door, and it made her insides tingle.

     A waiter with dirty fingernails offered her a glass of wine on a silver tray.  She politely declined, and as the waiter disappeared in the crowd she frowned after him.  Dirty fingernails, at a function like this?  She shrugged, letting it go.  In one of the rooms there was a small orchestra, whose music drifted through the house at a perfect pitch.  No one had to raise their voice to be heard.

     Everything in here positively glowed.  Marlena was glad the dress Bert had bought for her was so beautiful – it was a match for the others she saw.

     Bert handed his hat and scarf to a woman who smiled and took them away.  Marlena stayed by his side.  They passed through to the next room, and Bert did his best to tell her who everyone was.  She recognised a few of them: Merlin Strain, one of the Manic Gang along with Bert; Caelan Pharaoh, the desk agent; Mirabelle Clerke; and Ed Fireblaze.

     Everyone, it seemed, knew Bert, but not all of them liked him.  For every smile they got, there was at least one scowl.

     ‘As you can see,’ Bert said quietly, ‘I am very popular.’

     ‘I can tell.’

     Gordon stood by his echo stone – for he was dead – chatting to a group of people who laughed at whatever story he was telling.  He saw Bert and Marlena and waved, his eyes sparkling, then returned to his story.  Marlena grinned.

     Tipstaff came over, shook Bert’s hand and kissed Marlena on the cheek. ‘You look stunning,’ he told her.

     She smiled back at him. ‘Not so bad yourself, High Priest.’

     He laughed, then caught sight of a group of foreign sorcerers standing nearby, and sighed unhappily.  ‘I must go,’ he said. ‘The curse of this job is that I have to mingle.  Just as you meet someone interesting, you get called away by someone mundane.’

     Tipstaff moved off and Shudder arrived to take his place. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said. ‘I’d trouble getting in.  My disc wasn’t working right, and I’d barely passed the gates before I was surrounded by Torments.’

     ‘Oh Grand Mage Shudder, that’s dreadful,’ Marlena teased. ‘Didn’t they know who you were?’

     ‘You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?’

     ‘Not Marlena, Your Lordship,’ Bert protested. ‘She wouldn’t dream of it.’

     ‘I hate you,’ Shudder muttered. ‘I hate you both.  Oh, we have a surprise guest.’

     Bert tilted his head. ‘We do?’

     Shudder nodded ahead of them, and the crowd parted to reveal a man with short blond hair, his face lighting up when he saw them.  He looked young and fit and healthy – no more than thirty years old, wearing his tuxedo with the bow tie undone and the top buttons of his shirt open.

     Bert stepped forward to clasp the man’s hand in his, as if they were old friends.

     ‘It’s been too long.’ Bert said

     ‘It has at that.’ The newcomer replied.  His eyes left Bert and found Marlena.

     ‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m—‘

     ‘Marlena!’ He exclaimed, and enveloped her in a hug. ‘Any friend of Bert’s, providing she’s pretty enough, is a friend of mine!’ He let go of her and stepped back. ‘You are now my friend.’

     ‘Marlena,’ said Bert. ‘Let me introduce you to the one and only, Dexter Parafang.  He was one of the Manic Gang along with me and Olaf.’

     ‘What is all this Manic Gang business anyway?’ Marlena asked

     ‘The Manic Gang.  We were a group of sorcerers who went out on impossible missions and never completed them.  Is that right, Dexter?’

     ‘Indeed it is.’

     ‘You have just come back from a short break then, I guess.’

     ‘A very short break.’ He said, stepping back and flashing Marlena a grin.  Oh, she liked him.

     ‘Mmm.  The times of the Manic Gang, huh?  Cursed times following this bumbling fool from misadventure to misadventure in the days of our youth.  Is he treating you well?  He doesn’t boast much does he?’ Parafang said

     ‘Sometimes it’s like that’s all he ever does.’

     He held her hand in both of his. ‘I feel your pain,’ he said sadly.

     Bert pulled their hands apart. ‘Yes, well, quite enough of that.  If you feel the need to gang up on me, at least have the decency to wait until my back is turned.  When did you get into town?’

     ‘This morning,’ Parafang said. ‘Olaf sent me an invitation a few weeks ago, and even though I was kind of busy, when someone like His Holy Eminence sends you an invite, you really can’t say no.’

     ‘Oh, great,’ Shudder said. ‘Now you’ve got him at.’

     Marlena laughed and hooked her arm through his. ‘We’re only messing.’ She said. ‘And by the way, you look amazing in that tuxedo.’

     ‘Why thank you Marlena.’

     Parafang chuckled. ‘See that?  He hasn’t changed a bit.  No matter how bad a mood he pretends to be in, all it takes is a nice word from a pretty girl, and he’s all putty in her hands.  Bert, remember that French girl we met in Saipan?  What was her name?’

     ‘Oh,’ Bert said. ‘Francoise.’

     ‘That’s it,’ said Parafang. ‘Francoise.  Remember her, Olaf?  Remember that weekend we couldn’t find you?  We thought Calibre Stynes had snatched you away and was torturing you to within an inch of your life.  Marlena, would you like to know what he was really doing that weekend?’

     ‘Yes I would,’ said Marlena.

     ‘No she wouldn’t,’ said Olaf.

     ‘I think she would,’ Bert said

     ‘If you tell her,’ said Olaf, ‘I will have you both arrested.  And possibly flogged.’

     Parafang sighed. ‘Sorry, Marlena.  What happens in wartime, apparently stays in wartime.’

     ‘Aw.’ Marlena said, her shoulders drooping.

     A woman stopped beside Shudder, whispered something in his ear.  He nodded.

     ‘If you’ll excuse me, I have some people to talk to. Important people, people of influence and stature, and hopefully people who won’t laugh at me.’

     He walked away and immediately Parafang leaned in. ‘Don’t worry, I have lots of other stories to tell.  Stories of Bert.  Scandalous stories.  Stories to use against him, no matter what the situation.

     ‘Suddenly this entire night seems like a bad idea.’ Bert said.

     The conversation died down as a man appeared beside them, luxurious blond hair swept back off his fleshy face, wet lips curled in a smile.  A boy of Marlena’s age stood next to him.

     “My, my,” the man said, his chin quivering with the words. “if it isn’t the Electrocution Mage himself, come down off a mountain to grace us lowly sorcerers with his presence.  I am so honoured and awestruck that I fear I am at a loss.  Should I bow?  Kneel?  Curtsey?”

     “Leave?” suggested Bert, and the man laughed uproariously.

     His small eyes turned to Marlena. “And you, my dear, this vision in black, must be Marlena Random herself.” She didn’t like the way he looked at her – he was taking far too long. “Bert, my sincerest congratulations, you’ve picked a good one here.  Pretty too.  I can see why you take her wherever you go.  Not too smart, though, am I right?”

     Marlena glanced at Bert. “It’s not just me, is it?  He is begging for a box, isn’t he?”

     “Indeed he is.” Bert said

     “I think so too.” Parafang nodded.

     “You can go ahead and hit him if you like,” said Bert

     The man laughed, held up his hands.  They were pale and soft, like they’d never seen a day’s work. “I surrender!” he mock-cried. “I yield!  Please don’t let the girl strike me!”

     Marlena was going to hit him out of pure principle, but the boy in the tuxedo took hold of the fat man’s arm and tugged it sharply.

     “Father,” he said, I think you’ve had too much wine.  Perhaps you would like some air?”

     “There’s plenty of air in here,” the man said, “although it seems to be primarily hot air.”  He laughed at his own joke, and disentangled himself. “Miss Random, this is my son, who has taken the grand and noble name of Hansard Blue, and I am his embarrassing father, the scurrilous and drunken Arthur Dagger.  See how he blushes for me?  Is that not the sign of a loyal and loving child?”

     “I’m very sorry.” Hansard said.  He was taller than his father, and lean.  The only trait they seemed to share was colour of their hair.

     “Don’t apologise for me!” Arthur snapped. “And especially not to her!”

     Bert was right by Marlena’s elbow, but remained quiet.  She appreciated that.  Any other man would have leapt in to defend her honour.  Marlena was quite capable of doing that herself.

     “Do you have a problem with me?” she asked Arthur.

     “A problem?” he echoed. “No!  My word, no!  Not at all!  I’m sure, given time, we could be the best of friends, were it not for your unfortunate job of murdering my gods.”

     “Oh,” she said, understanding at last. “You’re a disciple of the Peaceless Ones.”

     “Indeed I am,” Arthur said, bowing before her. “In the spirit of openness and togetherness, the council wants to project, I have been invited, for the first time, to the Requiem Ball, where all you people laugh and chortle and pat each other’s backs for defeating the evil Calibre Stynes and his evil followers – of which I was one.”

     “You didn’t have to come.” Marlena pointed out.

     “And you don’t tell me what to do,” Arthur sneered. “You’ll get your come-uppance, you know.  You’ll pay for all the things that you’ve done.”

     “It was a pleasure to meet you,” Hansard Blue said, trying to pull his father away.

     “I should put you over my knee,” Arthur said loudly, keeping an eye on Marlena, “And spank you right here in front of everybody.”

     A waiter appeared, tried to help Hansard’s best efforts, but Arthur shoved him back.  He waved a fat finger at Marlena. “You watch yourself, girl.  Your time is coming.”

     Finally, Hansard managed to turn his father, and they plunged through the gathered crowd until it swallowed them up.  A moment passed, and slowly the conversations picked up again.

     Marlena turned to Bert. “He was lovely!” she beamed.

     Arthur Dagger’s family were once royalty,” Bert told her, “Or something close to it.  Stynes served under his grandfather for a time, before he came to power himself.  Arthur hasn’t handled their fall from grace with as much dignity as one might wish for.  Hopefully, his son fares better.”

     There was a shout, and then a door burst open and men in ski masks poured into the room, waving guns.

     “Nobody move!” one of them screamed, firing into the air.

     “We’re here for your jewellery and wallets!  Anyone tries being a hero, they’ll be shot dead!”

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