"They always come back, Ms. Gallowglass. That is the way of such things. Even the foulest have their rules, and they abide by them," Charles St. Cyprian said, softly. He shifted his position, trying to get comfortable. It was a losing battle. "They rise with the dusk, and return with the dawn, a victim in their clutches." He fished his pocket watch out of his waistcoat and popped it open. It was still too dark to see the time, but the gesture was instinctive. He snapped it closed. "It's almost dawn, thus they'll be back soon."
"And then what? Harsh language? Only they're ghosts, innit?" Gallowglass touched the bulky shape of the Webley-Fosbery revolver holstered under her arm through her coat and then began to fiddle with the ugly shape of the MP18 she’d insisted on bringing.
The sub-machine gun was the same type that the German stosstruppen had carried in the War, and St. Cyprian been shot at by them often enough to know one when he saw it. The Germans had put the ugly little guns to use clearing trenches. Where Gallowglass had even gotten one, he couldn’t say, but she doted on it as if it were a pet. "Can't shoot ghosts. Can we?" This last was asked hopefully.
"Regrettably, no. The dead cannot be killed again. At least not by any means we have at our disposal," St. Cyprian said. He had his own pistol, a blocky little Webley Bulldog, in his coat pocket. Its weight was a comfort, at times, though it wasn't especially useful in his line of work, save for rare occasions. He glanced at his assistant.
The two were a study in contrasts. Gallowglass was dark, slightly feral looking, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob and a battered flat cap resting high on her head. She wore a man’s clothes, hemmed for a woman of her small stature, beneath a heavy convoy coat. St. Cyprian, on the other hand, was tall and rangy with an olive cast to his features and hair just a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He wore a battered officer’s greatcoat over a well-tailored suit straight from Gieves and Hawkes, in Savile Row.
Neither were especially dressed for crouching high up in the ruins of what had once been a small medieval keep in rural Hertfordshire, in the dead of night on the eve of St. George's Day, but one did as one must, when one was the Royal Occultist.
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist was charged with the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including vampires, ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boggarts and the occasional worm of unusual size—by order of the King (or Queen), for the good of the British Empire. Beginning with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, the office had passed through a succession of hands, culminating, for the moment, in the Year of Our Lord 1923, with one Charles St. Cyprian and his assistant, Ebe Gallowglass.
In this instance, their task was one of suppression. Or, perhaps, better to say, banishment. One could not so much suppress a ghost as one could send it packing, with prejudice. In the case of these particular ghosts, it was a long overdue send off.
The Knights of Gerontius had been the bastard offspring of the Knights Templar and a grim Norman line of unpleasant pedigree. Born in the fires of the First Crusade, the small group had come to Hertfordshire in the years following the downfall of the Order of the Temple, led by a knight named Jacques Dufay, whose ancestral lands provided the refugees some small sanctuary. At least it had, until the Knights had proven themselves to be worse monsters than the Templars had ever possibly been.
Local folklore, from the nearby townships of Doff, Badlock and Rooston was filled with stories of hooded riders and nocturnal wickedness. Of women snatched from the arms of their lovers, and children from their doorsteps. Of slaughter and thievery, and even witchcraft. Whatever the truth, the Knights had been served as monsters ought to be--burned alive in their keep, on the eve of St. George, when the Devil held sway.
But like all monsters, the Knights were worse dead than alive.
When the first eve of St. George had come 'round a year after the ashes had finished smouldering, the Knights had risen and ridden out. And they did so every year thereafter, claiming a victim each year, until one night in 1644, when the then-Royal Occultist, the enterprising 1st Earl of Holderness, had bound the spirits to the catacombs of their fire-blasted keep.
Why he hadn't simply banished them, St. Cyprian could only speculate. Rupert of the Rhine had been many things, but bad at his job wasn't one of them. Perhaps he'd simply had more pressing matters to attend to, what with a war being on. Or perhaps, he'd thought to somehow employ the dreadful spectres for the Royalist cause.
"Either way, it's my mess now," St. Cyprian muttered. "Ta for that, Rupert old thing." Whatever Rupert's reasoning, the Knights had been freed from their entombment during the War by an off-course German airship, looking for something of value to bomb. In the dark, from above, the ruins had probably resembled...well, something other than ruins.
"So, if not guns, then what?" Gallowglass demanded, shaking him out of his reverie. Her hands flexed in nervous anticipation. "Fire?"
"Not fire, either, though that might make them hesitate, given how they wound up in their current situation. No, these fellows only fear one thing, I'm afraid. And that means our purpose here tonight is not so much as to dispatch them, as it is to ensure that they are in a position to be dispatched." At her blank look, he sighed and pointed upwards. "The sun. They fear the sun." He hesitated before adding, “Or so the legends say.”
He and Gallowglass had arrived at the ruins well after dusk, and after the phantom riders had departed. While part of him cringed at the thought of what they might do, he knew there was very little chance of being able to banish the creatures when they were at their strongest. The hungry dead could not be killed, or reasoned with. They could only be bound or banished, and then, only if one knew the proper rites.
"So...what? What do we do?"
"We distract them. We hold them at bay, until cock crow." St. Cyprian sat back, his hands dangling over his knees. "A few minutes, at most."
"Can I shoot them?" She hefted the submachine gun.
"Please yourself," St. Cyprian said, blandly. "I expect it won't make much difference to them either way." He patted the long, cloth wrapped bundle sitting beside him on the ground. “Neither will this, I’m afraid. Still, never hurts to try.”
Gallowglass stretched her legs out. "Took people long enough to notice 'em," she muttered, crossing her hands behind her head. "You'd think someone would have asked for our help before now."
"I'd wager our ghosts were too weak to be noticed, for the first few years. It's only this past year where someone ran afoul of them," St. Cyprian said, hunching forward against a sudden chill. It was the middle of spring, but he could taste the rain on the air. "A tramp, I believe. Seen travelling from Doff to Rooston, looking for work. Fellow vanished on St. George's eve, but his screams were heard for days after, echoing up from this very spot," he murmured, gesturing at the rock-strewn landscape below them.
They had chosen what was left of one of the keep's towers for their hiding place, with a good view of the entrance to the catacombs below, and the traps they had set, in the hours since their arrival; a bag of salt, strung up over the entrance to the keep, and a small forest of waist-high crosses, planted upright throughout the courtyard. Too, he’d filled several jerry cans of petrol, and set them at the foot of the wall below, for ease of access.
"So why didn't we investigate then?"
"The English take their ghosts like they take their right of way, Ms. Gallowglass – very seriously. Can't mess with either, without prior permission. Now that our spectral riders have proven themselves a menace to the public, they fall well within our purview." He shook his head. "Outlawed in life and in death—a sad fate for anyone."
"Buggers shouldn't be eating people, should they?" Gallowglass said dismissively. She sat up, abruptly. "Hear that?"
St. Cyprian looked at her, and then out into the night. He didn't hear anything, not at first. Then, a slow, rhythmic thudding reached his straining ears. The chill he'd felt earlier was back, and stronger than before. He shivered in his coat, and reached into his pocket, not for his revolver, but for that which he'd brought especially for this moment.
He pulled the beaten iron disk out and examined it, tracing the worn shape which marked it. A knight, riding a horse, spear over his shoulder, his free hand raised as if in benediction. St. George, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, patron saint of England. A series of holes had been punched into it, including through the eyes of the saint.
"Think that thing will be of any help?" Gallowglass asked.
"We won't know until we find out, what?" he said, with forced cheerfulness. "'tis the season, and all that rot. Holy day, holy symbol." He gestured with the disk. “Should do, at any rate,” he said, more softly.
The stones trembled around them, as the thudding of hooves grew louder and louder. St. Cyprian rose and shoved the amulet back in his pocket. Then, picking up the cloth wrapped bundle, he began to pick his way down. Gallowglass followed. Even as they descended, he could hear a new sound, carried along with the thunderous galloping of unseen horses—a woman, screaming.
“Sounds like they caught someone,” Gallowglass said, as they reached the spot St. Cyprian had picked to make their stand. It had been a well once, before fallen stone and loose earth had capped it, making it a rounded hillock. They had covered the slopes in the bulk of their crude crosses, and emptied two bags of salt to encircle it. It wouldn’t keep the dead away, but it would slow them down.
“We suspected as much,” he said, tersely, unwinding the cloth from what it contained. In the War, he’d been able to feel an artillery barrage before it hit. Like hearing thunder in your bones, or feeling rain in your joints. He had that same feeling now, closing in from all sides. “Luckily, they don’t normally rend their prey asunder until they’re safely ensconced in the catacombs below. So there’s still time. Go get the petrol.”
As she hurried to obey, he tossed the cloth aside to reveal a xiphos—a double-edged, single-handed sword with a leaf-shaped blade, still in its battered sheath. It was a family heirloom, supposedly brought over with Brutus and his Trojans, and St. Cyprian had used it to good effect more than once. He looped the cord of the sheath over his head, and the sword dangled comfortably against his hip. After testing it to make sure that it wouldn’t be too awkward, he unsheathed the blade and gave it a cursory swipe.
The sky was the color of spilled ink, and despite the season, a chill crept up from the mossy flagstones beneath their feet. No one knew how deep the catacombs below went, or how far they stretched. Dufay and his men had been industrious, as well as monstrous.
When their keep had been set aflame, they had sought to hide in the tunnels, to no avail. Smoke and fire had followed them down into the dark, like the hands of Satan himself, and wrung the life from every last member of that hideous order. Or so the stories went. No one knew for sure, for no one had ever found the entrance to the catacombs, though they’d seen the smoke rising from between the flagstones. He could imagine it—a panicked flight into darkness, the stones growing warmer and warmer. The catacombs would have become an oven. Men would have cooked alive in their armour. He shook his head, banishing the grisly thought.
Gallowglass had the MP18 in her hands. She seemed relaxed, as if her earlier nervousness had evaporated with the first sound of hooves. She raised the weapon unhurriedly. The cold and dark seemed to hunch and congeal about them, like a thing alive. St. Cyprian shivered and touched the amulet, seeking whatever comfort it could provide. The thunder increased in volume, and he could feel the reverberations of each hoof-strike in the soles of his feet and the roots of his teeth.
His eyes were drawn to the half-shattered arch which marked the entrance to the ancient keep, where the bag of salt hung. The darkness below it gave a convulsive heave, and the riders burst through the archway like a flock of crows. He could not tell how many of them there were, or tell much about them, save that they wore ragged robes over fire-blackened armor, and their horses were little more than bones wrapped in a sickly light.
The knights stopped as they caught sight of what was waiting on them, and milled about as if uncertain. Ghosts, even ones as vile as these, were like trains, travelling on a well worn track. Now, someone had dropped a large rock on that track, disrupting the routine, and threatening a delay in their schedule.
“They look fair bothered, don’t they?” Gallowglass murmured. “What now?”
St. Cyprian looked up. The darkness had thinned, and the faint, pale glow of the creeping dawn was visible, behind the curtain of night. “Now,” he said, “we do things properly.” He looked back at the knights and said, loudly, “In the name of the Lord, and His Son, and of St. George, whose day this is, I bid thee sinners stay and cease.” He raised his sword and pointed it at them. “I name thee outcast. I name thee renegade and forever denied the grace of God, or the sanctuary of His Kingdom. I say to thee that you shall find no respite here, or anywhere in or on the earth, and you shall be banished to the forests of the night, to ride in shadow forevermore.”
As he spoke, he scanned the ghostly crew for any sign of the woman whose screams they’d heard. He caught sight of a pale shape dangling across a saddle, kicking and thrashing. Her screams had been silenced by a rotted hand clamped to her mouth. The rider who held her was larger than the others, less withered, though no less burned, as if he were somehow more real. His sockets, rather than being black and empty, were full of flickering witch-light, and St. Cyprian knew, without knowing precisely how, that the creature was none other than Jacques Dufay. Dufay stared at him, as he spoke, and St. Cyprian knew that he, at least, understood the words being hurled at him.
St. Cyprian swung the tip of his sword in Dufay’s direction. “Jacques Dufay, I name thee traitor to God," he recited. Dufay didn’t so much as twitch. The ruins began to throb with a deep, tolling groan. It echoed from every stone, growing in volume. A dozen voices, or perhaps just one, roaring out in denial. “Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian snapped.
Gallowglass raised the MP18 and snapped off a burst, even as the riders galloped towards them. The bag of salt tied above the archway ruptured, and salt hissed down to the stones below. The closest riders hauled on their reins, and set their horses skittering away. St. Cyprian gave a grunt of satisfaction. As he’d hoped, the salt was a barrier against the dead men, barring their retreat. No dead thing could easily cross a line or circle of salt, no matter how powerful it might be.
By this time, the knights were among the dozens of crosses hammered upright into the cracked and broken ground before the slope, and their horses reared and squealed as they tried to avoid touching them. Dead hands drew rust-pitted blades from tattered sheaths, and the Knights of Gerontius hewed at the symbols of their former faith, as if the crosses were enemy soldiers. Gallowglass hefted her gun, chose a target, and fired.
The dead man was plucked from his horse. There was no sound as he struck the stones. Gallowglass made a sound like a cat sighting prey, and then opened up with the MP18, spraying the closest riders. Spectral horses stamped with guttural squeals, and a wild, deep moan echoed from the stones. But the fallen knights began to rise almost immediately, seemingly none the worse for wear, though they jerked and twitched when they accidentally touched a cross. They advanced slowly, in no hurry, despite the looming presence of dawn. Gallowglass jerked the ammunition drum from the gun and tossed it aside. “Silver ain’t working,” she spat.
“I did say,” St. Cyprian said. He could smell them now—a musty, burnt odor, that put him in mind of overcooked meat and seared metal. Bony, fleshless hands groped blindly, as blackened skulls grinned within moldy cowls as they shuffled forward.
“Fire?” Gallowglass demanded, nudging a petrol can with her foot.
“Not yet, and not until we have to,” St. Cyprian said.
“I’m trying the ones we got blessed by that vicar in Ambridge,” Gallowglass said, rummaging in her coat pocket for another drum of ammunition. A corpse-knight lunged up the slope, through the thicket of crosses, reaching for her, and Gallowglass caught her weapon by the barrel and swung it like a club. Bone crunched, and the dead man staggered back and tumbled down the slope. Gallowglass slammed the drum into place and fired a burst, knocking several more of them sprawling.
“In your own time, Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian said. “I’m going for the woman.” Without waiting for her reply, he darted forward, down the slope, ducked beneath the hooves of a rearing horse, and charged towards Dufay. The ghostly knight saw him coming, and reached over the struggling woman to draw his sword. The blade sprang free of its sheath in slow motion, but somehow it was there, waiting for St. Cyprian, as he drew close. Dufay’s horse reared, and the blade chopped down.
The hilt of the xiphos was sweaty in his hand, but he brought it up and around, blocking the blow that would have removed his head had he been a fraction of an instant slower. His arms and shoulders ached from the force of the blow, and he stumbled back, into a cross. He shoved himself forward, narrowly avoiding a second blow, which split the cross, top to bar. He heard the MP18 roar as he ducked around behind Dufay’s horse, free hand digging for the amulet.
The knight’s sword hammered down again, forcing St. Cyprian to jerk back. He slashed out with the xiphos, and Dufay made a sound like falling gravestones as he swatted the blow aside. It might have been laughter. Whatever it was, the sound ceased as St. Cyprian drew the amulet from his pocket and thrust it forward. A strangled moan erupted from the corpse-knight, and he flung up his hands, as if to protect himself.
St. Cyprian shoved the amulet into his trouser pocket and lunged forward to catch hold of the woman’s wrist. He jerked her towards him, off of the horse, and she kicked away at Dufay’s grasping hands. Her ragged panting filled St. Cyprian’s ear as he caught her and swung her away from her captor. She wasn’t much older than Gallowglass, pale and pretty despite the bruises on her face and arms, and the blood matting her hair. Her clothes were shredded and torn, and she’d lost her shoes. “Can you run?” he barked. She gabbled something he hoped was assent, and he shoved her towards Gallowglass. “Then run!”
As she scrambled away, through the knot of confused corpses, crosses and gunfire, he spun back to face Dufay. The knight had recovered from whatever existential fear the amulet had caused, and he jerked his horse around and kicked it into motion, straight towards St. Cyprian. The creature meant to run him down.
St. Cyprian flung himself aside at the last moment, his sword lashing out to hack into the fleshless legs of the knight’s ghostly steed. The animal toppled forward with a shrill cry, spilling its monstrous rider from the saddle. St. Cyprian stumbled away, clutching his sword-arm to his chest. Both his xiphos and the hand that held it were rimed with frost, and he could feel little below the elbow. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Dufay rise to his feet, sword in hand.
St. Cyprian hurried back towards Gallowglass. The dead men were swarming the slope, crawling, shuffling, sliding, staggering amongst the crosses. They clawed for Gallowglass and the woman, seeking to pull them down. “The petrol,” he shouted.
“What about you?” Gallowglass shouted back.
“I’ll manage! Now kick over the bloody petrol!”
Gallowglass fired another burst, and kicked over the closest can. Petrol filled the trench, and Gallowglass pulled a book of matches from her pocket. St. Cyprian side-stepped a lurching knight, and blocked a blow from a second. For a moment, his ears rang with the sound of metal crashing against metal as the corpse hacked at him. He parried a wild blow and kicked out, catching the dead man in the chest. The knight fell back, smashing into a cross. The creature bucked, as if he had fallen into a nest of venomous serpents, and fell away, a low, rattling moan seeping from his fleshless jaws.
St. Cyprian heard a roar, and felt a wash of heat, as Gallowglass lit the petrol. Fire rose up behind him, and he turned to face the Knights of Gerontius, as they converged on him. They moved slowly, creaking along on fire-seared limbs, remorseless as death. The first fingers of dawn were visible over the tumbledown walls of the keep, and he knew they only had to last a few more minutes. But he wouldn’t last even a few seconds on this side of the petrol barrier. As swords dug for him from every side, he turned and leapt through the fire. He hit the ground on the other side and rolled, trying to smother the flames that clung to his coat. He shot to his feet and shrugged out of it awkwardly, nearly snagging the xiphos in its sleeves. He stamped on the coat, extinguishing it.
“Cor, you aren’t half stupid,” Gallowglass said, shaking her head. “I could have waited another minute before I lit it, if I’d known you were just going to jump through it.”
“Spur of the moment decision,” he said, swatting at the sparks that blackened his sleeves and trouser legs. “How many cans did you use?”
“All of ‘em,” she said.
“Good.” He looked at the flames, and could see the knights swaying and staring on the other side. It wouldn’t take them long to make a try for it, but right now they were stymied by the ring of fire which encircled the summit of the hillock. The fire would burn out soon enough, but not before dawn. He knew that the knights couldn’t simply take a loss and retreat. Not without a victim, to sustain them down in the dark until another year had passed. And that meant that they had to come after he and the others.
He glanced at the woman. “What’s your name?” he said gently.
“S-Sarah,” she said, haltingly. She stared at the flames, and the shapes that moved beyond them. “I was at home,” she continued softly. “I was at home, and I heard a knock, and...and...” She began to tremble violently. “I tried to shut the door! They just smashed through, like it wasn’t even there!” Her eyes found him, and she began to crumple as he took her by shoulders.
“Sarah—lovely name, by the way—Sarah, you must pray. Can you do that for me? Any prayer will do. Just pray.”
She looked past him, and said, “But...”
He stepped between her and the fire. “No buts. Ignore them. Just...pray. Close your eyes and pray, and when you open them, this night will be over, and we will take you home. I swear it.” She bent her head, and he gently turned her away from the staring dead. She began to murmur, and he looked at Gallowglass. She tapped the MP18.
“Almost dry,” she said, softly.
“Wasn’t working anyway,” he said.
“Made me feel better, though,” she said. “Think they’ll try and rush us?”
“They have no choice. They require a victim, and we have her. They’ll come. The question is...can we hold them?” He flexed his hand. The numb feeling had worn off finally, but the ache had remained. One did not lightly cross swords with the dead.
“I think we’re about to find out,” Gallowglass said. “Look!”
The flames bulged weirdly, and parted, as a figure staggered through, blade in hand. Despite the fiery shroud which now clung to him, St. Cyprian recognized Dufay. The knight had become a walking torch, as had the others who followed him, plunging through the flames one after the next. Gallowglass cursed and levelled her gun. She emptied it into the knights, dropping most of them; all, in fact, save for Dufay, who stalked forward. The others squirmed forward like snakes, hauling themselves along towards their prey.
“Protect Sarah,” St. Cyprian said, as he moved to confront Dufay. Dufay lunged, sword arcing out, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. The xiphos intercepted it, and for a moment, the two blades were locked together. The stifling heat of the fire which steadily consumed his foe clawed at St. Cyprian, filling his lungs and stinging his eyes, but he refused to retreat. Dufay hunched forward, trying to force his living opponent back.
They broke apart with a screech of outraged metal, and then clashed together again. St. Cyprian silently said a prayer for the soul of his long-dead fencing instructor. The man had been an absolute tyrant, but he’d hammered his lessons into the brain of his young student hard enough that they’d stuck.
As he and Dufay circled one another, he caught sight of Gallowglass, employing her gun like a club against the others. As he watched, clutching hands tore the gun from her grip, and she drew her revolver, firing again and again, knocking the dead back, away from she and Sarah. Then he lost sight of her as Dufay came at him again.
The heat crisped the skin on his knuckles as he parried another blow. Dufay reached for him, and St. Cyprian was forced to step back so that the burning fingers closed only on empty air. He stumbled over the squirming body of a knight, and fell back. His sword flew from his grip. He rolled over and reached for it, but Dufay’s crumbling boot stamped down on it. A smoking hand caught a handful of his waistcoat and he was dragged upright. Sounds that might have been words slithered out of the corpse’s mouth, and St. Cyprian wondered whether the creature was gloating, or perhaps cursing him.
Over Dufay’s shoulder, he saw the sun had beg to rise. Dead faces turned as one towards the growing light, and a great sigh went up. St. Cyprian scrabbled for the amulet as Dufay turned back to him, and raised his sword. He tore the amulet from his pocket and held it up. Dufay recoiled, the sword tumbling from his hands with a hollow clang.
St. Cyprian forced the dead man back, and moved so that the light of the sun was to his back. The knights watched him. They seemed smaller now, and fewer, as if their numbers had been nothing but shadow and smoke. He held up the amulet, so that the rising sun speared through the holes punched in its surface. The low groan rose again from the stones of the keep, and Jacques Dufay sank to his knees, hands clawing at his skull.
“I truly, from the law of that Majesty, command thee and thine to go away now most calmly to your place, without further murmur and commotion, and without harm to us and the circle of other men. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen," St. Cyprian rasped, slashing the air with two fingers.
The sun crested the walls, and light filled the courtyard. The groan shrunk to a sigh, and then faded, leaving behind only the quiet rustle of drifting ash. The Knights of Gerontius came apart like wood crumbling in a fire. Last to go was Jacques Dufay, whose eyes dimmed and at last guttered out, as his skull fell away into nothing.
St. Cyprian stirred the mound of greasy ashes with his foot. “Requiescat in pace,” he murmured, scuffing his shoe clean on a stone.
“Doubtful, innit?” Gallowglass said, with a snort. “Is that it, then?”
“One can but hope.” St. Cyprian looked at Sarah. She stared at him in shock, as if still uncertain of her survival. He smiled and rubbed his hands together. “Well, that was quite an evening, what? Jolly well glad it’s done, though.” Sarah gave a weak, hesitant smile and he returned the expression. With time, she would recover. If she were lucky, she might even forget this night, and what had almost happened to her.
He hoped she would.
“Who’s for a bit of breakfast, then?” he asked, as the sun shone down, banishing the last traces of St. George’s eve, and ashes swirled up and away on the morning breeze.