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Little Bones

We waited while the mirror cleared. You never can tell quite how long it’s going to take for a secret passage to reveal itself. This one was going pretty quickly, the reflections of myself and my assistant had screamed in agony, then begun to cloud and steam away inside the glass. It’s a rather disturbing sight, and young Rachelle did look away when the screaming began. I’m used to it, and although it’s not nice, I have seen myself distorted in genuine terror before and the sight of myself doesn’t inspire that in me. I’m sure she’ll toughen up. That meant I had a few moments to regard my actual reflection. I’m nothing particularly special to look at – middle-aged man with long hair and a beard that a parent would best describe as scruffy, clothes weathered but intact, including my signature black trilby. It’s amazing how many people would willingly go into a tunnel without a hat on. God only knows what gets into their hair. Rachelle beside me only just hitting her mid-twenties, burning away her childhood face into one of determination and angular grace. Her reflection didn’t turn away as she did, but it did roll its eyes before vanishing. Magic mirrors are the worst: they don’t actually do anything except briefly capture a reflection and play with it. Sometimes they can be creepy and weird, depending on what its maker wanted it to do. I’ve seem mirrors where the reflections peel their skin off, kill themselves, press against the glass writhing in horrid ecstasy. When there’s more than one of you they usually get worse, attacks, passionate embraces. I’ve seen all that. The goal is to frighten or embarrass, hopefully enough to make you leave them well alone. I’m sure that still works well. In fact I know it does, because I’ve retrieved and extracted many such mirrors like this and home at the agency, the rather misleadingly named “Carnival of Death”, our morbid director has assembled them into a hall of mirrors. It’s not a thing I want to visit, but I tell myself that’s because it’s a distasteful use of relics, not because I’m actually afraid. Of course not.

The mirror clears, the images within roiled like smoke until it became an ordinary mirror, albeit one that cast no reflection at all. That hocus pocus out of the way, I gestured forward and Rachelle tapped around the edge of the frame until she found the hidden catches. With a pair of clicks, a gnarly burr and a sigh, the mirror pivoted out from the wall. I love a secret door, I really do. I suppose it’s why I’m in this line of work. When I was ten I got lost in an old house riddled with priest holes, only they were far more extensive than anyone living had realised. It was two days before they got me out, two days of wandering in the darkness and cold, pressing my hands over walls. I’d ended up two storeys below the house in a warren of hidden tunnels and rooms. As soon as I was out and my parents’ frenzy had reduced somewhat, I went back in with torches and paper and documented the whole thing. I found even more rooms that second time. Tucked in the underside of a staircase where there should have been a step was a tiny cupboard that held a clock which slowed down time. That became my invitation to the Carnival of Death, its youngest member in more than a century.

The passage beyond was striped with cobwebs. I tapped the brim of my hat with a finger and Rachelle – the real Rachelle this time – rolled her eyes and tugged her wide-brimmed hat onto her head. Nothing worse than cobwebs in your hair. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this expedition. The details on the house’s original owner’s were scarce and it had been unoccupied for the better part of half a century, its exterior and gardens maintained by a trust established to ensure the house did not collapse. But there were no inheritors, no overseas relatives coming to claim it. The Carnival takes an interest in old houses and had connected this one to the Bone Saints network of nineteenth century magicians through their own extensive records, as well as the mountains of poorly indexed records retrieved from other expeditions. The Bone Saints being involved suggested arcane artifacts might lie somewhere in the place, and thus Rachelle and I were despatched to investigate.

Under the pretence of being trust representatives, we’d gotten past the barely human crew maintaining the house and grounds – that alone convinced me we were indeed on the trail of something powerful. The people trimming hedges and ivy could hardly speak, could almost not bring themselves to turn their eyes from their tasks to us. And they were old, even the young ones. Skin drawn taut across their bones, strong yet starved. Whatever the trust was pretending to be, it held these people in its thrall. All the more reason to explore. They’d taken the words, “The Trust,” and stood aside, murmuring softly as their eyes tracked back to their tasks, allowing us to open the great doors to the house, unlocked all these years. Inside it was as clean as you’d expect with a work gang of magically indentured servants to maintain it, and as empty and haunted as any house unoccupied for so long. We worked our way quickly through the floors, trying to keep track of dimensions and space to spot any hidden voids. Nothing, until we reached the master study, where we could have easily begun had we not wished to be thorough.

The webbed passage led straight out of the side of the master study – there was no hidden void, this space extended directly through a wall into what should have been the outside. Most secret places are real, just hidden. This was a rare exception, space and the material world warped to join two unconnected places. This passage could be anywhere, but was most likely a sealed corridor buried beneath the house and grounds, which the mirror joined together. It was certainly Rachelle’s first experience of an unreal door, but she took it in her stride, having heard and read plenty about them. Depending on where the passage led, and if it was a dead end, we’d be spending weeks on radar surveys to determine its true location.

This corridor appeared to just end. My hat had gathered an impressive swathe of webs, and at the end of the passage I stopped to brush them off. Rachelle followed suit. Training an apprentice isn’t just about teaching them how to do the work, but to imitate and learn the behaviours and habits that have kept us alive. If that includes a few odd tics and peccadillos, so be it. At least she didn’t have spiders in her hair. The action of brushing her hat against the wall hit some hidden switch, and I seized her arm and hopped backwards as savage spikes stabbed outwards from the floor and ceiling, a grisly portcullis guarding the blank wall. Pausing is good. With at least one set of traps triggered I felt confident that we could probe the cobbled bricks that made up the wall. The portcullis retracted, and as Rachelle and I got a feel for the sequence, we pressed bricks until one popped out, allowing me to twist it a full three-hundred and sixty degrees. With a grinding moan the whole wall came apart, bricks retracting into the sides of the passageway.

We entered the next space cautiously. With a whoosh, lanterns flamed into life – a dramatic welcome for the magician who had once made this their lair.

“Gloves on,” I reminded Rachelle.

We both donned a pair of black leather gloves with rubberised outer layers. There was no telling what poisons and toxins might have been liberally sloshed over the books and objects that decorated the room. It was hexagonal, with bookshelves and cabinets of oddities lining each wall. In the centre section was a desk, and behind it a window that provided the view we ought to have seen from the study, had there not been a mirror door in the way. Clever. Rachelle explored the desk while I perused the cabinets. Lots of interesting stuff, all things that the Carnival would be keen to relocate into its archives: a crude death mask made of human hair, a set of ink pens I suspected were carved from beaks of extinct birds, intricate bone dolls and a wide array of knives and ritual instruments, all beautifully clean and sharp-looking.

With a sound of satisfaction, Rachelle turned to show me the box she’d persuaded to open. Inside it, a tiny book, its covers and spine delicately carved from fingerbones. Its pages were thin sheets of pressed bone, inlaid with letters and shapes also carved from bone, stained black and red. The lost Book of Bones. Oh, the Carnival would want this all right.

“We’ll take this and come back for the rest with a Carnival team,” I said, my eyes lost in the weird little tome.

Rachelle had gone quiet, but her fist grabbed at my jacket sleeve until I turned to face the door we’d entered. Hovering in the air was a phantasm, a ruined corpse we could see through, whose dead gaze was fixed on the book I held. Unfortunate. I nodded, and Rachelle stepped toward the imprisoned ghost, assumed her fighting stance and twisted the rings on her index and ring ringers counter-clockwise. A sharp fizzing erupted from them, plumes of sulphurous smoke which wound through the air as she whirled into attack. Ghosts are real, and you can kill them. Rachelle moved in a blur, a horizontal cartwheel that ended with her fists striking the phantasm, punching through its tenuous form and obliterating it. A trapped ghost used to be an excellent deterrent and guard for your magical hoard, but magical technology has come a long, long way since the nineteenth century. Rachelle landed, her breathing only slightly more rapid, clicked her rings closed and stood as the last traces of the ghost faded away.

“Bravo,” I said, proud of my apprentice. In all honesty she was going to be much better at all of this than I’d ever been. I wrapped the Book of Bones in a velvet cloth and placed it in a bag. “Let’s go and see if the groundskeepers are free, shall we.”

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Little Bones

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