A Hard Day's Knight (Nightside Series #11)by Simon R. Green
John Taylor is a P.I. with a special talent for finding lost things in the dark and secret center of London known as the Nightside. He's also the reluctant owner of a very special-and dangerous-weapon. Excalibur, the legendary sword. To find out why he was chosen to wield it, John must consult the Last Defenders of Camelot, a group of knights who dwell in a place that… See more details below
- Checkmark NOOK Channel: Urban Magic Shop Now
John Taylor is a P.I. with a special talent for finding lost things in the dark and secret center of London known as the Nightside. He's also the reluctant owner of a very special-and dangerous-weapon. Excalibur, the legendary sword. To find out why he was chosen to wield it, John must consult the Last Defenders of Camelot, a group of knights who dwell in a place that some find more frightening than the Nightside.
London Proper. It's been years since John's been back-and there are good reasons for that.
An addition to Green's urban-fantasy noir Nightside series (The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny, 2010, etc.).
For the uninitiated, Nightside is a sort of alternate London inhabited by gods, demons, monsters and other less savory creatures, where it's perpetually 3 a.m. PI John Taylor—he has the Sight, among other talents—receives Excalibur (yes, that Excalibur) in the mail. Why, and what's he supposed to do with it? Well, in this universe there are two Arthurs—the usual one, defeated centuries ago by Mordred, supposedly slumbering until the final battle; the other is King of Sinister Albion, a hellish place of ultimate evil summoned into existence by a devil-spawned alternate Merlin. (Taylor killed the original Merlin. He seems to have killed an awful lot of people during the course of the series.) Narrator Taylor decides to consult Camelot's worthy descendants, the London Knights, who speak of impending war with the elves (in Green's rendering, there are two factions, both almost entirely malevolent); of renegade knight Jerusalem Stark; and of the return of the evil Arthur and Merlin. It looks like a tough assignment, even for Taylor and his sidekick, Shotgun Suzie, who delights in blowing malefactors apart with her magic, blessed and simultaneously cursed shotgun shells. Oddly enough, the anticipated showdown fizzles.
Readers who prefer their gore with huge melodramatic flourishes and a side of slyly amusing repartee will find John Taylor at least the equal of Jim Butcher's Chicago wizard PI Harry Dresden.
Read an Excerpt
Things you need to know:
- The Nightside is the dark, secret, brooding heart of London, hidden away from the rest of the world, where magic is realer than you can bear, where lives and souls and everything else you can think of are always up for sale, and all your worst dreams go walking openly in borrowed flesh. It’s always dark in the Nightside, always three o’clock in the morning, the hour that tries men’s souls. Hot neon burns over rain-slick streets, bars and clubs never close, and gods and monsters go walking hand in hand. You can find anything you ever dreamed of in the Nightside; but watch your back. It might find you first.
- I’m John Taylor, private investigator. I wear a white trench coat, but don’t let that fool you. I don’t do divorce work, and I wouldn’t know a clue if I fell over it. I do, however, have a special gift that means I can find anyone or anything, no matter how carefully they’ve hidden themselves. I do my best to find the truth for my clients; but in my experience, the truth won’t make you happy, and it won’t set you free. Walk the streets of the Nightside, and you’ll hear a lot of bad things about me. Most of them are true. I stay in the Nightside because I belong here. With all the other monsters.
- Walker is dead. The one and only Voice of the Authorities, the man in charge of the Nightside, inasmuch as anyone was or could be… The only man who could make us all play nicely together is dead. I killed him. I had good reason, but he’s still just as dead. So I have to be Walker now. Take over his role and act as representative for the new Authorities. The punishment must always fit the crime.
- Something very old and very powerful has come to the Nightside. That ancient and legendary sword, Excalibur. It isn’t what you think it is, and it never was. Puck told me that; but everyone knows you can never trust an elf. They always lie—except when a truth can hurt you more.
- And, last of all… When I finally got home, after killing Walker, wanting only to slump exhausted into a chair and nurse my bitter soul… I found a long, sword-shaped parcel waiting for me on my kitchen table. Some days, you just can’t get a break.
It Came in the Post
I stood in my kitchen, already so tired and used up I would have lain down in a coffin if that was all that was available… and considered the brown-paper parcel on the table before me. Suzie came in from the hall and joined me. She slipped an arm round her waist, and I kissed her absently on the cheek. My Suzie, also known as Shotgun Suzie, also known as Oh Christ It's Her, Run. My tall blonde Valkyrie in black leathers, a bounty-hunter who always brings them in dead because there's less paper-work that way. My love, my life, my reason for living, who had dropped the biggest bomb-shell into my life in years by accepting this appallingly significant parcel…
I moved away from Suzie and walked slowly round the kitchen table, studying the sword-shaped package from all angles. It stubbornly refused to look like anything except a bloody big sword. I had absolutely no intention of touching the thing, just yet. Suzie looked at me curiously but said nothing. She could tell I was working. Solving problems is what I do. I leaned over the kitchen table, examining the brown-paper parcel from hilt to point. There were no stamps anywhere, and no address—only my name, in perfect copper-plate. Which meant the parcel couldn't have come by regular post. It had to have been delivered by hand.
"When did this arrive?" I asked Suzie.
Her ears pricked up as she caught the seriousness in my voice. "Two, three hours ago. I heard a knock on the front door, looked out, and there it was. Leaning against the wall. At first I thought it must be for me since it's so obviously a weapon; but then I saw it had your name on it, so I put it in here for when you got home."
"Think about it," I said. "You wouldn't normally bring a strange, unexpected parcel into our home and leave it lying round without running it through a whole series of security checks first, would you?"
"No," said Suzie, in a way that made it clear she hadn't even considered the point before and was wondering rather angrily why she hadn't. "It felt… right. Like it belonged here. Why the hell didn't I find that suspicious?"
"Because the parcel didn't want you to," I said.
We both glared at the brown-paper package.
"Could it have some kind of compulsion, or geas, attached to it?" said Suzie.
"I think we're in bigger trouble than that," I said. "I'm getting a distinct feeling of destiny."
"Yes, quite," I said. "Next question: how did our mysterious benefactor pass unscathed through all our security systems? The land mines and the floating curses? We spent ages setting up the defences round this house, to protect us from our enemies and discourage the paparazzi. Our regular postie has a special dispensation; this guy shouldn't even have made it to the front door."
"Oh, this has destiny written all over it," said Suzie. "Let's run."
"You didn't see anyone when you picked up the parcel?"
"Not as such, no. And yes, I should have found that suspicious. Bloody parcel must have been messing with my head."
"The parcel, or whoever sent it…" I was scowling so fiercely my forehead was aching. "Beware of unseen strangers bearing gifts."
I raised my gift, opening up my inner eye, my third eye, my private eye. I studied the parcel with my Sight, which shows me all the wonders and horrors of the hidden world, and scanned the parcel for booby-traps or hidden messages. I barely had time to assure myself there were no hidden extras when I cried out despite myself and fell back, as what was inside the parcel blazed up fiercely, a magical, spiritual light that dazzled and blinded me. My inner eye slammed shut as my mind flinched away from something it couldn't bear to look at directly.
I grabbed hold of the parcel, glared at it for a moment, then ripped the wrapping away, tearing the brown paper and snapping the knotted string. I had to see it. Had to see what no man had seen for centuries. The legendary sword, Excalibur. King Arthur's sword, from the Golden Age of Chivalry. The scabbard turned out to be six feet and more of tooled leather, with Celtic markings and designs, and a whole bunch of symbols from a language I didn't even recognise. The foot-long hilt of the sword seemed to have been fashioned from a single piece of bone, polished to a fine dark yellow sheen. I brushed the last pieces of torn paper away from it, and the scabbarded sword lay alone on my table, in my kitchen, like an unexploded bomb, or a warning from history.
"That… is not just any old sword," said Suzie.
"No," I said absently. "That's Excalibur."
"What?" said Suzie. "You mean the Excalibur? As in King Arthur? What the hell is that doing here—hold everything. You knew what this was all along, didn't you?"
"I was told the sword had come into the Nightside," I said. "I never thought it would end up here."
"Excalibur," said Suzie. She sounded honestly impressed, which wasn't something that came easily to her. "Damn… Aren't you supposed to draw it out of an anvil, set on a stone? I mean, something as important as this, it shouldn't just turn up in the post. Where's the mystical significance of that?"
"This is the Nightside," I said. "We do things differently here. Somebody wanted to make sure I got it; and this was the best way of sneaking it in, under the radar."
"Well, if you don't draw the bloody thing from its scabbard so we can get a look at it, I'm going to," said Suzie. "That is one of the great legendary swords! How can you not want to try it out for size?"
"Because I don't want it to bite my hand off! I'm working up to it, okay? This isn't something you draw and wave round for the fun of it! This is Excalibur we're taking about. It makes history and gives birth to legends. Everything it does, matters."
"Are you afraid there might be a geas attached to it?" said Suzie, looking at the sword with a new wariness. "Like the Old Man of the Sea…easy to pick up but a damned sight harder to put down?"
"I think I would have Seen anything like that," I said carefully. "I think… we're back to destiny again. And I have had enough of that in my life. I have been there, done that, and seen my mother banished from reality rather than embrace the destiny she intended for me. I'm my own man; and I won't give that up, even for Excalibur."
"We can't leave it lying there. I was going to start making dinner soon…"
"I know! I'm thinking… I'm trying to think of anyone else I could safely hand it over to… Oh hell. Why is it always me?"
I took a firm hold of the polished-bone hilt, set my other hand on the scabbard, and slowly eased the sword out of its sheath. It came easily, almost eagerly: five, maybe six feet of blade that glowed supernaturally bright in the gloomy kitchen. Suzie made a shocked, almost awed sound, and fell back a step. I held the sword out before me, the hilt fitting perfectly into my hand, and the long, golden blade shone brighter and brighter, free at last after centuries of waiting. I swept the blade slowly back and forth, supporting the whole length of it easily with only one hand, and it all felt so easy and natural, as though I'd been doing it my whole life. The long, golden blade seemed impossibly light, almost weightless, moving easily with my hand as though it belonged there.
I stamped back and forth round the kitchen table, thrusting and cutting, the golden blade leaping this way and that. The longer I held Excalibur, the more I knew how to use it, how to handle it. Without quite meaning to, I ran through an increasingly complex series of attacks and manoeuvres, jumping and pirouetting as I slammed the blade back and forth. Suzie fell back to the kitchen doorway, to give me plenty of room.
"All right, cut it out, I'm impressed!" she said. "Where did you learn to use a sword like that?"
"I didn't," I said, forcing myself to stop. I was hardly even breathing hard. "I've never handled a sword in my life. Excalibur is making all the moves; I'm just along for the ride."
"Okay," said Suzie. "Getting a bit spooky, now…"
"Trust me, you have no idea. Wait a minute…"
Suzie's head came up sharply, as she sensed it, too. Without moving or changing in any way, Excalibur was suddenly so much more than it had been. There was a new presence in the room with us, like a third person, uncanny and overwhelming; and it was the sword. Excalibur's presence beat on the air like a breaking storm, like a great bugle sounding a charge that would never end, a cry to battle, for the soul of Humanity. It dominated my small kitchen—a cry from the past, the deep past, wild and glorious and very dangerous.
Suzie had backed half-way out the kitchen doorway. I would have liked to join her, but I was still holding the sword. I could feel it coming awake, yearning to be used, demanding to be put to the purpose for which it was intended. And I couldn't help remembering that terrible old weapon, the Speaking Gun. That evil device had wanted to kill and kill until nothing was left, and hated the fact that it couldn't do that without its owner's cooperation. Excalibur didn't feel anything like the Speaking Gun, but it still needed me to wield it. To help it fulfil its destiny.
The sword blazed with purpose: of something vitally important that had to be done, that it had been brought back into the world to do. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly; then I picked up the scabbard and slid the sword carefully back into its sheath. It didn't fight me. I placed the scabbard carefully down on the table again and stepped away from it. The sheer effort of will left me shaking and covered in a cold and clammy sweat. But I am my own man, no-one and nothing else's.
"Well?" said Suzie, from the doorway. "Is it destiny?"
"Oh… I'd have to give you ninety-five per cent on that, yes. And it wants me."
"I could write you a note, say you're excused destinies."
"Why me?" I said, a bit wistfully.
"Isn't that what everyone says, when destiny comes calling?"
"If this turns out to be connected to Merlin, I swear I will find a way to bring him back from the dead, just so I can kick his arse!"
"Never speak ill of the dead," Suzie said briskly. "Especially when they aren't always as departed as they should be."
I couldn't help noticing that she'd backed right out of the kitchen doorway and was now standing in the hall, looking in. Suzie wasn't scared of anything, but she had a hell of a lot of natural caution and really good survival instincts. I would have liked to walk away and leave the sword, but owning Excalibur is like holding a tiger by the tail. Bad as the situation is, it's even more dangerous to let go. I had hoped drawing the sword would trigger a recorded message that would tell me what the hell was going on and what I was supposed to do about it; but apparently that was too much to hope for.
"We need to get this sword out of our house," said Suzie. "Something that powerful, running wild in the Nightside; who knows what kind of attention it's going to attract?"
I looked at the scabbarded sword; but all sense of its presence was gone, vanished the moment I sheathed it. It looked like any other sword, now. But Excalibur was the kind of sword men would kill and die for, for any number of reasons. Suzie came warily back into the kitchen.
"So, does this mean you're the rightful King of all England now?"
"No," I said. "I'm pretty sure that was a one-time-only thing."
"Does it mean you're King of the Nightside, then? Or was the sword sent to you by someone who thinks you should be?"
"I had the chance," I said. "And I turned it down. I'm not about to change my mind. As to who sent it: I have a horrible feeling this might be Walker's last gift to me, taken from the late Collector's legendary collection."
"Hold everything," said Suzie. "The 'late' Collector? He's finally dead?"
"Haven't you been watching the news?"
"I've been busy," Suzie said defensively. "Aimless lounging round won't do itself, you know. What happened to the Collector? Who killed him? I take it somebody did finally kill the thieving old scrote?"
"Walker killed him," I said. "He walked right up to his oldest friend and stuck a knife between his ribs. I was right there, but there was nothing I could do."
"I'll not shed a tear for the Collector," said Suzie. "How many times did he try to kill us? All right, he was a colourful rogue, or a treacherous little turd, depending on how you look at it, but I think the whole Nightside will sleep more peacefully, now he's gone. You could always rely on the Collector to stir things up, and rarely in a good way. But… why did Walker finally kill him, after all these years? I thought they were friends again, after working together during the Lilith War?"
"They were," I said. "It's… complicated. Friendships often are."
"Hold everything, part two," said Suzie. "You said… Walker's last gift. Don't tell me…"
"Yes," I said. "Walker's dead. I killed him."
"Why?" said Suzie. "Okay, dumb question. I can think of a dozen good reasons, without even trying."
"It wasn't like that," I said. "He wanted to kill me and take over my life. And he threatened you. I couldn't have that. So I killed him."
"The most important man in the Nightside is dead," said Suzie. "Good." She put a comforting hand on my arm. "I know you and he were… close, in some way I never really understood."
"He was my father's friend," I said. "But he was always there when I needed him. He used me for jobs when he needed someone expendable, but he protected me when he could. At the end, when he knew he was dying, he said he wanted to be my father; but I never wanted that. And I don't want his bloody job, either? Oh yes, the man's barely been gone a few hours, and already people are queuing up to tell me I have a responsibility to take over his position and be the new Voice of the new Authorities!"
"If you don't want to do it, don't do it," said Suzie. For her, it really was that simple.
"But… there's no-one else."
"That's my John," said Suzie, putting her arms round me. Her black leathers creaked loudly. "Always ready to take the weight of the world on his shoulders. And always convinced no-one else can do the job as well as him. Maybe that's why our mysterious benefactor sent Excalibur to you. Because they know you can be trusted to use it wisely. I'm not sorry Walker's dead. Or that you killed him. I worked for the man, but I never liked him. He played chess with people and never gave a damn about the pieces he had to sacrifice."
"I worked for him," I said. "I respected him, and sometimes I liked him, against my better judgement."
"Were you and he ever friends?"
"I don't know," I said. "It's complicated."
"Two of the Nightside's greatest lights have gone out," said Suzie. "We shall not see any blaze so brightly again in our lifetime."
I gave her a stern look. "You've been watching the History Channel again."
She laughed and let go of me. She started towards the table, reached out to grasp the sword's hilt, then stopped.
"This sword fascinates me," she said slowly. "It's one of the greatest weapons in the world. But as much as I want to, I can't bring myself to touch it. I don't think it wants me to. As though… I'm not worthy."
"Hell with that," I said immediately, carefully keeping it light. "If I'm worthy, you're worthy. No, I think it's just… we're back to the destiny thing again. It wants me."
"So we're back to the main question," said Suzie, glaring at the sword with her arms crossed firmly across her chest. "Why would anyone send Excalibur to you?"
"I think it's my turn to feel hurt," I said. "Are you implying that I am not worthy?"
She snorted briefly. "Don't start getting ideas above your station."
"I am, let us not forget, the son of a Biblical Myth."
"And look how that turned out."
"Good point," I said. It was my turn to look thoughtfully at the sword. "Maybe… I'm supposed to hold on to the sword, guard and protect it, until its rightful owner turns up."
"You mean Arthur? King Arthur? The King Arthur?"
"Why not?" I said reasonably. "We spent enough time in Merlin's company… Dead, but definitely not departed enough for my liking. A lot of people believe Arthur is still out there, somewhere, sleeping in state until the day shall come when he will be needed again, to lead us all in the Final Battle. I used to love all those books when I was a kid."
"This is sounding worse and worse," said Suzie. "If Excalibur's turned up, does that mean we're on the verge of the Final Battle? I've already been through the Angel War and the Lilith War. I think I'm entitled to a little rest, between Armageddons."
"I wish everyone would stop talking about those two wars as if they were my fault!"
"Well, they were."
"Don't shout, or I'll give you a headache," said Suzie. "Still, it has been a little quiet of late. I could use some exercise. It's been a while since I killed a whole bunch of people."
"I'm starting to get a really bad feeling about this," I said.
Suzie looked at me thoughtfully. "How did the sword feel when you handled it?"
"Light," I said. "Almost weightless. Good balance."
"No, John. How did it feel…"
I thought about it. "Like it could do anything. Like I could do anything. Like nothing in this world could stand against us as long as we fought in a noble cause."
On an impulse, I picked up the scabbard and slung it over my shoulder. Leather straps appeared out of nowhere, and I pulled them into place, securing the scabbard on my back. My hands moved expertly, knowing exactly what to do. I could feel the weight of the sword, hanging all the way down my back, almost to my heels. I could sense the hilt standing up behind my left shoulder, waiting to be drawn. I could feel Excalibur's presence, like a shield at my back that no weapon could ever pierce. Like another pair of eyes, watching out for me. I was so taken up with all these new feelings that it took me a moment to notice that Suzie was looking at me very strangely.
"What?" I said.
Suzie walked round me in a tight circle, examining me from all angles. "The moment you strapped that sword into place, it vanished. Gone. Invisible. Are you sure it's still there?"
"Yes," I said. "I can feel the weight of it, the pressure of its purpose. And it feels like it's got my back."
"You used to feel that way about me," said Suzie.
"I still do!"
"I trust you with my life, Suzie. Which is more than I'll say about Excalibur. I can't help feeling that this sword has its own agenda."
"Yes, well, that's magic swords for you," said Suzie. "And destiny, for that matter. I suppose it's too late to mark it RETURN TO SENDER and throw the thing out?"
"Almost certainly," I said. "It's no good, Suzie; I'm going to need help with this one. Very specialised help and advice. And there's only one place I can think of that's a real authority on all things Arthurian. I'm going to have to leave the Nightside and go back out into London Proper. And talk with the London Knights."
"You have got to be kidding. Those arrogant, stuck-up, conceited little prigs?"
"Yes," I said. "That's the ones."
"You are not going anywhere until we've talked this through very thoroughly. You don't have to leave the Nightside, John. This place is lousy with all kinds of experts, on every subject under the sun, and a whole bunch of other things that can only thrive in permanent darkness. There are people here who know something about everything, everything about something, and… there has to be somebody here! There has to be."
"Not this time," I said gently. "Excalibur is too… pure, for the Nightside. Pure in purpose and nature. It has to be the London Knights. After all: who has a better claim to Excalibur than the last defenders of Camelot?"
Suzie sniffed loudly. Her way of saying that while I might have convinced her, there was no way in hell she was going to admit it. And being Suzie, she immediately attacked from another direction.
"I thought you said you felt a responsibility to take over Walker's position, here in the Nightside?"
"I do," I said. "But that can wait. This… is bigger. I'm hoping Excalibur has reappeared to prevent a Final Battle rather than start one. But I can't know for sure, and I won't know what to do for the best until I've talked with the London Knights."
Suzie looked at me for a long moment with her cold blue eyes and her cold, expressionless face. She might be easier with me physically these days, but emotions were always going to be difficult for her.
"You've been gone from London Proper for a long time, John. They didn't treat you at all well, out there in the real world."
"No," I said. "I can't say I was ever happy there. And there are probably still a lot of really nasty people who would love to have another crack at me. Never mind those I still owe money to. But I was hiding my light under a bushel in those days, pretending to be merely another private investigator. I'm so much more than that now."
"Ah well," said Suzie. "If you've got enemies there, that simplifies things. I'll have to go with you. Hang on, while I go gather up my guns and grenades."
"You can't come with me, Suzie."
"What? Why not?"
"Because you can't walk round London Proper loaded down with guns and grenades like you do here. The police would arrest you on sight. And you know you wouldn't get on with the London Knights. They're very… spiritual."
"You mean superior!"
"Well, yes, that, too. They are knights of the realm."
"Suzie, be reasonable…"
"I don't do reasonable! It's bad for my reputation. You are not going back into London Proper without me! Or try and deal with those aristocratic head-cases on your own. They'll talk you into things. Probably persuade you to hand Excalibur over to them because it ought to belong to one of their kind!" She scowled fiercely. "Look at what owning the sword has already done to us. You think now you've got Excalibur, you don't need me to guard your back any more."
"I'll always need you, Suzie…"
"Don't you patronise me!"
"I can't let you go with me! Not this time."
"You mean you don't want me to."
"Of course I want you to!"
"Then that's settled," said Suzie. "I'm going."
"No, you're not," I said, hanging on to my self-control as best I could. "Look, Suzie, this has to be a diplomatic mission. The London Knights aren't going to share their most valued secrets with me unless they're convinced I respect their position and authority in these matters. I am going to have to be very diplomatic. And you don't really do diplomacy. Do you?"
There was a long pause. And then Suzie said, very grudgingly, "I could learn…"
"Not in time you couldn't," I said, hiding my relief behind a reasonable voice. "I have to do this alone. I'll be fine. Trust me. When I get back, we'll—what the hell is that noise outside?"
"I don't know," said Suzie. "But whoever it is, they've picked a really bad time to annoy me. I am in the mood to take out my displeasure on someone. You check the front door. I am going to load up on guns and grenades."
We left the kitchen. It seemed to me that the noise outside had been building for some time, but I'd only just noticed it consciously. It sounded like a crowd of some size had gathered outside the house, and none of them sounded too happy about being there. I opened the front door and looked out; and the whole street was packed full of people. They took one look at me and went ballistic. The noise level shot right off the scale as they shouted and yelled and hurled abuse, stamping their feet and shaking their fists. I ostentatiously ignored the commotion, knowing that would annoy them most, and looked up and down the street. My house appeared to be under siege by hundreds of people, all of them with one thing on their minds. I could tell that from the loud chant that had gone up.
"Excalibur! Excalibur! Excalibur!"
Suzie squeezed in beside me in the doorway and glared out at the crowd. The chanting died away.
"Get off my lawn!" said Suzie.
"I think you need grass for it to be a lawn," I said. "And we got rid of that when we laid down the land mines."
"It's the principle of the thing," Suzie said vaguely, scowling indiscriminately at the crowd, who were looking at anything except her. Those at the back started shoving those at the front forward. General pushing and shoving in the crowd increased over who had the better right to approach us and who had the better right to stand at the back shouting orders. It was mostly groups, along with certain individual protestors, and I recognised quite a few of them. The Salvation Army Sisterhood were out in force: overmuscled nuns of the militant persuasion. God-botherers with attitude, they were always heavily armed, the better to get their point across. Maintaining a respectful distance from the nuns were representatives of the Church of the Riddle of Steel, all the way from the Street of the Gods. They dressed like Vikings, right down to the culturally inaccurate horned helmets, and worshipped swords. And not in a good way. At least half a dozen different groups of the Arthur Is Not Dead Only Sleeping persuasion were arguing fiercely with each other over obscure points of dogma that probably meant nothing to anyone except them.
Plus, a whole bunch of notorious faces, well-known on the scene, determined to get their hands on one of the most dangerous weapons of all time, by whatever means necessary. Either because they had their own plans for it, or thought they could sell it to people who did have plans. Most of them had come armed or with armed body-guards. There was even a contingent who'd turned up in full armour, riding caparisoned horses with brightly coloured plumes.
And every now and again a voice would rise up from somewhere in the crowd, loudly proclaiming that Merlin was a louse.
The crowd was getting out of hand, so I stepped forward and held up a hand to get their attention. Somewhat to my surprise, the whole lot immediately fell silent. In fact, there was something very like a breathless hush as they all waited to see what I was going to say. Which threw me a bit. I wasn't used to that. I gave them all my very best hard stare.
"What are you doing here?"
They waited to see if I was going to say anything else, and when it became clear that I wasn't, they all looked at each other in a confused sort of way. Finally, one of the nuns stepped forward, bobbed a curtsey, made the sign of the cross, and adjusted the Smith & Wesson .45 on her hip.
"Because you've got Excalibur. Haven't you?"
I did consider denying it, just to wind them up a bit more, but I didn't have the energy.
"How did you know Excalibur was here?"
"You drew the sword," the nun said flatly. "You should have known it would blaze so very brightly, in such a dark place. We've all been waiting for the sword to reveal itself. Precogs and oracles have been predicting its arrival in the Nightside for months now, but due to its overwhelming nature, no-one could pin it down. Most groups have been running a countdown to today, ready and poised to spot the sword the moment it made its location clear. Once you drew Excalibur and revealed it to the world, we all came running. The sword of destiny must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands!"
A great roar of agreement went up from the crowd, which fell apart almost immediately as everyone began arguing fiercely over whose were the right hands. Merlin got called a louse again.
"Okay!" I said, raising my voice to be heard over the general clamour. "That takes care of how. Now would anyone care to take a stab at why?"
"Give us Excalibur!" cried the Salvation Army Sisterhood.
"We demand you turn the sword of destiny over to us!" yelled a rather podgy Viking, who was quite clearly wearing a long blond wig under his horned helmet.
"Only we have the right to Excalibur!" roared a knight in full armour.
"Merlin is a louse!"
"Will somebody please shut him up!"
Then they all fell on each other, the whole crowd fighting for the right to be heard, the right to bear Excalibur, and the right to smite the unbeliever, knock him down, and trample him underfoot. Swords were brandished, magics were unleashed, and punches were thrown when only close quarters would do. There was also a fair amount of gunfire, from the non-traditionalists and those only in it for the money. The crowd had become a mob, surging dangerously back and forth at the bottom of my property. The most enthusiastic groups quickly wiped each other out, and there was then a general tapering off of violence as calmer and more moderate voices made themselves heard, urging that they all work together to take Excalibur from me, by force if necessary. A few self-appointed spokesmen (there are always a few), came right to the edge of my non-lawn and shouted their demands at me. Well, demand, really. They wanted me to hand over Excalibur. Right now. Please.
I shook my head; and before I could even begin to explain why, the whole crowd went apeshit all over again. They surged forward into my garden. Or non-lawn. Or whatever else you wanted to call it. I always thought of it as my first line of defence.
One of the first things Suzie and I did when we moved in was dig up the flower garden at the front of the house and lay down a whole mess of land mines. To keep out the uninvited and ruin an investigative journalist's day. There was a series of loud explosions as the first wave of the crowd hit the first wave of mines, and bits and pieces of people went flying in all directions. Blood splashed everywhere, and black smoke billowed across the property. There were a few brief screams, but that was mostly from those in the second wave, being forced onwards by those behind. The crowd pressed on, and that was when the invisible floating curses kicked in. There was a flare-up of fierce thaumatic energies, and when the black smoke had cleared, the first few waves of intruders had been replaced by a whole bunch of rather resentful-looking frogs. I've always been a traditionalist in these matters.
Besides: the shop had had a sale on.
"We did put up warnings," I said to Suzie. "Didn't we?"
"I am almost sure I meant to," said Suzie. "Can I start shooting people yet?"
"They seem to be taking themselves out of the game quite thoroughly," I said. "Oh look, here comes another wave."
Having used up most of the nuns and the Vikings, the braver and more sensible elements of the crowd were pressing forward, slowly and cautiously and very light-footedly. Most of them were shouting something, if only to keep their spirits up. There were still quite a lot of them.
"John Taylor is the rightful ruler of the Nightside! Excalibur is his! Bow down to King John!"
"Taylor's possession of the noble blade Excalibur is blasphemy! Seize the blade from him, that it might be held in trust for King Arthur! Only we know the way to Avalon!"
"Excalibur belongs to us! Arthur belongs to us! It is prophesised! Kill the unbelievers!"
"Merlin is a louse!"
"Why aren't you dead yet?"
The general advance sort of broke down and went sideways then, as the various elements in the crowd turned on each other, fighting tooth and nail over who represented whom. There was much bandying of Arthur's name, and indeed which King Arthur was the most historical, or accurate, or even most representative. Arguments quickly degenerated into insults, then to hand-to-hand combat. The crowd surged this way and that, churning up the blood-soaked mud of what had once been my garden. I encouraged the general antagonism along with helpful comments like Are You Really Going to Let Him Talk to You Like That? and Look Out! He's Sneaking Up Behind You!
I do love a good debate.
When the slaughter finally died down, there was a hell of a lot less of the crowd than there used to be, but the survivors were the really dangerous and determined ones. They studied Suzie and me thoughtfully and plotted together on how best to take Excalibur from me now and worry about what to do with it afterwards. And while I was considering what to do about that, another branch of the crowd, the really quiet and sneaky ones, attacked my house from the rear. And ran straight into the waiting nasty and really very efficient security devices Suzie and I had set up there, right after we finished with the garden. Invisible floating mines, shaped curses, poisoned-shrapnel hedges, and a whole bunch of Suzie's finest incendiaries.
Suzie and I take our privacy very seriously.
A series of explosions filled the night, accompanied by bright flashes of light, sudden flurries of blood, a whole bunch of suddenly cut-off screams, and, finally, a severed head that came flying over the roof like a football. Everyone in the crowd stopped what they were doing to watch the head sail through the air, then they all scattered with some really quite girlish screams as the head finally plummeted down into their midst. People can get freaked out by the strangest things. I looked over what was left of my non-lawn and shook my head sadly.
"This… is going to take a lot of tidying up."
"We'll have to get a man in," said Suzie.
"I had hoped the crowd was going to wipe itself out," I said, "but a discouragingly large number have survived. Somehow."
"I think we're going to have to talk to them," said Suzie.
"Oh God, has it come to that? Oh well, if we must."
I strode down the garden to confront the crowd, with Suzie striding ominously along at my side. The thinned-out crowd immediately stopped arguing and threatening each other and moved instinctively to stand closer together. Suzie has that effect on people. There was a brief period of them all trying to hide behind each other, then they turned every weapon they had on Suzie and me. I made a point of walking quite casually, as though I didn't have a care in the world. I didn't need to look round to know that Suzie was carrying her double-barrelled, pump-action shotgun at the ready, in a really quite distressingly casual manner. Those at the front of the crowd tried edging backwards, but those behind them were having none of it. And that was when some poor damned fools decided to launch a surprise attack from above, presumably in the hope that we might be caught off guard.
An armoured knight came swooping down on a huge winged horse, waving a massive glowing sword. Suzie shot him right out of the saddle, and the horse kept on going, disappearing into the night. A distressingly hairy bat-winged harpy plummeted down towards me, her clawed feet thrust out before her. I waited until the very last minute, then grabbed both her ankles, swung her round, and slammed her face-first into the ground. All the fight went out of her as she lay trembling and shuddering in the churned-up mud, struggling to get some breath back into her lungs. I put her out of her misery with a good solid kick to the head. Never let it be said I don't know how to treat a lady. The harpy decided to have a little nap, and I looked round for someone else to vent a little spleen on.
(A part of me was already considering the fact that I never used to be that fast, and that efficient, in a fight. In fact, I usually avoid the hand-to-hand stuff because I'm crap at it. I had to wonder whether just owning the mighty Excalibur was… upgrading me.)
A pack of futuristic knights in space-age armour appeared suddenly over the roof, borne aloft on anti-grav backpack units. They assumed a very professional-looking formation and came swooping down with glowing energy blades held out before them. Suzie took up a comfortable stance and shot them out of the sky, one after the other. Her specially adapted ammunition blew great holes through the space-age armour and punched right through their steel helms. The futuristic knights blew apart like so many clay pigeons. Suzie didn't miss one. Dead knights drifted slowly away across the night sky, impelled on by their sputtering anti-grav units. Some bodies had heads, some didn't.
I decided enough was enough. I had no problem with watching murderous religious fanatics carve each other up or come to nasty ends through invading my privacy; but after a while, even justified homicide starts wearing you down. So I stepped forward, raised my hand, and addressed the crowd.
"I am John Taylor. And this… is Excalibur."
I reached over my shoulder, took a firm grasp on the invisible hilt, and drew the sword from its sheath with one graceful movement. Immediately, the sword became visible again, the long, golden blade shining with supernatural brilliance. It drove back the night, filling my property with light bright as day. Excalibur's presence filled the air, dominating the scene. And everyone in the crowd before me knelt and bowed their heads to Excalibur. Their respect was entirely for the sword, not the sword-bearer, but still, the sight of so many kneeling before me raised all the hackles on the back of my neck. I was in the presence of history and legend, of a sword that had shaped my country and my culture.
"Anyone here think they can take Excalibur from me, by force?" I said finally. "I bear Excalibur because the sword chose me to do so. Now, for those of you who haven't heard, being a bit obsessed at the moment; Walker is dead. I killed him. I am now the Voice of the new Authorities. So get the hell off my property, every one of you, before I use the Voice to make you do terrible things to yourselves."
The crowd got up off their knees and quietly dispersed. None of them felt like arguing. I put the sword away, and its light snapped off. Night fell over my non-lawn again. Suzie stood beside me, her shotgun still ostentatiously at the ready.
"You don't have the Voice," she said quietly.
"No," I said. "But they don't know that."
"They're bound to find out. Eventually."
"By then, I plan to be safely distant, in London Proper."
My mobile phone rang. I'm still using the Twilight Zone ring tone. Some things feel right and natural. When I answered, Julien Advent was on the other end.
"John, you're needed. Right now. Very urgently."
"This really isn't a good time, Julien," I said. "I'm a bit busy at the moment."
"No you're not. The Authorities have a mission for you. Did I mention how urgent this is?"
"You want to put me to work already?" I said. "Walker's only been dead a few hours! I haven't even officially accepted the position yet."
"Yes you have, as of right now. Don't argue with me. This is the kind of problem only Walker could deal with; and since you've made that impossible, it's your duty to take over. There's trouble at the Mammon Emporium. Someone's threatening to blow it up with a soulbomb. And that could threaten the whole existence of the Nightside. So stop arguing with me and get here fast. While there's still a here to get to!"
Julien Advent, the legendary Victorian Adventurer, editor of the Night Times, and leader of the new Authorities, doesn't often lose his temper.
"I'm on my way," I said. I put the phone away and smiled uncertainly at Suzie. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to put everything on hold for a while. Sweetie. Big trouble in the Nightside. Now, I really would love to stop and help you clear up all this mess, but you know how it is when duty calls."
She looked at me dangerously. "I do not do housework!"
But I'd already taken out the old gold pocket-watch that used to belong to Walker. I opened the lid and activated the Portable Timeslip inside, and just like that I was off and travelling through the void, on my way to save the Nightside, one more time.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >