Juliet stops dead in the pavement and looks around. “Who and where are you … and how would you like to die?”
“I’m me … you … in spirit form. From another world. I want to see what a universe with real gods and magic is like and what it’s like for me to live in it. Mind if I tag along?”
“I’ll slip behind your eyes, feel you thoughts and senses. You can come to my world instead if there’s not much going on here. We can have fun.”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on – my final assessment starts in a mo. Fun it will be. There will probably be screaming and bloodstains. Come on board.”
Mitch, possibly the least intelligent dog the world has ever seen, bursts from the undergrowth by the road. Perpetually drooling, wagging his tail and getting overexcited about nothing in particular he bounds along the pavement and drags clinging foliage with him.
Juliet rolls her eyes. “Mitch, you are a ball of burrs. Look at you. It’ll take hours to get that lot off.”
Mitch comes to a halt, shakes his head until his ears look as if he’s attempting to take off but lacking the necessary coordination. Apparently satisfied with whatever he’s done he bounds up to Juliet and tries to sniff her bottom.
“Mitch, bugger off. For a familiar you’re way too familiar.” She snatches at lengths of goosegrass attached to his tail as he races off to abuse the next telegraph pole.
Her phone vibrates. She pulls it from her knapsack and looks at the screen.
You have reached you destination
“Oh really?” Juliet looks around. A tall white wall extends either side of a metal gate. Branches, heavy with summer foliage hang over the top. She decides the wrought iron gate, black, ornate, a demons-eating-cherubs design is the way to her end of year assessment. The iron letters at the top of the gate read:
Intrantes ego occidam
Juliet pinches her lower lip and groans. “Mitch, I’ve only been sent to the moron that calls herself Lady Elanor Usher. According to gossip she has that Latin stuff written on her knickers too.”
Mitch scratches his ear and dribbles on the pavement.
“OK, brainless one, why her? She doesn’t assess people usually. She must have requested this. Why me? Given that she’s a malaevolent scheming bitch who loathes undergrads I doubt it’s going to be fun. It’s also rumoured that she’s got hold of two ten-year bottles of aqua vitae. Even the gods can’t afford that stuff these days.”
Mitch sniffs his pool of saliva and licks it up.
Juliet goes on, “I’m also told she keeps a barghest in the grounds of this mansion; we may have to dash for the front door. Can you run without tripping over your ears?”
Mitch lifts his leg to urinate on the gate. Juliet whips out her wand, changes her mind and pulls Mitch away by his tail. “Possibly electrified. Inadvisable to piss on the gate, dear dog, unless you want your genitals tanned tangentially. We need to be very careful here.” She taps her wand against the gate and says, ‛Open or I’ll change your design to baby bunnies dancing with butterflies.”
As the gates swing open she calls, “Mitch, follow me and be prepared to leg it. A barghest is a big hound made of spectral fire and looks like…” she pauses and points, “that bastard there.”
The gates clang closed behind them.
Juliet, twirling her wand in an attempt to look as relaxed as a tigerskin rug, strolls towards Lady Usher’s four metre high front doors set between Corinthian columns. “Mitch, the barghest is out to scare us. That’s what they do. They feed off fear and they’re very talented at causing it. You see that rippling fire that runs from nose to tail? That’s to confuse you, like it’s running at speed when it’s only walking.” Juliet, despite her reputation for cool being commonly associated with liquid nitrogen feels her mouth go dry, heart race and a fine tremor zinging in her fingertips as the monster approaches.
Patterns of sparks flicker on its fur; only the eyes and maw are black, portals to the depths of Hell.
Mitch sniffs its bottom, and yelps. Lying on the ground, eyes closed and paws over his nose, his body jerks with every sneeze and snort.
The barghest could have attacked them both by now and Juliet decides it must be under orders not to. What really bugs her is the way the word “Yet” seems to want to creep into that sentence.
Mitch, still wuffling and shaking blobs and loops of snot from his nose, reaches the doors as Juliet pulls them open. The barghest lies down on the lawn and lays its head on crossed paws. There’s a certain ‘Catch you later’ aura about the monster hound.
Passing over the threshold means moving through a holding spell so strong it could trap the moon. Juliet’s puzzled until she realises it’s to keep the barghest out of the house.
Juliet thinks, Hmm, now that’s interesting. Lady Elanor must be scared shitless by it if she’s prepared to spend that much energy keeping it out… She closes the doors behind her and Mitch. Doors on the other side of the vestibule open and two figures waltz towards her in silence. A skeleton butler in threadbare rotted livery and a housemaid similarly deceased and dressed stop before her. She gets a bow and a curtsey.
The butler says, “Lady Elanor is ready to see you. Please follow us.” Juliet struggles to hear exactly what he’s saying as his teeth are loose and rattle as he talks flipping back and forth like accordion keys.
The butler takes the maid’s hand, puts his arm round her waist and says, “Foxtrot.” They dance away completely unphased by Mitch’s leaping and barking among their legs.
Juliet runs a quick eye over the flawless full-length mirrors either side of the entrance, puts her head on one side, taps her wand on her eyebrow, nose and lip studs and adds a diamond to each. Ruffling her spiky hair and tearing more holes in her leggings, rendering them more hole than legging, she nods at her reflection and races after the sound of Mitch.
She’s just about caught up with them, after an aerobic sprint along two corridors, a balcony and up a curving stairway, when they dodge into a room. Juliet, still at full throttle, skids past and into a sculpted marble priapus.
“Sorry, I can see you’re up for anything and fascinating in so many ways but I have an assessment.” She turns, dives through the doorway and enters an octagonal gallery. Overhead is a dome of stained glass, featuring pictures of the Seven Hells. The final section is an artist’s portrait of Satan. Juliet appreciates good art, particularly imaginative, magical art. She smirks while she looks at the painting. Satan not only has her face but the piercings are correct too.
On the blood red walls hang more scenes of Hell tastefully framed in carved wood covered with gold leaf. Lady Elanor Usher, tall and thin, wearing black to go with her skin, hair and nails and teeth, stands looking up at a painting. She says, “Over here, girl.”
Juliet scans, wondering where Mitch is. Of course, there’s a fireplace and he’s already asleep in front of it. She walks to her assessor. “My lady, delightful to meet you.”
“No it’s not, and it’s going to deteriorate from here.” She turns. “For you, anyway.” Looking Juliet up and down she adds, ‛You must know my opinions on dress code. You’ve come like this just to wind me up? think you can take me on? Your assessment starts…”
Juliet interrupts, “Ts and Cs; first things first.”
“There is no need…”
Juliet whips a parchment from her sleeve. “By what sign will I know if I have passed or failed?”
“That is the second time you have interrupted. I do not need to follow petty…”
“And this is the third interruption. You will follow petty like the rest of us.” Juliet snaps the scroll open. “Don’t try to intimidate me. I know the game as well as you. Answer the questions here.” She holds the parchment in front of Lady Elanor’s face.
Elanor intones, ”Pass will be achieved by the student leaving this house and surrounding grounds alive having successfully passing the test I give her. As required by the statute of Cambridge University Science and Magic faculty, 2013, there is no charge for those that pass.” Her answers write themselves by the questions. She goes on, “The cost of failure is the life and youth of one Juliet of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. The nature of the test is to catch my house brownie.”
Juliet gets in there quickly. If she learned only one thing in her first year at Morgan Le Fey College it’s that grey areas are treacherous in contracts with professors or other sociopaths. “And if he’s not to be found in this room?”
“Then I’ll eat my hat because I’m buggered if I can find the bastard anywhere else.” Elanor frowns though the lines are difficult for Juliet to make out in that matt ebony brow. “Erase that last answer. If the aformentioned student gives up looking she may only attempt to leave by casting a twenty year vitae spell on me.”
Juliet gasps, “Twenty years? That’ll leave me with a magic deficit so big I’ll be catatonic for months and I have to hand this,” she waves the parchment, “in two days or I fail the year.”
“Then you’d better find the brownie. His one and only talent, other than theiving is to hide in paintings and mirrors. It is well known in the college that you, Juliet, can in theory cast just about any spell. That you have little more magical power than an ordinary human is your problem. People like you shouldn’t be let out of magicians’ clubs.” She points at the paintings of Hades hanging on the walls. “The brownie will be in one of these. Nab him and pull the bell rope when you have him,” she pauses, “or … you give in and go for the second option.” Skirts and cloak hissing, she glides from the room. “Have a good day.”
“Wanker,” snarls Juliet and scans the six vast paintings of death and damnation, horrors and tortures, all in the most minute detail and each containing thousands of figures, human and demonic. “Bollocks, this could take weeks.” She marches to the fireplace, scoops Mitch up and says, “Sorry but sleepy time is over. Go and find that brownie.” Mitch yelps as he’s tossed into a two dimensional hell.
Juliet collapses in a high-backed velvet easy chair. “Right, there’s no brownie; Elanor wants me to perform the vitae spell.” Looking up at her reflection in the angled mirror over the fireplace, she says, “Time for lateral thinking, missus. Let’s work together.”
Her reflection frowns and sinks further into her chair. “All we need is a way out of here.”
“Past a barghest.”
“Yeeeees … arg. There’s probably a way.”
“She wants to look twenty years younger and take my youth and life. Hmm, I’m going to have a long think. When my Mitch has finished in that painting, I’ll stick him in another. You go for a different one with your Mitch. Between us, we can work twice as fast.”
Her reflection leaps from the chair, says, “Even then you won’t have enough time,” and starts pacing to and fro across the fireplace. Juliet, still slumped in her seat, looks at the rip in her reflection’s leggings. Her right buttock is slightly exposed. She wonders if she should do the same for her left.
She’s pulled from her thoughts, hours later, by the appearance of the zombie housemaid who grins while pushing a trolley into the room. The grin reveals gaps in her teeth. The housemaid says, “Dinner by the grace of her ladyship.” She lifts covers. “Peacock soup.” More silver clatters. “Penguin souflee, wren niblets. My lady eats only two legged things on Tuesdays.” The housemaid grins again.
Juliet’s appetite, momentarily stimulated by the smells, dies when she realises she can’t be sure the maid left with as many teeth as when she entered.
Mitch leaps out of the painting and hits the mosaic floor. His spinning and scampering, drooling and uncontrolled tongue, slapping his eyes and the floor, give Juliet a strong message that he’s not inclined to worry about other people’s dental problems but wants to get stuck in. She rises and puts the soup bowl on the floor.
Looking up at her reflection she asks, “How’s it going? I’ve hit more dead ends than an octopus with major amputation problems.”
“Bitch, I was going to say that.”
“Let’s bounce ideas off each other in silence, you never know who may be listening.” Juliet’s reflection pulls something that looks like a speech bubble or inflated condom from her head and throws it. Flying down from the mirror Juliet nuts it back. Conclusions and mysteries ping between them.
The reflection throws, “If she has those two vials of aqua vitae, she can take twenty years off her age. Uh … that would her eighteen.”
“She wants me to cast the same spell.”
“And she wants to take your youth.”
“Anomaly. She’s already killed students and taken their youth. She’s currently running at thirty-one years old.”
“Thirty-one minus twenty, minus twenty … suicidal maths.”
“So she doesn’t have the aqua vitae.”
“The brownie exists and has nicked it. Elanor said, “His one and only talent other than theiving…”
“I think he may have another talent.”
“No, a quality: intelligence.”
“Exactly. That puts him way above her league. Can you stop throwing ideas so hard? I’m getting a virtual bruise on my forehead.”
“So, he’s not hiding in a painting.”
“Ouch! Nope. Be gentle with me. So why does a house brownie steal something worth squillions and hide in the house he stole it from?”
“The barghest stops him getting out.”
“But he must have know the barghest was there … right … he knew I was coming.”
“Nicked the aqua vitae as payment for getting him away from that awful cow.”
“So why’s he still hiding?”
“Because you’re being watched? Because he thinks you can’t pull it off?”
“Because he thinks I’ll distract the barghest while he escapes with the aqua vitae. I doubt if it’s payment for freeing him. Let’s get weaving. You put Mitch at the door and set a web spell. I’m going to walk over here.” Juliet taps her fingernails over a lacquered birdseye maple box on the mantlepiece and says, “If I were a very clever brownie that had stolen some aqua vitae I’d hardly hide in a painting. Everyone would know it’s my skill and look for me in them. No, I’d hide somewhere else. Maybe in a little box like this, not expecting anyone in this household to think I was too intelligent to use my power. Except I can hide in mirrors and maybe the relfection of this box.” She stares up at the mirror. The reflected box trembles a little, flies open and the brownie leaps out, dives through the mirror and into the waiting mouth of Mitch.
Juliet says, “Mitch, swallow but don’t chew — the same way you treat your food.” Looking up at the mirror she says to her reflection, “OK, time to get out. I’m gonna synch this mirror to the one on the left as you face the front door.” Behind her, Mitch chokes.
Juliet grins; cloud mirror systems are her favourite now she’s worked out how to use them. She says to her reflection, “Make yourself scarce. I’m taking Mitch and the brownie.” Her reflection disappears as the butler and Lady Elanor enter the gallery.
Juliet scoops up Mitch and shoves the food trolley across the room, leaps on it, jumps to the top of the high backed chair and hurls herself at the mirror.
Landing with a roll on the vestibule floor, in a tangle of knapsack straps and a variety of Mitch’s limbs and other attachments she spits out a furry ear that’s made its way into her mouth and says, “Mitch, they’ll be after us. We’ve only seconds. Cough up the brownie now!”
But Mitch is too busy working out which way up he is, which way up he’d prefer to be and what he’s going to be excited about next.
“Mitch, this is important. You want me to stick my fingers down your throat?”
A saliva-covered brownie, rolled up and whimpering, pops out of Mitch’s mouth and into Juliet’s hand. The brownie clutches two tiny glass vials that glow as if someone’s trapped a little star in each.
“Brownie, get a grip. You want to get out of here as much as we do. The butler and lady will be here any moment now.” She puts her hand out. “Payment?”
The brownie scowls, a mess of hairy warts and carrot nose. He tosses a bottle to Juliet.
She tucks it in her pocket, rises, taps each corner of the mirror and lifts it from the wall. “Here, brownie, steady this while I open the front door.” She looks at her reflection in the mirror and puts a holding spell on it. “OK, refection, twenty seconds, that’s all the magic I have left.”
The brownie, a mere twenty milimetres tall, struggles to keep the mirror stable. Juliet throws the doors wide and lifts the mirror through the barghest restraining spell. “Here, little barghest, you can kill me now. Here, barghesty-gesty, bargy-wargy … woof, woof.” She looks back into the room. “Mitch how are you supposed to talk to barghests?”
Over the lawn streaks Hell on legs, smoking turf ripped from the ground by mighty claws and tossed higher than the trees. Juliet squeaks, “Shiiiiit!’ and ducks behind the mirror. “Brownie, tell me when I can open my eyes.” She draws her lip stud out.
The brownie screams in terror, like a piccollo attempting to explode, gasps, and says, “The barghest disappeared into the looking glass!”
Juliet opens her eyes, reaches round to the front of the mirror, and grinds the diamond of her stud into the surface. A screeching moment later, she’s dragged a scratch from bottom to top.
She rises, “If the barghest is foolish enough to jump back out, it’ll cut itself in half. OK, gang, run like fuck!”
Pounding down the gravel drive makes almost enough noise to cover Lady Elanor’s screams from within the house. Juliet reckons the lady is currently too preoccupied to be a problem.
Juliet slams the gates closed behind herself, Mitch and the brownie. “Bloody hell that was a close shave … more like a waxing.” She pulls the parchment from her sleeve. “Let’s see what the professors think.”
Pass: First class: with style, lol 🙂
©Gary Bonn: 2013
If you’ve not met her before: Juliet (and her friend Errol) enter Morgan Le Fey College unaware they are being secretly inducted and press-ganged into the most outrageous university. Don’t expect to come out of this book the same as you entered it.
Click on the image below