“Adjure te, spiritus nequissime, per Deum omnipotentem!” Corporal Kevin White boomed, pointing a finger at Anna in her bed and flicking water from a small vial in her direction.
“Blergh!” Anna spat. “Some of that got in my mouth. You’d better pray it’s sanitised.”
She flung an arm out, almost as an afterthought.
Kevin lifted from his feet and slammed into the wall of Anna’s bedroom, making a sizable indentation in the plaster. He fell to his knees and a section of wallpaper came away from the wall, draping over him.
Three similar holes marred the wall around the hole he’d just made.
“You okay, Kevin?” Mandy asked and handed her daughter a strawberry bootlace.
Anna put it in her mouth and started nibbling messily. Mandy had found these were the best thing to feed her daughter. Other foods didn’t last long, she’d got through the mostly empty fridge in a few minutes and had been rapidly working her way through the sweet cupboard, until she hit the bootlaces. For some reason Anna seemed content to put one end in her mouth and eat it, nibble by nibble, like a rabbit with a long leaf.
She even agreed to rest in her bed so long as strawberry bootlaces could be guaranteed. Mandy had sent Kevin out to buy several carrier bags’ worth.
The priest got to his feet with a wince, “I’m fine. Back like a tortoise, me.” His back made a few un-tortoise-like pops as he straightened.
“Kevin, I don’t mean to be critical,” Mandy started, carefully choosing her words. “But that’s the fourth time she’s flung you into the wall-”
“It’s okay,” Kevin interrupted. “I have a very good plasterer on speed-dial. An artist with the hawk and trowel. He’s still grateful for me evicting an aspect of Sabnoc from his small intestine.” He pulled the wallpaper off him and eyed the holes in the wall. “I’m just glad it’s not bare brick.”
“God, me too, but that’s not-” Mandy began, hoping to politely suggest to Kevin that what he was doing wasn’t working, but he interrupted again.
Anna chuckled as she chewed on her lace. Mandy ground her teeth.
“Yeah, my bricky’s in Mallorca for a fortnight. Now Sabnoc, even in aspect, is a duke of hell. A Duke. He told me his name on the third asking. They have to tell you their names, you see?”
“Do they,” Mandy said. “Because-”
“They certainly do! It’s the rules. God’s rules.” Anna chuckled again. Mandy ripped a strawberry lace in half. “The rules on which the universe is based. It’s like gravity. A demon can no more ignore them than I can float away from the earth’s mass.”
“Kevin, I’m going to be blunt-”
“I don’t think I’m doing any good.”
“What? Oh, no I wouldn’t say… no, you’re not helping at all,” she admitted. “But I really do appreciate you trying. Why is it not working?”
Kevin was staring at Anna. Anna was focussed on watching her current strawberry lace inch its way to oblivion. He put his hand on the small of his back and stretched with a loud series of cracks, still staring at the possessed girl speculatively.
Mandy was about to ask him again when he spoke.
“Yes,” he said as if he had reached a conclusion. “Mandy, I think the problem we’re having here is that it’s not a demon.”
The strawberry lace stopped moving towards Anna’s mouth for a second. The corner of her mouth twitched, but she didn’t look up. Then she resumed chewing.
“What? If it’s not a demon,” Mandy said. “Then what the bloody hell is it?”
The priest looked uncomfortable, “See, here’s the delicate bit, Mandy. According to my religion, the creed by which I live my life, in which I have been vindicated in faith and by proof time and time again, the thing I know to be based on absolute cosmic fact… according to that, there’s nothing else that could be doing it. There’s God and the devil. Anything supernatural that does not come from a divine source is the work of powers infernal. Nothing but a demon can possess a person.”
“But…” Mandy prompted.
“I’m going to make a phone call,” Kevin said.
The doorbell’s normal ding-dong sounded like a clang and Mandy jumped.
Since making his phone call, Kevin had been sitting on the padded bench in front of Anna’s dresser, twiddling his thumbs, while Mandy sat in the chair next to her daughter’s bed, occasionally feeding her strawberry laces and feeling an oppressive weight of emotion that sat on her like the flu.
“Ah, I believe that’ll be round two,” Kevin said with a slightly malicious glance at Anna.
He got up and went downstairs to answer the door.
Mandy and her daughter exchanged a glance. Anna didn’t look pale, or green, or have funny-coloured eyes like possessed people did in the movies. She looked healthy, calm and confident and largely like Anna, except for the gooey strawberry mess around her mouth.
“Please get out of my daughter,” Mandy said.
“Apologies, ‘mother’, but I shan’t blithely abandon this glut of sensation. The nerves of the young are afire with every tickle,” Anna said with apparent sincerity but gave her mother a slow once-over with her eyes. “However, I might consider it if you allow me to enter you instead. A riper body offers possibilities this one sadly lacks.”
Mandy found herself cringing at the thought of what this thing would do once it was inside her; she felt the hair stand up all along her arms, “In a heartbeat,” she said. “Just tell me when.”
Anna chuckled like a cat finding a mouse meeting. “Oh, not just yet, but I will bear that in mind.”
Kevin thumped up the stairs, followed by a lighter tread.
He entered the room with a woman in tow. She wore white jeans, a white vest and had bare feet, dirty and calloused. She was Japanese and her long dark hair was matted but tied back with string. Some leaves poked out. In one grubby hand, she carried a short staff with a flattened end. A ball swung from its tip. Around her feet curved the sinuous form of a black fox.
“Mandy, Anna, this is Miki,” Kevin said politely, the woman nodded and held a hand up in greeting.
“And this is Shin,” the woman said, as calm as pond water on a still day, and gestured to her fox. “He has only the one tail, but it is a very beautiful one.”
The fox sat down and regarded the room with intelligent golden eyes.
“Right… okay,” Mandy said awkwardly. “Hi.”
“Miki does what I do…” Kevin explained and paused as he struggled for words for a moment before adding, almost apologetically. “Just with a different coat on.”
The fox seemed amused at Kevin’s difficulties
“Okay,” Mandy said again. “Miki, please can you help my daughter?”
In answer, Miki approached the bed, looking carefully at Anna.
As she got closer, her scent hit Mandy’s nose. The woman smelled strongly of the woods; mud, pine-leaves and animal musk. Mandy got the impression she had been living in the nearby forest, naked and wild, and just pulled on the white clothes to enter civilisation.
“Anna, may I see your nails?” she asked, her accent local with only a hint of elsewhere.
Anna presented her hand with an affectedly regal gesture, grinning, “Why, of course!”
Mikki let the girl’s fingers rest lightly on her palm as she studied them, then looked into her eyes. “I see you,” she said, mildly surprised.
“I’m not hiding,” Anna replied.
Shin the fox hopped up onto the end of the bed, Anna grimaced at it.
“No, I see you are not,” Miki said. “Who are you, brazen one?”
“Ah, now that you’ll have to ask the crows. Or maybe your mutt there.”
Miki turned a questioning look on the fox. It shrugged. She turned back to Anna, held her staff close to the girl’s face and shook it sharply, so that the ball clacked loudly against the flat wood.
Once, twice, three times.
Anna sneered at the wooden board, then at Miki and snorted disdainfully.
Miki stepped away from the bed and rubbed at her chin, “shinji rarenai!”
“Well?” Mandy demanded.
“This is not Kitsunetsuki or anything else we can help with, I am so sorry,” she said, offering an apologetic bow. “I’m going to make a call.”
“Oh, for fu-”
“Chill your beans, love,” Miki said, in a very Ponty way. “I’m going to call The Thunder Department.”
Mandy shut her mouth. That sounded promising.
Miki borrowed Kevin’s phone, because hers had gotten mud in it apparently, and dialled a long number. Though he allowed it, Kevin didn’t seem to be happy lending her his phone. Not, Mandy speculated, because he was protective of it but rather because Miki was making a heathen phone call. Mandy could hear it ringing.
Someone picked up.
Miki spoke in respectful, apologetic-sounding Japanese, bowing slightly as she spoke. She ended the call quickly, saying “Domo arigato gozaimasu! Osoreirimasu!” with a more pronounced bow.
Then she swiped through the phone, deleted the number and handed it back to Kevin.
“He is coming,” she said.
“Who is?” Kevin asked in tones of foreboding.
Outside, in the distance, thunder rumbled.
It sounded again. This time closer.
“Did you call Raiden?” Mandy asked.
“That’s a computer game character, silly,” Miki laughed like a tinkling forest stream. “And Japanese. Due to… a misinterpretation of a decision, the Kami are not currently speaking to me. I have contacted the Shen.”
“The who?” Mandy asked.
Thunder sounded again, inside the room.
Kevin, Mandy and Anna cringed and clapped their hands to their ears. Thunder was too big a sound to be contained in a girl’s bedroom. The window blew out and the dressing table mirror shattered. By the time they had got their hands to their ears however, the thunder had already stopped, and they were just left with the tinny after-echo and the tinkling of falling pieces of glass.
“Bloody hell,” Mandy said. “What was that?”
“Apologies,” said a tall Chinese man standing next to Miki. “My typical method of carriage lacks finesse and I don’t often venture into environments so frail.”
“Bloody hell!” Mandy flinched and glowered at him. “What’s wrong with you?” She started regretting her words as she took him in. His bearing was refined, his visage noble, his ears hung down to his shoulders, and his eyes shone. He wore a suit and a trilby of a pale goose-yellow, a belt decorated with eight jewels and he had golden dragons on his socks. He stood with such quiet confidence and immaculate poise, far beyond anything she’d seen in the most heavily photoshopped celebrity photo, that there was little doubt she was in the presence of something other, but she was committed now. “You muppet! Are you trying to give me a heart attack? And who’s going to pay for that window?”
He smiled and inclined his head, “Apologies again.” He spoke politely but with a quiet menace that indicated, clearly and eloquently, that while he was speaking to a barbarian who didn’t understand the appropriate forms of address and had made allowances he would allow nothing further.
Mandy didn’t push it, “Sorry, sorry, my fault. I was just startled is all and worried. About, um, my daughter, see?” she inclined her head towards her daughter.
“Yes,” the tall man said, his voice echoed slightly as though he was in a hall. He turned his shining eyes towards the girl. “I do see. You are a strange thing, squatting in there. Come out.”
Anna had shuffled up against the headboard and was staring at the man in terror.
“I said come out,” he stated.
Mandy felt the command in his voice like a physical blow.
“No,” Anna whimpered. “This is mine.”
A palpable wave of displeasure emanated from him. Kevin, who had his back turned to the man and his eyes closed for some reason, clenched his fists.
“I will ask you one more time,” began the man, in a voice like a tiger growling.
“And then what?” Anna shouted at him. “You have no authority to order me! Yes, you can pull me out, easily, but I swear I will rip her to shreds on the way out!”
There was a moment of silence in the room, a silence that seemed to suck the walls inwards, as if the man had a black hole for a heart which was, Mandy realised, entirely possible.
“You seek my displeasure?” his voice now throbbed with a terrible promise unspoken. Kevin had taken his cross out and was quietly murmuring prayer, Mandy felt like she might actually pee herself. “That is ill-advised,”
“I’ll take my chances!” Anna squeaked.
Despite herself, Mandy was impressed.
The tall man nodded and even had the ghost of a smile, as if he too was impressed with the bravery of whatever horrible thing he could see squatting inside Anna.
He turned his face to Mandy. He was difficult to look at, but she refused to look away.
“Apologies,” he said. “I cannot help, but I believe there is someone who can.”
He stood to one side and behind him in the doorway stood Mr Vance with a cricket bat and a face like a thunder cloud.
“Right,” he said. “All you bell-ends: get out.”
Everyone looked to Mandy, she blinked at Mr Vance, but then shrugged and nodded. If vicars, witches and otherworldy beings couldn’t help Anna, maybe an angry gardener with a cricket bat was worth a try. She nodded.
“You will be in good hands,” said the man.
“Good luck, Mandy, Anna” Miki said. Her fox smiled encouragingly.
“Listen, I’m sorry I couldn’t help,” Kevin said. “I don’t know what they think your neighbour is going to achieve but, if you need me, you’ve got my number.”
Under the baleful eye of Mr Vance, they all filed out of the room. There was a smaller clap of thunder in the hallway and something shattered. A few seconds later the front door slammed shut.
Mr Vance put the cricket bat in the corner by the door and turned to Mandy
“Right, don’t lose your shit but, personally, I’m not going to do anything,” Mr Vance said.
“What?” said Mandy. She showed Mr Vance her teeth in what she thought was a polite smile, but she couldn’t be sure.
“Yeah,” Mr Vance said. “I’m going to make a phone call.”
Somehow, Mandy didn’t lose her shit. She knew the warning signs, she was well past the point where she normally went ballistic but, impossibly, she just said: