This week Sue Vincent’s #writephoto prompt is a crow.
A crow so happens to feature a lot in my latest work in progress, a humorous urban fantasy based on the exploits of a character that has appeared here before, Pearl Barley, trainee exorcist. I thought I’d share an extract from it. In this section Pearl and fellow trainee, Marge Wisp are to be shown a crow with Corvid Dementicus or mad crow’s syndrome by Borage Backflip who looks after the unpassed spirits and members of the fae that the exorcists bring back from their runs, pending dealing with them. Pearl is convinced (based on what she was told by Sharon, a deceased hairstylist who is currently in possession of Pearl’s hair) that a crow she brought in had jackdaws syndrome, an different form of possession experienced by members of the corvid family but it is something Borage has contradicted. This is part of persuading Pearl she is wrong. Eventually there will be three books, involving Pearl – I’ve written book one and book two is three quarters done; my aim is to finish all three before I publish the first
Borage waited while they donned their protective outfits.
While they helped each other, Marge asked, “Do we need these for the crows?”
“Nah. They’re safe enough. The danger comes from the rest of little sods we have to pass. They’ll spit and eject and ejaculate and explode anything they can, just to make a point. Mostly it’s harmless, like being sprayed with acrid-smelling mayonnaise but occasionally it can dissolve fibre, burn concrete and permanently stain pretty much anything. Some of them are so dextrous they’ll brand your neck with a pair of bollocks before you’ve begun to duck. Just don’t make eye contact. Many of them find that a threat and react. Mostly, if you ignore them, they’ll ignore you, whatever noise they make. You both got ear-buddies?”
Pearl nodded as did Marge, though she looked unsure. “I’ve only used them a couple of times,” she said.
“Don’t worry. Let them do their own thing and if they ask you to choose a selection, go with their recommendations. You can make your own playlist when you’ve a bit more experience.”
As soon as they were dressed they followed Borage. Pearl squeezed her eyes into narrow slits, minimizing what she saw. She hated the inevitable pandemonium. Ahead Borage unlocked a gate to a compound she’d not been in before. He turned and pointed at his ears. She nodded and concentrated on Bud and Buddy. They seemed to sense her unease and both hurriedly agreed on Guns ‘n’ Roses as if their lives depended on it.
The scene that greeted Pearl took her breath away. On one side she caught a glimpse of a frothing volcano of bile that seemed to be boiling from the centre of the cage. She noted a trough that caught the spillage that followed each eruption. She wanted to ask what on earth was in there, but Borage marched ahead and she hurried to follow, hoping Marge was keeping up.
The next section held a range of small spectres and partial elemental forces. They were essentially formless and bashed themselves against reinforced netting that pushed them back each time with a tired ‘oomph’.
Meanwhile Borage was already on the far side, opening another gate. While the first gate was protected with standard daemon clasps this one had hypoallergenic banding and a sensurround system for aural defences. Clearly whatever brain distorting creatures were held in here, there was a need for enhanced sound defences in addition to the standard ear-buddies. Bud and Buddy understood because the both whimpered and began playing, in one ear, Enya, and in the other Kate Bush. Pearl knew from discussions on the top twenty tracks that these were last resort numbers.
They knew their stuff. As Orinoco Flowing competed with Wuthering Heights at a volume that would clean silver Pearl’s mind felt as if it was being wrapped in a protective layer of mental motherhood and super-absorbent emoti-wipes. Relaxing a little, she stepped forward and trotted after Borage, rather as she might have done aged seven in a field of daisies.
Once they were all through the next gate, Borage slammed it shut. A silence, at once unctuous and oily oozed over them. Fortunately the boiler suits and ear-buddies meant they experienced the sensations at one remove. Though everyone was taught that direct exposure would probably have terrified the Grim Reaper with its promise of endless night. Pearl checked on Marge. She smiled and nodded she was okay. Pearl was impressed at how she was dealing with each new section. For her part, and even though she knew she was protected, she felt her skin crawl as the mind benders and mentalists sat in their cages, some plotting to themselves, others fulminating against untrustworthy gods and the rest declaiming the rightness of their way to paradise. One day, to complete her training, Pearl, like all trainees, would be expected to enter here, albeit briefly and without any protection and resist the torment offered in the form of a promise like it was seconds of a favourite dessert. The skill was to understand that the credulous and compelling temptations were traps and retain that belief whatever your conscious mind told you. The tricks were many and varied, she’d been told: dead parents would call out, friends that had been lost over the years would plead, while convincing salespeople would offer unfeasibly generous deals on mobile phone contracts. ‘Focus on something mundane, a task so routine you normally do not think about it,’ was the advice she’d been given. In training sessions so far, simulated by some sub-fae trained by Borage, Pearl’s task of choice had been her dental hygiene. She focused on this now, to help her pass through and in her head she was still flossing, when Borage eased them both into a gloomy enclosure and shut the door behind them.
The poor lighting made this compound appear to be empty. As the ear-buddies retreated Pearl realised there was a wooden bench in the centre. Sitting on it was a crow, which appeared to be knitting. “That,” said Borage, “is you classic dementicus. Sure they don’t all make it so apparent, but the skill is to wait. In a hurry the bread thing is fine but there are plenty of reasons why a crow might forgo free food. It might be blind or on a gluten-free diet. But the truly possessed will be unable to resist doing something utterly uncrowlike if given enough time. That’s why, if they fail the nibble test they should still be brought in to be sure.”
“How many were tested before they were released?”
He sniffed. “Two, and they didn’t have dementicus. I can be certain about that. None of them did. Even though we never had the time to test we’re sure they were fine.”
Pearl wrinkled her nose as she watched the crow put down its knitting and… “Can it do that? I mean, should it?”
Borage glanced at the crow. It now appeared to be pleasuring itself. “Bloody thing. It’s not like that actually works for it. It’s another feature, though, of true dementicus. It reads its audience and does something to upset whoever’s watching it.”
“Why the knitting?”
“That’s because it reminds me of aunts.” He shuddered. “Nothing good ever came out of aunts. That,” he waved vaguely at the crow who was on its back and making an attempt at moaning, “is for you or her. Only one of you can explain that, not me.”
Pearl wanted to be swallowed up; really it had to be for Marge’s benefit, not that she was about to ask. “Were you surprised at the false positives on the two you did test?”
Borage lifted his mask and rubbed his face. It rippled like old jelly. “I’ll tell you what’s odd. We’ve had this one for several weeks and every time I hint it’s time we get the spirit moved on, or sort out what type of fae is possessing it, I’m told to leave it for a while longer. And after the seven were brought in and we had our suspicions about them, I said we should show you lot this one, so you’d know in future what it’s really like, but it’s like, ‘we’re too busy’ yada yada yada.”
“What about mine? It had jackdaw syndrome. Did you or Rusticle test it?”
He glared at her. “No. It. Didn’t.”
“So you tested it?”
The hesitation was enough to tell her. “It wasn’t necessary. Rusty was sure and he knows.”
“But it was behaving very oddly. It must have had something.”
“You an expert on what comprises ‘odd’ in the lexicon of crow behaviour, are you? You didn’t spend enough time with it to know. I did and Rusty did and we’ve seen many to know.”
She was sure he was unsure but had no way of challenging him. Time for a different tack. “Based on your extensive experience, if it did have jackdaw syndrome,” she held up a hand, “hypothetically, what fae might be the one controlling the crow?”
“Who knows? Loads. Some use them as messengers, sort of slaves really but I guess they see them as we do robots. They don’t want to hurt them. Others treat them like disposable commodities. Get them to do stuff they don’t want to or which might be dangerous.” He took a breath. “The best way to think about them is like drones. They tell them where to go, to deliver things, do stuff for the fae. Look, lesson over. I’ve work to do.” He pulled his mask back in place and fiddled with his ear-buddies. When Pearl went to do the same Bud and Buddy tried to persuade her to find another way out, but she shushed them quiet. Once suited, she followed him with Marge in their wake. Pearl tried to concentrate on the seven crows and whether any of them had dementicus or even jackdaw syndrome, but the elementals and mad fae around her were so distracting that she felt exhausted when finally they reached the yard.
Borage waited while they took off their overalls. He pointed Marge towards the doors to the offices. “Off you go.”
“Thanks,” she said brightly.