CHAPTER FIVE. Weapons of Mass Distraction

The knock on my door came far too early in the morning. I was awake and up and about, but only just.

I’d been up barely half an hour, forced out of an extremely comfortable bed by a raucous alarm clock and Molly’s relentlessly good-natured presence. It was still dark when I looked out the window. The Hall grounds swept away before me like some strange night country. It reminded me of the view I’d seen from the windows in the Winter Hall, in Limbo, and I shuddered despite myself. No full moon here to light the grounds, though; the family never leaves such things to chance. Two long lines of electric lights lined the long driveway up to the Hall, and floating, shimmering spheres drifted silently across the great lawns in regular patterns. Balls of plasma energy, generated by some machine deep in the basements of the Hall, designed by the previous Armourer. Before that it was all paper lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps generated by a magical stone, by long tradition. The previous Matriarch put a stop to all that, in the name of efficiency. Some of the older Droods were heard to grumble that they preferred the old lights, that they were warmer and more comforting. But no one paid any attention. We’ve always been a very practical family.

There were guards out there in the dark, even if I couldn’t see them. There are always guards on the grounds. We all take a turn from the time we’re sixteen. It’s one of the things you look forward to, growing up in the Hall. The first time you’re designated a sector and sent out into the night is a great feeling. It means you’re an adult at last, with an adult’s responsibilities. Protecting the family while they sleep. I can still remember how that felt: making my rounds in the quiet of the early morning, the grass damp with dew under my feet, head snapping round at every unexpected sound.

And I could remember lying in my bed, tucked up tight and toasty warm, half-awake in the dog hours of the morning, part of me feeling sorry for the poor bastards out in the cold, and part of me happy to be able to relax, to feel safe and protected. Of course, the vast majority of the Hall’s defences are mechanical and magical in nature, everything from force shields to robot guns in their bunkers under the lawns, to the gryphons in the woods and the undine in the lake; but there always has to be the human element to be the last line of defence. Because protective systems can be sabotaged—from without and within.

We’re a very practical family.

When the knock on my door came, I’d barely finished shaving. All Droods do that the old-fashioned way, with lots of shaving cream and a straight razor. It teaches us to have steady hands and nerves. I wasn’t even dressed yet, bumbling around the room in my jockeys and one sock, looking for the other sock, and waiting for Molly to get out of the adjoining bathroom. I hadn’t yet progressed from grunting noises to actual words. I am not a morning person. Molly, on the other hand, had already been up for an hour, and had worked her way through a full British fryup breakfast of sausages, beans, bacon, eggs and fried bread, sent up from the kitchens through the dumbwaiter. She did offer me some, but my stomach never wants to know about food till at least eleven o’clock. I had a big mug of hot black coffee, to jump-start my heart, and forced down some All-Bran with milk. (The mug bore the legend Worship Me Like the Goddess I Am. Molly gave it to me.) The heavy breakfast smell still lingered in the room, and I allowed myself to sniff it now and again.

Molly was on the toilet, dress hiked up and knickers round her ankles, reading the latest Heat magazine. God knows where she found it, certainly not in my room. I knew she was doing this because she insisted on having the bathroom door wide-open. Because, she said, she liked being able to always see me. Now, I enjoy her company, and I’m not the most inhibited of people, but there are still some things I feel should remain private. When I finally got to use the toilet, I was quietly determined that the door was going to stay shut, even if I had to barricade it from the inside.

The knock on the door came again, and I went to answer it, glancing at the ornate Italian clock on the wall. Coming up to seven thirty a.m. Someone was going to pay and pay dearly for disturbing me at such an ungodly hour. Did I mention that I am not a morning person? I hauled the door open and glared out into the corridor, and there was my uncle Jack, beaming at me cheerfully.

“Hello, Eddie! Isn’t it a marvellous morning? Ready for the off?”

I growled at him, and tried an even fiercer glare, but it didn’t faze him in the least. He strode forward, and I had to step aside to let him in or he’d have run right over me.

“What are you doing here, Uncle Jack?” I finally managed. “Is there some emergency? I didn’t hear any alarms.”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. This is the day of the fair, my boy, and you don’t want to be late. I’ve decided I’m going with you.”

I realised I was still holding the door open, dressed in only my underwear, and there was a hell of a draught. I looked up and down the corridor, but there was no one else about, nothing to suggest any kind of trouble. I shut the door and looked blearily at the Armourer as he looked around my room and tried not to look too distressed at the state of it. I didn’t care. My room. If I want to live like a pig, it’s up to me. The Armourer stopped dead as he looked through the open bathroom door, and quickly turned his back to the sight of Molly on the loo. I managed a small smile.

“You take us as you find us this early in the morning,” I said. “I’m only up because Molly’s an early riser. Probably comes from living in a forest most of the time. Now, what’s this about the fair?”

“I’m going with you,” the Armourer said firmly. “I haven’t been out in the field for thirty-five years, and the odds are I never will again, now that I’ve been given the secret departments to run, as well as the Armoury. So I am seizing the opportunity for one last adventure, and to hell with Cedric. Who does he think he is, ordering me around, the bloody Sarjeant-at-Arms?”

“I didn’t know you missed working in the field,” I said. “I thought you were happy terrorising people in your Armoury.”

“Well, yes, but then there’s happy, and then there’s . . . happy,” said the Armourer, still carefully keeping his back to Molly. “All this talk about the fair has got the old adrenaline going again. I always thought of my yearly visits to the Supernatural Arms Faire as my own territory: the one time I could justify leaving the Hall and getting out into the world again. I need to do this, Eddie. I need to get out into the field and get my hands dirty one more time. Before I get old.”

People tend to forget that my uncle Jack was a field agent for many years, second only to the legendary Grey Fox himself, my uncle James. And that Jack was an agent during the coldest days of the Cold War, when every mission was life-and-death, and every decision you made mattered. And now, after all these years as the family Armourer, he’d heard the call again, like an old dog by the fire pricking up his ears as the pack runs past in full cry; and he had to show us all, had to show himself, that he could still do it. Who was I to say him no?

“All right,” I said. “You know the ground; glad to have you. But what about the invitation? If you’re going to use it . . .”

“I’m entitled to plus-one,” he said cheerfully. “And no one’s going to be that upset if I make it plus-two. I’m a familiar face. They know me.”

Molly came out of the bathroom, properly attired, with her magazine tucked under her arm. “I heard all that. When are we going?”

“Right now,” said the Armourer. “Halfway across the world, the Supernatural Arms Faire has already opened for business.” He looked at me. “I should wrap up warm, though, Eddie. It’s bitter cold where we’re going.”

The Merlin Glass dropped us off halfway up a mountain in Pakistan. It was midday, but the sky was grey and cloudless and the sun wasn’t even trying. It was a grey world, all rock and stone and dust, and not a sign of life anywhere. The air was fiercely cold, burning my lungs as I breathed it. I shivered, even inside my heavy sheepskin jacket, and stamped my boots against the cold, hard ground. It was a good thing I’d listened to the Armourer’s warning; leaving the Hall for here had been like stepping off a balmy beach and into a freezer.

We’d arrived some way along a rough dirt track heading down into a deep valley, where the Supernatural Arms Faire was already set up. Row upon row of stalls and booths and tents, swiftly erected and easy to tear down when leaving. It was like a small town, thrown up overnight. Crowds of people were already milling about, filling every inch of space between the various sellers. Someone with a sense of humour was flying from their stall a black flag with the skull and crossbones.

Molly leaned heavily against me, shuddering violently despite being wrapped from chin to toe in a long coat of ermine fur, topped with a fluffy white hat she’d pulled down to just over her eyes. Her face had gone white from the cold, with bright pink spots on her nose and cheeks. She looked adorable.

“You look adorable,” I said.

“I never know what to wear to these formal occasions,” she said. “Bloody hell, it’s cold. My nipples have gone hard.”

“Not in front of the Armourer, dear,” I said.

Uncle Jack was almost unrecognisable, buried in the depths of a heavy black duffel coat. He was peering happily down into the valley, rubbing his bare hands in anticipation. He smiled back at us.

“Cold? This isn’t cold! Seven years ago, when the snows came early and a wandering polar bear was heard to remark that it was a bit nippy, that was cold! This is merely bracing! Get a good lungful of that crisp mountain air. There’s no pollution out here.”

“Of course not,” I said. “It couldn’t survive the cold. I can’t feel my ears.”

Molly looked down at the arms fair and sniffed loudly. “Is that it? A bunch of tents, and not even an open caf? to sit around in? Not exactly big on creature comforts, are they?”

“It’s an arms fair, girl, not a fashion show!” said the Armourer. “You don’t come here to sip your Starbucks and enjoy the ambience; you’re here to look at guns and wonder how best to buy up all the good stuff before your enemies find it.”

“Gun nuts,” she said sadly. “Weapons geeks. The horror, the horror . . .”

The Armourer made a big show of rising above her. “Follow me, and watch your footing on the path. Even the local mountain goats have been heard to mention that the going can get a bit tricky underfoot; and it’s a long way down. And be careful if you have to exert yourself; at this altitude, the oxygen can get a bit thin. So don’t be too proud to mention if you start feeling light-headed or confused. There are oxygen stations set out at regular intervals; use them. Coin operated, but they take all the major currencies. Except the yen. Don’t ask. Now, let’s go see what surprises await us this year. Oh, and Eddie, I know you’re passing as Shaman Bond here, but . . . don’t show me up. I want to be able to come back here again next year.”

I glared at him. “I’m an experienced field agent. I know how to behave.”

“No, you don’t. You’ve never known how to behave. That’s why we made you a field agent, so you could work off your anger doing nasty things to bad people. And, Molly, please don’t kill anyone. Not unless you feel you absolutely have to.”

“Of course,” said Molly, smiling cheerfully.

The Armourer set off down the narrow trail with the ease of long familiarity, leaving Molly and me to stumble along after him. We clung to each other for comfort and support, and to share body warmth. I’d got too used to my armour insulating me from the harsher environments of the world. The surrounding mountains were massive grey walls of rough stone, with ragged cracks and crevices and not a sign of life anywhere. A suitably grim setting for a fair dedicated to death and destruction. The mountaintops had dustings of snow, picked up and tossed around by gusting winds too high up for us to feel.

And up above the mountaintops, I could make out the shimmering heat haze of heavy-duty force fields hiding the fair from the outside world. Force shields were necessary to hide the various energy systems and magical emanations from the exhibits on display. So many new energy spikes in one place would have raised eyebrows and set off alarms in every tracking station in the world. The Armourer said there were also a whole bunch of magical protections in place to hide the presence of the force fields. Because the sudden appearance of such powerful energies would arouse suspicion in themselves. As in, What have you got to hide? The Supernatural Arms Faire had been around for a long time, and it survived by being very thorough and very paranoid.

“If your family has known about the fair for such a long time, why haven’t they done something about it?” said Molly, holding on to my arm with a death grip as a stream of pebbles shot out from under her foot.

“Better to let it be, so we can keep an eye on what’s happening,” I said. “If we spook them, they’ll shut it down, wait a few years, and then start it up again somewhere new, even more secret and underground. And then we’d have to waste precious time and resources hunting them down again. This way we get to see who’s producing what, and who’s buying it, whilst at the same making sure all of our weapons are as up-to-date as we like to think.”

I glanced back the way we’d come, just in time to see a long straggling line of local people passing by on a much higher trail. Men, women, children and donkeys, all heavily laden. Some of them glanced down into the valley, but it was clear they didn’t see a thing. As far as they were concerned, they were alone on the mountain, following the trail their ancestors had laid down centuries before. The fair’s protections were working. The locals kept going, carrying on with their everyday lives as they had for generations, with no idea of how close they’d come to one of the world’s most dangerous secrets.

By the time Molly and I finally reached the bottom of the valley and the outskirts of the fair, the Armourer had already flashed his invitation around, reassured the fair’s security people, forewarned them about me and Molly, and was off chatting happily with old friends. He walked around quite openly, nodding and smiling to people who nodded back quite cheerfully—people who would have done their utmost to kill him on the spot if they’d even suspected he was a Drood. But then, he had the best kind of cover; he really was what he was pretending to be . . . just another weapons enthusiast.

He strolled up and down the long rows of stalls and booths, peering at everything, picking up the occasional item to study it more closely and ask detailed questions, clearly enjoying himself tremendously. Every now and again he’d meet up with some old acquaintance from previous fairs, and then they’d stop right in everybody’s way for long conversations about what was worth looking at. No one made any fuss. Like the Armourer said, the fair liked having the enthusiasts around. They added character. All the people Uncle Jack knew were clearly in the same line of work as him; the outfits and the accents might differ, but they all had the same boyish smiles and wide-eyed enthusiasm when it came to various means of murder and mayhem.

They thought the Armourer was one of them: a retired old weapons maker with too much time on his hands, filling his retirement with happy interests. I made a point of standing close enough that I could eavesdrop on what was being said. There’s nothing quite like standing before some stall, apparently browsing, to let you hang around with your ears wide-open. One of the Armourer’s old friends used to work at Area 52 in the Antarctic, while another was a Russian exile who used to work at a secret Soviet science city in what was now the wilds of Georgia. Others worked for corporations, or secret agencies, or certain well-known names with delusions of grandeur and more money than sense. But no matter who they were, or used to be, the refrain was always the same: The fair was not what it used to be; the stall and booths used to be bigger and more varied, there was far too much hype and not enough substance, and the youngsters showed no respect at all.

After a while I let the Armourer go; he knew what he was doing, and I wanted to look at the weapons. The first booth I stopped at specialised in steampunk technology, featuring outmoded weapons of mass destruction from a calmer, more civilised age, when arms could also be works of art. What was once cutting-edge had become cute and interesting, passed by and superseded by relentless science, now brought back as antiques and curios—and collectibles, of course. Nothing like a patina of history to add layers of value.

Standing beside the booth, and actually lowering over it, was a great steam-powered automaton, the Iron Mann of the Plains. STILL IN WORKING ORDER, claimed a sign set out before it. Blue-black steel, gleaming and polished to within an inch of its life, with flaring red eyes in its immobile face, and huge arms and legs. In its day, the sign proclaimed, the Iron Mann of the Plains could outrun a steam train and lift the heaviest of weights, and had a Gatling gun built into its chest. Unfortunately, the booth owner confided, you had to keep stoking the thing with coal to keep the steam pressure up or it clanked to a halt. And then it was a real bugger to get it going again. Brilliant, but never very practical, its time in the sun over almost as soon as it had begun.

The booth owner was very keen to show me a series of series of carefully polished lenses from thirteenth-century Arabia, which when properly arranged could focus sunlight into a laser beam. But he didn’t seem particularly keen to demonstrate the effect. Perhaps it wasn’t sunny enough. Beside me, Molly had got interested in an eighteenth-century phlogiston flamethrower. Molly raised an eyebrow.

“Science proved that phlogiston didn’t actually exist.”

“It worked perfectly well until then,” said the booth holder.

We moved on. A surprising number of people recognised one or the other of us. Sometimes both. No one was in the least surprised to see Shaman Bond at the Supernatural Arms Faire; I’d gone to great pains to establish his reputation for turning up anywhere. I’ve always liked being Shaman Bond; my cover identity doesn’t have my restrictions or responsibilities. And people are nearly always happy to see Shaman Bond, whereas if Eddie Drood turns up it always means trouble for someone. Several of those we met were surprised to see Molly and me together: the notorious chancer and the infamous wild witch of the woods. In fact, one passing acquaintance actually leaned in close so he could murmur, “Too much car for you, Eddie,” in my ear. I didn’t hit him. It would only have attracted attention. It didn’t help that Molly found the whole situation hilarious. And then I came to a sudden halt as our way was blocked by a very wide, wide loud person I knew only too well.

“Shaman Bond, as I live and breathe!” said a familiar fruity aristocratic voice. “Delighted to see you again, dear boy! What the hell are you doing here? Wouldn’t have thought you had the wherewithal to use the bloody pay toilets here! Eh? Eh?”

Augusta Moon stood before me, grinning broadly. A larger-than-life professional troubleshooter and monster hunter, Augusta looked like one of P. G. Wodehouse’s more frightening aunts. Tall and wide and heavy with it, Augusta dressed like some old-fashioned maiden aunt who’d read too many Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries: a battered tweed suit, stout walking shoes and a monocle jammed firmly into her left eye. If Augusta had ever heard of fashion, makeup and femininity, it was only as things other people did. If the cold was bothering her, she hid it remarkably well. She carried a stout oaken walking stick with a heavy silver head that still had dried blood crusted on it from her last encounter with the forces of evil. She also wasn’t above poking people with her stick when she wanted to make a point. People who knew her were usually careful to stand out of arm’s reach. She grabbed my hand and gave it a good mauling, laughing heartily all the while. Some monster hunters are more frightening than others.

Augusta Moon travelled the world doing good, and to hell with whether other people appreciated it.

She finally released my aching hand and scrutinised Molly through her monocle. “Didn’t know the two of you were an item! Hmm. Didn’t see that one coming. Blessed be the world that still has such surprises in it! Look after this one, girl. A hard man is good to find. Eh? Eh?”

“What’s a lady like you doing in a place like this?” I said.

“Oh, doing a little shopping, looking for something new and nasty to put the wind up the ungodly. Not everything responds to being hit over the head with a stout stick, though the Lord knows I’ve tried the method on practically everything under the sun, or hiding from it. I once used this very stick to make a shish kebab out of a vampire. It was his own fault for bending over.”

“You are an appalling person, Augusta,” I said solemnly.

“Only in a good cause, dear boy. What are you doing here, Shaman? Looking for a little something for an engagement present, perhaps? Eh?” She dropped Molly a roguish wink. “Hold out for a ring, dear, and then use it to pierce something exotic! These modern gels, eh, Shaman?” She looked at me thoughtfully. Augusta had a magnificient brain behind her chosen facade. “Wouldn’t have thought you were the gun-running sort, old cheese.”

“I’m here representing someone else,” I said smoothly. “Someone who doesn’t want their face seen, because it would only push the price up. You know how it is.” I gave her my best knowing look. “You aren’t here by chance, Augusta. What are you really looking for?”

She gave her harsh bark of laughter again, and prodded me right above the navel with her walking stick. “No fooling you, eh, Shaman? No, no . . . I was in Delhi last week, searching for the Golden Frogs of Samarkand. Bloody things have gone walkabout again, and the usual rush is on to find them first and claim the bounty. And keep them out of the wrong sort of hands. Ugly-looking brutes, but no accounting for taste, as the vicar said when he kissed the verger. Anyway, the trail ran stone-dead cold in Delhi, but a backstreet encounter in Calcutta pointed me in this direction. So if you should happen to spot the bloody things here, hands off! They’re mine!”

“You’re welcome to them,” I said. “I don’t want golden warts on my unmentionables.”

“Then I’ll see you around. Be good, my dears, and if you can’t be good don’t do it in front of witnesses!”

She crushed my hand again, slapped me on the shoulder hard enough to rattle my teeth, and barged between Molly and me. Still laughing, she disappeared into the crowd, which immediately fell back to give her plenty of room. Molly and I headed determinedly in the opposite direction.

“Nice friends you have,” said Molly.

“I thought she was a friend of yours,” I said.

“Are we looking for anything specific?” said Molly, linking her arm companionably through mine, though I could barely feel it through the thicknesses of two very heavy coat sleeves. “I mean, apart from the duplicated Drood armour, which we are not going to find, because it never actually appears, no matter what the rumours say.”

“To be honest,” I said, “I think this is the family’s way of getting me out of the Hall for a while. I did wonder at first whether Harry was up to something and wanted me out of the way. . . . But it’s more likely the council thinks I need some time off for rest and relaxation. A little holiday after my near-death experience. And God knows I could use some serious downtime, after all the shit that’s been raining down on me recently. As missions go, this is almost certainly a waste of time. So let us enjoy ourselves and take it easy for once.”

“All right,” said Molly. “I can do that. Hell of a place for a holiday, though.”

“That’s my family for you,” I said.

We strolled on for a while, taking it easy, taking in the sights. The air was still bitterly cold, except for when we walked through brief gusts of heat generated by the stalls’ heaters. Some booths actually had steam rising up from them. The walkways between the displays were covered with simple wooden boards, and there were no signs or directions. As centuries-old fairs went, this one didn’t impress me as being at all well organised. There was certainly no lack of interested customers gathering excitedly before the various stalls, money clearly burning a hole in their pockets. They chattered happily with each other, argued over provenances and delivery routes, and nearly always seemed to end up with the age-old refrain, Anything off for cash? Some people stared in awe at the more impressive offerings, too intimidated to even inquire after the price. I recognised a surprising number of faces from all sides of the tracks: good guys and bad and every shade of grey in between. Everyone needs weapons, no matter what side you’re fighting on.

“Buy me something,” said Molly, after a while.

“Other girls want chocolate or flowers,” I said. “Or shoes.”

“Oh, I want those, too,” said Molly. “But you can’t come to an arms fair and not buy anything. I’m pretty sure there’s a law against that.”

So we looked around to see what there was.

One stall was offering assorted alien technology: from things that fell off the back of an alien starship, or stranded Greys and Reptiloids, or things that fell through dimensional doorways when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. It was all dumped on the benches set out before us, in random heaps and piles. Large, blocky shapes of unfamiliar metal; warped crystal things with strange lights flickering deep inside; semiorganic bits and blobs trailing metallic filaments like tentacles. It could have been the secrets of the universe laid out before us, or the biggest bunch of junk and tat ever assembled in one place. The stall owner cheerfully admitted he had no idea what any of it did.

“It’s old stock, picked up from a fire sale in the Nightside. Got to be worth something, hasn’t it? It’s alien! Pick something, and we’ll fight over a price. You should be able to reverse-engineer something useful out of anything here. Hey, you! No touching!”

The big, hulking man standing next to me sneered haughtily at the stall owner and prodded a weird, wobbling thing with a disdainful fingertip. There was a sharp clap, like a very localised thunderstorm, and then he disappeared, leaving behind a space where he used to be. Air rushed in to fill the vacuum, while for a moment everyone’s hair stood on end. The stallholder blinked a few times, and then recovered wonderfully.

“See! See!” he said, addressing the surrounding crowd. “How useful is that? Wouldn’t you like to make someone you know disappear?”

We left him haggling with a very interested crowd, while I wondered how he was going to sell the thing without handing it over, or how the buyer was going to carry it away. . . .

Another store boasted an exhaustive display of crystals, magic stones and balls in every shape and colour you could think of. Molly oohed and ahhed over them, but I couldn’t see anything to get excited about. Not one decent aura among the lot of them. According to the middle-aged woman behind the stall, dressed in what she no doubt fondly imaged was the very latest Gypsy chic, everything on the table had a fascinating history or legend attached to it. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? Mind you, she spotted me as an unbeliever straightaway, and concentrated her sales pitch on Molly.

“See this one, dearie? The shimmering sphere with the bloodred flaw? That is the original Scrying Stone that Dr. Dee used to learn the artificial language Enochian, created expressly so that men could talk directly with angels. If you could only reestablish contact with the same spirit that spoke with Dr. Dee, who knows what secrets you might learn?”

“I think the key word in that sentence was if,” said Molly. “Do I look like a rube? You’d have a better chance of contacting the spirit world if you banged your head against the wall.”

“Well!” said the Gypsy lady, drawing herself up. “I never did. . . .”

“Oh, you must have,” said Molly sweetly.

I took her firmly by the arm and we moved on. Next up was a twee affair almost buried under displays of fresh flowers, offering a wide range of elven artefacts and weapons at really quite reasonable prices. I pointed a few things out to Molly, but she shook her head immediately.

“Never trust an elf, or anything they leave behind. You can bet most of it’s boody-trapped, ready to do something transformative and allegedly humorous to whatever poor fool picks it up without industrial-strength gloves on.”

“They’ve got a wand,” I said. “It looks very nice.”

“Traps are supposed to look inviting. Elf wands are just the sugar coating on the trap, because they’re one of the few elven weapons a human could actually use.”

“I know a private investigator in the Nightside who uses one,” I said. “Larry Oblivion.”

“Yes, but he’s dead!” said Molly. “There’s not a lot more the wand can do to him! Hey, how is it you know someone from the Nightside? I thought Droods weren’t allowed in the Nightside.”

“We have agreed not to enter,” I said. “There’s a difference. We could go in if we wanted to; we choose not to. Wouldn’t be seen dead in the place, myself. I know Larry because he and his brothers did some work for the family recently.”

“Rather you than me,” said Molly. “That Hadleigh Oblivion gives me the creeps.”

Microsoft had a really big presence at the fair; but then, Microsoft has a really big presence everywhere.

I paused before a simple open booth representing the Gun Shops of Usher franchise. It seemed odd that the family who’d bankrolled the Supernatural Arms Faire for so many centuries should have such a modest presence. The man standing behind the counter was Mr. Usher himself. I looked him over thoughtfully, and he nodded politely.

“I thought you ran the gun shop in the Nightside,” said Molly.

“Oh, I’m there, too, my dear,” said Usher, a small grey man with a small grey voice. The man behind the Gun Shops of Usher, the greatest supplier of murder and mayhem to the world, was a reputable man in a regulation suit, with a broad, square face, a professional smile and a cold, passionless stare from behind wire-rimmed glasses. He looked like what he was: a businessman interested only in business. “I’m there, and I’m here; I’m everywhere there’s a gun shop, Miss Molly. Because there’s always someone who needs a gun.”

“You run them all simultaneously?” I said. “What are you, an avatar of slaughter?”

“Nothing so grand, Mr. Bond,” said Usher. “I’m . . . necessary.”

I looked over the weapons spread out on the table before me. Guns: special, individual, significant guns from throughout history and legend. The Walther PPK that Hitler used to shoot Eva Braun before he turned it on himself. Billy the Kid’s old nickel pistol. The first rifle used to kill an American Indian, and the first rifle sold to an American Indian. Half a dozen guns that had turned on their famous author owners, each one neatly labelled and autographed by the writer. And a rifle from a book depository. Magic bullets extra.

“I see you carry a Colt repeater, Mr. Drood,” said Usher. “Your uncle does very good work.”

“Don’t use that name again,” I said coldly. “I’m here incognito. You blow my cover in front of this crowd and I will blow you away.”

“Of course, Mr. Bond. Your secret is safe with me. You’d be surprised how many secrets I keep.”

Molly and I moved on to the next stall. I wasn’t sure putting a bullet through Mr. Usher’s head would actually kill him, but the formalities have to be observed. Molly gave me a sideways look.

“You don’t like guns, do you? Sort of strange, that, in a secret agent.”

“I can use a gun if I have to,” I said. “But I’m an agent, not an assassin. I kill only when I have to, and I try really hard to take no pleasure or satisfaction from it. Walk too far down that path and you end up in groups like Dusk’s. Because that’s where you belong.”

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people?” suggested Molly.

“People with guns kill people,” I said. “Guns make it easy for people to kill people. It should never be easy to take someone’s life.”

“Pacifist!” sneered a passerby.

“Hardly,” I said, but he was already gone.

At the next booth, a scientist in the traditional white coat was demonstrating description theory with a blackboard and a piece of chalk, to an only mildly interested crowd. He didn’t seem to have anything to sell, but he was so earnest and determined that people were willing to listen. They watched, frowning, as he stalked back and forth before his blackboard; like so many dogs being shown a card trick, they could sense something clever was happening, but couldn’t follow it.

Basically, the scientist explained, description theory says that if you can describe something exactly, using mathematics, then the maths is the object, and vice versa. So if you change the maths, you change the object. His theory had many applications when it comes to weapons: Description theory bombs, where the maths can persuade a city it isn’t there anymore. Or even transportation, where the maths can persuade the universe that people are where the maths says they are.

By this time, the scientist had the crowd hanging on his every word, and he scurried back and forth before the blackboard, adding a symbol here and taking away one there as he carefully rewrote his maths, getting closer and closer to his objective. He finally added one last symbol with a flourish, and the blackboard disappeared. The crowd gave him a massive round of applause.

“No! No!” yelled the scientist, throwing his chalk on the ground and stamping on it. “That isn’t what’s supposed to happen!”

Molly and I moved on and left him to it. I don’t like to see a grown man cry.

Not too far away, another scientist was trying to persuade a sceptical crowd of the value of quantum uncertainty devices. Only every time he adjusted the controls on the device in front of him, he changed into somebody else. The scientist became another man, who became a woman, who became something tall and blue, before disappearing completely. Leaving only a disembodied voice saying, “Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there? Oh, bloody hell, not again . . .”

There were a great many other interesting things to be seen. A bottle of cheap djinn, a rifle that could shoot round corners and a pack of crazy ghosts who’d been conditioned to work as attack dogs. These last were a miserable-looking bunch, held in place by shimmering chains of reinforced ectoplasm. Their faces were blank and their eyes were empty, and their semitransparent bodies drifted in and out of one another as they stirred restlessly in the limited space of their tent. Their handler was an Armani-suited Sicilian with an easy, charming manner and a chilling ruthlessness in his sales pitch.

“Imagine, my friends,” he said. “The enemy you have whom no one can reach . . . is now reachable. Ghosts can go anywhere: through walls, through barbed wire, through all kinds of security systems, walking in straight lines straight to their targets. They do whatever you tell them to do, with no back talk. They have no identities left; I’ve beaten that nonsense out of them. They’re spiritual attack dogs now, suitable for defence or offence. Ectoplasmic collars and chains can be provided at little extra cost.”

“Have you no respect for the dead?” said someone in the crowd. “What if they were members of your family?”

“They are my family,” said the Sicilian. “Why should they rest while they can still make money for the family?”

“What if one of them should happen to wake up?” said Molly, almost lazily. “What if they should happen to remember who they are and what you’ve done to them?”

The Sicilian grinned his easy, supercilious grin. “Not going to happen, pretty lady. You want a big brute, perhaps, just for yourself? They can be trained to do almost anything. . . .”

“When people can be as appalling as this,” said Molly, “is it any wonder I prefer animals, on the whole?”

The Sicilian stopped smiling. He tugged on the chain of one of the ghosts, and it surged forward to crouch beside him. The Sicilian pointed at Molly and muttered something under his breath. The ghost suddenly snapped into focus. Its face was sharp and distinct, the eyes full of a mad rage. It snarled, and its mouth had vicious teeth. It raised a hand, and the fingers ended in claws. It looked entirely solid and substantial. The Sicilian slipped loose the chain, but before the ghost could move forward Molly fixed it with her gaze, holding its eyes with hers. For a moment neither of them moved, and then all the rage went out of the ghost’s face, and it cringed back to hide behind the Sicilian, whimpering. The Sicilian cuffed it round the head and glared at Molly.

“Hey! You break it, you pay for it!”

Molly ignored him, looking thoughtfully at the pack of ghosts. They moved restlessly back and forth, frowning under her gaze. Molly looked back at the Sicilian.

“What if they should all wake up and remember what you’ve done to them . . . ?”

She snapped her fingers once, and then turned unhurriedly away. The Sicilian screamed horribly as the pack swarmed over him, but he didn’t scream for long. I gave the crowd a warning look, in case anyone felt like getting involved, but they all had urgent business elsewhere. I caught up with Molly and walked along beside her.

“Can’t take you anywhere,” I said after a while.

“Some shit I won’t put up with,” said Molly, staring straight ahead.

“You sweet, sentimental old thing, you,” I said.

She smiled suddenly, like the sun coming out. “Yes,” she said. “I am. And I’ll kick the crap out of anyone who says otherwise.”

The next booth was a technological wonder, all brightly polished steel with flashing lights and electronic sound effects. The booth operator was trying to persuade passersby to step inside the booth and be made over into a perfect new version of themselves. Results guaranteed. Strangely, no one seemed interested. The operator was working himself into an absolute lather of excitement, but no one even stopped to enquire about the price. I looked at Molly.

“It’s a con,” she said briskly. “You step into the booth and disappear forever. What steps out is a Thing from Outside transformed into a perfected version of you. It then goes out into the world to gather information before an invasion by the rest of its kind. No one’s fallen for it in years, but they keep trying.”

“If the fair knows about this, why do they allow it to go on?” I said.

Molly gave me a pitying look. “Because they’ve paid.”

“Ah,” I said. “Of course. Silly me.” I looked at the transformation booth. “I knew I’m supposed to be on holiday, but I really don’t think I can allow an alien invasion to happen right in front of me. Distract the operator for me; there’s a dear.”

“Can’t take you anywhere.” Molly sighed. She walked up to the operator and glared right into his face. “Hey! You! My sister walked in there ten minutes ago and she hasn’t come out yet! What’s your game?”

And while the operator was sputtering and protesting his innocence, and offering to open the booth so that Molly could see her sister wasn’t in any way in there, I strolled round the back of the booth, glanced casually around to make sure no one was watching and then concentrated on my torc, muttering the activating Words under my breath. As I concentrated, a slender filament of golden strange matter eased out of the torc and slid across my shoulder and down my arm, till it could jump off my fingertip and into the open workings at the back of the booth. I whipped the filament back and forth, ripping and tearing at the delicate parts within, and there was a sudden flash of discharging energies, followed by a burst of thick purple smoke. I quickly pulled the strange matter back into my torc and stepped away as purple smoke enveloped the booth. The operator forgot all about placating Molly, and howled something inhuman as he saw what was happening to his transformation device. It suddenly imploded, sucked inside itself by whatever was happening within, and alien forces pulled the whole thing back into its home dimension. Molly gave the operator a good shove from behind, and he tottered forward, to be sucked in by the imploding energies. In a few moments booth and operator were both gone, and Molly and I were some distance away, not even looking in that direction.

“I know,” said Molly. “Some shit you won’t put up with.”

“Damned right,” I said.

And that was when the Satanist conspiracy made their appearance at the Supernatural Arms Faire. A group of about twenty large and menacing men in dark suits appeared out of nowhere, striding purposefully through the fair, looking quite ready to trample over anyone who didn’t get out of their way fast enough. They weren’t even trying to hide what they were; each wore a large inverted cross on a chain. As they drew nearer, I realised they were wearing formal tuxedos, and very smartly fitted, too. Nothing like a tuxedo to add that touch of class and dignity to a bunch of Satanist scumbags. Molly and I stood well back to let them pass. They all seemed very serious, very focused, very determined. I got the giggles.

“Look, everybody!” I said loudly. “They all look like waiters! No, penguins!”

And I moved in behind them and waddled along in the rear, flapping my arms at my sides and making plaintive feed me! noises in penguin. The crowd loved it. They went apeshit, laughing and cheering and joining in with penguin noises of their own. The Satanists kept going. They couldn’t stop and look back to see what was going on; that might make them look weak. So they increased their pace, trying to leave me behind. So I made plaintive wait for me! noises in penguin and hurried after them. Until Molly grabbed me by an arm and hauled me away, forcefully pushing me into a side turning, out of sight of the Satanists and the wildly applauding crowd.

“We’re not here to attract attention!” said Molly. “Especially from a whole bunch of probably highly trained satanic foot soldiers! You’re supposed to be a secret agent, so act secret! Stick close to me, and observe what the bastards are up to from a safe distance. They wouldn’t have shown up here in such an ostentatious way unless they were up to something important!”

“You mean, like, make friends and influence people?” I said. “Or are they here to buy weapons like everyone else? I know! Let’s grab the smallest one, haul him off somewhere private and hit him in the head until his eyes change colour, or he starts telling us things we want to know.”

“What’s the matter, Eddie?” said Molly, looking searchingly into my face. “This isn’t like you.”

“Lightbringer House,” I said. “They made us run away with our tails between our legs. I’m not taking that from a bunch of Devil-worshipping scumbags.”

Molly shook her head slowly. “Testosterone must be such a curse. No one is supposed to know there’s a Drood here, remember? You’re Shaman Bond. Who fortunately has a reputation for eccentric behaviour.”

I smiled briefly. “I put a lot of time and effort into building that reputation. Lets me get away with all kinds of things that would otherwise require explanations.”

“You’re not going to do the penguin thing again, are you?” said Molly.

“Almost certainly not,” I said. “Satanists bring out the worst in me. They’re so straight-faced. We can still sneak along behind them and spy on them, can’t we?”

“Oh, sure,” said Molly. “I can sneak with the best of them.”

So we caught up with the Satanists and strolled casually along behind them, observing their every move from a respectable distance. We weren’t alone. A lot of people were interested in why Satanists had come to the arms fair. The tuxedo group walked up and down the stalls and booths, row after row, looking over the exhibits on display, but never buying anything. They seemed much more interested in the people behind the stalls, especially the weapons designers and manufacturers. Quite often the Satanists would make these people a more than generous offer to come and design weapons for them. Most of the weapons makers turned them down. Even they had a line they wouldn’t cross. The Satanists never made a fuss, never tried threats or intimidation, only smiled politely, gave everyone their card and moved on to the next stall.

They did buy a few things, after it became clear people wouldn’t talk to them if they didn’t, and by eavesdropping shamelessly at the next stall, I was able to ascertain that the Satanists had established a major line of credit with the fair before they arrived. Which made me wonder who was backing them. You can’t set up a major conspiracy without extensive funding. A question to raise with the family once I got back. Certainly the stallholders seemed only too happy to take the Satanists’ money, even if none of them seemed to be taking the tuxedo guys particularly seriously.

One of the Satanists broke away from the group, attracted by a stall offering cloned monkeys’ paws. He spoke briefly with the stallholder, who spoke briefly in return. Then somebody must have said something, because it all kicked off, with the two men shouting into each other’s faces and the insults flying thick and fast. The rest of the tuxedos got involved in a hurry, backing up their own with cold, glaring eyes and a heavy, threatening presence. The stallholder must have hit a silent alarm, because almost immediately the fair’s security people were making the scene. The crowd backed quickly away to give both sides room to manoeuvre, but not so far that they might miss any of the excitement.

The Satanists stood shoulder-to-shoulder, several ranks deep, their tuxedos almost crackling with indignation that anyone should dare to stand against them. They faced off against the fair’s security people, who turned out to be a small army of bald-headed monks in scarlet robes. They outnumbered the Satanists, but only just. They had no obvious weapons, but were very clearly That Kind of Monk. The kind who didn’t need weapons because they’ve trained themselves to be weapons.

“The Bloodred Guard,” Molly murmured in my ear. “They’ve been enforcing polite behaviour at the fair for centuries.”

The Satanists and the monks stood their ground, facing one another down with cold, impassive faces, and then one of the tuxedos revealed himself to be the leader, or at least spokesperson, by stepping forward to address the monks in an actually quite polite and reasonable tone of voice.

“You know who we are. You know whom we represent. And you know what we can do. Are you really ready to throw down against us over a single obnoxious stallholder who threatened one of us to his face?”

“Of course,” said one of the monks, stepping forward to meet him. “That’s our job. We protect the fair. Are you ready to be banned from the fair, forever, over one of your own who can’t control his temper? You know who we are. And what we can do.”

“We’re protected,” said the Satanist.

“We are protection,” said the monk.

The Satanist leader considered for a moment, and then shrugged easily. “We shall show our peaceful intent by making a sacrifice, for the good of all.”

He turned around to face his group and beckoned forward the one who’d started all the trouble. He came forward and stood before the spokesman, scowling sullenly.

“I’m not apologising.”

“No one’s asking you to,” said the leader.

His hand came up suddenly, holding a long, slender blade. He stabbed his own man in the eye, driving it in deep and twisting it. Blood spurted out, soaking his cuff and sleeve. He jerked the blade out, and his victim crumpled bonelessly to the ground and lay still. The leader flicked a few drops of blood from the blade, then made it disappear again. He then cleaned his hand and wrist fastidiously with a monogrammed handkerchief. He smiled at the monk.

“Is that acceptable to you?”

The monk nodded slowly. I think even he was a bit shocked at the calm and callous way the Satanist had put an end to the problem. The crowd seemed equally disturbed. There are some things you don’t expect to see, even at an arms fair. The monk nodded to his people, and the Bloodred Guard separated into two groups, taking up positions to line the walkway, to hold the crowds back as the Satanists moved off. Not one of them looked back at the one of their own they left lying in the dirt. The Bloodred Guard waited until the Satanists were a fair distance away, and then silently disappeared back where they’d come from. The watching crowd fell on the dead body and stole everything he had, including his clothes, his underwear and, when nothing else was left, even the body. I looked at Molly.

“Hard-core,” she said finally. “These new Satanists don’t mess around, do they?”

“What could be so important here that the Satanists couldn’t risk being thrown out?” I said. “So important they’d even kill one of their own over it?”

Molly shrugged. “Satanists do what Satanists do. You know what? I’m hungry. There’s a food stall over there. Buy me something.”

“Didn’t you bring any money?”

“Why would I need money? I’ve got you. Buy me something hot and spicy, and earn yourself some major boyfriend points.”

I escorted her over to the food stall, which offered steaming-hot curries with rice, and bowls of a dark brown soup with things floating in it. I looked at the grinning little Gurkha behind the stall, with his Eat the Corporations T-shirt.

“What kind of soup is that?”

“Hot!” he said cheerfully. “Fresh! Eat!”

So we had two big bowls of the soup, followed by a beef madras for me and a chicken vindaloo for Molly, with lashings of brightly coloured pilau rice. No utensils—it came on a paper plate, and you used your fingers. My fingers were so cold I could barely feel the heat anyway. I drank the soup straight from a paper cup, and it went down very well. Could have been mulligatawny, though I still wasn’t prepared to be quoted on what the floating bits might have been. There are some things man is not meant to know if he wants to sleep easily.

When we finally moved off again into the bustling crowds, it quickly became clear that something was in the air. Everyone seemed sure something special was in the cards, even if no one was too sure what. I asked about the possibility of the Drood-type armour making an appearance this year, subtly at first, and then increasingly openly, as it became clear this was the hot topic on everyone’s lips. Even though the new armour had been promised for years, and had never once shown up, the general feeling was that this might be the year. And no one wanted to miss it.

Molly and I followed one particular rumour right to the edge of the fair, but it turned out to be a young enthusiast showing off his new exoskeletal armour. Impressive to look at: a series of reinforced steel braces connected by microprocessors, powered by a hulking great power box on his back. But the first time the young inventor powered it up, it coughed and spluttered and then broke his left arm in three places. His moans of pain were drowned out by the laughter of the crowd. Tough audience. His assistants were still trying to prise him out of the exoskeleton when Molly and I moved away.

Since we were on the outskirts of the fair, we took the opportunity to look over the larger items on display, too big to be contained within the fair itself. A vertical-takeoff plane took up a lot of the valley floor, huge and gleaming, with really impressive-looking engines. Half a dozen flying motorbikes with antigrav generators instead of wheels. Even a giant robot some fifty feet tall. They had it sitting down, to keep it inside the fair’s force shields. It was Japanese, of course. They do love their giant robots. But since this one was made by Toyota, no one was taking it too seriously. There was even a massive U.S. Army tank that could be remote-controlled by the operator’s thoughts. It was a prototype, of course, and the current owner was very keen to sell it and disappear, before the U.S. Army turned up looking for it.

Molly and I found the Armourer holding court with a group of his fellow enthusiasts, making disparaging comments about everything on display, and enjoying the general laughter. He was quite happy to see Molly and me again, though he made a point of not knowing who we were in front of his friends. He couldn’t resist showing off in front of us, though, explaining exactly what was wrong with all the oversize items.

“The VTO is a great idea,” he said grandly. “Rises up like an angel, flies like an eagle, steers like a cow. The flying motorbikes are an even better idea, but the antigrav outriders run off batteries that need recharging every twenty minutes, and God help you if the power runs out while you’re still in midair. Don’t even get me started on the giant robot.”

Molly and I took an arm each and steered him firmly away so we could talk to him on his own, and brief him about the appearance of the Satanists.

“Could their appearance have anything to do with these big items?” I said.

“Oh, no, stuff like this turns up every year,” said the Armourer. “It’s not supposed to be practical; it’s engineers showing off. They’re always saying they’ve finally fixed the design flaws, but they never have. Never met a giant robot yet that didn’t trip over its own feet. Satanists, though, that is new. What do they want here?”

“Weapons?” I said. “Like everyone else?”

“People like them usually work through second or even third parties,” said the Armourer. “Never let the left hand know what the left hand’s doing, and all that. And they’ve always been behind-the-scenes types, never showing off in public. Something’s up. . . .”

We were heading back into the fair proper when the massed tuxedos rounded a corner right in front of us. And I recognised one of them. I grabbed Molly and the Armourer and hauled them into a concealing side walkway. The Satanists marched right past us without pausing.

“I recognised the big guy next to the leader,” I explained. “From Lightbringer House.”

“Are you sure?” said the Armourer.

“He got really close to me with a flamethrower,” I said. “You never forget the face of someone who’s tried to kill you. I had my armour on at the time, so he won’t know me; but they all saw your face, Molly. . . .”

She looked after the Satanists and smiled unpleasantly.

“Want me to lure him away from the others and turn him into something soft and squishy?”

“No,” I said. “But if we could lure him away from the pack and scare some information out of him . . . about the Great Sacrifice, for example . . .”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” said the Armourer.

“Hold it, hold it,” said Molly. “You can’t be involved in this. He can’t see your faces. I’m no problem; he’s already seen mine. So you two hold back, and watch a professional at work.”

The Armourer looked at me. “Is she always like this?”

“Pretty much,” I said.

He grinned broadly. “Lucky boy . . .”

We set off purposefully after the Satanists, Molly out in front. But even before she could make a move, something alerted them and they all slammed to a halt as one. Their heads came up like hounds scenting the air, and then they all turned round as one and pointed at Molly. Who was so surprised she stood there and let them do it. The Armourer grabbed me by the arm and hustled me off to one side. I didn’t like leaving Molly on her own, but I couldn’t afford for Shaman Bond to get involved. If people got a good look at what he could actually do, they might start making comparisons with the Droods . . . and I’d never be able to be him again. I liked being Shaman Bond. Molly would understand.

Hell, she’d probably be really mad if I butted in and stole her thunder.

She didn’t seem particularly troubled that all the Satanists had her in their sights. In fact, she was smiling her really dangerous smile.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s do it. Let’s see what you’ve got, boys.”

And to the watching crowd’s surprise, the Satanists turned and ran. They sprinted up the walkway, the leader stabbing his finger at every stall he passed; suddenly every stallholder, every weapons maker and designer blinked out of existence. Molly and the Armourer and I pounded after them, and the crowds scattered to get out of our way. The massed tuxedos broke up, little groups of them charging up and down the narrow walkways, stabbing their fingers at the stalls and disappearing every scientist or engineer who worked on the fair’s weapons.

That was what they’d come here for. Their plan was becoming clearer to me by the moment, now that they’d been forced to commit themselves. Why steal the fair’s weapons when you could steal all the weapons makers and put them to work for you? That was why their leader hadn’t been too concerned when he kept being turned down. He gave them each his card! Probably contained some tracking device, some signal for their teleporter to lock onto. I kept running after the Satanists, and man after man disappeared.

The Satanists had worked this all out in advance. They’d been doing really well until Molly got too close.

The Bloodred Guard came running again, but far too late. The Satanists had made their way right through the fair, from one side to the other, and taken everyone they’d tagged. I looked at the Armourer, and he nodded sharply. We ducked into the concealing shadows of an abandoned booth, subvocalised our activating Words, and armoured up. The freezing cold disappeared in a moment as the golden strange matter swept over me, and I felt like I was fully awake for the first time. I looked at Uncle Jack and saw myself reflected in his gleaming armour: a golden agent of law and order. Or at least, Drood law and Drood order.

We burst out of the booth, and a lot of people started screaming. The crowd took one look at us and scattered, running full-pelt for the exits. The Bloodred Guard stopped dead in their tracks. Uncle Jack and I tore off after the Satanists. One turned, took up a magical stance and thrust a splay-fingered hand at us. A brilliant flare erupted in the air between us, an incandescent glare so bright and vivid my mask had to shut itself down completely, sealing me in darkness to protect my eyes. I could hear people crying out and panicking all about me. I stood still, waiting, and the mask quickly adjusted to the fading glare and cleared again. People were staggering around, clutching at their ruined eyes. The Bloodred Guard were dazed, but recovering. Hard stock, these monks. The Satanist was gone, running full-pelt to catch up with the others at the edge of the fair. The Armourer was already heading after them, and I hurried after him. All across the fair, those who hadn’t been blinded were already charging towards preprepared teleport gates and dimensional doors. None of them wanted anything to do with Droods. Even the stall and booth operators were rabbitting. They thought we’d come to shut them down.

“We let ourselves be played,” the Armourer said harshly as I ran alongside him. “All the time we were laughing at the tuxedos, they were preparing to snatch the weapons makers right out from under our noses! This is bad, boy, really bad.”

“Not least because everyone else thinks we’re responsible for all this!” I said. “Sooner or later, someone is going to get really aggressive with us.”

“We have to stop the Satanists!”

“If we can catch them,” I said.

There was chaos everywhere now, as the whole fair went crazy. Everyone who didn’t have access to the teleports or the dimensional doors was running for the hills, or, more properly, mountains. The telltale shimmer overhead was gone, which meant the force shields were down. No point in hiding, now that the Droods were in the fold. And an increasing number of really pissed-off people weren’t even trying to run. They grabbed the nearest weapons and opened fire on the Armourer and me. And Molly, who’d caught up with us. I moved quickly to put my armour between her and the gunfire. The Armourer dropped back to cover the rear. All kinds of guns opened up on us from every direction at once. The din was deafening. Bullets hammered into me. My armour absorbed them all easily, and the Armourer sucked up punishment behind me. Molly ducked down between us and peered interestedly out to either side.

“I think we’ve upset them,” she said. “I’ve never had so many guns aimed at me at one time before. It’s really quite exhilarating. Are you going to call in reinforcements from your family?”

“I hardly think so,” said the Armourer, turning calmly this way and that so his armour could absorb bullets more efficiently. “Two Droods are more than enough. I think we need to shut this event down, Eddie. Preserving the fair is no longer a credible option. Take as many of them alive as you can; we can use their information. And some of them are old friends, after all. . . .”

“You have to admire his ambition,” Molly said to me.

Half a dozen men pressed forward to the front of the crowd and opened up on us with heavy-duty automatic weapons. The bullets hammered into my armoured chest and head, and flew past me to chew up the nearby stalls. One of the flimsier structures all but disintegrated, collapsing in a cloud of dust and pulverised wood and metal. I walked steadily forward into the hail of bullets, my armour soaking up the impact so I didn’t feel a thing. The Armourer waded into the people in front of him, golden fists rising and falling, and unconscious and broken bodies crashed to the ground. Uncle Jack seemed to be quite happy to be back in the field again.

The armed men in front of me stopped firing and fell back to let someone else through. He was carrying a massive armament known in the trade as Puff the Magic Dragon. He was a big man, and he still had to strain to carry the thing and point it in my general direction. He opened fire, and the long barrel pumped out five thousand explosive rounds a second. The sheer pressure of so many bullets slamming into me at once actually pushed me backwards. My strange matter was absorbing every single bullet and suppressing every explosion, but the sheer impact pressed me back like a fire hose. Until I dug my golden heels in. The wooden boards shattered underneath me, and my golden feet dug deep into the hard, stony ground. My backward momentum slowed and then stopped, my golden feet leaving long, deep grooves in the ground. I held my position, leaning slightly forward into the thundering fire, like a swimmer breasting the tide. And then, step by step, I forced my way forward against the pressure of the bullets. They hammered into me, raking across my chest and gut and then up to my head, but none of them could touch me. Until finally I stood right before the man and his gun, close enough that he could see his white, wide-eyed face reflected in my featureless golden mask. And then I ripped Puff the Magic Dragon out of his nerveless hands, broke it over my knee and crumpled the two pieces into junk with my armoured hands.

“Run,” I said. And he did.

I looked around, and Molly stepped out from behind a particularly sturdy booth. Even a Metcalf sister has enough sense to hide from that dragon. A man with an automatic rifle stepped out from a booth opposite and opened fire on her. I didn’t even have time to react. Molly stuck out one hand, and the bullets turned into butterflies in midair long before they reached her. Pretty pink butterflies, like animated scraps of sugar floss. But Molly had been through a lot recently, and her magic resources had to be running low. And the man didn’t seem to be running out of bullets. They inched steadily closer towards her before turning into butterflies and flying away. I left it as long as I could, for Molly’s pride’s sake, but in the end I couldn’t stand it anymore. So I picked up the nearest booth and hit the man with it. He disappeared from sight without a sound. Molly lowered her hand, breathed heavily for a moment and then glared at me.

“I could have taken him!”

“Of course you could,” I said. “I got impatient.”

A man stepped out from behind another booth and pointed one of the cloned monkey’s paws at us. He said the activating Words, and all its fingers fell off. The man threw what was left on the ground and stamped on it, then realised Molly and I were still watching him, at which point he quickly removed himself from the vicinity. That’s what you get for buying cheap knockoffs.

I looked around, but the walkways were deserted. The fair was almost empty. The crowds had seen what Drood armour and one really annoyed witch could do, and had lost all faith in the weapons the Supernatural Arms Faire had to offer. A great roar of engines overhead made me look up, and there was the vertical-takeoff plane hovering directly overhead. Huge and sleek and shiny, it must have manoeuvred into position while I was distracted, its noisy approach covered by the sound of gunfire. It rotated slowly overhead, held up by the massive down-draught of its engines. The pounding air slammed against my armour, blowing up great clouds of dust and dirt to blind me. Molly had already retreated to shelter, and sent a brisk wind my way to disperse the clouds.

The plane’s targeting system finally locked onto me, and it opened up with every weapon it had. Heavy machine-gun fire sprayed across me, followed by two supersonic missiles. My mask shut down again as the world disappeared in fire and noise. When I could see again, I was standing in a large open space, with all the surrounding stalls and booths blown apart or blown away. Quite a few more were on fire. Molly was standing some distance away, protected inside one of her special protective fields. But I didn’t know how long she could keep that going, so I ran forward and jumped up into the air, propelled by the powerful strength of my armoured legs. I think the VTO pilot guessed what I was up to at the last moment, because the plane started to rise, but I was already there.

I grabbed onto the undercarriage with one extended golden hand, the fingers closing hard, sinking deep into the metal. I hung there for a moment beneath the plane, and then pulled myself up so I could get a good grip with my other hand. I hauled myself up onto the wing and stood up. The massive VTO engines roared deafeningly, trying to maintain balance as I strode along the wing, heading for the cockpit. I could see the pilot staring out at me unbelievingly. I grabbed the cockpit roof and tore it away, the steel shrieking as it ripped and buckled under my grasp. The pilot panicked and hit the ejection button. He shot up past me, his chair leaving a trail of flames behind it that washed briefly and ineffectually over my armour.

The plane lurched back and forth, its balance gone without the pilot to adjust the engines. The nose turned down, and the plane plummeted back to earth, heading straight for the fair. There were still a lot of people down there, stumbling lost and confused up and down the walkways. I couldn’t let the VTO plane crash into the fair and kill them all. So I rode the plane down, leaning back and shifting my weight this way and that to guide its descent. The armour gave me the feel of the plane almost immediately, and a shift of my armoured weight at exactly the right times was all it took to steer it in the right direction. I rode the plane all the way down, over the fair and on into the valley, and then I jumped away at the last moment. I landed easily, my armoured legs soaking up the impact, and the VTO plane hit the valley floor hard and skidded along for some time in a billow of smoke before finally skidding to a halt in a shower of sparks. No fire, no explosion, nothing. I shook my head and ran back to the fair.

Still, what a ride . . .

I saw the Armourer facing off against the remote-controlled tank, and headed over to back him up. A great, hulking steel monster, the tank roared towards my uncle, who stood his ground and let it come. The tank fired shell after shell at him, each one dead on target, exploding against his armour without driving him back an inch. When the smoke from the explosions cleared, he was still standing where he had been, though some of where he had been standing wasn’t there anymore. I could tell from the way he was posing, arms folded easily across his chest, that the Armourer was enjoying himself. It might have been thirty years since he’d seen action in the field, but he was still every inch a Drood agent. Besides, all those years working in the Armoury had probably made him rather blas? about being blown up. The Armourer waited until the tank was almost on top of him, and then he leaned forward, ducked underneath and lifted the whole front of the tank up off the ground. Its tracks turned helplessly, unable to get a grip. The Armourer walked slowly forward, step by step, raising the tank up and up until it tipped over onto its back. It hit hard, and a series of things went bang inside it. Streams of black smoke billowed out of cracks in its sides, along with bursts of flame from electrical fires.

I went to stand beside the Armourer, and Molly came tripping up to join us. She threw her arms around me and hugged me as best she could through my armour. I held her carefully, mindful of my armour’s strength.

“How could you tell which was me?” I said.

“Your armour is quite different from everyone else’s,” she said, leaning against my chest. “You don’t realise how much you change it subconsciously these days.”

I looked at my uncle, in his basic old-fashioned skintight golden armour, and he nodded his featureless head. “She’s right, Eddie. Your armour has an almost medieval affect. Like some Arthurian knight. I guess the Drood is in the details, these days.”

A great shadow fell over us. The giant Japanese robot was up and on its feet and looming over us. Fifty feet tall, broad chest, massive arms and legs, hundreds of tons of steel and all the latest technology. The chest opened up to reveal row upon row of energy weapons, the squat barrels sparking and crackling with discharging energies. The face had been painted to resemble some old-time Japanese demon, and the eyes flashed fiercely. The giant robot raised its arms slowly and menacingly. It stepped forward, tripped over its own feet and fell flat on its face. The impact shook the ground like an earthquake. Molly and the Armourer and I watched it closely, but it didn’t move again.

“Told you,” said the Armourer.

We headed back to what was left of the Supernatural Arms Faire.

Those people who hadn’t been able to leave or escape, or didn’t want to abandon their stalls or merchandise, stood around in small groups for comfort and mutual support. They regarded us with suspicious eyes as we walked past, but said nothing, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. More than half the stalls and booths and tents had been destroyed or ruined, and the whole place was a mess. Fires burned here and there, and smoke drifted this way and that on the gusting wind. The Bloodred Guard appeared out of the ruins and spread out to stand before us. We stopped and bowed politely. The head monk sighed and turned to his fellow guards.

“Knock it off, guys. We are way out of our league. Everyone stand down and see what you can do to help the injured. There are still people here who need our help. If that’s okay with you, Drood?”

“Carry on,” said my uncle Jack. “But don’t let anyone go. There will be questions.”

“These people need doctors, not interrogators,” said the monk.

“They’ll get help,” I said. “We’re the good guys.”

“Yeah, right,” said the monk.

He and his fellow guards turned away to do what needed doing. There was a general air of we’re not being paid enough to fight Droods, which was only reasonable.

The Supernatural Arms Faire was now officially over. Half of it was in ruins, the other half was still on fire, and there was no one left to sell anything to. A good day’s work, I thought. Except there was no trace of the Satanists anywhere, or the people they’d kidnapped. We were going to have to do something about that.

“I’ll call in the family,” said the Armourer. “Medics first, and then support teams to Hoover up everything that’s left. Can’t have so many good weapons going to waste, after all.”

“Boys and their toys,” said Molly.

I handed the Armourer the Merlin Glass, and he opened it up to make contact with Drood Hall. I armoured down and walked off with Molly, shivering hard as the mountain cold hit me again.

“So much for a day off, and a nice little holiday,” said Molly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I had a good time. Didn’t you have a good time?”

“Well, yes,” said Molly. “But that’s not the point! The satanic creeps got away with it again! Worked their plans right in front of us, and then disappeared, laughing, leaving us to clean up the mess. I am getting really tired of being caught on the back foot all the time, Eddie. I want to know what they’re planning. I want to know what the Great Sacrifice is. And I want to take the fight to them, instead of always being one bloody step behind!”

“Exactly,” I said. “We have got to get into the game fast, or the game could be over before we even get a kick of the ball.”