"Shrew; this marvel of aluminium that will defend us against the winged legions of our nation's foes, Shrew, I ask you."
Victoria stood at the threshold of Professor Peregrine's study in Clare College, Cambridge.
Opposite the door were windows of leaded diamond panes illuminating the room with crisp clean October light. From them could be seen the Fellows Park and the River Cam. Young men with big futures hurried across the College's famous bridge to lectures.
Victoria without one nervously held her handbag in front of her. It was the right room as directed by the Porter, who looked for a wedding ring and saw none. It was the right man as instructed by Hughbert Adam, the strange fellow Sister Beatrice had sent her to the day before. Victoria felt she was the wrong woman.
Peregrine was small and lined with age. He moved with abrupt jerks contrary to his ancient bones. Head tilted he looked straight at her when she made a hesitant cough.
His study was organised and neat. Comfortable chairs ready for students. Books in their cases or resting on his desk with crisply written notes tucked in the pages. All was meticulous order apart from the manic squadron hanging from fishing line nailed into ancient beams and priceless mouldings. Every kind of aircraft dangled above her. No expert, Victoria accepted them. A large white dart with a bent nose seemed out of place since it lacked propellers but what did she know.
He held the model of a sleek monoplane with elliptical wings.
"This is to be the Shrew," he stated with significance. "Unless I can think of something better."
Victoria felt she should say something. Recently her mortality weighed her down and rambling old goats reminded how little time she had.
"It is professor -"
"Yes it is Victoria. Hughbert sent you. But are you worth the effort?"
Victoria lingered at the threshold.
"Mr Adam said you could free me of my curse."
"Did he? I think not. Hughbert is very careful about words. He wouldn't say that. So girl, can you remember what he actually said?"
"Where's that spirit you're famous for?" Peregrine demanded. "Brazen is how you're described in polite circles and now you're shrinking away. Maybe there isn't enough of the old fiery Victoria to be worth saving."
Victoria looked at her shoes.
"The old Victoria wasn't worth saving."
"That's the only one there is. Go away and die."
"Hughbert probably said I could help you. I bet he never said help you with what."
"My curse," Victoria said annoyed. "I'm cursed. In seven years time I'm going to be consumed by a demon!"
Peregrine pulled a note book from his tweed jacket and consulted it.
"Six years, three months and an inconsequential number of days. You're not cursed."
"Do think I'm lying?" Victoria confronted him across his desk.
Peregrine was pleased.
"No, I think you're ignorant. You are bound to a demon not cursed."
"What's the difference?" she challenged.
"You shall learn. Now, brass tacks: there are three solutions to your problem. I shall offer each one once and once only. Each has a price."
"I'll pay anything."
"No, you will not!" Peregrine shouted. "You've not learnt a thing! Didn't Sister Beatrice teach you words matter? All promises are binding. All prices must be paid. Never say a word you don't mean."
Victoria didn't feel up to arguing. Peregrine was her last straw and it was breaking in her hand.
"What are the three solutions?"
Peregrine pulled open a drawer and extracted a phial of clear liquid.
"Drink this and you'll be dead in two seconds. About a minute later your body will turn to dust."
"I'm not suicidal."
"Good," Peregrine replied pocketing the potion. "Death is no escape; it releases your soul for him to consume. This would have destroyed your soul. Not a perfect solution, but a least a demon does not get it."
"What's choice two?"
"This way," Peregrine turned to face the bookcase behind him. "Do you speak any foreign languages?"
"French, German, a little Italian," Victoria answered, "I attended a Swiss finishing school."
Peregrine pushed a book and the bookcase faded away.
"Secret passages are so unoriginal, but sometimes necessary. Follow me."
The man vanished into a dark hallway.
Victoria followed to find a corridor of books in shelves that stretched six feet above her head. Great leather-bound tomes surrounded her, punctuated by rough collections of rag stitched with what could have been bailing twine. Scrolls too occupied some spaces she paused to touch one.
"Victoria!" Peregrine snapped before more softly saying, "Did you study Latin?"
"Yes. What are these?"
"Do you want to add knowledge to the poverty of your education?"
Victoria looked straight at him as he leaned on a bookcase staring a challenge in return.
"Will it help me?" she asked slowly. Victoria didn't like men who played games, who insulted and teased to get a reaction.
The professor turned his back on her and continued, turning left.
Victoria was sure that they should have reached a wall or a window instead it opened into a vast chamber constructed from huge blocks of stone. Along the walls were swords and axes, pikes and lances. Amongst these racks were cages restraining black stone balls and great vessels containing coloured liquid as a chemist would put in a shop window. In the shadows one glass sphere appeared to contain a human form floating in dark liquid. As she stared at it the figure became clearly female and then acquired a dress. Victoria looked away in case it became more familiar.
Peregrine was at the wall returning the poison to its shelf, one completely encased in a steel grill. His hand passed through the metal bars with the phial remaining as he withdrew his hand.
He moved off and began speaking.
Victoria poked the bars of the shelf to find them solid.
"The next solution is for you to kill the demon."
"Of course I can, but I have no need to. It is you who have to kill him," he said.
"He's bullet-proof. I shot him. He's like stone."
From a rack Peregrine drew a huge sword. In length a head shorter than Victoria, its grip could take three hands with room to spare.
"This is a giant's life-claimer, it should do the job. It's over twenty thousand years old so I want it back."
Victoria took the weapon and its weight nearly felled her.
"Don't touch the blade it necrotises. Find the balance point girl. It's not a lacrosse stick."
Where the point dragged on the ground it cut a channel in the stone, then she found the balance point and the weapon for all its inertia floated in her grip. Clumsily she wielded the weapon and she asked:
"You said giants. Are there really giants?"
"You are one."
Victoria half expected an answer like that.
"Could you explain further?"
"Giants interbred with humans after the Final War, that's why humans have been increasing in size with every generation. Scientists think it's down to improved diet - hah!"
"Do you mean the Great War?"
"No, I do not. That was a mere skirmish of delinquents. I am not a professor of history and you do not need to know any more."
"I think I need to practice with this."
* * *
Victoria found herself standing at the top of flight of stairs in a respectable London townhouse. The dark red carpet and hissing gas lamps had a Victorian feel.
"This is an illusion for your practice. Reality permits you only one chance so practice until you win every fight."
"Dr Mason is behind that door. A word of advice: he senses souls and yours in particular, strike while he's occupied. He likes to read all the London newspapers. It's a good time to strike, not the best, but a good time."
Victoria struggled with the massive weapon scoring the flock wallpaper and leaving a black trail in the carpet.
Her heart pounding, Victoria couldn't convince her senses that this was an illusion. The brass door knob was cold as she turned it slowly. Watching her footfalls to enter silently Victoria twitched at the rustle of paper.
Sitting in a high-backed chair facing away from the door was Dr Mason. A broadsheet newspaper flapped page to page every few seconds.
"Miss Huntington-Swales," Mason said, "you have returned and so soon."
On her toes, Victoria couldn't take the next step.
Folding his reading material and placing it on a small table, Mason eased into a standing position.
Victoria had forgotten how big he was. The sword would not have been out-sized for him.
"A soul-renter," Mason observed. "Someone must think you're of value."
Finally she was free of her surprise and --
* * *
Victoria was standing outside Mason's room again. Disorientated she looked all round the hall then fixed on Peregrine.
"You died," he stated. "Your swing was shameful, his was not."
"Don't expect a demon to have the speed of a human. Would you like another go?"
* * *
Once more Victoria entered quietly.
The newspaper rustled in that particular way as Mason said, "Miss Huntington-Swales, you have returned and so soon."
This time Victoria thrust the sword into the chair. There was no resistance as the blade destroyed fabric and wood turning it to fine ash.
Mason sprang to land in a crouch then powered upwards.
Dragging the sword through the disintegrating seat she was not fast enough.
Victoria's head lolled forward as her body went limp. She had felt her spine break as a jolt in her neck. Paralysed she hung impaled on his two arms blood running freely from the wounds in her waist as he lifted her into the air. With no effort Mason pulled his arms apart ripping her in two.
* * *
A column of muscle and bone that by chance was upright, Victoria stared vacantly at the wall of the armoury.
Peregrine walked around her.
"Seventeen attempts," Peregrine said making a note in his book. "Do you go to church?"
"I can't hurts me."
"Throbbing head perhaps?"
"That will get worse. Eventually any holy place will feel like walking on blades, your skin will burn and breathing will feel like glass tearing at your lungs."
Victoria straightened and focused on the professor.
"It will get worse?"
"I do not repeat myself. You should go to church at every opportunity."
"Will that help?"
"Oh no, you're too far gone for spiritual guidance; however, Dr Mason feels some of what you do."
"I want free of him not to irritate him."
"Shall we move on to your final choice?"
"No, I think I'm succeeding." Victoria rolled her head. Her neck had been _broken_ more than once. "I shall have a go when he's sleeping."
"He does not sleep. Where Mason's from there is no night or day. I can take you to a time when he is most occupied."
"Why didn't you do that before?"
Victoria knew exactly why when Peregrine took her there.
* * *
The basement changing room still smelt of carbolic soap. The simple chair, desk and padded bench were the same. A woman's clothes had been laid out on the bench where Victoria had placed her coat eight months before. Inferior quality, shamelessly patched their owner probably took in washing to make ends meet, if they ever did.
Beyond the changing room was the operating theatre where Dr Mason fed on unwanted babies.
He was there bent over the table freeing a mother of her burden.
Seventeen false deaths swirled in her mind as Victoria slipped off her shoes for fear of sounding off the tiles. One real death was clear in her memory as she approached the surgeon. Pain and shock, shouting and pleading came back from things that could never be undone, the night she killed her best friend. She dared one footstep after another closer to the unaware Mason.
In range she drew back her weapon and only then did he sense her.
Victoria rammed the blade into Mason's back.
"No," she breathed when bright light shone from the cut fearing in her ignorance she had wounded something pure.
Roaring he twisted the sword opening him further liberating more light. Coppery foam spilled out to hit the tiles with a wet slap. Once, briefly, Victoria had seen Mason's true form now his disguise dissolved. Legs swelled and distorted reversing the knee joint and taloned feet tore through his shoes. The torso grew, great muscles like wings anchored massive arms to his barrel torso, terminating in claws that could crush a horse. Flesh turned corpse-white wreathed in blue veins that lead to the pits where eyes should have been. Even the face had lost any human shape with projecting jaws like a jackal's.
Catching the killing metal the beast screamed and despite the sword consuming his flesh Mason kept his grip and pulled the woman to him.
Victoria's stocking feet slid on the tiles. All her other deaths had been lightening strikes this was like being drawn into quicksand. If she released the sword he would surely use it on her. If she held on either claw or jaw would eviscerate her fragile fabric when in range.
The weapon was destroying Mason's claws and Victoria chanced all to throw herself backward.
Staggering Victoria alone had claim of the sword.
Mason lunged, slowed by injury he gave time for Victoria to swing.
Falling in two pieces the creature died. Thick green and blue liquors leaked from the wounds. What colour he had faded.
Sword clattering away, Victoria exhausted, knelt on the cold floor.
Decomposing at speed, an unrecognisable sludge spread out.
The knowledge that Mason was killable gave no comfort. Hardly capable of moving she knew she would have to practice many times. Repeating this torture would be necessary to guarantee triumph. Victoria was wondering how many times she would have to play this game when she became aware of a pit-a-pat.
Blood was dripping from the operating table.
Leaping upright, Victoria stood over the woman on the table. Her hands flitted back and forth over the growing dark patch terrified to touch yet certain inactivity was fatal. From hem to waist the stain spread across the theatre gown.
The patient's ragged breathing stopped.
Victoria felt warm thick liquid on her toes. She looked down and her brain twisted in a storm of guilt and horror. She had killed again.
Peregrine appeared on the other side of the table.
"Don't fret Victoria, calm yourself," he said gently taking her hands, "Calm Victoria."
The chaos in her head subsided.
"This was last Tuesday. You have hurt no one. That's Margaret McGuiness. She still lives thanks to Dr Mason. She had four miscarriages, the last ended in haemorrhaging that nearly killed her. No human has the speed or skill to save her. Only when Mason is absorbed on a case that challenges his talents does he become blind to you. It means a woman will die in here when you fight then many more will die with his gifts are lost to the world."
"I am lost. I cannot pay this price."
Illusory the death of Margaret McGuiness may have been, but Victoria's emotional centre reacted like it was real. Victoria was death, she promised she would never kill again and failed so easily.
Peregrine walked out of the theatre which melted away back to the armoury. He continued toward the corridor of writing material.
Victoria called after him while collecting her shoes.
"Was this all to show me I am lost. You are no gentleman to play games with me."
At the passage entrance Peregrine wheeled.
"I am not here to be a gentleman nor play games. I am here to offer you three choices."
Victoria marched up to the man.
"Tell me of the third and we can be done with this."
"I teach you everything I know."
Victoria strained to prevent asking what he meant for she had learnt he meant exactly what he said. Finally she asked:
"What is the price?"
"The price is that you will learn everything I know."
"And that is worse than generations of women dying to save my soul?"
"Could you offer a woman poison that would destroy her immortal soul?" He said softly.
"If I don't take your offer in seven years I will be nothing. If I do I shall learn things that would make this curse appear no worse than a splinter in my thumb."
"It takes ten to twelve years to learn enough to break your bonds," Peregrine said. "You will have to study with an intensity few could match so you still might die."
"I can't do this, I am finished."
"Hughbert said you'd refuse."
"Then why send me here?"
"I warned you words are important. You asked for help. I am that help. Hughbert is duty-bound to answer your request. Your soul is not lost yet."
"Don't tease me with hope," Victoria threatened and moved to the door.
"I asked for an apprentice. He told me to think of something to make you stay."
"Did you?" she demanded angrily.
"Work for me, if you cannot face becoming my apprentice. Do this and I guarantee you'll not die with a guilty conscience."
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