My father had always told me that drink and craftsmanship do not mix. I only believed him when I was walking home from my usual tavern and heard the crawlers behind me.
An ignorant man might have mistaken them for rats but rats, on the whole, do not follow a man. I heard them scuttling in the rubbish at the sides of the narrow streets, always keeping a steady three paces behind me, whether I stopped or ran. Occasionally there would be the tell-tale hiss of steam but none of the clunking of metal that any that I had manufactured would have made.
These were expensive creations, which meant I was in trouble. I tried to duck down side alleys but still they followed. Part of me wondered if they had scent detectors, part of me fought the alcohol, trying to clear my head for whatever they wanted.
After all the twisting and turning I came out on the Palazzo St Michael and realised that was where the crawlers had intended to drive me. In the centre of the square, facing me as though he expected my appearance, was a dark cloaked figure.
My hand on my dagger, I walked forwards, there seeming little point in trying to evade him.
“Good evening Ferondo.”
So, I was in the presence of the Guild Master himself. “Signor Giosefo, I assume you demand my presence.”
“Forgive me, I like to give my little creatures practice when I can and what I have to say to you is better done in solitude rather than within the eavesdropping of my servants.”
I searched my conscience for any fatal trespass I had committed but could not think of one.
“I have always thought you an honest craftsman Ferondo but I have heard rumours that a Khwai Shuh has been brought from China and those same rumours tell me that it was your father who initiated the transaction.”
Both thoughts were staggering. A Khwai Shuh! Could one of those creatures be in Europe? Of course we had heard of such fabled things but we in the Teraphim Guild had never come close to making them. All we had mastered were the mummified talking heads, brought to life by ancient scriptures that we had to buy at high price from monks whose archives held such secrets. That my father, who had bent me with his iron rules, should be involved in illegality was even more shocking.
“I find it unlikely.” I was pleased by how honest my reply sounded.
“So did I, but I have seen sufficient proof of both. Normally I would eradicate your workshop but I had great respect for your father and feel I should give his son a chance to redeem himself.”
I nodded to the man who had beaten my father in the election for master of the guild, had repeatedly undercut his work and whom I blamed for his death.
“You won’t be able to do it yourself so I will send one of my bravos to help you. I want this khwai shuh found and its secrets incorporated into the Guild.”
The next morning in my workshop was worse than wasted time. I would have done better to stay in bed. It was not just the headache but what was left of my brain was taken up with thoughts of a full sized creature that could do your bidding. So I was unable to concentrate on the teraph I was working on and Duke Rinaldo was impatiently waiting for. I failed to give full thought to the incantation so that most of my savings that had paid the grave-robbers for the head and the six months hollowing and mummification process were wasted.
I was still feeling sick at what I had done when a young man entered my shop without knocking. From his arrogant air and ridiculously coloured clothes I knew him to be the bravo Giosefo had promised. He introduced himself as Ansaldo, looking around with disgust at my shop and apparatus. If my teraph had been working and could have told him the day of his death I could have wiped that smirk from his face.
“So, how do we find this monster?” he drawled, casually picking up a bottle of brain in alcohol and holding it up to the light.
“I rather hoped you would tell me.”
“Where does the Teraph Guild tell each other their secrets?”
“We don’t. We keep ourselves to ourselves.”
“Pah! I don’t know an artisan yet who doesn’t like spending his time boasting of his skill.”
“Not the Guild House. It is only used for our monthly feasts and they are dull affairs. There is the Swan on the same street. I have heard it is frequented by some of my brothers, though I have never been there.”
So the Swan was where he insisted on taking me. It was a dark place whose tables were sticky and the place smelled of old wine and unwashed bodies. There seemed to be more whores than teraph guild members.
Ansaldo lounged and chatted to the whores. I kept to a quiet table in the corner. I was at the point of getting up and telling him I was leaving when he came towards me with one of the whores. He had a smug expression on his face that was displeasing.
The girl, Lisetta, claimed to be the daughter of the late Signor Dioneo, a man whom I remembered as a close friend of my father. Her story was very similar to mine, her father ruined by the business dealings of Master Giosefo, but with greater debts than my prudent father, which had caused her to fall into this state. While she was telling us this my gaze, like Ansaldo’s, was taken by the ample proportion of her breasts that were visible, although I was more concerned by the jade medallion that was suspended between them by a gold chain.
She knew nothing of Chinese demons. “We have both cause to hate Giosefo.” I said to her when her story was done. “But, if our parents were involved in this importation then we should find out what has happened to it, so we can gain our proper benefit. If Giosefo is maligning their names then we should expose him.”
She smiled sadly. “And how are we going to take on the Master of a Guild?”
I turned to look at Ansaldo who shrugged. “Technically he is the man who pays me so perhaps you had better have this conversation without me.”
When I returned home I looked through my father’s possessions. My hand clutched a large gold ring with a jade stone. I sat twirling it on my finger for several hours. I did not sleep well that night.
In the morning a messenger arrived before breakfast with a message to go immediately to the Master’s house. Fear gripped my stomach. Had Ansaldo betrayed us? But when my reluctant feet took me to Giosefo’s mansion I found the servants running around in panic. Ansaldo was waiting for me in the vestibule and beckoned me to follow him upstairs.
It was the iron stink of blood, something I know well, that hit me as we entered the bedroom. On the large bed, amidst torn and bloody silk sheets, was the body of the Master, at least I assumed so, the head had been squashed so it was only a mass of blood, grey jelly and splintered bone. I vomited onto the floor, adding to the mess the servants would have to clear up.
On the floor were the crushed remnants of the crawlers, who should have acted as Giosefo’s bodyguard. Ansaldo nodded towards the smashed window, expensive glass shattered on the floor. “The work of your monster?”
“But we’re two storeys up.”
Ansaldo shrugged. “Don’t know many of our local assassins who could do this.”
I wanted to get out of the room as quickly as possible. As an excuse I went down to the basement and Giosefo’s workshop. As I hoped he had a teraph complete, waiting to be sold to its commissioner. It was a quite comely head of a young man of a vaguely southern appearance.
For a while I meditated in front of it, it was always the most difficult part of using a teraph, formulating the right question. The thought rose that perhaps Giosefo had stood here. Perhaps that was why he thought my father was involved.
“Teraph, who would kill the Master of the Teraphim Guild?” The eyes opened and looked at me, always an unnerving moment and then that deep sepulchral voice that they all had, though here slightly slurred. Perhaps Giosefo was not the great master he liked to pretend.
“What will be the master of the world.”
Infuriating, so often answering a question with a question. One more try.
“How can I control the demon?”
“Give it what it wants.”
Pointless. I went back upstairs and told Ansaldo I was returning to my workshop. By this time the city authorities had arrived and were creating even greater confusion. Ansaldo decided to come with me, having no wish to draw their attention to him.
While Ansaldo searched my kitchen for food I made a second search of my father’s papers but still found no reference to a khwai shuh, not even a receipt, although my father was a meticulous man and kept everything, which made my search harder.
Who was controlling it? I thought about all the teraph makers and none seemed to have the necessary subtlety. I put the jade ring on my finger. Something so valuable, why had my father kept it secret?
By the time I gave up and went down to my kitchen Ansaldo was ensconced at my table working his way through an old loaf and equally veteran tomatoes. He pushed some towards me but I shook my head.
“You seem quite relaxed after the horrors we have seen.”
He gave another shrug. “Battlefields have as much, although it is slightly disquieting having only the one body to concentrate on. What will this Chinese monster do now?”
“Whatever its master tells it to.”
“Are Chinese devils so biddable then?”
“That might be their danger. It would take a wise man not to lead himself to destruction with such power.”
“But it would be an interesting journey.”
There was the slightest tap on the door. Ansaldo’s hand immediately fell to his sword. Reluctantly I went and slowly opened it but it was only Lisetta.
“Have you heard about Master Giosefo?”
I opened the door wider so that she could enter then closed it quickly behind her.
“So there is a khwai shuh. Rumours are flying through the streets. People are scared.”
“They have every right to be.” I said. “This thing could kill anyone it is directed to and any number. Even the Duke should be worried.”
“But it has only killed the Master so far and he is no loss. Perhaps it is being used for good.”
“Once you have killed it is easier to kill again.” said Ansaldo.
“Perhaps we should find whoever has control of the khwai shuh and invite them to become the new master. This power can be harnessed and increase the power of the Guild.”
“You are too simple Lisetta. We must find it, yes, but who has done this must be brought to justice.”
She smiled at me and her hand went to her jade pendant. “Wouldn’t you rather work with the new power Ferondo rather than oppose it and risk its anger?”
“No, I will never do that.” She sighed and then did an incomprehensible thing, she stuck the pendant in her mouth and breathed the word, “Come.”
The atmosphere in my kitchen had changed. Ansaldo looked in horror at Lisetta. I felt a terrible apprehension. Then we heard a clumping sound outside as if something heavy was being dragged towards the door. It bulged inwards and then the heavy oak planks shattered and the khwai shuh stood there.
As my bladder loosened the craftsman part of me admired the thing in front of me. It was taller than any man but shaped like one, made of some white, shiny material like bone. The head had only roughly shaped to that of a man, no mouth or ears, but the eyes had been hollowed out and I swear I could see something shining behind them.
Ansaldo was quick. Before I could take a breath he had drawn his sword and rushing towards the creature. He brought a mighty blow down on the thing’s head but it was quicker and held the sword, broke it as if it were a reed and then swiped Ansaldo with its arm.
Ansaldo fell, pole-axed, and I sensed he would not rise again. Aware that Lisetta was smiling triumphantly at me, I put my father’s jade ring in my mouth. Immediately it felt as though there was someone else in my head. I could feel it searching me, surprised. I took advantage of that surprise.
Afterwards I was mostly grateful to Giosefo’s teraph for telling me the truth. Control the demon by giving it what it wants. Poor Lisetta had merely promised it control of the Guild. I had promised it the world.
Now that I had two bodies to work with, Alsaldo’s and Lisetta’s, the demon had promised me that he could summon more of his fellows. In return I had promised to find a way of transferring them into the bodies, much more adaptable than this porcelain body. My skill with teraphs should make this easy. Then we could look to increasing our army until all of humanity was in our grasp and the demons would have the world they desired.