Chapter Thirteen: Armand
Penny spent the next few days trying to make her desires to enrol at Greymalkin’s Academy known. She frequently pestered Forrest and Riider for information about the school and about the Blood supporters, but the pair had little to say. Blythe, caught up in his plans to monitor the different clubs and societies, ignored and abandoned his team, only making contact to give them their shifts for the Outside and to plan several infiltrations of different warlock dens around London. Her chores around the Mason residence were less annoying now that Madeline and Tobias had travelled back to their mansion in Bath, so Penny spent this time eavesdropping on the Gardien leader’s conversations in his office.
But on one particular evening, Penny found she didn’t need to eavesdrop. She had heard the front door open and close from her place in the brunch room, where she had been polishing the grand piano. Creeping through the special walkway, she just got a glimpse of a tall person going into the office. Penny ambled by the black velvet chair by the stairs and was just about to sneak up to the door when a guffaw came from the other side.
“Well, what can I say? I was away, touring the land, achieving goals and meeting new people! It’s not my fault I missed her. Oh, Blythe, I can only hope that you made her feel welcome.”
There was a low, husky grumble from Blythe before the first speaker yelled:
“My word! Well, it couldn’t be avoided, I suppose. Anyway!”
The door burst open. Penny jumped to her feet and started scrubbing a wall at random, but the gangly wraith had already seen her staring transfixed at the door. His hair fell in messy curls to the small of his back and he wore a lab coat smeared with green slime.
“Is this…?” he said, his scarlet eyes wide with wonder. “Why, it’s the dear spinead!”
He ran over to Penny and started shaking her hands frantically.
“What a glorious evening this is! First, I find out that I missed mother, and now, I have been given an audience with the spinead! You have confirmed my predictions about the Spine; have lived to tell the tale!”
Blythe appeared in the doorway, cigar dangling from his down-turned mouth, his eyes filled with contempt.
“Oh! Wait!” said the tall wraith, whipping around to face Blythe. “I see! You heard about my return from Australia, and decided to organise a welcome party for me, with the spinead as the guest of honour! I can expect nothing less from my little brother. Archer! Archer! Yoohoo!”
Archer came bustling into the entrance hall.
“Now, for my welcoming banquet, I request your best duck! Be sure to tell Cook that I like my duck rare! Last time, it was done to charcoal standard, I’m afraid. And set my bath, dear sir! I require lavender-scented candles, rose petals and lots of bubbles! Chop-chop!”
Archer rushed up the stairs, looking slightly confused.
“Now Blythe,” said the tall wraith, who Penny now knew as Armand Mason. “I do hope Collette Friedman has been invited to this party, as well as my medical team. I know that mother likes Gideon Gecko, but I find the man far too boisterous! Who else is coming, might I add?”
His hands were still clamped over Penny’s, and he gave them a little shake every few minutes.
“There is no welcoming party,” said Blythe. “Now just get in here. I needed to talk to you about something.”
“Well let’s go!” said Armand, dragging Penny towards the office.
“Let go of the spinead.”
Armand blinked, looked from Blythe to Penny, and then gasped.
“What is this? My dear Penelope, why are you wearing a maid’s outfit?”
“I-I’m working for your brother,” said Penny.
“No-no-no, that will not do!” said Armand. “I needed you to work for me! As the spinead, you are needed to help me with my tests! Ah! I see! Blythe was merely warming you up for my offices!”
“No,” snarled Blythe, “the spinead is working for me.”
“Well, let us put our friendly banter aside,” said Armand, still dragging Penny towards the office. “Say what you need to, we do not want to be late for my party!”
Blythe hissed and turned on his heel. Once he was inside the office, he flung himself down on the leather chair behind the desk and shot furious looks at both Penny and Armand.
“I will cut to the chase, just to get you out of my house,” said Blythe. “I know you have junior apprentices on your medical team, some are even teenagers. I need one or two to do some Gardien work.”
“What is this?” said Armand. “My little brother, asking for help! What a lovely surprise!”
“Just give me your apprentices.”
“No can do, non petit frère! As you know, my apprentices go on a world tour in the spring to study plants and herbs for medicine. They are all gone.”
“Then you are of no use to me,” said Blythe. “Just get out, out—”
“Now that we are finished, let us retire to the dining room! My guests must be arriving shortly!”
“Did you not hear me? There is no welcome party, just get out of this—”
“—is this all because I couldn’t find you any apprentices? Blythe, how mean! I am sure there are plenty of other young people for you to use. What is this all for, anyway?”
“There is a growing group of Blood supporters in the Greymalkin’s Academy,” said Blythe. “I need some spies. No one in Gardien is eligible.”
“I am,” said Penny.
Armand and Blythe looked at her; the former, with mild interest, the latter, with scorn. Penny was aware that she was still holding Armand’s hand. She squeezed it for support.
“What did you say?” said Blythe, eyes narrowing further until they were two red slits.
“I can do it,” said Penny. “I’ve had enough of being your maid, and I think I’ve learnt whatever lesson you wanted me to learn. I’m right here! I’m school-age, and I’m the only young person you know who’ll be up for it! I can be your spy.”
“Isn’t this wonderful!” said Armand, lifting Penny’s hand up and shaking it in the air. “The spinead is so self-sacrificing, willing to go to the line of duty for the goodness of The Cave!”
“She is not doing it to be selfless,” said Blythe. “She is bored.”
He didn’t take his eyes off of Penny, but she met his gaze defiantly.
“Maybe I am bored,” she said. “And whose fault is that? You have me here like some slave; running your errands and all that. I have no one to talk to apart from Archer, because Forrest and Riider and the rest of Gardien are always out.”
Blythe seemed to be struggling with himself. He twirled the cigar around in his hand, spraying ash all over the mahogany desk. His lips were pursed so that it looked like he had a prune in the middle of his face.
“There shan’t be a moment more of this hesitation, Blythe! Now start this welcome party already!” said Armand.
“I don’t want to hire you,” said Blythe, ignoring his brother. “Give me a good reason.”
“Apart from you, I know Tarquin better than anyone else in Gardien,” said Penny. “You should have asked me for help a long time ago. I know what it feels like to be attacked by him; I know how persuasive he can be. If there’s anyone in the Academy being influenced by him, I would be able to tell.”
The Gardien leader scrunched the cigar up in his hand until it was a dark, smouldering pulp. He then pounded his fist on the table and looked away from Penny.
“Just get out of my house,” he said. “You will be notified in due course.”
Penny grinned and patted Armand’s smooth, brown hand. She didn’t want to let it go, just in case the power it had given her vanished. Finally, she sauntered out of the room and threw her burgundy apron into the air, just as Archer came down the stairs. He tilted his head towards her. Penny told him about her promotion, and he clapped his hands together. They clicked as the bones collided with each other.
“Well, run along then,” he said, picking her apron from the floor.
Penny ran up to Archer and hugged him.
“Thanks for your help!” she said, before running out of the door. She thought she heard him chuckle when she closed it.
The usual band of footmen outside the house nodded to her and did little cheers as Penny walked by. She bowed and skipped over to the gate, but just as she was about to open it, an unseen force stopped her – akin to Tarquin’s Body-Binding technique, but less frightening. It felt as though an inflatable ring had been wrapped around her midriff, and she was pulled back towards the door and into Armand’s outstretched arms.
“You mustn’t leave so soon,” he said. “I believe Blythe has postponed my welcome party, and if that is the case, then you must accompany me to my lab!”
“Er, what for?” asked Penny.
“Just a little skin and blood sample. Research is my first love, after all! I would love to understand how your body works!”
Before Penny had had a chance to say anything, Armand said “Archer! Yoohoo!” again and called for a carriage to take them to his lab. Soon enough, Penny was bundled into a golden carriage and whisked away to the giant muddy fells she had seen in the distance from Scare. The fells looked more like giant stalagmites than anything else; they were cone-shaped, jagged and made from orange clay. There was an odd array of smaller, black mounds to the right of the fells, set in a semicircle. Each mound had a shiny black door embedded in the front, and an oil lamp hanging over the door.
The wraith grabbed Penny’s arm and dragged her out of the carriage, thanking the driver before skipping towards the first mound and running inside. They entered a pristine hallway, with white and pale green tiles on the walls and the floor. The usual bulbous lamps of The Cave were absent here; instead there were normal square light bulbs, so bright that they made Penny squint. She felt out-of-place in such a clean arena and instinctively looked at her feet, which were covered in the usual brown dust from the Cave pavement.
Armand seemed less excitable as he pulled off his white lab coat and grabbed a black one from the wall. He marched forward with Penny following closely behind.
“So you discovered Spine,” she said as they entered another white room with a bed and instrument table in one corner, “how did you do it?”
“Tricky business, I’m afraid. And not very pleasant,” he tinkered around on the table, pulling on a pair of latex gloves and strapping a mask to his face. “We were fortunate that a Cave policeman was on the Outside that day. Mages have a sensory ability very much like the Wraith-Link, only theirs stretches to all magical creatures. They can feel any type of magic in the air, and this Creep policeman –a mage– was already looking for some of Rubin Child’s old chums when he came across the two bodies of Tarquin Blood’s first victims. Sensing the magic surrounding them, he brought them down to The Cave and straight to my lab, where I took samples and did the usual post-mortems.
“But there was something strange about both victims. They were clearly human, for their bodies turned blue upon entering The Cave, but their blood was turning black, which is a Creep trait. As I researched further, I found that their DNA structures were changing, even after death! That’s when I realised what the potion could do, so I put my mark on it! I dubbed it Spine, after Alfred Spine, my hero and mentor when I was but a medical apprentice, and took it to the news.”
“What did you do with the bodies?” asked Penny.
“We sent them back Outside. It took mage magic to put them back into the state they were in when we found them. Sadly, we could only leave them there until the human police discovered them, but we left some clues.”
Armand picked up a funny looking scalpel from the table and rolled up Penny’s sleeve. He then prepared to slice a section of Penny’s skin, but the blade slid off it like oil. Armand knitted his brows and tried again, making forward and backward motions as if he was cutting doner meat, but the blade made no incision on Penny’s skin. She even felt a cold wave rush through her body as the blade touched her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I have no idea!”
He jabbed at her with the scalpel, and it melted.
“My-my!” said Armand. “What a wonder!”
He ran over to a drawer, grabbed a tape recorder and began jabbering into the microphone in excitable French.
“What does this mean?” asked Penny, getting to her feet.
Armand snapped off the tape recorder and patted her on the shoulder.
“It means you are brilliant!” he said. “It seems as though the Spine has given you … invincibility! I wonder what else it has done. Penelope dear, there is no end to your madness!”
“Get on, get on!” Armand patted the bed excitedly and Penny sat down. After she was seated, he brandished a syringe and waved it in her face. “This may work, Penelope! A needle has an acute point, correct?”
He was right. The needle pierced her skin perfectly and a fountain of blood rushed into the chamber. Penny and Armand stared at the syringe, mouths dropping open.
“My word!” said Armand, ripping the mask from his face and holding the syringe up to his face. He then went back to the tape recorder, whispering excitedly into the microphone. Penny looked at her arm and at the bead of red blood that swelled over her vein – red blood.
“I don’t understand,” said Penny. “I thought I was a Creep?”
Armand stopped talking at the sound of Penny’s trembling voice. His smile dropped and he bent towards her.
“Penelope, my love? Why are you crying?”
“Why aren’t I like you guys? I thought I’d found a place to belong.”
“But you do belong here!”
“No I don’t. I’m the spinead, I have red blood. I’m not supposed to be here.”
She balled her hands into fists and pressed them against the soft padding of the bed. Her whole body was shaking.
“And where do you think you should be?” asked Armand in bewilderment. “Out there, in that strange village in the country? Or in an alleyway in London, all alone?”
He hopped onto the bed and sat beside her. After looking at her for a while, he touched to top of her head lightly.
“Being a Mason isn’t as nice as people think, you know. For the rich folk, our family is a commodity, or a ticket to get into all the best events in the Creep world. For the rest of the Cave populace, we are scary, strange people. The normal folk shy away from us. I grew up ostracised at school, and I became selfish and rude to people. I hated my parents, I hated my ancestry and I hated my siblings. But then I found science, and it made me feel alive, you know? There’s something about getting into a medical predicament and finding the answer for it; something about slaving away over an experiment, a strange disease, and helping people with my findings. I was able to reach out to people through science, and I soon found an amazing group of friends, friends that I would give my life for.
“I also knew another little boy – who was fantastic, brilliant and intelligent. He used to come over to our house with Blythe, and the pair would plot great adventures to embark upon at school. I used to look at Tarquinius Bloodbane and think, ‘I would love to take him on in my lab’, but just like everyone in his race, he felt judged and mistreated. And look at him now.
“I will not tell you that I understand what you are going through, as I have never been in your situation, but believe me when I say that every Creep in this city has been left out of something. We are a minority, are we not? Hidden away from the eyes of the world, only talked about in human legends. The humans would be scared of us, so we live underground in darkness.”
Armand looked at the blank white wall in front of them. It was so clean that their bodies were reflected in it; pale, and blurry and shimmering, like flattened ghosts. His scarlet eyes were filled with sorrow, but there was something else there, like hope, or wistfulness. It was such a stark contrast to the hard, loathing looks constantly found in his younger brother’s that Penny couldn’t help but watch him, almost transfixed, as if he was speaking of some great knowledge, or a secret that would save her if she heard it.
“The world can be scary,” Armand continued, “and there are people out there who want to hurt us. This planet has been home to conflicts and wars and murders and strife, but in every dark hole, a little light always manages to poke through. The world isn’t all dark, there is light in it as well. There are good people down here, in this Cave, people who would love to be your friend. Don’t be like Tarquin Blood, Penny, if someone reaches out a hand to you, take it.”
“Thank you,” said Penny.
Armand put his arms around her and waited for the fit of tears that would inevitably come. The pair sat, in the clean, pristine lab for a long time, until Penny cried herself to sleep.