Things are getting a little sticky in the north. Or maybe sticky isn’t the word.
Maybe the word should be apocalyptic-y.
And yes, I’m aware that’s not really a word, but I’m a writer and I say it is. Just don’t tell my editor. She’s got enough to deal with since I changed my affection for calling every side character by the same name from Barry to Angie.
Anyhow. Apocalyptic-y. End Times-y. Catastrophic.
Which is the sort of thing that no one wants to be around, but which is also very hard to look away from. One just wants to know what happens next, even if next is looking rather unpleasant and quite possibly terminal. You still have to know, right?
Which leads me to an effortless segue into buy my book …
Gobbelino London & a Collision of Catastrophes will be hitting the (virtual) shelves on Friday 28th of July, which is less than two weeks away! You can pre-order your ebooks at Amazon or your favourite retailers, and it’ll appear with a flash of non-terminal magic as soon as it’s released. Paperback details will be coming soon!
But to tide us over until then, let’s have a peek at chapter two (you can read chapter one here if you missed it last week).
Grab your potatoes and your Bless-O-Matic and let’s jump in … (that reference will make sense once you’ve read the book, I promise.)
Note: If you haven’t read the previous Gobbelino books, I strongly recommend it before starting A Collision of Chaos. Otherwise there’s going to be a lot of questions about zombies, unicorns, and well-dressed trolls, among other things. And to help you get started, the first book, A Scourge of Pleasantries, is only 99p / 99c for all of July. Grab yours at your favourite ebook retailer!
“Ay up, Mogs. Bringer of mad tidings. What is it this time?”
“End of the world,” I said.
“Can’t get much madder than that.”
We hadn’t planned to return to Leeds. Not yet, anyway. The place was dicey. After all, half the Folk in the city want us dead, and apparently have no reservations about making that happen.
But our friend Gerry is missing, so we’re heading back to find him. Never mind the fact that anyone who can take out a troll is operating way above our pay grade. It’s not like anyone pays us anyway.
It doesn’t take long to discover a missing troll is the least of our worries, though. Leeds has blown straight past dicey and into end times. The necromancers are back and as power-sotted as ever, and this time it’s not just a few cats they want dead. It’s everyone.
So if we want any chance of life as we know it to continue, we need to stop them as well as save Gerry. Easy, right? We only have to get past Callum’s dodgy family, my dodgy past, hopped-up magic-workers, feral weres, shady magicians, and the ever-present, ever-treacherous Watch.
Oh, and did I mention the sorcerer’s still giving me out of body experiences? Yeah. Good times.
At least it can’t get much worse. Can it …?
A Collision of Catastrophes
Ch. 2: A Hero’s Return
Even if our apartment hadn’t been a little bit wonky since the Book of Power incident, with mysterious gaps that appeared in the walls and whistled into other dimensions for a night or so before they vanished again, the last time we’d been home something had tried to shove me straight into a void. I wasn’t sure if it was the Inbetween, the same void the Watch keep trying to shove me into, or if it was a different void and someone else doing the shoving, but either way I wasn’t keen for a repeat. Going back to the apartment seemed like a bad plan when there could still be a trap waiting for me. Plus our landlady would definitely be waiting, along with her large and expressionless sons. We hadn’t exactly had time to give notice, and she wasn’t the sort of person we could say, sorry, something came up to. Or we could, but then her large expressionless sons would express her displeasure for her.
But we weren’t heading back to Leeds because it was home. We were heading back because, among other things, we had reason to believe that our friend Gerry was in trouble. Our last contact with the troll mayor of Dimly had been a weird phone call which someone else had evidently forced him to make, and before leaving Whitby we’d had a message we thought was from Poppy, one of his young troll charges. It had been as cryptic as a young troll with a shaky grasp of English (but still a better grasp than most trolls, who tend to consider fight me to be a complete conversation) could make it, so we weren’t actually sure it was about Gerry. But he and Poppy were two of a very small handful of people who weren’t actively trying to kill us (again, unusual for trolls), so we couldn’t ignore it. Gerry had sent us to Whitby to keep us safe, and if he was in trouble then it was probably because of us.
Walking into Dimly, a magic-ridden pocket town nestled into the outskirts of Leeds like a particularly virulent boil, was a risky proposition at the best of times, and this was about three worlds removed from the best of times, given the aforementioned weres, magicians, and other hazards. So heading straight there to look for Gerry was occupying a similar spot to a return to our apartment on the list of bad options we had.
Callum poked our new phone as we stopped at a set of lights, Leeds growing up around us in a snarling mix of old, stained brick buildings and a rush of glossy regeneration, all resting uneasily next to each other along the half-smothered edges of the river Aire. It was a new phone as in we’d had to buy it to replace the one a kraken was presumably using to decorate its nest, which we’d bought to replace one a Black Dog had stolen after chasing us into the sea. Which encapsulated our Whitby experience, really, but anyhow – in all other senses the phone was ancient, and since we always had pay-as-you-go we no longer had our usual number. However, we did still have most of our contacts, since there’s phone magic as well as car magic. Now Callum put it on speakerphone as we rolled on, the roads feeling broad yet crowded after Whitby, the press of buildings and people too cluttered and loud, the sky too low and claustrophobic.
“You’ve reached Gerry, mayor of Dimly,” the phone told us. “Please leave a message and I’ll—”
Callum cut it off with a sigh. “Still nothing.”
“Have you left a message?” I asked. “Maybe he’s not answering because it’s a different number. Screening his calls or whatever.” I don’t think I really believed it, but I also didn’t want to believe anyone could really threaten a full-size troll who looked like he was hewn out of Yorkstone, even one with a penchant for twinsets and nice hats. Certainly no more than I wanted to believe certain sorcerers actually needed to hide from anything.
“I don’t want to,” Callum said, fishing in his pocket. He came up with a piece of Whitby jet, black and dully glossy. He rolled it in his fingers as he drove, and I could smell the sea on it. “It could make things worse for him.”
We were both silent for a moment. We had no way to contact Poppy, and even if we had, I don’t think I’d have wanted to. The more she stayed out of this, the better. She might not be as eloquent as the mayor, but I trusted her more than I trusted pretty much anyone in this world. It was hard not to have faith in someone who believed so firmly in the goodness in all abandoned things.
“Emma?” I suggested finally. “Maybe Gertrude’s back. And we did say we’d contact her as soon as we got to Leeds.”
“True,” Callum admitted. Emma was Gertrude the reaper’s human partner, who had been kidnapped by the Sea Witch. We’d got her back, but Gertrude had been marched off by her boss for whatever the reaper equivalent of detention was, as punishment for going on a mini-break. Which seemed a bit harsh to me. It was only Whitby, after all.
Callum scrolled through the phone and hit another number. It rang briefly, then someone picked it up with a bright, “Hello?”
“Emma?” Callum said.
“Yes, you’ve reached Dead Good Cafe,” she said, in those same bright tones.
“Emma? It’s Callum—”
“No,” she said immediately.
“You can’t come here. I know I said to, but Gertrude’s still not back, and no one will tell me when she will be, and I can’t risk bringing any trouble here.” There was a tightness in her voice, but no hesitation. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s fine,” Callum said. “We understand. Are you okay, though?”
There was a pause that went on for just a moment too long, then she said, “I will be. Sorry.” The phone clicked off. We stared at each other, and a car honked irritably. Callum sped back up so that he could rush to wait at the next set of lights.
“That seems bad,” I said. “Gertrude still not back?”
“It’s only been a day,” he said.
“Still. I thought she was just going to get a stern talking to about not leaving Leeds or something.” I shifted on the threadbare seat, whiskers twitching. “What d’you think’s happened?”
“I hate to think,” Callum said, tucking the jet away again and taking his cigarettes out instead. “That’s reaper business. I doubt we could get in the middle of it even if we wanted to.”
The hair on my back popped to attention just at the thought. And if reapers weren’t enough, the Dead Good Cafe also served as a foster home for baby ghouls, which was something I was happy to stay as far from the middle of as possible. “Right. So there’s no point worrying about her, but we also can’t stay there. So where to next? We can’t just drive around all day.” Or what was left of the day – the early February night was already on the way in, hastened by heavy dull clouds that crushed the city ever closer around us.
Callum hesitated, shooting me a sideways glance. “There’s—”
“I am not going to Magic Boy’s palace. Even if he has got good chicken.” His dodgy magician bestie might live in a house with more spare rooms than I had spare lives, but that didn’t make it safe. Nothing about Ifan was safe.
“That’s a high degree of resistance for you.” Callum lit a cigarette and rolled the window down a little to let the smoke out. I wheezed anyway, just to make the point. “No apartment, no Dimly, no Gertrude, no Ifan. Who’s left?”
“Pru?” Pru had been the other cat that had helped us deal with zombies, as well as a couple of other sticky situations. She was as fearless as she was hairless, and also pretty much my favourite cat of the moment.
“Her human doesn’t know anything about Folk,” Callum said. “We can’t risk it.”
“Not to stay. But what if we just asked Pru if she knew what was going on? If she’d heard about Gerry, or our apartment, or anything?”
Callum looked at me. “A reaper helped us, and now she’s been hauled off by her authorities. A troll helped us and is now possibly missing. Claudia’s Watch, but she helped us, and she’s gone too. And Ms Jones. What d’you think might happen to Pru’s human if we go anywhere near her?”
Neither of us spoke for a long moment, while Leeds rushed and roared around us, and my back twitched and rippled with the sense of returning to the lair of a vast and hungry beast. One that I couldn’t even see, but knew was there. Waiting with the sort of patience that brings down empires.
“We’ve got nowhere,” I said.
“Welcome home,” Callum replied, as the light turned green and we rolled forward with the traffic, simply to be moving.
Since we couldn’t start by finding somewhere to stay, we went with the next best – or least worst – option. Starting our search for the dentist. Not that we hadn’t been going to get started fairly smartly, since sorcerers aren’t known for their patience or leniency, but it would’ve been nice to feel we had a wall to put our backs to first. That didn’t seem to be happening, though, and the sooner we found the dentist, the sooner we could have a sorcerer to put our backs to instead. Or to put in front of us, more to the point. So we went to the last place we thought Walker might’ve been, and also the last place a cat wanted to go. A were bar.
Callum leaned through the open doorway, peering into the dimness and frowning at the neon signs and two-for-one drink posters that had replaced all the old metal and wood that had been going on the last time we’d been here.
I snuffled the door frame and looked up at him. “They’re not here anymore,” I hissed, keeping my voice low.
“Hello?” he called, ignoring me.
“I’m telling you – there’s no weres in this place.” It says a lot about just how few options we had that we’d voluntarily returned to Yasmin’s bar, in the dark arches of the old industrial buildings in Bradford. When we’d been here before there had been the dank, savage whiff of wolf mixed in with bright lemon cleaning stuff and a curious, light scent that spoke of open fields and bright skies and the glory of fleet, fast paws. Now all I could smell was the dull stink of stale beer and bored desire and the acrid reek of exhausted, pointless rage, half-concealed by bleach and fear. It smelled like every pub everywhere.
“We need to check,” Callum muttered, then raised his voice as a man approached out of the shadowed reaches of the bar, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Hello?”
“Yeah?” the man said, examining Callum. “We’re not hiring.”
“I’m looking for Yasmin,” Callum said. “She had this place about a month ago?”
“That’s when I took it on.” He crossed muscled, tattooed arms over his chest. He was wearing a black T-shirt with the name of the bar emblazoned across the front, and I could smell his hair gel from here. “Saved it, really. She was running some alcohol-free thing in here, like that was ever going to work. Women get some weird ideas.”
Callum gave him what was probably supposed to be an all-guys-here grin, but which mostly looked like he had toothache. “Yeah, weird. D’you know where she is now?”
“Nah.” The man gave Callum a curious look. “Trying to punch a bit above your weight there, aren’t you?”
“I’m just a friend.”
“Yeah, sure. Anyway, don’t bother. I tried. Reckon she must be playing for the other side.” He made a regretful noise. “What a waste.”
“She would quite literally eat your face,” I said, and the man looked around, puzzled.
“That your phone?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Callum said, nudging me with a boot. “Got a contact number or anything?”
“No. I only met her a couple of times – she insisted everything go through the estate agent. Bloody pain, it was.”
“Can’t imagine why,” I said, avoiding Callum’s light kick. “Imagine depriving herself of such company.”
The man blinked and glanced around again, as if sure he’d heard something, but not sure what. Humans know cats don’t talk, so obviously it wasn’t me.
“Alright,” Callum said. “Thanks anyway.”
“Yeah, sure. You should come back Friday, though, mate. It’s ladies’ night – I do it right classy, you know, two for one on the bubbly and so on. Can’t miss.” He gave a broad, lazy grin, and I retched so hard I actually started throwing up a hairball. The man finally looked at me properly. “Is that yours?”
“Yeah. Think he’s allergic to something,” Callum said.
“Something,” I agreed.
“More of a dog man, myself,” the man said. “Bit girly, cats, aren’t they?”
Callum shrugged. “Never thought about it.”
“Well, they are. You want a dog. And a decent one, you know. None of these soppy little lapdogs, or some fluffy lab or something. I’ve got a pitty.”
Callum made a non-committal sound, and I said, “Is it called ‘A Lingering Sense of Self Doubt?’”
That bit he heard, but again – I was a cat, so it couldn’t have been me that said it. Callum scowled at me, and the man scowled at Callum, then said something that was anatomically impossible and also startlingly intimate, and slammed the door in our faces. I finished throwing up my hairball, then looked at Callum.
“Don’t you dare move it.”
“No intentions of it,” he said, tucking his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Come on, my girly little kitty.”
“He meant you were girly, not me,” I said, trotting after him. “Although, if you want to go with the caring for one’s appearance stereotype, I am a better candidate.”
“Other than the dandruff.”
“That’s an allergic reaction.”
“If you say so.”
Yasmin’s bar – or, rather, the bar that had been Yasmin’s and was now a bastion of fervent masculinity – was in the centre of Bradford, a city to the west of Leeds. Once there had probably been vast tracts of forest and farmland between them, but these days they had swollen and spread to form one amorphous beast, outskirts becoming suburbs crushed between the two. Dimly was out on this side of Leeds too, a rotting tooth sending waves of infection out across the Folk world. I was almost certain I could feel it, hot and fevered, at the edge of my consciousness, and I wondered what was happening in there. What had happened to Gerry, and what was waiting for us when we, inevitably, had to return.
We’d parked in front of a strip of shops beyond the train station, and we walked back without talking, the streets crowded with shoppers and workers hurrying about the place with urgent purpose. It wasn’t the sort of city where anyone would worry much about a human talking to a cat – most cities weren’t, when you came down to it. Everyone’s just a half-step away from difference, and the only people who really worry about it are the ones who fear they’ve already taken that step. But with Dimly seeping its own kind of strangeness into the world, I couldn’t shake the sense that we were more visible than usual. That we weren’t passing under people’s attention the way we usually did, and that there’d be others out here who were actively looking for us. Leaving Whitby had left us exposed, and away from its narrow streets and wild cliffs and ancient charms I could feel the attention of others scraping at my bones.
It was a relief when Callum let us back into the car, not just to get away from the wind but from that sense of being noticed. He seemed to feel it too, because he let out a slow breath and rolled his shoulders before he started the car. The engine turned over happily again, so whatever magic the farmer had worked was still holding.
“I was really hoping not to go back to life on the streets,” I said. “Being a stray has its upsides, but I’d kind of got used to not having to fight the local tom for my dinner.”
“We’re not at that point yet,” Callum said.
“Are you sure? I’m not seeing a lot of options here.”
“There’s one.” He pulled out of the parking spot, and I could see the skin on his knuckles white with the force of his grip.
He glanced at me sideways, then looked back at the road as he indicated to join the slow flow of traffic. “Ifan.”
“Have you been at the paint thinners or something? No. Not the magician.”
Callum didn’t look at me. “Ifan will know what’s going on with everything. With the weres, with Dimly, with Gerry – maybe even if there’s any news on the necromancers. You know this.”
“We also know he almost took us out with fireballs. Twice. And let’s not forget that oh, yes, he also likes playing with the godsdamned necromancers.”
“It’s that or nothing, Gobs. We can’t go back to our flat – it’ll have been rented out by now anyway, and there’s no one else we can go to. We can’t risk trying Pru and putting her human in danger, or anyone else, for that matter.”
I thought about it. “So by going to Ifan we could put him in danger?”
“I do like that idea. But still no. I’m certain he wants to turn me into cat chum, since I’m a steadying influence on you.”
“Is that what you are?” Callum took Green Snake out of his pocket and set him on the dashboard, where he immediately draped himself over a heater vent. “What d’you think?”
Green Snake tilted his head, which was helpful.
“I vote we stay out here,” I said. “Even a couple of nights in the car’s better than sneaky bloody magicians.”
Green Snake shuddered and curled in on himself.
“I vote Ifan’s,” Callum said. “We know he’s devious, so we won’t let our guard down. And I don’t know about you, Gobs, but I feel a bit …” He trailed off, hesitating, and I sighed.
“Yeah. Don’t know if it’s just being out of Whitby or what, but it’s making me jumpy.”
“Me too. And I don’t think it’s just being out of Whitby. I mean, that’s part of it, but it feels like everyone here’s looking for us. And there’s too many people.”
Green Snake looked from one to the other of us anxiously, then finally pointed his nose at Callum. I bared my teeth at him, but he ignored me. Trust the snake to pick the magician. At one point we’d lost the bloody reptile and he’d sneaked off with Ifan. He was literally in the dodgy turnip’s pocket. So who knew what angle Green Snake was playing, since a head tilt couldn’t tell us much.
“There’s nowhere else,” Callum said. “I don’t trust him, but I don’t not trust him either, if you see what I mean.”
“No,” I said. “But with any luck we can make things nice and dangerous for him.”
“I like how you always look on the bright side.”
“It’s a talent.”
Callum snorted and put the indicator on, pulling across a couple of lanes of traffic and heading toward the looming threat of the magician. At least it was in the opposite direction to Dimly. I almost thought I could feel the pocket town no matter where I turned now, like feeling the heat of a fire on my fur.
Which seemed like a bad development.
Cats don’t have any innate magic, as such. Sure, we can scratch a few charms into things, and we can shift, stepping into the Inbetween and back out again entirely. I say we in the general sense. In the specific sense, I couldn’t because certain Watch cats had held me in there to be chewed by the beasts that roam endlessly through the void. It had been an unpleasant way to end my last life (maybe others as well, but I couldn’t remember), and it also meant that if I put a paw in the Inbetween it was likely to be bitten off. The beasts follow my scent the way I follow the whiff of frying bacon. But all cats know magic when we sniff it, and as we headed north and east, away from Bradford and away from Dimly, I patrolled the car restlessly, jumping into the back seat to peer out the back window, crossing from one side to the other, returning to the front to sit down only to get up a moment later and start again.
“Gobs, stop,” Callum said the second time I jumped across his lap to put my paws up on his window, scanning the road for … something. The sorcerer’s heavy, muscular bike, perhaps, parting the rain with its hungry grumble. Or a pack of weres racing the cars toward us. Or tentacles or voids or something else entirely.
“I can’t help it,” I said. “I can feel something coming.”
“I can’t feel anything,” he said, lighting a cigarette from the butt of a previous one.
“No, doesn’t look like it.”
He gave me a sideways look, but didn’t put the new cigarette out. “We’re both on edge is all. Being back here, and not being able to get in touch with anyone.”
“Speaking of that, why don’t we call Magic Boy rather than go straight there?”
Callum blew smoke toward the gap in the window, which merely served to swirl it back around the car. “I was thinking surprise might be better than giving him time to prepare.”
I stared at him. “So you’re not entirely clueless.”
“Evidently. Now stop climbing all over the bloody place before I get stopped for having an animal loose in the car.”
“I hear jail cells are pretty warm,” I said, going back to my seat. “All meals provided, too.”
“Let’s keep that as plan C.”
“Aren’t we already on about plan H?”
“We can circle back if needed.”
I was leaning pretty hard toward circling back when we pulled into a wide, tree-studded street on the north side of Leeds and puttered softly down it. It was lined with high walls and not for you, commoner gates, and the only cars we passed that weren’t delivery vans looked like they cost the equivalent of a small town’s annual budget.
“Are you sure we can’t revisit the jail idea?”
“I’m not getting myself arrested just because you hate Ifan,” Callum said, pulling up at a set of tall, solid metal gates with rust streaks marring the pale green paint. Definitely not up to neighbourhood code, that.
“I don’t hate him. I simply object to how many times he’s popped up in the middle of things that have almost got us killed. It’s a pattern, you know?”
“Do you really want to end up at the RSPCA or something? Because they won’t put you in a cell with me.” He wound his window down and pushed the intercom.
“Not even just for the night? You could fake a drunk and disorderly and I’ll be your emotional support animal.”
“I’m not getting arrested,” Callum said, more sharply than was required, and the gates blew open in front of us so hard that they smashed into the walls to either side. One popped off a hinge with a screech of torn metal, and the other rebounded, flying back to latch itself closed again. Beyond the open side I could see the potholed gravel drive curling up to the front of the house, and running down it a slim man in jeans and a T-shirt, his feet and the smooth dark skin of his forearms bare. He threw out a hand and the one intact gate opened again, a little more circumspectly this time.
“Last chance,” I said. “Quick, before he blows our tyres out or something.”
“I’m almost sure this is a better option than lurking about the streets of Leeds waiting for something to eat us,” Callum said, watching Ifan stop mid-run and wave enthusiastically, beckoning us in.
“Almost seems risky,” I said.
Lovely people, that’s all for the Collision of Catastrophes sneak peeks. I’ll be back with another blog next week, but it’ll be Collision-adjacent rather than actual Collision. (So a near-miss, perhaps … sorry.)
And then we’ll just be a couple of days away from unleashing some very chaotic end times on the world! Don’t forget to jump to Amazon or your favourite retailer and get your pre-order lined up, should you fancy it.
Thank you for reading, lovely people. I can’t wait to share this final story with you.