Carnacki: The Parliament of Owls, by William Meikle

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below. Read by David Binks. Story illustration by Nick Gucker.)

It was a crisp clear night in early November. A heavy waxing moon hung over the Thames as I made my way to Cheyenne Gardens in response to Carnacki’s summons. As ever I had a sense of growing expectation; looking forward to hearing his latest tale.

For once I was on the early side, arriving first. Carnacki kept me plied with sherry, but would not be drawn on the subject of his reason for the invitation. The others arrived shortly afterwards, and Carnacki showed us to a fine table of fresh salmon, minted potatoes and fresh peas. We were all pleasantly full by the time came to take our places in the parlor. With our glasses charged and fresh smokes lit we quickly settled around the fire and went quiet. Carnacki wasted no time in getting started.

“I have thought long and hard whether to tell this particular tale,” Carnacki began. “For it is by far the strangest of all the adventures I have ever related to you chaps, and if I were told it by another, I would struggle to believe its particulars. Please bear with me, for this will become rather outlandish, and at some times positively comical.

“It starts, like all good stories do, with a knock on my front door last Friday, the 31st October. I had been sitting by the fire musing over a variation of a ritual in the Sigsand mss, and I was so lost in thought that I almost didn’t notice the sound at first, for it was less of a knock and more of a tap-tap noise.

“The noise persisted; indeed it grew more persistent the longer I ignored it. In the end I gave in to curiosity and went to investigate.

“I opened the door a second after the latest tap and looked out over an empty street. There was no sign of anyone there. I was most perplexed, and even more so when a voice spoke at my feet.

“‘I’m right sorry to bother you, guv’nor,’ the voice said. ‘But could I have ten minutes of your time?’

“I looked down. A small, rather bedraggled Tawny owl stood on my doorstep.”

Carnacki paused to check that his pipe was still lit. Arkwright, as we all knew he would, immediately chimed in.

“I say, old man,” he said. “This isn’t one of those talking animal stories is it? Please tell me you are not trying to pass this poppycock off as one of your tales?”

Carnacki smiled.

“I told you it would be outlandish, old friend,” he said. “Bear with me. You may yet find yourself pleasantly diverted.”

He puffed on his pipe and, content it was well alight, continued.

“Of course, I was just as astonished as Arkwright here. The small owl looked up at me, and shook its head firmly. I got the distinct impression I was being admonished for some transgression.

“‘The Great Detective away in France, Adamant still on ice, Hannay up and gone to Rhodesia. Fetch a Closer, they said. Never mind that all the good ones are never around when you need them. Then when I find the right man for the job, what does he do? Only stands there, mouth open, gawping like an imbecile. Ain’t you never seen a talking owl before?’

Carnacki The Parliament of Owls – illustration by Nick Gucker – click to enlarge

“I decided to play along. For all I knew this was a manifestation of the Outer Realms I had never previously encountered, although I was all too well aware of the Trickster motif in mythology, and decided to be on my guard.

“‘I am sorry, sir,” I said. “I have forgotten my manners. Won’t you come in?”

“The little owl cocked its head, spat up a ball of partially digested fur and bone, and did a dance on top of it. It looked down at the scattered remains of the pellet then back up at me.

“‘No time,’ it said. ‘I’m far too witty to woo. Ten minutes. That’s all it will take, Guv’nor. Will you come?’

“I could not in all honesty refuse.

“Lay on, MacDuff,” I said. “And don’t spare the horses.”

“’Don’t talk to me about bloody horses,’” the owl said, and without explanation, flew off. He landed on the first lamppost to the south, turned his head almost a hundred and eighty degrees, and looked straight at me.

“‘Come on, Guv’nor. It’s not far. Parliament is sitting tonight.’ With that he flew off, keeping just ahead of me at a stiff walking pace. I followed.

“It quickly became clear that we were not heading anywhere near Westminster. After ten minutes my curiosity was quickly turning to annoyance.

“’I say, it’s rather a long ten minutes, isn’t it?’

“The owl flew back and landed on my shoulder. He cackled in my ear.

“‘I only said that to get you moving. Worked a treat, didn’t it? Say, you wouldn’t have a mouse on you would you? I’m famished.’

“I almost gave up there and then, ready to write off the night as a bad joke, when the owl spoke again.

“Left here, then right, and we’re there,” he said. I did as he requested, and walked into a small square of late Tudor houses I had never previously seen.

“‘I wouldn’t go asking too many questions, Guv’nor,’ the owl said. ‘The Parliament can get testy right smartish if riled. Get in, get out and leave a good impression, as the actress said to the bishop.’

“I was at a loss in trying to make any sense at all of the situation, but it seemed I had arrived at some sort of destination. Tall trees ringed the square, and as I walked into the centre of the area twelve pairs of yellow eyes followed me. I looked up to see a circle of a dozen white, almost luminous, snowy owls looking down at where I stood.

“One of the owls blinked twice, then spoke, not to me, but to the little tawny owl on my shoulder.

“‘We told you to fetch a Closer. Who is this?’

“I was about to reply for myself when the owl dug his talons in, hard, piercing my topcoat and bringing a flare of pain that shocked me into silence.

“‘Begging your pardon, Guv’nor,’ he said, replying to the circle above us. ‘But Adamant is under two feet of solid ice. Ain’t no way he’s waking up for another sixty years. I tried Baker Street, but the Detective is not at home, and this gentleman here has form in our area, if you catch my drift?’

“The snowy owl that had spoken before turned his gaze on me.

“‘He knows about the Great Game?’

“The little owl cackled at my ear.

“‘No, Guv’nor. That little secret has eluded him. But he has studied, and used, the Sigsand and…’

“The snowy owl let out a raucous hoot that forced silence in the circle.

“‘We ask you for a Closer and you bring us an amateur?’

“It gazed at me again, a fixed stare that I could not break; it felt as if I was being scrutinized to my very depths.

“‘Will you stand on the side of right, in this the time of our greatest trial?’ the great owl said.

“‘That is always my intent,’ I answered.

The great owl started at me again, then gave out a very human sigh.

“‘He will have to suffice, for there is no time to waste on more searching.’

“‘Suffice in what way?’ I started, but that only got me another raucous hoot.

“The snowy owl addressed the smaller owl on my shoulder.

“‘You know where he must go,’ he said.

“‘We won’t let you down, Guv’nor.’

“And with that all twelve of the circle of owls took flight as one and were quickly lost from view over the rooftops.

“‘I thought that went rather well,’ the little owl said. ‘Call me Nestor. I’ll be your guide for this evening. Follow me.’ He took flight again, heading away to the north.

“Now you chaps know me, I can be bally stubborn when I put my mind to it and, by Jove, I had taken just about enough nonsense for one night. I stood my ground.

“The little owl flew back and circled around my head, so close I felt the air move from the beat of his wings.

“‘I ain’t letting you back out now, Guv’nor. Not after it’s all been agreed proper like.’

“‘I have agreed to nothing,’ I said.

“The owl cackled.

“‘The Parliament has spoken,’ he replied. ‘That’s gospel around these parts.’

“‘Then these are parts with which I am not familiar.’

“‘Familiar?’ the owl said. ‘There’s an appropriate word for tonight. There won’t be a blue moon on All Hallows for another fifteen years… and it’s been twenty since the last Great Game. Openers, Closers and Familiars are scattered to the ends of the earth, Nobody thought they’d be needed, see?’

“‘That’s the problem,’ I replied. ‘I don’t see much of anything at all.’

“The owl landed on my shoulder, and sighed deeply.

“‘Best keep this simple then, Guv’nor. What if I told you that there’s a madman intent on opening a portal and letting the Outer Darkness in to gain a foothold here on this plane? Is that something you’d be interested in averting?’”

Carnacki paused, and rose from his seat, which we took as a signal to refill our glasses and light fresh smokes. As always, Arkwright was keen to know more.

“This Adamant cove that was mentioned? Wouldn’t be Adam Adamant would it? I met him once. Crashing bore. Knew absolutely nothing about cricket. I remember…”

Carnacki smiled, and put a hand on Arkwright’s arm.

“I never heard the name mentioned again,” he said. “Don’t fret, old man. It is not pertinent to the rest of the story. And now we are getting to the meat of the matter. If your glasses are charged, let’s get back to it.”

“The owl, Nestor, gave me directions to our destination, which proved to be a tall handsome town house in Belgravia.

“‘Someone is attempting to open a portal here?’

“‘It’s been sacred ground from pre-Roman times,’ the owl said. ‘You know how these things go? First it’s a wooded glade, then a temple, then a church. Then, whoops-a-daisy, the city catches fire. Now the beautiful people live on top of a ticking bomb, and they never notice. Until a night like this.’

“He coughed up another pellet of partially digested matter.

“‘Lend us your hand, Guv’nor,’ he said. I put out a palm and he rolled the pellet on it, then prised the thing apart with his beak. He looked at the resulting mess.

“‘Round the back,’ he said. ‘The kitchen door’s open.’

“He flew off, leaving me with a sticky palm that I wiped off on some shrubbery before following my new companion to the rear of the house. There I found that his reading had been right. The back door lay open, with only darkness beyond.

“‘Easy does it now, Guv’nor,’ Nestor said. ‘Our man is inside, and he is protected.’

“I made my way into the dark scullery. Almost immediately I felt the old familiar tingle. Somewhere in this house an invocation ritual was underway. I would need to hear the words of the chant to know exactly what was being invoked, but I already knew enough to chill me to the bone. The darkness seemed to thicken and become heavy as I walked though into the main part of the house.

“‘Courage, mon brave,’ Nestor said.

“‘You don’t have to worry about me, old man,’ I replied.

“The owl cackled in my ear again.

“‘Actually, I was talking to myself, Guv’nor. Never expected a pickle like this in my lifetime. Thought I’d flake out in a warm nest on a summer’s night surrounded by a new batch of owlets and some fresh mice.’

“I know you chaps will find this strange, perhaps even silly, but just having the small bird as company going through the dark house did much to ease my apprehension.

“It was immediately obvious that our target was on the upper floor of the house. I started to make out several phrases from the ritual being performed. I will not relate them here, for the mere utterance of them would bring you chaps too close to that foul blackness. Suffice to say, I went up the stairs knowing that a formidable task awaited me, one that I might not survive.

“Halfway up the stairs, Nestor leaned over and spoke in my ear.

“‘Just wanted to say, Guv’nor, in case we don’t make it, you’ve been a real gent about all of this.’

“I did not get a chance to reply, which was probably just as well, as having an owl give me a compliment was rather outside my normal range of experience. We arrived at the top of the stairs just as the darkness thickened further and the air went bitterly cold. I now knew the essence of the ritual being performed. It was more than just the opening of a portal. What was being attempted here was no less than the bringing to Earth of the Outer Darkness itself, and if the performer of the ritual succeeded, it would return this plane to its most primal nature, one of darkness and complete chaos. The owl had been right on one thing; only a madman would attempt such a task.

“So it was that, on walking into a large library, my first glance was not at the protective circle on the floor, but at the man who stood inside it, arm raised, reciting the invocation in a ringing voice. A sparrowhawk sat on his shoulder. It saw us enter and shouted in the man’s ear.

“’We’ve been rumbled, Guv.’

“The man turned towards us, momentarily startled.

“That should have been the moment when I made my move to disturb his ritual and bring it to an abrupt end. But I’m afraid I too had been startled into immobility for, you see, I knew the man. I hadn’t seen him for many years, but I was in no doubt. The man inside the circle was none other than Arthur Raffles.”

Arkwright broke into Carnacki’s tale with a loud oath.

“That bounder. I hope you gave him a dashed good thrashing.”

At first I thought Carnacki might be annoyed, for it was considered jolly bad form to interrupt him in his own home during the telling of one of his tales. But Carnacki took it in good enough humour. He used the chance of a break to refill his pipe.

“I think you might like the end of this tale, Arkwright,” he said, and continued.

“Like you chaps, I had thought the cad to be dead, killed in the Boer War. But here he was, large as life, that same devil-may-care grin on his face. He looked me in the eye and continued with the ritual, raising his voice until it echoed through the room.

“Something ripped, as if a piece of cloth had been torn near my ear. Above the protective circle the ceiling swirled, like paint being stirred. Raffles faded, going dim.

“Nestor spoke at my ear.

“‘Beginning your pardon, Guv’nor. But if you’re planning on doing something, I think now would be a good time.’

“I had regained my composure somewhat, enough in any case to put a plan into action. I raised my own voice in a chant to counter the invocation; a ritual I knew from previous adventures would prove efficacious against the Outer Darkness.

“’Ri linn dioladh na beatha, Ri linn bruchdadh na falluis, Ri linn iobar na creadha, Ri linn dortadh na fala.’

“‘No. Not that one, you idiot. Not yet,’ Nestor shouted in my ear.

“But it was too late. The rip in space widened, a hole that became a swirling vortex, a wind that grew to a howling gale, sucking and tearing at me until I was lifted bodily off my feet and dragged into a black maw that sucked me away into the utmost darkness.

“There was a brilliant flash, then all was velvet blackness again. It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust, then I realized just where I was – floating in the vast extent of space between the stars. I had more questions than answers, such as how I was managing to stay alive in the midst of such emptiness, and also just where I was being taken. But such thoughts were fruitless and I pushed them away, the better to observe as much as I could so that I could tell this tale later.

“I had quite forgotten about Nestor, but he had not forgotten me.

“‘Well,’ he said, in a strange American accent, and cackled. ‘This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.’

“‘What has happened?’ I asked.

“‘Don’t ask me, Guv’nor,’ the little owl replied. ‘I only work here.’

“It seemed that we travelled for an age, past dead and dying stars giving out their last gasps of heat, through nurseries where blue flashes showed new stars being born, and into clouds of gas that engulfed whole galaxies. There are no words to describe the wonder and awe – but somewhere deep inside me there was also terror, of what waited for me at the end of the journey, and of the difficulty of finding a way home.

“Finally I saw that we approached a dim red star, spluttering and fizzing in its death throes. Several planets, mere dots travelling across that red surface at first, span around it, and it seemed we had reached our destination. With some renewed haste, we tumbled down towards one of them; a rocky globe, its surface studded with craters, punctuated by purple growth that infested the planet like patches of moist mould. There was no sign of any seas, nor clouds for that matter. As we approached the surface I saw, far to the north, a volcano that reached to the sky, sending long plumes of lava spurting into the heavens.

“We slowed, hovering above a plain under a dark purple sky, with black stems rising, casting shadows from a moon, too large for the sky, a red moon that rose above jagged hills. Things moved among the stems, low-slung and insect-like, farmer stending to the growth.

“We were tugged north and west, across a barren plain. I came to see, in the far distance at first, a black pyramid sitting like a bloated spider waiting for our approach to its lair.

“We descended into the luminescent glow inside the pyramid.”

Carnacki stopped and stood. It was time for another refill. This time Arkwright remained quiet, perhaps aware of his earlier faux pas. But Carnacki himself seemed keen to impart more information, and in a break from tradition, spoke as we were charging our glasses.

“’You chaps may remember the case of the Dark Island,’ he said. ‘It was there that I first encountered the black pyramid, and I am coming to believe that I am destined to travel there again, for it is a focal point, perhaps even the origin, of many of the mysteries I am sworn to try to pierce. Even as we were taken inside I felt, not fear, but a strange exhilaration at the thought that part of the mystery might be about to be revealed.’

“We looked down from a great height at first, but quickly descended towards what looked to be a huge empty space. As we got closer to the floor I saw a circle of a dozen bent and withered trees, and from closer still could see a dark form sat in each. Raffles stood in the centre of the circle. He looked up, saw us approaching, and smiled.

“‘Behold, my lords, the Opener of the Way,’ he shouted as we landed, softly, at his side.

“I looked up to see a dozen pairs of red eyes staring down at me. Their owners resembled the great white owls only in size. They were black as sin, with a stare so malevolent I was forced to avert my eyes.

“Nestor felt no such aversion.

“‘Greetings, gents,’ he said, jauntily. ‘You’ve got a nice day for it.’

“One of the black owls leaned forward, speaking to the sparrowhawk on Raffles’ shoulder.

“‘It is done?’

“‘Yes, my Lord. The way is open.’

“‘Then let it begin,’ the dark owl said, and let out a hoot that rang throughout the whole of the pyramid. The entire structure vibrated in sympathy, and started to hum. Black tendrils snaked across the floor and started to spin, first in small, discrete vortices, then joining and growing until a tall funnel of blackness rose up and way out of the pyramid itself.

“All of the dark owls hooted, loud and long.

“‘I believe now would be a good time, Guv’nor.’ Nestor said.

“I must have looked perplexed, for the little owl sighed deeply.

“‘You didn’t come all this way for the scenery, did you?’ he said. ‘It’s time for that special bit from Sigsand. You know, the bit at the end?’

“And this time, I did indeed know what was required. I raised my voice and began the last incantation for the Sigsand Mss.

“Now you chaps already know that I cannot reproduce such a powerful ritual here in this room, for to do so would seal the doom of us all. But back there, on the floor of the great pyramid, it started to have the desired effect. The vortex faltered and began to fall in on itself.

“The black parliament of owls hooted loudly, but somehow my own voice rose high and pure above them.

“‘We’ve got them on the run, Guv’nor,’ Nestor shouted. ‘Keep at them.’

“Soon we had two voices raised in the chant, my thicker, courser tones in counter point to Nestor’s higher pitch. As the incantation continued, so too did the dark owls’ ever more frantic hooting, but I felt in total control, never in any danger of faltering. Although I have never tried to memorize it, I chanted the incantation the whole way through to the end, and I did not miss a word or a beat. The black funnel sputtered, the wind fell, and suddenly the pyramid was once more quiet, and quite empty.

“‘One nil for the white team,’ Nestor shouted, then squawked as the sparrowhawk launched itself from Raffles’ shoulder, straight for the little owl. I felt a jolt as it hit Nestor, hard, and both birds flew from my own shoulder in a flurry of feathers. At the same time Raffles strode across towards me and aimed a right hook at my jaw. My old varsity training kicked in. I feinted left, went right and placed a perfect left jab on the point of his chin. He went down like a sack of potatoes.

“‘Remember when I said not yet, Guv’nor?’ Nestor shouted. He had his talons embedded in the sparrowhawk’s breast, having already torn the bird open at the throat. ‘Well now is yet.’

“This time I caught his meaning immediately. I shouted, my voice ringing through the vastness of the pyramid.

Ri linn dioladh na beatha, Ri linn bruchdadh na falluis, Ri linn iobar na creadha, Ri linn dortadh na fala.

“The last thing I saw before a blinding flash took everything away was the twelve black owls swoop down on Raffles’ prone body. There was a burst of red as his throat opened.

“Then I was once again lost in blackness.”

“I blinked, and when I opened my eyes I was back in London, standing in the centre of the wooded grove in the Tudor square. Dawn was just breaking over the rooftops. Twelve great white owls sat above me, all hooting gently.

“‘Say thank you,’Nestorsaid in my ear.

“I bowed at the waist.

“‘Thank you, my Lords,’ I said. The hooting got louder. It seemed I had said the right thing.

“The leader of the Parliament spoke.

“‘It seems our go-between chose wisely,’ he said. ‘We are pleased to welcome you into the ranks of Closers. We will call when you are required.’

“And with that the Owl Parliament took wing, and were once again quickly lost to sight over the rooftops.

“Nestor danced a little jig on my shoulder, flew to the ground and coughed up another pellet. He tore it to shreds with his talons.

“‘Tastes of sparrowhawk,’ he said, and spat. ‘But it tells me one thing. You won’t be needed until there’s a Blue moon on All Hallows. You’ll be playing the Great Game the next time, and I’ll be long gone by then, Guv’nor. But I’m sure whoever they send for you will do you just fine.’

“He looked up at me, and I’ll swear he winked.

“‘Now let’s get you home.’

“‘Before we part,’ I said. ‘There’s one more thing. I’m right in thinking that the place I needed to go was the Black Pyramid? You intended all along that we should be taken there?’

“Nestor danced another jig.

“‘Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies,’ he said, and winked again. I could get nothing else out of him.”

Carnacki stopped, and looked around the room at us.

“And there you have it, gentlemen. My Halloween story, such as it is.”

“Dashed peculiar, that’s what it is, if you ask me,” Arkwright said. “Although you were right about one thing, Carnacki. I am very happy to hear of the fate of that bounder Raffles.”

As for myself, I only had one question for our host.

“The Great Game, Carnacki. Did you discover what that is?”

Carnacki laughed.

“No. And I suspect I won’t until the time comes when I am called to stand in front of the Owl Parliament again. But I have checked the almanac. The next blue moon on All Hallows is indeed not due until nineteen twenty-five. I can only hope that we are all still here so that I may have another tale to relate.

“Now, out you go,” he said, and shepherded us out into the night.

An owl hooted as I walked along the embankment. I looked up to see a small bird on a branch above me.

It winked, and danced a little jig before flying off, never to be seen again.

William says: Roger Zelazny has been a constant source of joy in my life for more than forty years. I have read him avidly, consuming everything he wrote in wonder at his imagination, style and wit. A Night in the Lonesome October enchanted me as much as anything by Bradbury, entertained me as much as anything by Conan Doyle. So when the chance came to be part of this tribute issue I could not wait to make my contribution. I’ve taken several liberties with RZs vision, but I’m sure he’d approve of the spirit in which I’ve introduced new characters to the ongoing tale. I only hope I have done it justice.

William Meikle is a Scottish writer with fifteen novels published in the genre press and over 250 short story credits in thirteen countries. His work appears in many professional magazines and anthologies and he has recent short story sales to NATURE Futures, Penumbra and Daily Science Fiction among others. He now lives in a remote corner of Newfoundland with icebergs, whales and bald eagles for company. In the winters he gets warm vicariously through the lives of others in cyberspace, so please check him out at www.williammeikle.com .

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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9 responses to “Carnacki: The Parliament of Owls, by William Meikle

  1. I much enjoyed the story, the tone, the characters, the setting, and especially the journey to the Black Pyramid and the character of the little owl. Excellent!

  2. An excellent story sir. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had been unfamiliar with your work up till now; a situation I intend to correct.

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