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The enemy of my enemy

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Even after the threat seemed to have passed, Dunning was unable to stop looking over his shoulder at every unexpected sound or movement, and he continued to sleep extremely poorly. Harrington worried that the encounter with Mr Karswell, or perhaps the subsequent news of that unfortunate man's demise and the knowledge of their role in it, were weighing heavily on his friend's mind.

During the days, Dunning went to the British Museum's reading room, or to the library at the Society of Antiquaries, or even took the train out to Cambridge to visit the collections there, where he pored over obscure and crumbling manuscripts, coming home each night with dust on his hands and reams of notes. He also procured copies of all the works of the late Mr Karswell that he could, even going to far as to ask Harrington to attend the auction of his possessions in case any unpublished notes should be available. He then sat up late into the night reading and scribbling addenda and marginalia. When Harrington voiced his concern as to Dunning's health and state of mind, he received only an assurance that this work was of vital importance, which did little to set him at ease.

Harrington had business of his own to attend to, and he could not constantly be in London to watch over Dunning, much though he might have wished it so. So it was, some weeks later, when he returned from managing his affairs in ______ that he found his friend in a far more ennervated state than he had left him. Dunning's beard had returned, after a rough and unkempt fashion, and he looked unbearably weary, as though he hadn't slept in days.

"My dear Edward," Harrington said, "you cannot continue like this."

"No," Dunning agreed, and his voice seemed to break with despair. "I cannot." In his aspect and demeanour he reminded Harrington of his late brother during the worst period of his persecution by Karswell, and the resemblance struck fear into his heart.

"It was supposed to be over," Harrington said, clinging to any faint hope he could muster. "Karswell is dead, the curse returned to him..."

"But not destroyed," Dunning said, his head in his hands. "The paper slip was not destroyed with his death. It could have been passed to another, or..." He trailed off, trembling so violently that Harrington reached out and put a hand on his shoulder to try and steady his nerves.

"Or what?" he asked quietly.

"Or... it could rebound upon me, as the last who was its possessor. All my reading points to this inescapable fact - the thing Karswell conjured with those runes still persists in this world."

Harrington understood now the reason for Dunning's frantic research, his restless anxiety. Whatever unspeakable entity Karswell had summoned was not truly finished with its task. "What are we to do, then?" he asked.

Dunning looked up at him, a faint flicker of something like hope in his eye. "I don't know what I should do without you, Henry," he said at last. "Throughout this entire ordeal, you've been a rock, while I jump at shadows and dither over what to do."

"You do yourself a disservice," Harrington told him. "Why, you are the one who bearded the lion in his den that night in Dover. I merely accompanied you."

"And yet, without your steady presence there, I think I should have been too frightened to act." Dunning took his hand. "To know that you have not abandoned me gives me the only comfort I have in these dark days."

"My question stands, however," Harrington said. "What can we do to contain this creature and bring this matter to an end once and for all?"

Dunning's brow furrowed. "I found a scrapbook, once owned by a French canon, in the Wentworth Collection. It provides guidance on summoning a spirit to answer a series of questions, which I have transcribed. But I have a considerable unease about pursuing this course of action."

"Summoning a spirit to aid in disposing of another spirit? Why, it sounds just about like acquiring a cat when one is plagued with mice, I suppose," Harrington said. His own degree had been in natural sciences and he tended to such analogies.

"Indeed," Dunning said, his expression grim, "if the cost of the cat was one's own soul, or perhaps worse."

Harrington left unasked the question of what could be worse. "Let us at least get away from the city," he said instead. "Perhaps the change of air will help you rest, and see more clearly the course of action we ought to take."

Their trip to ______ House was uneventful, save for Dunning's continued conviction that something was just behind them, darting out of sight whenever he turned his head. Harrington did his best to distract his companion with talk of the local sights - the thirteenth-century church in the village, the remains of an Iron Age hill fort not more than an hour's walk away - but Dunning only shuddered and said he would prefer to remain indoors.

They retired early, but Harrington heard Dunning pacing and muttering from the adjacent room late into the night. At length he rose and rapped lightly on his friend's door, and was admitted. "I thought perhaps," he said, "that you might find it easier to sleep with company. That was often the case for my brother, I recall, before he... well. If you wish for me to leave, you need only say."

"No," Dunning said. "Please, stay."

"Sometimes my brother would talk in his sleep," Harrington added as they climbed into bed. "It was unsettling at the time, and garbled so I only understood parts of it, but he spoke of something like a wolf following him through the trees, and what he could see of it showed its skin was pale and riddled beneath the surface with maggots..."

"Please, not now," Dunning said with a shudder. "I would like for once to close my eyes without such visions rising before me."

"Of course," Harrington said, regretting at once having put such thoughts into his friend's mind. "Perhaps I can help to fend them off."

"I think if anyone could, it would be you, my dear Henry," Dunning said, sliding close enough to him that it felt quite natural to put their arms around one another. That night, they both slept more soundly than they had in months.

Dunning spent the next several days reviewing his notes. "What does this creature do, once you've summoned it?" Harrington asked one rainy afternoon.

"According to the ritual, it will answer five questions," Dunning said, sketching out some arcane symbols in the air with his finger. "They must be phrased carefully, because it will try to deceive me, or twist my words, but it will be bound to answer truthfully." He laughed, although it was mirthless, hollow laughter. "Perhaps it's too bad that Karswell never found this book - he could have asked the demon how he might have his papers accepted, and then we wouldn't be in this situation."

"I'm not sure I'd trust a demon's editorial advice," Harrington mused.

Dunning started as a dark, formless shadow passed across the window, but it was merely the trees outside blowing in the wind. "You shouldn't be here when I attempt this," he said. "If you came to some harm because of me, I couldn't bear it."

But Harrington would hear none of it. "Nonsense. I won't stand for a man summoning demons in my parlour while I'm not at home." He did, however, give the staff the remainder of the day and all of the following day off, as a precaution.

Once they had moved the furniture to the sides of the room and rolled up the Persian rug, Dunning began drawing on the floor in chalk, tracing with precision the symbols and incantations he had copied from the scrapbook. It took some time, and it was beginning to grow dark before he had finished, so Harrington lit the lamps. Shadows flickered on the walls, and some, he noticed uneasily, seemed to move of their own accord.

"It's ready," Dunning said at last, standing up and stretching his back.

"Should we wait until morning?" Harrington asked, having some sense that evil spirits found the night more congenial to their purposes.

Dunning shook his head. "If I don't do it now, I shall lose my nerve." He brushed his chalk-covered hands off, and Harrington could see how haunted his eyes looked, darting from one corner of the room to another. His hands were shaking slightly as he took up his notes and began the incantation. The room, already dim, seemed to grow darker, but Dunning's hands grew more steady and his voice more sure as he persisted. The shadows seemed to coalesce in the center of the diagram, gathering and solidifying into a crouching figure of horrible thinness, covered in black, matted hair and with limbs unnaturally long and excessively jointed. Harrington took a step back, shocked by the thing's appearance, but Dunning seemed unsurprised, though pale.

"Demon of the night, I have bound and compelled you here to do my bidding. Answer my five questions truthfully and you shall be freed."

The creature, which had a yellow gleam in its eyes, hissed but did not move.

"My first question is, where is the entity summoned by Karswell now?"

Its voice rattled like dry bones as it replied, "Here."

Dunning seemed relieved, after a fashion, to have it confirmed - perhaps because it meant he was not yet mad. "My second question is, how can I dismiss Karswell's entity without harm to me or my companion?"

The foul being gave a laugh that Harrington would wish until the end of his days he had not heard. "Cast the runes on another," it whispered.

"Well, that won't do at all," Dunning muttered under his breath, flipping to another page of his notebook. "My third question, then: how can I dismiss you without harm to me or my companion?"

It was, Harrington thought, quite a good question, and the creature hissed its displeasure and shifted from one side of the inscribed circle to the other, as though testing the limits of its prison. "Invoke your faith," it said at last, settling back sullenly in the center.

"Very well," Dunning said. "Henry, please fetch a Bible in the event that I require it." He returned his gaze to the spider-like being, which appeared increasingly agitated when Harrington retrieved a well-worn Bible from his bookcase and passed it to Dunning. "My fourth question is, who would be victorious in a fight, you or Karswell's creature?"

The thing in the circle reared up to its full size, stretching out arms that were emaciated but wiry. "Meeeeeee," it shrieked, baring long, yellow fangs.

"I'm glad to hear you're confident of that," Dunning said under his breath. He fumbled again with his notes and papers, and Harrington could see the fine sheen of sweat on his brow. Studying magic from an academic standpoint was quite a different thing from actually performing it, and he wondered with an unpleasant start whether this was the first time Dunning had ever done something like this or not.

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, broken by the rasp of the foul beast's talons on the wooden floor. "My final question," Dunning said slowly, "is this: would you please accept this contract for my soul? I believe you'll find the terms most favourable." He stepped forward, holding out a sheaf of papers, and Harrington leapt up to try and stop him from completing the pact with the fiend, but was stopped in his tracks by the look of fierce determination on Dunning's usually mild face.

"Please don't do this," Harrington begged, but Dunning took another step towards the chalk circle, until his toes were almost at its edge, and held the papers out to the beast, which hissed an eager "yes" and snatched them from his hand. It held them for a moment and then Harrington thought he saw a look of surprise cross the thing's face, if it was capable of such emotions.

"Thank you, you've been very helpful," Dunning said, and scraped his foot through the chalk lines, breaking the circle before throwing himself out of the way, pushing Harrington against the wall with all his might and holding out the Bible in his right hand, as though to defend them both from what was to come.

The demon didn't hesitate once freed from its confines, springing forward with the terrible speed of a leaping spider, but something was there to meet it. Harrington could only catch glimpses from around Dunning's body, but even that was more than he wanted to see. A beast something like a wolf, but pale, and it moved with an unnatural hopping motion, collided with the demon and the two entities tore into one another. The battle that ensued was swift and brutal, as the demon's long fingers dug into the wolf's throat and tore it open. Instead of blood, Harrington saw something that looked like pale, wriggling worms pouring out of the wound, but after that he closed his eyes and saw no more.

He felt Dunning move at last, and risked opening his eyes in time to see his friend bearing the Bible like a shield, forcing the demon back. The thing no longer moved so swiftly, and its long limbs jerked wildly as though it was injured. "Begone," Dunning told it, and pressed the holy book against its ghastly form. It gave a final, resentful hiss and then it vanished. The pieces of paper it had held were scattered on the floor, and Dunning bent hastily to gather them up. Harrington saw that one of them contained a series of familiar runes in red ink - or was it ink?

"You gave it the runes," he said in amazement. "That's why the creature went after it instead of you."

Dunning nodded. "Now, could you build up the fire? I sincerely hope that once these are burned, this nasty business will be over."

Harrington did as he asked, but hesitated. "Was it really a contract for your soul?"

With an immense weariness, Dunning turned to him. "Do you really want to know the answer to that? I can say, from my research, that the last person who used that ritual to summon that demon lived for another seven years and died in his bed."

"Well, that doesn't sound so bad," Harrington said, encouraged. He stepped closer to take Dunning's hand.

"No," Dunning said, and tossed the papers, including the one with the runes into the fireplace, watching as they swiftly curled and blackened and then dissolved into ash and smoke. "Better than the alternative, at any rate."