Archive for the ‘ Chapter 10 – Opener ’ Category

(213) The Care and Feeding of E

In her presence, one never is told to do things.  One does what one is expected to do. One fulfills their purpose. One handles contingencies.  One answers questions unasked.  One kneels and one waits for the subtle signals.  The sculptor was better at this than the storm.

“He is well.”

Silence.

“He is rarely beset.”

Silence. That meant it was my turn to speak as my sister sliced words too thin.

“The bird that broke the nets sends magic to seek his enemies. Of these, only the shadow of battles past has engaged.”

My sister bestirs herself to speak once more. “Small hunters and entropic diversions. We have suspicions.”

“The forgotten gods,” I pick up, “have not forgotten him, but the war of witcheries is not fully woven.”

A signal. Silence, then words.  We listen.

“He is lonely.”  My sister’s words. So finely cut to describe the experience.

Another song is sung.

“We cannot believe so,” I said. I could feel my sister’s discomfort, but the silver caller held a silver collar more than once.

One word becomes two.  We assent in silence, because there is little else one can do.

I look at my sister as we are removed from the presence.

“Tommelise?” she asks.

“The barleycorn girls and the blodeuwedds are not for him.  Eilonwy?”

“He would not breathe the breath of life for another until the thorn is pulled from the scaled paw.”

“Best an houri.”

“Never could,” I laughed.

“He has influenced you.” Disapproval.

“He has strengthened us.”

“He suspects?”

I shake my head in a human motion. “He theorizes. He predicts. He promotes. He rarely commits.”

“Sooth to soothe.”

I rest a hand on her arm. “We are not Pucks, nor Jacks, nor Thomases.  We are Idris Gawr.”

“Heimdall’s Grigori,” she laughed.

“Dokkaebi Archons.”

“Urshu Djinn.”

I inclined my head to her, showing that she had won. “They are not wise women, the witches.” I suggested. I removed my hand from her arm.

“The healer saw too little of the thorn embedded in him,” she scoffed.

“We need to give him room to breathe,” I counseled. “Room to move.”

“He will only injure himself within the cage, however soft the walls we give him.” She looked at me. “And he will see the walls.”

“I do not think of him as dense,” I argued.

“As dense as a neutron star.”

“But far brighter,” I argued.  She bowed her head to me. We were even.

The conversation was invigorating, like that of laughter, but it drew us no closer to the completion of our conundrum.

“Love-in-idleness?” she suggested.

“The risk of love made sport is not for him.” I sighed, another human trait, but an apt one. “But we can cast the net.”

“And draw in closer the interest,” she agreed.

“Weave the web of witchery?” I asked, testing.

“Why skimp on the familiar?” she played with the words.

I inclined my head. “We must be specific, and yet flexible.”

“I will not call silver if I can get gold.”

“Ambition,” I accused her.

“I prefer platinum,” she tossed her head. “And emeralds.  But he needs the warmth of the earth, and the touch of the sun.”

“You shape the snare, and I will empower it.”

“Of course,” she said.  “And we will give him…privacy.”

“Illusion,” I said.

“Of course,” she repeated.

“He’ll look for his own trouble.”

“That is why he amuses us, brother.” She touched my arm briefly. I saw the sign her fingers made.

“Our oath is to guard.”

“Our duty is to watch,” she said, and she looked away.

“We will be free one day,” I told her.  “We will find the doorway home.”

“Or he will open it for us.”

We looked at each other and then away, and said nothing.  We knew the stakes.

(214) Chopping Shopping

I didn’t know anything about how to find someone. Vasil Greyn. I had only the slightest idea how to spell the name, so I tried some Google.  There was a lovely recipe for Pumpkin Spice Crunch Cake, but honestly, unless it was a subtle code for how to make  souls writhe in delicious cinnamon pain, it didn’t lead me anywhere.  Where was a wizard detective when I needed one?

Oh yeah, Chicago.

Nen and Rayya were unusually quiet when I returned.  They gave each other glances, but otherwise let me be. Rayya had fixed something for food, not something either of them did much, and it was rich with flavours. It wasn’t a dish I was familiar with, but they promised no sentient creatures had died for it and that it wasn’t poisonous, and besides, it was delicious.  I think I had two or three bowls of the goulash of foods, mostly orange.  I have realized that I eat a lot of orange foods. As long as I don’t turn that color, it should be okay, but I should add dark green leafy vegetables for my health.  I am not too fond of kale, but I guess spinach is alright.

Yes, I was procrastinating. I was also trying to figure things out.  White pages? So last decade.  I didn’t even know if the guy was still local or if he’d skipped town, or if he had even skipped Realities. That was an unpleasant if ironically amusing thought. I fretted. I tried to beat one of Zach’s ridiculous social media game scores.

“You are obsessed with a puzzle?” Rayya asked, finally.

“Well, I wouldn’t say, obsessed. I mean, I’m trying to figure it out, but it’s hard when you don’t even know where to start.”

“Start at the beginning,” she said, shrugging.

“Well, yes, of course, I mean, I could have quoted that, but the problem is I don’t know the beginning. It’s an equation with only one variable and a set of solutions, and I’m not that great at math.”

“I am. Try me,” she said.

“Uh,” I grasped.  “Um, it was kind of a metaphor.”

“Write it down,” she said.

I opened up a tab to write in, and looked at my options.

Find Vasil Greyn.

Vasil Greyn is, for purposes of explanation, possessed.

The solutions are:

1) open him back up and make sure the right home is inhabited by the right family, or

2) destroy what is inside and hope what was lost comes home.

“That is not math. That’s an ingredients list,” Rayya looked disgusted.

“I’m a portal doctor, not a mathematician, Jim!”  Okay, I didn’t say it aloud, but I considered it in my head.  Instead I sighed. “How would you go find someone if you had no idea how to find people?”

“Hire a private detective,” Nen said, looking up from the table where he was picking up the bowls.

“You don’t have any kind of fey super senses you can use to sniff out the suspect?”

Rayya sniffed. “We’re not dogs.  Not of the white hounds, nor the Hunt.  The Small Court does not have that particular…” she glances at Nen, “protocol.”

“Well, maybe not like follow a trail, but maybe some kind of magical compass?” I was grasping at straws.  What point to having supernatural bodyguard roommates if they couldn’t help you.

“Blood to drive a pendulum, that sort of spell?” Nen asked from the kitchen.

“I know witches who can do it,” I admitted.

“Witcheries,” Rayya said, as if wiping her hands of it.

“Powerful witches have woven their roots into this one, sister,” Nen said, coming back into the room. “You knew that when we took on the contract.”

Rayya glared at Nen. “He slays Dragons, he rubs shoulders with puissant wizards, and he turns down the Seven King.  It is not fitting that he also consorts with witches.  How has he not learned this? Who has not taught him that they are his bane?”

“Well, how do you mean `consort’…” I started to try to defend myself.  Nen gave me a brief shake of his head.

“I will not take the blame, sister, nor the responsibility.  He is a maturing adult, and by our laws able to speak for himself in Court, to provide support for a partner or child, request protection for fealty, and be sworn to his word.”

I notice he didn’t say “mature adult.” I decided not to pursue the point. Which, I felt, was very mature of me.

“Pah!  Ibtaʿada,” she exclaimed. “He is a baby. An infant. A blind crawling worm when it comes to the ways of women and witches.”

“So are all men,” Nen suggested, but he was smiling.  I tried not to chuckle.

She stopped at this, considering it.  She just stopped moving and went quiet.  I watched her and then shrugged.

“I think I need to think about this a different way,” I said, and I went back to my conundrum.  “There’s something here…”

“Narrow your scope,” Nen said, coming up to my elbow.

“As in?” I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“Presume smaller, then add pieces.” He shrugged.

I scratched my head. “I thought we should start without presumptions.”

“Too open a book, too white the page,” he shrugged. “Hard to decide what to write, or what to draw, without some kind of presumption, correct?  So let us start with something useful and then move from there.”

“Huh,” I grunted. “Okay…let’s presume he has to be nearby.”

“Is that much of a presumption?” Nen asked.

“I thought you wanted me to come up with a good starting place,” I complained.

“You have to test the presumption to see if it works, right?” he asked.

“Can’t I do that later?” I frowned.  “Actually, it’s not that bad a presumption.  We have three ‘door workers’ for lack of a better term in the area, although there may be more. If we believe that a corollary of ‘like calls to like’ is ‘talent is called to need,’ then there must be a reason for it, besides our 300 annual days of wonderful Colorado sunshine. ”  I shrugged.  “Also, there may be some kind of sympathetic connection between the afflicted and the person who worked the spell; there was still remnants of some kind of ick down there, so I think that’s possible.”

Nen processed that for a moment, and then shrugged.  “So, if he’s nearby, then how do you find him?”

“That may be jumping a bit,” I said. “On the other hand, let’s push that thought a little.  The Things from Beyond require sustenance. However, that could be anything from boxes of Captain Crunch to the blood of virgins under the age of twenty who like to crochet on Sunday evenings. Maybe not that specific,” I amended. “So that’s not a way to track them. I guess the next presumption should be the state of mind the Thing is in… is it social? I mean, is it scared and trying to get back home? Kind of like a teenager at a party that’s gone on too long, or is it happily adapting to life on this side of things? Can it have a job? Do I really have to search on that link site?”  I was mumbling to myself as I turned back to the computer.  Rayya moved in the corner of my vision, startling me enough that I had to grab the soda I’d almost knocked off.

“No,” she said.  “It is not inherent to be male and to be ignorant of the ways of women and witches.”

“Glad we got that straightened out, although it’s real close to `Not all men.'”  I said, wiping down the table with a cloth I kept near for the purpose.  “Okay, back to what I was thinking.  There’s another easy, but thus suspect conclusion, but I don’t know if you guys are the exception or the rule.”  I turned back towards the Spriggan Sibs.

Nen glanced at Rayya, then shrugged. “Hit me.”

I grinned.  He ducked, wincing. I shook my head. “Too easy.  Let me ask it this way, I guess.  Why are we not overwhelmed with the evidence of the Beyond?  I mean, minotaurs in the streets, fey hucksters at every corner, vampires in high places…” I trailed off meaningfully.

“You aren’t?” Nen asked.  He jumped up to sit on the arm of the couch.

“Are we?” I threw the question right back to him.

He grinned. “No. You want to know why.”

I nodded.  “Especially if it has to do with some kind of secret society.”

“Like witches,” Rayya scoffed.  She had moved to the couch and was re-reading Kay’s “The Summer Tree,” something I did myself like once a year.

“Like witches,” I agreed.

Nen sighed.  He rested his arm against the back of the couch, a very human gesture as he took a breath.  “I think you’re on the right track.  There are realms that are very like to what you know, what you’ve been bred for, what you are used to breathing. The transition between those and your natural one is fairly easy, and thus it becomes woven together, a pastiche of worlds that strengthens itself through the hybrid mechanism.”

“So I was right, my third grade English teacher really was a half-elf,” I said, grinning.

He shrugged. “It means nothing in the tapestry.” He glanced at the book Rayya was reading with a grin.  “Elf or human, mutant or human, it’s nothing unless it’s placed at a threshold.”

“Like some kind of event or initiation that brings out the Other?” I asked.

He shrugs. “You’re making it sound a whole lot more mystical than it is.  For most people it’s nothing more than an occasional run of luck, or a certain charisma, or being able to tell when someone else is thinking about them.  It’s like when the computer crashes for absolutely no reason; you reboot and everything’s back to normal.  Happens all the time, it’s a one-off occurrence, and it means just as little. No training, no development, and the language of it is,” he gestured towards my wall, “all soaked in syrupy presumptions.”

“You’re really bumming me out.  Here I was hoping I was the lost prince who would come back to his kingdom to be celebrated.  I’d make a great fantasy ruler,” I said, still grinning.

“You’d be terrible, and you know it.  Sorry to pop your bubble.  So, those are the things that live next door.  Things who come from a world where there is no sunshine have to cloak themselves against the sun, usually by borrowing bodies.  They continue to draw from the world they left, the legacies and laws… are you familiar with the Gnostics? ”

I blinked. “Um, passing familiarity with the idea. Couldn’t spot one in a line-up, but if they’re in a parade with a big sign, I could point.”

He smiled. “There’s a bad labelling going on when we talk about the supernatural. Your true wizard or god is supernatural, but a vampire would be supranatural.  Those just outside the weave are preternatural.” He shrugs. “There are things that could float between the definitions; if I enter this place through one door I leave much of my source behind, but if I have another entrance I may relate differently to the laws.”

“That,” I stopped thinking about it. “That’s putting a lot of pressure on the people who maintain the doors.”

He just looked at me.

“I’m small fish. Lots of doors open and close all the time.  We’re the Grand Central of realities, right?”

He just shrugged, a faint smile on his face.

“Thanks,” I said, sighing. “So, the answer is, if the thing inside this guy came through the back door he’s probably looking for a source of energy to connect to, but if he came through the front door with fanfare and trumpets he’s walking tall, doing whatever it is his kind does.  Which, all we know, is icky.”

“Can you cast a net for this… ‘icky’?” he asked.

“That’s my next thought.  I can’t…but I might know a witch who can.”

 

 

(215) The Witch War (part 1)

Pay attention to your dreams.

As a modern witch, I know things don’t work the way the witches in fantasy seem to think. A dream is not a wish your heart makes. It’s a fantastic evaluation of conscious and subconscious information combined to make an unfettered excursion in the realms of whimsy. They’re also greatly influenced by our latent anxieties and because of that susceptible state, magic.

That subconscious information told me I was under attack.

If I think about it, I can imagine that the first strike was accidentally mine. I did what no other witch had done. It was a mistake. I did something that I had ethical qualms about both then and now, but I still haven’t come up with a better answer. I give you the riddle; if you know of a group of people who were brought to a state where they did things they would not have done given the choice, would you leave the traces of that event to break them?

I thought not.

And yet, who was I to choose for them? I took away their opportunities for growth, for regret, for developing new communities and connections because of the event they shared. I made my own scar upon their identity with my own best intentions in mind. As their protector, I robbed their of their capacity to reclaim the power that was taken from them.

Not just any witch could have done it, but I did, and that pride sheds its own shadow upon the act.

A signature.

I am ahead of myself. Let me step back. I need an action plan, a report of what has happened, an analysis. We are losing this war, inch by inch, and if we do, I cannot tell you what worse things will break free.

I was not aware we were under attack in the first dream. I often drift during my sleep, sensitivities slipping to dreams of power and of passion, as they are born of the same roots. I remember dreaming a dream of lust that was not mine. I rarely like men in the first place, and then I do not like the hypermale image, the hair and the bulging muscles, and the sense of wanting to possess things that such a creature usually projects. This person’s dream was explicit in the desire, although never the face. There was an enormous power in her lust, for it was a woman, and she focused on the things that brought the fastest pleasure. No build-up, no suspense, just pleasure never-ending in a release of madness and wet streaks of salt.

I recognized the emergence of the incubus right away, and in tasting my power it pushed me out of the uncomfortable voyeurism of the dream and into my own waking concerns. Cubim, as I think of them, are common and harmless in small doses; an artist paints open a passageway, and then once fed they disperse. They’re hungry, but our culture exhibits so much in the way of lust that it takes little to bring them through, and just as little to dispel them. They don’t like witches; we can, of course, use our networks to bind them, our roots to control them and get what we want, from what is within their power. They’re common servitors because they, like many other extradimensional entities, have the ability to move faster and through realities we cannot. Could I say honestly that I’ve never had traffic with such creatures? No. Do I dial them in for my own personal pleasure? No. Do I know those who do?

Perhaps I should explain my role in the talent underground? There are many who confuse power with deity. I say, Confuse, without any real rancor. While some of the witches call on Names, that is all that is left of many gods. The power remains only because of repetition, and, well, competition. The sluggish remnants of the thought forms may retain self-interest, and that interest is generally of the Thou shalt have no other gods before me, to help sustain their power. The role of priestess is often to act as occasional avatar, proponent, and conduit for those gods. A smart priestess controls that conduit, making sure the web does not feed them wantonly.

Ah yes, the web. See, witches are connected, like roots to a tree. Very rarely do the esoteric arts spawn seeds of independent talent these days; there is almost always a connection, an initiate and the initiated, and their initiates, and so on, a branching web of connections. That was the problem. The lure.

Ahead of myself, again. Oh yes. I am not a priestess. I can take the role, but I do not have the component of belief. I think of the god-forms as tools. Tools that we utilize to adapt the universe to our convenience, whether that convenience be something as small as hitting only green lights, or vengeance against the one who broke our hearts. My ex-boyfriend, E, once described me as, Hermione if she’d been chosen for Slytherin. I can live with that. It’s not that I have no moral brakes, it’s just that I don’t let ethical concerns act as air bags. I drive fast. I live clean. I worship nothing. I enjoy power. It all flows together. I’ve no patience for those witches who only listen to their intuition and allow things to grow organically: my web is a crystalline matrice of design. I choose those who I will give access to power (my students) very carefully. I nurture them how I need them. My newest had a great deal of potential power, but needed to know how to focus it, as is often the case. We were working together well, although she didn’t seem interested in women. They can’t all be perfect.

My ex- and his friend always go to the same bar. (He also always orders the same thing at Dairy Queen. I didn’t date him because he was super into redesigning himself. Sometimes I like consistency.) Even though he wasn’t a regular, I knew he’d be there. I… kind of still have a thing for him. I know where he is… most of the time. I got up, washed a little, and put on a suit and my battle face.

It’s not quite a dive, although it’s primarily a student bar. A little young, in my opinion, for the boys, but they have some older clientele who aren’t creepy. “So, E.” I slid onto the seat next to him. He was annoyingly inebriated, and staring at my legs. “Up here, E.” I crossed my legs and pointed to my face. I gave him a moment to focus. “Are you listening?”

He nodded a little too vigorously. He wasn’t listening. I changed my tactics some, deciding to get him more involved.

“Good, because I’ve got a problem. And it’s 37 minutes to midnight, which is when it becomes your problem.”

He laughed kind of weakly. The I kind of think it was supposed to be funny, laugh I dislike coming from men. It’s a judgment on women that we like men described as having a good sense of humour, but then we’re not allowed to take advantage of it. I sighed inwardly. Time for a brace of cold water, because I didn’t want to have to repeat myself.

I snapped my fingers. One sobering cantrip, calling on spirits to relieve him of spirits, so to speak. See? I can be funny.

“I hate when you do that.”

Something was sharper about his gaze. I’d pay for it later: magic isn’t free, but I couldn’t be bothered now. “It works, doesn’t it?”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t hate it.” He sighed.

“I thought Ed would be bringing you here. I tried not to pack the scorn into it that I thought it deserved. Look, I think we’ve got a demon.”

He looked away like he was taking it personally. What do you want me for? You know I don’t do exorcisms.”

“I just want you to keep out its friends.” If I’d wanted an exorcist, I’d hire one. You can’t exorcise cubim; they don’t possess. They’re ephemeral, a happening of time, space, and desire.

“What kind of things are we really talking about?” He said it like he didn’t believe me. That’s one of the things that frustrated me about him. I considered what he meant by the question. Oh. Every time I tried to keep things on an even keel, he came at it from some crazy fourth dimensional angle you weren’t expecting.

“Certainly not about our relationship again,” I sighed. I let that one sink in, while he considered the situation. I leaned back, taking up his cup. Good enough. I sipped from his ice cubes. “I think you can handle it.” Always tell a man that; it’s good for their confidence.

He rolled my eyes and once I placed his drink back down, he moved it back pointedly closer to him. “You’re leaving me a choice of bad or gross. Since you’re smarter than to enlist my help except as cannon fodder for `bad’ and by the way, I’m smarter than that, too, it has to be gross.”

“It has been a busy season for Nyquil.” It was a joke between us that saying bless you still had meaning.

“Oh man. Snot demons.”

I laughed. “No, not Phlegmnauts. I made up the name. Besides, they’re a myth.”

He sneezed, then winkedà’cause that’s the kind of guy he was.

“No, I thought you’d like this one. Incubi.”

He groaned. “You know I don’t have a girlfriend, right?”

I smiled. “As much as I’d like to remind you that I don’t inquire into your personal life, yes.” I slid off the stool. I couldn’t help but tease him, though. I never could. You know, dear, you don’t actually have to sleep with them.”

He looked up at me. “An army base,” he guessed.

I shook my head.

“It’s not a convent is it?” he asked, as if he were hoping.

I laughed aloud. “Seminaries and sentinels?” I gave it the tone of ‘Really?’

I decided to throw him a bone, so to speak. “Where are we?”

He groaned. “College town. That means only one thing.”

I nodded. “Roommates,” we said together.

He finished the dregs of his drink with a sigh, and caught Ed’s attention. Ed never liked me. I never cared for him. That kind of mutual antagonism was the source of many a sitcom laugh. They passed some man sign that was indecipherable to the testosterone-impaired.

“You done with your smoke signals or should I just wait in the car?”

While he was paying, I looked out over the parking lot. I took a moment to check the aura of the place. I’d felt…something. Witches are better at knowing when they’re being watched, or if someone is talking to them, or all those other things that raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It was unnerving that I did not recognize it, so I got my keys out and caught up as he walked over to my car.

He had to adjust the seat, but I spun out and started driving. He clicked his seatbelt in pointedly.

I laughed at him. First, do no harm.”

“Second, do no harm, third, do no harm, but by the time you’re in fifth, you’ve driven past harm and are into really sorryville,” he muttered.

“I heard that.” You have to let them think they’re clever, but not too clever.

I focused my will and knew suddenly where I was going, and why the dream was so vivid. Sylvia. The newest addition to my web. She got ahold of me over craigslist,” I said aloud. He didn’t say anything, stumbling out of the car door when we arrived. I shivered as midnight passed. The earth has its forces, and the trailing waves of what was dark at midnight peaked once more between 3:00am and 4:00am, in the darkest before the dawn, sense.

It was an old wooden house converted to apartments. It only had one door in the front, and several windows with drawn shades. There wasn’t a directory or a buzzer, so I just knocked on the door.

“Sylvie?” I called. I put a little of her Name in it. Witches get facets of Names in rituals, and the one between student and teacher was one I could use.

She opened it, blurry-eyed and reeking of sex. She was barely dressed in an oversized man’s shirt, some jeans that might have been hers, and she was covered in an aura that spoke to me of brimstone.

“Sylvia?” I asked again, slowly. Was she aware of me?

She nodded. I glanced at E. He wasn’t drooling, yet. I shot him a look.

“How many people are in there?” I asked.

“Eleven, including me,” the girl whispered. It was the sexiest voice I think I had ever heard on another woman, and I had to take a breath. I adjusted my jacket, bringing my armor to mind mentally.

“Making us thirteen. Stereotypical,” I muttered. “Will you let us in?” The invitation. Always important.

“Oh, yes,” the girl said, way too quickly. Then I saw her energies change, like a light trying to peep out of the darkness. “Please, you have to help us.”

I walked into the hallway, leading the way towards the noise. I turned around and saw that Sylvie had draped herself and was kissing E like she had dropped something she needed down his throat and her tongue was the best tool to retrieve it. I rolled my eyes, but he didn’t see me.

“No, no, we need to join the others,” I heard him say, but I was too far staring at the horror in front of me.

The act of sex is one of those things that is beautiful in concept and grotesque in action. This was not beautiful in concept, but bestial, primal, with no sense of restraint. Bodies writhed and groped and snarled. I counted three of the demons, only one male, the other two female. E was on his own. The radio was blasting a wall of noise.

I dropped my jacket, because I was going to have to lure one to me. Oh, fine, and my pants. I drew upon powers of lust, bringing his attention to me. He tried pulling my hair, and pulling me to him and his engorged, if very pretty, penis. I began to send repulsion towards the hands that grasped towards him. I had also looped in a succubus. Great. Perils of being sexually flexible, I guess. The lust rose within me, and I got distracted for a moment, so I grabbed what was at hand.

I suppose I should offer a polite cough at that statement. At the time I just smiled at its noise of pain as I began to twist what I had in my reach. E stared at me in horror. “Remember why we’re here?” I changed my polarity, such as it was, my energy from lust to sleep, pushing the others to it. The demon began to fade, although I could feel its desire turn to anger and then sadness.

As the gate began to call them back, I found my pants and my jacket. E stood staring at the sleeping, naked masses.

“You know,” he began, awkwardly, “they really messed these people up.”

I shook my head. I knew. Imagine waking up after that, entwined with your neighbor who you barely knew and liked even less. At least there was no risk of fertility in this act; a side-effect of demons was the effects they had on the reproductive system, but still, waking up wet and sticky with little knowledge of how you got that way… well, I looked at an older lady who would have been the poster child for a grandmother with too many cats. It was probably not how she intended to spend her evening.

I made up my mind.

“Get out.” I started closing windows and got to that radio as soon as possible.

He held up his shoes. You mean you’re going to do something definitely gray edging to black to make it all better? Ends justify the means?”

I sighed. “What do you want me to say?”

“I think I just said it.” Judgy McJudgypants stood there like a five year old not getting his way.

“Close the door on your way out.”

“I’ll wait in the car,” he offered. Good, he could get out of my way.

Sylvia was stirring, less under the spell than most. I focused on using her energies to bolster this, her connections to these people; it wouldn’t be easy. Mass mind-control efforts never were, but they were something most of the orders had done. That feeling that something important happened in your dream? That’s generally backlash. The laying out of bodies, the cleaning, this was the classical role, and the returning them to their beds was just a bonus. The freshening of the room, that took us until dawn was a whisper in the sky.

Sylvia was a blessing. She did not ask too many questions, although I suspect half of it was apologetic for her behaviour and half of it was because I kept her working too much to think about it. I didn’t want to invest so much of myself into this place, this stranger’s house, but I know I had to seal the process.

Hindsight isn’t perfect. For one thing, it’s easy to suddenly consider that you knew more of what was going on at the time. Asking, How much did I suspect subconsciously? isn’t a reasonable question. Did I know then about the betrayal? Did I know then that the seeds that blossomed were seeds of war? Should I regret? Would I change what I did?

Let’s draw the curtain to close on this scene. There is more to discover.

(216) The Witch War (part 2)

Training Sylvia was troublesome and problematic. The girl was too bright for her own good, too powerful, and alas, too straight. (sigh)  She was eager but she burned through precautions as if they had no meaning. “More a guideline than a rule,” she quoted. I don’t teach my students ethics. I figure if there is a threefold rule it will bite them in the rear sooner or later, and if there isn’t it’s up to them to make their own decisions if no force of superstition will do it for them.  She was a perfect pupil, practically a blank slate to scribe the things I wanted on, and as I was stymied sometimes so was I challenged. If the forces had chosen to design someone perfect for me, she was close.

What have I taught her?  No, that’s skipping ahead.

One of the things I remember having trouble with was the concept of chains of energy. The law of conservation of energy is true in the magic we do. We are bound by the laws of our reality, after all.  (E says that that’s what makes wizards so terrifying; they’re not so bound, but I think it’s just that we haven’t discovered the laws that apply to them yet.)  One of the important abilities of magic is energy transmutation, or as I like to say, “The energy of the possible made probable.”  I said it before, and I will likely say it again: Witchery is a web, and every witch is a point of energy, a node in that web.  It’s related to ley lines, and other aspects of the connection between Earth and magic.

(As a sidenote, E and I once had a very interesting argument about whether or not magic would be possible in space. He believed very much that it was, whereas I believed that the biosphere was a more important feature than he believed. He countered with science fiction, tardigrades, and other extremophiles. He started grilling me on whether or not I believe a blue whale to produce more magical energy because of its size, and I realized that yes, there are some things I take on faith.  The tools to measure magic really don’t exist that I know.)

To be a witch is to be a part of that web, and while there are individual practitioners, their lights are dim for they don’t have the connections.  I had always wanted to know how much one could pull from the web, how much energy could be wielded, how much I could change the world.

I was told that that was the failing of the gods.

I’ve twisted that thought into a million permutations.  What is a god? Did the witches create them? There’s a saying that the Church created the devil, but when I look back at the reality of magic and the way it so much of it works in, well, mysterious ways… I wonder.

I wonder where the roots are for the web.  Does it stretch back to the first witches? How do shamans and wizards relate? I chided E for his little winding paths into nomenclature, but what faith did the amoeba hold?

Sylvie. That’s where we were.

My feelings for E were complicated.  My feelings for Sylvie were simple.  I wanted to go ahead and set the two of them up in making some kind of balance in my universe.  To anchor my opinion, I asked Matana to attend as well.

Matana was payment for a favor I had asked a while back. I hadn’t expected to host a vampire let alone one with particular appetites, but fair was fair.  She had a very different perspective, and I kind of wanted to gauge her feelings on the matter.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked him.  It was far better to put him on the spot and pin him to a decision or he would go all waffle.

“Um,” he responded.  Anyone who saw my expression would recognize my, “I told you so,” that flashed briefly across my face.

“Nothing?  Great.  Come out to eat with me and a couple of friends.”

“Is this a blind date?” he asked.  Sometimes he was more perceptive than I wanted.

“Could be,” I hedged slightly.  “Why, you’re not involved with anyone, are you?”  I knew better.

“Um.”  No, he wasn’t.  “Not exactly, but I have someone I’d have to take with me.”  This surprised me a little.

“Does this someone have a name?” I rallied.

He sighed.  “Yes.”

“Good.  You’ll have to tell me it sometime.  Does this someone have…a beard?” I tried not to make it sound naughty.

“Doloise, and no, is that a problem?  Or are you trying to find out if my companion is a guy?  You know I prefer women.”

“Remember to shave.    And a preference isn’t a rule, dear.  Is Doloise…” It was an odd name. Not one I recognized immediately, with kind of a retro 50s feel to it.   I decided I’d look it up.  “Of drinking age?”

“Um.”  Oh, E… don’t, just don’t.  “Yes.”

“It sounds complicated.  That’s definitely not your type.  Anyway, meet us downtown at the mall & Market Street just after sundown, unless you’re,” I smiled, “off fighting Dragons or something.”

“Um.” Did that sound like a gulp? Was he serious.

“That wasn’t funny.”

“You have no idea.  See you then.”

“You, my dear, are going to owe me some answers.  Bye.”  I hung up.  Why did I call him “my dear”?

Sylvie drove us and we were early. I watched E get out of his car and analyzed the woman who got out of the other side with the usual checklist. Long legs? Check. Cleavage? Check. Dark skin? No… Hmmm. She was beautiful, but not really E’s type.  She also glared daggers immediately at Matana, and I could tell she wasn’t… well, she wasn’t human. I don’t hold that against her, of course.  Why would one?

“Whoa, hold on, these are friends,” I said, doing the introductions.  “E, Sylvia, you’ve met, this is Matana.  And you are… Doloise?”

She had beautiful hair, with curls I wanted to have wrap around my fingers. “I do not give my name to beasts.”  The attitude was a little off-putting, but I’d had worse.

Matana smiled in a feral fashion.  She’d dressed up without my needing to recommend it.  I hadn’t thought maybe Matana for E… no, that’d be weird.  Doloise was causing some kind of friction, though, and I glared at E. She was his guest, after all.  Pet?

“Doloise, Magda is not a beast.  Sylvia is not a beast.  Hi, Sylvia.  Matana is what Matana is, and I would reference that she was a lovely woman.”

“Not human, but not a beast,” Matana said.  She offered her hand and E took it gently, kissing it.   She smiled, but I could see it didn’t reach her eyes.  “I see.  Magdalena, you were not entirely wrong in speaking about your former gentleman.”

“She is one of the cold ones,” Doloise said, hissing.

“Look on the bright side,” E said to her.  “At least she’s not a Dragon.”  There it was again.

“Well,” Matana’s smile widened, “it is one of the aspects.”  She winked at the two of them.

“This isn’t a black thing, is it?” Sylvia asked.

E raised an eyebrow at me, and I did my best not to laugh, shaking my head.  “I told you, Sylvie, not everything is as it seems.”

“Ah,” E said.  “Know what they call a group of witches?” he asked Sylvia.  I tensed, because it sounded like the start of a joke.

“A…coven?” she asked.

“A conspiracy.  But that may be any group of women.”

I punched him in the arm.  “Come on.  Since you’re not going to stake a fellow guest, and Doloise is going to be on her best behaviour, let’s go to dinner.”

“Best behaviour?” he asked Doloise, hopefully.

Oh, great. “It is a matter of Hospitality,” I said, giving him a Look.

“I don’t understand everything you’re saying,” Sylvia acknowledged, “but if I listen I’ll learn.”

I think it was a warning.

I had to move around the seats to get everyone sat the way I wanted. “I do not drink wine,” Matana said, passing the list over to me.  She didn’t say it with an accent, but she was referring to the joke. I just passed on the menu to E – I knew what I wanted.  E quirked an eyebrow as a question to me, as he placed the passed wine list back on to the table.

“I am well in control of my hungers,” Matana said.

He smiled, but it didn’t look friendly.  “Just don’t bite Doloise.  She bites back.”

Doloise made a noise of assent.

“What’s the occasion?” E asked after we ordered our food.

“Matana is an exchange student from a coven back East,” I explained, “and we’re inducting Sylvia.  I figure anyone with the kind of control she had deserves a chance to develop the power.”  Sylvia smiled shyly.

“Exchange student?” he asked Matana.

“There are many ways to deal with the infection, my dear gentleman E.   I decided on a course of temperance, and so I learn techniques which flow with the laws of this place rather than the coldness Outside.”

E interrupted, looking at Doloise. “Use the spoon,” he said. “It hurts more.”

She dropped the fork and picked a spoon up instead.

“Sylvia, really, it’s nice to see you.”  E’s mouth continued.  “Sure you’re going to learn the right things from the Mags?”

I kicked him under the table.

“I do want to learn,” she said.  “I am a bit cautious as we are expected to take certain oaths before we are even told what the oaths will mean, but I am anxious to gain control.”  She pointed gently over to Matana.  “For example, I had guessed there was something special about ‘Tana, but I have figured out she’s a vampire from your uncoded language.  I am not sure about your…friend.”

“Doloise isn’t my friend,” E said it a bit too quickly.  I knew I would be a bit peeved at his hurry.

“Indeed.  I am his guide and guardian.”

“That is, she is a friend, but that’s all it is.  Sorry, Doloise.  I didn’t want her to think you were anything…but what you are.”

“And of course, you are correct. I am only what I am.”  Oh, he was digging deep.

“Doloise, let’s go take a powder break.  You do, do that, right?”  I stood up and grabbed Doloise’s hand.  “Girls, don’t eat E alive.   We’ll be back in a minute.”  Doloise looked as if she was going to resist, but I influenced it with a hint of compulsion, and whatever she was reacted to it.  I led her to the restroom, looking all the world like a mom walking with her daughter… except I wasn’t that old.  Still, it was a handy illusion, and I maintained it.

“Your energy is not human,” I decided to go on the offensive.

“No, it is not,” she agreed.  “I am not of the mortal kind.”

“And you guard E?”

“Guard and protect,” she said.

“From what?”

She looked at me with a cold expression and did not answer.

“I’m not going to harm him,” I said, closing my eyes.

“Then why the spell?” she asked, sounding confused.

“What spell?” I hadn’t put any…oh. “No, that’s not mine.”

“You were the last to activate it,” she accused.

“It was there, and he can be…” how to describe it? “…irritating.”

She laughed. “Yes.”

Since we seemed to be on the same page, and she wasn’t offering any more answers, I left it at that.  E had been gone when we returned.  I went to grab the bread, and saw him from the same direction we’d gone.  I broke it, while Doloise idly decorated the paper with a pretty design of leaves and vines in periwinkle blue.

He insinuated myself into the conversation by asking what we’d been talking about while he was gone.

“Matana is taking the semester off for these visits,” Sylvia explained, “but I have a full schedule.  I was going for pre-law, but I’m officially undeclared right now.”

“And Matana?” he asked, making small talk.

“No law for me.  I am not that much of a bloodsucker.” She gave the joke the required pause, then continued. “I was in integrative physiology before they changed the name.  Exercise science.”

“I thought adrenaline ruined the flavour,” he said, as if it was expected.

She ignored him.  “I was studying the effects of exercise with the intent to see how it interacted with shapeshifting.  You don’t see a lot of  werewolves… with extra weight, but do they still need to take aerobics classes for their hearts?  What is the actual source of their enhanced strength, and can it improve through weight lifting or other programs?”  She smiled.  “It has been hard work sneaking that focus through, but I have a pretty liberal advisor who just thinks I have a strange sense of humour.  I was also on the track team.”

“Until?” Sylvia asked.

Matana just waved her hand towards her mouth.  “Until another opportunity interfered.  I do not regret it. ” She laughed. “I am a little short for it, anyway.”

“But you tried harder,” E suggested.

“Indeed,” she said, giving him a hard look.

I pulled a little magic in getting our plates to arrive, but then I felt a flare of energy.  Doloise’s tea spilt across the table and into Matana’s lap.

Doloise did not get up and apologize, but both I and E did.  Matana’s eyes were wide, and I could see there was a problem.  She scooted her chair back.

“I cannot get up.”

E hurried with the napkins while Sylvia called over a waitperson. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I seem to be stuck to the chair.”

Doloise laughed, and I saw the symbols in the flowers she had drawn, and smelt the faint smoke as the smell released, burning the paper. Matana made it off her chair with a half-stumble and a frown.

“That is a petty charm,” she said to Doloise as she finished wiping off her lap.

“A moment’s freeze for the cold one,” she said.  Doloise stood up and asked the confused waiter, “May I have some more?”

E and I struggled over the bill.  I won by recommending we go out further.

“Let me borrow your phone and see what’s playing.”  Sylvia came over and we browsed the listings.

I handed the phone back to him.  “I need to get myself one of these. I have been considering the writing of many helpful applications to the magical artist.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a pocket reference of spell components that also tagged in the phase of the moon and aspects of the stars?”

He shrugged. “Not my kind of thing.”

“Funny, you used to think big.”  I looked at Doloise.  “Well, maybe having a feminine influence in the household has changed you.”  I frowned.  “Do you want to go straight in or wait for the next showing?  If we hurry, we won’t miss any previews.”

He protested.  “I do think big.  I just think it leads to checking twitter during rituals.  Unless you’re getting responses from Big Moon Lady saying that the West has been closed against negative influences, that just sounds frustrating because your energies are distracted.”

“Any more than hauling around a great big grimoire?  I’ll have to consider it.  Some of us have adopted more modern methods.  I heard of one of the Priestesses getting together a Kindle Book of Shadows.”  I just looked at him and changed the subject. “And when will you tell me the truth about Doloise?”

“What do you mean?”  he asked, missing the point.

“I saw the way you look at her.”

He closed my eyes.   “And?”

“You never looked at me that way.”

He opened my eyes and looked at me. “I’m not in love with her.  And before you get on me about protesting too much, I am not going to get into the argument we had at the restaurant.”

Men. “So, you put her up on a pedestal like the rest of your collection, forgetting that women are living, breathing creatures, with desires of their own that don’t wait for your interest to come alive?” I asked.

Sylvia and Matana took this opportunity to say very loudly that they were going off in search of ice cream.   They offered Doloise, to come with her.

“If you knew what she was, that would almost be funny,” he retorted.

“What, she’s some kind of sexbot? That’s sick, E.”

“She’s less human than Matana.  And what’s with that, anyway?  You know how I feel.”

“About women?  Black girls?  Vampires?  Yeah, I do know.  I know you better than you think.  You’re right, you can’t be in love with her because she doesn’t represent an ideal.  You’re only capable of being in love with your own delusions.”

I spun around and grabbed Doloise’s arm. She didn’t need to be with him.

There was a burst of thunder above us, and a flash of light, and I fell raising up all of my shielding at once.  Doloise’s amber sunglasses fell upon the ground.

I looked up from where I had fallen sprawled on the sidewalk.  A couple of passing gentlemen were waved away.  “I’m fine,” I said.  I picked up the shades, and extended them to Doloise, taking the option to look into her eyes.

Not human. Very not human, and powerful.  Things…lived behind those eyes.  Protecting E?

He strode over and grabbed the glasses, pushing them into her hands.  “Put these on,” he said. He looked at me, and helped me to my feet, “Breathe,” he said.

I made an incantation and then the circle of warding with my right hand, and then I stumbled back a little.  E helped guide me to one of benches.  “Sit,” he commanded.

I slapped him, then.  I could only take so much “handling.”

He bent over me and looked into my eyes.  “Is it out of your system?”

“You’re insane,” I shook my head.

“No, I’m just in over my head and losing the energy to keep treading water.”  He turned his back on me and approached the Creature, speaking to it in low tones for a moment.  He came back to me, but I was done.  “I’m getting out of here,” I decided.  “You’re crazy, flat-out crazy, being involved with that…thing.”

“You know stronger language.  I’m surprised you haven’t used it,” he said, sighing again.  He sat down next to me on the bench, watching as I stared at my metallic pink cellphone.  “She’s what she is.”  he said. “Who are you calling?”

“Sylvia.  We took her car.”

“She’s just over there with Matana.”  They were coming back with cones.  “Come on.  Everything will be better after ice cream.”

“You really are insane.” I was in a bit of disbelief.

“No, my life’s just gotten a little weird lately.”

I laughed.  “Anyway,” I said, standing up, “that’s only true if it’s frozen custard and it’s chocolate.”

“I think that’s Doloise’s favourite, too.  You two can fight it out.  Dibs on strawberry if they’ve got it.”

I looked at him, and then touched his face.  “I’m sorry.  It’s not going to work out between us.”  Never would.

“I know.”  he smiled.  “Especially since I’m going to beat you to the cones.” He ran to make his boast true.

“Well, we could only hold one extra cone each, so we decided you were a man, and could just cowboy-up,” Sylvie said.

“What does being a man have to do with not getting some ice cream?”he demanded.  “Let alone being a cowboy?  Which, I am most certainly not.”

Matana, Sylvie, and I giggled.

“It’s okay, pardner,” I drawled.  “I can buy you a double scoop,” I put a hand on his shoulder.  “Ya like vanilla-r?  Or maybe some rocky road?”

He shrugged my hand off, pouting.  Sylvia gave Doloise her portion.

“It’s for eating,” he told her. “Like the shake from earlier, only not with a straw.”

She tried her tongue on it, and found it good.  Of course.

“I think we should skip the movie,” I said. Sylvia and Matana shared a glance, and they got it right.

“How about you three go to the movie, and Doloise and I will head back?” E said.

“If you don’t think we’re trying to ditch you,” I said in a hurry.

“No, I have some work to do,” he hedged.  “Go on, and have fun.  Thanks for inviting us to dinner; it’s been real.  Doloise, you have a hot date with National Geographic.”

“Let us purchase the tickets,” Matana said to Maggie.  “I do not believe these vampires sparkle.”

“Hey, E?” Sylvia called him over, and pulled a card from out of her purse.  “Here’s my number.  Give me a call sometime?”

“Um,” he finally managed.

“You’re cute.” I didn’t hear the rest of what she said, but she giggled and then ran to catch up with Matana and me.

“He is that,” I said, sighing.

Matana just flexed her fingers, thoughtfully.  “He looks like he lives his life in over his head.   The girl, though…” she trailed off.

I nodded.  “C’mon.  I want popcorn.”  I left things behind to sprout and grow.

(217) Between the Couch Cushions

“Roberto,” I said, tasting the name again.

Nen looked up at me, anticipating something more.

“To track a demon, a demon hunter seems like a good start.  Even if I don’t believe in demons, really.”

Nen sat on the edge of the table. “I believe in terrible things that will gladly eat your face.”

“My face in particular or do they just have an occasional craving for faces?”

“A rumbly only faces can satisfy?”

“Well, there’s one thing wrong with them, anyway.” I frowned, and not just because fey quoting internet memes was a thing.

Rayya showed me some sympathy. “There are many beings whose desires border on malevolence as we experience it. A blatant addiction to cruelty perhaps. If something required the pain of others, a foul succubus of sadism. We call it angelic when the same need is in altruism, do we not? But they are still parasites.”

“Not how I really thought about angels. Messengers, yes, but not like the things within vampires.  It sounds pretty cynical,” I said, thinking about it.

“It is the demon within your mythology who makes the contract, and yet the Covenant and other forms of agreement are found on the so-called opposing side.” Rayya made a face I recognized as something she didn’t particularly appreciate.

“So-called?” I asked, appreciating the diversion.

“It is the same source, is it not? Just divided over ideology,” she said, a little hesitant.

I thought about asking her more specifics, but Nen beat me to it. “Some readings differ, as Gilgamesh sees the screech owl that was banished to the wastelands. Metaphors woven, stories made to explain competing tales of humanity’s celebrated children.  And yet do the two who invite speak different tales, such cacophony of myths that it took a Great Star to diffuse the voices into a symphony of reality.  Sound and fury, the shouting of ‘I am,’ similar between gods and mortals.” He shrugged. “A chemical reaction, an accident of life, all desires to understand the taming of chaos.”

“Which is thought to be the source of magic,” Rayya added.

“I’m feeling the cynicism,” I retorted.

“Recognition,” Nen corrected.

“Recognition? Of what?” I asked.

“Of the struggle akin in all realms: to tame chaos to one’s own advantage. A unifying theory of sorts.”

“Magic is physics?” I asked, scoffingly.

Nen shrugged. “And yet you say humanity would be content without interaction in the realms.”

“For which you disagree?” I wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know if it is a lack or an excess of imagination,” Rayya said softly.  I couldn’t tell if she was describing me or humanity, or heck, both.

I shook my head. “And this relates to demons?”

“No, malevolency. If chaos is the source of malevolency, demons are the forms of chaos to balance the forces of that which tames it,” Nen suggested.  “Chaos’ paladins, spreading the word of the anarchy in design.”

“Do anarchists have designs? I mean, the first sounds a little too ‘Chronicles of Amber’ for me,” I made a wry smile.

“Everything wrought can be undone,” Rayya shrugged.

“I’ve no horseshoe nails, if you’re about to ask.” I said. “Sounds too much of cold iron, anyway.”

“And in there is an anchor to the myth.”

“Also made of cold iron?”

“What would the temperature really have to do with it?” Rayya asked, but I was beginning to recognize the signs of her having me on, at least a little.

I flattered her with a look that kind of said that, and was rewarded with a smile.  She looked away after a moment.

I sighed. “I should do it.”

“Speak to your kin?” Nen asked.

“Am I that transparent?” I grinned.

“The speech of your movements brings you back to a younger time, and the marks of those years are upon you. Perhaps it is the same with mine.” He looked at Rayya.

She didn’t need to look at him. I recognized that, too.

I sighed and leaned over for my phone.

“Is that Numancy-fancy boy still dancing to your tune?” I asked when she picked up.

“I haven’t gotten bored of him…yet,” she replied. “And how are you?”

“Failing. I have 100 problems, and 99 of them aren’t demons.”

“I’ve always been better than you at math, but that’s implying an imaginary number. I know how you feel on the subject.” That was her saying that I’d made it quite clear.

“You’ve been better than me at just about everything,” I said, and I guessed it was the sentimental influence of the spriggan sibs, or I would never had said it.

She chuckled. “You’re going to ask me a favor, aren’t you?”

“Oh, indubitably.” She gave me the out.

“You need one of Robert’s patented full body massages?”

“Patented?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s an entirely new technique that no one else has ever used before, but it involves anatomy and consent I don’t think you have.”

“I don’t…”

“…need to hear any more.” She laughed. “Okay, so instead of his physical skills you want something more … esoteric?”

“Good way of putting it.”

“Huh.” She was quiet for a moment. “Well, it’s going to cost you.”

“I won’t beg, I won’t do arson, and murder’s completely out.”

“Think cheaper.”

“Mom?” I tried not to whine.

“No, are you crazy? Don’t go there. She’s having one of her …”

“One of her…?” I let it trail off.

“Look, she wants grandkids, and unless you’ve made the awful decision to get back with Magdalen P. U., you should be nowhere near her.”

“No, no, no.” I literally pushed back on my chair, as if I could increase the physical distance between myself and that whole thought. “So what is it? I know it isn’t money.  It isn’t money, right?”

“Hah. I don’t need the change between your cushions.  Besides, you have a futon.”

“You don’t say.  So what is it?”

“I’m in.”

“You’re in what?”

“Can I trust you with my boyfriend?”

“Um… his virtue? You were all but throwing him at me a moment ago.”

“No, I want to go with you, wherever you go.”

“You having one of your feelings?”

“Yeah.  Big time.”

“And that’s it?”

“Oh, I’m going to think of something else.  Let me get him on the phone.  Lunch?”

“Usual place?”

“Of course.”

(218) Demons, Demons, Everywhere

The usual place was our favourite Indian buffet off of Parker. It was the kind of Indian food meant for white folk like my sister and I; pretty generic, just enough spice to make you feel like you’re being outrageous, and yet the people who came in with the lovely accents acted like it was comfort food.  I’d been to a few others – one gave me food poisoning (I still don’t trust a watery vindaloo) and the other had too many bell peppers. I mean, seriously, there might even have been green peppers in their cream of wheat-alike.  For the price, the Star was pretty awesome for us food-naive.

She and Roberto were busy eating all of the naan while I came in.  I saw that she had already ordered us all chai, and gotten me a bowl of the rice pudding with a spoonful of mango custard on top.  I gestured to the buffet bar, and she scooted Roberto out so we could all meet up in line.

Nen and Rayya had flipped for the responsibility, using my nickel. A literal nickel, that is. It’s what I had in my change cup. Rayya won, which meant she was going to stay “around,” a semi-invisibility glamour. Unlike Nen, she didn’t like to be part of the conversation on my outings.

I caught her reflection in the sneeze guard, but then lost her.  I turned, almost running into Eve, who was busy filling up her plate with hefty spoonfuls. “Meatballs…” she said, with the kind of slow regard that insinuated simulated lust. I raised an eyebrow, and she cut me off. “Don’t say it, E. I’ll win and make you blush.”

I just rolled my eyes. My sister went after me, explaining to Roberto all the things he would like and the things he should try anyway.  I grabbed an extra spoon for the pudding and sat down, picking up my chai to warm up my hands.

A few minutes later, given more naan and a glass of water, the silence was broken only by the other people in the restaurant and the sounds of our forks hitting the plates, plus the assorted smacking and such that drives misophoniacs bugnuts. I used my napkin and sighed, leaning against the back of the booth with the satisfaction of the first plate.

Roberto matched me, and dropped his napkin on his plate. “Your sister, she says you need my expertise?”

“Reluctantly,” I said with a wry smile.

“It is hard to be nice to you,” he said.

“You know, I’ve always suspected that, but no one has ever actually said that to my face, I think,” I realized aloud. I twirled a spoon around, absently.  “It’s probably true,” I decided.

“Definitely,” my sister muttered.  She was still working on some of the spicy chicken. Tandoori, I thought I remembered. Drumstick, kind of red outer coating. I resolved to maybe actually look at the labels on the buffet next time I went up so that I wasn’t remaining ignorant of what I was eating outside of, “The green stuff with the cheese I think? Oh, and I really like the meatballs.”

I sighed, putting the spoon down.  “I just don’t believe in demons.”

Roberto chuckled. “You ran into one?” he guessed.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It’s probably a parasite. You know, like vampires. Lost in this world, inhabiting someone else’s body, doing what it thinks is natural.” I was starting to pick up the spoon again when Roberto put his hand on mine.

It was uncomfortable, a violation of my personal space, but while I know I tensed up, I tried not to pull my hand back immediately.

“Stop,” he said. “I believe you are a good man, E.  You know there is evil in this world.”

I know I frowned. He let my hand go.

“You can try to rationalize it, but you know it to be true. There are things that are unnatural, things that do not belong because they are against all that is good and true.”

I kept frowning, but while I touched my spoon I didn’t pick it up. “I think there’s a lot of leeway in those terms. Relatively speaking, I don’t know that deciding what’s good or bad is really something at my pay grade.”

“Nonsense,” Roberto said. “It is everyone’s responsibility. It is not to say…” he looked for the words, “It is not to say that you cannot be incorrect. But you must make that decision. You must hold that line. You,” he glanced at Eve.

“It’s okay,” she said. “He’s woke.”

Not the terminology I would have used, but I tried to appreciate it with a forced grin.

He turned his attention back to me. “Your talent especially.  If you do not know what is good, and what is evil, how can you keep the door shut against that which wants in?”

I caught myself turning the spoon around again before I answered. “Generally I figure nothing gets in, and nothing stays unless it belongs here.”

He did a kind of one-armed shrug. “So you have made your decision. You found a path that works for you, but then,” he half-smiled, “so did Darth Vader.”

I took a moment to contemplate the role of Jedi in a universe of gateways to other places, but then realized it was a rabbit hole I’d have to explore later.  “Hey, Vader had the coolest theme song,” I tried, but I knew it was weak.

He shook his head. “Clarity. Focus. You have to have these things in order to hunt demons. They prey on insecurities, turn your head with temptation, and take every advantage you offer, deliberate or not.” He took a deep breath. “If you have truly met one, you would know. It would be a stain on your very soul, a palpable sense of evil.”

“Very theatrical,” I said.

Eve rolled her eyes. “You wanted an expert.”

“Oh, no, I mean, it’s great, it’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word palpable spoken aloud,” I clarified. “Are you of the opinion then that the greatest evil ever perpetrated was to make the Devil a myth?”

“There is truth in it,” he gave another of those half-shrugs. “That there are few demons required centuries of hard labor to make it happen, tempered in that few open the way anymore.  They don’t like the light.”

“Physical and metaphysical, I suppose?” I asked.

“Indeed,” he nodded.  “And the old texts are just that – old, and worn. They are pathways that are well travelled and well patrolled.  You can call, but the numbers… they are disconnected.” He seemed proud of the metaphor.

I humoured him with a nod. “Is there some way you can see this stain?”

Eve stopped him from responding. “More mango custard. Now.”

He smiled a little smile at her and left the table. She cleared her throat and looked at me.

(219) Custard-y Battle

“What is it?” I asked.

“Do you know what the biggest problem with hunting demons is?” Eve responded with a question.

“Um, no pay? Hard to put on a resume? People think you’re crazy? Give me a hint,” I said. Probably not too different than being any kind of full-time practitioner.

“They wear human bodies,” she answered.

“Oh.” It made sense, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. That… made things awkward.  “Can you chase them out? What about the red skin and horns?”

“If you see a demon without its meat suit, you’re either using enhanced observation techniques, or you’re about to die. When it’s much easier to take a body, why would you risk something of your own? You have to have power, but more importantly, you need reason. ” she asked.

“How do you know they’re really demons?” I asked. I didn’t really mean for it to sound so antagonistic, but it was a bit aggressive.

“My question, too,” she said. She looked frustrated. “At least I believe in them, which helps.”

“Otherwise he sounds like some kind of serial killer,” I said, realizing her point.

“Yeah,” she said.  She let Roberto come back into the booth with some new bowls of pudding.

“So, some kind of magic to detect this stain? And what do you use, spiritual Clorox or something?” I asked.

Roberto shook his head. “There’s prayers,” he said.

“Spells,” Eve corrected.

“Prayer,” Roberto said. “Though,” he said after a minute, “it is possible that miracles look to be magic.”

“Or vice versa,” Eve and I said it at the same time. Yep, siblings.

“Or…” he shrugged again. “You must realize, there is…” he got that distracted look again, “much of being a demon hunter that is wrapped up with the Church.”

“The Church?” I asked. As far as I can tell, one refers to all the myriad collection of splintered Christian faiths as ‘the Church’ but sometimes they specifically mean the Holy Roman Catholic, and this seemed a time to specify. I mean, maybe he meant the Denver dance club.  That would be funny and weird.

He gave me a suspicious look, but then Eve chuckled. “What did you expect, Bob? True faith?”

He sighed, and shook his head, looking down at the table. “It is strange to me, because we took that magic was a specific gift… and responsibility. Given for specific tasks, and yet there are so many differing opinions, and it’s like…” he smiles a little, looking back up at me, “Denver Comic Con.”

I leaned back. “Oh, go on,” I said, trying not to smile indulgently.

“It was a real eye-opener for him,” Eve tried to hide her own smile. “Not just the cosplayers.”

“Hey, don’t objectify,” I reminded.

“Not even a little,” she sighed, but the smile crept back. “But it doesn’t hurt that it was the same weekend as Pride, and there was quite a variety of eye candy.”

“Not for you,” I wagged my finger at her. Roberto looked like he wanted to do the same thing.

She grinned.  “I know.”

Roberto shook his head. “There are so many opinions. Everyone read,” he made an motion of an arc with his hands, “a group of comics. Or the whole…?”

“Run,” Eve supplied.

“Run,” he repeated, “and would remember different things and come out with their own stories, separate from story that was told.”

“Ah, Star Wars,” I said.

“Well, yes, and X-men, and,” I cut him off.

“No, it’s something I remind people when they talk about Star Wars is that everyone has their own.  For some people it’s a love story, some people it’s a story about the subjugation of droids, for others it’s a story of revolution, and for some it’s just the arc of Anakin and his redemption, but everyone calls it the same thing.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I even call the phenomenon ‘Star Wars,'” I said, unnecessarily.  “But I understand. I didn’t think it really qualified for magic, but yeah, it makes sense.  I stopped going to ‘witchy’ events, and not because I have anything against the lace and black clothing movement, like, at all, speaking of objectifying,” I cleared my throat, “but they didn’t see the Force the same way as I did.”

“Haha,” my sister said.  Not laughed: said.

“Exactly,” Roberto said. He didn’t crack a smile though, meaning that my attempt at humour was exactly as good as my sister’s not-laugh implied. “I have not had a great deal of experience, but I am slowly being exposed to different viewpoints.”

I could just hear the giggle my sister suppressed.

“Intuition is a fantastic ride, itself. A rollercoaster that doesn’t ever improve.” I sigh. “But the point is that apparently being around a demon leaves some kind of slime trail and we can follow it somehow. Better than my plan to start hanging around morgues like some kind of television detective, because I don’t even think they let me in the door without some sad story, and I’m not ready to–”

“You’re rambling,” my sister interrupted.

“Yeah. I do that,” I mumbled.  “So, you in?”

Roberto put up a hand. “What demon do we seek?”

“We weren’t exactly introduced,” I start saying, “but do you mean a unique name? The fellow who was possessed has something odd as a name. Vasil. Kind of like a corrupted herb.”

“Let me start again,” Roberto said, sounding less exasperated than he probably had a right to be. “What know we of this demon? Why do you seek it? Has it done something terrible?  What information do you have for us to start?”

“And how much do you pay?” Eve asked.

“Well, I’ll pick up lunch. What do you mean pay?”

“Demon hunting doesn’t exactly pay the bills,” she said.

I was at a loss until I saw the wink. “Yes, yes, you get to come along. That was the deal, right?”

“No!” Roberto said. “She should not. She’s already being sought–”

“You know about that?” I asked.  It had all but escaped my mind, like everything Magda said.

“Of course I know about it. I made sure it happened,” she said.

I think Roberto and I both groaned.

(220) D-EVE-ious

“Back up, try again, begin from the beginning,” I commanded.  “You did what?”

“There’s a war going on, E,” she said. “Did you think for a moment I wouldn’t attempt to subvert the propaganda?”

I didn’t even have to think about it.  I knew my sister.  “There’s a bit of difference between that and ordering your own hit squad… on your head.”

She raised her eyebrow. “Says the fellow who disappeared for an entire year to chase some fairy tail.”  She emphasized the last word so I got the homonym.

“Ha ha,” I didn’t laugh. “Go ahead, push it harder into the kidneys before you twist.”

“While you were gone there was a war, E.” She shook her head. “A war.  With casualties.  Take some stats: how many unexplained heart attacks? Accidents? How much cancer is because of magic misuse?”

She must have seen my confused-skeptical look because she sighed.

“Teacher mode on,” she said. “Most witches are connected from initiation or study.  That’s where the majority of the power comes from; tapping some source, usually an old god, or a place of power, some kind of sacrifice, or there are various vows and stuff to bind a battery.”

“`Vows and stuff.’ Very teacher, much technical,” I teased. “I kind of know all that. I mean, I did date Maggie and she told me a little about it.”  Yeah, our love for talking shop did not help the relationship one bit.

“Shut up.”  She rolled her eyes. “Pollute the source, or add noise to the network, and that entropy can manifest in all sorts of physical ailments.  The disability rate in older witches is disturbingly high.”

“Correlation?” I offered.  “People looking for magical ways to solve their issues?”

“I thought that, too, but no, turns out most witches are more practical than that.  For one thing, pulling that kind of transformation energy from a source can also pollute it or give you feedback errors.  For another, finding the cure from the disease is like that infinite engine thing, isn’t it?”

“Improbability drive?” I asked.

“She means the perpetual motion machine, I think,” Roberto suggested.

“Yeah. That.” she picked it up.

“You said most witches?” I prompted.

“So, a lot of eclectics are self-taught, but they still end up connecting on shoddy can-and-string calls to the same sources because they think the same way as the more traditional ones.  Some, though, are founders of their own sources, or they work on different principles.  Rare, but I thought science was a better source than, say, Aphrodite.”

“Although,” Robert started.

She poked his shoulder with her finger.  “Shush, you.”

They grinned at each other in this comfortable, familiar way.  I thought for a moment that Roberto had stayed with my sister (or more accurately, vice versa) much longer than any of the others.  I gave her a significant expression, hoping she’d catch it, but I think she just figured it was brotherly disappointment of personal displays of affection.  I went back to the conversation.

“Science? Isn’t that a little like using GLaDOS as some kind of god form?” I was teasing.

“The pudding isn’t a lie,” she said.  “Bob?” she asked, plaintively.

Roberto got up and got more pudding for her.

I waited.

“He worries about me.” She shrugs. “Oh, and I know there are much better quotes from the series, but everyone references the cake.”

“Yeah, someday we’ll remember this and laugh. And laugh,” I responded.

“Look at me still talking when there’s science to do,” she sighed.

“Someone booted up the wrong side of the BIOS this morning?” I offered.  I wasn’t as sure of the LEGO Dimensions quotes.

She looked iffy, moving directly in front of me.  “Anyway, before Mr. New-to-mancy, as opposed to Newtonmancy gets back, I’ve got it covered. Yes, I’ve got some ties from Grandma, but they’re carefully vetted.  I’m not attached to any of the local hubs, and the only reason I appear to be targeted is to blend in… because if I don’t sound like I’m being gunned for, everyone assumes I have the guns.”

I made a motion as if to show off my arm muscles, and she rolled her eyes, scooting back a little to let Roberto back in with a careful mix of rice pudding with just a perfect dollop of the mango custard.  No, really, it tastes good together.  He handed her the spoon with a flourish.

“So, now that she has revealed to you her secret plan,” Roberto said, “have you reconsidered demons?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting my sister to be…” I trailed off.

“No. She is purely an angel,” he said.

She stuck out her tongue at him. “Anyway, I haven’t told him my secret plan.  It wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

He nodded. “Sage and true.  So, we find this demon of yours and we take your sister as attractive but unreasonable bait?” he pointed his thumb at her while she was busy with a spoon of pudding and couldn’t hit him on the shoulder again.  Well, at least for a moment.

“Well, except for the bit about Eve, sure, that’s the…erm, plan.  Not a secret.  You will reveal to me your ancient methods for finding them, and I will, um… direct things.  And make the hard decisions.”

“Someone has to,” he said, and I suddenly rued my wording.

He looked at my expression and chuckled. “You are responsible, you know.”

“Responsible for what?” I said, possibly a bit defensively.

“No, just, you insist on taking responsibility for things.”  He made a circular gesture with his spoon as if to take in the world around.  “You care about putting things right.”

“Well, doesn’t everybody?” it seemed a weird observation.  “I mean, sure, I’m lazy sometimes and I’m not one of those people who totally needs to give to charities for tragedies half a world away.  Really, I’m a pretty awful person if you start making judgments on such things. I don’t even tithe to the lottery.”

“You may be guilty, but you are also responsible. There is a difference.”  He sighed. “Demons just love responsible people.”

 

 

 

(221) The Demons In Our Heads

“So the devil is in the details?” I joked.

He nodded, looking serious. “Heroes are quick to sacrifice themselves for others. So when the demon looks into you and says, `You will make a deal with me, or we shall make your sister’s skin do terrible things?’ Responsible people do the responsible things.”

“Yeah, the lone hero conundrum. ‘I can’t make connections with people that can be used as hostages against me, so I need to be so chill and cold that no one will be my weakness.’  I do read comics, you know.”  And not just Spider-Man.

“But what about the strength such connections provide?” Eve asked. “I am stronger with my friends.  I am more capable with my friends.  I am their fury, I am their patience.”

“Who let you in the conversation?” I teased her.

“No, it is important,” Roberto responded. “The implication is that your friends are somehow less capable than you. The proper answer may be, ‘Try. My sister will make you suffer in ways I can not even imagine.’  But then it gets more difficult.  It is your friend’s child, or an innocent, and this time they do not ask, they take.  And it is one life, and a second, and you are paralyzed because you are responsible. Is the person the demon has taken innocent? Did they take on the demon as you must to save someone in their life? Is there another choice?  Will killing the host kill the parasite?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I put my hands up “No one is talking about killing people. That’s… murder.  And I’m not even involved in this discussion because I’m not an accomplice or an accessory.”

Roberto just looked at me. “That is why we have you.”

“To kill people? What? Just because some people used to call me Doc does not make me an evil assassinating supervillain.  I mean, I know the rules of naming but that’s just a nickname.  You’ve got the wrong person.”

“No, you are the missing ingredient. You and all of the other guardians of the gates. You control what comes through, and you can send it back.”

I paused. “I guess the -cubi are generally considered demons.” I shook my head. “But this one’s different.”

“How? Demon is thing that wants to come in, you send it kicking back. Host gets life back, if with a lot of therapy,” Eve said, as if washing her hands of it.

“Not so simple.  First, we don’t know about the host. That therapy stuff isn’t kidding. How much is keeping them alive contributing to their pain? I mean…” I fumbled for a moment, “It’s awful. It’s violating. The -cubi want fun for a night, and they leave so much assault in their path… but survivors are a thing… I don’t know. It’s not something I can quickly rock a quip off and pass over.  If Roberto here says what demons do are worse, I can’t imagine living like that.”

Eve looked at me seriously for a moment. “You lost a year of your life.”

“I can’t even tell you how angry that makes me,” I said, after a moment. “I can’t even confront it. It’s … so many little things.  Little changes in slang, cultural touchstones, movies and shows I missed, political events… ” I shook my head. “But while yes, my place here was stolen, my… integrity was maintained.  I wasn’t molested or abused, my body wasn’t made to hurt anyone. I had agency. Yes, any theft is awful, but I can get acclimated pretty quickly with the internet.  I can’t say there are no support groups for the possessed, but I kind of doubt it.”

Roberto offered a tidbit.  “There are now over 50 exorcists in the United States, up from about a dozen.  At least, in the Catholic Church. I don’t know the numbers for other faiths, but I expect they’re increasing as well.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’re fun at parties,” I teased. “No, maybe it’s not just trivia.  The… person in my line of work who gave me this task suggested there was a reason the three of us I know here had congregated in the area.”

“Gave you or geas’d you?” Eve asked.

“Gave. At least, I don’t feel compelled.  Except to do what is right,” I admitted, “I mean, that sounds really dumb to say it aloud.”

“You were always a gamer,” she sighed. “Yeah, it sounds dumb and noble and white knight-ish.  You sure it isn’t because she’s a girl?”

“Um,” I considered it. “No. I wasn’t really attracted to her. It was weird with Zach at first, but…”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Not like that. Nevermind, just, it’s a magic thing.  I’m still cishet and okay with it.  My white male guilt switch is on, and I regret the word dumb, and while I’ve seen some sexy ice skaters, I’m just not interested in other penises.  Penii?  Penipodes?”

“Stop.  Just stop there,” Eve shook her head.  She looked at Roberto who very carefully had stayed quiet and out of the conversation, then nodded and continued. “So you’re doing it because…”

“Because I felt it. And it was evil,” I said. “Is that even worse to say out loud? I kind of…” I shrugged. “I need to do it. I can.  I have the power and the responsibility.”

“I always took issue with that phrase,” Eve said. “I mean if Absolute Knowledge is Absolute Power, knowledge is evil, and that goes back to biblically epic amounts of anti-science, if I may say so.”

“You speak of science with similar worship, though,” Roberto said in that tone that I recognized as a fellow man who has relationships.  It was that, “I know this is going to cause an argument but as much as I tried I can’t let it go,” tone.  I backed up out of spoon range.  “The scientific method is flawed when it comes to the immeasurable.”

“Like when your computer stops working for absolutely no reason, or when your IT person walks into the room the thing you’ve been trying a thousand times suddenly works the thousand-and-first,” I tried, helpfully.

(222) Blinded By Science

“Science is a pair of glasses with which I perceive the world, and there are flaws, yes.  The scientific method doesn’t leave a lot of room for eureka moments,” she took a brief pause to enjoy the phrasing, then continued. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask for potential replication in my results, given my methodology. That’s the only way one can share a spell, is like if it is a recipe,” Eve said. “Shared cultural resonances are their own faith, yes, but what if you could test it? I wear a hematite ring. If it suddenly splits, is that a flaw in the stone, or did it reflect a negativity aimed my way? When that computer fails, there are so many measurements that can be taken – temperature, moisture, electrical fluctuations, maybe even baby spiders on the motherboard.” She shrugged. “But I honestly believe the only thing keeping magic from being science is having the right tools to measure it.”

“So we’ll get a magic-o-meter, and suddenly every scientist’s a wizard?” I asked. It probably sounded a lot more sarcastic than I meant it, and she frowned.

“Maybe,” she gave a half-shrug. “I’m full,” she said, pulling at Roberto’s sleeve and not looking at me.

“No more pudding,” he told her. He called over the waiter for the bill.

“Look, I am not going to say anything foolish like, ‘I’ve got to do this thing alone,'” I said. “Trust me, I’m not going anywhere near something like this without a team.”

“You have one of those?” Eve asked.

“Yep.  It’s you and me, kid, and Roberto here, and who knows, maybe I can talk some other foolish mortals into it.” I didn’t need to gesture towards Rayya, but I was aware of her. “Or immortals,” I added, with a chuckle.

“Good,” she said, seriously.  “just don’t forget to put up the bat signal when you need it.”

“Bat signal?” I asked, pulling out my wallet to pay for lunch.

“My digits.  Flare your aura my way. Send a courier. I don’t care how you do it, just make sure you don’t get distracted or kidnapped and forget us.”

I signed the slip and sighed. “If I say anything now, I’ve jinxed it,” I pointed out.

She chuckled. “I guess there’s that.”  She gave me a fist bump, and then she and Roberto checked out.

I dawdled a little, letting Rayya join up with me. “So, what do you think?” I asked, once we were in the car.

“It is not my place to opine,” she said.  I think she heard her my internal aggravation, because she continued.  “Much was said. What in particular would you know?”

I shrugged. “In general?”

“What you call science is a key, as is magic.  The problem is, as you keep unlocking the doors, when do you learn more than you can handle?”

“You’re a beacon of light and hope, or at least you’re on the same road I’m on. You don’t have to open every lock, and you don’t have to press every button.”

She was quiet.

“Is silence disagreement?” I asked, grinning.

“In this case, yes. I think so,” she said after a moment. “I think we are meant to develop in this world. Man, fey, even Dragon,” she shrugged. “Different means to an end, but lessons nevertheless.”

“Buddhism?” I asked.

“Something like, maybe.”

“Have I asked you before what the fey believe in?”

She smiled. “It’s a silly question. What do humans believe in?”

“Point, yes. Just you and your brother, whatever you guys are,” I said.

“Your bodyguards,” she responded. “We are supposed to believe in keeping you safe.”

“From demons?” I asked, and yeah, it was a little petulant.

“Do you have free will? Agency? Can we keep you from a foolish path?” She scoffed a little, I think.

“Well,” I said, and I didn’t really have much to add.  I considered a few responses, but I think she scored another point. I made a note to myself that I needed to be less tired from dealing with my sister when verbally jousting with professionals.  I knew I would forget, but it was good to try remembering that than my failure.

I tried to parse the information Roberto and Eve had given me, much of which was just hanging out. I still felt Roberto was a little intense, but I enjoyed a little talking shop.  I still had a lot of questions for Eve, but I liked the idea at least as a philosophy of science witches. I put a pointy hat, a white lab coat, and a set of safety glasses on her mentally, and then giggled. To myself, because Rayya was still beside me as I walked in the door and she would have had questions about my mental stability.

Okay, that made me laugh out loud.  But, as inscrutable fey go, she just raised an eyebrow and let my laughter happen without comment. After all, I was one of those weird mortals. We probably did lots of things that made no sense.  Or made fey go blind, science notwithstanding.  I mean, someone had to grow hair on their palms.  Or, rather, no one has to, I guess, but we could test for it.  Because science.

I may have lived with the two of them, and shared many a meal and a weird laugh together, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking either of them about their masturbatory habits. Some things were better left to the– I cut the thought off. Maybe not left to the imagination.  I didn’t think of them as sexual beings.  I never even wondered what Rayya looked like under the white robes she wore.

She did laundry, I mean, although she didn’t seem like the kind of elf who fixed shoes. We all did laundry. We had a little chart as to who did the folding, too.  They both did the same trick Doloise did, in weaving glamours based off of existing items to clothe themselves.  Nen did once show me that they could craft outfits out of creatures, in this case a Miller moth. I will have nightmares about that for years.