by Alice Brook

 

One

I can still taste electric anise when I open my eyes. It’s been a week since that kid got himself killed and I came too late to do anything about it. An open-and-shut case.

I light a cigarette trying hard to ignore the boy in my bed tonight. He snores and I kick him on the ribs, “Out.”

I picked him up in Summer’s Night after Tiha knows how many glasses of gin. On the back of his neck is a cluster of dark freckles I hadn’t noticed the night before–my gods, a damn Academy student. A “scholar” I bet, just an ignorant kid who thinks magic’s only use is a quick high.

I get up and turn on the radio. A melancholy beat weaves itself around the smoke, edging by piles of filthy clothes, slithering into the wrinkled sheets until it reaches the boy. He squirms, pulling a pillow over his head. I tsk and have another drag of my cigarette.

The flavour of anise is still stuck on the back of my tongue. If only I had gotten to that kid sooner, the bottle laced with a dreamwake charm would’ve never reached his lips and I wouldn’t have magic jammed in my throat every time I woke up. Bloody dumb kids.

I snag the pillow off the boy’s head, lean to his ear so he feels the ember warming his skin. I stub out the cigarette on the sheets. The way the tobacco falls it looks like my skin is flaking, sprinkling brown-beige on greyed white sheets. A stray speck of ember jumps to the boy and he winces.

“Out.” I make my voice sound like a growl. He only puts his hands over his head, groaning. I wish his neck wasn’t on display. The smudge in the middle of it seems ordinary until you look closely and you realise it’s a puddle after a heavy storm, the boy’s Key. I harrumph at my stupidity for offering a place to crash. I tell him to hurry the fuck up and leave.

The radio’s finished its meandering song and a man is signing off, wishing us a good night. By the sound of fists slamming at my door looks like my night is just beginning. I roll my eyes when I hear Sergeant Heartnell calling “Open up, Ange!”

I wipe the dust off the book I got for Lou, The Key Dictionary. I should give it to him soon, before the shiny giftwrap dissolves completely, but this time I drop it right next to the boy. He jolts at the sound and gives me a look of a cow who’s just found out what a sledgehammer’s for. In reply, I point to the window. I assume he’s smart enough to use the fire escape, otherwise a dumpster laden with Cheng’s sauced-up garbage will cushion his fall. He’s none of my concern anymore. The boy mutters, “shitshitshitshit, as he scrambles to dress himself.

“Keep your knickers on, Sarge,” I yell as I pull on a loose blouse and a pair of pants. I wish they had deeper pockets though, not even basic charms can expand clothes by much. Like this, all I have room for are half a dozen ready-made magics–fainter, healquick, motion, flask–the necessities.

The window slams shut behind me as I open the door. Soon enough there’s a yelp and a thump. The boy should have known better than to follow a strange woman home.

Sarge has a look on his face that makes his wrinkles seem like canyons. “Nightmares getting to you?”

I shake my head no. Not tonight, I didn’t sleep anyway. “It’s 1 a.m., Heartnell. I was sleeping,” I lie to the pudgy pink face at the door.

“Like I’m gonna believe that.” His bulbous nose creeps up when he snorts. Gods, has that man ever heard of trimming?

“You know, there are special scissors, they’re real tiny so you can get ’em up the nostril and just – ” I make a snipping move with my fingers. “You’ll get a discount as soon as they look at you.” I also give him a grin, for good measure.

“Cut the crap, Magic,” he says with a ghost of a smile stuck to the corner of his lips. With that on his face he looks twenty years and a barrel of sadness younger.

“Well, gee, you’re just no fun at all.” I lean on the door frame and cross my arms across my chest. My no-fucking-way stance will be ignored, but, hey, can’t blame a girl for trying to crawl back to bed and fall into blissful, alcohol induced sleep.

“Grab your bag. We’ve got a shiner.”

I raise my eyebrow-an expert achievement of snark that never fails to drive Sarge crazy. All he does is glare and burrow his fingers inside his palms. He knows he can’t touch me. He and magic just don’t get along, to put it mildly. Admittedly, I did once make a receptionist burn from the inside out, so maybe there’s a smidgeon of fear somewhere in Heartnell’s anger. But the burning days are behind me now. Tiha’s honour.

“Sergeant Frank Heartnell, I don’t get up for less than blazing sun.”

“Don’t play wise with me, kid.” He turns to proceed down the decaying hallway.

I tie on my bespoke boots, silver-tipped with a mix of screetcher teeth and herbs under the heel, grab a coat and my satchel. I stuff Lou’s book in one of the pockets, too. Maybe I’ll have some time on the way back.

The door takes some banging before it finally shuts. I don’t lock it–those who know where I am know who I am, and those who’d dare steal would see only bare walls and one soiled mattress leaned to the radiator. Maintaining the concealer is a pain in the ass, but I can afford a few days of mild coma to keep it up for three years.

When I rush after Sarge, the bag slips off my shoulder. It’s not supposed to do that. Made of weathered leather and with a charm that enhances its pockets to untold depths, the bag is supposed to stay put as if glued to me. But then again, I’ve never been the bookish type so I don’t exactly know how it works. You never know with these bags, especially when you pick one off a stiffer.

We drive to Gallows Lane. A scent of lilacs seeps through the windows of the car, overpowering the stench of old tobacco and stale sweat. Heartnell’s knuckles have already turned white gripping the wheel. I take a deep breath and stare on.

Our strained ride ends at the edge of Verago, where centuries ago stood the Seventh Gate. Story goes its rock was black as the darkest sky, thicker than a giant’s midriff, and infused with magic that would spark the air blue, twisting it until it looked like billowing cloth. A row of gallows had flanked the door where the dead, while swaying in the wind, would howl and moan and wail. When Old Ellis did his jig, a couple of fellas went home with their ears bleeding and cheeks clawed raw. Old Ellis, the last man to hang, had given us a game of Telephone that’s lasted for over eighty years. A crazy faction says he never really died, despite the hanging body, but they also believe bees are magic-made surveillance. I don’t trust the crazies, but Old Ellis is still called merlinesque at Tiha Academy.

What’s left of the Gallows Lane looks like a discarded booger-stained kerchief by the road. On a plateau framed by four lilac trees, bronzed gallows stand as though they’d emerged from the earth itself. Sometimes I wonder if the air is cleaner up there, when your neck is wrapped in rope. The hanged were lucky, in a way. I breathe in the lilacs, savouring the scent as it makes my chest swell, and not failing to take a good look at the splintering imitation wood of the gallows.

I fake a cough as I adjust the bag on my shoulder and resist making any sort of comment. Heartnell’s sensitive about magic victims, and however we are to each other, I know where the line is.

He leads me to the gutters below the memorial where they found the shiner. Despite the cold breeze pushing against us, the girl looks like she’s just taking a nap. I suppose the chintz carpet she’s wrapped in kept the chill at bay. Somebody’s unfurled the top so that her face was visible. Eyes wide open, amber, stare up at the sky, no expression in them. I could pretend she’s counting stars.

“When did you find her?” I asked. It’s hard feigning nonchalance when her mouth was sewn shut with blue string and blood crusted over the corners of her lips. Except one of the stitches has been broken, the thread hanging from her mouth like drool. She’s not counting anything.

“About half an hour ago. Mad Maggie thought she was a pile of leaves.”

I stay crouched by her shoulder. Strayed lilac petals have dappled the mud around her body, as though she was suspended in the sky and I was looking up instead of down. I did not know the girl. But I could have. The skin’s turned waxy, but the falling moonlight does everything but make her look a corpse. Her features are sharp, cheekbones you could slice your finger on, a hard jaw that takes no excuses and a wide forehead with insidious lines between her brows.

I could imagine the girl frown. Demanding respect, she would force her lips in a thin line and stare you down till you cracked. When she danced, her face would pull her eyebrows up with each jump, her laugh painting the air like magic, I–I don’t know this girl in the gutters. Only, she reminds me of someone.

“We dubbed her Sparrow Rose.”

I start at Sarge’s voice. “Huh?”

“Just…” He waves his hand towards the girl’s face, then lets it fall.

When I push my finger between the broken X-shaped stitches on her lips, I swear I can hear blood cracking. A soft and crumpled thing.

“White rose petals and birds’ beaks.” I push them around my palm. This is bad. I outline a rune above the satchel, my finger cleaving the air and emitting a dim white light. The right compartment unlocks and I look for a container. “You haven’t seen her body yet?”

“We didn’t touch a damn thing.” Heartnell’s anger is almost palpable.

“Except for the mouth,” I add, nodding at the ruined thread.

I finally find a small jar and fill it up with beaks and petals from Rose’s mouth. This shit never gets any easier. Especially not for people like me, people who’ve traded a chunk of their souls. Something sharp pricks my thumb, sending spikes of coolness over my arm. I ignore it.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Sarge.” I tell Heartnell, then rise to face him, the coolness spreads to my neck now, almost choking. I clear my throat to get it out. “Get the crew here.”

Heartnell waves a gesture, wordlessly telling the officers to gather up. Except, there’s something off about the way Georgia leads the group forward. Seems to me like she forgot to walk, as if her legs were planks. More of them walk the same way, moving in a circle. Heartnell and I are being surrounded by seven of our own, even Shaun, who usually only ties rope around so that nobody sticks their noses where they don’t belong.

Heartnell opens his mouth to say something, probably a slew of curses.

“Don’t,” I tell him and it’s just blind luck that he’s not a part of the hunchback crew lumbering toward us.

All of them have some sort of amulet peeking out their uniforms. Shaun has one in the shape of a horse, it’s so heavy his head’s always a bit stooped. He beamed when he told me he got it off a “seer” in a secret shop tucked between the movies and Mack’s diner.

I warned him about the women with dangling sliver bracelets more times than I can count–con-women with a sense of drama. His “seer” just happened to be one of the more clever ones, considering how she opened a shop right next to the pictures. Since The Eyes of Magic opened in cinemas across the country, the whole amulet business blew up. I can’t go a bloody day without seeing somebody clutching at a necklace. Even Mad Maggie tugs at her iron comb when she sees me.

“Just don’t move, not yet,” I tell Heartnell. Georgia is so close I could reach her with the tips of my fingers. Her eyes are still a pleasant brown, which means she’s not too far gone. I snag the amulet off her belt, throw her glass dandelion away. Six of the squad turn and stare and stop. Only one keeps going, that damn horse swaying around his neck. Shaun believed with all his little heart the horse would protect him.

Truth is, a protection spell can’t be bound to any old bull. It’d have to be something the wearer actually cared about, and we’d pump it up. The price the magicians pay is anywhere from a three day migraine to a particularly nasty case of stomach flu or diarrhoea. That’s some real ugly business, and not worth the bother if you ask me. But when I saw a crystal stone dangling off Sarge’s neck, I made sure he chucked that in the trash. I made him the real deal, I owed him that much.

Shaun’s eyes gleam white. My muscles instinctively tense, every sinew’s ready to pounce, hit or hurl a ready-made charm. I reach the inside of my left pocket. Rummaging around for a blade when a ‘chanted is coming straight at you is no easy business.

“Just a little closer,” I whisper to Heartnell who’s already got his gun out. Tiha, can’t I get a goddamn case that doesn’t turn into a giant pile of shit?

Shaun lunges to Sparrow Rose, his hands enveloped with blue, iridescent smoke. I’ve seen it before. Hell, I’ve made it before. The smoke will swallow him up like he was a dumpling, then rot him from inside out. He’s a good kid, albeit too naive for his own good. Always blushes when I ask him about girls and can’t get past a tumbler of booze without getting redder than a drunk’s nose on a winter night.

I pull the spiked knife out and launch it at his liver, doing my best to aim properly when my thumb is now throbbing as though there were worms in. Close enough – Shaun sways as the knife sucks in the blueness. There is no blood coming out of the wound. Only Shaun’s face curling into a grimace, ageing thirty years in ten seconds. His wail feels like the only sound in the world.

“You killed him.” Cold blooms across my temple. I needn’t even glance to know it’s Heartnell’s gun.

“No. It did. It wasn’t Shaun anymore, Heartnell. He uncovered Rose, right? The second he touched those stitches, he was dead.” I keep my eyes straight, don’t look at my thumb.

Shaun’s body looks like a deflated ball before it disintegrates to dust. I shiver. A good thing. A person should shiver at a time like this. You gotta pay attention when a slice of soul is missing from your body.

“We need Lou,” I add.

I walk away to get the knife out the dust while uncomfortable questions are being answered. Georgia shoots me a look. I’ve been a recipient of the look since I was a seventeen year old brat, a good ten years now. It could rival my mother’s eyes when she found out my puppets turned our little house into a ball of flames.

“Get a fucking box, a bag, something! We do not leave him here,” Georgia yells. She’s on her knees, blocking the wind as much as she can. Her lips are tight between her teeth, her body twitching.

The officers all walk as if underwater. Some stare at their hands, flexing them into fists, then unclenching, like they wanna make sure it’s them who’s in control. Others are gingerly stepping on the gravel, scared of making a wrong turn lest the stones grow canines. More than a few fall to their knees and puke their guts out. Only Georgia is firmly on her feet, rushing back to Shaun’s remains with a box gripped to her chest.

Heartnell’s going from man to man, planting his hand on each of their shoulders and tucking their amulets back in place. Flashes of light from the gently waking traffic wash over them, and for a second they all look like angels. The lights from our car point directly at the scene, giving the sight an eerie tone of being outside of time.

When I pass Georgia, she spits. I drop the knife into my bag and curl my fists around its straps. If I didn’t, I might have clawed the sneer off her face.

It’s getting to me, too. I move the hurt thumb under the strap. Don’t look at it, Ange, gulp it down and shake it off. The thing, what ever it is, whatever it was, it’s big and bad and uglier than a pair of cauliflower ears. Nobody outside Tiha is supposed to have that kind of power.

The stitch around Rose’s mouth, that particular shade of blue, looks more familiar than I’d like to admit.

I take another deep breath, hoping the sharp sweetness of the lilac would wake me up from this goddamn nightmare. Not my luck.

My hand begins to throb all over. Bad ‘n’ ugly’s getting to me, alright. The cold pain sprints to my jugular, then drops, like a ton of burning rock to my stomach. I bend at the waist, hands on my knees, silently cursing all that is holy. It’ll have to work much harder to crack me like it did Shaun.

“Nobody touch her! Hold her by the carpet.” I stagger to the car, still breathing heavily. My chest is a pack of rats fighting for the last bit of cheese.

“Ain’t the dame gonna help?” Georgia’s remark’s backed up by the guys’ mumbling approval. I keep my trap shut and let Heartnell deal with it.

“Georgia, so help me, one more word–”

“It’s her, Sarge.”

“You will obey your superior officer.” He tilts his chin down at her, as to a naughty child.

Georgia audibly swallows before she says, “Yes, sir,” and begins to haul Sparrow Rose to the trunk.

“I like her.” I squeeze the words out my teeth, “Stubborn and smart.”

Heartnell hands me a lit cigarette and says nothing. I inhale, clearing my lungs. It doesn’t work though. There’s still a pack of rats (tied by their tails, they are filthy, livid, clawing at my meat, digging through bone, that bad’n’ugly) hooked to my flesh.

Rose’s magic seeped to Shaun and now it’s definitely seeping into me. This is much worse than I thought possible.

“You better know what you’re doing, Ange.” Heartnell’s gaze is locked to the crew, his hands folded across his chest. I can see how he digs his nails in his palms, so it does him no good hiding it.

I give the cigarette a deep drag and let the smoke unfurl through my nostrils.

I hope I do, Sarge, I hope I do.

 

 

Two

The pain is not as strong as it is consistent, like needles pricking flesh or bullets cleaving muscle. A breeze waltzing in the top of my head while a loop of rope tightens around my neck. The pain is like many things, but I’ll be damned if I let it beat me. I need a drink.

Inside the car, I can inspect my Key. I let myself sink into the seat, breathe a little while, before I lift my blouse up. On the side of my ribs is a latticework of scars, the shape barely recognizable, which is not a bad thing, per se. It’s a mark. To warn the rest I’m no good, to tell them my body is marred by banned magic. Not that I knew it was bad at the time. You can hardly blame a kid for being defiant and dumb, but nevertheless, Zora did. Expelled by the hand of my own mentor.

What my Key used to look like was a dagger pointed to my hips. A constellation of freckles in an unusual shape. Every magician has one, we’re born with it. They’re like blue eyes – sometimes they appear outta nowhere, but mostly, there’s a carrier in the family. I glide my fingers over it. Nothing. Or nothing yet, in any case.

I give it a pinch, just to make sure and the pain hits me. Down my ribs, grabbing each one, raking at my Key. I let out a yelp despite myself. The pain drills itself deep, then disappears.

The blouse falls back into place as I close my eyes and rummage through its breast pocket for a flask. I gulp down the rye until it’s half-empty.

Why in the hot hells am I even here? I take another swing, Smiley Val’s scarred face dances in my mind. Smiley Val. First time I called her that she grinned in a way that would make a mountain pack up and move two states away. We’ve been close ever since.

The first time she saw my Key, she pinched me so hard I almost jumped outta bed, but, Tiha, not even that could make me angry with her. If I stepped on the gas right now, I could be in her den in half an hour. Far from Sparrow Rose who’s like seeing a ghost, except my ghost is alive and well and most likely wishes me dead every day.

“Too bad, kiddo,” I tell myself and have another tug at the flask. “You’re stuck.”

The thing about losing some soul is you need to find another way to stay human, and saving kittens doesn’t do it for me. Sleeping beauties, also knows as tulips, also known as catatonics really are humans minus souls. And I ain’t done living. And anyway, if I ran to Smiley Val she’d just kick me out for disturbing her customers. The scar extending from her lip to the corner of her eye might help her play nonchalance, but both of us know gun smuggling is trickier than Val wants it to be. I’d be the biggest harm to her business in any case.

Heartnell knocks at the window. I flinch, which makes the flask spill a little. I lick the rye off my hand. “What? Want one too?”

Shit. There goes the line. And I don’t feel a damn thing, which is something you’re supposed to feel crossing the final frontier of human decency. Usually I’d shoot down the words before they even brush against my tongue. I give the flask a scowl.

“Enough,” he says. That means, if I dare touch more liquor, he’ll break his back to ensure I never do any good again, even if it meant risking the rest of his life as a toad. My fingers stumble to get the lid back on, then let the rye drop back in my pocket.

“You should know better.” Heartnell slaps the window before going round to the driver’s side. You wouldn’t tell by his skinny piano fingers and clean nails, but he could crush a melon just by pinching it if he put his mind to it.

As he revs the engine, I see myself pushing his face in mud. I shake the thought off and what comes through is a pair of amber eyes, blinking at me. Sparrow Rose is getting colder by the second. If Lou tells me what I think this is, there won’t be much time. The only person who could possibly perform that kind of magic is high up Tiha Order. Most likely.

The Key throbs (rat-king making a nest). As if through gauze, I see clots of blood drop from the back of Heartnell’s head, brains dripping over his collar, my boot kicking him down and stomping, stomping, stomping as red splatters on my clothes, stray drops warming my skin and trickling down.

I shake the thoughts off again. It’s not me who thought them. Not. Me.

There’s two ways this could go, and I have slim chances in both.

 

 

Three

The only safe business is the death business. People drop like flies every day, especially in Verago, and too few want to deal with decomposing flesh. Especially when the flesh in question can come with an extra appendage (or five), and still twitching if a magician died before the spell took its toll. A mortician is not a desirable profession. Unless you’re Lou, whose brain’s fit to hold hundreds of funerary rituals and who thinks stiffers walking around the mortuary are intriguing.

I push open the door to Lou’s and invite Sarge, along with the two officers wheeling the body on a rickety gurney, inside. Stuffed weasels clutter one of the giant chestnut tables that take up the entire length of the wall. Their eyes, attacked by the sudden light, beam down on us, so I have to blink away the yellow spots from my sight. Damn things creep me out. The other table is overflowing with papers, half-eaten pastry, mugs still filled with tea, and one brightly painted ceramic frog I got Lou for his sixtieth. There’s hardly room for two people, but the four of us, plus Rose, manage to squeeze in.

I make my way to the middle of the room, stomp on a square outlined in black tape, then quickly step away. As always, Lou’s deep down in his make-shift lab. What he’s doing isn’t exactly legal, but Lou, well, he’s no harm to anybody. Besides, his bony head holds more knowledge than the Academy teachers, so I need him when the shiners get complicated.

The officers rush back outside, leaving Heartnell behind. He approaches, then leans in until I can smell the stale coffee he had for breakfast. I better get him some mouthwash with those nose trimmers. I mind not to move a muscle except my fists, which I ball behind my back.

“You broke Georgia’s heart, you know that?”

“As far as I know, Georgia has no such thing.” The words just slip out. My jaw’s clenched and cold and I don’t wanna know what my eyes look like. “It’s bigger than Georgia, than Shaun, than all of us. This–”

Sarge looks like stone. One curt Heartnell-nod and he marches over a stuffed mouse as he leaves me to cajole Lou out.

I bite down my tongue. Shaun can’t be my fault, not him too. But the tingling in my fingers reappears, the rat-king and its tails.

“Lou,” I cough off the shake in my voice. “They’re good an’ gone, Lou.” A bone fide hermit, he wouldn’t come out if the cops were there. Lou gave me a pass, though, seeing how I’m not a “real cop,” just a magician on hard times.

The trap door opens with a creak and a bang before falling back. A hand appears, quickly followed by Lou’s spindly body. “They have no respect, those thugs. Thugs, all of them.”

“Come on, Lou. They ain’t all that bad,” I do the rune over my satchel to get his book out. Better do it now, coax him a little.

He’s gotten to be a worse old man now than when we first met. About two years ago I found him staring at me while I was cracking a ready-made charm over a heavy goon Val suspected was pinching cash from her. Lou was scribbling in a little book, his hands shivering as he did so. Well, I couldn’t just let him prance on his merry way, so I grabbed him by the collar and gave him a piece of my mind. Lou squealed and spilled all about his lab and magical mishaps. He gave me hot cocoa and asked as many questions as an eleven year old who’d just noticed his freckles were shaping in Key.

I laughed at him, remembering the same zeal a lot of us showed when we first stepped inside Tiha’s Academy. He was surprised when I told him how easily things go wrong in magic. If a wide-range concealment went awry, it would make the corpse crack days after death which was what had been haunting Lou’s parlour back then.

Lou bends to close off the trap door in complete silence. Strange. Usually, he talks like a wound up toy.

“We found a girl. Something big, I think.” I glance at Rose over my shoulder, hoping I would see the carpet rise and fall. I should know better than that by now.

“You all right, Lou?”

Lou shuffles to the junk-ridden table and begins pushing the papers away, carelessly siding the ceramic frog to the edge. There was the tiniest little wince spread across his face every time he shifted his weight to the left foot.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, a tiny–” he shakes his head. “A small accident. No importance whatsoever.”

He coughs again, this time the burst sending him heaving over himself. I reach for his shoulders with my free hand and pat him on the back. Lou’s a skinny old man, the skull more visible now that his hair’s white and thinned.

The dimple on his chin looks like a crater sometimes, like that tiny black dot is to blame for his feebleness. But he doesn’t look any paler than normal. Gods know Lou can be clumsy. The stuffy lab can’t be any good for him either. He waves me away, so I retreat to the wall when he’s done and let him finish clearing the table. He wets his lips quickly with only the tip of his tongue.

“I got a book for you. Thought you might like it.”

When he doesn’t react, I frown. No, something is wrong here. An accident, my ass. I place the book on a chair. He is not speaking, his eyes don’t meet mine and he’s got that damn cough that makes him sound ten years older. I decide to ask about his favourite subject, see if that’ll make him confess whatever’s going on. Maybe his basement’s finally exploded or I’ll end up having to kill oversized rodents in the sewer. You can never know with Lou. Keyless are hardly able to even understand the workings of Tiha, let alone dare to dabble in it. Lou, he’s different. He did not explode, or turn to marble or perish in any way. Maybe this time, though.

“How are the experiments going? Anything I should worry about, old man?”

“Exquisite things.” He rambles on, his hands wildly gesturing as if they had minds of their own. He’s talking but not making any sense. He grabs at his cravat, tightening the knot, brushes away stray hair. The upsides of his palms are slick in the muted light. It makes my stomach pang. Scars, not from any sort of dabbling in magic, but from an open flame. He never told, I never asked.

It hurts, looking at his hands and seeing a different face, one that used to beg me to make little figurines out of fire and dirt, then make them dance for us on the floor.

Better just stick to the job tonight. Lou knows what he’s doing. I hope, anyway.

“I need your help, Lou.” I reach for his shoulder, but stop myself. My hand hangs in the air pathetically. “We found her by the gallows.” I flick my wrist, pointing to Rose.

“Of course. For a friend–”

“No. An associate, Lou. Just that.” My eyes tingle, so I frown and blink it away. All my friends end up dead.

He wets his lips in a motion no longer than a blink, like a frog or a snake. Then he presses his forefinger to his dimple. He often does this when he’s nervous. “On the table then.”

“Don’t touch her, Lou. The officers who did–”

Lou does not say a damn thing. So I tell him, “Yeah, yeah. You’re no amateur and all that.”

We heft her to the freshly cleared table, placing her head by the ceramic toad. His hand shivers as he unfurls the upper corner of the carpet, careful not to brush his skin against hers. His tongue slips out and in again, a flash of red among the browns, blacks and greys in the room. I cock my head to one side.

It’s not the first time I brought him a body to inspect, there’s no reason for him to be anything but excited. Maybe it’s Sally that’s making him jittery.

“Sent Sally the flowers I told you about?” I’m the last person to give love advice, but I figured flowers were a safe bet. Can’t go wrong with those, right?

He winces then, stuck with his hand poised above Roses chest. “Yes, the, the–” Lou’s frowning as if the memory’s slipping. “The chrysanthemums.” A smile of relief spreads across his face. “Yes.”

“You’ll have to talk to her, you know. She’s not psychic, Lou.” My eyes wander to his threadbare black shirt. The collar’s already frayed, loose strings glued to his neck.

He smiles sheepishly. “This girl,” he says and hovers his forefinger over Rose’s cheek. “Where did you find her?”

“The Seventh Gate.”

Lou’s head bobs, peas of sweat form above his brow as he inhales heavily. “I need a–I’ll go and get it now.”

Before I can even open my mouth to protest, he rushes back to his lab, crashing the toad in the process. It rolls to the corner of the room and stays there like it’s in ambush, the sticky tongue drawn to loll from its mouth.

I pick the toad up and put it where it belongs. The fall must’ve cracked it and it breaks in two while my hands are still on its sides. I lay both pieces on the table. It looks dead. Sparrow Rose looks deader. I tug the carpet open with a clot of hope in the back of my throat. Damn it, Rose.

I want to shake her by the shoulders until she wakes up. I want to look at the stars with her, I want her to tell me the boy she danced with was so clumsy her toes are blue. I bite my lip, willing myself to stop fantasising. Rose might as well have been a burglar. She might have been a schoolteacher as much as a cold-blooded killer. We shouldn’t pin pretty stories to people just because we like the look of them.

I hold my breath and lean closer to her body. Under her breast is a wound. Looks like a patch of skin was scraped off to reveal muscle and fat. I inspect it closer. There, on the cusp of torn skin – deftly cut out, whoever did this had both time and skill – is a brownish semicircle. A piece of freckle? Was Rose a magician?

A shuffling comes from behind me.

“Got what you need?” A hand grabs my throat and squeezes. I can’t breathe. The edges of my sight blur as I try to pry the bony hand off.

“It’ll come soon,” Lou’s breath is hot on my ear. It smells like rot. “Wakey, wakey, and we’ll be happy. It’ll make me whole, I promise.”

Lou tightens his grip, his coarse hand like sandpaper on my skin. I manage to swing my elbow and hit him on the side. He staggers into the gurney, which squeaks as it moves backwards, colliding to the table of twinkly-eyed animal corpses.

I turn to face Lou. There’s nothing there, he’s expressionless, though not like Shaun. Lou’s eyes are almost black, showing me nothing but a reflection of myself and, for a fraction of a second, they flicker.

I kick him in the stomach before he comes to his senses, the punch folding him again. His head is level with my knees. I could take a shiv from my satchel and peel his face off–stop, Ange! Not. Your. Thoughts.

I grab a stuffed fox from behind Lou and swing. A cry escapes my mouth as the fur connects with the side of his head and Lou slumps forward. I expected the fox to be softer, but the hairs are brittle and remain stuck to my sweaty palms when I let it fall from my hands.

When I catch my breath, I heave Lou up to the gurney and tie him up with rope I find under one of the tables. For once I’m grateful Lou’s sort of a slob. All my friends end up dead, but Lou might have a chance. He’s only stunned, not gone yet.

I reach into my pocket for a motion charm. I feel it, but don’t move a muscle. Again, the rat-king scurries in my chest, ripping at lungs, at meat, a dozen snouts and mouths and rows of teeth and claws scratch my sternum. The blackness is spreading. The tails are laced around my vocal cords, waiting for the right moment to crush them.

I gingerly move my hand to my face. My lips are moving in ohs, my tongue brushes against my nails, covering them with saliva and instead of dirt, I taste everything I’ve done and it tastes like bile.

I shut my eyes until the Key stops throbbing and the rat-king in my chest retreats. It takes a while for it to slither away, I can’t tell how long. But it goes. Tricky thing, being half-souled and infected with… whatever horror this is.

When I get my hands on whoever killed Rose, I swear to rip their legs off and make them eat them, toe by toe. I clear my throat. I shouldn’t even be thinking like that, but, hells. Every nerve in my body is leaden.

I need a drink. When I deem myself calm enough – and I say enough because I’m never damn calm, especially not now when I could take on the armies of all hells along with a dozen of Smiley Val’s goons – I rummage around the sleeve of my blouse and extract a crude motion charm. I’ll know if Lou moves, but not exactly where. It might show me a direction, but a ready-made charm is often unreliable because I suffer pushback (in this case only bruising) before I use it. Knowing when Lou moves and a vague direction is enough. I’ll know he’s fine, I’ll know I didn’t hurt him too much.

It could easily be mistaken for a jumping jack. A ball rubbery and dense with swirls of blue and white, lies smooth on my palm. Weighed with magic, it stays put as I level it above Lou’s face. His shirt is still pristine, only wrinkles so that the loose strings cluster on the sides of his neck. Like he didn’t attack, like we never even fought.

My heart is still thumping a beat of anger, a searing hot thing pulsing through my body. I shut my eyes. I imagine the faintest smell of dust and warm wood and strong coffee. When the sunset painted the sky crimson, that was when our little house looked most beautiful. I hear my sister’s voice pleading for magic puppets–she’d push my cheeks with tiny hands smeared with marmalade and yelp, “Again, again!” A wave swallows my body, leaving specks of sadness and guilt in its wake. I am calm. The rat-king won’t beat me.

I open my eyes and press the charm, cracking it like an egg. Threads of blue and silver unravel from its insides. They drift on Lou’s face, meandering through the air, making a cobweb pattern in the short time they’re between container and skin. When they reach Lou’s cheeks, he flinches, but does not wake. The threads spin themselves into spirals before elongating across Lou’s face and neck. With a faint glow, they sink into Lou’s skin and vanish.

I clasp my fingers over the halved ball, then drop both into the satchel. Ignoring the quiver in my knees, I brush a tear or two with the back of my hand and make sure the door slam when I exit.

 

Four

It’s close to 6 a.m. and the light shines hard on Heartnell’s eyes. He squints to the sky, one palm across his brows, the other cupping a cigarette. The crows’ cackling tears at my ears as though their beaks are a hairbreadth away.

My breathing is still a bit heavy and Sarge, his gaze locked on the birds who’ve started to move in large spirals, he asks me what the fuck happened. The veins on his temple bulge.

I stand abreast him and explain, all the while watching the birds. The crows settle for west, untangled from their circle, they flap their wings and advance. A small black thing plummets to the ground.

Heartnell spits and stubs out the butt in a pool of saliva.

“You all right?” he asks.

“Fine. But we need to burn Sparrow Rose. I don’t know what kind of magic this is, but it’s the strongest in centuries. Lou couldn’t have done it, not even many Tiha’s. But some of them could.” I frown at the picture of Zora blazing in my mind.

“I’ll lock him up. You go home,” he dismisses me with a wave. “You’ve done enough.” He begins to walk towards Lou’s, handcuffs already dangling in his fist. The rat-king squirms in the hollow of my chest.

I know his fingers have been itching to shut down the lab. I know he can’t stand the sight of me when I tilt my head just so and how he can’t stand the silk of the kerchief I pumped up with protection. To him, magic is a useless cheat, a fake, more like a rabid dog than a skill.

I know all this, and still, I grab him by the shoulder and say, “It’s not about Peggy, Sarge.”

Next thing I know, my cheek is burning and I’m struggling to keep my balance. Heartnell’s eyes are two kinds of firecrackers exploding on asphalt. “Peggy’s dead because of the likes of you. Shaun, too.”

“Peggy’s dead because she drank champagne at a tinseltown party,” I say and my voice is the voice of a stranger from the bottom of a well, from the darkness in the cave. “Peggy’s gone because the balcony was slippery and the only magician there was too damn drunk for a healer spell.”

Heartnell moves for a punch, but I tilt my head just so. Same way Peggy did when she felt stubborn.

Peggy was an ash blonde with a wide pearl smile and her father’s stormy eyes. I saw pictures, heard some gossip here and there. Story goes she was as stubborn as a mule, caught in raids countless times and stealing dad’s cash to pay friends’ rent if they needed it. We might have been friends, too. Though I suppose all her singing would get on my nerves soon enough.

I shouldn’t do this to Sarge. I’m trying to move my head, but the rat-king’s hanging inside my neck. I feel its tails coiled around my pipes, winding themselves around muscle and bone. Forcing me to say all the things I shouldn’t, releasing captive thoughts. Writhing, they slither to my jaw where they wring my bones and I think they’ll snap and I’ll be worse than Smiley Val – Ange with her mouth hanging down to her waist. All I can do is gasp. My eyes go blurry.

Sarge must have seen it because he lowers his fist. He’s still tense, his movements are those of a machine, sharp and crisp. He balls his fists until his knuckles whiten and we stay there, immobile. Tiha, help me.

“Your neck,” he says so quietly I almost miss it. “The veins are all black.”

He takes out his gun and aims. “Ange?”

I move my lips but that does no good. Nothing comes out. Then the world shakes. Heartnell’s figure jumps in and out if my sight, replaced with a fragment of grey cloud before he appears again, the barrel of his gun a gaping mouth ready to swallow me. The tails slither back, leaving a trail of what feels like frozen flesh. I collapse on the ground and retch.

“Wait,” I croak. I lean on my hands and push the bile out of me. My head is pulsing, my body feels made of ice and crumbling stone, and I can’t–I can’t do this anymore.

I spit out something tiny and black, a band of spit hangs loose from my lips. The black squirms, then dissipates with a hiss.

My face is wet with tears when I roll on my back. I shut my eyes and pray for the second time in my life.

“Sarge–” I start, around the lump in the back of my throat. “It wasn’t me, Frank.” I keep my eyes tightly shut.

“It’s never you, is it, Ange?” His tone is glacial. I don’t want to look at him. I don’t want to see the pain. “Get up.”

I prop myself on my shoulders. Sarge is crouching next to me, anger and pity nestled under bushy eyebrows. It’s not hard to imagine a once upon a time–a happy Sergeant Frank Heartnell, a wife and child gathered around the piano.

I give him a feeble smile, but the world collapses and my body falls to his chest. I don’t know who’ll make it out alive this time.

A sob escapes me when Frank closes his arm around me. We both know what it is to feel guilt and sorrow, to anaesthetize ourselves with liquor lest we feel anything other than anger.

“Sorry.” My voice comes out weak and muffled. I sniff and say, “We need Zora. I don’t know what this shit is.” I cough to stop my voice from dithering. “But she might.”

“Thought you said it might be Tiha themselves?”

“Yeah, most likely. But Zora will have an explanation.”

I clamber to my feet and start slapping the dirt from my clothes, but Sarge takes my chin between his fingers and forces me to look at him again.

“What the hell happened?”

“I can’t say.” I stare at the ground, blink away a tear or two.

“Don’t lie to me, Ange.”

I bite my tongue, but the words spill out anyway. “It got to me, Frank. Whatever magic was released, it got to me and it’s only gonna get worse.”

He releases my chin from his grip and moves a stray hair out my eyes. “Coffee first.”

It almost makes me laugh. “All right. But burn Rose now. Touch the carpet, but not the body.”

Heartnell nods and starts to the car. My body still feels like it’ll crumble, but I manage to catch up. I wait in the car for him to call a crew from a callbox.

“You’re good.” I lie to myself. “Fine.” I say and close my eyes to hide from the world.

I’m still pretending to doze off when Sergeant Heartnell comes back and starts the car. He shuffles and sighs, settling in the seat. In a moment, there’s a click of a lighter and the earthy smell tickles my nose.

“Whatever it is that you did, I hope Gianna forgives you,” he says and inhales.

And the mention of my sister hurts more than a thousand knives flaying me alive.

 

 

Five

I must’ve dozed off because I’m firmly on my feet in a dark alley. There are no sounds. The ground is made of cobbles of all sizes – some glint red, others blue or green. I know these are rubies, sapphires and emeralds from my mother’s hope chest. She’s never owned anything more expensive than a golden wedding band, but in this world, that’s not true. Here, the bowels of her oak chest freckle the street. They glimmer in the dusk in mean little tings, beckoning me to follow.

Fog snakes around the streetlights, which are too tall and too knotty to be made of metal, but they aren’t wood either. I am headless and have no eyes to see. There’s no weight of skull on me. Still, I move with purpose, though what that is I don’t know. I wish I had a gun.

I raise my hands and it’s only then, when I see one made of fire, the other dripping hot mud, that I realise this is my nightmare. I am a puppet, exactly like the ones I used to make for Gianna.

A chiming laugh makes me look up. A girl dressed in nothing but a bathrobe dances in the street. She has a glass of bright orange liquid in one hand, the other extends to a man in a bespoke suit. Happiness unspools from between her lips as she laughs, shrouding both of them in a soft pinkish light. The skin on her back is smooth and scarless.

I know this. I want this to be true.

My body staggers towards them, arms extended like in monster flicks.

In that damn twisted way of this nightmare, the girl is both Gianna and Sparrow Rose. She smiles at me and waves. The man’s vanished, along with the glass from her hand. The fog meanders towards her, rising slowly until it covers her body like a sheet.

My body totters to Gianna-Rose and we hug. Then she begins to scream, ablaze as if she was burning at the stake. She looks up and points at me because now my eyes are up and I’m looking down at both of us.

She keeps screaming, keeps wailing. I shriek for my body to let her go, but I have no mouth. I am both the puppet burning my sister and a pair of faceless, neckless, bodyless eyes swaying above the sight, higher and higher and higher, until my sister and I are two red specks in a sea of black.

Gianna-Rose bursts into ashes and cinder and ground bones.

I wake up whimpering.

“You okay?” Heartnell asks.

I massage my temples with an open palm across my eyes. “Sure. Are we there?”

“Yup.” He parks in front of Mack’s diner.

When I get out, I still see jewels gleaming on the asphalt. How many years has the same dream hunted me? I shake my head and rush inside the joint.

We settle in a vinyl booth so close to the kitchen I hear Pete sneeze and can only hope his slime doesn’t end up on our eggs. I unbutton my coat and tuck the satchel in the corner next to me.

Heartnell orders us coffee and scrambled from a waitress who has the self-assured walk of a woman certain she won’t be here for long. I bet she wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching at that gold cross of hers, promising herself she’ll get on a train first thing in the morning. It takes my all not to scoff. Verago isn’t nicknamed Reject-ville for nothing. When tinseltown stomps you good and hard, you drag your sorry ass here and try to make the best of it.

“This isn’t just a magician eliminating competition,” Heartnell says.

“Lou was nothing like Shaun.” I stifle a guilty shudder. “This was more conscious, like Lou knew what he was doing, like he was—”

“Like he knew what this was about?”

“Yeah. Except Lou’s a guy who thinks men should put their coats over mud for ladies.”

“Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t lock him up for good.”

“Information, Sarge. Whoever set this up knew Lou has a thing for magic. Sooner or later they’ll come back for him. And we have him on a motion charm.”

“I’m not losing any more officers to magic, Ange.” He extracts a deck of cigarettes from the depth of his overcoat and throws it on the table. He pulls one out, punching the butt to the table like it did him wrong before he strikes a match to it.

The waitress, Tommy according to the pin attached to her shirt, returns with a pair of plates and two mugs of coffee. Her makeup’s caked on her face, a little black on her eyes, a little rose on her swollen cheekbones, orange trails by her ears. Where it met with wrinkles, the paint cracked as if she was an old road, walked on by too many heavy feet. When Tommy grins at us, her paint shifts to reveal a dot of pink in the middle of her lip. Like Verago, she’s a pale shadow of her former beauty.

“You call me if you need anything else now,” she says as strolls back to the counter. Pete yells from the kitchen, a clatter of cutlery following suit.

A waft of burnt bacon hits me. I recoil, and decide to stick to coffee. Bitter with a hint of sour, Mack’s signature flavour. As long as I hold it to my nose and leave the plate steaming away from me, I won’t puke.

“We should do this more often,” I tell Heartnell. “You make good company.”

He only looks at me, lights another cigarette, before he says, “Start singing, kid.”

“You know Merlin?”

“This is no time for fairy tales, Ange.” He drums his fingers on the table, a rhythm I don’t recognise. Knowing Heartnell it must be one of the classics–more Bach and less Bessie Smith.

“We learn about him the moment we begin class in Tiha.”

“I thought the Order chucked you out.”

“They did, but not before I memorized a thing or two. Anyway, you know why we don’t seek immortality and bullshit like that? We make special effect for pictures, amulets, drugs, but nothing without limits.”

“Because you get headaches and puke.” He smiles like he enjoys the thought of magicians suffering.

“Yeah, that.” I glare at his damn smile. “Merlin wanted immortality. Story goes he found a way to do it.”

“You expect me to believe this was done by Tiha and Merlin?”

“I believe only someone from the Academy could produce a spell of this magnitude. Or someone connected to Tiha.”

“Like you.” Heartnell stopped drumming his fingers. He’s clutching his mug like he’s trying to break its neck. It’s hard to keep my breath level. Hard not to grab a knife from my satchel. I don’t know what Heartnell’s prepared to do. I move a wisp of hair behind my ear and continue.

“It affects me, Sarge. Dammit, if it was me, I wouldn’t be here, would I? I’d be off on an island somewhere, drunk and happy.” I don’t tell him that if it was me, I’d be dead. Soulless first, then on my goddamn way to the big sleep. I’m half-way there as it is.

“Sure. I’ll buy it,” he says but the mug is still choking in his hands. “Are we supposed to chase a fairy tale?”

“When Merlin cast his spell, every few hours he’d morph into a different creature. A cormorant, a roach, a cat, what have you. For a year and a day, you could set your watch by Merlin’s changes. Finally, he crystallized into a stained glass image of himself howling, then crash–he shattered with a bellow so horrible the closest village wept for a decade.”

Hearnell only raises his eyebrows. “You better have a point, Ange.”

“That was the first big rip in the worldweave–the Rising. The magic got loose, seeped into the world and threatened to crush it. Puff, bang, no more green earth to walk on. That’s why Tiha was made. A school, a training programme, a force to stop magic misuse. What happened to Sparrow Rose is—”

“The same thing?”

“I hope not. But I don’t really know how it works. There is a chance…”

I glance at Tommy. She’s standing by the counter, knife in hand. She moves her hips to follow the soft tones of Once in a While while she reaches for a pie. Her blonde bun’s dishevelled, strips of hair curl around her neck, wet with sweat. Tommy doesn’t seem to mind, only swings and hums along with Dorsey. When the song’s done, she stabs the centre of a pie with unusual force and begins carving it in uneven chunks.

The rat-king stirs in my chest, and I slap my goddamn Key.

“There’s more than you’re telling me, Ange.”

I attempt a smile, but fail miserably. “Zora.”

“The Tiha elder?”

I nod. “If anyone knows what’s happening, it’s her.” I don’t tell him Sparrow Rose’s stitches are most likely her handiwork.

He gestures for Tommy. “We still have time for pie, you know.”

I push my untouched meal toward him.

“You need a little sweetness in your life, Magic.” He gives me a look then, a look that says pity and pain and friendliness.

“I-” Looking at his kindly face, parchment-yellow and with as many wrinkles as a dried plum, I almost tell him everything. “I’ll get this one,” I say instead.

I hover my finger over the satchel’s clasp, moving it to make a rune that’ll unlock the particular compartment I need. Last time I forgot to do that, I was unpleasantly surprised by a maroon squirrel jumping at me. Sometimes I really hate this bag. By the time I finish rummaging, Tommy is back at the counter and Sarge is burying his wallet in his coat.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” I frown.

“Now you owe me.” He rubs his eyes, and continues, “Your neck turned black back there.”

“I’m sorry.” It’s all I can say. I lock my eyes to the blue formica table. I don’t have to look up to know his grey eyes are on me, tracing the tiniest lines of my face, the smallest twitch of my shoulders.

“You two would’ve been good friends,” he says so softly I almost miss it.

“I wouldn’t. I’d only bring trouble.”

“Yeah, well,” he stands to leave. “She did too.”

“I didn’t want to—” I start, still sitting on the sticky, grease ridden, vinyl seat, my hand clutched around a simple wallet. “Frank,” the word feels like a hot rock rolling out my lips and I can’t do a damn thing about it. He deserves monuments cast in marble. I have no such thing.

I clear my throat, stuff the wallet back in the satchel, then throw the strap across my shoulder. Heartnell is already by the door, but something isn’t quite right. Feels like when a stench follows you all day, and it’s only when you put your feet on the couch that you notice a speck of dog-shit on your heel. I pause for a while, sniffing the air despite myself.

Trailing the feeling, I inspect the inside of the satchel. This compartment’s a brown leather, a simple sack with two pockets on its walls. Inside is a notebook, couple of pens, a wallet and not much else. Lou’s charm is still a muted white and silent.

I pinch a crumpled tissue and throw it on the table with disgust. It didn’t stink, but, hells, I don’t remember where it’s been or what kind of sludge hardened it to almost cardboard. The pockets should hold two simple shivs I carry just in case. They’re as good as switch blades, steel and chrome with fake wood handles but, unlike the embellished knife I used on Shaun, these are barren. I feel around, expecting to find their curves under my fingertips.

I count one. There is only one damn knife in this bag and what I can do now is hunt down the sap who took it from me. Nobody touches my satchel, but a young magician wouldn’t be creeped by a weird bag, now would he?

Heaviness spreads on the back on my head, blood pumping through my body like water through a broken damn. I blink and I see red. I blink again and I see my hand deep inside the mouth of the bag.

“Hurry up, Ange!” Heartnell’s yell snaps me back to the here and now.

Why the hells would an Academy student want an ordinary knife? Lucky for me, Tiha is our next stop. The thought teases out a smile. When I get my hands on that punk, it’ll be days before he can chew. Rat-king thoughts come slithering back, flashing me the boy’s head on a platter.

I bite the inside of my lip until a speck of blood falls on my tongue. I won’t let this beat me. I can’t let this magic slaughter any more people than it already did.

This time, I won’t be the one who burns the house down.

Before the door closes I take one last look at Tommy. She’s dancing now, moving in a waltz as she carries some plates to the group in a booth by the window. Her eyes are closed, her head moving left and right like a snake following a fiddle, her free arm moves in circles and swirls. Tommy leans to place the food on the table, her eyes still shut in what looks like bliss. For a moment, I think I see her pulling a bread knife from her apron, but we’re already in the car, on our way to the Academy. Hells, it’s not only me, not only Lou.

The rat-king’s all over this place.

 

 

Six

Every breath feels like ice stabbing all over and it’s all I can do not to wince. So I keep looking out, at Verago passing in a blur.

Its main artery, Orla’s Road, pierces the city in two unequal halves. Heartnell’s side faces the smaller one, reserved for decrepit two-story buildings and alleys with blood trickling down from the butcher shops to the sewers. This blood is not always bovine. A hunched man is polishing a window that promises The Freshest Beef In Town while talking to a younger fellow over his shoulder. I assume the attention’s not wanted because he slips a cleaver out his apron and begins brandishing it. The younger one puts fists in the air and runs backwards while the older guy laughs and continues his work. Might be another consequence of Sparrow Rose’s murder, but honestly I can’t be sure. Verago people are made of taut nerves, sinewy muscle with a pinch of spite spicing the whole thing up.

More men, dressed in suits bulging in all the wrong places, move languidly across the street to the more opulent part of town. That’s my side of the car. The buildings even have little angels leaning on the topmost windows. Shadows render them menacing, chubby faces poised atop their tiny fists, staring down with gazes that look more demonic than carefree.

Heartnell parks by a concrete cube bordered with a wrought iron fence. The spikes glimmer cold silver in the morning sun. Gods, I still hate them.

“Looks more like a prison than a school,” he says as we get out.

“Felt like it too.”

We cleave through a gaggle of students who are all smoking ten kinds of crap. Between them and the main entrance is the Old Ellis bust, a head taller then Sarge, its hair sleek against the skull, the cheekbones high and thick, which only makes his fat lips look bigger.

Old Ellis was youngish when he got this statue – there’s not a single wrinkle marring his face. He gave a lot of cash to Tiha Academy, even taught a class or two. Or so the story goes. Not many talk about him, but there are rumours he locked himself in the Ellis Mansion attic and tried to harness wild magic. Whatever it was, he ended a mad man doing the jig.

Heartnell passes the bust in a loop wider than necessary. His father was a cop when Ellis was hanged, so it’s not surprising Sarge twists his mouth in something between a line and a pout when he passes it by.

When I was at school, we stroked Ellis’ nose for good luck. Half-rotten bits of paper are nestled in the statue’s dimple now. Must be a new joke. I pick some out, revealing a perfectly round crater on the bust’s chin. Whoever made this had a very poor idea of what a dimple looked like.

Inside the building, it’s cold and damp and smothering. The air is laden with a scent of rotting wood, the wall panelling so ancient I wonder if it’ll crumble if I touch it. So, no change there. I still think the cleaning people pluck the worms out at night. Heartnell scrunches his face as if he licked a lemon slice. Long, harrowing faces etched in the woodwork follow us as we advance through deserted halls towards Zora’s office. I flip the collar of my coat to shield myself. It’s like the damned things are cheering for us to fail. Tiha’s one of those places where you feel all the weight of the world whether you want it or not.

Heavy walnut doors slide open ten steps ahead of us. How typical. Always so eager to impress a Keyless. Good old Sarge only furrows his brows and waltzes inside.

Zora’s leaned over one of her plants. A gigantic, fleshy thing, it moves one of its vines to Zora’s cheek, curling over itself as if in pleasure, until Zora briskly slices its tip with a knife. The plant quivers, retreating its vine back under the blue petals spotted with orange stars. A sickly honey odour spreads across the room.

“It makes for the most wonderful tea, sergeant. Care for a cup?” She extends an open fist to reveal a desiccated leaf with a chunk of vine bleeding green.

Zora makes for an impressive sight, if you don’t know her. Her face is angular, like bones are gonna pop from her cheeks, with lips perpetually stretched taut in a line. You’d think she was a nice old lady with a prize-winning garden if it weren’t for her eyes. One is greenish, the other stares at nothingness. A film of cataracts renders it an immobile gem stuck in her skull. She would have perfect vision if she didn’t cast so many surveillance spells. I saw it only once – when she moulds another seeing tool, her blind eye looks a ball of cobwebs writhing with baby insects.

“Ah, well. You won’t mind if I have one.” She drops the leaf in one of three cups in the centre of her desk. Her skin’s so thin her veins are visibly curling over her knuckles, as if she was a river map. “Angela will surely join me.”

“You know why we’re here, Zora, so stop with this—” I gesture at the cups and her resplendent plant, “-performance.”

Zora clacks her tongue. “So full of spunk.”

She slips a hand in a deep pocket, then opens her fist above the burnished surface of the table and lets my knife drop with a loud clang. “Do you recognize this, bambina?”

“You. What the hells do you want from it?” The words barely seep through my teeth. It’s the goddamn knife the kid stole off me.

“You seem to be upsetting my partner, Elder Zora.” Sarge stands next to me, ostensibly relaxed, but the way he holds his neck says different.

“Partner? Hah! This one would get a rock to argue with her if you gave her enough time.” She takes a sip of tea and lets the cup clatter when she places back on the tray.

“Elder, we are not here for a cheap shiv. Please.” He gestures to the knife and then to me.

“We found your handiwork by the Gallows.” My voice turns deeper. The rat-king snatches my throat, pushing out what I want to say, instead of what I’m supposed to. My mind scrambles through ways to tame it, to dam it at least for a while, lest I begin twirling with a bread-knife in hand like Tommy. Focus, Ange.

“Of course,” Zora says. “You didn’t think I would allow the Rising, did you? But I see we are too late.” Her globe-shaped pendant swings so hard it hits her on the midriff. Her face flickers when she adjusts it in place, as though there is a layer of panic, maybe, under her coolness. I feel the urge to pounce at her.

Instead, I concentrate on the pendant. It’s a ball made of interlaced swirls than could be opened if its hinge weren’t rusted with age. While I was still at school there were rumours Zora kept the dust of the last dragon’s tooth in there. This would change by the week, with every new bout of drunkenness, to a goblin’s eye to screecher’s blood to a pair of fay wings.

I think it’s something much more personal. A curl of hair, for example. Once I almost found out. We were all drunk in our dorm when I got sick of all the guessing and promised to steal her damn necklace and solve the mystery once and for all. I never got farther than the threshold to her office. For a week I would wake up with snakes for hair and when Zora saw me she would smile an impish smile and tut at me. What that also taught me was that my old mentor doesn’t touch her pendant for nothing. She is more frightened than she wants me to know.

“With all due respect, Elder Zora, I need an explanation,” Heartnell has one hand on his gun, the other balled by his side. He’s beside me, and the gun so close. Zora wouldn’t lie about the Rising. Though I can’t believe her. My palms itch for attack, but I need to focusfocusfocus.

“Another one of your experiments gone wrong, Zora? Is that it?” I ask her, my jaw so stiff it’s a miracle I managed to speak at all.

Zora regards me for what feels like hours. “I sewed her mouth hoping it would hinder the Rising. However, I did not kill one of our students.”

“Bullshit,” I pat my Key. The only reaction I get from her is a twitch, like a sneer, and that makes it all the harder to do this civilly. If Sarge weren’t here–

Heartnell shifts his weight, as if unsure of what the hells is going on. “Unless you prove it, Elder, we’ll have no choice but–”

“To arrest me, yes.” She nods to me. “Care to explain, Angela? You’ve always had a talent for memorization.”

“Just like the movies, Sarge. If she stuffed Rose’s mouth and killed her, her blood will be sucked into the objects. We’ll see who made the Rising.”

I extract the sample from the satchel, spill the beaks and petals on her burnished table, and grab my knife. It’s cool on my palm, crackling with possibilities, the rat-king tempting me to stab Zora’s webbed eye.

“I don’t trust the movies,” he says, still standing in place.

“Trust me.” I slice Zora’s palm open. She doesn’t even wince. “Your amulet works, right?”

“Sure. But that’s different.”

“Fear not, sergeant.” Zora gazes at her wound, her webbed eye twirling, until it’s as though I’d never touched her. The knife falls to the table with a dull, heavy sound. “Though she carries destruction with her, Angela is educated.”

The puddle of Zora’s blood writhes. Slowly, a rivulet arises and undulates to the beaks. Scarlet waves lap at the white bones, crumpling the rose petals between them until they are nothing but tiny balls, like they’ve never been inside Rose’s mouth, like the birds never died and dragged another young magician to the depths of hell. The poor girl didn’t deserve this.

“Wasn’t her, Sarge. But she can cooperate.” Wild magic, the rat-king inside me, burrows deeper in my bones. “You owe me, Zora. As much as I owe you.”

“Maribelle.” Her stature remains rigid. A damn talking statue. “A fine student in possesion of the most brilliant mind. That is the girl you found at the source.”

“Source?” Heartnell asks.

“The Gallows,” she answers as if to a child. “The rip is widening there.”

Blue gleams from my satchel. The charm–Lou must be moving. It fades quickly, though. Too quickly, as though someone’s stopped it. Lou doesn’t know how, which only means he must be trapped, with the people who started this shitshow. “Get on with it, Zora.”

“You,” she says, her pointy chin raised toward me. “Simply put, the trail leads to you.”

The rat-king tickles my chest. I cannot react. “Bullshit. Her Key was carved out, mine’s just fine.”

“Not exactly.” Zora places the cup back on the table as her plant creeps toward her fingers. It vines seem to be swollen and longer. She’d always been arrogant, eager to flaunt her powers. “You bear a warning seal. I am surprised you can do charms at all. Has she told you this, Sergeant Heartnell?”

Sarge is somewhere behind me, his footsteps heavy thuds and pounding in my head like a funerary knell. “Enough,” I scream out and my voice is foreign to me.

“Ange, what is she talking about?” He clasps my shoulder, but I slide away, snatching the knife off the table and launching it to Zora. I miss for only a fraction. Her webbed eye twirls–I can’t be sure if she moved away. All elders have tricks up their sleeves, and Zora has most of them.

“Angela is missing a part of her soul ever since her trip to the Interweave, an incident during her time here. Can you see it, sergeant? Wild magic blackening her veins.”

I push down something bitter. “I’m not Merlin.”

“No. Yet books have gone missing from our library. Rare ones, at that. Are you aware of Lou, sergeant?”

“Old guy with a lab,” he says from close behind me. I can only guess at what Sarge looks like. Knowing him, his face is a stone mask, covering all emotion. Maybe his eyes glisten a bit more, maybe his hands are fisted by his sides. I don’t know.

“Precisely. I assume you wanted yourself healed, Angela. You would need a place to work, an accomplice. Who better than a gullible keyless?”

“No.” Lou is absolutely harmless, his only charm of any importance was infusing bread with a taste of boiled cabbage. And even that made my tongue itchy and swollen for days. No–Lou might be too curious for his own good, but he was taken over like the rest of them, albeit strangely.

I admit it was odd that he barely spoke, and his eyes and the limp because Lou is not a clumsy person. Probably too ashamed of his failure to talk to me, at least tonight. An unpleasant thought emerges from my haze–the frayed collar, were those simple strings?

Zora clutches at her pendant. “I admit I may have made a mistake, allowing such a spell to risk you falling in Interweave. Perhaps,” she sneers at me, “my mistake was getting you out. Perhaps a soul-lacking person doing magic is enough to set the Rising in motion.”

I reach for the ready-mades in my pocket when Heartnell’s voice booms across the room, warning me to stop. I stop rummaging, but keep my hand in the pocket.

“How possible is that, exactly?” Heartnell asks and I can tell he is no longer sure about anything. Sarge is stony in both movement and face, but I know. This is Hearnell hiding the way he thinks. I’ve seen it, I’ve helped it happen.

Behind his collected voice he’s making an inventory of my suspicious behaviours since we’ve found Sparrow Rose–from losing my breath at the scene to reminding him of Peggy to my blackened veins. The sight of me now must be a nightmare. My fingers search for a ready-made. I won’t have a chance to get away unless I act soon. I have to get to Lou. I won’t be responsible for another ruined life.

“Sergeant, she will need to be examined,” Zora commands. “We have made you a holding cage, yes? I suggest you use it while we deal with the rip, and find Lou.”

“Angela has a charm on him, we can—”

“I can see that, sergeant. And a useless one at that. However, I have one that works,” her eye lights up blue. “Angela’s very existence, the way in which she breathes magic, is a danger to us. Look out the window.”

Heartnell walks over and glances outside. His neck tenses up, even from a distance I can see the little vein on his temple bulging out. “Blood. Abandoned car. People on the ground.”

I don’t need to see his face to know he’s convinced. Both Zora and Heartnell want me imprisoned.

“In 48 hours, the effect of the Rising will spread to surrounding countries,” Zora’s staring at me with that damn swirling eye. “We have no time.”

I don’t know what’ll come out of my mouth, so I bite down my lip to keep them shut. Zora is standing between me and Heartnell. Her vine is following her movements like a puppy, one tendril is already too close to my foot.

I have to make sure Lou’s okay. Poor old sod has nothing to do with this. The rat-king patters its legs against my sternum and it’s all I can do not to explode in rage.

“Go to hell.” I’m not sure if I said this–or if it sounded like a growl or a hiss–all I know my throat felt as narrow as a drinking straw.

I grab a ready-made and hurl it to Heartnell. That’s enough to freeze him for a while. I stagger to Zora, but her damn plant curls around my foot. A sharp pain then, and my ankle goes numb. I fall, my arms flailing for support.

“You held such promise, Angela,” Zora walks over to me, her blind eye coalescing in webs, flicking blue then yellow then pearl white.

I have to get up. My Key pulsates like it’s not my skin, the rat-king coils around my neck, spreading throughout my body until it reaching the spot where Zora’s plant pierced my skin. In a moment, the vine blackens, disintegrated in dust. I shake off the remaining numbness from my feet then clamber up.

Zora does not get a chance to react. I give her a kick in the stomach–that’s the trouble with Elders, they don’t think to use anything other than magic–then dig out another ready-made and freeze her too. I bought myself a small advantage. I take the car keys from Sarge.

As I sprint out, I hum Gianna’s favourite song until I feel the rat-king release my windpipes. The melody burns too, but in all different places, in a spot rat-king can’t reach.

I’m sorry, Frank, but I can’t have this again. It can’t be my fault.

 

 

Seven 

The sun is a ball of menace burning the sky blue. Splotches of cloud have dissipated from their normal sheepish texture into melted wax, dripping between the outlines of matchbox buildings scattered across the horizon. I wipe the sweat off my head with the heel of my palm and march to the car, keeping my head down. The rat-king is hungry. It’s heavier, like Hindenburg’s tethered to my ribs.

I jump over a boy no older than eighteen with a neck bent to a corner. A few steps farther I have to step over a girl whose brain is boiling on the asphalt. Verago’s giving in to the whispers it hears in the middle of the night when no one’s watching. Its conscience has never been louder than a mouse, but now wild magic’s got it tied to a chair with lips taped shut and a hot gun that’s seconds from blowing it to high heavens. The Rising has begun.

Cigarette in mouth, I flick my lighter. Nothing happens. I flick it again, two more times. The metal stares back blankly. I just need to catch a breath, just a little while.

“Gods damn you.”

I hold the cigarette between my teeth when I see a familiar figure running toward one of the tottering two-stories. She’s dressed in a grey suit, brandishing a gun in one hand, a club in another.

I yell for Smiley Val and walk toward her. We meet on the curb across Heartnell’s car. I ask for a light and she gives one to me.

“Do me a favour for old times sake, yeah?” I give her one of my best pleading smiles.

“Last time you asked me that, you lingered at my place for a month.” Her scar’s a strip of pearl shimmering in the light and I think of the time I traced it with my fingers while she slept. A twist of her eyebrow can still make my knees quiver.

And what if I fail? What if Lou and Sarge and Zora end up dead? I could leave with Val. Wait it out. Leave the guilt to bite me to bits until there’s nothing left of me. I shake my head. I can’t do that. I can only warn Val.

“Val, this is bad. And your tenants,” I nod to one of the two-stories, “You better worry about all those goons who know where your guns are.”

“I’m not leaving them to the street. Never fucking again.” There’s lightning in her eyes, like a momma bear guarding her young. Smiley Val takes pride in her one and only kindness.

I let the smoke uncurl from my nostrils. “If you see Lou, just—” I hesitate then, remembering what Lou did back at the parlour. He might be–no, he is dangerous. Maybe more dangerous than I give him credit for.

A frail little man who occasionally dips his toes in magic. Lou’s no mastermind, he’s just odd. Lou would never–

The buttonhole right in the middle of his chin. Old Ellis and the dimple on the bust filled with papers, the tilt and top of his head, one I’ve seen before on a face I trusted. I was stupid not to see the family resemblance.

The way Lou spoke back at his place. That was not frayed fabric around his neck, those were blackened veins. Zora mentioned rare books missing. Lou “a gullible keyless,” and it was perfect, playing a lost little man. Lou played me.

The thought echoes in my mind and my gut suddenly drops to my heels.

It’s Lou. Gods damn it, it’s always been Lou.

Is he Old Ellis’s kid? The similarities are too many to be a coincidence, especially the dimple, which I know runs in families, his interest in magic too. If Lou is a keyless and a relation of Old Ellis, he is definitely not as harmless as I thought.

Shit.

Gunshots resound the alley from behind us. Val’s gun is smoking and a troll of a man is face down on the asphalt.

“What do you want?” She snaps at me.

“Thanks for the light,” I tell her, shrugging and turning to make my way.

“One of these days it’s gonna be your snout eating gravel, Ange,” she yells after me.

I flinch as a picture of me slashing Val’s jaw flashes in my mind. “I’ll make sure it’s not today then.” Damn it, Val, despite everything, you still make me see sense in the world.

I crack my neck, slap the Key hard and sit myself in the cop car.

Wild magic plunged its yellow talons into Verago and the longest one is wrapped around my ribs.

 

 

Eight

I have no idea where Lou is and all I can do is forage for clues like a starved raccoon. I stop the car in front of Lou’s parlour and jump out, leaving it free for grabs. No point in locks any more.

Inside I see only a stream of almost-black liquid on the floor. The usual clutter is dampened where the blood bent to fill the hollows of the floor. From beneath the broken toad, strips of red lead to a puddle by the splintered door. I have no time to think of the officers. No time to imagine them rasping for air while vestiges of their lives flutter away.

Pieces of rope on the floor. Dead things. I make my way down the rickety ladders to Lou’s lab, tying a scarf around my mouth and nose to lessen the heavy stench of formaldehyde and damp fur.

It’s a narrow space, not much wider than the length of my outstretched arms. I need to bow my head to move and walk crablike if I don’t want to break anything. The walls are covered with books, lined on shelves that stretch from the ceiling to my waist. There they meet with a wooden table, etched with writings and scratches. Books are scattered all over, cracked open and their insides underlined in blue and red, squiggly lines in the margin which I can only suppose are of Lou’s making.

I lift one book to my eyes, its dusty smell crushing the cloth border between us and I retch. I can barely see in the muted light of one lone bulb hanging on a chain, but it’ll do. There’s nothing in the blasted thing. It’s a book of theory we’d used in Tiha, and judging by the exclamation marks in the margins, Lou didn’t agree with the pillars of our teachings. I drop the book back on the table. I never liked Thornebud’s gibberish either.

So. There might still be a chance I’m wrong about Lou. Somehow I doubt it.

I trace my fingers along decanters brimful with dirt and expensive white sand, a pair of glass bowls one of which holds a decapitated raven’s head, its eyes unnaturally bright. The other is packed with skipping stones and wet cloth. The rat-king sends me a vision of Lou’s bowels falling to the mud. I do my best to ignore it while my shadow leaps in shapes I do not recognize. It twists to incomprehensible shapes, blurs, then snaps back to my shape except it has two heads. I can’t do a damn thing about it now, no matter how satisfying it would be to stab at it.

Among the fairly innocuous books–The Comprehensible History of Magic, Runes for Domestic Purposes, Collected Legends 958-1765–there is one that intrigues me.

A photo album. Except there are no photos left, not whole anyway. I flip the pages to the back. On the inner cover is a carefully drawn family tree, branching in marriages, deaths, births and illegitimate children. The opposite page holds a single photograph. A man with a stiff beard gazes straight into the camera. Hollow cheeks are obscured by wisps of hair clinging to his face, the beard–wild and dark and tangled, matted in places–falls over his chest. His eyes are scratched out in manic, furious streaks that broke through to the cardboard which is now peering from this man’s skin. Like he was flayed and instead of a skull, there is a void, staring out. This is Old Ellis himself.

My Key thumps. I take a closer look at the family tree, not bothering to quiet the rat-king.

Evelyn Ellis, who’s connected to Tristan Poole with a thick black line. A couple of generations later come Lenka and her brother, Lucius. Lenka and Old Ellis, I tap their names, the siblings who came looking for great power, believing Verago was special or some bull like that. Lucious got it into his head Merlin was speaking to him and spent the rest of his days locked in his study, scribbling notes and performing magic that once turned half the city into cats in mating season, I think, which is how he ended up the last man on the gallows. His notes were supposed to be burnt, but they never found them.

The only other thing I can remember is that Lenka’s child was born a mute – a semi-formed good-for-nothing Key that left him incapable of magic and the black sheep of the family. The poor kid could only ever do parlour tricks. And I know for a fact Lenka, or her husband, punished him by putting his palms over an open fire. Or maybe they hoped it would trigger the Key to growth, but somehow I don’t think they were kind people.

I follow the line to the bottommost name, the nephew: William Lucious Ellis.

Or, as I know him, Lou.

Lou must’ve thought patching a Key on his skin would cure him. So he tried to carve Mirabelle’s key off, obviously killing her in the process. I assume he then stitched her Key to his body. Maybe Lou snapped after so many years, and me prancing around him, showing off my magic. But this isn’t just about me. Gods damn it, Lou, you’ll kill us all.

How could I have been so stupid to allow, to bloody help, a man who has Ellis magic in his veins? Old Ellis’ game of Telephone is all gods-be-damned-to-hell true–silent for everyone but for his own blood. All this time he’s been summoning his descendants. Saliva gathers on my tongue, but I stop myself from spitting. I don’t know much, but I do have something. It’s all true. Proven to be true by a soggy photo album.

I hurl the book to the wall, dizzied by this whole mess. Nothing in here can tell me where Lou’s run off to.

The only thing I can do is a tag.

I grab the photo album again, then sprinkle a fistful of white sand in a shape of a circle over all the trash on the floor. There’s dead cockroaches on there, specks I suspect are mice crap, crumpled papers, ashes and a curious patch of wet floor I don’t dare come near to.

When the circle’s done, I throw the Ellis book inside. I place my satchel on one of the tables, remove my coat, and straighten the wrinkles on my shirt.

Now or never, Ange, and it better be now.

With my fingers tapping the Key in the proper beat, I whisper the old tongue. It’s difficult remaining calm, but I do my best imagining a deep, shimmering lightness. I step into the circle.

Lou’s crummy basement dissipates into a curtain of billowing lights. Hues of red and periwinkle and a gleaming orange of melted iron stream to the floor. Almost ready. I grab Lou’s Ellis book from the floor – now swathed in a gun muzzle black – with one hand, the other I curl into a half-opened fist and push inside the orange streak.

I trace several runes inside the light, enough to form a question. A soft, silky string undulates over the pads of my fingers.

Pricks and pins sprint through my body. I suppress a painful shiver when they reach my left eye. This would be my price–blindness for sight, like Zora. My Key stretches across my chest, hurting, rendering my skin taut to the point I think it’ll crack like dry mud when I breathe. If I breathe. I scream, my grip tight on the string.

Broken bones, shattered skulls and burning limbs are speeding in my head, as though they were a carousel spinning faster, faster, faster. I keep my fist around the string, tugging it out, until it’s nestled inside my palm, squirming as if it was alive. I swallow a dry lump.

Nauseous and half-blind, I split the string with my longest fingernail. I tie one on the book, the other to my silver-tipped boot. All that’s left is to say the words and I’ll know the smallest move Lou dares make.

Looking at the shimmering display around me, it seems like everything will be all right. Inside the shine, if I tilt my head and squint, I can almost see figures waltzing along the strings. I know they’re happy–they must be, how they kick their feet up and flail their arms up and above and beside their elongated bodies.

Gianna beckoning to a gaggle of friends with whom she would dance and run and laugh. It’s been so long since I heard her laugh. I know she doesn’t want to see me. I let tears roll down my cheeks.

I open my mouth to finish the tag with a lockin, and then there are running footsteps and everything goes black.

 

 

Nine

When I wake up, nothing hurts, which is odd. I blink away the bleariness and realise both my eyes are working. Obviously – I failed to finish the tag. I have no idea where Lou is and nobody knows he’s gone slap-happy with Maribelle’s Key grafted to his own skin.

I curse loudly. The room I’m in is a metal cupboard of sorts. I barely have the room to stand up and when I stretch my arms my fingertips brush against the walls. There is no toilet, no chairs, no bed, save for a heap of threadbare blankets crumpled in one corner. The air is thick and musty, the only light inside comes from a small rectangular window that looks out to a brick wall. What a lovely view.

Another odd thing–the rat-king stays silent. Just like the bump I’m supposed to have on my head, it is simply not there. To test it, I try to provoke it–I think about hurting Lou. I think about stomping on Zora’s necklace. I imagine the look in Sarge’s eyes when I mention Peggy Sue.

No sign of rat-king. Not even my throat feels tighter. I move my arms about, checking if my chest or Key will flinch or twitch or anything of the sort. No, nothing.

I unbutton my shirt with all the hopeful intention to inspect it and find the black rat-king welt completely gone, pinkened to a scar. This does not happen. Of course it bloody doesn’t. What I see jammed inside my flesh, just beside the Key, is a brass plate the size of my palm. Its surface is covered with runes, some larger than others, as though the writing was sentences and paragraphs. A combination of runes this large is almost impossible. But not for all. Zora isn’t an elder for nothing.

I rebutton the shirt, conveniently emptied of all my ready-mades, and glare at the cell. So they got me. Zora must have known where I’d go first. Hopefully, she managed to untangle all my runes from the ready-made and unfreeze Heartnell too, before any real damage was done. Tiha, I hope she did. The temptation to crumble to the floor is getting stronger by the second.

I need to get out of this cell. Fighting the metal is pointles –whatever I throw at it, it’ll only boomerang back at me, along with the physical price of magic. But if I made a door on the floor…Knowing Zora, that would probably make one of my calves grow hinges and open to the bottom of a swamp, quickly filling up the cell with mud and sewer water.

The only other option is to overpower her magic. And to do that, I need a large gap in the metal. Like an open door.

“You alive in there?” It’s a melodious voice with only a suggestion of many cigarettes smoked in its background. Georgia would’ve made a great singer if she wasn’t as tone-deaf as a roasted canary. I look up and there she is, little ravines between her brows and a pair of eyes so amber they might as well be yellow.

“Why’s that? So you could jab me with a knife through that excuse of a window?”

She snorts then and says, “Yeah, you got that right.” She turns her back to the door, giving me a sight of her neck and some stray brown curls.

I tear the seams off the side of my shirt. Enough space to put my hand through and curl my fingers under the brass plate. I have to let wild magic overcome me if I want to get out of here. I’ll have to let the rat-king have a taste, make it hungry. Tiha save me, I don’t want to do this.

“I coulda been lounging in the sun if it weren’t for you,” Georgia continues.

I dig my nails deeper between metal and flesh.

“You should see me with a tan,” Georgia keeps talking.

“You mean shrivelled like a prune?”

When she doesn’t answer, I ask her about Zora and Heartnell.

“Zora did her magic thing and got her hand shattered. Sergeant Heartnell seems to be all right.” I can feel her biting on her teeth even behind the metal wall. “People like you should be left to rot.”

“Without magic, Heartnell would be a vegetable. So you want our dear Sarge dead, do you? Thinking of a promotion so soon, Georgia?” The brass plate is loose. The pain twists and turns under my fingers, sending jolts all over my body. I do my best to keep my voice a level, cold tone.

“Magic’s fine by me.”  Her voice is snakes ready to pounce. “It’s you I have a problem with.”

I jam my fingers deeper. Flesh splits with a wet sound, blackness spills in jagged lines I can feel thumping, pulsing against my heart, pumping my body with viscous black bile. Warmness trickles down my ribs. I ask about Shaun’s funeral.

She slams her fist on the cell door, the bang reverberating in the small space. “Death will be a relief after I’m done with you.” Ah, so the wild magic inside me acts this fast. Already grabbing Georgia.

Rat-king’s tails coil themselves around my vocal cords. I gasp for air and yank the brass plate with one, hard pull that sends my hand over my head. I let it drop and the brass clangs on metal like a lover’s last words.

What comes out of my mouth would fit a hyena. “Come now, Georgia. Everybody knows you’re no good. How many times have you dropped your gun? How many mugs fooled you and you couldn’t run fast enough to catch them? We all know you’re no cop.”

The rat-king is free, so close to a keyless I’m half-scared it’ll crush Georgia. Half-scared, because the big, bad and ugly is flowing through my meat too. All I need her to do is open the goddamn door.

The door slams open with a force that would shame the biggest goon in Smiley Val’s arsenal. Georgia is shaking all over, her gun pulled out and aimed between my eyes. Her jaw is straight, but those eyes are bent to tears and greyness. “Bird-shit magician.” She spews more insults, her hand uncertain.

She flinches at the sight of me. Her gaze darts to the heavy door and back. I assume I am not a pretty sight. Blood and bile streaming down my clothes, black veins webbing my skin, twisting around themselves.

“Should’ve kept the door locked.” I grin.

My body is not my own anymore. My head nods and her gun is in my hand, still warm and slick with her sweat. This is more magic than possible. “How’s Verago? In flames now, I expect.”

She opens her mouth, but then nods in reply. Her feet are glued to the floor, she’s a scared little thing torn between running for her life or doing what she was trained to do. Wild magic petrified her to stone.

My feet carry me toward her and I push the gun to her forehead.

We stand for what seems like eternity. I blink hard to keep the rat-king away. Bile rises in my throat and I cover my mouth with my free hand, the other still curled around the trigger.

In my mind, I see Gianna picking flowers and throwing them at her big sister. War, play war, she would screech in her tiny, childish voice and I’d pretend to be dead until I made her sob and hug me better. I feel her skin against mine, and the tails loosen for a hairsbreadth.

“Georgia, he–Shaun was a right guy,” I whisper over the rat-king’s tails.

I lurch around her and go on my way when my hand jerks upright before I have a chance to react and my finger twitches.

Georgia crumbles to the floor. A blunt thump hits my ears.

The gun slips through my fingers. I have to get the plate back. I have to walk over Georgia’s body and pick up the only thing that can slow down wild magic and its rat-king inside of me.

I breathe – quickly, heavily, humming Gianna’s song to give me strength – dragging my feet back to the cell. I might be howling. I might be in pain. None of these things matter.

A pool of blood spreads under Georgia’s shoulder. The sight of a nonfatal wound propels me further inside and I snatch Zora’s brass plate back from the floor.

A crack in the metal cage, radiating hot white light, reveals itself the moment I pick it up. I haven’t seen the void since my student days. They’re hazy now, as though I was inspecting the memory though a window smeared with soot.

I remember an argument, Zora’s wicked eye staring down at me. I remember exhaustion. I assume it was a particularly bad day–Zora had tried to correct all the runes I learnt by instinct, which made me look stupid. I had no excuse for making mistakes suitable for a girl who’d just developed her Key–I felt thirteen, instead almost eighteen. There was shame. Later, fury. When Zora dismissed my class with a nod that said more than a speech soaked with disappointment, I raked at my forearms so hard beads of blood began to swell on my skin.

I decided to show her who I could be. I’d made a circle, dug both my arms in the billowing lights, ignoring the pain plunging into the tiny wounds like fire streaming through my pores. I felt space shake, but I didn’t let go of the knots of string I had clutched in my fists.

Next, I was curled on my side in whiteness. Dipped in a pool of wild magic, I don’t know how long I was trapped in Interweave. Finally, Zora’s voice whirled around me, with clear instructions to trade a piece of soul for my escape. I did. Barely, but I did. I hadn’t the time to recover – I was promptly expelled and my Key transformed to scars. Zora hadn’t even looked at me. I was dung on the road, left to dry.

I shove the brass plate deep in my pocket, expelling a huff of angry air at both the crack and the unwelcome memory.

Silently, I exit the cell and follow where the wild magic leads me. I know it’ll guide me to the source of the rip, the Gallows. I don’t want to admit Lou will be there, though he must be, if he is responsible. No more excuses, Ange, no more.

I jostle my way through the ever growing crowd of sweaty, hungry bodies on the streets. Men, women and children are keeling, laughing, yelling victory, revenge or love, high to the skies which are nothing but a sheet of incandescent blue. Their shadows are inconsistent, changing from large splotches to packs of beetles to birds to beasts. A two-story is on fire. A shadow dances in one of the windows, its arms raised like it was holding a partner.

I tighten the grip on the brass plate. Rat-king writhes beneath my sternum. My entire torso is leaden and hollow at the same time. I lean on a deserted car and vomit. The bile hits the driver’s door, and hisses as the steel corrodes. Tiha knows what it’s doing to my body.

I wipe the spit off, and after I’m settled in the seat, jumpstart the car and speed to Gallows Lane. The car jumps as I drive over at least dozen bumps. I can only hope they were wreckage, but the rat-king in my chest sniggers and tell me all of them had once been alive. I feel its hunger churning, the Key thumping in its rhythm. I clasp my hands around the wheel until my knuckles whiten. I swirl the car out of St Adora Square, rushing towards Oneka Street which would take me through the old factory districts to the street parallel to the Gallows.

The car jolts again as I pass by a frenzied crowd of people, seemingly preparing for a fight. One of the men has a gash from the bottom of his hand to the curve of his shoulder. Audible over the sounds of chaos, their chants drum in a hollow beat, filling up the car as I drive by. Gods be damned.

 

 

Ten

I sprint toward two figures nearest the brightness of the gallows, just below the steps of the monument. Behind them, whiteness–whiteness as hot as a frying pan, as blinding as if the sun came down to burns us, as a million lightbulbs aiming at my eyes, my gods, the whiteness.

The figure a step closer to it is Heartnell, his arms up, he must have a gun. The lower figure’s gleaming, its shine equal to the whiteness behind Sarge. It’s Lou, with two interlaced strings coming out of his ankle and rising through the sky, vanishing inside one of the buildings. They’re taut, swaying only when Lou advances up to Heartnell, vibrating as they wind themselves around streetlights and over cars, over the crowd that’s gathered around the sight. On the string’s other side must be Zora. I could bet my life she’s in that building, her body shivering inside a screetcher-teeth circle. Zora knew where to go, she must have led everybody here.

I scream for Lou but there’s only wailing and laughing and a rip like flesh tearing wetly under a carving knife. I push my way through the crowd. Packs of them are holding hands, chanting the same chant like the man with the gash on his arm. Others look up at the rip in the world, their mouths agape and drool lolling from their lips. I have no time for this.

I elbow them away and let the rat-king squeeze my cords, rip my mouth open. I yell for Lou in the black tones of a crypt long forgotten by its minders. He flinches and turns his head just for a second. Sarge jerks his hands, but the gun doesn’t fire. Before he can do anything else, Lou has him by the waist and is pushing him up the steps to the fake gallows where the whiteness is brightest. Heartnell’s body goes limp.

At the foot of the stairs, Lou and I pause, regarding each other. The light makes shadows twirl on Lou’s face and it’s only now I realise that he’s only fifty pounds away from being Old Ellis’ exact copy. The whites of his eyes are a vicious red.

“Leave him,” I say in a language of fire and beasts.

The rat-king rakes at my sternum. I feel its talons break skin and blood begins gushing from my side. I tighten the grip around Zora’s plate. Not yet.

Lou grins at me. He glances down to his leg, where Maribelle’s Key flaps frantically. It was the shape of a boat. One of the strings emerges from the topmost sail, the other from under the patch of Maribelle’s skin, from the inside of Lou’s maimed Key. Lou keeps grinning. He cocks his head to the side and takes a step back.

The whiteness swallows Heartnell’s hand and what I hear coming out of his mouth terrifies me more than the rip behind the Gallows. It seems lower now, almost reaching the ground.

“Stop,” I command Lou and throw my body onto his. We fall onto the boiling ground and Heartnell rolls away from us. A hissing sound pierces the air.

I loosen my fingers from Zora’s plate, both letting and willing the rat-king to wash over me. The shock of falling to the ground gave me enough time to use Zora’s plate on Lou’s strings – only a fraction of a second and its edge breaks them from Lou’s leg. Wherever Zora is, whatever she’s been doing, it ended now.

Lou shivers in short little spurts like the bastard’s laughing. I dig my free hand into his flesh, my nails going deep.

Then I push our bodies into the rip, back into Interweave.

 

 

Eleven

 I am the whiteness. I am the rip spreading across the sky to shelter Verago with my wings. I am the rat-king, shining as if I was a dying star. I have my hands on the little man, my tails wrapped around his neck, my claw sinking in his blood.

The brass plate is in my hand. It slithers half-way inside the hill of my palm, sending warmth and calm and chains.

The little man–Lou–is no man. His skull is made of paper and scrolls. His skin held together with notes about spells and charms and transformations. His mind is writings in shaky lettering. There are spells there, runes unknown since the fall of Merlin. Lou is no more than a pile of papers made of flesh. Lou is Old Ellis’ nephew and a paperdoll, barely human. The crazies were right all along–Old Ellis did keep talking, but only to Lou.

Lou crackles, spreading in a pool of smoke until it too dissipates in white. I am in the Interweave, alone.

Zora’s plate burrows deeper with crackle. I scream, though I hear nothing.

A voice, an old one calls Ange, Angela, Ange, are you okay? A sharp pain runs over my shoulder, it bolts to my mouth and eyes and nose and I hear my name and it’s Sarge, calling for me. I swear loudly.

“That’s my girl!” Heartnell’s voice comes muffled.

“Step away, sergeant.” Another voice, hoarse and full of pride. Zora. “We are not done here.”

“Listen to the lady, old man,” I yell back, my throat sore.

I cough hard. Again and again, until I’m on my knees holding onto nothing. The plate travels further up my palm until only its corner’s visible. When I’m done retching, I tear the seams of my blouse and plunge a fist inside my flank, right next to the Key.

There are noises and dull pain, then finally my fingers grasp the rat-king and I yank it out. Looks like a ready-made charm except I know it’s a clot of wild magic. Almost immediately, it vanishes into white.

Voices come from somewhere above, or around, or below.

“We can restore your arm, but if we fail to do this now—”

“Zora. You cannot leave her in there.”

What follows are more curses, bickering and raised voices. I can’t say I care. I yell to Sarge to let Zora do her job. Whatever else they say, it doesn’t reach me.

I pull myself on my feet and will them to star walking away from the rip. Around me is whiteness, yet I feel the ground slope up, and the heaviness around my feet as though I was walking up a sand dune. My body has never felt this light.

I climb until the air cuts through my lungs like razors. I do not tire when I reach the top, far above the gallows and the voices and the world.

I pause to pluck Zora’s plate out of my hand. It slides out easily as though I was a ghost. I collapse alongside it, allowing my eyes to burn and wet my face. I gulp at the air like I was suffocating. The whiteness cloaks me, and, finally, when my knees are at my chest, I decide this is the place where I oughtta be.

“War, war, war!”

My eyes blink the Interweave into sharpness. Where is that chimy voice?

Gianna wraps her little arms around my neck. The weight of her body is slight, but for me it’s no less than two tonnes of steal. She’s leaned on my back and all I can do is pat her on the arm. I want to say – I can’t find the words.

So I trace two runes with my hands, one of which glistens red, the other marred with grime. Two puppets appear, more truthful than any I have ever made. The right one twirls while flame licks at her legs, the most marvellous of dresses in countless hues of red. The left glides around it, the mud swirling in patterns so that you never know if she’s facing this way or that, whether the line on its waist is straight or if it’s etched into waves and mermaids.

Gianna squeals in delight. I stop a sob from escaping.

None of this is true. Gianna is an adult, far away from any harm I can bring her. But I can pretend, at least for a while.

I make our dancers somersault into the air like trapeze artists with all their faith placed into their partner’s arms. And Gianna giggles in delight and puts her little finger on my Key.

“You can take me home,” she says.

“I could,” I tell her.

The two dancers intertwine with each other, folding themselves into one, then growing rapidly, engorged by magic, by wish, by heart.

When I first did this, I wasn’t able to stop them. I had no skill then, no knowledge. Then my little sister burst into tears and our house came burning down. Gianna ended up with scaring along her back, an unnatural curve of the spine and daily pains. And I ran away.

Before, Gianna would clap her hands at my tiny dancers and clumsily imitate them. Often she would fall straight on her ass, then pout as if the floor purposely snagged at her feet. But this Gianna–this Gianna only squeals in delight. This is not her. This is not even a child. This is one of Old Ellis’s tricks. Old Ellis trying to tempt me to bring him out of the Interweave. I crush the dancing puppet.

With one hand I snatch up Zora’s brass plate, with the other I grab the little body and yank it in front of me. It takes me a second to open its mouth and push the plate deep inside the girl’s throat.

I close its mouth and nose, forcing it to swallow. Old Ellis got everything right, down to the scar above Gianna’s brow, but what’s in my arms now is more like a rabid starved dog than my kid sister.

The creature’s bellow spreads across the Interweave, rippling it around me. The little body grows translucent, then bursts into flashes of colour, crying runes and bits of spells and the sounds are so strong my eardrums vibrate, my ears buzz wildly. I still have my hands around the creature until it bursts one last time, then fades into the whiteness.

I spit at where it was, then clamber back up.

It’s done. Tiha help me, it’s done. The combination of the inside of Interweave and Zora’s plate was too strong for Old Ellis. Even if he’s not dead, he’ll be lost in here. I can only hope no other idiot gets smart enough to open the Interweave and go look for him.

For now Old Ellis is gone–forever or folded into the whiteness, I don’t give a damn. The important thing is he is not in Verago, nor anywhere else in the world. And I did it.

As I turn to leave, a dot of colour catches my eye. By my feet is a greenish thing, a skipping stone of some sort, that looks more like jade than a piece of Old Ellis, or Lou, his vessel of a nephew. When I touch it, it spreads warmth deep inside my bones. I give it a smile, knowing exactly what I’m supposed to do. I push the stone in the wound on my ribs and run back to the rip. My sight is like cobwebs, wet and blurry, but the legs know where to go. I run so fast I almost fly.

Zora and her people are close to stitching the rip up. The space I have left is getting increasingly smaller. I launch myself over, hoping to glide through.

When I open my eyes, there is a sky above me–periwinkle with a hint of cloud streaked across it, sailing over what’s left of the gallows. Cracked in half, the two pieces are folded over each other like two fingers crossed in promise. I bite down on my lips to stop a smile. Omens have never been reliable to magicians, we’re taught to mostly ignore them, but I couldn’t help it. The broken gallows show good things coming. The glorious sight is spoiled by a crushing pain in my ankle.

“Hey, Frank,” I croak. “Could you get a girl’s foot free?”

 

 

Twelve

A while later, I’m sitting on the steps of the plateau with my arms wrapped around my knees. The people in the square have reverted to their old selves–several figures collect trash, some rock themselves and cry, their wailing carried by the wind away from me. Children play hide and seek like nothing ever happened. I think I even see Smiley Val peer from the shadows. Here is where I chuckle. In spite of the wreckage, my Key half-opened and pulsing in a raw, dull pain, I can smile. I got the piece of my soul back. The greenish skipping stone nestled in my side ripples, and as it does, I feel it stitch back the bit of soul – slowly, but surely.

This time, I did not burn this house down. I kept it whole. I reached to the beams and held them in place.

Heartnell gives me a mug of hot coffee before he says somebody should see me. The coffee burns my tongue and I curse just as an old, wrinkled woman stands before me. A pendant in a shape of a ball hangs down to her waist. She looks like old leather now. I never knew she was so old. She must have expended enough magic for a lifetime.

“Zora?”

The little woman grabs her necklace and stares at me with her one remaining eye. The white one has lost its feathery webs, and now looks like a hard marble jammed inside her skull.

“Elder? Are you all right?” I ask, stupidly. There’s a flicker of recognition in her good eye, then she speaks.

“You did good, bambina.” She smiles. “I, however, will need a long vacation.” She gestures in a way that clearly points to the ravines on her face.

I don’t know what to say so I sit there with my mouth agape like an idiot. Fear crosses Zora’s face and she grabs the pendant again as if to guard it against a thief. I call her name, and she turns to me looking like a deer in headlights.

I know very well this is what the magic cost her. And when it attacks the mind, sense and logic may never come back.

Zora begins to shiver, so I introduce myself. I tell her it’s one fine necklace she’s wearing. This makes her relax and stretch her lips in a smile that makes her face look like she was staring into a dream. She leans close, the electric smell of magic and sweat and wet wool rushing to my nose, and opens her pendant.

Two figures flicker in and out of the air, as they move into an embrace. The taller one is a man in uniform. His ears turn redder and redder as he moves his arms around a young woman with hair the colour of night. I look at Zora, then back at the couple. So this is why her sight was gone. Not surveillance magic after all.

“John’s coming soon. We’re getting married,” Zora whispers to me.

She snaps the pendant closed, and slides her palms over her clothes to straighten them. “This is no time to be sentimental. As I said, I am in need of a vacation. During that time we shall need a suitable Elder. Considering what you have done, I will put you in charge of Tiha temporarily.”

“You want me to be -”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Angela. My colleagues will help you summon a council that will choose a suitable successor. This–” she gives the space behind me a scowl, “person and what he’s done, they’d taken my all.”

I keep my eyes on the coffee and nod.

“You have shown considerable skill, and you’ve managed to take back what’s yours from the Interweave, which has only been done once before. I shall allow you to finish your schooling.”

I jerk my head up and almost spit the coffee from my mouth. I force it to go down instead. Hells. School? With tests and nonsensical rules, tomes heavier than cinder blocks. Not to mention the kids–I’ll be an old lady to them. I suppress a shudder. I raise my eyebrows and nod in fake excitement.

Zora’s face flickers again, settling into a distorted grimace of fear. Her hands wrap themselves around the necklace again. In a very soft, albeit hoarse voice she says, “I told him it’s a good, right thing to go. When is he coming back? Where’s my John?”

Her head moves left and right, frantically looking for her fiancé until a pair of arms leads her gently away and Heartnell sits next to me with a grunt. My gaze follows Zora’s confused aged body while she’s lead to a car and driven away. Just before she sinks into her seat, she gives me one wicked wink. Or maybe it was just a glint of a streetlight, slowly turning itself on.

“Why the long face?” Sarge asks.

I let out a wry laugh and say nothing.

“It’s weakened, this whole thing.” He moves his hand in a circle. “Zora and I need–what did she call them–Spinners to keep it all under control.”

I blink at him. “What?”

He answers with a stomach-heavy laughter and only says, “It ain’t that difficult to understand, kid. Zora explained a lot. And I was thinking.” He shrugs. “I should learn a thing or two about magic. Maybe I study it. The theories and all.”

“You?”

“It ain’t half as hard.” He pats me on the knee with his good hand. The other one’s shrivelled to the thinnest wail of skin covering bone, torn in more places than I can count, with welts of blood and meat edged with charred skin. I clutch the mug tighter and hide my face in it.

“Is Georgia okay?” I murmur.

I want to say more, I want to explain what I had to do, and I want to tell him all about Gianna, but the words melt on my tongue. When they reached Gallows Lane, Zora and Sarge must have known what I had to do.

“We got a healer. Georgia’s as good as new, but under mandatory house rest. She almost bit my head off at that.” He laughs then and adds, “Happy to have her home saved from the rip, too. You did what you had to do, kid.”

“But if I stayed inside, if I didn’t–”

“I’d be short a friend.”

I turn my face to him and there is worry spreading over his face. He puts his good arm around me.

“You’d have a hand. Zora wouldn’t be like…like this.”

“You did your best. Hell, you did more than any of us thought you were capable of. Even Zora.”

We sit for a while, watching Verago shroud itself in purple and grey, slowly shifting back to normal. There’s much to do, but the people of Verago are a steel-nerved bunch, so maybe we’ll make it.

“There are no heroes, Angela. Just people trying their best,” he says as he lights one of his cigarettes. “Stop trying so damn hard.”

When I’m done with my coffee, he asks, “So, you gonna keep me company at the Academy?”

I burst into laughter at the picture of the two of us sitting at a school desk. When I get my breath back, I ask him a favour.

“If I were to go visit Gianna at the–” I swallow the lump down. “At the convent, it’d be great to have a friend with me.”

He nods and passes me a cigarette. Overhead, the first star appears.

____

Copyright 2017 Alice Brook

Alice Brook writes stories in snippets of free time, between going to work in a century-old house and shooing her cat away from the computer. She tweets irregularly @ABrookWrites.