Charm 10/22

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Watchers

It’s a while before I find my voice. “Why me?” I ask eventually. I have so many questions that this seems the best starting place.

“Because after he’s caught me, he’ll be after you.”

“Oh really?” I drawl it out, even though I have to wrap my arms around myself to stop the shivers.

“Really. The Watchers will find you, and Heinrich will want what you have. Your art.”

Heinrich. I have a name for my nightmares, for the thing in the dark who killed my mother

Stop it. She killed herself.

Except she didn’t. “Heinrich,” I repeat flatly.

“The eater of magic.” Caleb answers my unasked question. “Alone, I can’t fight him, but with you joining your powers to mine….”

Okay, magic or no magic, Caleb is clearly wrong on this point. He’s been dead for too long, and it’s warped his brain. I hold up one hand, palm out. “Wait up. Exactly what power is it that you think I have? The ability to do a mean portrait when I put my mind to it? Because if you’re expecting me to go and attack some random person with a paintbrush because you think he’s got strange dietary habits, then, no.”

Caleb frowns. “Your magic.”

“What fucking magic?” I’m yelling now, and Rain shifts back away from me. “Did you miss the part where I said I don’t believe in any of this.”

“You have magic,” he says, but I can hear the confusion. “I saw it in you. I knew there was another still in the city and I was looking. That moment I saw you I felt the golden art moving and so I followed you, until I was certain that you were like me.”

“I’m nothing like you—” Something trips in my brain. An image of a tall dark figure, watching me through the rain, standing under my apartment window. “Wait. That was you?” Okay, now I’m pissed. “You seriously stalked me?” This guy just keeps giving me more things to add to my list of reasons not to help completely insane, might-be-magic, very-probably-living-dead people.

He holds up one hand. “If the Hunters find you, it doesn’t matter what you think or believe, they will take you to Heinrich. We’re better off working together.”

There’s no way I’m staying to listen to this—I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want any of this to be real. “We’re going.” I whirl round and grab Rain’s wrist, pulling him after me. Caleb doesn’t even try stop me as we storm down the passage and I slam back the bolts on the front door.

“Irene….” Rain pulls his wrist free. At least this time he doesn’t attempt to punch me, so i guess we’re making progress. He’s been quiet, listening to the rubbish that Caleb’s been spewing, and I know it must have hurt him to hear that Caleb was just using him to get to me.

“It’ll be cool,” I reassure him. “Don’t worry.” Boot-steps echo down the bare concrete passage, but I don’t need to hear that to know that Caleb is behind me. I can feel him—whatever it is about him that makes him magic, it resonates with me, pulls at me. I jerk the door open.

Behind us Caleb hisses.

A mass of figures is standing in the gravel driveway, their green eyes reflecting back the candle light. They’re children, or at least children-sized, but there’s nothing childlike about the way they stalk forward, grinning. Despite their pasty cherub faces, there’s no mistaking these for actual humans. Their skulls are bare except for tattered clumps of hair that jut out like the fur of a decaying dog. They lurch, their arms swinging by their sides, fingers curled like claws.

Watchers. I know in my bones that these are the things Caleb was talking about it, know it like I know the sound of my own name or the shape of Rain’s occasional smile.

Their eyes are bright; the only bright things about them. They stare at us unblinkingly, and smile. Little children smiles with nubs of little teeth.

I had no idea there were so many of them out there.

Somewhere, faint on the night air, comes the thin sound of a whistle or a flute. The sound eats right into my marrow, chewing through my body and freezing me. I’ve been turned to stone, utterly rooted in place, entranced by the music.

Behind me, I hear Caleb stop in his tracks.

We’re both of us helpless, caught in whatever this is. It’s Rain who jolts forward to slam the door shut and slide the bolts home.

The faint music dies and the leaden freeze leaves my body, leaves my muscles feeling achy and numb.

Caleb takes a deep breath. “We need more light,” he says. He sounds frantic. “Candles aren’t enough.”

What for?” I say numbly. “They’re already here, they can go fetch their little Hunter buddies any time—”

Were you not listening, you idiot girl,” Caleb says. “They can only take us in darkness. Sunlight means we’re safe, and until the sun rises, we need another source of light—”

“The genny,” says Rain.

“What?” Once again, I’m totally left out of whatever little world they’ve got.

“I’ve a cannister of petrol.” Caleb rubs at his eye sockets with long bony hands. “But there’s no way to get to the genny without them seeing. And if they do, well, it looks like Heinrich’s given them some measure of his own art. They can hold us.”

They can hold us. “Wait a minute—what—what do you—”

“No.” Rain shakes his head. “I saw what they can do to you. Their…whatever it is doesn’t do anything to me.”

It takes me a moment to work out what he’s suggesting. “Oh, hell no,” I say. “Over my dead body will you go running out there with the freaky horror-movie kids.”

Rain just ignores me. Something scratches at the door, making me jump. Rain swallows, looks up at Caleb. “I can get to the genny quickly. Unscrew the burglar bars of the back window. I’m small enough to get through that and get to the generator before they even know. You and Irene can stay here, keep talking so they’ll keep to the front of the house.”

The scratching is growing louder, like those creepy children are actually trying to dig their way through the wood with nothing more than their fingernails. My throat is tight, and it’s hard to swallow. The itch is so bad now that it takes all my force of will to keep my hands at my side.

The sound of fingernails biting into wood, the splinter as they tear out more and more chunks to get to us. It’s horrifying. I stare, almost unable to move, my brain throbbing with ideas, all of which are completely useless. But it seems the sound is enough for Caleb to make up his mind. He nods at Rain. “They know for sure we’re here now and the Hunters will be here soon. We need the light.”

“Can’t you just, I don’t know,” I wave my hands, “magic the bastards away?”

Caleb pauses. “It’s not that simple.”

Of course. Nothing in my life ever is.

#

“How long should he take?” My voice comes out all choked and scared, but I don’t look up. We’ve decided not to stay near the front, but rather to guard the window Rain used. Without the bars, it’s too dangerous to just leave it. The floor here is stained, and rough semi-circles of ridges in the concrete catch flickering shadows as the candles gutter and spit. I rub my hands up and down my arms, over and over and over. Why couldn’t it be me who went? Maybe it was a mistake, that whole bit where I froze—just…terror. Not magic.

Never magic. My eyes burn. Oh god, Caleb…Caleb’s right. And I hate it. Hate him. “This is taking too long,” I say again, like repeating the obvious is a magic all of its own, and it will change the world. Time will constrict because I say so, and Rain will be back. Right as Rain.

Caleb shifts, and his coat makes that particular smooth sound that old leather makes, a sound of skin. He’s standing at the small window, watching the tangled garden. Rain is already outside. He slipped through easily as a thief, and now he’s out there in the dark. I hate this; I can’t believe I let him go. I scrunch my shoulders higher and curl one hand over my cramping stomach. It’s fear. Now I know what they mean when they say gut-wrenching. One long breath through my nose. And another. Counting the seconds until Rain comes back.

The generator roars to life and light floods on around us. The weak glow of the candles is washed away in a light so bright it makes my eyes sting and water. My head jerks up. Caleb is wide-eyed.

The Watchers won’t have missed that. They’d have to be blind, deaf and thick as two planks to not work out that one of us is out there right now. Unless by some stroke of luck they have no idea how generators work. That would be nice. I’m holding on to threads here. “Oh god,” I moan, and scramble to my feet, to stare out the window. It’s just about impossible to see anything out there now that the lights are all on, but I catch a flash of pale hair as Rain runs from the shed at the bottom of the garden, straight towards us.

He’s only a couple of metres from the window when the first one comes hurtling from the shadows and knocks him to the ground. I don’t have a clear view of it—all I really see is the white streak of Rain’s hair as he’s knocked sideways. Then it’s gone.

“Rain!”

Caleb’s already pulling me back from the window as I’m screaming, and forcing the bars back into place.

“Are you crazy?” I yell, trying to wrestle the bars out of his hands. “They’ve got Rain.”

He shoves me away. Hard enough that I fly back and hit the floor, the concrete and my head making an audible thud as they connect. The taste of vomit sours my mouth and I try to stand, but I can barely see and my head is one big ball of pain. “You bastard,” I manage to say between the sobs, clutching at the back of my head.

I don’t see him kneel down next me, just sense the way the air seems to change as he comes closer, the cold sting of his magic scratching at my skin. “There’s nothing we can do right now,” he says. “All this has done is given us a breathing space. The light will hold the Watchers back, but it won’t do much to stop the Hunters.”

He lied to me. Caleb let me think that the light was going to save us, that we’d be safe here until sunrise. His fingers tighten on my arm, hard enough that I’m sure I’ll be left with bruises and he pulls me up as he stands, his hand a vice around my upper arm. The touch makes me go cold inside, makes the itch under my skin so bad that I can barely breathe.

“You killed him for what?” It comes out harsh, like a scream gone raw. “For nothing? To buy a little time?” There is no way in hell I’m ever going to help him. Ever. Let him die again, let him lose his magic. Let Heinrich or whoever get him. Let them come after me. I don’t care. My face is slimy with tears and snot and I wipe my free hand across my cheeks.

“He’s not dead.” Caleb sounds so sure of himself and I twist in his grip and land a sloppy punch to his face. It doesn’t connect properly.

All he does is shake me, almost jerking my arm out of its socket. “Pull yourself together,” he says. “We need to get out of here, now.” Caleb strides out the room, pulling me so that I’m stumbling after him, dragged to keep up. “They’re distracted. We’ll use your car.”

The realisation hits me so hard I stop breathing. The callous bastard. “You knew they’d get him.”

“Get your keys out and be ready to run.”

I’m still processing this when he grunts in frustration and shoves his free hand into my jeans’ pocket and pulls out the car keys. Then the door is open and Caleb looks down at me, deep lines made deeper by the bare light-bulb.

“Run,” he says.

I tell myself I have no choice. Grit sprays under my feet, making me skid, but Caleb keeps his hand on my arm and drags me with him. I can’t hear anything over the pounding of blood in my ears even though I’m straining to catch a sound that will let me know that Rain is still alive, that Caleb’s right.

He lets go of my arm, turns the key, and then wrenches the old car door so hard that it bounces on its hinges. “In. Now.” He shoves me across the cracked red leatherette of the seats, over to the passenger side. My tee shirt hooks on the hand break, but Caleb just climbs in after me, shoves again, and the shirt rips.

The roar of the old Volksie engine brings the Watchers running. Seven of them come racing after us, their legs pumping as Caleb puts his foot flat and guns the Beetle down the road, the tires sliding on the loose tar.

Ow,” I say softly. Twisting in my seat, I look back to see the figures of the Watchers gathering in the road. They’re standing still and not bothering to chase us. “They’re not following.”

Caleb doesn’t even acknowledge me.

My head is aching, and I’m too dizzy to think straight. Around us trees and buildings and street lights flicker past while I fight the urge to throw up again. Gingerly, I feel the back of my head. I have an egg-shaped lump, tender as a water-filled balloon. We speed through the suburbs, and I feel lost and terrible. I have no grasp on what just happened, like I’m in a nightmare and everything is running under dream logic. Rain is supposed to be here with us, and now he’s not, and I try process this.

It’s not working. I’m not dreaming and none of this is right.

Finally, we turn up into Shamrock Road, and head over the ridge toward Edenvale.

“Where are you going?” And what about Rain? I can’t make myself say the words when I’m as guilty as the bastard himself.

Caleb slips the car left, down the on-ramp and we glide onto the mostly empty highway. “You tell me,” he says. “Somewhere the Watchers won’t think of looking for you. You can’t go to your home, or your family’s. Heinrich’ll have found those addresses out by now.”

My stomach jolts. This isn’t happening. And how the hell did this end up being my life? All I wanted was one stupid boy, one stupid chance at getting into art college, one stupid normal existence. “There’s nowhere,” I say and my face is crumpling, and I hate that more than anything else. “Nowhere is safe—wait. Pull over.”

He glances at me, then pulls the car into the emergency lane. The engine sputters dead.

I twist in my seat to get a good look at him. He’s pale and sweaty, hands locked on the steering wheel, knuckles like yellow chess pieces breaking through the skin. “I need the truth. What’s going to happen to Rain?”

“He should be fine, as soon as they realize he has no magic. They’re not interested in humans.”

“Should be,” I echo. My hands are shaking as I move, but Caleb’s fear of the Hunters is real, palpable, and although it kills me to do this—to trust him, Caleb’s the only person I know who has any understanding of magic, or what exactly is going on.

There’s somewhere I can take us where no Watchers will think of going. But.” I glare at him. “I’m driving.”

This isn’t a scenic journey,” Caleb says. His breath is whistle-strange like he’s biting down on all his anger or fear.

I know that. But if you want me to trust you even the slightest, you need to give me this,” I say. “Or I get out of this car and I walk straight back, let the Watchers or Hunters or whatever the hell is out there find me. Boom. Game over.”

You’re an idiot child,” Caleb says, but he’s unbuckling his seat belt.

I go calm inside. Let Caleb think I’m doing what he wants. I’ll go back for Rain myself. My movements are mechanical. Unlock, swap seats. Click the seat belt. I have to concentrate on every little thing, because if I start thinking I’m going to scream and not freaking stop.

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cat_hellisen

I write.