Charm 12/22

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Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

We find Rain locked in the little single-room toilet, the only room with a window too small for anything to crawl through. Since the squat doesn’t have water, the smell of the toilet is overpowering, enough to make me gag. Poor Rain’s been in here most of the night. He’s curled up in a ball on the filthy floor. I drop to my knees next to him.

“Rain?”

Screw Caleb watching us, standing over me and sneering. I pull Rain close to me and bury my head against his neck. Under the sewage stink from the open toilet I can still smell the dusty-sweet nag champa that’s practically soaked into his ratty jersey. There is blood on my hands, I realise dimly. Spatters like black ink. I wonder if Rain sees. If he even cares. Did he think we were just going to go and never come back?

I’m sorry,” I say, but it comes up choked, and all I can see in my head is that pale clawless hand, that boy’s hand where a monster’s should have been. I’ve dragged Rain into this. No. I grit my teeth. Caleb did that. He dragged us both in, with his magic and his half-truths and his scheme of using Rain to get me. I start shaking, but I can’t tell if it’s anger, or just the aftershocks of murdering…something.

Rain’s arms shift around me and we crouch on the broken floor tiles, not quite rocking.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper against his ear and kiss the small pulse point there. I want to say more than just I’m sorry, that I shouldn’t have left, shouldn’t have run when Caleb said. I want to tell him that I love him, that I always will. I want to tell him the truth. About me. About Caleb. But I’m a fucking coward. “I—” I pause, my breath rasping. Nope. Irene Kerry, murderer, cheat, coward. “It’s okay,” I finish lamely instead.

It’s as though Rain heard the things I didn’t say. Like he scraped open my brain, pushing the folds of fatty white thoughts apart and saw right into the truth of me anyway. It’s a vibration between us, a cold dive into a pool for the first swim of spring. His breathing quickens and I splay my hand against his chest, feeling the way his heart judders behind his rib cage. Rain turns his head.

“Touching as this reunion is,” says a snide voice from the passage. “We really don’t want to be sitting here when Heinrich realises we’ve killed one of his Hunters.”

Rain is on his feet, and he practically throws himself into Caleb’s arms. I don’t hear what he says to the bastard, but I look down at my knees when they kiss.

#

Caleb’s dragged us through the house, looking for signs of something or other. I couldn’t be bothered to care. Let them come for me, I think morosely. What does it matter? Self-pity has always been my most fetching outfit. I scowl and scrape my hands against my legs, trying to wipe away the blood. We’re standing in the little room where the Hunter attacked us; all of us staring down at its remains. I swallow, over and over and over, certain that at any moment I will be sick again.

Caleb turns away from the pulpy mess with human hands and starts digging through the stuff he left behind last night.

“Wow.” Rain looks up from the mangled corpse to me. “What did you do to it?”

“What? Why look at me? Maybe your good friend here decided to brain it with a gas-bottle.” It’s easy to fall back into this persona. Pretend nothing’s changed.

Rain shakes his head. “Caleb would have used magic. Violence is more your style.” He grins to take out the sting, but the words still hurt. If he wants to go build up Caleb as some wonderful example of humanity, don’t let me be the one to burst his bubble. Of course, I’m planning on doing just that as soon as I get him alone. He has to know that Caleb meant for him to get caught.

“And now,” says Caleb, turning to give me a long stare. “You’ve promised to come with me.” He’s evidently found what he was looking for.

“Yeah, sure. Whatever. Find the bad guy, kill the bad guy.” I shrug. “I said I’d do it, didn’t I?” It’s one thing I know about myself—I hate breaking my word. Well, I hate failure more, but breaking my word is a kind of failure. “So, you have a plan to go take out the Big Boss, or should we, I dunno, go stand in the middle of the garden and yell out our position?”

Caleb narrows his eyes. He shouldn’t do that, I think. It makes him look older, all the wrinkles gathering at the corners like wire claws. He sighs, digs in his pocket and pulls out a crumpled scrap of paper. He holds it out to me, like an offering.

“What?” I make no move to take it.

“There are people of power left in this city. People who might be turned to my cause. This is where I was trying to get to before everything went wrong,” Caleb says. By wrong I’m guessing he means ‘hit by a taxi and then attacked by winged monstrosities’. “To the Mother. She might be able to help us, and this was her last known address. Do you think you can find it?”

I roll my eyes and take the paper, smoothing it out. There’s an address written in pencil. The paper is old, tatty, and the pencil is faded, barely legible. I read it and my eyes widen. “You’re kidding, right?” I ask as I look back up at him. This has to be some kind of complicated unfunny joke. The Mother. Yeah, right.

He scowls. “Why would I be? Just tell me if you know more or less where it is.”

“Oh ja. Sure I know more or less.” I crumple the paper back up and toss it back to him. He’s fucked in the head if he thinks there’s anyone powerful at that address. They must have moved years, no—decades, ago. Still, he asked me to take him there, and that’s what I’ll do.

“You no longer need it?” He narrows his eyes.

“I’ve got it memorised.” I take one last look at the remains of the Hunter, swallow my nausea and walk out the room. Fresh air, that’s what I need right now. I need to stand in the sunshine and breathe in clean air and hug Rain until his ribs crack.

Once we’re out I give Rain a squeeze on the arm instead. It feels awkward, like now that Caleb’s around and Rain’s following him like a lost puppy, I’m just back to being the third wheel. “Sit up front with me,” I say. Caleb can sit in the back. Like an annoying child. I wonder if he’ll start whining are we there yet as I drive. The thought makes me smirk, even though it’s not particularly funny. I put it down to lack of sleep and the come-down from sheer terror.

Rain does what I suggest without complaint and it feels good, almost normal, to have him across from me just close enough that I can reach out and touch him and reassure myself that he’s really there.

“You need something to eat?” I ask Rain. The Beetle is chugging along, her needle closing on empty. I feel as hollow as she must.

“We don’t have time to waste,” Caleb growls as I pull into the petrol station but I ignore him. For a start, god knows when Rain last ate, and personally, I’d kill for a cup of coffee. Maybe all Caleb needs to do is take away my coffee and cigarettes and tell me his little pal Heinrich has them. That should work.

Don’t care,” I say. “We need petrol, anyway.” My money is looking pretty damn low. Add to that at some point I’m going to have to phone my dad and tell him that I’ll be moving back home, and that I’ve lost my job and won’t be making the rent on the flat. That should go down well. If by well I mean like a shit-storm of apocalyptic proportions. Ah, might as well use the last of it for cigs then. I haul Rain along with me to the 24-hour shop while I leave Caleb sitting in the car watching the guy filling the tank.

Around us the air feels unnatural. Clean and cool air-conditioned. It’s too real, it has nothing to do with magic or anything that happened last night. We could just be a couple of stoners grabbing our munchies before we had back home from a night out. We could be normal. Instead….

I have to speak now, before we go back out there and back to Caleb and all the weird shit he has dragged into our lives. Even if it hurts Rain, he needs to know the truth. I take a breath, order a pack of cigs. While the woman behind the counter opens a new carton, I let the words spill from me, fast, so I won’t be able to stop them. “Caleb meant for you to get caught,” I say.

There.

Done.

Rain doesn’t answer me. I wave at Caleb through the glass windows. He’s sitting hunched on the back seat of the Beetle. He scowls and I just grin at him. “He knew they’d get you,” I say to Rain.

Rain grabs his chicken and mushroom pie and the crisp packet from the weird little contraption they have set into the counter. “I know,” he says. “We discussed it before you got there. Caleb knew we wouldn’t have until morning and that you’d do what he said to get me back.”

It takes a moment for the words to sink in. “What! Are you completely crazy?” I stop him from walking back to the car, grab his shoulder and make him face me. “You could have been killed!”

Rain shrugs. “But I wasn’t. He said I’d be safe, that the Hunters wouldn’t so anything to me once they realised I had no magic, and he was right.”

I stare at him. He has tired circles under his eyes so deep they look like bruises, and his fingers are shaking where he’s holding on to his food. My stomach starts to ache, a low cramping pain, and my skin itches so bad I know that under my sleeves, my arms will be red scabby ruins. “I’m going to find a way to break that stupid spell or whatever he’s got on you,” I say. “And then you and I are going to have a nice long chat about what not to look for in a boyfriend.”

Rain shrugs out of my grip. “Irene.” He sounds tired. “You don’t always know everything.” Then he smiles at me, that shy crooked smile that he reserves for buttering me up. “Come on, let’s go get this over with, then you can have your Dear Abby chat.”

“Oh, you’re not taking any part in this—”

“See, Irene,” he interrupts me, his voice fierce, “this is what you don’t understand. You think I’m a child you can give orders to. But Caleb asks me for help, he talks about this with me. That’s what you don’t seem to get.” He stalks away to where Caleb has been watching us argue.

He’s wrong.

He’s wrong. I don’t think Rain’s a child, I just worry about him. That’s what friends do. They look out for each other. Caleb’s turning him against me with that damn spell of his.

Or.

Or, there’s a germ of truth in there. My face burns and I give the irritated cashier a mind-your-own-damn-business stare, then grab the cigs and the two coffees from the counter.

Dammit. Maybe Rain’s right. I should have at least asked him what he wanted to do. But I want him safe, not going off with me and Caleb to go fight some magic-eating monster. That’s not a bad thing, wanting someone to be safe, but somehow Rain’s twisted it. No, I remind myself—not Rain—it’s Caleb who has twisted it. He’s made Rain think that using him as a lever, as bait, is treating him like an equal.

When I get back to the car, I find that Rain’s gone to sit in the back seat with Caleb. They’re talking in low voices although they stop when I open the door. Rain’s face is sulky.

“Here,” I hand Caleb a coffee and some packs of sugar. I’m going to be bigger than them, not say anything.

Rain snaps back the pull on his can of Coke, and stares warily at me over the back of the passenger seat.

“Drink up, kids,” I say in a mock-cheery voice. “We have things to do, places to go, people to kill.”

Caleb shakes his head, but he drinks his coffee anyway. He even thanks me for it.

Rain is still in the back seat with Caleb when I rev the engine and head back toward Orange Grove. “Great,” I say. “Make me feel like a taxi driver, why don’t you?”

No-one replies, and to drown out the silence, I click on the ever-present Led Zeppelin tape. As long as it’s not Stairway To Heaven, because really, I don’t think I can take much more of the day going downhill. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. I can live with that.

“You’re certain that you know where you’re going?” Caleb asks as I pull into a familiar street. I wonder if he recognises it from last night.

“Why,” Rain says between gritted teeth, “are we here?”

Lily’s house looms over us, even though there’s nothing frightening about its doll-house proportions.

“I thought we’d spoken about this. I told you I’m coming with you.” There’s a splintered edge of panic rising in his voice, and I wince. Rain thinks I’ve betrayed him already.

I jerk the handbrake up and cut the engine. “This is where we’re supposed to be.” I shift and turn so that I’m looking at Caleb. “This is the address on your little piece of paper.”

“Well.” Caleb pulls his arm out from around Rain’s shoulder. “Let us go and pay her a visit.”

“What’s going on?” says Rain.

The one really annoying thing about Beetles is the lack of back doors—well, that and the fact that if you take them over eighty they feel like they’re going to fall apart. They would make the crappest get-away car ever. I get out and jerk my seat forward so that Rain and Caleb can clamber out.

“This is where we were last night,” says Caleb as he stares around him.

“Why yes, Sherlock, indeed we were.” I slam the door. “We’ll go by the front gate this time, you know, just for a change.”

Rain starts fishing for his keys, but as I open the low metal gate, Lily is already waiting for us at the front door, her arms crossed over her chest. She’s not looking at me, or, god forbid, Rain. She’s staring at Caleb as if he’s the most repulsive thing she’s ever seen. Score one for Lily. Who would have believed it?

“You,” she spits. “What are you doing here, bringing his attention to us?”

Okay, wtf. All trace of Lily’s hippie-dippy shtick is gone.

Caleb raises his hands. “Peace, Mother. I’ve come to ask for the Sight.”

“Not likely,” says Lily. She looks about her and I can smell her sweat, her fear. “Get inside, before you draw any more attention.”

My head is in a fog. Lily? Lily knows who Caleb is?

“No fucking way,” breathes Rain. “I knew she was mental….” He trails off as we shuffle in after Caleb.

Lily glares at me as she shuts the door. “I thought you’d know better, Irene,” she says. “I allowed your friendship with Rain because I could see you were too damn stubborn to give in to the golden art, and now look what you’ve done. Mixing with people like him.”

Right. My entire world has just upended itself. It’s one thing to half-believe my mother as some kind of witch and not just a crazy suicide. But Lily? And she thinks I’m in league with the Walking Dead Man. Great. I wonder if there’s any point in telling her that it was Rain who picked him up, so I just shrug and raise my empty hands. As I shuffle past her, I feel that self-same prickling that I always get around Lily—and now around Caleb. I swallow hard and try not to scratch. Thank god I carry spare eczema cream with me everywhere, because I am looking a mess.

Inside the house is exactly the same; full of dust and beads. Nothing’s changed. And everything is different.

“Tea?”

Caleb nods. Rain and I just look at each other.

“Just a moment then.” Lily sweeps off, her Indian cotton skirt billowing, beads and bells chiming as she walks.

As soon as she’s gone I lay into Caleb in fierce whispers. “Why the bloody hell are we here? And how exactly do you know Lily? Or pod-person Lily, whoever,” I wave my hand, “that is.”

“I don’t.” Caleb takes a seat on one of the overstuffed couches. Dust puffs up, and the room smells of must and mould. “I know of her.” He wrinkles his large battered nose. “And that begs the question; how do you know her?”

“She’s my mother,” Rain says. His voice is far-away, and he’s staring off toward the bead curtains that separates the front lounge from the narrow kitchen where Lily is currently banging cups and pots around and generally making enough noise to wake the dead.

“Ah,” says Caleb. “How…complicated.” He settles back gingerly and watches us, hawk eyed.

“Here.” Lily is back with a rose-patterned plastic tray brimming with teapots and milk jugs and sugar bowls and fine china cups. The good stuff. Like Caleb is actually someone important. She sets the tray down between a pile of needlework magazines and a tray of blue glass beads, then settles herself down in her old rocking chair. “Now, Caleb Dunning, tell me what it is you really want.”

China clinks as Caleb pours himself a cup of tea. “I told you,” he says after his first sip.

“And why exactly would I want to give you anything?”

“Because I’m going after Heinrich, and if I succeed, you’ll have your magic back.”

Lily stands, knocking the tray over. It falls with a god-awful crash, sending tea and sugar and milk in all directions. “Get out of my house.”

“Lilith Pike.”

“Don’t say my name. You don’t have the right.”

When Caleb stands it’s like I see him all over again. A new man, a strange and terrible one. He’s no longer just an ageing goth in a battered black hat and trench coat. He’s a dark prince, a man wrapped in shadows and magic. “If I kill him, we all get our magic back,” he says. “And the ones like Irene, who still have theirs, they’ll be safe.” Even his voice sounds different, the gravel and cigarette growl hypnotic. “You’ll be as you were. Mother, not this withered grey-haired nothing you’ve become.”

“I was never meant to be the Mother, I was never one of the three,” Lily says. She hesitates, and I hear the thin whine in her voice that means she’s lying, that she’s pushing for something. “I don’t want it back.”

He considers her, then changes tack. “Please?”

I think I might just die of shock. Who could have believed Caleb even knew the word. And that of all people he’d be begging Lily for help.

She smiles slowly, but her hands are tugging at her beads.

Rain’s staring at his mother with his mouth open. I know the feeling.

We might as well not be here, until Lily turns the conversation back to us. “Why are you dragging them into it?” She waves one hand toward me and Rain.

“She has the golden art—” Caleb begins.

“I know that,” Lily snaps. “But Rain has nothing. And I promised Hestia I’d make sure her girl didn’t follow her. After Heinrich took everything she tried to trap him with the girl’s power, so certain that she out of all of us was clever enough to trick him into giving us back what was ours.” She looks to me quickly, then back at Caleb. “And she died, Dunning. Like the fool she was.”

“I’m not a fool,” says Caleb.

Hestia. It’s not exactly the most common name, even in the Highlands North Greek community. She’s talking about Mom.

“You didn’t know my mother,” I interrupt.

Caleb’s stopped talking and he’s staring at me, his mouth in a thin angry line.

“She’s lying,” I say to him, desperately. “She’s twisting things, because that’s what Lily does. I don’t know what you think she is, but she’s not that. She’s just a fucked-up excuse for a human being who couldn’t even crack it at looking after her own kid.”

“I couldn’t,” screams Lily. “I’d lost my magic, my everything—how was I supposed to take care of a child? Especially one with nothing, not even a drop of power.” Spittle sprays from her mouth in a fine mist.

Rain pushes past me and runs down the passage, feet thudding on the carpeted wood. His bedroom door slams. None of us say anything in the sudden echoing silence.

Lily takes a deep shuddering breath, her hands rising to her face. She pushes a hank of long grey hair out of her eyes. “I’ll show you,” she says in a broken voice. “I can’t give you the Sight, but I have something that will open your eyes to the flow of magic.”

You said Heinrich took all your power” Caleb says.

He did.” She crunches over the shattered china and the damp sticky mess of sugar and tea. “Come with me.”

We follow her down the passage, past Rain’s door. I pause to rap softly. “Rain?” He doesn’t answer, and even I know better than to push.

Caleb, however, doesn’t. “Stay locked in there like a child,” he says, “or get over your tantrum and join us.”

Lily tosses her head and scowls as Rain cracks the door open and peers out. He doesn’t even bother looking at her. “You don’t understand,” he says to Caleb.

“And I’m not here to try. If someone must hold your hand through life, it’s not going to be me. Now, stay, or come with us, but at the least make up your own mind.”

If I had to say that to Rain we wouldn’t speak for weeks, but he takes it from Caleb with nothing more than a shrug. “I’m coming, of course.” He looks up at Lily as if he’s daring her to say anything, but she just shakes her head. Guess for once things aren’t all that groovy in Lily’s world.

I’ve never been in Lily’s bedroom. Unlike the rest of the house, it’s spotless and white. There’s a small altar set up on the painted dresser; incense and a fat carving of a woman with a stone face—blank except for a single eye crudely hacked into it. With shaking hands, Lily draws a plain silver chain out from the tangled mess of beaded necklaces she wears. On the end are two tiny keys, one smaller than the other. With the first and largest she unlocks the bottom drawer of the dresser. Inside is a small flat box, no bigger than a deck of cards. She takes it out and places it on the dresser top. “Hestia tried to hide us as best she could, before she set her traps for Heinrich,” she says. “She cast a charm to hide magic from all eyes.”

Heinrich still finds people.”

Heinrich has more power than any of us ever did, and he has the rats.” Lily presses her lips tightly in a thin smile. “But Hestia wasn’t a total fool, she had power to hide us from each other, from him, and she also left us this.” She taps the edge of the little box with one fingernail.

Caleb looks sceptical. “Open it then.”

She snorts. “Don’t think you’re so high and mighty, you’re just like the rest of us—”

“Open it.”

For all Caleb annoys the shit out of me, I have to respect anyone who tears Lily down, even a little. I smirk as she silently bows to her task, unlocking the box with the second key and draws out a small tin, like a Zambuk tin. In fact, it is a Zambuk tin.

“Close your eyes,” she says. I hear the scrape of metal as I do, and then something cold and burny coats my eyelids, making me jerk back.

“Keep them closed,” she hisses. “God only knows what Hestia put in this, but I’m certain you don’t want it actually in your eyes.”

The burning sensation melts away, just leaving a greasy cold slick on my skin. “Can I open them now?”

She snorts, a thin cracked laugh with no humour. “If you must.”

I blink. She’s still Lily. Wavy grey hair snarled into a messy bun, tendrils frizzing about her ears. Her face is lined, the skin pouched under her eyes. But there’s something about her that would make me stop and give her a second look if she was just a stranger I passed in the street. It’s indefinable. A something. Around her the air has a faint charcoal smudge, like a black aura.

She touches her fingers to Caleb’s eyelids next. He blinks, and a grim smile twists his mouth. “And the boy,” he says.

Lily looks to Rain like he’s a slime mould instead of her only child. “He has no golden art, what good would it do to give him the power to see magic?”

Just do it,” Caleb says, and that shimmer and shadow is back in his voice.

Lily doesn’t argue again, but she seems to barely want to touch Rain, and she smears the ointment on to him with the same expression she’d have if she was trying to wipe dog shit off her heel. When she steps back, she closes the tin with a soft snick. I think of knives.

“In this room, everything changes,” she says. “When you step out, all will be different.” She looks away from me, glances quickly past Rain, as if she can barely stand to look at him, and focuses on Caleb. “The girl has retrieved her mother’s book?”

Caleb nods warily.

“Good.” She locks the tin away in the little box. “I thought I could feel it on her. And Heinrich will too, if she gets too close.”

“Should I leave it here?” I ask, my hand jerking to tighten on my shoulder strap. That damn book feels heavier than a sack of bricks weighing me down to drown. Probably be better if I did just leave it in Lily’s sacred white room. Lily, and my mother. The thought swirls in my head. And Caleb, and me. And Heinrich. Just how many people with this golden art are there out in this world? I wonder if every day I walk past magicians unaware. Do they also have books full of power that look like fairy tales? I clear my throat. “Lily?”

“Not if you want to find the others,” she says. Her head swings back to Caleb. “You’ll need her to read it, you won’t be able to.”

“I already know that,” he snaps back.

It seems to me that Lily knows a hell of a lot that Caleb doesn’t want me hearing. He’s scowling—what I’ve come to think of as his default setting. So, there’s more than one reason Caleb wants to drag me along on his merry little hunt. I grin at him and flick my middle finger. “Aw, too late, Caleb.”

“Thank you,” Caleb says to Lily, ignoring me. “And if I can, I’ll bring you back what you’ve lost.”

“You do that,” she says. “Now, get out of my house.”

 

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