And I’m back! Internet woes have been sorted out, and I shall quickly update the backlog of Charm posts. 😀
The Wolf Magician
Caleb brakes suddenly, and I lurch into the back of the passenger seat, almost breaking my nose. God, this is when I wish Beetles came with seat-belts in the back. “I know you don’t like me, but wait ’til after this business with your buddy Heinrich is done before you try kill me.” I rub the bridge of my nose and wince.
“You wanted other magicians,” he sneers. “And I’ve brought you to one.”
My heart makes a sudden dolphin-sized leap. He doesn’t know why I want to meet other magicians, surely? I concentrate on keeping my voice even. “You said they were barely worth calling magicians. So what are we doing here?” I don’t want to get my hopes up. Maybe Caleb is wrong about everything. It’s not like he’s infallible. He’s lost most of his magic, if my mother’s book is to be believed, and he’s already died at least once.
“Because I love wiping delusions from the minds of children,” he says. Rain clucks softly in disapproval, as if warning Caleb not to push me too far. Caleb snorts, but when he speaks again, his tone is light, almost conversational. “There,” Caleb says, pointing. “Can you see?”
It’s a small park with a high chain-link fence. Rusting kid’s swings and roundabouts. A see-saw; the metal a dull brown gleam on the edges where the green paint has rubbed away.
“What am I looking for?” And then I see it. Her. A teenage girl in a red halter-top lounging on one of the rubber-tyre swings, her bare brown legs sticking straight out into the municipal gravel. She’s dyed her cropped hair a burgundy that doesn’t suit her and everything about her seems awkward and out-of-place. The air around her is murky, tainted.
She looks up and frowns.
And I know it as clearly as I know that Caleb is what he says. She’s one of us. The smudge of black aura gives her away, and now that I see that, once again I’m aware of the flickering of wild magic in the trees, that edges the dry grass that grows against the fence with crackles of strangeness.
The chicken-wire fence around the park is topped with razor wire, but despite this, the gate is unlocked. A sign on the gate advises municipal parks board opening times. Guess it’s their attempt to keep all the drunks and the tik-heads out of the way of the kiddies. Not that there are any kiddies in this horrible, dusty little place.
Moving with a robotic awkwardness, I stash my mother’s book, and lurch out the front door. The air stinks. Muggy, sweaty, filthy, rotting air. And under it: a scent like wild flowers and wet fur. A wild smell. I stumble and there at my feet is a sign. A circle is drawn into the dirt, just inside the fence. Three circles, I realise, one inside the other. The same symbol I have on a chain around my neck.
Caleb skirts the rough drawing, edging round it as he approaches the girl, who’s watching us through slitted eyes.
The chains on the swing creak as the girl rocks back and forth, her bare feet sliding in the dust and gravel. She doesn’t do or say anything. Her skirt skates the top of her thighs and a red halter style bikini-top just covers her small flat breasts. She looks like the kind of girl my brother likes; tangled and mussed, like she just crawled out of someone’s bed.
“Good day,” says Caleb, lifting his hat.
“What do you want?” the girl snaps, and her voice is hoarse, throaty, as if she hasn’t spoken in years. I realise she’s older than I first thought. Maybe mid-twenties. There are lines around her eyes, and her mouth is pinched and hungry.
“I’m looking for Heinrich.”
The swing screeches and her feet slide one last time. In the quiet, a far-away laughing dove coos.
I inch up behind Caleb.
The girl is scowling, her eyes scanning us. “Don’t know who you’re talking about,” she says. “Now, voetsek before I set the dog on you.”
I scan the park but there’s no sign of a dog.
“Oh jeez,” says Rain, and he backs behind Caleb. Rain loathes dogs. He’s looking at a lump of fur under a jacaranda dripping purple flowers all over the red dust and the dry grass. The lump moves, shaking petals from its fur.
If that’s a dog, then I’m the queen of god-damn Persia.
Caleb almost takes a step back himself, his feet shifting, and then he straightens and ignores the huge brindle wolf-dog padding towards her. “I’ve already spoken to Lilith,” Caleb says. “Perhaps if you help me find him, I can get your magic back.”
The wolf-dog lopes up to the swings. I’m sweating. I mean, obviously I’m sweating, this is summer. But now my sweat is like ice down my top, and my whole body feels slow and frozen with growing panic. Every part of me itches.
The red-headed magician sinks one dark hand into the wolf’s ruff, and makes a whining sound in the back of her throat. She looks up, her hand still in the animal’s fur, like she’s holding him back. “Can you?” she says, and arches one eyebrow. “Get the magic back?” She slips off the swing and comes closer to us. She smells like dirt and sweat and spoiled meat. This close, I can see the bruises on her inner arms. “And what makes you think you can do that?”
Caleb’s patience, already thin and stretched, has reached its limit. “Because, unlike the rest of you, I’m not content to sit rotting in the shadows, wishing my magic back,” he hisses. He blanches and looks at me, probably trying to see if I’ve caught his slip. I’m not totally stupid, friend dead man, I already know you’re not all that. I should probably put him out of his misery and save him further embarrassment.
“I already knew,” I say, and raise my bag a little. “Mommy dearest told me.” I keep my voice even, no shaking. Caleb’s just confirmed what I really didn’t want to know—that he’s nothing. It’s on me. It always has been. I might be able to fool Caleb that I’m not shit-scared by now, but Rain knows me far better than that. He squints at me, frowning. Dammit, I never talk about my mother, not casually anyway. I grin, but it feels false and pasted on.
“She’s still got hers,” the magician says and points at me.
“I’m aware of that, yes,” says Caleb through gritted teeth. “As is Heinrich. He’s already looking for her.”
“You think she’ll stand a chance against him?” The girl throws back her head and crows. “Oh, you’re a wishful one.” She cuts the laugh short. “I can’t tell you where Heinrich is, but I can tell you the way to someone who does.”
Caleb pulls back, his face set and angry. “We haven’t the time to waste,” he says, then passes a hand over his face and sighs. “Just tell me.”
The wolf-dog shifts, hackles rising as a deep rumble starting in its throat, and the girl looks up at the sky. Dark clouds are gathering—one of summer’s flash thunderstorms. Distant lightning crackles. We need to get going before this damn storm hits, because I for one am not in the mood to get caught out here in the rain.
“Can you hear that?” Rain cocks his head.
“Hear what?” Caleb says softly.
I’m so used to Caleb snapping and sniping that his tone almost takes me by surprise. He’s looking at Rain carefully, brow furrowed.
“It’s just thunder,” I say.
“Not that.” Rain rolls his eyes. “That. Listen.”
Faintly, under the growl and the rumble, comes the sound of pipes.
“You fucking shit,” screeches the magician. “You’re being followed?”
Caleb shrugs, but his face is tense and white.
“And you brought them to me?” She’s on her feet, running to a bundle of rags at the foot of the jacaranda tree.
Before she can make it, the first of the Hunters appears from behind a parked car. It looks like something I’d dream about after watching scary movies as a kid, a nightmare gargoyle with umbrella-black wings, with teeth that glimmer yellowly in the sunlight. It walks on all fours, and with the almost human contours of its body, somehow that makes it even more terrifying. The face is twisted, snout lengthened, but now that I know, I can’t not see the thing it once was. Underneath the pitted skin and mangy fur, under the claws and wings. Echoes of humanity. Of someone who is probably—was probably—no older than I am now. It makes me remember the other one, and my stomach lurches. I taste vomit at the back of my throat.
The Hunter doesn’t even bother looking for the doorway into the park, just swings itself up onto the fence, climbing the chicken wire, barely noticing as the razor wire shreds its belly. Behind it come two more. Three. Three of them against four of us, counting the dog. Not counting Rain.
They’re not people any more, I tell myself.
I step closer to Rain at the same time that Caleb does, and the old man gives me a mocking look.
“Um,” says Rain. He drops to pick a broken stick off the ground. Not a bad idea, unless I’m planning on beating them to death with my book bag. No convenient gas cylinders here. My hands go numb and I take a shaky breath to steady myself.
The magician isn’t as dumb as she looks; she’s come back to stand by us with a broken bottle in each hand. Black Label. As good a use for the damn stuff as I can think of. There must be more empties in the park, but there’s no chance for me to go looking for them now. The first Hunter is already only a few feet from us. There’s no intelligence in its eyes, just a light of hunger and rage. Magic twists the air around it, and the curses binding it shimmer the sky like heat waves off hot tar.
The wolf-dog springs for it, and the two tumble into the gravel and rubbish, snapping at each other’s throats. I get a good look at the teeth on the Hunter. The face might be almost human, but those teeth are most definitely not. The thing has fangs like a baboon.
I thrust the memory of the dead Hunter from my mind. Caleb said they haven’t been human for a long time. I just have to keep reminding myself about it. Probably be easy enough when it tries to disembowel me.
“She’ll hold that one off,” shouts the magician, jerking one bottle toward where the wolf-dog has pinned the Hunter down. There’s blood in the brindle fur of her neck, and the Hunter is struggling, long claws raking down her side, but the wolf-dog is still growling, jaws clamped around the Hunter’s throat.
The pipe trills again and the slow leaden feeling I remember from the squat creeps into my veins. Caleb hums in response. It sounds like the wavering note of a plucked guitar string. A low E that vibrates through my bones and buzzes my teeth. The dead feeling drains out of my body.
“You’ve got enough left to turn him away?” The magician grins, showing cracked yellow teeth that haven’t seen a toothbrush in a good long time. “Won’t do you no good when you get close to him, brother.” She turns to me. “Take them out while you have the chance.”.
Take them out. Right. “With what? You want me to light up a cigarette and maybe smoke them to death?” My mind has gone blank with fear. What the hell am I supposed to do. Caleb’s been going on at me about how I still have power, but the truth is I really, really fucking don’t. My skin feels like it’s erupting in scabs, like some unholy maniac is rubbing away my flesh with coarse sand paper, trying to get to my bones. I grit my teeth to stop from screaming.
The two remaining Hunters circle us, watching Caleb. Their eyes are yellowish, even the whites gone cloudy.
Rain waves his branch, but I can see the way it shakes, and I bet they can too.
“Your golden art, sister! Use your magic, I can just about smell it on you,” the magician screams, her voice cracking.
I’m useless. I try, I do. I try pull up whatever is hidden inside me, draw it up through my veins like sucking up Fanta through a straw, but it’s useless. Tears blind me, stinging down my cheeks, and I shriek as one of the Hunters launches itself toward Caleb.
Rain moves first, whacking it across the head with his stick, hard enough that the branch cracks in his hand. He tosses the splintered wood down and aims a kick at the Hunter’s head. Getting kicked by Rain is probably about as painful and unexpected as being hit by a pillow. The idiot. But at least I’ve been jarred out of my moment of uselessness. I’m wasting time trying to control something I don’t understand. “Give me that.” I snatch one of the bottles from the witch’s hand. “Rain,” I yell. “Move!”
He stares back at me. And so does the Hunter. The face is still very much human, even with the fangs. “You,” it says. The voice is thick, cracked and guttural, as if it’s trying to force half-remembered words though a new mouth
“Yeah,” I say, “Me.” I try to look menacing, and hope that I can provide enough of a distraction for Rain to get out of the way before the damn thing tears me apart. I’m going to guess I look about as menacing as a flopped cupcake, with my stupid little glass beer bottle and my eczema and my smoker’s cough.
The Hunter pounces.
I duck and swing the broken bottle out, feel the meaty thud as it makes contact. The Hunter screams, just like a kid, like a little child falling and bashing its head and crying for someone to notice its pain. I pull the bottle free, glass cracking and splintering in its flesh. The Hunter turns, snaps at me. Rank animal breath right in my face. I block out the scream it made, and shove the broken bottle right into its eyes. The Hunter falls back, and just as I grin in dizzy triumph, pain lances into my side, and I’m knocked to the ground, all the breath stunned out of me.
A vicious face peers into mine, spit dripping from its sharp teeth. I can hear a yowling noise; probably the Hunter with glass where its eyes used to be.
The sound stops.
The Hunter pinning me down shifts to look up. I struggle, but it’s heavy, the length of its body along mine, the wings spread and covering us. It leans in closer to me, pressing its face to mine like a kiss and I ram one knee up, catching it where its balls should be. I must connect with something, because it pulls back. It spreads its jaws and just as it’s about to come plunging down, I squeeze my eyes shut and kick up again. If I have to die, I am sure as hell not going to make it easy or neat,
The weight disappears.
I crack open one eye. Above me the sky is blue-black with clouds; the light a dirty yellow.
“The dog got it,” says Rain in a choked little voice. His head appears over mine and he holds out a hand. “Here.”
With his help I scramble to my feet, my legs shaking. The shock is just starting to hit me and I clench my jaw as I scan the mess of the playground. Two bodies. Human bodies.
And a third. The wolf-dog worrying its throat, growling happily to herself.
A jagged cut over Rain’s one eye pours blood down his face. Caleb wordlessly hands him a handkerchief from his pocket and I start to laugh. Hysterical sobbing laughter that makes me sound like I have completely lost it. I mean, who under the age of a hundred carried hankies?
“Why didn’t you take them out when I said? Your friend there couldn’t hold them forever,” the magician says to me. It’s easy to hear her anger and fear, how her voice trembles. She’s crossed her arms over her body, and her skin is goose-pimpled. “I told you to, and you did nothing,” she repeats at me, like I’m a child who has disappointed a parent.
“I—I don’t have a clue how. No one’s explained jack to me.” I pick up my fallen bag and pull it across my chest, holding it there so I can feel my heart beating against the book inside.
“No-one should have to,” she says back. “You’re as useless as him.” She flicks Rain’s shoulder. “What good are you going to be? Heinrich’s just going to crunch you up like a chicken foot.” She shakes her head and steps toward to Caleb. “Look at this mess.” She toes one of the bodies. Blood is turning the red dust brown.
“He’ll have felt them die,” Caleb says. “He’s only got a few still left.”
“Child thief.” The magician spits in the dust, leaving a big red gobbet next to the body. “It was a good spot, this,” she says. “And now I’m going to have to move on again.” She walks over to where the three circles were drawn into the dirt. They’re scraped and unrecognisable now. Long scratches break the edges. “It didn’t even stop them,” she says. “Useless tricks.”
“He’s stronger than he was before,” says Caleb. “And the more magic he steals, the stronger he’ll become.”
The magician frowns. “What good is all that golden art, all that charm,” she says, “if he’s the only one who can use it? There’s no good to living forever if you’re alone at the end of it.”
“It’s not about immortality,” Caleb says.
“What then?” She sniffs and hugs herself, rubbing her arms as though she’s freezing.
Caleb takes a moment, as though debating if he should share all his secrets with this powerless magician. Finally, he sighs, and says, very quietly, “Because if he has it all, he thinks he can open the way to the wild magic.”
The wolf magician stares, her mouth open. “That’s crazy,” she says. “Wild magic’s endless.” She shakes her head. “He sets that free, it’ll eat us all. No man can control it. The wild people, maybe, and even that’s…..No. The man is a fool.”
The wild magic, the force flowing through everything around us, through the trees and the grass, that moves the ground underfoot like a ponderous sea of brown stones. That’s what Heinrich wants? It seems unbelievable. You’d have to be an egomaniac of the vastest proportions to think that anything human could have control over that. I keep my mouth shut, one hand still clenched to my bag strap as though it will save me from drowning, and I listen. The last few minutes have taught me just how weak and stupid I really am. Not again. Never again. Or the next time someone I love will die.
Caleb shrugs as the magician argues against Heinrich’s dreams of total world domination. “Heinrich believes he can. Worse, I think he’s right.”
“So like a man.” She rubs her hands up her arms, faster and faster, still trying to chase that chill away. Her face is tense, the fine lines around her eyes deeper. “You really think you can use the girl to stop him?”
Caleb glances at me, then nods. “I do.”
His faith makes me sick.
The magician ignores my rather obvious silence in the face of their belief. “And how were you planning on finding him, then?”
Caleb coughs, an uncomfortable sound. “We had the girl’s book—”
She snorts in response to that. “Girl doesn’t know her arse from her elbow and you’re going to trust her reading of a Magician’s Tome. You’re fools. And you’re damned.”
Her words make me wince, but Caleb merely straightens under her glare. “Better a damned fool than a coward scraping a living in the streets and waiting to die, Ormond.”
A tense silence, and then, surprisingly, she nods. She’s grinning, an ugly snarling grin, but a grin all the same. “Ja, and fuck you too, Mr High and Mighty. Fine. Here, let me help you on to your doom, since you’re so keen on facing it. You got a pen? Paper?”
He draws out a stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper from an inner pocket and hands them over.
“Now, I can’t tell you where Heinrich is, but I know someone who can find him for you. That’s the best I can do. You speak to her, tell her your plan. She knows Heinrich better’n anyone.” Ormond scribbles, then shoves the paper back at him. “Don’t you come looking for me again,” she says. “Not unless you’re bringing me back my magic. And you better kill him, you hear. Don’t want no wild magic and fairies and all that evil loose in the city.” She passes one of the Hunter’s bodies, gives it a solid kick, and then whistles. The wolf-dog raises its head from the corpse it was gnawing and follows her from the park.
A fat raindrop falls as she leaves.
Caleb comes over to us and rests one hand on Rain’s shoulder. “You did well,” he says. He puts one hand over the hand Rain’s clutched against his head, and lifts the blood-sodden hankie off his brow. “Not too deep,” he says. “Just keep the pressure on.”
He says nothing to me.
“Fairies?” I say. “Really? I mean, wild magic and golden art and dead man walking and children’s stories that come to life—all that crap wasn’t enough—she was talking about fairies. They’re not real, are they?”
“They are. Excellent.” I press one hand to my ribs. I ache everywhere and my skin has started to go cold and clammy. “What’s next, boggarts and zombies and terrible beasties?”
“Every fairy tale has its roots in truth,” says Caleb.
Well, that’s not very comforting. “And what’s wild magic exactly and why can’t we use it?” I ask. If Heinrich is planning on taking all this power for himself, I’d like to know a sight more about it than I do. Right now, all I got is it makes the world look trippy.
“It’s not important,” he says.
“Look at me, totally not believing you.” I step closer to Rain and check his head. Caleb’s right, the cut doesn’t look too bad.
“I’m fine.” Rain twists away from me and looks down at the ground.
Fine. “Wild magic.” I turn to stare at Caleb. “If it’s important to Heinrich, then it’s important to us and I’m not getting in the damned car until you tell me what it is.”
“We don’t have time.”
A wave of dark anger crosses Caleb’s face. “I’ll tell you when we’re in a safe place,” he says. “But not now.”
Rain is still staring at the ground. “Tell her,” he says. “Or I will.”
“Oh, no way—you know?” I cross my arms, holding down the rising itch. “What is this, everyone keep secrets from Irene month?”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Caleb says to Rain. Once again, I might as well not be here. Then I smile. If Rain’s arguing with Caleb, maybe that means the spell holding them together is unravelling.