Charm 18/22

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Eaten

While it’s still far from dark outside, the light is getting that heavy late afternoon feel, like it’s pressing down on my shoulders. I’m practically sticking to the car’s fake leather seats as I take the quickest route I can remember towards the art school. Every time I see a bunch of scruffy high school kids with their blazers stuffed in their school bags and their grey school trousers hanging off their arses, shirts untucked, ties hidden, I slow down. Not one of them is my brother.

So,” I say, not looking in the mirror to get a glimpse of Caleb, instead steeling myself to stare ahead, to scan the streets and the pavements. “This golden art.”

What about it,” Caleb drawls. “Finally admitting to yourself that this refusal to use it is a childish tantrum that could get your killed?”

I grit my teeth and breathe in sharply through my nose. Do not rise to the bait, Irene. “Actually, I have tried to use it.”

There’s a silence, and I will myself not to twist my head back.

Have you,” Caleb says, after we’ve turned down another two roads, the Beetle moving as slow as grazing cow. It’s not a question, too flat, too filled with anger. He doesn’t believe me.

Yeah, seems the old pipes are clogged or something,” I say. “No golden art spurting about, as you can see.”

You’re trying my patience,” Caleb says. “I know you don’t care what happens to me, but surely you understand what my death would mean.”

Give it a rest, both of you,” Rain snaps from the passenger seat. “You’re like two cats, spitting and growling at each other.”

The shock of hearing Rain being all snippy—not just at me, but at his dearly beloved—makes me jerk over to look at him, and the car veers with me. Rain isn’t even looking at either of us, he’s staring out the window, his grey eyes focused. “There,” he says. “Look.”

Another motley group of school kids stare at us as I crawl past them, and I thump the steering wheel. Not him.

But between Rain’s attitude and the frustration of looking for my brother, I don’t see any point in trying to rekindle the conversation about magic. There’ll be time enough this evening, once we’re back to Zelda and she’s worked out where her Beau is hiding.

I’ve driven to just about every possible place I can think of in search of my idiot brother. I’ve tried to phone him, useless as it is. He goes through a cell-phone in a week. I think the last one survived two days before Dale lost it.

“Is that him?” Rain points to boy with familiar shaggy hair kicking his board and doing ollies on the pavement.

Caleb is sitting in the back for a change, with Rain up front by me. I know he’s only doing it because Dale’s missing, but it makes me feel a bit better anyway.

“Could be,” I say, and hit the Beetle’s hooter. It makes a sound like a high-pitched fart and the boy looks up at us. Not Dale. He pulls a zap and I flip one back at him.

“How many more hours do you plan to waste?” Caleb says. He’s been quiet all this time, but he’s irritated thanks to our earlier conversation, or nervous about the coming hours and his Grand and Final Confrontation with Evil. It’s kinda hard to tell with him.

“I need to tell my dad.” I pull the Beetle into a parking spot and rummage for my phone. Even though it’s getting late now, he’s probably still at work.

He picks up on the first ring.

“Dad?” I rub one hand on my cheek. “I can’t find him.”

He’s silent.

“Dad?”

“I’m calling the police,” he says, suddenly, decisively.

“He’s not been gone long, they’ll probably just ignore you. You know what the cops are like.”

“I have a bad feeling,” my dad says, and I swallow hard. I don’t want to tell him that I agree with him. Of course, I can hardly explain that there’s some lunatic out there who is trying to catch me, and who apparently knows where I live. A cold thought hits me. How much does Heinrich actually know about my family, and how far would he go to catch me? From the sounds of things, the bastard wouldn’t think twice about doing something like kidnapping my brother in order to draw me out.

“Okay,” I say faintly back into the phone. Something squeezes my knee, and I glance across at Rain. His hand is on my leg. Just friendly, nothing more than that, but it gives me a strength that I hadn’t realised I’d been losing. “Um, I gotta go, but Dad—call me, okay?” We say our goodbyes and I cradle the phone in my lap, not wanting to look up. Shadows are lengthening around us.

“We can’t sit here,” says Caleb. “Drive back to Zelda.” His normally brusque voice is softened a little, enough to make me look back at him. He’s still the same scowling miserable sod, but he catches my eye and nods.

I must look like a wreck if Caleb is attempting, in his own craptacular way, to be nice.

The itch is back under my skin, the flare of eczema and stress. I gun the engine and fight the traffic back to Ponte, and all the while I’m running though places Dale could be, and feeling the chill bite of fear battling with the pins and needles pricking my flesh.

By the time we’re in the elevator I’m feeling even worse. I’m really worried about Dale. My teeth are chattering in my head, and I feel itchy all over, like I’ve been rolling in grass. Caleb keeps giving me funny looks. When I start scratching at my arms hard enough to leave long red nail-streaks down the skin, he holds out his hand like a beggar.

“I should have realised, “he says. “Give it to me.”

“What?”

“Whatever it is that your art is fighting.”

The elevator jerks to a halt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’re eighteen, you should have been feeling your magic come on by now. It worried me that you hadn’t. At first I thought you were playing some foolish game just to taunt me, but now I realise you’re simply not that inventive. You have no skill at concealment, everything you think shows on your face.” He drops his hand and steps out, never taking his eyes from me as he walks. “There were signs that you had the golden art, I can feel it every time I’m near you. So what is it that’s stopping you from knowing how to shape it, how to work with it?”

Zelda is waiting for us at the door to her flat, looking this way and that down the corridor.

Great, so now I’m un-inventive, and transparent, and apparently too stupid to work out the impossible. “I don’t know how to shape it, because you won’t bloody tell me how! It’s all, just use it, like I’m supposed to just know.” I can hear my voice rising, becoming hysterical, and I can’t help it. My body is being ripped apart molecule by molecule, from the marrow out. My skin is on fire the one moment, freezing the next.

“But you are supposed to just know.” Caleb takes off his hat and chucks it on Zelda’s coffee table, then runs one hand through his coarse hair. “No one can explain to you how to use your own power, it comes to us all in different ways.”

“What’s wrong with the girl?” Zelda crosses her arms as she looks at me.

“There’s something blocking the golden art.” He points at my arms. “Her body is fighting it.”

Zelda plucks at my arm, examines the skin. I look like a wreck, my eczema coming up in raised raw patches; huge red areas that weep a thin clear fluid. “What brought it on, why is it trying to rise?” She looks up sharply. “There’s no danger in here.”

I know what brought it on. A connection that even Rain doesn’t have to me, no matter how much I might think I’m in love. Guess blood really is thicker than petrol or whatever. “M—my brother,” I say through my chattering teeth. “He’s gone missing.”

Zelda exchanges a glance with Caleb.

“What?” I say. “What are you not telling me?” I’m about ready to tear my own skin off with just my fingernails.

“How much does Heinrich know about the girl?”

Caleb shrugs. “Enough. He knew where she lived.”

They’re saying exactly what I don’t want to hear; confirming my fears. “You’re saying Heinrich has my brother?” My voice rises in a shriek; it sounds nothing like me.

“I’m not saying anything of the kind,” Caleb snaps. “It’s a possibility….”

“You bastard. Why didn’t you tell me that Heinrich would go after my family, and, and—” Someone hugs me from behind. Rain. I lean back into his arms and feel the shivers dying a little. “Oh god,” I say. The itch is worse, like thousands of pins trying to push their way out of my skin. I bend forward, feeling like I’m going to puke at any minute, and something cold slips free from under my shirt to hang in front of my face.

I feel a presence next to me, dry and papery like old leaves. Not Caleb, but Zelda.

“Oh, Hestia.” Zelda sighs. “You stupid woman.” She reaches forward and lifts the silver chain at my neck, bringing the evil eye out for the others to see. She jerks and the chain breaks.

Magic—the golden art—whatever the hell Caleb calls it, spills out of my skin, tearing through my pores. I can see it, like a slick golden sweat that shimmers as I move. It flashes brightly, then disappears. I hit the ground with a thud, hard enough that my elbow and arm are going to be bruised solid by tomorrow. Rain is dragged down with me, and we lie together on the floor in a crumpled heap. I’m panting. My skin feels like I just got the world’s worst sunburn.

“You okay?” Rain pulls me up, so close that out legs are curled together and I’m practically sitting on him. I can feel his heart hammering against mine. “Was that it?” He looks up at Caleb, although he’s till holding me tightly.

“It was.”

Zelda tosses my mother’s evil eye charm to the floor. It’s so small that it hardly makes a sound as it hits the brown shag carpet. A ring of concentric circles stares up at me. “Hestia should have known better than to tell you to wear it,” she says. “People like us can’t have these against our skin.”

“She didn’t tell me anything,” I say, and close my fingers around the broken chain. It feels cool and slippery. “She’s a little bit dead, or did you forget?” Now that the itch is gone and the magic has burst, I feel empty, light-headed. I can barely think straight and every body part feels like it’s made of hollow lead piping.

“Don’t put it on again,” she says. “You can use it to ward the place you live, but not your body.” Her frown softens. “Come. I made supper.”

Yeah, more cabbage, I can smell.

Rain helps me to my feet, and hugs me again. I almost feel like sticking my tongue out at Caleb. Almost. There are levels of childishness that even I will not stoop to. Although I do consider it seriously for about half a second.

The cabbage actually turns out to be parcels of leaves with minced meat inside. I’m starving, and cold, and eating seems to help counter-act the woozy feeling. Not that I taste much. I’m too busy worrying about Dale and pulling out my phone every two minutes in case it’s somehow ringing and I don’t hear it.

Caleb keeps staring across at me as I eat, and he has this smug, satisfied look on his face that I want to punch right off. I bow my head and ignore him. Which is actually pretty easy, since I keep feeling like I’m going to pass out into my plate. “You were supposed to tell me about wild magic,” I say softly to my plate.

There’s a moment of silence, then Caleb sighs. “I keep expecting you to know all these things because your mother was one of us,” he says. “I pieced most of it together myself, always hearing the fringes of stories.”

But no-one told me anything.” I look up. “Just…fairy stories about monsters in the dark, and girls who could charm their dead brothers back to life.”

Caleb smiles, and it’s the most real expression I have ever seen on him. The most human. “She was telling you the truth, in her own way. There are things stranger than the little art we have. The life-force of the universe. We call it the wild magic, but that’s not what it is, not really.”

There are other worlds than this one,” says Zelda.

And Heinrich is trying to reach them. He wants to use all the stolen magic to push our worlds together.” Caleb shoves some cabbage around his plate. “He thinks if he can find a way through, he will have control over that force.”

Will he?”

Caleb shrugs, and begins to chew at another mouthful.

I need a little space to process,” I say. What I mean is, I want a cigarette and a chance to think about all this crap. To set my thoughts in order. No-one stops me from getting up from the table and heading outside. It doesn’t help, all I can do is worry about Dale, what might have happened to him, and how useless everything is.

When I come back, shivery and no less confused than when I left, Zelda is telling a story as the others eat. Her voice is the voice from my mother’s book. It’s as if I’ve stepped into the tale itself, or that Zelda is reading from a copy.

It gives me a sick feeling deep in my stomach. I can’t even blame it on the cabbage.

She’s telling Caleb the story of his magic. I stand there, frozen, listening as her voice sweeps over me like memories and dreams.

So,” Zelda says, her eyes closed as though she’s reciting something learned as a child. “Heinrich had finally killed all the rats in Hemel, and was returning, triumphant, to the Mayor to collect his chest. All around him the village people were singing and clapping, rejoicing.”

However, while the village celebrated, the village elders were looking at their empty coffers, and they’d come to one conclusion. With Heinrich taking all their money, and the winter fast approaching, few of the people would live to see spring. They whispered among themselves, how they would have to beg mercy of the strange piper, and keep at least half the ransom he’d asked.”

When they told him this, the piper flew into a black rage and told them to keep their cursed coin, that there were better things to take. The villagers, not understanding, but grateful that he’d let them keep the money, were not expecting what came next.”

What Heinrich did, of course, was play a tune on his pipe, a tune not unlike the one that had led the rats to their death. However, this one affected only children. It was now the village children who danced through the streets of Hemel, up to the cliff where the rats had plunged down to their end.

The village people tried to stop him, but no flung stone, no blow from a weapon would touch the piper, cloaked in his magic. And so the children danced and danced and danced, until their feet were bleeding, and still they danced on, and were gone. The parents watched and wept where they fell.”

He came back to the mayor to tell him one thing: now there will be coin enough to feed the remaining. And with that he left.”

Only one child had not been taken. A crippled boy unable to run and dance like the others, and so he was left behind. The only child in a village full of hatred and old age. His name was Johannes Dunn, and as soon as he was old enough to leave Hemel he did. He travelled to distant lands, where he met his wife, and eventually settled on the white isle, where his name became Dunning.”

Caleb looks up from his closed fists. “An ancestor.”

Zelda nods. “Yes, and one who vowed that whatever became of him, that one day his family would strike down the magician Heinrich, as vengeance for the stolen children, the children that Heinrich turned into his slaves.”

Caleb has a distant look on his face. “I remember it,” he says. “That train ride. Heinrich. I remember feeling empty when we arrived in Johannesburg, and not understanding why.” He closes his eyes. “It took me a long time before I learned about magic, about what he had stolen from me. All I had was that scrap he left.” His eyes flick open and he stares at Zelda. “And you think that’s why he stole my magic? That he knew who I was?”

She taps one finger against the table, thoughtful. “You would have been a magician powerful enough to shape the world, had you not been unfortunate enough to meet Heinrich on a train when you were still a boy. But no, I think if Heinrich had known who you were, he wouldn’t have left you with even the little bit of magic that he did.” She’s staring at Caleb with a frank open look and she says nothing when Caleb leans back on his chair.

The room is silent, then: “Tell me how you plan to destroy Heinrich,” she says.

“No.”

“I must know,” Zelda says. “There is no-one who was as close to Heinrich as I was, and I can tell you if it will work or not.”

“It will work.” Caleb sounds very sure of himself. “Now, more than ever, it will work. Especially if you help us catch him by surprise.”

Next to Caleb, Rain is pushing his food around his plate, head bowed. I can tell he’s listening from the way he keeps sneaking looks at Caleb through the white-blond tangle of his hair.

Zelda’s voice fills the room. It has a cadence, a magic like my mother’s had. A singer’s voice. “Who told you Heinrich was trying to access the wild magic?”

“More than one person,” Caleb says. “Why—you don’t think he would try?”

Zelda nods, slowly. “Oh, I believe he would. He would love the idea of having all the world’s magic at his fingers, limitless and strange.” She snorts. “And only Heinrich would be so filled with hubris as to think he could wrest charm from the wild people themselves.” She folds her hands before her on the table, like she’s praying. “Caleb, for that reason alone, I will find him for you. I pray that you know what you’re doing.”

“And if I do kill him, you know you’ll get your magic back.” He grins; it’s not pretty or friendly. Something about it reminds me of the red magician’s wolf. Feral, dangerous. It’s pretty easy to picture Caleb tearing someone’s throat out, really.

I don’t want it back,” she says.

Caleb smirks. “That’s what the Mother said, but she changed her mind in the end. We all of us want our magic back.” He flexes his long musician’s fingers and I feel the faint ripple of magic as he does. “I know what it feels like to ache. Everyday, I lose a little more of the scraps I have left. I’ve seen the looks on the faces of all those who Heinrich has stolen from. Of course you want it back.”

“No, Caleb Dunning,” she shakes her head, “I don’t.”

“I don’t understand.”

“There are worse aches.” Zelda stands and starts gathering the empty dishes. Rain looks up in surprise as she snatches his plate away. “I’m old, Caleb. It’s time for me to fade, to let Lilith or another take my place.”

“You’re a fool if you believe that.”

“We all have our sacrifices to make.” Zelda looks back at him from the kitchen arch. “I’ve lived my life. Fallen in love, watched myself get old and wrinkled. I’ve been spurned and cheated and lost everything. No.” She shakes her head. “Set my magic free, I don’t want it back.”

“Maybe he’s already used it,” Caleb says. “Maybe there’s nothing for you to get back.”

God, the man can be such a bitch sometimes.

Zelda doesn’t seem to care. She laughs—a loud horsey sound. “I would have felt it if he had. As would you if he’d used up all your stolen art.”

Caleb says nothing back to her, but his eyes flicker and one hand clenches on the table top, pulling the embroidered table-cloth skew.

 

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cat_hellisen

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