How We Burn
It takes a moment for the words to sink in. Caleb sold my brother out to Heinrich, did all this—manipulated me, manipulated Rain—so that he could get back his stolen magic. My brother could already be some drooling half-human monster, a slave for Heinrich until his death. I picture my brother’s face deformed by those long fangs, his back bowed under the useless wings. The golden art whispers in my blood, hungry and awake. It shudders in anticipation, feeding on my anger, throbbing and rising. The room goes cold. Then white hot.
“No, no, no, no.” Rain lashes out from under me. “Don’t listen to him, Irene. He’s fucking lying.”
It’s too late. Magic is pouring through my skin. It doesn’t feel dirty any more, just pure and hot and angry.
The blast knocks me back. It’s a solid wall of pulsing fire, and in the centre, Caleb goes up like a twist of magnesium ribbon in a flare of white light so bright that it burns after-images on my retinas.
From the stairs, Heinrich shrieks.
I turn my head, the heat from the fire beating against my skin, in time to see the shock on his face, just before Heinrich begin to smoke. A second later, he erupts into a solid pillar of flame.
The binding charm.
I grab hold of Rain, certain that any minute he’s going to go supernova, and that somehow I can stop it if I absorb the last of Caleb’s magic or something.
Rain stares wide-eyed at the black smear where Caleb stood. There’s not even a bone or a tooth left to say there was once a person in that spot. I smell burnt hair, a peculiar roast pork sweetness of human flesh. Bile rises in my throat and I make myself swallow it down. I glance up at the stairs, but Heinrich is gone. Like Caleb, he might as well never existed. I can’t even feel the faintest lingering trace of either of their magic. “Rain?” My lungs are full of smoke, dry and burnt. “Why?” I stop, I can’t ask him why he didn’t just fry up like the others.
“He broke the charm weeks ago,” Rain says in a dry, choked voice. He stands, movements jerky and precise.
I struggle to my feet. The shakes are starting to hit but I have nothing to stop them, not even a months out-of-date chocolate. My legs can’t take my weight, and I’m shivering so badly now that it’s just easier to curl into a ball on the ground and give myself over to the cold. Something soft lands on my face. It smells of wool and boy-sweat and cigarette smoke and deodorant and incense.
“Wear it,” says Rain. I uncurl enough to look at him. He’s stripped off the jersey I gave him and his arms are pale and bare. I can just see the long ragged line that marks his inside left wrist all the way to his elbow. “We need to see if your brother’s here.”
I put on his jersey on with trembling fingers. If Rain of all people can cope, so can I. Pull yourself together, Irene. Warmed by the faded black wool, I follow Rain up the flight of stairs. Each step feels like it’s going to be my last, but I keep pushing.
If Caleb wasn’t lying then my brother is somewhere in this house.
And so is all the stolen magic.
We find Dale first. He’s in an unlocked room surrounded by four corpses. “Oh my god, Reen,” he says. His words come out so fast they blur together. “Where the fuck are we? What are you doing here? There was this crazy ancient guy and I couldn’t leave the damn room because it was full of these things.” He points at a desiccated mound of bones. “Jesus, Reen, they had wings, and teeth, and then the next minute they were all dead.” He pauses to take a breath, and notices Rain. “Oh hi, Rain,” he says. “You look like shit.”
My brother, it seems, is perfectly fine.
“There’s a car,” Rain says, his voice still emotionless. “A red Citi Golf, about a block away.”
Dale nods as he listens. He’s taken a pouch and a packet of blue Rizlas out of his pocket. He’s rolling himself a spliff. Only my brother.
“Take that and go, before the cops get here,” I say through chattering teeth.
“Whoa.” Dale pauses with his half-rolled joint. “What kind of crazy shit are you guys in? Anyone got a light?”
I start laughing hysterically. “It’s a stolen car,” I add. “Have fun. Tell Dad I kinda lost the Beetle but since I found you, could he please not kill me.”
My brother eyeballs me. “Irene,” he says slowly. “You’re a headcase, you do know that.” He shakes his head so his lion’s mane of matted curls swings in front of his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t tell you,” I say. “Please, just go. Dad’s going crazy.”
Dale looks at Rain, who is focused on the ground, saying nothing. I think the shock is over, and soon Rain is going to crack, big time. The thought makes me shudder harder, like I can barely hold myself together. I need to keep it together long enough to get Rain home, to get him safe.
Something about how serious I am finally gets through to Dale. He pockets his joint and steps over the remains of—I guess—one of the Hunters. There’s no identifying the smear of ash and dust now. My brother pauses at the door. “I dunno what you’re doing, Irene,” he says. “But I remember Mom too.” He doesn’t have to say anything else, because Dale’s just let me know that he knows. I also trust him to keep his mouth shut. You have to be able to trust siblings with the big stuff. If you can’t, then you’re not really family, no matter what.
I nod, and I can hear my teeth chattering. We understand each other, Dale and I. And maybe I’m not the only person in this family affected by Mom’s blood.
When he’s gone Rain glances sidelong at me, like he can’t really bear to actually look at my face. “Can you find the rest of the magic?”
I suppose I could, even though I’m feeling like I just got hit by a truck. Then again, like calls to like, so maybe it won’t be too much of a strain. I trigger the waiting magic, and I can feel it purr as it eats at my energy. There’s a distinct pricking at my senses; the uneasy electric feel of other people’s magic. I let the golden art lead me through the rooms in Heinrich’s house to a small study littered with ancient books. Complex symbols are on the walls, and I see the same squiggles on the open pages of one of the books. Caleb said Heinrich wanted to gain access to wild magic, and I know without understanding, that this is connected. The walls thrum, the sigils vibrate and swirl, moving like mercury. The whole room is thick with a warped feeling of wild magic, but gone strange and dark. I’ve no idea what to do about any of this, and the person I could have asked is currently being deader than dead. I turn away from the strange pulsation of trapped wild magic, and focus on something I can do instead.
On the far side of the room is a glass-fronted display case filled with seven rows of glittering baubles on tiny metal stands, like a host of ugly Easter eggs. Most of the baubles are clear and empty, but there’s a row of six, and another four above that, that are still clouded and dark. The stolen magic. This is how Heinrich stayed alive for so long, stayed powerful. He just collected other people’s power and ate it, like it was some kind of delicacy.
Outside the sparrows and the Indian mynahs are babbling at each other. The first light seeping in through the leaded windows makes the shifting coiling magic inside the glass look like oily clouds filled with dirty rainbows. I move to open the glass case, then stop. “I can’t touch them,” I say. “My hands are shaking, I’ll break them.”
Rain grabs a folded newspaper off the study desk and carefully takes the first full egg to wrap it. “There’s a name on the bottom,” he says. He holds it out. Clearly inscribed into the glass in the same elegant copperplate as Zelda’s destroyed letters, is the name Caitlin Ormond. Paper rustles as he wraps it.
“Here’s Lily’s.” He folds that one slowly into a ball of newsprint. “Zelda’s.” We go through all ten like that, Rain carefully wrapping them and placing them in my canvas army shoulder bag. Not one belongs to Caleb.
I don’t want to tell him to look at the empty ones, and I don’t have to.
Rain checks each one, until on the fourth row from the bottom, he stops. He stares at the empty glass ball for a long time. “He knew,” Rain says. “He knew Heinrich had used it all.” He sits down on the plush carpet, cross-legged and holds onto the ball tightly.
There’s nothing I can say that will make this better. Not after what I’ve done.
The glass breaks under his fingers, and Rain just holds it tighter, crushing the ball to powder and shards in his fist. I don’t stop him. Blood trickles down the creases of his hand.
Finally, I swallow past the frog in my throat. “I didn’t know the binding charm was broken.” As an apology, it stinks. I struggle to find a better way to say it, but everything I can think of just sounds trite. Dumb.
Rain stares at his fist, at the blood. He opens his hand, uncurls it like a flower. His palm is a bloody mess and fine white splinters catch the light as he raises his hand. “He broke it a few days after he first cast it. Told me not to tell you.”
“What about the generator? Using you as bait?”
He lifts one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “My idea. He knew it was one way of getting you to agree.”
“What—” I pause, scrunch my hands. “What if he hadn’t come back for you?”
“He did. He doesn’t—didn’t—break his word.”
I want to yell, hit someone, to do anything but sit here on my knees with a bagful of magic, and two deaths on my conscience. I want to scream at Rain, tell him he could have trusted me, that he could have told me. Instead, I get up slowly so that the glass baubles in my bag don’t bash against each other. “We need to go.” I want to get away from this place, from the magic I don’t understand, and from the smell of burned skin and hair.
Rain smears his hand on the side of his jeans. It probably just grinds those splinters in deeper, but I don’t think he cares.
Using the golden art has pretty much eaten the last of my reserves. My legs are quivering, and I hang on to the desk for support. Rain hitches one arm around me and we make our way down the corridor and the long flight of stairs, and out into the garden.
The sun has risen above the tree tops, burning so bright that I have to shade my eyes. It all seems so normal, the mynahs scuffling in the rubbish and fighting over scraps, the gardeners walking to work, the Mercs and Beemers sliding down the streets. Together we hobble to a main road, and Rain flags down a minibus taxi.
The sound of Joburg coming to life, full of hoots and shouts and loud laughter, buzzes around me. So much noise, so much light, and all I can do is sit squashed up in the taxi and shiver. Wrapped up in Rain’s crappy old jersey, I feel a bit like a glass ball myself, with the magic dirty and spoiled inside me. I’m going to pass out right there in the taxi.
I stay awake long enough to realise that Rain’s taking me to his house, and not mine, before I finally sink into the black.
I wake in a room full of incense and dust and cigarette smoke. The light is dull, late-afternoon. Music is playing on the battered old tape-deck.
The world’s biggest retro freak is the only person I know who even knows what a mix tape is.
I’m cocooned under a layer of winter duvets that still reek faintly of mothballs. Someone coughs and I sit up blearily, careful not to move my head too much.
Rain is sitting curled up on the crash-couch, one leg bent under him. He’s smoking, and watching me expressionlessly through his dirty blond hair. “You’re awake.” A plume of smoke coils up from his nose and mouth, drifts to the ceiling.
“So it seems.”
He takes another deep drag, and ashes into an Altoids tin. “I called your dad.” He leans to pick up something small and black and tosses it onto the duvet, next to me. “Just to let him know you were okay.”
“Oh.” I fumble for the cell. It seems to be dead, the battery finally given out. “Thanks. What did you say?”
“That you were drunk and you crashed at my place.”
Believable, I guess. And I certainly have a headache bad enough that I might as well have spent last night downing shots of vodka instead of setting people on fire.
“Um.” I scrunch up a little so I’m sitting properly. “Are you okay?”
The tape groans into the next track.
There are bruises on his throat, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. Rain stretches out his legs and stubs out the cigarette. “Lily’s made you breakfast. Or lunch. Whatever.” He picks up my bag, swinging it from his hand, holding it out. “I haven’t given her the—thing,” he says. “I thought it would be better if you did.” He’s not looking at me.
Well, at least one person will get something out of this mess. I take the bag gingerly, both of us careful not to touch each other. It’s horrible, like we’re two complete strangers forced to share a small space.
Lily is standing at the bead curtain that separates the kitchen from the dining room. Her face is drawn, the wrinkles deeper. “I felt it,” she says. “I felt him die.”
Guilt hits me, makes me sick to my stomach and I catch the look of white shock on Rain’s face.
“You have my magic?” She walks through the clattering curtain, beads brushing her face and arms. She means Heinrich, I realise. Not Caleb. Probably no-one gives a shit that Caleb died except for Rain. And possibly me.
“It’s in here.” I put my bag on the table and there’s the faintest muffled chink from inside. I hand her the one I remember Rain wrapping and she reveals it with a frantic nervous flicker of her fingers. The bauble looks smaller, almost mundane. The only thing that saves it from looking like some cheap trinket is the churning magic inside. So small. I wonder if that’s all I have too, or if that’s all that Lily had left when Heinrich stole it from her.
She hums softly to it, like it’s a baby she’s crooning to. I can’t really see what’s happening but it looks like she’s calling the art out of the ball, the glass thinning and turning gauzy. The oily smoke drips out like egg yolk, into Lily’s hand. It shifts for a moment, and I swear the thing is alive, sentient. There’s a sticky feeling to the air like the moment before a storm breaks, and then the smoke slides into her skin.
“Oh,” she says, and shivers. The faint charcoal smudge that shadows her softens and pales, until it’s replaced by a momentary halo. She puts the empty glass bauble onto the table.
The after-image dies, and Lily looks normal again. Only more there, like for the first time since I’ve known her Lily is real.
“Oh,” she breathes the word, like a sigh of contentment and stretches her arms up, then looks down at the remaining balls. “Who do the others belong to?” She says it in a sly way that makes my skin crawl. I remind myself that Zelda said only Heinrich had the ability to use other people’s magic.
“Dunno. I’ll find out.” I pack the others back in my bag. The thought of food seems too much now, but I need to eat, if my light-headedness is anything to go by. I smear toast with jam and make myself chew and swallow. Chew and swallow. Afterwards I call my dad to come fetch me. I don’t even get a chance to say goodbye to Rain when I go. He’s locked himself in his room, and all I can hear is the faint bass rumble of Joy Division through the blank wooden door.
My heart is tearing itself into scraps.
My dad takes it in stride when I tell him I lost my job. He doesn’t even baulk when I ask him if I can move back home. He is however, more than a little peeved that I took the Beetle to Hillbrow and managed to get it stolen.
To be honest, I don’t even want to go back to my flat and fetch my stuff, but Dale comes and helps me, which makes it not so bad.
Caleb glares at me from the canvas. I try not to look at the picture, working around it like it’s not really there. Until Dale heads downstairs to go buy us some crisps and Coke, and then I sit down cross-legged in front of the portrait.
“Um.” I clear my throat. “I’m sorry.”
Naturally enough, Caleb says nothing back.
The room echoes now that most of my stuff is packed up, and outside the faint drone of traffic competes with birdsong. “I never trusted you,” I say into the empty room. “And I still think you’re a stupid manipulative bastard, but I’m sorry that I killed you, and I’m sorrier still that Rain had to suffer.” I pull my knees up close to my chest, my arms wrapped around them. “You could have just told me what you wanted me to do,” I whisper. “You didn’t have to drag Rain into it.”
He’s never going to forgive me, I don’t say.
Next to Caleb’s portrait is Rain’s, eyes closed, like he’s asleep, dreaming. Caleb’s looking down at him, with that faint sneering frown. It looks almost fond.
“Idiot,” I say out loud. I don’t even know which of them I’m talking to any more.
Behind me the door slams open against the wall.
“Munchies,” Dale says as he kicks the door closed. “You have a choice of Fritos or Nik Naks.”
I cover Caleb’s face with cheap brown paper, tying him away so that I don’t have to see his expression. Dale does the same next to me, wrapping Rain up and knotting the twine with his stubby fingers.
It takes us half a day to pack. “This Mom’s stuff?” Dale points at the small boxes still sitting half-unpacked on the floor.
He looks at them quietly, then glances at me, opens his mouth.
“Don’t say anything.”
“If you ever want to talk to me,” Dale says.
“Yeah, I know.”
When everything is packed and moved, I catch a number 13 bus in to town, and make my way to Ponte.
The place is even more deserted, there’s hardly even any sign that people used to live here. Some construction rubble and equipment is lying around though, so I guess they’re finally getting rid of the last of the tenants so they can do their grand make-over.
Zelda doesn’t look particularly pleased to see me when I ring her doorbell.
“What do you want?” She makes no effort to invite me in, so I dig through my bag and haul out the small wrapped parcel I’ve been carrying.
“Here,” I say, “this is yours.”
She eyes me, then snakes out one hand and grabs my tee shirt, and hauls me into her apartment. The door slams behind me, and Zelda bolts all the locks. “Now,” she says. “Why have you brought that here? I told you I didn’t want it.”
I shrug. I’m still holding the bauble out. “I didn’t know what else to do.” And there’s something almost sentimental about how Heinrich still hadn’t eaten Zelda’s magic. Maybe I wanted her to know that.
With a snatch she swipes it from my open hand, and ushers me into the dining room. Zelda unwraps the layers of newspaper quickly. “So Caleb went through with his sacrifice,” she says, as she uncovers the last layer. “And obviously, it worked.”
“You knew what he was going to do?”
“Not exactly, but he had the look of a man resigned to death. I put two and two together.”
I wonder how Zelda and Rain saw a different Caleb to what I did. Were we even looking at the same person? Maybe I’m blind.
The ball rolls out of its final wrapping, across to the centre of the table, where it spins slowly then stills. The magic inside is writhing, battering at the sides of its glass prison.
“It knows I’m here,” Zelda says. She has her hands folded over something, and she doesn’t move to touch the glass.
“Are you going to take it back?”
She shakes her head. “You open it,” she says.
I take the ball. The glass feels warm under my fingers, almost soft, and through the thin barrier I can feel the faint prickling against my fingers and palm. Unlike Lily, I can’t call the magic free. I look up at her, one eyebrow raised in question.
“Just break it,” she says.
One quick tap against the edge of the table, and the glass shatters like an egg. Magic pours over my hands, gloving them with a peculiar electric oily feel. It probes at my skin, digging at me, then as if it realises I’m not its host, turns and begins to flow toward Zelda.
“Away,” she says. I realise that she’s taken the hamsa from her wall, and she’s placed it between her and the magic. The magic pauses, twists and coils, and then, turns soft as smoke and blows away.
“Well,” says Zelda, after a few minutes. “That hurt less than I thought it would.” But she sounds empty. Sad.
“I have to go, before it gets dark.” Last thing I want to do is wander around Joburg in the dark. Though I suppose I could turn any potential rapist or mugger into a cinder. Imagine explaining that to the police. “I need to catch the last bus.”
Zelda nods, and leads me to her door. She clamps one hand on my shoulder before I leave. “I should probably give you some pithy warning about the golden art and the toll it takes on people,” she says.
“Yeah. I think I have a pretty good idea where that would go.” I manage a weak grin.
“Get on with you then,” she says. The door closes in my face. Bolts chink and scrape.
I shake my head.
In my old room at Dad’s house, the baubles are packed in a small Styrofoam cooler. I’ve written down the nine names left. Eight if I don’t count Zelda. One of the names is already crossed out. Caitlin Ormond. I found her in a park in Gresswold, curled up asleep against that wolf-dog of hers. She didn’t thank me when I gave her back her magic. I’ve googled the others. Two are dead, the rest live overseas. Right now, I’m not a hundred percent sure what I’m going to do. I’ll think about it after I’ve finished college and put the decision off for a few more years.
I phone Lily’s house for the hundredth time, though I’ve learned to accept the click of the phone placed back in its cradle. My heart jolts when I hear his voice.
“Uh,” I say. “Hi. Did I wake you?”
He’s quiet, but I can hear the faint sound of him breathing. I huddle into my jacket. The season has started to change.
“I wanted to see how you were.”
It’s like pulling teeth, I can hear he doesn’t want to talk to me. “Maybe I can come round tomorrow, we can go grab a beer?”
There’s another pause, and I know he’s not thinking about it, instead he’s wondering how to say no, as kindly as possible. “Irene… I just need a break for a bit.” His voice sounds even fainter, but there’s determination there too.
“Oh. Yeah. Okay.” I fiddle with the zip on my hoodie. “Um. Some other time then.”
“Yeah.” But he doesn’t mean it.
I snap my phone shut and stare at it for a moment. Damn. I’ve basically been dumped by someone I wasn’t even dating.