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Bossman's return charm had a landing a gajillion times softer than Chaz's 'flick me across the planet' method, but left a lot to be desired on the location side of things. The spell was apparently tied to the portal in the boss's study- which normally would be fine. But since he'd piled all the furniture in the room of to the side, the side where the portal was, it wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world.
For one thing, the place it spat me out was the stationary portal in Bossman's study. . . which would normally be fine, but now it was under an entire room's worth of furniture piled on top of it.
"Son of a bitch!" I screeched.
I'd manifested under a table, which was a good thing because it meant there wasn't any other furniture directly on top of the portal, but was bad because I'd come back in just such a way that I'd partly manifested through the table leg.
A small chunk of my fleshy upper arm had gone into the table, about a centimeter deep, going the vertical length of my tricep. I pulled. It came free with a sickening squelch.
There was a vertical nick in my arm. It was red and gooey and hurt like fuck all, but it wasn't bleeding, and there wasn't any bits of wood melded into it. All things considered, I was actually pretty lucky. I'd seen cases where the teleportee had to be cut out. Didn't stop me from cursing the air blue.
"Bossman!" I bellowed between curses. "Faust! Get your kzxchvxing ass over here and help me move all this asdfing crap!"
I couldn't see from under there, maybe he'd left again. Maybe he couldn't hear me. Maybe he was ignoring me. I swore some more and tried burrowing my way out. Every time I moved, my arm throbbed in protest. Every time I bumped it, it flared up to remind me of its presence.
How much furniture did he have in here? No way it was all from this room alone.
I bet he brought it in from the living room, I thought. It was all clear to me now. His giving me the snappers was all a trick. He'd wanted me coming back through the portal in the hopes I'd lop my head off or fuse to a chair or something. Why he would do this? Probably something stupid. That bastard.
"You bastard!" I shouted, hoping he heard me. I heard the sound of thumping and wood snapping as furniture on the outer levels fell over, apparently jostled with all my moving around. Good! I hoped it all broke, I hoped he had to go out and pay double for replacements! This was all his fault, not mine.
I gave an almighty shove and toppled over a few chairs with a triumphant roar.
Bossman was lying on the ground a few feet away, facing me. Soft gray tendrils of smoke were lazily coiling up from the big black hole in his chest. It was only then that I noticed what my nose had already picked up on several minutes ago: the room stank of burning meat.
"Boss?" I said, climbing out of the pile. "Are you alright?"
There was no response. I got close enough to see that the big black hole in him wasn't actually all that big, and wasn't actually a hole. It was a solid, blackened crisp. There wasn't any other damage: no bubbling skin or red, ooziness that usually comes with massive burns. There was just a round, black, still-smoking patch of fresh charcoal the size of a baseball over his heart.
I knelt down and prodded his shoulder.
"You're not dead," I said. "I'd know if you were dead."
He didn't answer, so I shoved him. "You're not dead," I said again. "You're too stupid to die all in one go. You'd have to try half a dozen times on purpose before you got it right."
He still didn't answer. Or move.
By the big ass pile of clay he’d been working with was a bucket, filled with water. Probably to keep the clay easy to work. Half-dazed, I got up, grabbed the bucket, and then emptied the water all over him.
He spluttered to life a second later. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.
"See?" I said as he coughed. "I told you you weren't dead. What happened?"
He coughed and gasped and held one hand over the charred spot on his chest.
"Nothing," he finally croaked. "Miscalculation. Just a minor inconvenience."
"Looks like your heart caught fire while it was still stuck inside you."
He tentatively poked the charred flesh on his chest. "That's exactly what happened," he said. "If it had gotten out of me, then it would have been major."
"I’m so glad to see you're taking this well. I'm not washing that shirt: it's a lost cause." I helped him to his feet as best I could. He immediately tried to get back to the workbench with the golems, but I got in his way. "No," I said.
He tried sidling around, and I blocked him there, too. "Move. I have work to do."
"When was the last time you slept?"
"Tuesday. I think."
"Last," he mumbled. Apparently all the excitement of flambéing himself had worn off. I hadn't thought it possible, but he looked even worse than he had that morning. At least now he wasn't yelling at me.
"Boss," I said, still blocking him off. "What were you trying to do?"
He grinned sheepishly, extenuating the new lines in his face and the circles under his eyes. "Adrenaline," he said. "I spiked my adrenal glands and was trying to help my heart catch up." He'd stopped trying to get past me and was now wobbling slightly on his feet. I wouldn't have to hit him in the head or drug him or anything: it looked like he was about to collapse on his own.
"Great, just what I need. A wizard tweaker. Boss, go to bed."
"Can't." His eyes were getting heavy. "Gotta work."
“Mmhmm, sure you do. Come on,” I tried steering him up the study's steps and out of the room. He didn't put up much of a fight, though he kept mumbling about work. Good thing, too: the stairs were tricky enough without him trying to turn around on me. By the time we got to the ground-floor hallway, I was pretty much the only thing keeping him standing.
"Okay," I puffed. "Maybe we won't go upstairs just yet. D'you mind sleeping on the couch?"
"Mhrrm," he said.
"Alrighty." I started leading him to the much more accessible living room.
"Hi, Bri," chirped a disgustingly cheerful voice in the hall behind me.
I turned and scowled. "How did you get in here?"
The little boy who most certainly hadn’t been there a second ago shrugged. "The kitchen door was unlocked."
The hallway we were in didn't go to the kitchen. I didn't question it.
"Of course it was. Listen, Manny-"
"Whatever. You can't be here. I've got a lot on my plate and I don't have enough room for a snotty little kid."
He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. “I’m not snotty.”
“The point stands. Go home. If you're looking for the dog, I don't think he's even back yet." I started for the hallway. Bossman staggered along side me, using my shoulder like an armrest.
"It's okay," he said, following after. "I can wait."
I wondered if it was worth trying to talk him out of it and got Bossman to the living room. Mid-morning light poured through the windows while I helped him to the sofa. He collapsed gratefully onto the cushions, but stayed sitting upright.
"Jus' a breather," he said, his eyes sinking closed.
Mathew peered at him and moved in closer to investigate. “How come you got a zombie in your house?”
“He’s not a zombie."
"Sounds like a zombie. And he's got something wrong with his chest."
"He's not a zombie! He's just tired."
"Oh," said Mathew. "I can fix him if you want. Grama showed me how."
I thought of the woman who'd hurled lightning at me the other day, screaming about demons and telling me to stay away from her grandson. I don't know if I'd trust anything from her to 'fix' Bossman.
"He's just tired," I said. "Just let him sleep, he'll be fire. You're grandma doesn't know you're here, does she?"
The kid was still looking at the charred spot in Bossman's chest. "Nope." He reached out a hand to touch it.
The kid lightly poked the black spot. There was an audible wumph as power sizzled through Bossman's chest and pulsed out in the air. There was the strong smell of burning flesh and- I furrowed my eyebrows. Coffee?- but it was gone almost instantly.
Bossman shot up, coughing.
"Feel better?" said Mathew.
Bossman jumped to his feet and ran to the kitchen.
"Boss?" I said, running after. I heard the sound of the kitchen's glass slider opening and got there just in time to see Bossman jumping off the porch steps. "What did you do to him?"
"I gave him a pick-me-up," said Mathew. "Don't worry, they always start off super hyper."
We watched Bossman run around the yard a few times, vanishing behind a copse of trees before reappearing on the stone path that went around.
"Huh," said Mathew. "My mom normally starts cleaning stuff when I do this."
"How long will he be like this?"
"Just a little bit longer. Then he'll even out."
I didn't ask what he meant and watched my boss start hurling blasts of light at the side of the garage. They didn't wreck up anything, so I'm guessing they were just light blasts, but they must've helped him burn off some of that extra energy. A few more mini-novas exploded harmlessly against the garage before he managed to get himself under control. He stopped throwing spells around, straightened up, adjusted his shirt, and strode casually towards us like nothing had happened.
"See?" said Mathew.
"Boss?" I said as he approached. "Are you-?"
"Coffee," he said, breezing past us. "No talk. Coffee."
"What," I said. "You aren't wired enough?"
He grunted in a way I took to mean, 'shut up' and started rooting around for the filters. "Bottom left cabinet," I said. He grunted again, which I took to mean 'thank you'.
The coffee finished brewing almost as soon as he'd turned on the machine, so I knew he was cheating. He poured himself a mug, absently grabbed a bag of bagels from the countertop, and then went to the table, where he sank into a chair and sat with an air of finality.
I remained off to the side, leaning against the counter. Mathew went to sit across from him.
"Hi," said the kid brightly. " My name's Mathew. I woke you up."
Bossman nodded over his mug and stuck his free hand across the table. "Thanks for that," he said once he was done drinking. "You can call me John. Nice to meet you."
Mathew eagerly shook the offered hand and Bossman eyed me. "Why is there a gradeschooler in my kitchen?"
"Because I wouldn't let him play in the study."
"Bri's my second third best friend," said the gradeschooler in question, helping himself to a bagel. To me, he added, "That's three more levels than last time 'cause Jeremy pushed me in the mud and had to drop some."
"Bri?" said Bossman, suddenly looking more alert. "Bri? Is that your name?"
"No, of course not."
"Mathew, how do you know that name?" said Bossman, completely ignoring me. "Where did you hear it?"
Mathew shrugged. "I just know," he said around a mouthful of crumbs. "Names are important. I know lotsa people's names. Bri's actually Bricr-
I slapped my hand over his mouth and put him in partial headlock. "Okay, that's enough of that."
How the fuck did the little squirt know my name? How the fuck does he know my name?!
"No," said Bossman. "I want to hear this."
"No, no, and no. Mathew," I said, awkwardly turning him around so he could see me, but still keeping his mouth covered. "You gotta keep a promise to me, okay? It's a big-big promise and the world will explode if you don't-"
Bossman stood up. "Hey now-"
"Tsssst! So Mathew, can you keep the promise?"
He nodded eagerly. I could tell by the way his eyes were crinkling that he was smiling.
"Okay. The promise is never say my name. Never spell my name. Never write it down, or piss it in snow, or communicate it through smoke signal. Never tell anyone, but especially don't tell him." I pointed at Bossman, who looked mildly offended. "Got it?"
He nodded and held up his pinky. I crossed it with my free hand. Only after the pinky promise did I uncover his mouth. I'd have to put a geas on him later, then, when Bossman wasn't around.
Bossman dug through his pockets and produced a few crumpled bills.
"Mathew, I'll give you ten dollars if you tell me Bri's real name."
The kid, to his credit, shook his head resolutely before I could headlock him again.
"Nope. Can't. Promised."
"Dammit boss, quit trying to bribe a first grader!"
"Third," said Mathew. He grabbed another bagel. "Can I have some water?"
He looked at me, I looked at Bossman. When it became apparent I wasn't going anywhere, Bossman heaved himself up from the table and went to the kitchen.
"This isn't over," he said.
"Fine," I said. "Just wait 'till next time you burn your heart out. See if I help you then."
Mathew thoughtfully bit into his third bagel. I don't know where he put it, since even by kid standards, he was a shrimpy little thing. "My grama says that only stupid people mess with their hearts if there's nothing already wrong with them."
A quick glance at Bossman told me he was starting to go a little red around the cheeks. I cackled. "You're grama sounds like a smart lady."
Bossman didn't rise to the bait and gave the kid his glass of water. "So," he said to me. "Did you find your friend?"
"Yep. He's encased in concrete somewhere east.
"Ah." He took a hearty chug of coffee before continuing. "Did that happen prior too or after your meeting?"
"Prior to. About seven hundred years ago, give or take a few decades" I stretched, and the slice in my arm flared up. I must have winced or something, because Bossman lowered the mug from his lips.
I turned slightly and showed him my arm. I was healing up way faster than a human would, but it still looked pretty unpleasant.
"Gross," said Mathew.
"You're a charmer, kiddo."
"When did that happen?" said Bossman.
"Probably a little bit after you barbecued yourself. You neglected to mention that when the snapper brought me to the stationary portal, the portal would be covered in furniture."
"Oh." He looked into his mug and absently stirred his cocoa. After a moment of silence that seemed to go on forever, he sighed. "Mathew, in the laundry room there's a first aid kit, sitting on the third shelf. Can you bring it to me? The laundry room is-"
Mathew was already getting out of his seat. "I already know where it's at."
Bossman shot me a look. "He's been here before?"
I shrugged, causing another dart of pain to shriek its way up my arm. "Apparently."
The squirt came back with the kit and gave it to Faust, who started unpacking it at the table. "Get over here," he said, gesturing to the seat next to him.
I resisted the urge to make smart comments and sat down.
"Arm on the table," he said, opening up some bandages. I obliged and let him patch me up.
I eyed the bottle of disinfectant warily. "You're not using the sting-y stuff, are you?"
"Of course not." He inspected the cut and then, apparently satisfied that there wasn't any bits of table stuck to me, wiped it off with the disinfectant swab. The entire area immediately felt like it had caught fire. He grabbed onto my wrist before I could pull away and slapped a large bandage over the cut. He let me go a split second after. "If I had told you it was the stinging kind, you wouldn't have let me use it."
"Asshole," I said, rubbing the bandage. Bossman sighed and started putting the stuff back into the kit. I looked up and caught Mathew watching us.
"What?" I said.
"You shouldn't curse."
"That wasn't cursing, that was cussing. Totally different." I stretched out my arm, testing to see if it'd still hurt. It did, but not as much as before. "Well, Boss, thanks for patching me up. I'm outta here. Please, try not to keel over while I'm gone, I don't want to have to go job hunting."
He frowned. "Where are you going?"
"The moon. Wanna come with?"
Mathew shot up, hand waving. "Ooh, I do!"
"You're not on the honor roll, are you, kid?"
Bossman was still frowning. "I don't know if I want you going anywhere-"
"Oh, not this again! You were being so agreeable before."
"I was sick and sleep deprived."
"I like you better that way."
He glowered at me and took another drink.
"So I can't come?" said Mathew.
"'Fraid not, kid."
"I'll contact his parents," said Bossman. He tapped the tabletop with his index finger, apparently in thought. "I'll clean off the stationary for you too, while you're out."
I blinked. "What, really?"
He nodded. "Just don't come back for at least fifteen minutes so I can get it all moved."
"Well, thanks, boss."
He waved me off. I went to the doorway, but hesitated before leaving.
"Don't worry," said Mathew. He twisted around in his chair to look at me. "I'm not going to tell." He held up his hand, pinky out. "I promised."
"Right," I said uncertainly. "You keep that in mind."
I went upstairs to the room I'd ruined with my test summonings. I redrew the spell that seemed to work off in a clear corner of the carpet and then checked my list. Someone named Armaros. I squinted, trying to remember the name. I knew I'd heard it somewhere before, but I'd be damned if I could remember where.
Before I triggered the spell, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander around the house, back into the kitchen. The kid was still chowing down on the bagels. Bossman was talking to somebody on the phone- probably the kid's parents.
I hope he doesn't give my name away, I thought.
I closed my eyes and triggered the spell.
* * * * *
I landed on a mattress delivery truck. This is not nearly as lucky as it sounds.
The sky above me was mostly blue with cloudy pink and orange off in the distance. I stared from where I'd landed on my back and wondered vaguely why it was sunset again when it had been morning at Bossman's. My ears were ringing loud enough to hurt.
My brains, I thought. They're oozing out. That's what the noise is. Oh I hoped not! It would take forever to grow my brain back! If I didn't die, that is.
I sat up and found myself in a metal dent a good foot and a half deep. There wasn't any blood, and I could still feel my toes, so I supposed I was okay. Even my arm didn't hurt that much. The safety spells I'd scribbled into the summoning must've been working. I smiled. At least something was going right.
It took a few tries, but I eventually managed to crawl to the front of the truck. There, I oozed onto carriage, then the hood, until finally I was on the ground. I saw the words Mattress King Delivery painted on the side of the truck and tried very hard not to scream
Casually as I could manage, I strutted across the street, trying to look innocent while keeping watch out for angry delivery men.
The spell had dropped me off in the suburbs. I could tell it was the suburbs because of the lack of smog and the surplus of soccer mom vans. All the houses were squat cookie-cutters surrounded by well-kept yards and flower gardens.
Huh, I thought. Another road. That was the third one, counting the thorn bushes by the road earlier. Maybe something about the way I'd arranged my hacked together spell sent me automatically to roads.
It occurred to me that I had no idea where to start looking.
I sat down on the sidewalk in the shade of a hedge-fence and tried to think. The spell so far had dumped me not-too -far-but-still-annoyingly-far from my targets, but at the same time, if it was attracted to dumping me on roads, that would jack things up. I looked at the row of houses across the street. Should I try my luck asking door to door? What would I say? If they answered at all-
Or you could stop doing things the stupid way. An idea presented itself, and I almost smacked myself for not seeing it sooner. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander off.
All the little houses in view looked neat, tidy, and completely devoid of serious magic. If Armaros was around here somewhere, he'd be glowing like a beacon. It's hard to hide celestial fire when the person searching knows what to look for.
I scanned the street and returned to my body. Once I was me again, I got up, shook myself off, and went strolling down to the next street. He couldn't be too far.
* * * * *
There was nothing of interest down the next street, either. Or the one after. The one after that had a little witch, but she was a toddler and not big enough to worry about. After that one was a couple of seers. They saw me, but I hightailed out of there before they could actually do anything. I stopped going so close to the magically inclined households after that.
Street by street I searched, until I finally found a promising looking light in a house on the corner. It was stronger than all the other minor magics I'd seen, though just by looking at it, I could tell someone was trying to muffle it. They were dimming it down intentionally.
Somebody's trying to hide.
I opened my eyes and went to find the house.
It was a blight on the street. After rows and rows of tidy, cookie-cutter houses, there it sat like a realtor's nightmare. It towered over the other houses at three stories and had the block shape of old style boarding houses. The windows were boarded up, some from inside, some from outside, and some more than others, but all were sporting at least one rotten looking plank.
Whoever owned it had tried to cut it off from the outside world by planting hedges behind the wrought iron fence, but while they were taller than the gate by a good four feet, they didn't do much to hide the house. Someone sometime in the recent past had come by and trimmed the parts goring too far out into the sidewalk, but it was clear that nobody had seriously looked after the plants in ages.
The gate was rusted shut, but it was short enough to climb over without any problem. Weeds had grown through the cracks of the walk way. The porch creaked under my weight. Stuff with more legs than brains scuttled beneath the floorboards as I passed.
I pounded on the door, closed fist. "Hello?" I said "Hell-oo?"
No answer, of course. I squinted at the door, examining it for any traces of magic. Sigils, signs, maybe a little scribble in Enochian saying 'No solicitors'- anything.
Nothing. I let my mind wander and saw nothing that way, either. No tell-tale glow of wards on the door. No charms, no hexes, and a quick look from the inside told me that there was apparently no lock, either. But the light was inside, up the stairs. Now I was closer, I could see it more clearly. It was almost like someone had put a shade over a bulb: it looked dimmer from a distance, but up close, the bright light leaked out the bottom.
I came back to myself, and then opened the door.
"Hello?" I said. "Anyone home?"
No answer but the quiet shuffle of spiders, so I took that as an invitation to feel free to poke around. Hey, if he didn't want me breaking into his house, he would've done a better job at keeping me out.
It was at least a good ten degrees cooler inside.
The cobwebs had cobwebs- the only reason those ones didn't have cobwebs was because even the spiders had gotten sick of this mess and went packing. The room felt soft. That heavy, almost tangible quiet that comes from empty places that used to be full. Sunlight leaked in through the cracks in the boards, illuminating the dust floating in the air.
I padded gently across the carpet and went in search for life.
The rooms I passed were mostly empty. Occasionally there would be a bed or bedframe. Sometimes a dresser with the drawers taken out and piled along side. Once, a rocking chair in the center of what must have been a nursery. Other than that, the place was empty.
I found him on the third floor, passed out in a room stinking of sweat and booze.
The place was a sty. Bottles of unspecified booze littered a hardwood floor already coated with layers of dust, dirt, debris and other various aspects of filth. The walls were bare except for the occasional patch of peeling paint or hole where an electrical outlet used to be, and the only pieces of furniture in the room were a cracked glass-topped coffee table and a tatty sofa with a distinct eau de mouse. It was the only room I'd seen without boards on the windows.
I picked my way through the trash to where he lay. There, I nudged him with my foot.
"Hey," I said. "Hey! Wake up."
He groaned and turned onto his side, clutching a bottle to him like a kid with a stuffed animal. I frowned. The bottle, unlike the others all over the place, was not the typical brown-amber color.
I tried prying it out of his hands, but it wouldn't budge. He took a swing at me- probably more from instinct than conscious thought. I backed off and grabbed another, regular bottle of the floor. The second time I tried taking his from him, I switched it off with the brown one. He tried to hit me again, but he didn't seem to notice I'd gotten it.
The bottle I'd gotten off him looked like it was made from pieces of stained glass. It was warm to the touch, not unpleasantly so, and hummed quietly in the back of my mind and reminded me strongly of the not-sound of ears ringing. I popped the top and took a good whiff.
We ran. Through fields of soft grass that went up to our chests, bathed in the warm midday sun, we ran.
"Slow down!" she said. But she was laughing while she said it, so I knew it was okay.
Her hand was warm in mine. I held on and ran a little faster, pulling her with me. I wanted to get to the center of the field where we'd have some room.
"Hurry," I said. "I have something I want to show you."
She laughed some more, and I laughed too. Her because she though this was all some great joke, me because I loved hearing her laugh. We made it to the center. At the last second, she surged forward and wrapped her arms around me from behind, sending us both tumbling into the grass.
"Wait!" I said, wriggling beneath her. "There's something I want to show you!"
She grinned and rolled beside me, her dark curls framing her face. "Yeah? What?"
I sat up. She almost tried pulling me back down, but stopped herself at the last second. I moved a little ways away and crouched.
"Watch," I said.
She looked confused, and I bit my lip to keep myself from laughing.
There was a split second of nothing, followed by the sharp sensory overload of having two major appendages suddenly show up in the physical world. I spread my wings out wide, making sure she could see the light hitting them just right before launching into the air.
I glanced down and saw her staring up at me in shock. But it was the happy sort of shock with a smile turning up at the edges, so I knew it was okay.
I snapped out of it and came dangerously close to dropping the glass. I fumbled for a second, then set it back onto the safety of the crate. My hands were shaking.
Don't think about it.
I had my wings back-
Don't think about it.
"Oh-kay!" I said loudly to myself, trying to drown out the annoying little thought. "Bottled memory or fantasy?" Just going by the shrine, I'd guess memory. Not many people built up shrines like that to bullshit.
I looked at the bottle I'd just used and remembered the woman's face. She'd been pretty.
"Armaros, you dog."
My hands were still shaking, but now for a different reason.
I wanted more. Now I knew why the place was crap. Who needed all this real life shit when you could live in the distilled perfection of every happy memory you wanted? Who needed things like traffic and grocery shopping and jobs when you could spend your time literally reliving the glory days? These weren't even my memories, and I wanted them. Wanted them bad.
I looked around the room again, this time actually looking rather than just giving it a cursory scan.
There, tucked away in the corner where I'd missed it before was a milk crate. On top of the crate was a mess of half-wilted flowers and half-melted candles. Nestled between the stems, leaves and petals of the flowers were colored glass bottles of varying size and shape. The little shrine was the only thing in the room that looked like anyone cared about it.
I made my way over and picked one up at random. Even in the dim room, the vials glistened. There was no doubt about it: each one has a memory inside, just ripe for the picking.
One more couldn't hurt, right? I checked on Armaros. He was out cold, with a silly grin on his face.
I undid the lid and took a deep breath. He'd never know.
It was nighttime, but there were so many bonfires, it didn't much matter.
Her family was huge.
I'd known about her little brothers: I'd seen them many times before, running around in packs with other local kids. I'd known about her sisters: whenever she would tell me any scrap of gossip, it was almost always prefaced with, 'my sister told me'. Of course I'd known about her parents- her mother who was always cooking and whose eyes would sparkle when she saw me. Her father who was always out working, but was no less an imposing figure in his household. I even knew about her older brothers, who all had wives and houses of their own and were never around when I came by.
But I had never thought of them all together.
And then there were aunts and uncles and younger cousins and older cousins and nieces and nephews and newborn babies whose link to the family I hadn't managed to parse out and friends of the family who were honorary aunts, uncles, and cousins and even the rarest of them all, a grandmother, who sat back and watched the whole familial tangle with a quiet smile.
I coughed loudly and stood in front of the talking, laughing, pushing, shoving, eating, joking, drinking, generically noising mess and found myself afraid for the first time in a long time.
Someone came up beside me and wrapped their hand inside mine, lacing our fingers together.I found myself looking into warm, brown eyes. She grinned and leaned against me.
This sent a wave of squeals, giggles, and murmurs among the group of aunts and sisters, and a few low whispers from the uncles and and brothers. Her father caught my eye and nodded. We'd already talked about this in private, but now it was time to let the family in on it.
I opened my mouth to speak, and found had no idea what to say. What if someone else didn't approve? What if they acted like they didn't mind, but privately seethed at the thought I would be taking their precious Martha from them? What if they hated me, or the children we would have? Children! What if there was something wrong with them? What if there was something wrong with me that made something wrong with them? What if I turned out to be a terrible husband-
I must have looked like a gaping trout, because the next thing I know, Martha was tugging my arm for me to lean forward. She calmly wrapped her arms around me and, ignoring every rule of propriety there was, kissed me in front of everyone.
It was completely inappropriate. It was shameful. It would probably upset some of the stodgier people once they'd heard about it.
It was great.
The crowd went wild.
"Don't worry," she said when we'd finished. "You'll get used to them."
I set the bottle down gently. Armaros had turned over, but was still snoozing. I had time. I opened the next vial and inhaled.
I was flying. Glorious flight, the feeling of wind against wing and skin and being able to look at the world below with an actual bird's eye view. I loved it.
I did a loop-de-loop in the air and tried looking down without actually looking like I was looking down. Below, Martha and her younger siblings were clapping. I grinned and, despite my best efforts, they saw me looking and waved. I waved back.
I may have loved flying, but showing off was good too.
I'd barely come down from the dream-high before grabbing another vial and sucking down that sweet, sweet temporal essence.
People were screaming. I didn't know why.
"Martha?" I shouted, trying to push my way through the crowd of people all running the way opposite of where I was heading. "Martha!"
The sky was black. Like thunderclouds had decided to drop a few thousand feet in order to hover just above the village. A streak of white light shot down from the cloud, and one of the houses exploded.
These damned people were in my way! All of them! Didn't they know? Didn't they care that I had to find her?
I grabbed a man in front of me and hurled him away, over the heads of the mob. Then the man after him, and the woman after him. It was no use. Panicked rats, the whole lot of them. I'd never get anywhere on the ground.
The well was up ahead. I shoved my way to it and used it as a kick off, manifesting my wings mid-air and taking flight. Her father's house wasn't that far ahead, but the air was wrong. Dead still. No matter how hard I tried, I could only move so slow. Another flame fell, and another house went up in smoke. I opened my mouth to shout, but something struck me from above, sending me tumbling down to earth.
I landed on my back. Blinding pain on my left. One of my wings was pinned under me, then. Broken, by the feel. I didn't care. I had to get up, I had to find Martha-
Someone stood over me and placed their foot on my chest. I tried getting up. They pressed harder.
"Don't interfere," he said.
I tried shoving him off.
"Don't," he said again. "Or they'll get you too."
He held out his hand and manifested a flaming spear. “Get up again and I’ll stick you to the ground.”
The ground rumbled. The wind roared. Lightning flashed. A hundred pillars of flame poured down from the clouds and set the world ablaze-
-and then, it stopped.
Silence. Absolute silence.
He removed his foot from my chest and turned away.
“It's done,” he said as I scrambled to my feet. "Whatever you had is gone. Get on with it."
With that, Shemyaza jumped into the air, his wings bursting from his back mid-leap.
"Wait!" I shouted. "Wait-"
It was pointless, he was gone. The village was gone. Nothing left but smoking piles of charcoal and ash.
“Is anyone out here?” I shouted. “Martha?”
There was a noise behind me.
“Martha?” I turned around.
I had three seconds to notice the unfamiliar, bearded man glaring at me before his fist made forcible contact with my face. I spun and landed face first in the dirt. He grabbed the back of my collar and pulled me up-
-right back into the livingroom.
Armaros was awake, and he didn't look happy to see me.
"Get out," he said. Bloodshot eyes blearily looked into mine. He wobbled on his feet.
"You're drunk," I said, stating the obvious.
"Get the hell out."
I didn't move. "Are you the only one here?"
He squinted at me. "Huh?"
"I said, are you the only one here? In this house?"
He kept on squinting "No. There's the lady in the next room over. And the guy at the end of the hall. 'N the land lady. And that couple with the baby." He softened. "It's a cute baby."
"Armaros," I said, slowly. "The place is empty."
I made sure to enunciate clearly so maybe something would get through. "Everyone else is gone. They've been gone for a long time. You're the only one here left."
He went quiet for a long minute, staring at a spot on the floor, eyes half-closed. He was a Grigori like me, so he was probably looking around the house. Then, he shrugged.
"I guess they are." He went and threw himself onto the sofa.
"Armaros," I said. "Do you know who I am?"
He turned away from me so he was facing the back of the sofa. "One of us," he mumbled. "Don't know why you're here, though."
"Shemyaza sent me."
He visibly stiffened. "What?"
"He wants to get the whole gang back together."
Slowly, deliberately, he picked himself up. Without looking at me, he said, "Tell Shem to fuck himself."
"Look, I know that there's been some bad blood between you two before-"
"You saw what he did!"
"Yeah, he saved your life, didn't he? I mean, he wasn't nice about it, but that's what he did."
"He stopped me! I could have-" He stopped and took a shuddery breath. "Get out. Now."
"Armaros, come on, you can't hold onto it forever-"
He made a quick conductor motion with his index finger, and the air where it passed glowed blue, like he'd written it with a marker. The sign hung in the air for a split second before my skin started burning.
I looked down and saw that large swaths of my skin was peeling away, looking like dry, flesh colored paper. Beneath the spots where it cleared away was the same writing in the air in front of me. My face flared up in pain. From the edge of my eyes, I could see scraps of skin flaking from my cheek.
"Get out," he said again.
I'm stubborn, not stupid. I didn't bother going for the door and leapt out the open window instead. The screen tore with all the resistance of old cobwebs. The second I was out of the house, the burning stopped. All the same, it was better to be safe than sorry; I hit the roof over the porch, shot up, jumped off and landed onto the lawn in a roll.
I've had worse falls before.
The second I was on the safety of the grass, I checked my arms and felt my face. My skin was normal, with no trace of the skinning spell left. I was whole again.
"This isn't over," I shouted, thoroughly testing my luck. "You can't hide in there forever!"
The window slammed shut. Armaros wrote another sign onto the glass with his fingertip. And then another. And another. All of them shone in different colors, each one layering over the one before it. He stopped after about a dozen and tapped the center of the glass. Strands of multicolored script- each marking accounted for in the pile up in the window- streamed out from the window and scrolled along the wall, coating the entire house under a dozen different spells. There were a couple I didn't recognize, and a few I'd only seen once or twice, but the ones I knew were all specifically designed to keep everything outside, outside, and everything inside, inside.
For a second, the boarding house was covered in thousands of spell signs. Then Armaros tapped on the glass again, and they all vanished, leaving nothing behind.
I got to my feet and scowled at him. "What the hell do I tell Shem?"
Another sign appeared, larger than the others, this time in the middle of the house, spanning most of the front of the second story. It was a crude cartoon of closed fist, middle finger extended.
He flashed me a shit eating grin and drew the blinds. I pulled a snapper out of my pocket and got the hell out of there.
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