In the center of the candle-lined circle drawn on the boards of the attic floor, a figure flickered slowly into existence, as though with great effort, until it fully coalesced into the form of a small boy.
The necromancer blinked.
He hadn't been expecting a child.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi." The boy's voice was barely above a whisper.
"I'm Tom," said the necromancer. He gave a small wave. "What's your name?"
The boy was silent. He studied the floor, only looking up in stolen, nervous glances.
"It's okay," Thomas said. "Uh. You're not in trouble." He sat down, careful not to touch the marks on the floor. "Do you wanna sit down?"
The boy peered at him, then copied his movements, sitting cross-legged inside the circle.
"Are you the one who's been knocking things over?" Tom said.
The boy nodded, then looked away shyly
"It's okay," Tom said. "You're not in trouble. But you scared the people living here pretty bad."
"I wanted to play with the baby," the boy half-whispered.
"Baby's too small to play," Tom said kindly. "He doesn't know how to yet. Babies are soft, so you have to be extra careful with them, okay?"
"Sorry," said the boy quietly. "I didn't know."
"It's okay, I understand. You just leave him alone for now. Have you been by yourself for a while?"
The boy nodded.
"What happened to you?" Tom said. "Do you remember?"
The boy froze, and the air in the attic grew very still.
"Happened?" the boy said.
Oh no, Tom thought. He had been hoping it wasn't one of those cases.
"You're in the attic," Tom said. "In a house of people who aren't your family. Do you remember why?"
There was a long pause. "I didn't want to leave," the boy said eventually.
"How did you get here? Do you remember?"
"I lived here. I was here first!"
The boy's voice grew louder, but he didn't appear angry. His face was full of fear and worry, and the fear leaked into the air around him, sending involuntary shivers down Tom's spine.
"Hey, hey," said Tom, raising his hands in a placating way. "It's alright. I know you were here first! You're not in trouble for it. But you're different now, right? You know that, right?"
The fear abated suddenly, and boy looked away, his arms crossed.
"I made him mad," the ghost boy said softly.
The boy shook his head.
"It's okay," Tom said softly. "You can tell me. You won't get in trouble."
"My brother," the boy said. "He gets mad sometimes. I shouldn't have done it. I knew I wasn't supposed to--"
The fear returned and hit Tom with a wave of cold air.
"It's alright," he said, keeping his voice calm, friendly, and strong. "Whatever it was, I'm sure it's okay. Did he get mad at you a lot?"
The air in the room fell by a few degrees.
The boy nodded wordlessly. Dark splotches suddenly marred the white-blue arms of the apparition, and Tom instinctively recognized them as bruises-- or the ghosts of them.
"He just gets mad sometimes," the boy said again.
Cold fury caught in Thomas' throat, and he swallowed it down, trying not to let any of it show in his face.
With a great deal of effort, he kept his voice casual and curious when he said, "and he hurt you when he did?"
The boy nodded.
"Do you remember the last time he got mad?"
The boy was silent for a long while, and he seemed to become a little fainter, his form less tangible. For a moment, Tom was afraid he wouldn't answer, just vanish into the air.
"I went into his room," the boy finally said. "I wasn't supposed to. He doesn't like it when I go in his room. He yelled at me. I was looking for the cat."
"Your cat?" Tom said, confused.
The boy nodded. When he spoke, the words came out faster, more certain. "Markus always brings home animals. Birds, like pigeons and chickens. Rabbits. One time a dog. This time it was cats, and I asked if I could play with one, only he said no, and he took one to his room, but he left the one of the crates on the table in the kitchen, so I opened the door and the spotty cat came out, and she ran away and I was trying to find her and I checked his room in case she was there--"
The air in the attic grew frosty. When Tom breathed, it came out in visible puffs.
"What happened then? What does he do to the animals?"
"I didn't know," the boy said, his voice cracking. "I didn't know. I thought he gave them away, or let them go. But I opened the door and it smelled bad and he was on the floor and there was a monster on the table and there was blood--"
The ghost boy wept. Fat spectral tears streaked down his face, and Tom had to stifle the urge to reach across the circle and comfort him. It wouldn't do any good-- the hug would pass through the boy, and messing up the circle would only break the connection, sending him away.
"I'm sorry," Tom said. "I'm so, so sorry."
"I want my brother," the boy said suddenly, his voice cracking. "I want my brother. That thing is going to hurt him. I want him back."
Tom's throat went tight. He wanted to tell the boy no, he did not want his brother, but he would never actually say that out loud. "I understand," he said instead. "Want me to go see him for you?"
The ghost boy rubbed his eyes and nodded.
"Okay," said Tom. "I will."
"Yeah," Tom said. "I promise."
He felt the boy's presence leave more than he saw it. The ghost vanished, as if the boy was afraid to stick around lest Tom change his mind, and suddenly the room became a little warmer, the air a little easier to breathe, the sunlight through the dust-covered window a little brighter. He rose with a sigh and headed towards the attic steps.
Downstairs, he found a tall, broad, sandy-haired man in the kitchen.
"You get it?" said the man. He pulled two cans of soda from the fridge and tossed one to Tom, who caught it with practiced ease.
"No," he said, looking blankly at the drink in his hand. "It's really bad, Matty. Little boy. Really upset. I didn't get details, but he died nasty, and his older brother had a hand in it."
Matthew took in a deep, slow breath. "Damn," he said, exhaling the word.
"He didn't mean to scare you guys," Tom said. "He just wanted to play with Cody. I get the feeling he didn't see too many babies before. . ."
The words hung in the air uselessly. Tom cleared his throat.
"I'm gonna go pay the brother a visit," he said.
"Need someone to hold him down?" said Matt. "I have a baseball bat."
Tom smiled weakly. "Not that kind of talk. I think. But thanks for the offer. I'm gonna go and try to get this taken care of."
"You sure you don't need me?"
"I know where to find you."
That seemed to be enough. Matthew didn't look happy, but he nodded. Tom let himself out the front.
The place didn't take long to find. Now that he was on the lookout for the stink of black magic, the trail was clear as day, starting right there in the ghost boy's attic, weaving its way down the road, across town. So bad was it, he could follow it while still in the car, and he wondered how he hadn't noticed it before.
He tracked the stench of rotten magic until it finally spat him out in a storage facility-- a dingy one on the rough side of town that was between a homeless encampment by the tracks and dead looking business plaza. The plaza parking lot was empty and blocked off by a chain link fence, and the only cars were a few grungy vans and a small RV parked on the side of the road that all looked and smelled like people lived in them. He passed the vans, nose wrinkled, and squeezed through the storage facility's entrance-- a section of chain link fence on wheels that someone had forgotten to close all the way.
He followed the trail up to a closed unit that would have been indistinguishable from any other if not for the smell coming from it. This was not the strange, psychic-like not-smell-smell of magic, but the real stink of rotting meat that grew stronger the longer he stood there. He recoiled from the stench of it, trying to quiet his protesting stomach and to swallow down the sour taste in his mouth. Then, once he was sure he wouldn't lose his lunch over it, he took a deep breath, turned to the unit's roll-up steel door, and let himself in.
The unit was so full to the brim with junk that at first, it looked like he'd rolled up the door, only to run into a solid wall of garbage. Old fridges, mostly, interspersed with car parts, a table or two, cardboard boxes so full they had been taped over to stop them from splitting-- all coated in an almost tangible layer of rotten death magic.
He gagged and spat the sour taste from his mouth.
This has to be just the warlock, he thought. Because of the ill he'd done. Surely someone would have told Tom if his magic smelled like that, right?
He saw a gap between two fridges and went through, finding himself in a short maze of garbage. A few turns in an odd S-shape mini-maze spat him out into a clear space that was, based on the mattress on the ground and the TV on the corner, a living space. In the back, beyond old pizza boxes and fast food wrappers was a table that didn't fit with the rest of the room. It was large, large enough to be noticeable in the dim light. It looked old, with odd flourishes on the thick legs, and a pristine, lacy, white cloth on top. Out of everything in the unit, it stank the most.
Tom moved towards it slowly. It looked perfectly normal until he touched it. Then, with a gust-like explosion, the magic was undone. The cloth was soaked in blood. The table was carved through with a series of interlocking and ornate circles, and what looked like claw-marks of of some unseen beast trapped inside them. In the center of the circle, there was a stain darker than the others, a richer black-red that, as he watched, grew darker and darker.
Then, from out of the stain, a stain that now looked much more like a hole, came an arm.
Tom stared, unsure of what to do and too dumbstruck to move if he did.
The arm hoisted itself up on the end of the table, pulling the creature it belonged to through. Then came another arm, then a head, and finally the rest.
The creature was misshapen. One side of its small, imp-like body was cartoonishly brawny, with thick muscles swollen beneath its red, stone-like skin. The other side was waif-thin and spindly, looking as though it didn't have the strength to stand. Its goblin-like face was broad and squashed, like a clay statue that had been dropped. It saw Tom's expression and grinned widely, revealing rows upon rows of shark-like teeth.
"What are you doing here?" said someone behind him.
Tom turned and saw a young man. Tall, with a broad frame, but thin, like he'd been meant to be bigger, but hadn't been eating. His hair was unkempt and looked wet, though the smell indicated that it wasn't really, just unwashed. His beard was lighter and just as messy. He had a gaunt face and eyes sunken in his skull, looking like a death mask.
"Who's your friend?" Tom said, pointing at the creature on the table, who sat without urgency, watching the scene with amused piggy eyes.
"How did you get in here?" snapped the warlock.
"I knew it had to be bad," Tom said. "The way the kid looked. But I was still hoping. . . "
"Or what?" Tom snapped. "You'll kill me? You'll let that thing kill me? Is that what happened to your brother? Is that thing why you killed him?" He pointed at the demon. "Did it tell you to, or did you volunteer to earn brownie points with it?"
The warlock started. "Who told you that?" he said.
"Who do you think?"
There was a long moment of silence.
"I didn't," he said.
"Didn't what?" said Tom. "Tell me. I need to know what happened."
"I didn't. It was hungry. It's always hungry. I used to be able to feed it."
"The animals?" Tom said.
The warlock wasn't looking at him, he was looking at the thing on the table. The words spilled frantically from his lips, as though he were desperate to justify himself. "It has to feed. It needs me to help it. It doesn't eat meat, it eats life. At first it was just small things, you know? Feeder mice and goldfish-- shit you can get from the pet shop that are sold to die. It wasn't a big deal."
"But it didn't stay that way, did it?" Tom said. "It never stays that way."
The warlock nodded, a haunted look in his eyes. "It wanted bigger things. From mice to rats. Rats to guinea pigs. Then pigs to cats and dogs." He swallowed. "That was hard. But it was hungry. I have to feed it when it's hungry. But then-- It--" the warlock shuddered, his voice catching on his throat for a moment. "It wanted something bigger. Animal weren't filling it like before, even big ones."
"You gave it your brother."
"It's been getting stronger," the warlock said, as if he hadn't heard. His eyes were wild with fear and still staring at the creature. "Sometimes it-- I didn't mean to-- it was like I wasn't myself--"
"You killed your brother," Tom said flatly.
The warlock shook his head. "No. No. It wasn't me. I didn't. I couldn't."
"He's dead, and he's still at your old house. He didn't want to leave. He was too scared to go."
"No! I didn't! Shut up! Shut up!"
"He asked me to check on you!" Tom shouted. "He was worried about you! He thought that thing would hurt you, and he's right. It's going to break loose and kill you-- if you're lucky."
"Shut up!" the warlock roared. He made a motion like someone throwing a baseball, and a bolt of black lightning struck Tom directly in the chest.
Tom didn't move, instead letting the blast wash over him. It ran off him like water off a duck, dispersing into nothing.
The warlock stared. "How did you do that?"
Tom sighed. "Please, don't do this," he said. "I'm not here to hurt you."
The warlock tried again, and again, the magic struck Tom harmlessly and vanished into the air.
"Seriously, I need you to--"
The warlock grabbed something from the junk pile behind him-- an iron? Tom thought-- and hurled it towards him.
He ducked and the iron, already badly aimed, went sailing to the side, crashing noisily into more junk. With surprising speed, Thomas surged forward and laid his hand on the warlock's chest. The other man barely had time to open his mouth in surprise when his soul was knocked from his body. The man collapsed to the ground while his spirit-- which looked the same as his body, except slightly transparent, hung in the air, jaw agape.
What did you do? screamed the spirit in a voice only the dead and Tom could hear.
"I need you to calm down and stop throwing magic at me!" Tom said. He walked through the spirit, towards the creature on the table.
Stop! the spirit cried out. Don't let it out!
"I'm not," Tom said tiredly. He stood before the creature, who eyed him eagerly.
L̸̠̰̬̓̿̔̏Ḭ̸̪̬̖̿͑T̵̯̮̫͌͂̒́T̷͔̙̝͆̉L̴͈̻͍̝͛̾̍ͅE̸͓̣͆͐̈́ ̵̢̰͊̉̍C̷̝̫̽Ṛ̵͔͖̺̯͊̈́́̏Ê̴̢̟̼̟̒̌A̶̛̱̎T̵̹̗̞͖̦̄̔̓́Ů̶̫̯̘̞̆̋͜͝R̶̩͖̪̃̾̾̓͝Ȩ̵̌̏̅̽ ̷̧̹̟̙͍̋̊̈Ȯ̸̢̻̜̈́̊F̴̞̔ ̷͓̱̅͛̆͝F̸̫͇̭̥̍̐̿̃L̸̤͕̦͌̊̊̎̃E̴͓̭̍̏̑́̿S̶͔̍̾̓̊̆H̸̼̪̼͎̖̔͐̒̕͠ ̶̭̩͚̥̙̐A̵͓̥͙̻͓̾̏̒͝͝N̷̨͈̜̣̈͗́͌͠ͅD̴̦͓̝̟͒̈̅͗̾ ̸̯̳͙̲̹̉̃S̸͉͌̇Ö̶̬̮̪͙̇̑͑̾U̴͍͑͑͘L̶̛̘̖̹̜͔̋̄
When the creature spoke, its mouth moved, but it moved too much, out of sync with the words, putting him in the mind of a badly dubbed movie.
Y̵̳̙̱̹͋O̵̳̯̅͗͐U̶̖̭̗͙͊͑ ̷͉́̉͑̚͘H̶̢̢͇̯̺́Á̵̧͓̍̄̕V̸͈̑̆͗̔Ȩ̶̃̂ ̷͍̰̚B̶̫͉͍́̌Ȩ̶̲̺͉̈́̿͌̋͘S̴̨̢͈̒̉̀T̶̢͓̠͙̉̂̕E̵̬̜̣̪̦͋D̴͈̰̐ ̵͙̭̎M̷̺͈̪͒̀͝Ỵ̷̧̧̛̱̝̈́͠ ̴̼͉͍̹̟̐̊L̵͎̝͇̫̭̍Â̴͚̌͜T̵̨̛̳̼̽̓͑Ę̵̢̛̠̻̖̊̔͊S̶̛͈̉̕T̷̰̟̘͓̋͊͝͝ ̷̡̢͔̩̝̐͒̿P̶̞̓Ē̶̗̙̕T̴̬̓̔
Its voice sent a chill of fear running down the back of his neck. He froze in place and tried to speak, but found his mouth and throat had gone dry.
T̵̬͒͐̚H̴͈̞̦̒͛͌Ę̵̢̃͂̂̚ ̶̧̝̦͙̃͒S̵͕̝̲̞̏́͝C̴̖͛̈́E̵͕͝Ň̴̡͕̟Ť̸̩͓͚͕̆̀̇ ̵̠̤͐̓̎͜Ŏ̸̻̊͝F̴̫̅͑̇͒ ̵̺͑͌͊͝D̷̢̼͔̀͊͑Ẹ̵̍̅A̸̧͍͙̼̍̀T̸͙̳̤̯̀̓̐͝H̶̡̡̰̀̓͜ ̵̝̓̑͛S̷̠̳͚̩̈́́̅͌U̸̥͈̙͉͐R̵͚̦̼͗͠Ṙ̴͖̥̈́̒O̷̡̠͑͋̊̚Ũ̵̥͉̼̄͝N̸̖̮͎̼͑̾̀D̷̩̹̜̏͑̀̓ ̶̢̥̰̬̿̈̈Y̷̰̅̽̀͛O̵̢̘̪̓U̴̻̞̝̣̒͝.̸̡̱͙͋̅ ̵̛̗͎̪̬̉̑Ì̸͇̘̈́̓̕T̸̖̖̂̐̄ ̸͎̣͛̈́̒I̷̟̬̠̜̿̈̍S̸̞̯̥͍̎ ̵̮̟͔̊̓W̴̖̝̐̓O̴̡͙̮̍̓͌̂V̷͍̹̯͉̍́Ė̵̖̋N̶̝̫͑̈́ ̶̻̬̼͋́̓̄Ḯ̴̯̩͈N̷̢͇̦͕̋̈́͠T̷̹͖̭̎͛͗̒O̵̭̊ ̵̧͚̺̘̀̈́̂T̵̛͇̓̕H̴̩̘͚͊Ě̷̠͕̚ ̶̙͕̖͚͐͌͌͝F̷̧̛̠̦́̇Ä̶̤̟͈́͊͒̕B̸̞̒͐̉͝R̸̝̳̖̍̚͜I̴̢̛̱̺̿C̸̲̘͔͇͊́̕ ̴̡̳̘͎̂O̶̫̎͋͛́F̶͓̉͗͗͝ ̵̖̤̍̓̕͝Y̷̦̳͒̿̽O̶̭̿̑ͅͅU̴̪̜̬̻̇Ŗ̵̮̿̈́̽̚ ̸̺̦̭̳̀̈́̿͝B̶̮̳̠̉̾̆̒E̴̗̍̐̒͊Ì̴̮̲̚N̸̹̭͗͝G̴̙̹̭͊̃.̸̢̲͔͝
S̷̰͘Ư̴̩̯̳̈́C̶̛̝̫͖͕͊̽̕Ḫ̴̢̯̖̐͂́͌ ̸̯̄͑̈́ ̴̨̤͕͉̿̒̑͝B̴̪̗͔͉͛E̵̲̩͌̆͆͝H̶̡̰͎̄A̶͎͐͒̒̐͜V̷̢̙̰̱̽̑͘I̴̖̙̗̒̚O̸̖̔R̶̜̲̕ ̵̪̼̉̓͘͜ ̷̧̼͈̇̏̓ ̶͚͊͊̔̄Ḏ̴̄͗È̵͎̼͊S̸̡͑̅̄̓Ẽ̷̙̘̖̂̕R̵̳̈́̑̄V̴̼̏̾Ẽ̵͙̼͈̃S̴̼̈́̌̇̚ ̷̹͆̓̚ ̶̟͆̄̀̚ ̵̰̮̥̀́̐̆Ä̸̺̯̼̦́̽͐ ̷̡͙͍͙̿̋̔̽ ̶̙̈́R̶͍̫̊̽̚Ȩ̵̙͔̝͑Ẃ̸̻͈͍A̷̢̦͍̐͒̇͘ͅR̶̡̞̓̽̍D̵͉͉̈̎̓ ̷̻̹̓ ̵̱̐͠ ̴̠͑͊̾Y̷̙̱̭͐̆̈́͝Ò̶̺̟̜̩̐͛̎U̶̫̣͙̖̓̾̈́ ̴̰̜̏̔S̴̱͖̪̅͊E̵͚͎̳͕̎E̵̖̹̊̑̚Ḱ̸̻̟̕ ̵̧̩̼͇͒́͠A̸̧̳̗͑̉̍̒ ̵̨̓̀B̶̗̟̀̽̓͌Ò̴̡̩̅̕̕Õ̸̧̞͓̲̍͌̐N̴̗͓̋.̶͎̩͇͓̌̾̂̚ ̵̗̖͚̏͛
"I really don't," he managed, voice squeaking slightly. Control returned to him, and he moved forward again, towards the table and the creature.
O̷̲͗̒͘B̴̤̱̝̗́̋̓̄E̴̯͖̲̊̆̚͠Y̷̙̼̜̏͊́̈ ̸̯͋̑̉̿Ḿ̶͚͂̉E̴̺̅̀ ̵̖̣̊́A̷̠̾̉̓N̶̞͚͎͆̕͠D̴̳̩̔̉ ̵͓̰̙̜͐Ÿ̵̹O̴̭̗̟̎͜U̵̧͈͊ ̵͎̭͙̦̔W̴̗͚̠̮͒́̄͗I̵̢͖͈̋L̷̩͝ͅL̸̡̫̖̙̑̇̉̎ ̶̤̳̹̐͑̑ͅH̸̨̫̓̒A̸̫̙̖͛̕Ṿ̸̬͇͌͘Ē̶̬̺̈́ ̶̻̱͒͂Y̴̥̔̇̾́O̵̫̻̘̒Ũ̵̼͙͈͂͠͠R̴̨͙͚̐́̄̊ ̶̻̺̲͖̈́̒̈R̷͓̦̰̈́͌͒E̴̤͈̣̲͂W̷̛̥̥̤͂̊͐͜A̷̜̲̥̙̓͆͝Ṙ̷̩̺̺D̷̼̪̣̟̾̃̀̆.̷͕̠͕̎̂̏͜ ̶̫̺͕͙̓̊̚Y̶͖͂̋̈Ǒ̷̖Ȕ̴͈͕̕͜ ̴͎̏̚͜W̴̤̃I̴̛̲͍͎͒̃Ļ̴͓̊Ḻ̶͔̭̥̀̽ ̵̘̳̋̊̋͝H̷̟͒͒Ã̵͇̮͊V̵̞́È̶͔̜̞̕ ̷̗̌͋͌͒P̴̢̰̓Ǫ̶̥̟͊̕W̴̱̹͈̲̅́̋E̷̱̾̋R̴̖̖͖͕̅̎̉͘ ̷̳̘̇͌B̶̳͖̑̾E̷̤̼͉̍̕͝Ŷ̸̻͕̕O̶͚͎̣̗͊̌͝N̸͇͙̑͋̈́͝D̷̥̝̣͌͋͠ ̵̢̪̬̌̔͝Y̸͈̪͛̾O̷͚͠Ŭ̷͖̣̗̍R̶̬͉̔ ̴̗͂̊̋̕Ẃ̷̠̅I̸̻̔̃̕L̷̠̖͖̉́́͝D̴̛͎̓̚Ȩ̷̨̻̍Ş̸̳̰̠̑̑͝T̸̫̯͖̐͂͊̆ͅ ̶̭̫͉̞͝I̷͚̺̰̬̕͠M̵̥̐̍A̸͍̅̅͛͗G̴̤̰̿̿I̷̻̹͊͊͝N̴̯͖̬͕̄I̵̖̤͙̻͑N̷̘͔͕̔ͅG̶̨̬̑Ṡ̶̺.̸̪̭͌̍̀̓ ̵̬̑̎͝
The circles on the table burned with red-orange light as he approached. The creature was leaning forward, the weak arm up and resting on an invisible barrier.
̷̬̀͋Y̸͕̺̰͊͜O̵̢̖̿̊͊Ù̸̼ ̶͓̲̙̘̐̓͛̔W̶̮͕̱͗͂͝I̸̙͚̬̝͒͛̑͘L̵̻̪̥̮̒̌͐L̶̡̤̺̘͆͋̊ ̷̙͚̓B̶̳͓̊̉̊̾É̴̲͉ ̴̘̄̉͠ͅȀ̵̮̟͋ ̶̮͚͕̈̈́͌̓G̵͍̈́̽̀O̷̠̍̾̈́͘ͅĎ̶̨̹͕̈͐.̸̥͎̣̩͗̐
He looked over to where the warlock's body lay in the filth. The stink of him rivaled the rotting meat stink of the unit, and as he watched, a cockroach skittered over the unconscious man's outstretched arm.
"Is that what you told him?"
H̵͎̄̏͝Ḙ̸̓̓͆ ̷̢͐̀W̴̗̽A̸̲̓̽̋͝S̵̬̟̓ ̶̞̳̪̍̔A̸̺̿̓̋̂ ̴͇͎̀̕͜M̴̮̣͆̔͐͝O̵̝̅̒͆͌M̷̺͍̭͇̚E̶̥̱̅Ṅ̵̯̭͔̿̋T̴̟́Á̶̢̄̌Ŕ̸̜̦͐Ý̶͈̫͝ ̴̗̥̀͘A̷̭͛̈̑M̵̨̲̥̰̈́͋͝U̸̧̦̲͗͋S̶̫̟̒Ȇ̴͓͍̩̿M̸̡̠̈́́̕̚E̷̤̮͊̀̈̐N̷̛̰̠̼̪T̷̝̦̭̃ͅ.̸̲͔͐̑̓̆ ̵̦̻͍̔̎̋A̷̡̳͔̕̚͝ ̷̤̰͍͑̍T̴̡̘̫̽͌͝O̸̝̜̯̮͐̇̄Ÿ̴̞͔ ̶̻̫̇A̷̼͇͑͆͠L̶͍̲̜̬̂W̴̡̻̮̖̽A̵̜̗̬͗͑̐Y̵̹͎̔S̶̠͕̯͋͒̐̀ ̴̭͖͂̈́͋M̵̩͉̓̏E̶̳̍̋̾͝À̵͙̩̋̕Ǹ̸̻̰͉̖̆̊T̵̢̹̩̀͂̈́͊ ̵̫̌͋Ţ̷̡̱̝̀̆̃̀Ỏ̶̬̅ ̶̩̯͚̐̀̚B̴̝̫̠̈́͛͒̋E̴̗͑͝ ̸̟͕̣̪̓̕D̵͖̻̍͘I̵̭͓͒͘Ș̵̔C̸̬͍̉̾͊͝Ä̴̗̺͕͘R̵͓̞͓̾̎̊͝D̶̯̺͕̫̂̿́E̴̩̗̽̔̔̆D̸̢̗͊̔͋̿.̵̙̬͂̓ ̷̳͍͗̃̒̑Y̴̨̦͍̳͒̂O̶̼͌̆U̴̲͗̓ͅ ̵̛̲̂H̶̤̣̙̅̚ͅÀ̶̬̂̂V̸̞̝̥͋͜E̶̟̩͌̚̕ ̴̞̜͛P̵̮̏̓̇̓͜O̸̢̜͙̐̏̑͠T̸̮͎̆̓E̸̳͒̽͘N̷͉̈͊͒̽ͅT̴̙͔͖̔̀̈́I̵̬̍͗A̵͔͌̌̚͠L̴̫̯̱̏͊ͅ,̵͙̐̀ ̶͓̘̀̒̈́͠D̷̻̝̀̿ͅỀ̷͙͓A̸̙̣͐T̶̪͕̻̓̑͌͠Ḧ̵̙̤̟́̿-̴͚͇̟̦̅W̴̡̛͓̽͋Ȉ̵͙͐̈͜͝Z̶͕̥̔̅̊͝A̵̗̱̫̚R̸̡̛̗̻̹̔Ḍ̷̨̌̈́̇̀.̶̢̧͚͍̆
Tom put his hand on the same place where the creature had its own. He felt the magic wall between them, smooth like glass but occasionally bubbling and fizzing before becoming smooth again. Tentatively, he pressed against it. There was no give. The markings on the table grew brighter.
The creature chuckled.
̸̤̓̒̋Y̶̠̘̞̅͐́̃ͅȮ̷̪̝̱͆̅U̵̧̬̥̅ ̵̖̻͎̑̒S̶̻͍̠̘̅̀̑̕Ě̴̢̧̬̅É̸̥̝̫̿K̷̨͔̅ ̴͈͖̥̠̃T̷̰̭̐̎́͝Õ̵̡̳͔̊̎ ̷̝̗͉̳̒̊F̷̛̮̣͑͠R̵̳̭͚͓̿̇E̷̛͇̹͌͆̀͜E̷͓̿̏͋͝ ̸̧̦̲̐M̸͇̥̙̞̂͂Ȩ̴̙̳̭̋
He closed his eyes and summoned his own magic.
Different kinds of magic felt differently to him. Bringing things to life meant using fire. Giving warmth to things that had lost it. Calling ghosts was like nostalgic, thinking of home and loved things to convince someone who'd left to appear, or it was cajoling, promising answers to those who had questions, actions to those who had requests, or lonely and dark, finding those who had been lost.
The magic now was none of those things.
This kind always started with cold. He imagined it as a sliver of ice. A sliver of ice shot from somewhere unseen behind him that struck him in the back, piercing him right where his neck met his shoulders. From there the ice branched out, fracturing and spiraling outwards, loosely following his veins while the ice frosted and grew in irregular crystals through him until, finally, the vines of ice-- somewhere along the line, they always turned into vines, the crystals thorns-- wrapped around his heart.
It took less than a second.
Odd, black light that moved like smoke came from the palm of his hand, and the demon's eyes widened.
Tom pressed forward. The barrier spell did not break, but his hand went through, feeling as though he'd plunged it into warm water. He reached out for the demon.
The demon scrambled backwards and almost immediately ran into the other side of the barrier.
Y̷̭͎̋͠O̶̡̝͖̾U̴͖͕̗̕ ̵̣̱̌̀͋K̷̉͘͠ͅN̸͍̋O̴͖̍W̴̖͓̝̾͛͝ ̵̝̊͐N̷̥̹̼̰͊̀Ȯ̴͇̰̙̞̓̕T̷̡͎͗ ̶͕͓̈W̷͚̍̑H̷̡͚̲͖́͗͌̚A̶̳͐͛̉̚T̶͎̪͐ ̷̮̥̣̼͊͆͌Ŷ̶̰͠Ó̵͔̫̙͗̈Ú̸̢͍̳̱̒͒͂ ̷̛̞̜͈̉̐D̴̘̀Ǫ̵̆!̴͚͎͐̏̂
Tom said nothing and instead focused on wrapping his fist around the demon's scrawny arm.
The demon screeched and tried to tear itself away from him, clawing with its free arm at both him and the invisible wall trapping it there. It was no use. The cold blackness, the strange smoke-like light wrapped around the demon in serpent-like tendrils. They weaved around it up to its shoulder, then its chest, and finally around its oddly formed neck.
The demon's cries were suddenly cut short. It fell limply inside the circle. Almost immediately, its body began to crumble into dust. The wrist he held disintegrated in Tom's grasp like falling sand, and soon there was nothing left.
He pulled his hand out of the circle-barrier with a relieved sigh. He'd only ever killed a couple demons before, and each time was a nerve wracking experience.
Off to the side of the table, the spirit of the warlock watched, eyes wide, mouth hanging open.
Oh, thought Tom. I guess I should put him back.
He went to the spirit, who shied away from him. Tom grabbed the spirit's shirt and pulled him over to the body with ease, as though the man's spirit was nothing but an ungainly balloon. With a small flourish, he swung the spirit down onto the body, and the warlock awoke with a gasp.
"Welcome back," Tom said.
"No," the man whimpered. "No, no no no."
He crawled backwards until his back met one of the fridges. There, he curled into himself, knees drawn up, arms covering his head. He rocked back and forth, weeping and whimpering to himself.
Tom felt like he should say something, but had no idea what. He might've felt pity for the man, but any pity he might've had was swept away with the memory of the bruises on the ghost boy's neck.
"I can't stop you from conjuring up another," he said eventually. He scratched the back of his head and looked at the concrete ceiling. "For your sake though, I really hope you don't. It would probably upset your brother."
The warlock gave no answer and no indication that he had heard. Tom sighed and picked his way through the junk, back outside. Once out, he pulled out his cell phone and called the police to tell them about the crazy man in a blood-soaked storage unit down by the tracks.
* * * * *
It was a relief to go home. The house was tiny and messy, but after the storage unit, it felt like luxury. He unlocked the front and more or less fell through the threshold. Directly across from the doorway was the opening into the kitchen, with the kitchen table in view. Hovering several feet above the ground, leaning over the table, was a young woman. Her stark white hair moved around her as though she were underwater, and she appeared to be considering the table with deep thought.
Off to the side of the doorway, in the living room on the sofa, there was a dog that might've been a husky, except its coat was pure white save for its ears, which were red. The red-eared dog looked up at him lazily, thumped its tail, but remained on the sofa.
"Hey, Terra," said Tom. He wasn't surprised to see her here. He'd given her permission to enter any time she wanted, and she was the sort of person to take him up on that. He went to the kitchen and saw that she was half-way through a jigsaw puzzle. Some snowy Kinkade scene.
"Rough day?" Terra said, not taking her eyes off the puzzle.
He pulled a chair to the table and sat down beside her. "That obvious?"
"You got a kinda demon-y smell on you." She found a piece and connected it to two more loose pieces. "Make any new friends?"
"Not anymore." He tried to put a tree together.
"You want to talk about it?"
The tree didn't fit. He tried with another. "Not really," he said. "Not now."
"Here," she said, pushing a cluster of loose pieces towards him. "See if you can find the street lamp."
He did, grateful for the distraction. The two worked in silence.
* * * * *
Later that evening, he left Terra, still working on the puzzle, to go to bed. As he shuffled down the hall, for a split second, he thought he heard something. A small voice, too quiet to hear the words.
"Hello?" he said, voice low.
"Hello?" he said to the empty air, a little louder.
The only response was the smallest movement of air-- as though he'd left a window open somewhere and forgotten.
"Something wrong?" said Terra.
Tom sighed. "Maybe. I don't know. It was a really bad day."
"Go to sleep," Terra said. "It'll be better tomorrow. Probably."
"G'night," he called. He went to his room, ignored the feeling of being watched, and collapsed into bed.