Two’s Company 3-VII

“A secret door disguised as a bookshelf?” Marcelas demanded indignantly. “Did we trip and fall into a goddamn Scooby Doo episode?”

“That makes you Daphne,” I pointed out, but my heart wasn’t in the jab. I was too distracted by said bookshelf. It had swung smoothly inward when we’d hit it, and at a guess, all the books were secured, because none had fallen off. I hauled myself to my feet and tested it, but to my surprise, they actually did seem to be real books, and not glued in place. They were just packed tightly enough that only a deliberate application of force would get them out. Which made sense, I supposed; it’d be a pretty obvious sign of a fake if none of the books moved.

I swung the door back away from the wall, pulling out my phone and using the flashlight to inspect the hinges. “This is… ridiculously well-engineered. Who do you even call when you want a professional-quality secret door?”

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing yourself,” Marcelas said, in a startlingly accurate impression of the doctor. She pushed past me, using her own phone to look around the seams. “This wasn’t on the plans, was it.”

“Of course not,” I replied sardonically. “Hi, here’s the plans to my house and also my secret bookcase lair.”

“There are perfectly normal reasons to have a secret room,” she countered.

I scoffed, turning around. “What, for all your secret orgies?”

“Sure, actually; that’s perfectly legal.”

“I didn’t say legal, I said normal, and while I’m all for sex positivity, secret orgy rooms aren’t normal. Plus, even if that was what it was for, she’d probably be able to do better than-” the words caught in my throat as I turned. “…this.”

Up until that point, I don’t think either of us had really paid any attention to the room’s other direction. I certainly hadn’t, the whole “secret door” thing had distracted me pretty well, and from the little whispered swear I heard from Marcelas, I was pretty sure it’d worked for her too.

The “room” wasn’t really so much of a room as it was a corridor, a few metres long. It looked pretty standard, a wooden floor like outside, but with walls exposing the frames and insulation. After those few metres, though, the floor and walls ended as they ran up against a dark stone archway.

“Okay, so,” Marcelas said after a second. “This is weird, I’ll admit, but not actually any of our business. So how about let’s just-”

I was already halfway down the corridor before she’d finished speaking.

In the thin beam of the phone’s light, the arch revealed itself to be made of roughly-carved blocks, covered in moss and faded inscriptions.

“Young,” Marcelas said as she hurried to catch up, “seriously. This is not…” she trailed off, looking at the archway. “Wow,” she breathed. “This is ancient.” She pushed past me to get a closer look. “A few centuries, at least.”

“There isn’t a thing in this city that’s older than two,” I said flatly. I paused, then reconsidered. “Or, any buildings, at least. People, I dunno.”

“So either it was here before, or it’s been transported here.” She scraped away some of the moss with a fingernail, holding it up to the light. “Probably the latter.”

“Great,” I said sarcastically. “Old stone. Are we going to discuss the stairs?!” They were hewn from the same stone as the archway, and quickly disappeared into darkness.

“Young, there shouldn’t even be any stone here; this should all be earth. I think it’s pretty relevant that will you stop?!” The last part was directed at me as I slipped around her and began descending the stairs.

I could hear her muttering obscenities from behind me, but my focus was mostly ahead. The stairs was slightly uneven, enough that they were probably hand-carved, and there was a strange, humid quality to the air that I couldn’t quite place.

“How deep does this go?” I demanded after a minute of walking.

“Why are you asking me?!”

“It’s rhetorical.”

“Then why did you bother to say it out loud?”

“Do you not understand what rhetorical means?”

Our bickering was cut short by the almost surprisingly sudden arrival of the bottom. Because of the slope of the ceiling, I hadn’t been able to tell until I was only a few steps away.

“I bet you,” Marcelas said, “that this is going to end up being incredibly uninteresting and a waste of time.”

“Now that’s projection if I’ve ever heard it.” I reached the bottom, and found a small room, with a doorway shrouded in darkness. “Besides, you really think that…”

“What?” she demanded, catching up with me. “Do I really think…”

For a moment, we stood together in stunned silence, letting the beams of our lights illuminate the scene.

We stood in the entrance to a cave. Maybe even a cavern, though I was hazy on what the distinction was. The flashlights illuminated a veritable forest of thick stone stalactites hanging from the ceiling, some the size of a person or bigger. Rough, uneven stone stretched out in all directions, so far that the light faded before reaching the end. The faint sound of dripping water could be heard in the distance, along with the faint rasp of moving air.

“So,” Marcelas said after a moment, sounding slightly hoarse, “I think we can both agree that we’re not underneath the house anymore, right?”

I opened my mouth to make a sarcastic reply, but it withered in my throat, the vast emptiness of the space seeming to swallow it up. “…yeah,” I said instead. “That seems likely.” Even that seemed to fade too quickly, quieter than it should’ve been. “Where are we, then?”

In the half-light, I could see Marcelas bite her lip. I quickly looked away. “Not sure. I think we would’ve noticed if we’d gated.”

I would’ve.”

“Stop being a brat and think,” she snapped at me. “How did we get here?”

“By walking down a tunnel,” I shot back, but my heart wasn’t in it. She was right, we hadn’t gated, there was a distinctive feeling to it. There was always the possibility that we hadn’t moved, that someone had simply excavated the ground and built the tunnel hundreds of years ago, somehow, but we hadn’t gone that far down, and I was pretty certain that the roof of the cave was high enough that it’d be above ground. So we hadn’t travelled, but we definitely weren’t in the same place.

I snapped my fingers, then immediately winced at how loud it seemed. “Pocket dimension,” I said. “Gotta be.”

“…shit,” Marcelas acknowledged after a moment. “Yeah. Or a compressed space, but tomato-tomato. How did she-”

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing yourself,” we repeated in unison, then immediately glared at each other.

“Okay,” Marcelas said, after breaking eye contact first, “we’ve indulged our curiosity now, so can we please go back now? This is getting to the point of invasion of privacy.”

She wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t going to let her win. “You’re welcome to go back,” I said, pointing my light downwards so I could start moving forwards. “I certainly won’t stop you.”

I could actually hear her teeth grinding.

The cave had a natural incline towards the centre, angling upwards quite sharply before leveling out and forming a small plateau. There was something in the centre of the flat area, raised up to about waist height, and for a moment I thought it was just an extension of the stone, another tier on the plateau. As both our lights settled on it, though, it became evident that the colour was subtly different, the shape slightly too angular. In fact-

“Please tell me that’s not an altar,” I groaned.

It was an altar.

As we drew closer, the detailing on the dark stone came into focus. Runes in some unknown language or system were carved around the sides, circling the altar in a thin band. At the corners, the stone curved down and thinned into points, lending it a sinister, gothic appearance. The top was perfectly smooth, showing off the veins running through the stone, which reflected the light in odd ways.

It was also completely covered in dark crimson stains.

Continue reading “Two’s Company 3-VII”


Two’s Company 3-VI

I headed straight for the top of the house, hoping to avoid Marcelas for as long as possible. It doesn’t make much difference where you start, in theory, but I’ve found that working upwards and then back down helped incorporate a spot-check into the proceedings. Still, the fact that I’d already had to change my procedures because of her and I hadn’t even started yet didn’t exactly put me in a fantastic mood.

The second floor of the house was as sparsely decorated as the first, a classical painting of Brisbane in the 18th century the only thing on the halls. All the doors were closed, and the paint was pristine and undisturbed. It felt more like walking through a display house than anything else. I felt like the doctor might have just cleaned up for visitors, but it was still a bit unnerving.

Finding the hatch to the attic was a little tricky, but once I’d gotten the ladder down and clambered up, it was oddly more normal than the rest of the house. About half-filled with cardboard boxes and old furniture, it was dusty and poorly lit, and felt like it belonged to an actual home.

Again, I was having to modify my routine. Marcelas had immediately gone for the center of the house, and I wasn’t exactly going to try and set up in there at the same time as her, so I was doing the outer matrices first, then finishing with the core. It was frustrating, in a very low-key sort of way. Like a little burr stuck inside my brain, and every time I moved the wrong way it jabbed me again. It was making it hard to concentrate on my work, and I spent the whole time while I was setting up the foci and building the matrix muttering imaginary arguments under my breath.

And it wasn’t a short amount of time, either. Marcelas hadn’t been wrong, when she’d called the designs “overkill”. The level of complexity and failsafes we were dealing with here were closer to the sort of thing you’d expect from a government building, or…

Or a lab. Hm.

I finished the matrix and began moving my stuff to the next spot, lost in thought. Thing is, magic exists everywhere. Ley lines are a clear enough illustration; they’re the coalescence of natural magic into streams, joining together or splitting apart before eventually disappearing down into the earth. It’s actually a lot like the water table, in a lot of ways. The ebb and flow of natural magic is just part of the environment, just like wind or ambient humidity. The problem with that is, if you’re trying to do magical experiments or research, then it’s going to have an effect. Not much of one, no more than the temperature or time of day, but when you’re working on the microscopic scale, those slight variations can be enough to throw off results.

So, just like you set up sterile labs for biological experiments, you have to create a completely magically-sealed environment, then remove the ambient magic from within.
I’d been in labs like that once or twice; when I was at uni, I dated a girl whose thesis required the use of one, and she took me on a little tour (after a lot of begging and pleading). The level of intricacy required to get a completely closed system is on another level entirely, and you can only ever get a really good sense of wards from the inside. The difficult part is that wards are based around a building’s threshold barrier, the buildup of magical energy that naturally accumulates in any place frequented by people. And threshold barriers are by nature open systems; they form around places designed to let people in and out, so you get natural weak points and gaps, plus the more explicit faults like doors and windows. Regular wards strengthen the threshold, but the foundation is still the same. So to get sterile wards, you have to start from the ground up, actually shoring up or in some cases modifying the structure’s natural flows, before you can even start building.

Dr. Slate’s ward designs weren’t quite the same, but they were close enough that it was pretty clear they were servicing the same function. Why did she need-

“Move it.”

I’d made my way to the ground floor while I was pondering, heading down a corridor towards the back of the house. Unfortunately, said pondering meant that I hadn’t even noticed the footsteps behind me until it was too late.

Marcelas shoved past me, sending me stumbling into the wall, nearly knocking over a bookshelf that stood there. “For fuck’s sake,” I snarled, “you couldn’t have waited?”

“I did,” she shot back over her shoulder. “You’ve been standing there for five minutes now.”

I have? “Then say something, you colossal ass. Or do they not have manners in the U.S.? Wait, stupid question.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she turned back to face me. “I’m from Paraguay, you brat. And do they stand around like idiots where you’re from?”

“Oh, good to know you have a fake accent to match your fake… everything else.”

“Smooth,” she said dryly. “A real zinger. And, for your information, I speak like this because, surprisingly enough, people take you less seriously when you sound ‘foreign’.” On the last couple of words, her accent shifted, the vowels moving around and the Rs gaining a rolling burr.

I grunted, not wanting to concede the point but not able to come up with a counterpoint that didn’t make me sound like a complete fuck. “Look,” I said instead, “can we just cool it? You don’t like me, I don’t like you, fine. We both shut up, and get on with the job, and then we don’t have to see each other any more.”

She pursed her lips. “Okay,” she said slowly, walking towards me, “you know what? Fine.” She stopped directly in front of me. “Just stay out of my way, and we don’t have to have any trouble.” Her face was neutral, but a smug little twitch at the corner of her mouth told me pretty clearly how she actually felt.

Oh, is that how we’re gonna play this? I glared up at her mirrored sunglasses, and didn’t move an inch. If she wanted a power struggle, she’d picked the exact wrong kind, cause if there was one thing I was good at it, it was not being moved.

The smug slowly vanished from her face, and I matched her stoniness with my own as I very deliberately stepped across her.

Unfortunately, she’d started to move at the exact same time, and my foot caught on hers, tripping me and sending me barrelling straight into her. She yelped in shock as I bowled her over, and we hit the bookshelf in a tangled mass of flailing limbs. Except instead of hitting it and stopping, we just kept falling.

All the way down to the ground.

For a few seconds, I lay on the ground, head spinning. It felt like I’d landed on something large and oddly-shaped; it was jabbing into my back in multiple places and-

“Would you get off me?!”

I rolled to the side, losing my balance and tumbling onto the (actual) floor. Wherever we were, it was narrow, and I found myself awkwardly squished up against the wall, facing-

Marcelas’ face was barely an inch away from mine, our noses nearly brushing. Her sunglasses had been knocked slightly ajar by the fall, and I could see the edge of one of her eyes over the rim. Her breath was hot against my skin, chest rising and falling in a way that would have been really distracting under other circumstances.

The moment seemed to last forever, frozen in time, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Then, something broke, and we both hastily shot upright. I turned away, pretending to fix my hair to hide the burning in my cheeks.

“Well, good job, Young,” Marcelas said acidicly, but there was something a bit wavery in her tone that undercut it. “You went and broke the well-paying client’s house.”

“Oh, so we’re going to blame this on-” I’d begun to turn as I talked, but the words died in my throat as I actually took in our surroundings for the first time.

The bookshelf hadn’t broken when we’d fallen into it. It had swung inwards.

We were sitting in an honest-to-gods secret passage.

Continue reading “Two’s Company 3-VI”

Two’s Company 3-V

“I. Refuse. To believe this.”

Marcelas glanced up at me from the phone in her hand, eyes invisible behind her sunglasses. She’d coiled her braid on top her head, and today’s outfit was a bit more business, trading in the sundress for a billowy yellow button-up, dark jeans that hugged her legs, and bright white sneakers. A brown leather duffel sat on the car’s hood, slim and sleek despite the obvious weight it had. Instinctively, I glanced down at my battered canvas one, bulging and tearing at the seams. I’d sewn up the most egregious breaks, but there were a few problem spots I’d have to get around to some time.

Apart from that, though, I actually wasn’t underdressed (for once). Considering what I was getting paid, I figured it was worth getting a bit fancied up. Pinstriped trousers, boots I’d actually taken the time to polish, a button-up with the sleeves rolled to the elbow, and a vest, which I was probably going to have to unbutton if I needed to bend over.

Or if I wanted to angrily point at the face of someone much taller than me.

What are you doing here?” I demanded, jabbing a finger up towards her face as I stalked over to her. “All the others, fine, whatever. You had plausible reasons for being there, or at least plausible excuses. But this?” I pointed at the house triumphantly. “Try explaining this, you creep.”

She stared at me for a second, before turning her phone off and slipping it into her pocket. “I was about to ask you the same thing,” she replied flatly. “What are you doing here?”

I blinked. “What.”

“You heard me.” For the first time, she actually seemed to be annoyed, instead of vaguely smug. “I’m here to work, because unlike some people I have a job. Presumably you’re just here to stalk me?” She sighed. “Ten days in the city and I have one. That’s a new record.”

“You… regularly get stalkers- no, no, that’s not the point here. What are you talking about? I’m here to work, because hey, I actually do have a job, thank you very much. I’m doing wards for this house, because that’s what I was hired to do.”

Her brow furrowed, and she leaned forward off the car, looming over me. “No, I’m doing wards for this house, because that’s what I was hired to do.”

For a beat, we both just stared at each other. Then the yelling started.

“-complete bullshit, you’re obviously such a-”

“-ten days! You’re truly a persistent fuck-”

“Ladies.” The calm voice cut straight through our bickering, like a bell chime. “I believe I can explain.”

We both turned to find Dr. Slate standing in the open front doorway, one hand resting lightly on the frame, expression neutral. She was dressed in the same bland manner as I’d last seen, only marginally more casual despite now being in her own home. The lack of shoes was the only concession, and even that seemed… I dunno, forced, somehow. Like if we hadn’t been here, she’d be happily be relaxing in her own home wearing a full suit and shoes.

“Please, come in. Both of you, that is.” She turned, moving back into the house, and Marcelas and I shared a glance – well, a glare – before following.

The interior was about as pleasantly unassuming as you’d expect; wooden floors, pale cream walls, minimally decorated. Very Scandinavian, very unassuming. No photos hung from the walls; a single piece of modernist art was the only concession to decoration. A small set of stairs stood directly in front of the doors, turning out of sight at a landing, but Dr. Slate instead lead us through the small hallway next to them, down towards the back of the house.

We entered into a small kitchen, built around a granite countertop in the centre, with a view out into a small backyard through a window above the sink.

“I trust the both of you have reviewed the documents I gave you?” the doctor asked, moving around the countertop. She opened a cupboard, and began pouring herself a glass of water from a nearby jug.

I nodded, and Marcelas flipped a hand in an acknowledging gesture. “It’s impressive work, for sure,” she said, voice actually sounding respectful. “Especially from an amateur.”

Slate took the compliment neutrally. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing yourself.”

“Not usually how that phrase goes,” I noted.

“I tend not to bother with usual. Do either of you have any questions about any of the designs?”

“Yes, actually,” Marcelas said. “One, the secondary array for the guest bedroom, was it based off of Renette’s Third Forms? Because it’s a solid assumption, but with that sort of power flow you’re going to get back-up in some of the channels, and a cascade failure isn’t out of the question.”

Guest bedroom? I desperately cast my thoughts backwards, trying to recall that part of the documents. Shit. Marcelas was right, and I’d completely missed that. If she hadn’t been here…

“I see,” Slate said. “Can you fix it?”

“Easily,” she replied, with a cocky little grin. “If you’re set on the Third, then a few modifications to the supporting formulas can restrict the flow so a backup will be impossible. It’ll mean that you’ll get slightly thinner fields in that area, but it’s well integrated, so the rest of the network will support it.”

The doctor shook her head. “Unacceptable. I need absolutely no variation in any part of the array.”

“Really?” Marcelas asked, sounding surprised. I wasn’t watching her, though; I’d dropped my bag onto the ground and was digging around for the notebook I knew I’d left in there somewhere. “That’s complete overkill.”

“Nevertheless,” she replied flatly, “I need it.” I found my notebook and quickly began sketching some rough diagrams. “So, can you fix it?”

“Dr. Slate?” Both of them looked at me, crouched over my bag, and I turned the page around to show it to them. “If we actually simplify the design, by removing the secondary channels here-” I pointed with my pencil, “-here, and here, and then widen these four, then the flow will remain constant from the rest of the net. That section will be more consolidated than the rest, obviously, but you’ll have that consistent effect you want.”

“Hm.” She held out a hand, and I passed her my notes, standing and straightening out my pants. The doctor inspected them for a few moments, while Marcelas tried to look over her shoulder without actually appearing to do so. “This will do,” she said eventually, handing the pad back. “Ms. Marcelas, you implied you had other questions.”

“I did,” she said haughtily. “Two. Why is she here? You mentioned nothing about another contractor.”

“What she said,” I added, “but without the pompousness. This is not a two-person job, and even if it was, this is not how you put one together.”

“You’re right,” she acknowledged, taking a sip of her water. “This is not about collaboration. This is about competition.”

I stared at her. “You’re kidding,” I said flatly.

Marcelas, on the other hand, grinned broadly. “Well, why didn’t you just say so? So, whichever one of us does better gets the job?”

“This, and others,” she said.

Why?” I demanded.

“Competition breeds progress,” she said, the words implying a smirk that her face and tone did not reflect. “It brings a higher quality of work, and efficiency and efficacy.”

Marcelas made a show of glancing over her shoulder. “Sorry, just wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed a teleprompter on the way in.” Despite myself, I almost snickered.


“So, what,” I asked, “we both have to do the work, but only one of us gets paid? Cause, you know, that’s super illegal.”

“You’ll both be paid. However, the one that does better work will be generously compensated, and retained for future work.”

“Don’t worry, Dr. Slate,” Marcelas said confidently. “I look forward to working with you in the future.” I glared at her, and she grinned smugly back.

“Well?” Slate asked, sipping from her glass. “What are you waiting for?”

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Two’s Company 3-IV

The first time, I assumed it was a coincidence.

I was standing in line at the discount pharmacy, waiting to get my prescriptions refilled with my advance from Dr. Slate. I still wasn’t able to get more than a month’s supply at a time, but if I budgeted carefully, I wouldn’t have to worry about that for a while. Maybe even to the end of the year, and then my insurance would reset and I’d be good for a while after that.

Unfortunately, my tendency to come in the middle of the day usually lined up with the hordes of senior citizens who had the same idea. So while my fantasies of financial stability were enjoyable, they weren’t enough to get me through a twenty-person line of elders, at least half of whom had expired prescriptions but would spend at least five minutes each arguing that they weren’t.

Thankfully, I had other options. The binder was turning out to be even more of a fascinating read than I’d initially thought, to the point where I’d missed the line moving forward a few times now.

Finally, I reached the front, and distractedly held out my scripts. “Hi,” I said, nose still buried in graphs and charts, “just need these filled, please.”

“Hello, June.”

I did a double-take, registering for the first time the actual features of the face looking back at me over the counter. Copper skin, piercing green eyes, cheekbones so sharp you could cut steel on them, a floral-print hijab.


“…hi, Nadine,” I said quietly. Or, that’s what I said on the outside. Internally, it was closer to “oh balls oh balls oh balls oh balls” than anything else. “How… are you?”

“I’m fine,” she said curtly, picking up my scripts from where they’d slipped from my fingers and landed on the counter.

Ever heard the saying “don’t shit where you eat”? Well, let’s say that, within the metaphor, I have a bit of an incontinence problem.

Nadine had started working at this pharmacy about six months ago, and, like an idiot, I’d seen a new, pretty face behind the counter and struck up a conversation. What with how regularly I came in, pretty soon we were on first-name basis, and pretty soon after that we were on “desperately moaning first-names” basis. And then, of course, I went and screwed it all up. Not in any particularly dramatic way, of course, just my regular brand of forgetfulness, overbooking, and single-mindedness, until she’d (quite rightfully) had enough, and we were done.

Which would have meant I had to find another pharmacy to go to, and, in fact, for almost two months it had. Except today I’d had my head in the clouds (or, more, accurately, in the books), and I’d fallen back into old routines I didn’t even realise I followed.

So now I had to have the good ol’ “talking to your ex at their place of employment” conversation. If there’s any consolation, it was that I’d had plenty of practise.

I still wasn’t any good, but at least hypothetically, the experience was there.

“How’s work?” she asked as she passed the scripts back, her tone surprisingly cordial. In fact, the whole conversation so far had been like that, despite the fact that she had every right to be bitter. That was Nadine, I guess; too nice to really be an ass about it. If only all my exes could be like that.

“Good, yeah,” I lied. “I’ve actually just got a new job.”

“Trust me,” she replied dryly. “I can tell.” It was almost adjacent to friendly, and for a moment I felt a little frisson of… something, I don’t know, run down my spine. Then it passed, and reality returned. That particular bridge was well and truly burnt.

The pharmacist behind the prescription counter called my name, and Nadine turned to grab the little tray of pills from them.

“Prestiq, estradiol, spirolactane?” she rattled off, and I nodded. “Okay, that’ll be-“

“‘Scuse,” a voice said from behind me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder, trying to move me to the side. It took me a second to place it, but when I did-

“You?!” I exclaimed, spinning to face her.

Adelina Marcelas glanced at me over the top of her sunglasses. “I’m sorry, have we met?” Behind her, the line of elderly folks she’d skipped ahead of grumbled and complained, but their protests seemed to just miss her entirely. I wasn’t even sure she was aware of them.

You literally came to my office this morning, and now you’re claiming you don’t remember me?!”

She shrugged one shoulder. “If you say so,” she replied casually, already looking past me at Nadine. “Hi,” she said to her in a tone of voice so sultry it bordered on parody, brushing past me to approach the counter. “Adelina Marcelas. You can call me Lina, though.”

“H-hi,” Nadine replied, a little caught off-guard. “Sorry, I was just finishing up with-“

Marcelas cut her off with an airy wave. “Sure, whatever. Hurry it up.”

The transaction that followed was made significantly more awkward by her standing there, smirking slightly, arms folded. Basically the second Nadine handed me my change, she swept back in.

“So,” she continued as if nothing had happened, “don’t think I caught your name there…”

I rolled my eyes and left. At least I didn’t have to deal with her anymore.


The second time, I started to get a little suspicious.

“Damn,” I murmured appreciatively, leaning back and absentmindedly gnawing on my thumb. “Damn.”

I was standing at a small viewing table in the vault of the Department of Housing, blueprints and graph paper spread out in front of me. The only lighting was the ambient blue glow that filled the room, but it was enough for me to work by.

I was comparing the binder to the blueprints for the house they’d been designed for, and as I’d been half-expecting, the matched up flawlessly.

“She must have a copy of these herself,” I mused aloud. “That, or she’s got the best measuring equipment around.”

“Time’s up,” Freya Morgenson said from behind me, and I turned to find her not-quite-looming.

“O-oh,” I stammered, “sure.” I hadn’t realised that much time had passed. “Let me just-” I hastily swept my materials back into my bag, throwing the binder in after them and quickly letting the blueprint roll back up to its closed state. “There?”

She nodded, implacable, and picked up the scroll from the table. “Stay.” Then she was off, down one of the interminable stacks.

When she returned, scroll safely returned to its slot, she escorted me back to the elevator and up to the lobby, the air laced with awkward and tense silence. On my part, at least; she certainly didn’t seem to care.

Finally, the elevator doors slid open, revealing-

“Oh for fuck’s sake!”

“Finally,” Adelina said, glancing at the watch on her wrist. She was leaning against the front counter, blowing a bubble of gum out of the side of her mouth. “Terrible service here. Do you have a complaint form-”

I stalked up to her, jabbing a finger into her chest. “Stop following me!”

“Following you?” she repeated, sounding completely bemused. “I don’t even know you. Why would be following you?”

I stared flatly up at her. “You were at my office, you were at the pharmacy, and now you’re here. Brisbane isn’t a big city but it’s not that small. What do you want with me?”

She smirked. “Pretty egotistical of you, don’t you think? Sorry to break it to you, but not everything is about you, short stuff.” As I ground my teeth, she turned a thousand-watt smile on an unimpressed Freya. “Hi there. I need to look at some records?”

Calm, June. She’d already stopped paying attention to me, so I figured it was best just to cut my losses and leave.


The third time… well, there’s a military saying, and it ends with “enemy action”. Which is about all you really need to know.

Dr. Slate’s house was impressively understated, a two-story building that looked like it’d be more at home in an American gated community than here in Ascot, surrounded by sprawling almost-mansions and decked-out Queenslanders. It was coloured in soft white and cream, with a short wooden fence, and a lawn that looked well-maintained enough that I was pretty sure she hired people to care for it for her.

It also had a slick-looking sports car parked in the driveway, which I would’ve assumed belonged to the doctor, if not for the woman leaning against it.

Three guesses who it was, and the first two don’t count.

Two’s Company 3-III

“Just one second,” I began to say, but before I could get past the first syllable, the handle clicked, and the door swung open.

The woman standing on the other side was… well, she was boring. Utterly unremarkable in nearly every way. She was white, looked about 50, but had settled into it well, dull blonde hair marked with dignified streaks of grey and a decent collection of wrinkles scattered around her face and brow. If she was wearing makeup, I couldn’t tell; her lips were thin and pale, dull brown eyes bearing faint shadows. Her suit was a plain grey-on-white with no tie, shoes a pair of practical-looking flats. A plain handbag hung from one hand, and a pair of rimless spectacles perched on her nose.

“Good morning,” she said, voice low and slightly raspy. “I’m looking for June Young. Is this a bad time?”

“Ah,” I replied hastily, “good morning. No, no, please, come in.” I stood, and found she was a good half-head taller than me. “And, uh, I am she. June Young, that is. Sorry, but did you have an appointment?”

“No,” she said curtly.

“…right. Let me just… check to see if I have anything else booked in,” I lied quickly. She seemed to buy it, simply nodding, and stood there waiting as I pulled my phone from my pocket and opened up my calendar, scrolling through it for a few moments to give the impression that there was literally anything in it. “Nope, all good. Please, take a seat.”

She sat primly in the offered chair, arms and hands at neat, tight angles.

“Dr. Rebecca Slate,” she introduced herself, proffering a hand. Her grip was firm but not tight, hands slightly callused. The handshake was unusually brief, though, and I thought I saw her neutral expression flicker for a moment. Not to distaste or disgust or anything like that, but…

I don’t know. I probably imagined it.
“Nice to meet you.” I replied, pushing my inbox out of the way so I could sit on the edge of the desk. Behind me, I could hear Kath going following our client protocol: headphones in, head down. Belatedly, I realised we’d never briefed Sorayah on the protocol, but a quick glance over my shoulder showed that she’d disappeared anyway. “Can I ask, is that a medical doctorate, or…?”

She shook her head. “Thaumaturgical mechanics, specialising in systems interaction and energy transfer.”

“Oh, interesting!” I thumbed over one shoulder at the diploma hanging above the filing cabinet. “I’ve actually got an undergraduate in T-mech. Not systems, obviously, but I did an elective or two. Not many people in that field, huh?”

She inclined her head. “Indeed. Only a few others in the country, as far as I’m aware.”

I whistled appreciatively. “Sorry if it’s a bit intrusive, but is your thesis available anywhere? I’d be fascinated to see what that sort of high-level stuff looks like.”

“I’m afraid not.” I waited for her to elaborate further, but apparently that was all I was getting. Fair enough, I supposed.

“So,” I said before the silence could get too awkward, “what can I do for you today, Dr. Slate?”


I gave a little laugh, before realising that it wasn’t a joke, and attempted to cover it with a cough. “I’d guessed as much, yeah. I don’t usually get people asking me to fix their plumbing. Can you give me more specifics?”

In lieu of a response, she reached into her handbag and pulled out a ring binder, handing it to me. It was about as thick as a paperback, and when I opened it, I found-

“Wow,” I breathed, leafing through the pages. The pages were covered with neat, exacting diagrams and formulae for a ward network, handwritten in black ink. “This is- wow. You wrote this?”

She nodded. “As I said, I have a doctorate. All I need is a wardlayer to execute it.” She reached back into her purse, this time emerging with a small, fat envelope. “This is your down payment, and the remainder of the fee can be calculated afterwards.”

“Uh huh,” I replied distractedly, still reading the binder. It was incredibly detailed, and although I recognised the basic shapes of what I was seeing, I’d have to go over it with my old textbooks in hand to get a proper understanding of some of it. “Sounds good.”

She stood. “My address and details are in the back of the folder. Can I expect you there tomorrow?”

I tore myself away. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. 9am?”

She nodded. “I shall see you then.”

“Have a nice day,” I began to say, but she was already moving out the door, and didn’t seem to hear me.

I glanced at the closing door, then back down at the binder. “Damn.”

“That was quick!” I turned to find Kath dropping her headphones onto the desk, staring up at me with a sly grin. “Didja’ lose another job?”

“Actually, no. She was just… unusually prepared, that’s all.” I handed the binder over, and while Kath rifled through it, I slit the envelope open with one finger. Green $100 dollar bills greeted me, more than a few of them, and my eyes went wide. “Damn,” I repeated.

“This is some serious mumbo-jumbo,” Kath said, still looking at the papers. “You’re gonna be put out of a job, Junebug.”

I held up the wad of bills. “Au contraire.

She whistled. “Does that mean you’re actually going to cover your share of the rent this month?”

“If this much is just the down payment, then I can probably pay all of it.”

“Don’t,” Sorayah’s voice said, sounding slightly muffled. A moment later, her head rose up through Kath’s computer. “Don’t do it,” she repeated, with a surprising amount of firmness.


“Don’t do it. Don’t take the job. Tell her, ‘sorry, too busy’, and then never talk to her again.” I turned around to find her way too close and staring at me, dark eyes serious and intense above the bags. “Please, June.”

“Whoa-kay,” I said, leaning back. “Space, please.” She seemed to realise, and hastily retreated. “What’s got you so worked up?”

“She’s wrong, June. Something about her is just… wrong.”

“What, Dr. Slate? I thought she was nice. A bit blunt, but, come on, we put up with Kath everyday.”

“Yeah,” Kath added, “she seemed alright.”

“You weren’t supposed to be listening,” I accused.

She shrugged. “Sue me, binch.”

Sorayah shook her head. “She’s… off. You couldn’t see it?”

“…you’re gonna have to be more specific.”

She made a frustrated growling noise. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, it’s just… something about her is wrong. It’s like… do you know how some numbers are wrong?”

“…no, Sorayah. I don’t know that.”

“Oh.” She deflated. “Well, take my word for it, okay?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, Raya. But I just didn’t see it, and with this amount of money, I’d have to be insane not to take the job. Especially since, and I promise I’m not blaming you, you’re not exactly bringing in any money.”

She shrank even further, and I regretted my words. “…okay,” she said in a small voice. “Just be careful, okay?”

I gave her a reassuring smile. “Careful’s my middle name.”

Kath frowned. “I thought your middle name was Neil.”


Two’s Company 3-II

“Plaque’s up,” I said as I shut the door into the office behind me.

“Uh huh,” Kath said distractedly. She was hunched over at her computer, very absorbed in whatever was going on on the screen. “Cool.”

“How does it look?” Sorayah’s voice asked. I squinted, and realised that she was hovering over Kath’s shoulder, almost invisible in the glare from the window. In the two weeks since our… encounter with the Raggedy Man, she’d slowly begun to return to visibility. She wasn’t yet as solid as she’d been when we’d met, still disappearing under bright light or flickering out when she got stressed or worried, but it was a significant improvement from no body at all. Other than that, she looked exactly the same, still wearing her bloodstained shirt and suit, bags under her eyes as dark as ever.

“It’s nice,” I said dropping into my chair. “Classy. Although, apparently not everyone agrees.”

“Uh huh, cool.” Sorayah floated a little closer to the screen. “No, no, further to the left.”


“Hm?” She glanced up at me. “Oh, sorry, no, I was talking to Kath. What were you saying?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Just that I had a bit of an… encounter while-”

“Booyah!” Kath yelled, clicking rapidly. Sorayah gave a little cheer.

“…what are you two doing?” I asked. “Gaming?”

“No,” Kath said, completely po-faced.

“Yes,” Sorayah said at the exact same time. “What?” she protested as Kath shot her a glare. “It’s not like she’s your mum! Is she gonna take away your computer privileges?”

“I’m bored,” Kath said defensively. “Nobody’s cheating on each other or getting murdered these days. They’re all too busy loving life or some shit.”

“What were you saying, June?” Sorayah asked politely.

I briefly relayed my run-in with Marçelas to them.

“What a binch,” Kath noted with a frown, spinning her chair around in circles

“She, uh, does sound quite unpleasant,” Sorayah agreed.

“Oh,” I said with a grim smile, “you haven’t even heard the best part.” I flicked the business card at Kath’s face, but she caught it without flinching.

“‘Thaumaturgic Security’,” she scoffed. “Ooh, look at me, I’m so- holy shit!” She fell out of her chair.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“You okay?” Sorayah asked her, hovering nervously.

“Fine,” Kath grumbled, leveraging herself upright. “Ow. How does she afford that?”

“Well, presumably, she’s very good at her job.”

Silently, she looked around at our office. As if on cue, one of the ceiling panels gave an alarming creak, letting loose a cloud of dust to slowly drift down onto my desk.

“Not a word,” I said, pointing at her. “Not one.”

“Is it really that impressive?” Sorayah asked.

“Again,” I waved a hand around, “I can only afford this, and I share with her. A wardlayer in a  highrise is like an electrician or a plumber in one.”

“Well,” she pointed out, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s ridiculously good, does it? She could have inherited wealth, or… won the lottery, or something?”

“…huh!” She did have a point. I’d focused on the worst possible explanation, without considering others, which was so completely out of character for me.

“Maybe she married a widower and killed him to inherit his money,” Kath suggested.

“Ooh, or maybe she’s a vampire who’s been accumulating wealth for centuries!” Sorayah was getting into it now, flapping her hands excitedly. “Moving around the earth to avoid detection, setting up offshore accounts and false identities! Never getting too attached, because she knows that eventually she’ll have to move on…”

“Sorry, June,” Kath said dryly, “but only the world’s most boring vampire would be a wardlayer.”

“No, yeah, I’ll cop that.”

“Important question, though,” she continued, a sly grin spreading across her face. “She hot?”

I groaned, making a face. “Disgustingly. It was like she stepped out of a magazine or something.”

“Eugh. Gross.”

I swept the dust off my desk with the back of my hand, and started picking through the papers it had gotten on. All very boring business stuff; I could feel my eyelids starting to droop just skimming them.

“Eh, screw this,” I decided, dropping the papers. “Kath, scooch over. I want a go.”

“Um, actually?” I glanced up to see Sorayah nervously wringing her hands. “Could I… talk to you about something? Both of you, that is.”

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, confused. “Shoot.”

“Okay, so. There’s a funeral next Friday,” she said, speaking slowly as if choosing each word with care. “I… I’d like to attend, and I’d appreciate it if you two would too.”

“Oh!” Whatever I’d been expecting, it wasn’t that. “Um, sure, yeah, of course.”

“Yeah, count me in,” Kath added. “Is your family coming in, or…?”

She blinked. “No… why would my family be coming to- Oh!” She shook her head rapidly. “No, no, sorry, it’s not for me. It’s for Gregor Mantzoukas.”

Kath and I exchanged a glance. “…who?”

“The, uh,” she glanced away. “The guy who… you know…” She tapped her stomach.

“Ohhh…” Realisation struck like a lightning bolt. “Oh! Oh, wow, okay. Geez.”Really should’ve known that, June. In my defense, I’d just been glad to be done with the whole affair; I hadn’t exactly been in the mood to go back and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

“You’re going to the funeral of the guy who killed you?!” Kath demanded, shooting out of her chair. She nearly smacked her face into the wall before getting her balance, and immediately spun on Sorayah. “Ray-ray. Raya. Rah-rah ooh-la-la.”

“Please don’t?”

“I think you think you’re being brave and shit, and morally forkitudinous-”

“Not a word,” I interjected.

“-or whatever, but really it’s just gonna end up being sad and painful and sucky?”

“No,” Sorayah said slowly, “I know. But… it’s not like it was his fault. He was just as much a victim as I was. Am. More, even, because he didn’t even get to stick around like I did. I don’t know, I just feel like I owe it to him somehow.”

I saw Kath opening her mouth, and I waved her down. “Sorayah,” I said carefully, “you don’t owe anyone anything. But.” I took a deep breath. “If you really want to do this, we’ll come with.” She didn’t meet my eyes, but a smile crept across her face. “Besides,” I added, trying to lighten things a little, “it’s not like either of us is busy.”

So of course , a second later there was a knock on the door.

Two’s Company 3-I



Private Eye


Digital Security Consultant

I settled back onto my heels, inspecting my handiwork. The new plaque was a cheap little thing, already flaking at the edges, but none of us had wanted to shell out the cash for something nicer. Technically, this was just going to be temporary, until Sorayah got her feet back underneath her, but you never knew. It’d do for now, at least.

I wiped some sweat off my forehead, and slipped my screwdriver back into the front pouch of my overalls. We didn’t have a power drill, so I’d had to secure the screws by hand, which had taken… some effort. I was gonna have hand cramps for the next few days, at a bare minimum.

“Very classy.”

I yelped, jolting forward and smacking my head against the wood, which of course made me lose my balance and tip over to one side. Ears ringing and vision blurry, I groaned, rolling over onto my back. “Jesus,” I mumbled, rubbing at my forehead. “Sorry, you startled me.” I squinted up at the source of the voice as she stoof over me.

She was my age, maybe a little younger. Her skin was clear and flawless, but although it was a dark tan colour, something about the tinge seemed sallow. Like she hadn’t gotten enough sun. As far as flaws went, though, that was about it. Her cheekbones were high, arched and speckled with freckles, her eyebrows were perfect, and her full lips painted a bright crimson red. A pair of round, red-tinted sunglasses covered her eyes, and a large sunhat covered most of her straight black hair, with the exception of the intricate braid that fell over one shoulder. Both of her ears were covered in piercings; the right had a series of linked silver rings running down it, while the left was more diverse, holdings piercings of various sizes, shapes and colours. One perfectly manicured hand (red nails; she apparently had a theme) was draped over the slim black purse that hung from her exposed shoulder; the white sundress she wore only covered one. It was also quite short, ending just above halfway down her thighs, and leaving the rest of her legs exposed down to the brown sandals that reached up to her knee.

In other words, she was fashionable as hell. Fashionable and hot.

I’m not usually one to get flustered, but I’ll admit she gave me a few seconds pause. “…sorry,” I repeated, my voice coming out a bit froggy. I realised I was still on the ground, and hastily pulled myself to my feet. “I didn’t hear you coming.”

She just smirked, and I became acutely aware that I was sweaty and disheveled, wearing tattered denim overalls, an anime t-shirt and old rubber thongs.

“Which one are you, then?” she asked, gesturing with her head at the plaque. Her voice was low and throaty, carrying a faint American accent that was tinged with something vaguely South American.


“Young, Khan, or Jones.” Her head didn’t move, but I got the very strong impression that, behind her sunglasses, she was giving me a once-over. Not the nice kind, either. “I’m going to presume… not Khan.”

“You’d presume right,” I said with a sigh as some pieces fell into place. “Another one, huh?”

A single eyebrow quirked. “Excuse me.”

“Sure, okay.” I turned back to the plaque, trying to see if it was properly level. “Look, whatever feud or rivalry or… scheme or whatever you have with Kath, she’s not in today.”

That gave her pause. “With… Jones?”

“Yeah,” I glanced over, “that’s what this is, right? It’s been a while since the last one, but someone dressed like that coming here? I can connect the dots. Lemme just say, though, however you think this thing is going to go, it almost certainly isn’t.”

After a moment of silence, she began to chuckle.

“Uh, sorry,” I asked warily, “what exactly is so funny?”

“You,” she said, one corner of her mouth quirking up in a smile that got nowhere near the rest of her face. “You actually thought I was here for that idiot?” She leaned in slightly. “I’m here for you.

I leaned away from her. “…cool, cool, okay. Do you want to maybe say that again, but without the creepiness?”

She chuckled, and even with my rapidly-increasing wariness of her, it still felt a little like being stabbed. “Charming.” The word was delivered with a heavy load of scorn, and whatever goodwill I’d had left towards her evaporated.

“Okay, look,” I snapped, “I’m a busy woman, okay? If you’re just here to make snide comments, then kindly fuck off. Otherwise, just spit it out.”

The little motion of her shoulders strongly suggested an eye-roll. “Oh, you haven’t figured it out yet?” Her fingers flicked at the plaque. “Wardlayer, hm? Is that what they call it here? Very… literal.”

Realisation hit me like a ton of bricks. “You- you’re-”

“Oh, finally.” One hand dipped into her purse and came out holding a business card, proferring it in my direction. I took it from her, cautiously, and found it was made from thick, smooth card, with cursive writing laid down in smooth, shimmering gold.

Adelina Marçelas
Thaumaturgic Security Consultant


Below that, a phone number, email, and office address-

“Fuck me!” I swore involuntarily as I read the latter. “How the hell do you afford that?”

“Well,” she replied sardonically, “I’m afraid not all of us can work out of such… charmingly decrepit spaces.”

“Hey, screw you,” I shot back hotly. “It’s what we can afford, and I’m not worse at my job because my office is a little run-down.” Don’t get me wrong, I hate the place, but I wasn’t about to let her come waltzing in here and say as much. Only we got to do that, we’d earned it by working here.

“Oh, of course, of course,” she said insincerely, with a smile to match the tone. “Although…” she added, extending one elegant finger to rest on her chin, “wouldn’t the sort of offices you can afford be a reflection of the success of your professional career?”

I ground my teeth, the card crumpling in my fist. “What. Do. You. Want?”

She laughed, bright and clear. “Nothing in particular. I just wanted to get a sense of what the competition looked like around here. Turns out I shouldn’t have bothered.”

“I think you should leave,” I said icily.

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on staying long,” she replied airily, turning to go. “I’m sure I’ll see you around, June,” she added over her shoulder. “In my wake, most likely.”

I watched her leave (no, not like that), glaring a hole between her shoulder blades, fists clenched at my side. It was hard to maintain the anger once she’d disappeared from view, though, and I was left mostly just feeling drained. Drained, and worried.

Brisbane isn’t a big town. Two, three million people, and wardlaying isn’t exactly a field with a lot of big openings. The majority of people (and businesses) were perfectly happy with standard, boilerplate stuff, and that share of the market was covered entirely by the ASSholes – August Security Solutions, your number one stop for by-the-books, one-size-fits-all wards. There was no way I’d ever be able to compete, so I’d gone for the scraps, the small percentage of people who wanted custom jobs, bespoke fits, or just the sort of thing August would – heh – charge out the ass for. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to help me keep scraping by.

But now this Marçelas woman was going to be competing with me. It didn’t even really matter if she was good or not; just having two options meant I was going to lose some jobs. And if she could afford to have her office in a high-rise, then she probably was good, which was even worse.

I slumped back against the wall. “It’ll be fine, June,” I told myself. The wood rattled as I let myself slide down into a sitting position, landing with a thump. “I’m sure a whole bunch of clients will just… appear from thin air.”

Convincing, it was not.

I dragged my hands down my face, then propped the elbows against my knees and rested my chin in my hands. From this angle, I could easily see that the plaque was crooked, too.

I groaned, and pulled out the screwdriver again. Change “the next few days” to “the next week”, I guess.