The address Mrs. Wilson had given me turned out to be for an old Queenslander, nestled in the hills above Suncorp. It was actually quite close to the skate park where the “spontaneous combustion” had taken place, maybe twenty minute’s walk. Well, twenty minutes for some people; it was mostly uphill, and had taken five-foot-nothing me the better part of an hour. Kath was out working again, so I’d had to catch public transport, which is always a viscerally uncomfortable experience. My dad has OCD, so I grew up in an almost hospital-grade-sterile house until about age ten when he finally got on medication for it. And while I dodged that particular genetic bullet, the germophobia is kind of ingrained at this point. It’s not debilitating, or even consistent, but it’s there.
I stopped just outside the front gate, taking stock of the house. Two stories, as was the norm for Queenslanders: the colonial-era house on top, and the newer half sitting underneath it, built around the columns and supports that had raised the one-story original house off the ground. It was quite narrow, more so than they usually were, and the peaked, corrugated-iron roof made it almost as tall as the three-story apartment block next door. A small, meter-high wooden fence separated the property from the street; more decorative than protective, slatted wood that had obviously been painted one too many times. A gravel path split a small garden in half, leading to the steps up to the small veranda. The garden itself was neat, but had obviously gone a bit too long without a trim. Given Mrs. Wilson’s story about her partner passing on, it wasn’t hard to puzzle out that one.
The gate opened with a loud creak, betraying the same lack of maintenance affecting the garden, and the gravel crunched under my sneakers as I walked down the path and up onto the veranda. A few potted plants were scattered around, and a modern plastic rocking chair rattled slightly with my footsteps.
In other words, this was a home, not just a house. I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for Mrs. Wilson. I still thought she was handling the situation poorly, but it was a little more understandable now.
The doorbell buzzed a shrill, artificial tone as I pressed it. A few seconds passed, and then footsteps rattled the door frame slightly as someone approached.
“Evening, Mrs. Wilson,” I said with a smile that was almost completely partially genuine.
“Miss Yeong,” she replied quietly. Honestly, at this point I’d put up with her calling me Junebug if it meant I got paid. She was dressed similarly to how I’d seen her before, conservative old-person clothing, with a plain black apron over the top. “Please, come in,” she said, managing to almost completely hide the side-eye she was giving me.
I’d abandoned the businesswoman look, and was wearing baggy black cargo pants, and anime t-shirt under my denim jacket, the lapels of which I’d completely forgotten to remove all the pins from. No makeup, hair bound back in a rough ponytail through the strap-hole of a tattered UQ baseball cap, and a raggedy duffel bag full of my gear, completed the image. Not quite what she’d been expecting, I could tell, but I wasn’t exactly going to do this in a three-piece and heels.
“Thanks,” I said, bracing myself as I stepped through the door. As always, crossing an unfamiliar threshold was like being dunked with a bucket of ice water; not exactly unpleasant, but… bracing. “You have a lovely home,” I commented as I removed my shoes. “Very classic.”
“Thank you,” she said neutrally. She seemed a bit… nervous? No. Anxious, maybe. Fidgety. “Is there anything you need before you get started? Do you need me to show you around?”
“No, I think I should be good. The living room is… through here, yeah?” I poked my head around the corner. “Haha, yep. Nailed it.” It was pretty much what you’d expect from a house like this; slightly older, slightly chintzy, a painting of flowers, a rocking chair, and a TV that wasn’t old enough to be CRT, but only just.
“How did you…?” she asked, following me into the room.
I dropped my duffel bag on floor, knelt and began unzipping it. “I’ve spent like 80% of the last 24 hours poring over the plans for this house. I probably know it better than you do.” Wait, that’s really creepy. “Structurally speaking, I mean.”
First thing out of the bag was my most valuable profession: my ward key. A small cylinder of grey, with intricate arcane patterns carved into it, mounted on top of a retractable tripod.
“What’s that?” Mrs. Wilson asked, and I suppressed a sigh. If she was going to interrogate me about every single aspect of this…
Think of the paycheck, June. “It’s my ward key,” I explained. “It’s essentially the focal point for the ward construction; I tie all the support structures into it while I’m setting up, which saves me the trouble of having to constantly maintain them.” I flicked out the legs of the tripod, and began setting it up. “It needs to be in the exact centre of the house, so…” I sent out a burst of unfocused magic, sensing how it bounced and reflected off the house’s structure, a little like sonar. Just as I’d thought, the ripples overlapped the most in this room, only about half a meter from where I’d guessed. I moved the tripod over so the key was in the correct place. “There.”
“That’s not going to have to stay there, is it?”
Yes, I permanently leave a ward key on a tripod sitting in the middle of a room on every single job I do. “No, no, it just makes my job easier. Less mental strain.” Next out of the bag were the foci, six perfectly cut gemstones embedded in metal frames, with a small runic circle engraved in. They all had a slight patina of rust on them, and were dinged and scratched in places. And…
“What are those?”
You knew what you were in for when you took a job from a middle-class white woman, June. “Foci. Similar idea to the key, except they go at the cardinal points of the house, and at the highest point. They hold sections of the wards in place while I’m constructing other parts, so I can do it in sections instead of all at once.”
“Interesting,” she said, sounding like it was anything but.
The rest of the bag’s contents were various reagents and tools that I kept as part of my kit, things with situational uses. That, and a few bits and pieces I normally kept in my handbag, and my notebooks. I pulled them out, flipping to the arcane matrices I’d sketched out at 2 a.m. last night. Complex maps of lines and angles, they were the result of far, far too much math, and composed the fundamental core of the wards. Not the drawings themselves, or I wouldn’t have done them in pencil on paper thinner than servo toilet paper, but holding their form in my head allowed me to shape the magic accurately.
I found the central matrix, and moved into a folded-leg pose, placing the notebook open on my lap. The ward key was directly in front of my face, and the six foci lay in a row in front of me. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Deep breath in-
Deep breath out. “Arcane matrix, it’s a focus for the magic. Listen, if it’s not too much trouble, I could actually really go for a cuppa.”
“Oh. Of course.” She bustled off, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. Now I could actually hear myself think.
I held the matrix in my mind and let my vision un-focus as I traced its form. It needed to be absolutely perfect if I wanted these wards to be self-sustaining. Once I was certain I had it, I began feeding magic through it, slowly and carefully. The shape of it began to form in front of me, like a cage around the ward key, lines of translucent blue that thrummed with power. They began to solidify, growing brighter and more real, until they almost looked like they were made of crystal. Wafts of vapour drifted off of it, making it seem like it was frozen.
I stopped feeding the magic into it, and let it hang there for a second, inspecting it for any flaws or mistakes. It was smaller than the usual core matrices I made, but more jagged and dense, and a bit lighter in colour. Made sense; it had less to do, but more to do it to. I couldn’t spot any flaws, so I released the connection entirely and just let it hang there. This was what the ward key was for; without it to maintain the matrix, it would immediately collapse when I let go of it. I would’ve had to create and maintain this one and the five others simultaneously, and then hold them all perfectly while linking the structure to the ley line. I could do it, because, well, I’m very good at it, but it was a pain, and made it a lot easier for things to go wrong. Using the key and the foci took strain off of me, and let me be more complicated and secure with my designs.
I stood up, brushing off my pants, just as Mrs. Wilson re-entered the room holding two steaming mugs. “Oh,” she said, sounding surprised, “you’re done already.”
She handed me one of the mugs, and I took a sip. Black, unsweetened. Perfect. “Just with this section. Trust me, there’s plenty left to go.” Another sip. It was cheap, but I’m a bit of tea snob, so I’m used to it.
“Mmm.” She took a sip of her own cup. “Do you need me to-”
“Oh, no no no, you’re good,” I said, maybe a little too hastily. “I’ve got it, thanks. You can do whatever, and I’ll find you if I need anything.”
“Alright then,” she said. “I’ll be… around.”
Weird phrasing, but whatever. As long as she wasn’t ‘around’ me, I was happy. “Shouldn’t take more than two hours,” I said as I picked up the foci and my notebooks. “You can still get up inside the roof, right?”
“I… think so? I think the electrician does occasionally.”
“Perfect,” I replied, clicking my tongue. “I’ll head up there first.”
I found the access hatch in the spare bedroom and clambered up inside. It was dark and dusty, and didn’t have proper flooring, but I managed to clamber my way over to the support beam I’d identified on the plans. With a little hop, I slapped the foci onto it as close to the roof as it would go, where it stuck thanks to a neat little charm on the back. I stepped back and began crafting another matrix. This one looked different to the first one; it was more lopsided, pointing downward and almost concave on the bottom. It served a different function to the first one, a cornerstone rather than a centrepiece.
It took a little longer than the first one; I’d misaligned the focus slightly, and I had to partially unbind the matrix before I could move it. Once it was properly in place, I moved around the house, repeating the process at each of the house’s cardinal extremities. Those five points were the nodes that the wards would be contained within, capping off the magic and containing it within the house’s structure.
Last, but so far from least, was the ley line. After a bit of searching, I found the door that led down to the underfloor area. It was dark and damp, closed in by wooden slats that descended down from the wraparound veranda, sightlines obstructed by the pillars that raised the house and kept it level on the downward sloping surface. Cold dirt crunched under my boots as I walked around, trying to locate the line. They were a bit insidious; even if you knew what to look for, it was almost impossible to locate one. I had this one’s specific magical signature already thanks to the plans I’d gotten, and still I was basically having to walk around sending out aimless pulses and watching how they bounced around really carefully.
After about 15 minutes of fruitless searching, and my nose going very, very numb, I managed to find it. Like a tiny furious river buried in the earth, it rushed by with tremendous speed. It was so loud, so vital when I actively turned my senses on it, but as soon as I moved them even slightly away, poof, gone. Almost zero leakage. Amazingly efficient for something completely natural.
Setting up all the matrices had only taken up half the time I’d given as an estimate to Mrs. Wilson. That wasn’t because I oversold it to make myself look better; it was because this part was going to take the other half.
I dropped into a meditative pose again, ignoring how cold the dirt was beneath me, and closed my eyes, leaving me with only my magical senses. I found the innate magic of the house’s threshold above me, warm and old and giving the slightest impression of jacaranda, and my additions to it, cool and still with the barest hint of bokken chamggae. I don’t know why I distinguished magic by smells; no-one else I knew did. The ley line, unlike the faint impressions of the others, was an olfactory slap in the face; earth after rain, flowers, woodsmoke, every natural smell you could imagine. It was almost overwhelming, and I quickly pulled my senses back. Tapping straight into a ley line is a great way to completely overload your magic, which usually results in…
Well, it’s not pretty.
Slowly, I reached back down towards the line again, painfully slow, until I found the point where I could still access it but it wasn’t overwhelming. I spent a little while just sitting there, acclimating myself to the flow and eddy of the magic, then once I was sure I had it, began peeling off the tiniest strand of energy. It came off easily, coursing and pulsing with energy, but controlling it still took all my concentration. Sweat dripping from my brow, I drew the strand upwards and connected it to the central matrix. It pulsed and flared with energy, lighting up as connections formed and the matrices bridged together. It didn’t immediately collapse in on itself, which was a good sign. The magic was quickly starting to build up, though, so I drew the strand down again and connected it back into the ley line, so that the magic would flow through the wards instead of building up.
When I didn’t explode, I assumed everything was working and slowly opened my eyes. Sure enough, I still appeared to be in possession of a corporeal body, albeit a very, very cold one. It hadn’t felt like it, but that entire process had taken around an hour. I could barely feel my hands, and my breath was creating large plumes of condensation in front of my mouth. I shakily stood and headed back inside. Next time, I’d bring a thermal blanket.
I found Mrs. Wilson pottering around the kitchen. “All done,” I said, popping my head around the door-frame. “So, can I take the guest bedroom, or should I just crash on the couch?”
She paused, halfway through washing a plate. “What?”
I nodded. “Couch it is. Sorry for asking.”
“What are you talking about?”
I quirked my head at her, confused. “Did you not…” I sighed. “You didn’t actually read the forms, did you.”
She began to protest, but then stopped. “Why do you have to stay here?” she asked instead.
“In future,” I muttered to myself, “maybe actually make sure they’ve read the forms. Look,” I explained, “it’s like clay. Say you want to make a hollow sphere. You have to make the join somewhere to make it solid, but then that join is a weak spot that can be exploited. But if you make the join from the inside, it can’t be manipulated from the outside. It’s the same basic idea.”
“I still don’t see-”
“I’ve sealed the wards so they can settle in,” I said bluntly. “It’ll mean that, barring outside intervention, they’ll last for a very long time, if not forever. But for that to happen, they essentially need to overclock themselves for a short while to make sure the channels are firmly set in.”
She stared at me blankly.
I sighed again. “For the next ten hours or so, this house is essentially impregnable. Nothing in, nothing out. But, on the plus side, it’ll be extra fireproof for that time.”
She didn’t seem particularly cheered by that. In fact, she was panicking a little, biting her nails and muttering.
“Mrs. Wilson?” I asked hesitantly. “What’s wro-”
I stopped as a smell hit my nose. Faint, but definitely present.
“Mrs. Wilson,” I said slowly. “Where, exactly, is your partner’s wraith?”