Burnout 1-VI

“Kath,” I said, hushed but urgent, into the phone. “You have to come get me. This woman is insane.”

“Mrmm,” came the muffled response. “…June?”

“Come and get me,” I hissed. She is keeping the wraith of her dead partner in a shoddy circle in her spare bedroom.”

“June,” Kath grumbled sleepily, “I can’t understand your weird English-Korean pidgin. Pick a language and stick to it.”

“I am trapped in a house with a wraith, come get me,” I ground out.

“Okay, now say it again, but in a non-bonkers way.”

I glanced over my shoulder. Mrs. Wilson was standing nearby, wringing her hands and fretting, her ears flat against her skull. The spare bedroom was small, and the old bed and dresser that had presumably taken up the center of the room had been pushed to one side, along with the tattered carpet. A circle had been crudely etched into the wooden floor, angular runes in a system I didn’t recognize, and contained within the circle was a fire wraith.

Mrs. Wilson hadn’t been lying; it did look like a person. A column of white flame taller than I was, it swirled and flickered within the circle, licking at the invisible boundary it created. It almost seemed like a trick of the light, but there were definitely distinctive human features inside the flames; eyes, limbs, maybe hair. Thin, androgynous. Ethereal.

Dangerous.

I’d only seen a few wraiths before this one, but they’d all been fairly small. Essentially just unformed blobs of magic floating aimlessly around, damaging stuff by accident more than anything else. For this one to be so big, Mrs. Wilson’s partner must’ve been packing some serious juice.

“Kath,” I whispered, “I’m not joking. I’m looking at the wraith right now, and it’s larger than I am.”

“What?!” There was the sound of scuffling, and a murmur of protest in the background, and when Kath’s voice returned, it was fully alert. “How much bigger?” she demanded.

I glanced at it again, and had the unnerving sensation it was looking back. “Like, you-sized. About as lanky.”

Kath swore. “Please tell me it’s contained,” she said. Then, talking to someone else, “Sorry, there’s an emergency. And also you kinda suck. Don’t take it personally.”

“It’s in a circle, but it’s shoddy.” I took another look. “Very shoddy.”

“Shit-titties. Okay, okay. Okay.” I faintly heard her click her fingers a few times. “Put another circle around it. Don’t skimp, don’t rush. Then get the both of you the fuck out of that house, and wait for me on the curb.”

I sucked in a breath through my teeth. “That… may not be possible.”

“June.”

“Look,” I hissed, “I didn’t know about the wraith until after I’d already linked up the wards.”

“June.”

“This is not my fault.”

June.

I shut up.

“So what you meant when you said that you’re trapped, is that you…”

“Trapped myself,” I admitted grudgingly.

“There we go.” A door slammed in the background. “I’m on my way, but I’m not really sure what I’m gonna be able to do.”

“Look, honestly? It’ll just be a lot easier to be in here with the knowledge that you’re out there.”

“Aww, I’m your comfort blanket!”

“Really not the time.”

“Sorry, sorry. But yeah, okay. I’ll be there soon. Draw up that circle, and then get yourself as far away as you can, preferably with a fire extinguisher. Wait, can you throw up some wards or something to protect yourself?”

“No, the air’s way too charged in here.”

“Man, you’ve really screwed yourself over, huh?” she chuckled as her engine revved.

“I am really not in a joking mood.” Was the wraith growing… larger? No, it was just the movement of the flames. “Look, be straight with me.”

“Never.”

“Ha, ha,” I said flatly. “How bad is it?”

“You remember last year? When I nearly lost a leg? That was an ice wraith the size of a large dog.”

I gulped. “So this one…”

“Yep.”

“And-”

“Yep.”

Fuck.

“Pretty much. I’ll call you when I get there. Don’t die.”

“I’ll do my best.” I hung up and turned back around.

“Who was that?” Mrs. Wilson asked nervously, as I knelt over my bag and started digging around for some chalk.

“My…” I almost said partner, but I was pretty sure she’d misconstrue that. “Colleague. She’s going to come here, and as soon as this place stops being the magical equivalent of being connected to a live wire, she’ll come inside and get rid of that thing.”

“What?!” she protested. “Miss Yeong, I will not-”

I jabbed a finger at her, cutting her off. “Mrs. Wilson, that wraith is extremely dangerous. If the police found out that you haven’t reported it, and are keeping it in your home, you’d be charged with reckless endangerment, at least.” She blanched. I didn’t actually know that, but it seemed likely. “That thing is not your partner, it’s not even an echo of your partner. It’s just a walking furnace that will incinerate us if given even the slightest chance.” I found the chalk, and moved over to the circle, leaving a good meter of space between me and the outer edges. “You need to get over it.”

I knelt and began drawing. Some forms start with the inner circle in its entirety and work outwards, but I prefer working laterally. I use a modified version of the European scriptwork they teach here, cobbled together with bits and pieces of the Korean forms my mum taught me as a child. It means my work isn’t standard, but I feel like it covers up some shortcomings.

“Miss Yeong,” Mrs. Wilson said stiffly from behind me, “I don’t appreciate-”

I was tired, I was antsy, I was on edge. I’m not particularly proud of my actions, but I feel like they were at least justified. I stopped drawing and spun on her. “I don’t care what you do or don’t appreciate. I’ve done my job, and this isn’t a client-employee relationship anymore. This is you, who are apparently competing in the Darwin Awards and want to share the glory, and me, the one who is actually going to try and keep us alive. I don’t care if that fucking thing wrote you three pages of poetry and listed off your partner’s deepest darkest secrets. I’m going to prevent it from getting out, then we’re going to camp on the other side of the house with a couple of buckets of water and a fire extinguisher, and wait til sunrise so we can kill it.”

“They’ve never hurt me,” she insisted stubbornly. “I only put them in the circle when you were coming. They’re docile.”

“I. Don’t. Care.” I took another step towards her, jabbing the chalk at her chest. “Let me be perfectly clear. Either my colleague gets rid of that thing, or the government-”

The crackling noise of the flames from behind me suddenly cut out. Slowly, I turned around. The wraith’s form had condensed; the fires still burned, but now they were strictly held within the bounds of a human form. And where the eyes should have been, two flames hung, brighter than the rest, and staring directly at me.

The floor caught on fire.

“So…” I said slowly, backing away, “it was docile around you.”

Mrs. Wilson made a whimpering noise.

“So it’s never seen anyone else before.”

She shook her head.

“I hate you,” I said tiredly, and then the fire ate the circle away, and freed the wraith.

Burnout 1-V

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-

“And that?”

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.

Burning wood.

“Mrs. Wilson,” I said slowly. “Where, exactly, is your partner’s wraith?”

Burnout 1-IV

Kath came bursting through the door, staggering and off-balance, and slammed it closed behind her. Her clothes were ragged, torn in places, and a litany of cuts and bruises covered her visible skin. As the lock clicked close, a brief blue glow shone from the gap between the door and the frame. She slumped against it, exhaling loudly. “Well, that was a bust.”

“What was?” I asked distractedly. I was lying on the couch, half-draped over the arm, holding my notebook up into the air.

There was a loud thump as something slammed into the door, rebounding off of it, and I jumped. “What was that?” I asked her nervously.

“Well,” Kath said, “as you do, I decided the best place to start was by going to dive bars and asking about assassins.”

“As you do.”

Another thump, louder. “So, turns out I’m actually recognizable now!” I glanced over to find her beaming. “Very exciting. In this specific case, one thing led to another, and now…”

“Now some mob hitman is trying to break down our front door?!”

“Hm? Oh, no, I ditched all of them way back. That’s just Jerry.”

“Jones!” yelled a man’s voice from outside. “Let me in!”

I shot upright, dropping my notebook. “Kath!”

She grinned. “He tried to catch in the lobby, but I climbed in through Mrs. Wiltshire’s window on the second floor and ran up here.”

I groaned, dropping my reading glasses on the side table and rubbing at my eyes. “You can’t keep fobbing this off on me,” I complained.

“Au contraire,” she replied as I approached the door.

“Believe me, if I had literally any chance of making you do this without it resulting in us being kicked out of the apartment, I would.” I placed a hand flat on the door just below the peephole, unlocking the wards. “But seeing as I really don’t want to go back to living with my parents at age 24…” I cracked the door open, poking my head out. “Afternoon, Jerry.”

Short, kind of oily, with tan skin and a hook nose, if you put Jerry in a suit he’d have looked like a bad stereotype of an used-car salesman. A wifebeater, cargo shorts and thongs, though, confused the imagery somewhat. He relaxed slightly as he saw it was me. Not much, but it wasn’t hard to seem like the good option when Kath was the alternative. “Young. Rent’s due.”

I sighed. “I know, I know. Listen, I have a new client, but my advance only covers expenses. Can you give us until…” today was Tuesday, so if everything went well… “uh, Friday? Evening.”

“You’re already a week and a half late,” he replied, irritated.

“I know,” I repeated. “We’re good for it, you know we are.”

“I should have kicked the two of you out months ago.”

I know.

He didn’t seem to be going for it. I ground my teeth, but before I could try again, Kath popped in from behind me. “Friday, Jerry. Or the council can somehow find out about all those fire code violations. Somehow!”

“Kath!” I protested. “Can you please not blackmail the landlord?”

“You do that, Jones,” Jerry yelled, “and you’re out on the street!”

“And you lose your apartment building! Win-win!” She paused. “Well, no. You don’t get anything out of it. Win-lose?”

We don’t win either,” I reminded her.

“Sure we do! The vindictive satisfaction of watching Jerry fail is a major victory.”

“Please don’t listen to her,” I said to Jerry. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t do that. Just give us til Friday?”

He glared through the door. “Friday,” he ground out, before turning and stalking away. I thought I heard him swearing under his breath as I shut the door.

I lent back against the cheap wood, reactivating the wards with the tiniest mental effort. “Can you,” I said, rubbing at my brow, “please not do that?”

Kath popped her head out of the bathroom door, grinning broadly. “I could,” she said, “I could. Counterpoint, though: it’s really fun.”

“Not for me!” I snapped, losing my composure for a second. I took a breath, let it out slowly. “Not for me,” I repeated, less forcefully. “Sorry.”

She made a face, and disappeared back into the bathroom. “Look, sorry you get caught up in it,” she said, over the sound of running water. “But he wasn’t going to give us time, and, hey, I don’t even have the parent option. Plus, there are actually fire code violations.” Her voice grew more muffled, as she presumably stepped into the shower. “I could end him!”

I trudged back over to the couch. “Don’t end the landlord, Kath.”

“You can’t stop me!”

“No, but I can key the wards on a lot of buildings so they don’t let you in anymore. Donutjobs, for example.”

Even with the noise of the shower, I heard her hiss. “You bitch!” She had enough loyalty points at that place to not pay a cent for the next three years.

I plopped myself down, the couch creaking alarmingly, as I chuckled to myself. I wouldn’t actually do it, and neither would she. Well, okay, I might, if only so I could video her reaction.

The interruption had broken my flow, and it took a few minutes of staring at my scribbled calculations and notes before I found where I’d been. What Mrs. Wilson was asking from me was actually significantly more difficult than a standard job. Or, not exactly. Starting from scratch, doing a full suite of wards was ridiculously more complex than basic zoning elemental wards. But I wasn’t starting from scratch: doing the former was almost the entirety of my job, and I had all sorts of tricks and streamlining processes for them. Plus, I was just experienced at it. On the other hand, I could only recall doing something even vaguely like the latter once, maybe. I was having to do all the calculations from the ground up. It’d be a lot easier if I had some CaD software, but none of the decent ones were affordable, and a cheap one would probably cause me to screw up more than it helped. So it was freehand, pen-and-paper arcane math for me, as well as an obscene amount of technical sketches for visualisation.

I was halfway through mapping the load-bearing co-dependencies when my phone began buzzing underneath me. I groaned, lifting myself up and scrabbling around awkwardly with one hand until I found it, half-buried in between cushions. The call had rung out by then, of course. I didn’t recognise the number, so I just left it. They’d call again if it was important, I figured, and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with a telemarketer, so no big loss. There were a couple of unread messages as well, but I’d look at them later; I didn’t want to lose my flow again.

“Hey,” Kath said, coming out of the bathroom, “didn’t you have something on tonight?” Her hair was wrapped in a towel, and she had one of those gross-looking green masks on her face.

I glanced at the clock on the wall. Just gone six. “I… don’t think so?” I hazarded. “Tuesday evening, Tuesday evening…” I wracked my brain, “Nope, nothing.”

“June.”

I bent my head backwards over the armrest. “Yes, Kath?”

“Do you wanna repeat that?”

“Repeat what? Tuesday evening?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“Just think real hard about it.”

She was smirking now, and I scowled. “If you’ve got something to say, say it.”

“Are you sure about that time?”

I sighed. “Did you change the clock again?”

“Not that part.”

“Kath, can you just-” I froze. “…today isn’t Tuesday, is it?”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

“Monday?” I asked hopefully.

“Nope.”

“Oh shit.” My phone began buzzing again. “Oh shit.”

I snatched it up as Kath began to cackle, thumbing desperately at the screen. Stupid, sweaty fingers. “Hello.” Please be a telemarketer, please be a telemarketer.

“Hey, June.” Shit. “It’s Nadine. I sent you a couple of messages, but I don’t know if they got through. Are you close?”

“Um, I actually… kind of forgot. I can be there in…” I looked down at my clothes, then at the clock, calculating public transport, “…half an hour?”

“I’ve been sitting here for half an hour already,” she said flatly.

I winced. “…it wasn’t six o’clock?”

“Five thirty.”

“Twenty minutes, Nadine,” I said quickly, rising from the couch. “Fifteen minutes. Just give me fifteen minutes-”

“Don’t bother,” she cut me off. “You’ve obviously got more important things going on. I wouldn’t want to keep you from them.”

“Nadine-,” I start to say again, but the call beeped and dropped out. I stared at the red symbol on the screen, then slowly collapsed back onto the couch. “Dammit,” I said softly, covering my eyes with a hand. “Dammit.”

“I mean, she was right, you do have important things going on.”

“Oh, thanks, that really makes me feel better.”

“And you did stand her up…”

“Four times now,” I finished. “I know.”

“You want some honest advice?”

“Romantic advice from an aro person. Sounds like a recipe for success.”

“Gives me objectivity,” she said loftily. “You really don’t have time for a relationship right now.”

I let my head flop back against the rough fabric. “I know.”

“Do you?” she asked, gesturing at the phone in my hand. “Really?”

“That was… a moment of weakness,” I admitted. “Wait, shit, no, bad choice of words.”

“Too late, I’m gonna call her and tell her you said that.”

“I don’t think her opinion of me could get any worse, so sure.”

“You underestimate my abilities of defamation.”

“Okay, no, I take it back. If she met you and found out we’re friends, that would do it.”

“Why, whatever could you mean?” She placed one hand delicately against her chest. “I am a highly respectable individual.”

“You still have blood under your nails.”

“I do?” She held them up in front of her. “Damn. How’d you spot that?”

“I didn’t, you just never clean under there.”

She shrugged, dropping her hands. “Eh, I’ll just paint over it.”

“Or you could just clean your nails properly? Or better yet, stop scratching people with them.”

“And put myself out of a job?” She walked into the kitchen area. “We couldn’t afford to eat, then.”

“You think I’d support us both?”

“You wouldn’t turn your best friend out onto the street, would you?”

“If she wasn’t paying her part of the rent, you’re damn right I would.”

“Yeah, me too,” she admitted, opening the fridge. “Well, seeing as you’re not going out after all, what do we want for dinner?”

“There’s a choice?” I picked up my notebook and pen again. “That’s unusual.”

“Well, technically we do. Three eggs, a packet of mac and cheese, two old apples and half a bottle of milk.”

“Mac and cheese,” I say instantly. “Those eggs have been there for like two months.”

“Mac and cheese it is.” She began rattling around the kitchen, as I settled into the couch and dove back into my work with a renewed focus.

If I was going to sacrifice my dating life  for my job, I might as well do it properly.

Burnout 1-III

Bag clutched tightly to my chest, to reduce noise, I poked my head ever-so-slightly out into view. If she wasn’t looking my way, I-

“Young.”

I froze in place, in the futile hope it might have any effect, then sagged, and moved around the corner. “…morning, Freya,” I said resignedly.

The Department of Housing didn’t look like a department that managed housing. Tucked away in a back alley on the south side, a couple of streets over from the Martyr Hospital, the facade it presented was closer to an old bookstore than any sort of government building, only the City Council logo above the door giving it away. Inside, though, once you passed through a short corridor of dark stained brick and concrete and turned into the actual lobby, it was incongruously sleek and modern. Smooth, almost seamless panels on the floor, the walls single-piece, with a solid steel door at the other end only barely made visible by its slight colour variance. On the right, an inbuilt bench with no cushions or armrests, and on left, a solidly-built, tall reception desk with the council logo carved in monochrome on the front. And behind the desk…

“Ms. Morgan to you,” she said, with just the barest hint of a sniff. When I’d first met her, in passing at university, I’d taken one look at her and had her pegged as a stereotype. Rich, white, pretty blonde girl, had almost certainly gone to a fancy private school, and coasted through life on her parents’ money and her looks. Either it had been a facade all along, or she’d grown and kept her old self as one, but either way, I’d learned very quickly to be afraid of Freya Morgan.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said, one hand nervously drumming against my leg, as the other clutched my bag’s strap tightly.

“You’re forgiven,” she said calmly. “Why were you trying to sneak past?”

“I wasn’t!” I blurted immediately. “I just… dropped something.”

“Mm-hmm.” She didn’t sound like she believed me. “You don’t have an appointment.” It wasn’t a question. She beckoned me with the crook of a finger over to the desk, looking back down at her computer.

“Well, ah, no. Didn’t have a chance to. This is, um, brand new.”

“This?” she asked, fingers flying across the keyboard.

“Oh, right.” I ruffled through my bag for a second, then pulled out the sheaf of forms. “Request for ley line map and arcane structural plans. Signed and approved by the owner, of course.”

She outstretched one perfectly-manicured hand, the other still clacking away, and took the sheaf. “I should hope so,” she said as she paged through them, eyes only flickering away from the screen for the briefest of moments for each page. I wouldn’t have believed she was even reading them if I hadn’t seen her do it before and then proceed to point out every single error or spelling mistake. I proofread a lot more vigilantly now. “Hm,” she said, which I took as a sign everything was in order. “You should still make an appointment. You’re lucky I’m working today.”

“Um, yeah. Right.” Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice the insincerity. Or if she did, she didn’t say anything.

A few more keystrokes, and she stood, gathering my papers, along with a few others into a file folder that she seemed to whisk out of nowhere. Standing up straight, she towered over me, and I instinctively shuffled away a little as she moved out from behind the desk. She was actually only about average height, but I’m somewhat vertically-impaired, and, well, already frightened of her.

The door at the back of the room slid noiselessly open as she approached it, revealing a small, featureless room of the same make as the outside. An elevator, though it wasn’t immediately obvious until you were inside and could see the buttons. The doors whish-ed shut, as Freya stood in the direct centre of the space and I did my best to press myself into a corner without actually looking like I was doing so.

The only way I knew the elevator had moved was because of the pop of hanging air pressure in my years. After a few seconds of absolute silence and stillness, the doors opened again, onto a smaller room, with cameras in every corner, and a thin pad next to the door. They tracked us as we moved forward, whirring slightly, and Freya punched a code into the pad, then placed her hand flat on it as it glowed with a deep purple rune. There was a brief, ominous hiss, and for a second the room was full of a smell that I could only describe as ennui, then it dinged, the smell went away, and I scurried through to the other side, as grateful as ever to not have been incinerated.

And no, that’s not just me being colourful. There were at least five points in that entire process where I could have died in new and exciting ways, and one of them was before I was even in the building. Seems like a frankly ridiculous amount of security for housing records, right?

See, when you think of housing records, you’re thinking structural records, architect’s plans, land titles, heritage listings. And yeah, that’s all part of it. But, these days, you can get those things online, and believe me, if I could’ve done that I would have. No, all that security was for the other part of the DoH’s records: ley lines.

Stepping into the records room always felt like crossing into another world. It was almost cavernously large, and a thin mist permeated the air, a side-effect of the magics that kept the records safe and in good condition. Rows stretched out in both directions, covered in perfect grids of circles with labels underneath them. Each one glowed slightly with a pale blue light, and cumulatively they were enough to light the entire room in soft light. Even without actively trying, I could feel the weight of the enchantments in the room, bearing down on me with almost crushing pressure. Freya seemed unaffected, but it was really my own speciality that made me sensitive to the effect, and there was absolutely no doubt that her magic was not even close to mine.

There was a small screen built into the wall next to the entrance that I knew from previous experience was a directory, but Freya didn’t even glance at it. She set off parallel to the rows, somehow knowing exactly where to go, as always. I rushed to follow her, while internally blocking myself off from my magic. It would take a few seconds to recall it and use it if I needed to, but it lessened the metaphysical pressure almost immediately, and it continued shrinking until it was almost nothing.

Freya turned down a row, and stopped only a few meters down. As I caught up, she tapped one finger against a circle just above head-height (hers, not mine), and after a moment, it changed from blue to green. With a hiss, it slid out of the wall, revealing itself to be a long silver cylinder with thin, almost invisible markings on it, and a thin black rectangle in the centre. Freya took it in her hands and turned to me, and I pressed my thumb against the black, which grew uncomfortably hot for a brief moment, then flashed. It was a fingerprint sensor, of a sort, but it also primed the container to my aura in a similar manner to a keyless car. If I moved away while it was open, or if it sensed distress or panic in my aura, it would automatically seal itself. Out of curiosity, a year or two ago I’d had a quick peak around the spells on one of the cylinders (once the job was done already, of course), and although theoretically that sort of spellwork should be at least within the same ballpark as mine, I couldn’t even begin to guess at half of what I was looking at. If I had to speculate, it was something shamanic or nature-based, but I wasn’t even confident in that.  

I took the cylinder, and, with a little difficulty, tucked it under my arm. “You know what happens to you if something happens to it,” Freya said flatly, and I nodded mutely in confirmation. I didn’t actually know the specifics, but the generalities were more than enough to convince me to be very careful. “Good.”

At once, all the lights in the room flickered, ever so slightly. I winced, but Freya just looked mildly up at the roof and sighed. “Again. I need to go fix that. You know the way out.” Without another word, she turned around and strode down the row, and I breathed a soft sigh of relief.

It wasn’t that I was specifically scared of her, per say. I didn’t think she’d do anything to me unless her job demanded it, and that (hopefully)should never happen. But…

Well, let me put it this way. Ley lines are the conduits of magical energy that run through the earth (and to a lesser extent man-made structures, but that’s more complicated). There a major ones, minor ones, and then a constant low-level web that stretches through almost everything, and all are excellent sources of energy for large-scale projects. You can’t just tap into them, though; there are specific rituals and requirements that need to be met to even touch them, let alone draw on their power. Which is good, because there’s all sorts of nasty things you can do with access to free-flowing magical energy. The records I use don’t even allow that; they just enabled me to manipulate their flow slightly to create and maintain wards, without actually affecting said flow. Even those, though, can be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, hence all the security measures.

And Freya Morgan was the woman who was trusted with taking care of them. On her own.

That is why I’m scared of her.

Burnout 1-II

The knock was soft and tentative, enough so that I wasn’t sure if there would even have been a second one. I’d never know for sure, though, because I’d already pulled the door open as soon as I heard it. The woman on the other side jerked back, her hand still hovering in the air, primed for a knock. She looked late middle-aged, which I’d guessed from the phone call. She was also a werewolf, which I had not. More ‘were’ than ‘wolf’, the only signs were her slightly elongated and darkened nose, and the two tufted wolf’s ears poking out from her hair. Most likely, only one of her parents had been lupe; maybe even only a grandparent.

“Good morning! You’d be Mrs. Wilson?” I asked cheerfully. Kath’s terrifyingly efficient driving had gotten us back to the office with enough time to spare for a quick shower, and I’d even been able to make myself presentable afterwards. My hair was still damp, though its natural black made that harder to detect than it might have been otherwise, and I’d not managed to completely hide the deep, dark bags under my eyes, but on a first glance, I was professional and put-together. Of course, if you started looking closer, you’d notice that my blouse was rumpled (it had fallen off its hanger), the red blazer had some odd creases (iron accident), and my boots were badly in need of a polish (they were still scuffed from the last time I had to run for my life). But judging by her hunched posture, hand-wringing, and refusal to make eye contact, I didn’t think she was going to notice.

“…ah, yes. Good morning.” Her voice was soft, hesitant. “Are you Miss Yeong?” She pronounced it as two syllables, Ye-ong.

I smiled a polite, slightly insincere smile. “You can just say ‘young’; it’s easier for everyone.” The sign on the door and all my licenses read June Young, but my mum helped with some of the initial listings and ads, and put them down as Yeong Ji-eun without my knowledge. I kept meaning to change them, but it was towards the bottom of the long, long list of things I kept meaning to do and never did. “And just ‘ms.’, if you don’t mind. Please, come in.” I stepped back, letting the door swing all the way open and giving her room to pass. She did so, giving me a curious side-eye as she did.

Our office was nothing special. A second floor space in a building that probably should have been torn down around when I was born, it communicated exactly the kind of air Kath wanted for her business and the exact opposite of what I needed for mine. What would have been a mite cramped for a single occupant had become positively claustrophobic with two: a single double-sided desk took up most of the left half of the room, while a row of filing cabinets and storage boxes on the right made the passage by a bit of a squeeze. Not for she of the weapons-grade elbows, of course, but I’d be the first to admit I was carrying a bit of extra winter protection. We’d settled the issue by having my side of the desk be closer to the door, but that meant I was also stuck with the view out the window. It sounds nice in theory, but in practice what it means is that I get a full and uninterrupted view of the strip club across the street. Not the interior, of course, but their sign is very large and in very poor condition; there’s lots of flickering and sparking.

“Take a seat,” I said, gesturing to the battered wooden seat tucked into the alcove between the last cabinet and the wall as I pulled out my own chair and sat. She did so, moving the chair over to face me, and sitting in the manner of that middle-aged suburban white woman in uncomfortable situations always did. Knees and feet pressed tightly together, shoulders slightly hunched, bag on lap with both hands lying protectively over it. I couldn’t blame her for that; if the office hadn’t acquired the comfortable patina of familiarity that came from repeated exposure in my mind, I’d be pretty uncomfortable too.

I pulled my notebook out from underneath a sheaf of sketch paper, and grabbed a pen from the second drawer, then pulled out my phone and opened up a recording app. Starting it and setting it down on the table, I caught her glancing at it, confused. “I hope you don’t mind,” I explained to her. “I find it helpful to have a record I can review.”

“Oh,” she said hesitantly. “No, I don’t mind.” She didn’t seem happy about it, though.

Flipping to a new page, I quickly jotted down her name and the date, then rested the pen on the first line and looked up at her. “So, Mrs. Wilson. What can we do for you?” The royal we, so useful for giving the impression that I had staff.

“Well,” she began slowly, “I need wards done.”

“I’d figured as much,” I said with a dry smile. She didn’t seem amused, though, so I quickly schooled my features back into polite interest. “Sorry. For your home?”

“Ah, yes.”

“And was this a house, or apartment?”

“House.”

I nodded, jotting that down. “Do you have access to its registry files? Or a copy?”

“Registry files?” she asked, sounding confused.

“Oh, don’t worry about it, then.There’ll just be a few additional forms I’ll need you to sign, then, so I can access them.”

“I wasn’t even aware I had files?” She made it into a question.

“Most people don’t,” I explained, making a reminder for myself to get the extra forms. “It’s mostly for people like me, who need to know the structure of the ley lines and things like that.” It was more complicated than that, but it she didn’t care about that.

“Oh,” she replied, “okay.” Again, I was struck by her strange reticience. Something was telling me that this wasn’t going to be a standard job, and the next question confirmed it.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing particularly interesting. Now, what exactly do you need wards for? General protection? Security, specifically? Keeping out gh-”

“My partner died,” she said abruptly, cutting me off. “Just over a year ago.”

“…ah.” She’d caught me off guard with the interruption. “My condolences.”

“Mm.” Apparently, there was something very fascinating on the floor between her legs, because her gaze didn’t waver from there. “Shortly after, I began to have-”

“Visions?” I jumped in eagerly. “Premonitions? Blackouts?” She looked at me, and I snapped my mouth closed. “Sorry. Sorry.”

“I began to have,” she repeated, “flickers. Little moments, in the corners of my eyes. Then, things started smouldering. Only when I wasn’t looking, but they set off the smoke detector enough times that I figured it out.” Ah. I was starting to have an inkling of where this was going. I managed to keep my mouth shut and keep listening, though. “And then, a few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to find it hovering over me, charring my bedsheets.” She stopped, expectantly.

“A fire wraith,” I finished. “Your partner, did they…”

“Yes. Not strongly, though. They mostly used it for tricks, and lighting smokes.” For a moment, she stared off into the distance, caught up in memory, but then she returned, looking a bit teary-eyed. I pulled the tissue box out from behind a binder and offered it to her, but she waved it away, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Well. I guess it was stronger than either of us knew.”

“I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you,” I said sympathetically. “But…” I bit my lip, debating whether or not to say it. I really needed the money: Kath couldn’t keep covering the rent shortage forever. She’d come to me, right? She’d made the decision, it wasn’t on me.

I sighed. “I’m sorry to be rude, but I’m afraid I don’t see why you’ve come to me for this. It seems like more of a job for a medium, or… an exterminator.” I winced slightly as I said it.

She gasped. “Miss Yeong! I don’t want them exterminated, or to be…” she flailed about for the right word for moment, “passed on.”

“Really? Mrs. Wilson…” we were well outside my area of expertise now. All I had to work with was colloquial common knowledge, the sort of stuff she should know already. “I understand where you’re coming from, but, to be blunt, that’s not your partner any more. That’s a ball of fire magic with basic animal instincts, running around wild. It’s not just a fancy ghost.”

“It’s them,” she insisted stubbornly. “It looks like them. They said my name.”

I sighed, rubbing at my temple with the fingers of my free hand. Middle-aged white women. “Look, Mrs. Wilson. Even leaving aside all that, I still don’t know what you actually want me to do. I’m a wardlayer: I lay wards. It’s basically my only skill.”

“That’s what I want, Miss Yeong.” I thought about correcting her, but I didn’t think it would’ve stuck. “I want you to make it safe for them.”

“You want me to… fireproof your house?”

“Essentially, yes. Well, no. Just the structures and contents of the house itself, not the space inside. Can you do that?”

I leant back in my chair, making it creak dangerously, and did some mental calculations. “It’s… possible,” I hedged. “Far more complicated, and far more expensive than a regular warding, but possible. But, I can’t stress enough-”

“I don’t want your opinion on how to live my life,” she cut me off. “I just want you to do your job. I’m willing to pay whatever you need.”

The magic words. I sighed and flipped to a new page in my notebook, scribbling some figures on it before tearing it off and handing it to her. “This,” I said, pointing to the relevant numbers, “is the flat sum estimate based on what you’ve told me. Depending on the house and grounds, it could be more or less, but not by too much. Plus the hourly, here, and then any materials costs that come up in preparation.” I didn’t mention I’d bumped those numbers slightly as a stupidity tax.

She didn’t blink. “Done.”

“Glad to hear it.” I spun back to my desk and began rustling around for the relevant forms. “I’ll need about a day to get the records and a few other things. Can we say 6 p.m. tomorrow?”

“That’s fine.”

“Excellent.” I presented her with a small stack of forms on a clipboard and a slightly-chewed pen, and she took them and signed on all the dotted lines. “And excellent.” I took them back and smiled brightly at her. “Is there anything else?”

“No.” She rose out of her seat. “I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

As soon as the door clicked closed, I let the smile drop off my face. It wasn’t the strangest job I’d ever done, the Belugas would always take that spot, but it was up there. It might take ‘most worrying’, though. If I didn’t need the money…

I glanced over at the unpaid bills tucked behind my outbox. I did need the money, though, so there was no point hemming and hawing. I’d said yes, and now I’d see it through. And the first step to doing that was to get the registry files. Which meant the Department of Housing.

I sighed again, stood, and began gathering my things. With any luck, she wouldn’t be working today.

Burnout 1-I

My dad used to always say, “If you don’t find trouble, trouble will find you.”

It took me way too long to figure out he was being literal.

Kath’s old ute rattled and clanked as we pulled to a stop, and I looked up from my phone. “Kath,” I said slowly, looking around, “you said we were going grocery shopping. This is not grocery shopping.”

In fact, it was about as far from grocery shopping as it was possible to get. We’d pulled up on the street next to the tennis court at the bottom of Neal Macrossan Park, just opposite Suncorp Stadium. The playground to our right was empty, the bitter chill of winter combining with the overcast sky and today being a Wednesday to successfully convince any parents to keep their kids inside. Or it could’ve been the swarm of police hovering over the skate park less than a hundred meters away.

I leaned my head back on the seat, eyes closed. “Kath,” I said tiredly, “have you brought me to another crime scene?”

“Technically, it’s not a crime scene yet.” She twisted the key and the cacophony of the engine cut out.

I rolled my eyes. “I have a client coming at 10:30. I don’t have the time to deal with you trying to use me as a sidekick today.”

She glanced at the clock, which read 9:15. “You do not. Besides, that’s like a whole hour away. Plenty of time!”

“One, I do too have a client coming, and I know you know that because I told you.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I did! Remember, last week, when I came running in in the middle of the night, yelling and screaming and jumping about because I finally had a client?”

She frowned pensively. “I remember the jumping and the screaming, but I don’t remember it being about a client. I thought it was because they’d announced a new Jenna Stone book.”

I shot up straight in my seat. “They’ve announced a new Jenna Stone book?!”

Kath shrugged. “I don’t know, I just thought what would get you most excited and assumed it was that.”

I groaned. I’d been waiting three years for that damn book. “You had to get my hopes up, didn’t you?”

She gave an easy wave,  dismissing the issue. “So wait, you actually have a client?”

“Yes,” I said tiredly, “I finally have a client, and you’ve just dragged me to a crime scene in my pajamas.”

She winced. “Whoops.”

“Yeah, whoops.”

“Bu-ut,” she continued, unabated, “now that we’re here…”

I groaned, relenting. “Fine, we can look at the crime scene.”

She clapped her hands together excitedly, like a little kid. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go see some murder!” She flung the door open and hopped out, full of energy. I sighed again, and did the same on my side, considerably more restrained.

The wind was sharp and biting, frozen sandpaper running over my exposed skin. I wasn’t actually wearing my pajamas: I do have standards. I’d only been expecting a quick run to the supermarket a few blocks away from the office, so all I was wearing were a set of dark grey sweatpants, an old, faded Power Rangers t-shirt, and my sandshoes, none of which were much good at handling the winter chill. Admittedly, it wasn’t very cold from an objective standpoint, probably not even below 10 degrees, but I’d lived in Brisbane my whole life, so it was cold to me.

I stuck my hands in my armpits and hunched up in a vain attempt to preserve some heat, but the shivers set in almost immediately. I bit my lip to prevent my teeth from chattering, but before they could start, I felt something heavy and warm drape over my shoulders. I turned my head, surprised, to find that Kath had taken off her greatcoat and wrapped me in it. Underneath, she was wearing one of her business suits, the dark crimson one she liked because it hid bloodstains. Honestly, that should’ve tipped me off as to her true destination when we’d left, but I had had other things on my mind.

“Thanks,” I said grudgingly, slipping my arms through the sleeves. “You gonna be alright?”

“What,” she scoffed, “in this? Ain’t no thing.”

“Alright, if you say so.” I probably looked ridiculous, but I was warm, so who cared?

We began walking towards the congregation of cops. There was a scattering around the edges of the skate park, mostly at the entrances, behind barriers constructed of flimsy tape and implicit authority. The majority of the boys in blues, though, were centered around the bottom of one of the ramps, the… sorry, it’s been a long time since I skated. The half-pipe, I think.

We were stopped at the main gate by a private, a young white woman with a shaven head. Her gaze was suspicious as it passed over Kath, and that emotion only deepened as she turned it on me. I gave my best disarming smile, but it didn’t have much effect. I imagine my best is still not very good, which couldn’t have helped.

“Move along, please,” she told us, with forced politeness. “Active crime scene.”

“Ooh,” Kath said brightly, “can we see?” The private turned the icy glare back on her, but she seemed unfazed. “Kidding. Katherine Jones. I’m here to see Terry.”

“…do you mean Detective Phillips?”

She shrugged. “Sure, if you like.”

The private, whose namebadge read JACKSON in blocky caps, frowned, and reached for the radio strapped to her vest. Before she could grab it, though, a hand fell on her shoulder, stopping her cold. “It’s okay, Private,” the new arrival, an older woman with a sergeant’s badge pinned to her lapel, said easily to her. “The detective’s vetted them. Morning, Kath,” she said to my friend, who nodded amicably in return. “And, uh…”

“June Young,” I said quickly, not wanting to leave her hanging. I think we’d probably met at some point or another, but I didn’t remember her any more than vice versa.

“Right. Terrence said you’re good too.”

“How bad is it, Nielsen?” Kath asked the sergeant.

She frowned. “It’s… I’ve seen nastier, but not many. Probably better if you see it yourself. Private?” The younger officer moved to the side, a grimace on her face, allowing us through. We followed Nielsen as she led us into to the skate park proper, towards the large congregation of officers, she and Kath almost in lockstep while I trailed behind by a few steps. Not intentionally, but Sergeant Nielsen was walking pretty briskly and Kath has long legs, so keeping pace was a bit of a struggle for me.

The hustling and bustling crowd (well, I say crowd, but really it was maybe ten or fifteen people, mostly techs) parted for the Sergeant, and we rode the wake all the way to the center. A solitary figure stood there, apart from the crowd. Unlike the others and their dark blue uniforms, he was wearing a heavy brown longcoat over a pinstriped shirt, dark burgundy tie and grey slacks. As we approached, he turned to face us, moving his attention from something obscured by his body. His face was long and narrow, his skin a sallow brown that marked him as being at least partially of Indian decent, and there were bags under his eyes and a deep-set weariness in the chocolate irises. Nevertheless, he greeted us with a smile.

He opened his mouth to utter a greeting, but Kath beat him to it. “G’day, Terry!” she practically shouted as she strode up to him. “How the heck are you?”

To his credit, he rolled with it well. Then again, he was almost as used to Kath as I was. “Not bad, Kath, not bad. Morning, June.” He tipped his head to me in acknowledgement.

“Morning, Detective Phillips.” Despite my mood and lack of rest, I managed to make it genuine. It helped that I did actually like the detective; he was always unfailing friendly and polite.

He gave me a quick once-over, taking in my less-than-appropriate attire. “I’m guessing you weren’t expecting to be here?” he asked with a wry smile.

“You’re guessing right,” I replied, equally wry. “Someone told me we were going grocery shopping.”

He winced. “Well, if I were you, I’d put thoughts of food out of your mind, cause this one ain’t pretty.” He stepped to the side, revealing the object of his attention only a few moments ago.

At first, it didn’t seem so bad. I think it was because my mind didn’t really process it properly. A pile of clean, white bones sat on the concrete, scattered and disordered. The concrete surrounding it had been charred completely black in a perfect circle around it, and outside that, a single thing pile of ash. On top of the concrete, in an inconsistent smattering, was some kind of sticky, burnt substance that for some reason made me think of a barbecue-

“Oh lord that’s fat,” I blurted out as the realisation struck me. “Oh god.” Detective Phillips gave me an affirming grimace, and my stomach churned. I was suddenly very glad I hadn’t eaten that morning. Next to me, Kath didn’t look as perturbed as I felt, but her face was still drawn tight, features drawn thin with distaste. She was used to this sort of thing, but I don’t think that made it any less horrible.

“What happened?” she asked Phillips, lacking some of the energy she’d had before.

“Spontaneous combustion,” he replied almost instantly.

“Nope.” She shook her head, emphatically. “Uh-uh. I’ve seen spontaneous combustion before. That gets you a charred corpse, not… this.”

“Yes, I’m well aware. But we have four eyewitness accounts of the victim just going up in flames.”

“Who were they?” I asked, not looking away from the bones.

“The victim?” He pulled out a notebook, flipping through the pages. “Kelly Grace, eighteen years old. Just started uni this year. Parents live out in North Lakes, so I’ll have to head down there and deliver the news after this.” He sighed heavily at that. “According to Jan Lipinski, the victim’s friend, they’d come down here pretty frequently, just to hang out and, well, skate. She’d apparently just taken a bit of a fall, and a few seconds later…” he trailed off, the conclusion to the sentence obvious from context.

“Was she magical?” Kath asked, staring intently down at the remains with one hand on her chin.

“If she was, she’d hidden it very well. Nothing on any of her medical forms, but we’re not yet discounting the possibility that this was her Sparking.”

“Eighteen’s pretty late for that,” Kath noted.

“I was seventeen for mine,” I volunteered, “so it’s not out of the question.”

“Hm.” He flipped his notebook closed, tucking it back away in his jacket. “We’ll let the lab figure that one out. Until then, this is being treated as a SC.” Kath opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off with a waved hand. “I know it doesn’t fit, but that’s what’s going in the books. Maybe it’ll get changed if something comes up in the cursory investigation an SC requires, but I doubt it.”

“So that’s why you called me?”

“That’s why I called you,” he confirmed. “You know the drill. Just get me enough that I can make a convincing case to the higher-ups.”

“I know, I know. And my fee?”

He sighed heavily.

As the two of them began hashing out the financials, I knelt down in front of the… body, I guess. I left enough distance to not have to worry about contaminating it, but close enough I could still have a look. Technically, I didn’t need to bother with any of this. Unlike Kath, I wasn’t a PI, and also unlike Kath, I wasn’t actually going to get paid for this job. She’d only brought me along because… well, who knows why Kath does what she does. Lord knows I don’t half the time. But still, once I got past the horror and disgust, there was something fascinating about the case. Something… puzzling. And I’ve always liked puzzles. Heck, maybe in another life I could’ve been like Kath, or Detective Phillips. And even though I picked a different kind of puzzle to solve, sometimes I felt like I could see glimpses of that other me.

“Hey,” I noted. “What’s up with the ash?”

The pile was barely a pile at all: it was quite flat, spread perpendicular to the burnt circle’s radius. And it wasn’t even, either; in fact, there were quite a few gaps in it. It almost made it look like…

Kath and Detective Phillips peered over my shoulders at the ash. “Huh,” Kath said, “that kind of looks like a word.”

“Does it?” the detective asked.

“Yeah, see, that could be an ‘s’, then maybe annn… ‘i’, probably an ‘l’, a ‘v’ or an ‘r’…” she trailed off, studying the pile more intently. “Yeah, them’s definitely letters.”

Phillips frowned, then straightened up and gestured to one of the interminable techs milling around, who quickly hurried over. The detective quickly explained something to him in a low murmur. The tech nodded, and moved over to stand in front of the ash pile, gesturing for Kath and I to move out of the way. He held his hands out in front of him, in that little rectangle you do with indexes and thumbs when trying to imitate a photograph, and began muttering a string of syllables too out-of-focus to hear. The space between his fingers began glowing gold, and as he drew them out, the rectangle he’d created expanded with them, until it was almost a meter, corner to corner. A gold-tilted plate of ethereal glass, hanging in midair. Through it, tinged by its natural hue, we could see the scene, the pile of bones, the scorched circle, the ash. Only… not. The angles of the lighting were different, lessened. As we watched, some of the… of the fat, bubbled and popped slightly, as if it were still hot. Because it was, I realized. We were looking at the scene probably just shortly after the event had occurred. And sure enough, as-yet undisturbed by the elements, the ash spelled out a word in neat cursive.

“What the hell is a silversmith?” Kath asked, bemused.

“Well, just based on logic, its someone who smiths silver,” I replied.

“I think my grandpa used to call people that,” said the until-now-silent tech, still projecting his lens. “In the same sort of tone he’d use to call people chinks or japs, though.”

“So it’s obviously an insult or a slur,” Detective Phillips mused. “Why is it here, though? And what does it mean?” The notebook had come out again, and he was furiously scribbling in it. “Hmm. Either way, it pretty clearly makes this something other than an SC.”

“Sooo, you don’t need me any more, then?” Kath asked. “Fair warning, I’m still going to bill for a consultation.”

He chewed on his own for a second. “I can probably spin this into a legitimate case, but just in case,” Kath chuckled at that, he didn’t, “I want you to dig around, start following stuff while any possible trails are still fresh.”

“Yassah,” she drawled in a mock-American accent, giving a lazy parody of salute.

“I’ll leave the starting point at your discretion.” He nodded to me. “June.”

I nodded back, and he tapped the tech on the shoulder and walked off, beginning to bark orders as the other man scurried after him.

I stared down at the pile of bones, pensive. That poor girl. I wondered if-

An arm flung itself around my shoulders, and I jumped. “Right,” said Kath, “I think we’ve seen enough here. Let’s hit the road, get you back to the office.”

The office, right. I nodded, affirming her statement, and began following her back to the car. I did my best to put thoughts of the scene aside; it was definitely going to come up all too much in the next few days.

For now, though, I had a client to win.

Episode One – Burnout | Prologue

This is how it happens.

It’s night, and the stars are out in full force, unnaturally bright against the light pollution of the city. By all rights, they should be barely visible, yet they shine clearly, twinkling pinpoints in a quilt of black. Laying over them in loose, asymmetrical strips, thin clouds create a patchwork effect, splitting the sky into ragged stripes of black and white. The moon sits low,  barely over the horizon, close and bright, casting long shadows and silhouetting the city in shades of gray.

The girl waits, balanced, at the top of the ramp. One half of her skateboard hangs freely out into the air, the wheels spinning aimlessly, while the other rests against the rough concrete. Her clothes, loose gray pants, a white tee and a  denim vest, are tattered and worn, but there is a certain quality to the rips and tears that suggest intent behind their placement. A bright orange flat-brimmed cap does a poor job of concealing her hair, and orangey-blonde, curly locks spill down her back and sit on her shoulders. A small handbag with a poppy pattern on it sits off to the side. “50 bucks,” she says confidently.

“What?” scoffs the other girl at the bottom of the ramp. She is dressed in a similar fashion, with the same style of clothing damage, but she seems to be better prepared for the chilly wind that rakes across the skate park. A white bomber jacket clings tightly to her, and what little hair pokes out from beneath her beanie is bright purple in coloration. “No, no way. Kelly, I don’t even have 50 bucks.”

The first girl, Kelly, flips her hair over her shoulder with one hand. “Hey, you said I can’t do it. I do it, you owe me 50.”

“And if you can’t, you owe me 50?”

“Sure, whatever. It won’t matter, though, because I am gonna nail this.”

There are five of them, two girls and three boys. They look to be in their late teens, anywhere from 16 to 18. All of them are carrying skateboards of varying types and colours, except for the girl next to the bottom of the halfpipe. She’s holding a camera instead, the strap running over the back of her hand. A soft red light blinks next to the lenses, signifying that it is currently recording.

The three boys are standing off to the side, boards resting on the ground, engrossed in the phone of the one in the center. One briefly looks up and sees the girl waiting at the top of the half-pipe. He gives a half-sincere grin and a thumbs-up, then returns his attention to the screen.

“Kelly,” repeats the other girl, “I don’t want you doing this.” She’s pointing the camera up at her, fiddling with the knobs and dials. “But if you’re going to, then, fine. 50 bucks. Maybe it’ll encourage you to get it right.”

“Yesssss.” She pumps her fist in the air excitedly. The sudden action disturbs her balance, and she teeters dangerously for a moment, arms flailing, before managing to pull herself back. “See?” she says, slightly short of breath. “Nothing to worry about.”

The other girl sighs, still fiddling with the camera. “At least it’ll look good on YouTube,” she says to herself. “Alright, the camera’s rolling. Go for it, Kell.”

The girl grins, showman-like, at the camera. “Hey there. My name’s Kelly, and I’m about to show you the coolest shit you’ve ever seen.” With that, she moves her feet forward, letting the board tip forward over the edge of the pipe.

The group of boys look up from the phone, her actions apparently enough to entice them away from the flickering light of the phone. They cheer a little as she drops down into the half-pipe, quickly gaining speed. She races towards the bottom, leaning forward, arms outstretched behind her. “SUCK IT, TONY HAWK!” she yells at the top of her lungs as she begins to climb, garnering an involuntary chuckle from the camera-wielding girl.

She hits the top of the half pipe and shoots up into the air, flying much faster and higher than she should have been able to. As she rises, she kicks off the board with both feet, letting it continue on the upwards path. She flips backwards in the air, then does it again, and then a third time just before the apex. She and the board come to a stop at the same point, and she reaches out with one leg and, with impossible skill, flicks it with the tip of her foot, sending it spinning in place like a top. Falling now, upside down, she sticks a hand out and catches the board, continuing the spin on top of a raised index finger like a basketball. Just before reaching the ramp, she flicks it downwards and rights herself in one smooth motion, lining up her feet with the board’s top and the wheels with the edge of the pipe. The timing is slightly off, though, and the board makes contact with the concrete an instant before her feet grip its rough surface. The skateboard rolls smoothly down the pipe, but she rolls roughly after it, tumbling and crashing to the tune of a chorus of gasps. She comes to a stop at the bottom of the half-pipe, face down and one arm trapped underneath her body.

“Oh my god!” the girl cries as she rushes over to her friend’s limp form. “Are you okay?!” The boys follow, echoing her sentiment with varying degrees of concern and awe.

Kelly groans, rolling over onto her back. She is bleeding from multiple gashes and scrapes, more than a few in places that would have been covered by less-torn clothing. A few spots are already beginning to show the telltale discoloration that signifies bruising, one of them over her left eye. She is conscious, though, and in the large scale of things, unhurt. “Please don’t tell me you filmed that,” she says miserably.

“Still am,” the other girl replies, obviously relieved. “It was going really well, until you screwed up.”

She groans again, dropping her head back. “You’re not getting that 50 bucks, you know.”

There is no response. She sits up, ignoring the various aches and pains, concerned. “Guys? What’s-”

She cuts herself off as she sees their faces. They are all staring at her with a mix of trepidation and horror. “Kelly,” her friend asks cautiously, “are you… feeling okay?”

“…yeah,” she replies cautiously, “I’m fine. Why?”

“You’re on fucking fire, dude!” one of the boys blurts out.

She looks down at her hands, and the orange flames licking around them. “Oh,” she says weakly. “I… can’t feel anything. I think it might be okay?”

And then she begins screaming.

The flames race up her arms and engulf her body as her skin begins to blacken and char. They pass through red and blue in an instant, going a bright searing white as they surround her entirely. The heat is so intense that the concrete below begins to bubble, and the others have to step back to avoid being burned.

In a second, her skin is gone completely, muscle and fat exposed. That too begins melting, sloughing off bones in rough and uneven patterns, evaporating before even reaching the ground. Her screaming quickly fades as her throat is consumed, and the last thing visible in her eyes before they liquidate and boil away is pure terror and unimaginable pain.

The fire continues for a few moments, before vanishing abruptly. In its wake, it leaves nothing but charred and melted concrete, ash, and a pile of gleaming white bones.

As the screams of the teenagers fade into the distance, the ash swirls, guided by some unseen hand. It twists and dances in the air for a moment, before settling down on the scorched concrete in the shape of a word.

Silversmith.