Two’s Company 3-II

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“No,” Kath said, completely po-faced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, pretty much.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it really that impressive?” Sorayah asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, yeah, I’ll cop that.”

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

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

“Eugh. Gross.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t?”

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

“Not a word,” I interjected.

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

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

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

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

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Two’s Company 3-I

JUNE YOUNG
Wardlayer

~~~

KATHERINE JONES
Private Eye

~~~

SORAYAH KHAN
Digital Security Consultant

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

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

“Very classy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…pardon?”

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

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

A single eyebrow quirked. “Excuse me.”

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

That gave her pause. “With… Jones?”

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

After a moment of silence, she began to chuckle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adelina Marçelas
~~
Thaumaturgic Security Consultant

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Convincing, it was not.

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

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

Two’s Company – Prologue

This is how it happens.

A woman stands over a body. There are situations and contexts where this would be morbid, creepy, or disturbing; but the bright blue scrubs, mask, and cap she is wearing alleviate this somewhat.

The large stone altar that the corpse is sitting on has the opposite effect.

The woman’s gloved hands are buried in the corpse’s chest, covered in bright crimson viscera and flecks of other liquids. The skin and muscle has been cut in a Y shape, pulled back and pinned in place, and the ribs neatly broken off and set to the side. An array of tools sit on a metal tray placed next to the body’s hips; scalpels, tweezers, pliers, scissors, and, strangely, an ornate pen. An empty space between two pairs of scissors indicates what tool is currently being used, and sure enough, a moment later her hands emerge, one of them clasped around the tool’s handles. In the other, she holds a small section of intestine, a few inches long, and as thick around as a finger. Yellow bile drips from both sides, falling back into the open chest cavity with soft plops that echo in the distance.

“Hm.” She considers the piece of flesh for a moment, then holds it up to the lamp that hangs above the altar. It’s the only source of illumination, and outside the pool of light it projects is complete and utter darkness. The only sound that can be heard is a faint dripping of water, and the way it bounces and fades seems to give the impression of a vast space.

Whatever the woman is looking for, she doesn’t seem to find it; after turning the intestine in the light a few times, she grunts in disappointment, and tosses it carelessly over one shoulder. It disappears out of the light, but doesn’t seem to land; there’s no sound of it hitting the ground.

“Note,” the woman says out loud as she places the scissors back on the tray. From no visible source, a high-pitched beep sounds out in response. “The third site shows no degradation beyond standard parameters, but it’s impossible to gain finer detail due to background interference. Mark it as unusable for future subjects with a conditional modifier. Moving on to primary site now. End note.”

With that done, she returns to her subject, picking up a scalpel and making a few neat, swift incisions. Leaning over the altar, she reaches down into the cavity again, and pulls out the heart.

The person it belonged to was significantly bigger than her; her fingers are stretched out to their full length, but are only barely clinging to it. The valves have been cut, but unlike the intestine, no liquid falls out; instead, it wells up at the end, as if held in by some invisible force.

The hand not holding the heart drops the scalpel back onto the tray, and picks up the pen. With exacting precision, she draws a sequence of strokes in the air, hand moving like a machine. In the wake of the pen’s tip, lines of solid white light appear, glowing faintly. A shape quickly begins to form: a hemisphere of lines and numbers, equations and formulae in script almost too small to make out. There’s a small hollow in the centre, and the woman places the heart into it, where it sits without any apparent support.

She quickly fills in the other half of the sphere, until it surrounds the heart entirely, with one exception; a cylindrical gap at the top, leaving an open path straight down to the heart.

Seemingly satisfied, the woman drops the pen back onto the tray and steps away from the altar. “Note,” she says as she sticks her hand into the darkness. “Beginning trial on primary site now.” When the hand reappears in the light, it’s holding a grey cylinder, nearly the length of her forearm. She returns to the altar, keeping the cylinder at arm’s length, as if it’s dangerous, and carefully holds it above the hole in the sphere.

Rilasciare,” she enunciates, and a small hole opens in its bottom, out of which falls a needle-thin stream of grains that sparkle silver in the light. It lasts only a moment before the hole closes again, leaving the surface flush and smooth.

The grains fall slowly through the air, perfectly straight in the still air. As the woman watches with baited breath, they slowly settle on the heart. The array pulses as they do, glowing more intensely, but apart from that, nothing seems to happen.

Five seconds pass, then ten, then fifteen, and still there seems to be no reaction. The woman hasn’t taken a breath since she opened the container, but as the thirty second mark passes, some of the tension seems to release from her, and she slowly draws in air.

As if on cue, the array flashes again, then suddenly dims. “No!” the woman exclaims, backing away. “No no no-”

The heart begins to sizzle, rapidly turning grey and rotting, as the lights of the array begin to flicker and distort, their light growing dark and their shapes twisting. As the bright white turns a dull silver, it begins to drip downwards onto the body. Where it makes contact, the flesh begins to rot as well, before gaining a strange hue and beginning to bubble.

The woman swears as the contaminated flesh begins to spread outwards, and she hastily sketches another glyph in the air with her finger.

The light disappears, leaving absolute blackness in its wake. A moment later, it returns, revealing the woman bent over, panting heavily. The altar is still present, but the runes, the heart and the body are all gone.

After a minute, her breathing slows, and she slowly stands up straight, fury burning in her eyes.

“Note,” she growls. “Primary site has also proven unsustainable. Initial results were promising, but once again background radiation triggered a cascade failure, consuming the test material. It is time to consider that this site may no longer be sustainable for these experiments…” She slows, then comes to a stop, appearing contemplative. “Or, perhaps, it is time to investigate alternate solutions. End note.”

With a renewed vigor, she pulls off her gloves with a snap of rubber, and tosses them to the side. Like everything else, they disappear into the darkness without a sound. Her mask follows shortly after, and then the woman herself strides confidently into the darkness.

The light wavers, then flickers out, leaving only absolute darkness, and the faint sound of dripping water.

Give Up The Ghost 2-XV

Things pretty much went as expected after that.

The police showed up about ten minutes later. No-one had called them, in the end, but you can’t set off the magical equivalent of half a ton of dynamite without the authorities knowing about it. Hell, every sensitive in town probably picked up on it, with the amount of raw magic being thrown around. Thankfully, they didn’t arrest us immediately, and I managed to be convincing enough that they called an ambulance instead of backup. I did notice one of the officers keeping his hand very close to his gun, but hey. They’d found us in the middle of a crater, surrounded by the residue of some fucked-up magic, one of us soaking wet and the other one unconscious. If they’d been accommodating and helpful I would’ve assumed someone was playing a trick on us, and I’d probably have been right.

Kath woke up just as they were lifting her into the ambulance, shooting bolt upright with an inarticulate yell, sending streamers of light shooting out in every direction and temporarily blinding two EMTs.

“Well,” she said to me once we’d got everyone to lower their guns and stop yelling, “that was definitely an experience.” Over the protests of the paramedics, she swung her legs off the stretcher and dropped to the ground. Hands on hips, she surveyed the blackened ruin of the beach. “He got away, then.”

“Not even going to ask what happened?”

She shrugged. “Eh, I knew you two had it handled.” She glanced around. “Hey, where is the Ghost of Christmas Past, anyway?”

I grimaced, which was answer enough.

For what I only wished was the first time, we got given a free ride to the police station in a patrol car. No handcuffs, but they did put both of us in the back, which was very clearly a warning. Kath spent the entire time having a one-sided conversation with the officer driving, while I leant my head against the window and tried unsuccessfully to get some shuteye in.

Thankfully, they only had us in the interrogation rooms for about an hour before Detective Phillips showed up and rescued us. I cooperated before that, obviously, but it was a relief to not be treated like a suspect.

“You didn’t get a name?” he asked us, after we’d finished recounting the events (again).

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

“I call him the Raggedy Man,” Kath interjected.

“Since when?”

“Uh, the whole time.” She paused. “Maybe only in my head, though.”

Terry grimaced. “If everything you’ve told us is accurate, and I don’t really have any reason to believe it isn’t-”

“Aww, thanks!” Kath beamed.

“-then we have a serious problem on our hands. I’m going to assign officers to finding this Dev, try and keep her safe, as well as to those missing persons cases; hopefully we can find something there.”

“Like you should’ve done from the beginning,” I muttered, and he avoided meeting my eyes.

“You’re free to go, for now,” he told us, “but you know the drill. Don’t leave the city, etc.”

“Trust me, Terry,” I sighed, “that was never a possibility in the first place.”

It was morning by then, so after a quick stop-off at our apartment to get clothes that weren’t sodden with sewer water, we ended up back at the office. Capitalism waits for no crisis, after all.

I opened the door, bending over to pick up the pile of mail that had collected behind it as Kath slipped inside past me. She threw herself into her chair, sighing in satisfaction as it creaked and groaned. I kicked the door closed after me, and did the same.

“Hey guys,” a disembodied voice said weakly.

We both shot up out of our chairs, spinning around. “Sorayah?” I asked incredulously.

“Yep, haha.” It was her voice, alright, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.

“Where are you?” Kath asked.

“Um, kind of halfway between the two of you, about a meter in front of you?”

There was nothing there.

“Are you sure?” I asked, after a moment. “Cause it kinda seems like…”

“No, I know. It’s been like this since I… woke up? Came back? I’m not sure.”

The way she’d experienced it,  after her big moment on the beach, she’d blacked out. When she’d come to, it was a few hours later, and apparently felt like the worst hangover ever, times ten. Also, her body was missing.

“I can still feel it,” she explained, “kind of. Like it’s there, but also not? Disconnected, I guess. Honestly I was sort of hoping you’d know what’s happening, June?”

“Hrmm.” I settled back into my chair, drumming my fingers against the arm contemplatively. “I mean, I have no idea. But if I had to guess? It’d probably be that… whatever that you did burned out your magic completely, and the time you were ‘unconscious’ was how long it took for it to recover.”

“Oh. So I was…” she paused, then chuckled weakly. “I was about to say ‘dead’, but…”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged. “I don’t know if dead is the right comparison though, but I don’t think unconscious is quite right. Maybe… a coma? A really short coma?”

“That’s not better,” Kath said with a smirk.

“I’m not trying for ‘better’,” I shot back, “I’m trying for accurate.”

“I thought you were ‘guessing’?

As Kath moaned and hammed it up, clutching at her arm, I got Sorayah to tell us the rest. Still disoriented, she’d wandered for a while, before clearing her thoughts enough to come to us.

“Well,” I said, “first of all, I’m really glad you’re still around. When you disappeared, I thought you’d… you know.”

“Yeah. It just took a lot out of me, whatever ‘it’ was.”

“Emotion wave, right?” Kath asked, chewing on a pen. “Like a big explosion of one particular feeling?”

“You know it?” I asked.

“Yep. That’s an empath thing, fo’ sho’,” Kath confirmed. “I’ve been whammied with that shit before, sounds the same. Mostly the same. It was during sex, so like… 50% the same?”

“I thought empath was sensing feelings, not projecting them?” Sorayah asked, sensibly choosing to ignore the last part.

“Should be both, for you. You’ve probably always had that sense, and just weren’t aware of it. Decent amount of empaths can also do some emotion manipulation, which apparently includes you, so congrats!”

“Except that, if I understand it correctly, using it is literally draining the thing keeping me ‘alive’?”

“Well, yeah. Half-congrats?”

“Anyway,” I said. “We may not have gotten him, but we technically figured out who killed you, so yay! Let’s focus on that instead.”

“We still don’t know why the Raggedy Man was killing those kids, though,” Kath pointed out, “or why he controlled the guy he did to do it for him. Or what that ritual circle was for. Or-”

“Let’s,” I cut in, “just focus on the positive, yeah?”

“…yeah,” Sorayah said morosely. “The positives.”

I frowned. “What’s wrong?” I asked her.

Even without facial expressions, the silence that followed was clearly pained. “…I went back to my apartment,” she said at last.

“…okay?”

“It was stupid of me, I should’ve assumed they’d do it, I just wasn’t thinking and-” She took a deep breath. “They’re selling it. All my stuff has been piled into a storage locker, which I can’t access due to being legally dead, and they’re selling my apartment.”

“Oh,” I breathed, “oh, Sorayah, I’m so sorry-”

“And guess what?” She laughed bitterly. “The same applies to my bank account. So after all this, I can’t even pay you two for what you’ve done. Because of course.

Kath and I exchanged a glance, coming to a wordless agreement. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “I actually got to do pocket sand in real life, so I got everything I possibly could’ve out of the deal.”

“And,” I added, “this isn’t even my job anyway so I was never going to get paid.”

“But-” Sorayah protested, sounding confused. “You-”

“Ray-ray,” Kath cut her off, “you’ve been through some shit. Let us do something nice for you?”

“…you’re sure?” she asked tentatively.

A small, nasty part of me brought up the unpaid bills and empty bottles of medicine sitting back at the apartment, but I quickly quashed it. “Yep,” I said quickly. “100%”

There was a slight sniffle. “Thanks, you guys,” Sorayah said, voice a bit raw. “I really appreciate it, and I promise I’ll make it up to you… as soon as I get my living situation sorted out.”

“Hey,” Kath said suddenly, “you’re a ghost, right?”

“Gee,” I said dryly, “do you think she’s noticed?”

“So you don’t need to eat, you don’t need to drink, you don’t take up any physical space…”

“What Kath is trying to say, in her own obtuse way,” I interjected, “is that you can stay with us.”

“No!” Sorayah protested. “You’ve already done so much-”

Kath snorted. “It literally doesn’t affect us at all. Unless ghosts suddenly drive up the power bill.” She glanced at me, and I shook my head. “Great! Roommates!”

Sorayah gave a hesitant chuckle. “…roommates, I guess.”

“Just…” I added hastily, “don’t tell our landlord.”

Give Up The Ghost 2-XIV

I’d read stories about people who were “locked-in”. Usually, it’s some form of spinal paralysis or brain damage, but there’s a few nasty curses floating around that do something similar. The victims are fully conscious, fully aware, but for whatever reason, magical or non-, the connections between their brain and the rest of their body just don’t work. The lucky ones can still move their eyes, but otherwise they’re completely cut off, trapped within a body that wouldn’t respond to their thoughts. I’d always thought it had sounded like one of the worst personal hells possible.

Turns out I’d been pretty much exactly right.

“June,” Kath said, voice wavering slightly, “if this is one of those things where you pretend to go along with his plan just so you can get close and sock him, I gotta admit, I’m not feeling particularly great about it.”

My mouth opened, and spoke, but they weren’t my words, not a reaction to my thoughts. “Oh, June’s not home, I’m afraid,” the man said in my voice, said through me. “I’d be happy to take a message, though.”

I wanted to scream, to vomit, to tear my hair out, to run around in circles or lie down and cry. Instead, my body began strolling forward, moving towards the two of them. Even the movement was wrong; it wasn’t how I usually walked, the strides too long, the shoulders and chest thrust out too far. The motherfucker was even controlling my body language.

“If you hurt a hair on her head,” Kath snapped, “I will fucking end you.”

“Me?” He held a hand to his chest, as if offended. “Why, I’m not doing a th-” Kath’s attempt to sucker-punch him bounced off another shield, and he tutted. “Honestly. No, I sincerely swear that I have no designs to harm the young… lady in any way.” I’d almost reached the two of them, and I kept expecting to stop, but my body just kept on walking right on by.

Straight towards the water’s edge.

Kath realised almost as soon as I did. “Stop!” Her hand grasped around my forearm, and without hesitating, my body turned and slugged her in the gut. She collapsed backwards, wheezing, and “I” swiftly turned back and kept moving towards the water.

“Ah ah ah,” the man said mockingly. “It would seem only fair, seeing as I’ve agreed not to touch your little friend, that you do the same.”

“Your little friend”?! Christ, do you think he knows what he sounds like?

With a slight squelch, my foot hit the water, and I wanted to shudder. The Brisbane River isn’t exactly what you’d call clean. Or water. On some days it’d be a stretch to call it liquid. At any given time there’s almost certainly a pack or two of sharks within half a k, and if you ingest some of it there’s a decent chance of ending up in the hospital. Just touching it made me want to scrub the skin until it bled.

And in maybe thirty seconds I was going to start drowning in it.

“What,” Kath ground out, “do you want.”

I stopped, knee deep in water, and I felt my head twist around so I could see the two of them. “Finally,” the man said smugly, “we arrive at the point. I will admit, you’ve proven surprisingly resilient and adaptable. I’m sure I could put you down, given time, but I find myself unwilling to commit the energy. So I propose a trade.”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“You surrender yourself,” he continued, unperturbed, “and in return I allow your friend here to go free. ‘She’, after all, is evidently no threat to me. A life, for a life. Seems quite fair, don’t you think?”

Kath ignored him, turning towards me. “June, you’re stronger than this fuckswizzle. You’re the stubbornest person I know. You can beat this.”

You think I haven’t been trying? I wanted to scream. From the instant I’d lost control, I’d been fighting tooth and nail for some purchase on my own body, to no avail. But sure, because of some inspirational fucking words…

Ah goddammit.

“I’ll take that as a no, then,” the man said, and I felt myself begin to wade deeper into the water. I gritted my mental teeth, and put everything out of my mind except for a single image. My left leg, planting itself in the ground and not moving. That was all I needed, just one limb. All I needed was a foothold, a single inch of give, and I could work from there.

I could hear sounds of a struggle behind me, but I tuned them out as the water lapped against my chest. Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, FUCKING STOP.

Surprisingly enough, swearing didn’t help.

The grimy water was almost at my chin now, and within seconds it would be flooding into my open mouth. I needed to stop, I needed to resist, I needed to-

“I’m not going to stop you.”

I jumped, looking up from the duffel bag on my bed to see my mother standing in the doorway. “What?” I asked, angry and confused.

“I know this is something you have to do,” she said sadly, moving towards me. I flinched away, but she stopped a short distance away, staring up at me. “I may not understand, but I know.”

After a moment, I resumed throwing clothes into the bag. “Why are you here, then?”

“To warn you.”

I laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not stupid. Dad won’t even realise I’m gone for at least a week.”

“Not about that.” Something in her tone made me stop, turning to face her. “Adu- …June, you know I don’t like to speak about my family. There is a reason for this.”

“Please don’t tell me that they’re crime lords,” I said sarcastically.

“Do not joke about this,” she snapped. “My bloodline, our bloodline, has a history. And when you set out on your own, you will find it becoming far more relevant than you could possibly imagine.”

I finished packing, zipping the bag shut and slinging it over my shoulder. “Thanks for the history lesson, mother, but I think I’ll manage just fine without being associated with the family.”

She sighed heavily. “Just… please be careful.”

And then I was back in the present.. Why that memory had returned to me now, or with such vivid detail, I had no clue. But at the same time, I could feel something in my core, swirling within my magic, something that I’d never felt before-

My magic! June, you idiot! I pulled together a circle in my mind together, anchoring it to myself with a few basic runes, and sent my magic flooding outwards through that pattern to surround me. The water rippled around me, and… there! I hadn’t blocked the control completely, but the circle gave me enough leverage to resist, to push back. I stopped in the water, and slowly turned around. It felt like I had magnets attached to every limb, pulling them back, but I turned anyway.

The man was staring at me, and despite not being able to see his face, I could feel the disbelief radiating off of him. It was a pretty fuckin’ satisfying feeling. Less satisfying, though, was Kath’s limp form on the ground behind him.

“What an annoyingly resilient group you are turning out to be,” he said, frustrated. “That would be just my luck.” Gritting my teeth, I began to walk towards him, fighting against both his control and the water. “Still, no matter.” He raised a hand towards me, chanting, and I knew that there was no way I could possibly dodge or block it-

And then Sorayah was there. Like, instantly.  She hadn’t come up out of the ground, she hadn’t moved, she was just… there. Like she’d teleported.

“Wha-?” the man had just enough time to say before she screamed.

Hm.

No, that’s not right.

She screamed, with all the intensity that implies. More, even.

In an instant, the man’s control over my body disappeared, as a wave of anger slammed into me. It was so powerful, so physical, that it felt like I’d actually been punched. I staggered backwards a few steps, nearly falling backwards into the water. I wasn’t paying attention to any of that, though, because I was pissed. Royally, apocalyptically raged-out, to the point where my vision was flooded with red and my heartbeat pounded in my skull like the drum of the gods.

Which wasn’t right. It took me a second to realise it, but that wasn’t my anger. My anger was cold; it bubbled and roiled, and came out sharp and icy. This was… this came from Sorayah?!

With that realisation, the sensation began to fade, until it felt external instead of being my own. The source in question stood between me and the man, who had fallen on his arse and was staring up at her spectral form, expression hidden but body language… scared. Without a word, shadows swirled around his form, and when they fell away, he was gone.

“Hey June,” Sorayah said with a weak grin, turning towards me. “I think I figured out what my magic is.”

Then her eyes rolled up in her head and she vanished.

Give Up The Ghost 2-XIII

The man growled, yanking at his arm, but Kath’s grip held firm. With her free hand, she grabbed the gun by the barrel, wresting it from his grasp and tossing it to the side. As she did, there was a familiar little flicker on my senses, like a bic catching alight, or the brush of fabric in passing. What hit the ground a second later wasn’t a solid gun anymore; it had broken apart into its component pieces, bullets and screws sinking into the wet sand alongside the slide and trigger and handle.

The movement had given the man an opportunity, though, and before I could even begin to yell a warning, he twisted, slamming an open-palm into Kath’s chest as he spat a guttural word. I got a better sense of his magic this time. It really was… noxious, there was no other word for it. Sewage, blood, rotting meat, ethanol; it was like someone had taken every bad sensory experience they could imagine and mashed them together into a Frankenstein of awful.

As the hand impacted, there was a flash of dark green, and Kath was flung backwards, like Sorayah had been. A moment later, though, her momentum just seemed to… bleed away, and she landed awkwardly a meter away, stumbling back for a few steps before recovering her footing.

“Impressive,” the man began to say, but Kath had already flicked a hand up and sent a fist,-sized rock flying at his head. Green shimmered in the air in its path, and the rock bounced off harmlessly. The one she’d thrown directly behind it, though, did no such thing, and only a hasty jerk backwards stopped it from breaking his nose. It still got him pretty good, though, and as a spray of blood flew outwards I saw the glamour on his face flicker away for a moment. All I managed to catch was a tall, hooked nose, before it reasserted itself back into haziness.

“Throwing rocks?” he said, one hand wiping his forehead and coming away smeared in blood. “And here I was expecting-” Another pair of rocks bounced off his shield. “Where are you even getting those?” he asked, sounding mildly annoyed.

Her response was a raised middle finger and a hail of rocks.

He snorted and waved a hand, causing a wave of that same noxious energy to blast outwards from him. The rocks still in the air were pulverised into dust, and Kath had to throw herself to the ground to avoid it. I, still being on the ground, watched it pass narrowly overhead before dissipating away a few feet past me.

Kath sprung back to her feet, but as she did he flicked a hand upwards, and thick tendrils of sand snaked up from the ground, binding her limbs with a surprising amount of solidity. “I’m afraid I’ve grown bored with you already,” he said snidely. “Good show, though, I suppose.”

“Well,” Kath quipped, as she struggled against the bonds, “I’m glad I was entertaining. Hey, speaking of entertaining-”

She snapped her fingers, and the whole world lit up bright white for a moment. When the spots faded from my vision, the sand tendrils were gone, and Kath was right in front of him. “Pow,” she said, dropping the trigger on a finger gun.

A cacophonous thunder of pops and cheers filled the air as brightly coloured lights bombarded the man, sending him stumbling backwards. A banner made of light unfurled in the air behind her, proclaiming “Happy Birthday!” in neon letters.

The man roared in annoyance and swept a hand outwards, tearing the lights apart. “Party tricks?” he asked indignantly. “Is this really all you have?”

“Nope!” Kath responded cheerily. “I also have a handful of sand!”

Which she then proceeded to throw in his face, and try to sock him in the gut with the other hand.

As the fighting continued, I carefully made my way over to where Sorayah had been launched, moving in a wide circle to stay out of the way. As awful as I felt not helping, I knew that I’d just end up getting in the way, or being a liability. This was above my paygrade. I mean, it was probably above Kath’s, too, but that had never stopped her before.

Sorayah was lying on the sand, crumpled in an awkward position that made my heart skip a beat before I remembered she was already dead.

“Are you okay?” I whispered, dropping down low beside her. Her face was slack, eyes closed, and I thought for a second that-

“Define ‘okay’,” she hissed back, eyes still closed. It was impressive, actually; her mouth barely moved, and her chest didn’t-

Ghost. Right.

“Well, you didn’t go plummeting through the earth, so that’s good?”

Her eyes snapped open. “That was a possibility?!”

“I mean, logically speaking-” Her attention had already shifted to the fight, where Kath was currently batting away geysers of water from the river with a stick.

“Kath!” She shot upright, my vain attempt to stop her passing straight through (which was weird, considering I’d been able to touch her before, but now was really not the time). “Why aren’t you helping her?”

“Shh!” I hissed, and she looked suitably mollified. “She can handle herself. Our best bet right now is getting out of here and calling the police.” She opened her mouth. “If you think my phone survived that,” I pre-empted her, “then you have far greater faith in technology than I do.”

 

From behind us, a swell of the man’s noxious energy rose up. And rose. And rose. And rose. I spun around to see him surrounded by a spell circle made of glowing energy, hands flashing through a series of complicated gestures. Kath was ineffectively wailing on an invisible barrier protecting him with her stick, light flashing every time she hit.

“KATH!” I yelled at the top of my lungs as I grabbed a thin piece of driftwood from nearby. “GET AWAY, NOW!”

She stopped trying to hit him, glancing over at us, and then the awful build-up of pressure released, and a sphere of energy shout outwards from the man. The air filled with an awful screeching, and the ground was torn up by its passage.

Sorayah screamed. I couldn’t blame her; I wanted to do the same. I squashed it down, though. I didn’t have time for anything complex, or even mildly involved. But…

Wards are about resonance and structure, the way power reflects and refracts through different structures. They’re about order, and shape. And in magic, just like in nature, the circle holds a special significance. No joins, no corners; it’s pretty much as close to perfect as you can get.

I dragged the stick in a hasty circle around us, leaving a divot in the sand. For most people, any non-perfect circle is going to start bleeding power immediately. My magic, though, is already naturally inclined to barriers and defense. More than that, though, I’m a wardlayer. And a circle is just the most basic ward there is.

I dropped to one knee, sending magic coursing through the divot in the sand as I held the image of a circle in my mind, forcing it to conform. The air above the circle shimmered and rippled, just as the wave of magic reached us. As it collided with the barrier, there was a bright flash of light, and a sense of incredible pressure bore down on me. I could feel my magic starting to give, and I gritted my teeth, forcing more power into my makeshift barrier.

Just when I felt like I couldn’t keep it up any longer, the pressure suddenly relented, and I nearly fell on my face from the abrupt lack of resistance.

I rocked back on my heels, wiping sweat off my brow with the back of my hand, and looked up to take in…

“Holy fuck,” Sorayah breathed.

“Yeah,” I softly agreed. “Holy fuck.”

The entire shore looked like it had been worked over by a hurricane. The sand had been blown backwards and out, forming a crate, and the concrete ramps from the storm drain were blackened and smoking. The ground around our circle was in a similar state, some parts shining and glistening oddly where the sand had been superheated into glass.

And in the center stood the two of them.

“I’ll grant you this,” the man said, sounding slightly winded. He’d lost his hat, and the edges of his coat were singed and smoldering. “You are extraordinarily annoying.”

“That’s what it says on my business cards,” Kath replied, considerably more out of breath. Her chest was heaving, sweat dripping off her forehead and beading on the hair that hung over her eyes, but her face still bore a wide grin. “You though, mate? You’re just a pretentious prick. So you can stick that on your business card, roll it up into a blunt and stick it right up your ass, you raggedy-ass, dollar-store-Springheel-Jack fuckup pile of human garbage.”

He growled, clenching a fist and raising it-

And then, he froze. Slowly, the fist lowered again, and his whole demeanour changed. “Perhaps,” he chuckled, “perhaps. Why don’t we get a third opinion?” The hand came up again, but this time, instead of a fist, it was a single finger, pointing directly-

-at me.

My circle shattered in an instant, and I staggered back, clutching my head from the pain of the feedback.

Except, I didn’t.

Slowly, without any input from me, my body straightened up, standing tall, hands dropping to my side.

“What do you think?” he asked with a smirk. “Nothing to say? That’s okay, no-one’s forcing you to say anything.”

His grin broadened.

“Oh, wait.”

Give Up The Ghost 2-XII

“Everyone grab onto something!” Kath yelled as the roaring of the water grew louder. “June, can you block it off?”

I glanced around desperately, but the only handholds I could see were some flimsy-looking pipes on the wall. From the look on her face, Dev had come to the same conclusion. “Grab onto what?! And no; wards, not shields.”

She swore. “Fuck it. Run!” She shot off back out the door, grabbing Dev by the forearm and yanking her with a yelp of protest in her wake. With one last quick glance at the circle on the floor, I followed, bracing myself against the burn that set in almost immediately. I am not built for running.

The water splashed underneath our feet as we sprinted through the pipe, heavy panting barely audible over the rushing water, and getting even less so every second. “We’re not going to make it!” I yelled ahead.

“We’re gonna make it!” Kath yelled back. Dev might’ve tried to add something, or it might’ve just been an incoherent rage-scream.

Against my better instincts, I glanced over my shoulder. It was a mistake. Almost directly behind us was a churning wall of water, that seemed far too large to be purely mundane. Not that magically-summoned water would be any less effective at drowning us, of course.

Of course, being already struggling, turning my head around so suddenly threw off my balance. I stumbled slightly, and barely managed to suck in a desperate breath before the water hit.

I’ve never been hit by a truck, but I had to imagine the experiences are probably pretty similar. The water slammed into me, knocking me off my feet immediately. I tumbled in darkness, trying to keep my arms tucked around my head and my legs curled in, but the sheer pressure kept trying to pull them apart. I couldn’t tell which way was up, and already my lungs had started to burn. I ran into something hard with my shoulder, and the shock of the impact almost made me lose my last dregs of air. Then it happened again, and again, and again, until I started to feel like a human pinball.

Finally, just as it felt like my lungs were going to give out, my head broke the surface of the water, and I was spat unceremoniously out the mouth of the drain. I rolled a few more times, scraping my knees and elbows on the rough concrete, before coming to a stop on my back on the sand that covered the bottom of the mouth.

For a few minutes, I just lay there, breathing deeply, staring up at the night sky. Brisbane’s light pollution isn’t as bad as some, but the Story Bridge was right nearby, and it was enough that I could only see a few disparate stars, and what looked like a satellite drifting by. My oxygen-starved brain decided that now was as good a time as any to start fantasizing about that star-gazing trip I kept saying I was going to plan but never ended up finding the time for.

Eventually I realised that I should really check on the others. I rolled onto my side, but the motion moved some water I hadn’t noticed until then, and I was sent into a violent coughing fit as I tried to dislodge it from my lungs.

Too late, I noticed Sorayah, head half-protruding from the ground, desperately shushing me.

I tried to stifle the coughs, but the worst had already passed. Passed, and drawn attention.

I could see Kath and Dev, lying on the sand nearby. Kath’s chest moved up and down in a steady rhythm, but she didn’t seem to be conscious. Dev, on the other hand, most definitely was, because I could see her, glaring with gritted teeth at the man who stood over her, one foot on her chest.

He was tall, thin and spindly and hunched in the back like an old scarecrow. Despite the smoggy heat that still hung in the air, he wore a long, ratty black coat, covered in holes and poorly attached patches. Underneath that, I could vaguely make out a white-and-black suit, in the same condition, with the additional of some yellowing stains on the shirt. A beat-up bowler covered lanky, sick-looking blonde hair, that fell loosely across a face that…

A face… that…

I shook my head, trying to clear my vision. I’d thought it was just the poor light, but when I looked again, I realised I just couldn’t make out any of his features, at all. It was like he’d been censored out of reality. He was white, I could tell that much, the sort of pasty curdled-milk you only ever get by avoiding the sun like a plague, but beyond that, nothing. Old, young, couldn’t tell. Eye color? Did he have eyes? I mean, probably, but you never know.

Stupid brain. Oxygen is important, who knew.

My fit of coughing had drawn the man’s attention, and now he was staring directly at me. Sorayah had disappeared back into the ground; I didn’t know if he’d seen her or not.

“Well, this is somewhat disappointing.” The man’s voice, in contrast to his appearance, was soft and measured, reminding me of a radio presenter. No attempt to hide it like his face, either, which struck me as odd. “I’d really expected that to get at least one of you with that, but here I am, oh for three.”

I spat out a bit foul-tasting water from my mouth. “Sorry to disappoint.” If this wasn’t our guy, I’d eat his hat.

He shrugged one shoulder casually. “Oh, I’m not too torn up about it. After all,” one hand reached into his jacket and pulled out something small and black, “mistakes were made to be fixed.”

Oh fuck that’s a gun oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. Where did he even get a gun? This isn’t America; you can’t just get guns here. Between this and the flood I was starting to suspect that Kath’s read on this guy may have been off.

He dangled the pistol casually off of two fingers, not pointing it at anyone in particular. Dev was right there, though. I needed to keep him distracted, needed to keep him talking.

“You’re the one that set up that circle, then?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level. “Impressive stuff. Never seen anything like it.”

“More things in heaven and earth, young man-” I growled before I got control of myself, “-than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Or, for that matter, your university degree.” He chuckled. “It’s a wide world out there, with so many fascinating things to learn.”

“Like ritual murder,” I replied sharply, before I could stop myself. I was normally better at controlling myself, but the misgendering had already got my hackles up.

“Ritual sacrifice, actually,” he corrected. “Murder implies a lack of higher purpose, which I frankly find a little insulting.”

“Higher purpose? So you weren’t just killing kids for the fun of it?”

If he noticed the bite, he ignored it. “Indeed not. There’s a certain kind of energy you can really only get from the youthful. In fact…” he glanced down at Dev, “I do believe our young friend here would be quite a good source. Shame I don’t have the time to set up a proper siphon, but, ah well. Needs must.” He pointed the gun down at Dev’s face. “Still, it feels like a waste.”

“NO!” I screamed as his finger tightened on the trigger. As the gun went off, though, blindingly bright and deafeningly loud, there was another scream. I blinked desperately, trying to clear the spots from my eyes.

I don’t know what I’d been expecting to see, but it wasn’t the man on the ground and Dev running away. I stared in confusion, until I noticed the glowing figure of Sorayah, half-protruding from the ground. She still had one hand wrapped around the man’s leg, and, as incongruous with the facts as it was, the only conclusion I could come to was that she had yanked it out from underneath him. Judging by the look on her face, she was as confused by this as I was.

“Hm,” the man said, muffled slightly. One hand came up to point at Sorayah, fingers forming a complicated gesture. Before I could shout a warning, there was a shockwave of some of the most putrescent, ugly magic I’d ever felt, and she was flung back and away from him.

“Annoying,” he said calmly as he got to his feet. I scrambled up as well, but the motion drew his attention back to me. “Ah ah ah,” he said as he pointed the gun at me. I froze, staring down the barrel. “I’ll have to hunt her down now. Very inconvenient. Loose ends, always loose ends.” He sighed, the muscles in his hand tightening, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Please please please please-

Again, the bang. The blinding light, lighting up my eyelids. For a moment, there was nothing, and I tightened my breath in anticipation of the pain-

That didn’t come.

I snapped my eyes open. The man was still standing there, but the arm holding the gun was raised to the sky. It took me a second to notice why.

Teeth bared in a savage grin, Kath stood behind him, hand clamped around his forearm in an iron-tight vice. “Fuckin’ try it.”