Give Up The Ghost 2-I

When the ghost walked into our office, I was lying on my desk and boiling alive.

Spring had arrived just a few days ago, and with it came the return of Kath’s prodigiously awful hayfever. She refused to take anti-histamines, claiming they gave her crushing ennui, and so our office had been turned into a makeshift quarantine zone, with rubber strips around the door and window. Unfortunately, the pollen had come along with a sharp jump in temperature and humidity, so it had also been turned into a makeshift sauna.

Air-con was out of the question, of course; even if our office had had any in the first place, we couldn’t afford the expense. A small desk fan made a valiant effort from where it sat on top of the filing cabinet, but all it was really doing was moving the hot air around.

Kath had abandoned her desk, and was lying on the floor underneath the window, contorted at an odd angle to fit into the shadows underneath it. She was wearing nothing but her bra and boxer shorts, and held the files she was working on at an awkward angle against the wall so she could write on them. I’d initially tried to get some work done, but I deal with the heat even more poorly than she does, and my brain felt like it had melted hours ago. Being of a slightly more modest persuasion, I’d only stripped down as far as my tank top and shorts, but every minute comfort got closer and closer to eking ahead of modesty. I lay on my back on my desk, holding the notebook I do my budgeting in above my head, and staring at the numbers as they swam across the page.

Since the thing two months ago with the wraith, my business had completely dried up. I didn’t know if word had gotten out about that job or if it was just an unrelated rough patch, but the end result was the same. Without the few recurring customers I has, who paid me to keep their wards fresh and up-to-date, my income stream would’ve been precisely nil. As it was, though, I was getting to the point where I couldn’t ignore an uncomfortable truth anymore.

“I don’t think I can afford my meds this month,” I said wearily.

It took a second for Kath to react. Slowly, her head rolled over to look at me, in what looked like an extremely uncomfortable position. “What?”

“My meds,” I repeated. “Not enough money. Cannot afford.”

“Explain to me again what money is?”

I groaned.

“Kidding, kidding.” She turned so that her body and head were lined up again. “Which ones?”

I gave the best shrug you can give while horizontal. “All of them? I can maybe squeeze my antidepressants in if I skip…” I tried to do some quick math, but it felt like my brain was filled with molasses. “Some,” I said instead.“Some meals.”

“‘Some’ being?”

“…more than five, less than ten?”

“Over a span of a month?”

“…three weeks.”

“June, I’m not a food scientist, but that seems like a bad idea.”

“Worse than going off my antidepressants for a month?”

She didn’t have a counter for that. “What about the…” she waggled her fingers. “Girl pills.”

I sighed. “I can space out what I have enough that I’ll make it through. It’s not fun, but I’ll manage.”

“Orrrrrrrrrr…”

“Kath, no.”

“No, no, wait, I promise, it’s not what you were thinking,” she said hurriedly. “Why don’t you do one of those internet thingies? The, uh, crowd-whatever. Indiana Goggles or whatever.”

I chuckled humourlessly. “Absolutely not.”

“What? Why not? It’d-”

“Just…” I cut her off. “I don’t need you to solve my problems, Kath. Can’t you just, I dunno, say ‘that sucks’ and leave it alone?”

“Solving problems is my whole thing, though. It says so on the door.”

I glanced at said door. “I thought it said ‘stalker-for-hire’?”

“Well, yeah, but my lawyer advised me to change it.”

“You don’t have a lawyer.”

“Not anymore,” she replied with a wink.

I laughed, despite myself, and as if on cue, something slammed into the door with a loud thunk.

I shot upright, notebook flying across the room, as Kath spun around and pointed a hand at the door. Nothing was visible through the frosted glass panel, but that didn’t mean anything.

Kath jerked her head at the door. “Go,” she hissed.

Go yourself!” I hissed back.

She looked down at her clothing (or lack thereof) and then back at me.

I grumbled incoherently, and limped over to the door. A rush of cool air swept in as I hauled it open, and I savoured it for a moment before poking my head out. I glanced to both sides, but no-one was-

“Down here.”

I yelped and jerked back, nearly slamming the door closed on my neck. Sitting on the floor in front of me, rubbing at her forehead with a grimace, was a woman.

She was maybe my age, or a little younger, Indian, dark brown skin and straight black hair . Reasonably pretty, if a bit angular. She was wearing a conservative business suit, dark blue, and a dark crimson stain had spread across the front of the white blouse she wore.

She was also partially transparent.

“Um,” I said, trying to control my voice, “are you… okay?”

She continued massaging her temples as she gave a rueful grin. “Yeah, I’m okay. I just wasn’t expecting the door to be solid.”

I stared at her. “Are you… in the habit of assuming things aren’t solid?”

She raised an eyebrow, then floated upwards until she was standing on thin air an inch above the ground.

I swallowed. “Right.”

She winced. “Sorry, sorry,” she said hastily, sinking downwards until she was properly aligned with the floor. “I’m still getting used to all this.”

I continued to stare, until I realised I was doing it, and quickly looked away. “…no problem. Can I, uh, help you?”

She nodded. “Yes. Or, I hope so. Are you Katherine Jones?”

I sighed. “Give me a moment.” I pulled my head back in, shutting the door. “Kath, get dressed, it’s ffffwwwhat are you doing?”

She paused, halfway through stuffing wads of crumpled-up paper into her nostrils. “Pollen.”

There was a tentative knock at the door, followed by “Oh cool, I can knock!”

“Give us a minute,” I called to her. “Kath, put a goddamn shirt on unless you want her to see you in your underwear.”

She pursed her lips in consideration. “Is she cute?”

Kath.” She grinned, grabbing her shirt and pulling it over her head. “I mean, yes,” I admitted  as she stepped into her pants, “but she’s also…” I mimed a ghost.

“When has being a zombie ever stopped me?”

“No, not a zombie. A…” I tried again, “you know.”

“Mummy?”

“Just… just let her in.”

To my surprise, she was still standing there when Kath opened the door again. I’d half expected her to have bolted by now. “Ms. Jones?” she asked tentatively. To her credit, she looked at the paper wads, but didn’t comment on them.

“That’s what it says on my underwear,” she confirmed. “What can I do you for?”

The woman hesitated. “Can I come inside?” she asked instead.

“Oh, right.” Kath smacked her forehead with her palm, and I had to hold back the urge to groan. “Fair warning, it’s kind of a sweatbox.”

“That’s okay,” she said, stepping inside. “I can’t really tell any more.”

Kath shimmied round the desk to her side, and I offered the woman my chair. She took it with a muttered thanks, but seemed surprised for some reason when she sat in it.

“So!” Kath announced, dropping into her chair and spinning around to face her. “How can we engage in the ritualistic exchange of goods and services for you, Miss…?”

“Khan,” she answered hesitantly. “Sorayah Khan. Uh, Sorayah is fine. And, um, I need your help to solve a murder.”

Kath shot upright, clapping her hands together. “You want to solve your own death?!” she asked gleefully. “Ohh, Sorayah, you have no idea how happy you’re making me.”

“Well, no,” she admitted. “I don’t need you to solve my death. I need you to solve my murderer’s.”

Give Up The Ghost – Prologue

This is how it happens.

At the bottom of a dark, dingy stairwell on the east side of Brisbane, Sorayah Khan lies on the floor and slowly chokes to death on her own blood. Or, that is what it feels like from her perspective. In actual fact, her airway is mostly unobstructed.

She will die of blood loss long before asphyxiation becomes an issue.

Her lungs have collapsed, ruined by the tiny chunk of metal that tore through them, and every desperate heave of her chest serves only to add to the crimson pool gathering on the floor around her. It soaks into the dirty concrete, staining it a dark maroon, and slowly seeps forward to sully the shoes of the man standing over her.

Sorayah has never been a particularly devout person. Oh, she believes in a god, she says her prayers, goes to Feast when she can. (All of those will soon be past tense.) But ever since she was a child, she had seen the world around her and all the terrible things it contained, and come to an implicit understanding: whatever higher power there was, whether it be her Abrahamic one, the Hindu pantheon or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they didn’t particularly care about humanity. Or if they did, they had a funny way of showing it. She’s never believed that there is any sort of preordination, fate, destiny; to her, the universe was always an experiment set in motion and then observed. She had found this comforting, in an odd sort of way. Back when it had meant that she and she alone was responsible for the choices she’d made, the path she walked. Now that said path has led her to take the stairs instead of the elevator, and walked her directly into a small piece of high-velocity lead, the shine has come off the idea somewhat.

The man is short, stocky and brawny, somewhat dark-skinned but with a pasty paleness peeking out of his shirt that signals it as just being a heavy tan. The clothes he wears are simple and well-made, but are bearing the creases and stains that come from being worn for far too long. His face is squashed and flat, like a pug’s; a thought that, to Sorayah’s oxygen-starved brain, is essentially the pinnacle of comedy.

She begins to laugh, weak and croaking, and every spasm sends waves of burning pain shooting through her. The man stares down at her, deep-set eyes widening with panic, and the gun falls out of his shaking hand. “No,” he whispers, stumbling backwards. “No, no, it wasn’t- you- I didn’t-” His stammering is cut off as he trips over something and falls, landing with a thud. Still laughing, tears clouding her vision, Sorayah sees, for the first time, what had been hidden behind his form.

Slowly, her laughter fades away, as she stares into the lifeless eyes of the corpse across from her.. They’re a pale, ice blue, but she can tell instantly that they have lost the vibrancy they once contained. The young man they belong to is dead, she knows. As she acknowledges that, other details trickle in. The scratches on his arms, the patches of pale green scales scattered across his skin. The large, bloody hole in his chest.

“You don’t understand,” the man whimpers. His voice has gained a hollow echo now, reverberating oddly within her skull. “It wasn’t supposed to- no-one should have known!” As if a fire has been lit inside him, he shoots forward, stumbling over the boy’s corpse and grabbing Sorayah by her lapels. “How did you know?!” he yells in her face as he hauls her off the ground. “How?!” The anger and fear radiate off him like waves, soaking through her skin and filling her up, until she can barely think. She wants to tear him to pieces, she wants to claw his eyes out, she wants to-

And as soon as they came, the overwhelming emotions vanish, and the man lets go off her, leaving her to flop limply back to the ground. She hears him muttering for a few moments, quiet and quick, words spilling together in a mad rush. Then, all of a sudden, he stops, and a moment later, she hears his clothing rustle as he moves, followed by some scraping noises and what almost sounds like sobbing.

Her vision is beginning to go dark, but she can still see his boots as they appear in front of her. Her blood has begun to dry on them, forming scabs against the dark faux-leather. “I’m sorry,” she hears him say.

And then, for the third and last time that night, there is a bang like a firecracker, and a body slumps to the floor.

This time, though, hanging in the void between life and death like she is, Sorayah sees something. As the blood and brains splatter to the ground, and the newly-made corpse follows, the air seems to shimmer in its wake. For the briefest moment, the space above the man’s body is occupied, a mirage of light that swirls and twists in the eddies of a non-existent wind. Within the curves and angles of its amorphous shape, she can see a pair of eyes, and she knows with absolute certainty that this is the man’s soul leaving his body.

And then it’s gone, and she is the only living being in the stairwell. Although, she mentally amends, not for long.

This, too, is funny, in a morbid, delirious sort of way.

As the last light flickers from her vision, she begins to feel it. The slow drag, a soft pressure that rapidly grows in intensity, pulling on her every part of her that is truly her, and not merely a function of the biological machine that she occupies. Occupied. With a sensation that she imagined was something like the suction of a cork coming loose from the neck of a bottle, her vision goes black for a moment, and then she is outside her own body, floating upwards. She turns and looks upwards, and is surprised to find that instead of the dingy roof of the stairwell, she is moving toward a blinding light. The walls of the stairwell fade away into the white as she drifts upwards, and she spins downwards again, to take one last look at her own body.

Instead of that, though, her eyes fall upon the boy’s corpse. He seems so small now, even in comparison to the two others. He had to be young, she realised from her new angle. Barely out of his teens, if that. And now he’d died here, alone and unnoticed, unceremoniously murdered by a madman. She wasn’t naive; she knew exactly how the investigation into the death of someone like him would go. But that knowledge didn’t make it any easier to accept.

No, she thinks suddenly, and although the thought seems to come out of nowhere, as soon as she conceives it, her conviction in the idea becomes rock-solid  Driven by some impulse she doesn’t quite understand, she begins to fight back against the pull, throwing weight she no longer possesses against its overwhelming force. It works, somewhat; her upward drift slows, and her surroundings regain some of their detail. She’s still moving, though, and even managing that much is taking a toll on her. She can feel herself coming apart at the seams, disintegrating away. It’s almost like the burn of aerobic overexertion, but in every part of her at once. Nevertheless, driven by that unexplainable conviction, she persists, and slowly her progress grinds to a halt.

For a moment, she hangs there, a glowing miasma of light hovering over her own corpse. The pull is only growing more intense, and she knows she cannot keep it up for much longer. Something in it feels almost strained, now, and she opens a mouth she no longer possesses and screams a scream she cannot voice as she gives one last push, feels something snap, and-

Sorayah Khan gasps and shoots upright. She pants heavily for a few moments, before slowly coming to the realisation that no air is entering or exiting her lungs. She looks down, to see that her legs and waist are inside her corpse. Hesitantly, she raises one hand up to the light, and stares through its semi-transparent shape.

“Oh no,” she says to the empty stairwell.

Burnout 1-IX

As the first rays of sunlight broke the horizon, I felt the wards drop away, their connection to the ley line severed. Barely half a second later, the front door slammed open, and paramedics rushed in, filling the foyer. They found me in the kitchen, sitting underneath the stream of water from the broken pipe, Mrs. Wilson still unconscious at my side.

“Hey,” I said tiredly as they rushed over to us. “Rough night?”

—–

I sat on the bumper of an ambulance, wrapped in a thick blanket, holding a thermos full of hot, sweet tea. The air and the blanket both stung where they brushed against my skin, but I was managing okay. The medmage would make it around to me in a bit, but Mrs. Wilson was obviously the priority. When I’d found her, she’d still been unconscious, but aside from the obvious, she wasn’t too badly off. The same fire that had burned off her forearm had also cauterised the stump and prevented her from bleeding out.

“Hey,” a voice said from beside me, interrupting my train of thought. I looked up to find Kath standing there, leaning against the side of the ambulance. Her face was worn and tired, with heavy bags under her eyes, but she was grinning. “Enjoying your pity tea?”

I took an obnoxiously loud slurp. “I really am.” She leaned in for a hug, but I blocked her with a free arm. “Sorry, still burnt.”

“No kidding. You’re more red than when you’re six bottles in.” The Asian Flush affects my family pretty badly. “Not as blotchy, though.”

“Generally, when I see a non-colleague twice in a week, it’s usually because they’ve committed a crime,” Detective Phillips said as he ambled up behind Kath, holding his own steaming cup. “How are you doing, June?”

“Feeling a lot like a christmas turkey, thanks for asking. Funny seeing you again this soon.”

He laughed, a little devoid of humor. “It would be, if someone hadn’t called my personal number instead of calling triple zero like a normal person.”

I glanced at Kath, who displayed her usual complete and utter lack of shame. “What’s the point of having nepots if you don’t ever get to -ism them?”

“Honestly, it’s probably for the best,” the detective conceded. “If what I’m hearing is correct, I’d have been pulled out here anyway.” He raised one questioning eyebrow at me as he pulled a notebook and pen out of his jacket.

I sighed, took another sip of tea, and began talking. I’m not a particularly good storyteller, I tend to trip over my own words, so between that and Terence getting me to give more details at every other turn it took well over fifteen minutes. By the end of it, Kath was looking like something was draining the soul from her.

“…then I grabbed Mrs. Wilson,” I finished, “dragged her downstairs and that was it.”

Terence nodded, flipping to a new page. “And you’re sure about the wraith.”

“Look,” I said, “I’m no expert, but it was bigger than I am, and somehow capable of overpowering a ward that was directly connected to a Class Three ley line. If Grey Wilson’s wraith could do that naturally, they would’ve been a walking nuke.”

“Hmm. I might need you to talk to someone over in Postmortem, if that’s the case.” He saw the expression on my face, and hastily backtracked. “Not right now, of course. We’ll call you.”

“Honestly,” Kath noted, plopping herself down next to me and sending the ambulance rocking slightly, “I’m more interested in the fact that Fi-Fi over there almost managed to talk it down. I mean, apart from the whole horseshoes and handgrenades part.”

“I’m… not so sure she did,” I said slowly, reviewing the events in my head. My recall wasn’t great due to the panic, but I had a general sense of it. “I’m not really sure how to phrase it. It… always felt deliberate, I guess? Like, it wasn’t wavering when she approached it. It let her approach, let her get close before… you know.”

Kath whistled softly. “That’s nasty.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It definitely felt like there was malice there.”

“Wraiths don’t do malice,” she countered. “Wraiths don’t do anything. There’s nothing to do anything with. They’re just leftover bundles of magic, with very occasional bits of emotion imprinted onto them.”

“You said it responded to you when you talked to it?” Detective Phillips asked me.

“It seemed to,” I confirmed. “It stopped, and there wasn’t exactly any other reason for it to do that.”

Kath glanced it Terence. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

He sighed. “I’m never sure with you, but in this case I think so. Someone else was controlling the wraith.”

“You can do that?!” I asked, incredulous.

“No,” Kath replied grimly, “you can’t. But a wraith can’t do any of that other shit, either. So if we’ve got two can’ts to pick from, I’m gonna go with the one that makes more sense.”

“And,” I realised, “the writing.”

Terence nodded. “Or even the fact that it roamed so far from the house in the first place. We’re assuming, of course, that it was also the cause of death for Grace-”

“It was,” I interrupted. “Bathroom on the second floor, you’re going to find a pile of melted flesh exactly like the one at the skate park. The smell’s the same too, and the bone.”

He nodded. “Any writing?”

I frowned. “Huh. No, I don’t think so. I guess that lends credence to your theory, then.”

“Question is,” Kath said, “if we’re right, by which I mean if I’m right, by which I mean I am right because I always am, what’s the motive? The victim was just a teenager.”

“Well, lucky for you, you don’t have to worry about that,” the detective added. “With this, there’s enough meat to this case that I’ll be able to get the necessary manpower from within the department.”

“Aw, come on, Terry!” Kath protested. “You know I do good work!”

He lifted a single eyebrow. “So far, your only idea for finding information was walking into a disreputable bar and asking if,” he flipped a few pages back in his book, ““any of y’all good at murdering people”.”

“Actually, it was “any of y’all motherfuckers”. And you’d be surprised at how often that works.”

“The point remains, you’re not an expense that can be justified at this point.”

She pouted. “Is that all I am to you, Terry? An expense?”

He gave a weary grin as he turned to leave. “Sometimes. Ladies.” He walked off towards a group of uniformed police, Kath staring holes in his back the whole way.

“Asshole,” she muttered.

I glanced up at her. “Did you really-”

“Well, technically, I also said some things about their parentage, but yes.”

I shook my head and grinned.

A paramedic dropped by, checked I hadn’t manage to die, and took some of my details down, including my lengthy list of medications. Healing magic sometimes had unexpected interactions with others, so they liked to be done.

“That was good work in there, Junebug,” Kath said nonchalantly once he was done. “Almost like the kind of work-”

“Don’t say it,” I groaned as I realised where she was going. “Kath, please don’t-”

Almost,” she barrelled over me, “like the kind of work a detective would do.”

“Kath. Just stop.”

“It pays better,” she wheedled. “And it’s not like you’d have to stop doing the wardlaying-”

Kath,” I snapped. “Just… not now, okay?”

She shrugged, with an expression that clearly said it’s your funeral, but didn’t press the point further.

I sipped my tea and stared out at the sunrise. A gurney rolled past us, bearing the unconscious form of Mrs. Wilson. Watching her pass, I came to an uncomfortable realisation. “There’s no way I’m getting paid, is there.”

“Nope,” Kath confirmed, lighting a cigarette.

Burnout 1-VIII

Fire.

My mind raced as I dashed down the stairs towards the kitchen- well, no, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Saying it ‘raced’ implies direction and purpose. My mind desperately scrambled as I ran, trying to dredge up any piece of information that might be helpful.

Classical elements Greek, Japanese, Chinese… Vedan? Agni, fire, lightning and the sun not helpful not helpful Wu Xing, prosperity, yang, upwards motion no no no nothing nothing phlogiston oh come June phlogiston really stupid stupid freemasonry? freemasonry you’re kidding um um um winter solstice dual creation and destruction fire burns fire cleanses fire fire fire fire oh god FIRE!

Hastily, I tried to pat out the small flame that had started on my back as I ran. It was right in the center of my back, though, the part I couldn’t quite reach, and my efforts didn’t seem to be making any difference, so I jerked myself out of the jacket and tossed it to the side as I ran. The effort left me short of breath- well, more short of breath. Even without that, I’d done more exercise in the last ten minutes than I had in a year before that, and the oxygen shortage was starting to get to me. The edges of my vision were going blurry, and my lungs felt as shallow as a dishpan.

Kitchen kitchen kitchen… Two doors on the left, through the living room. In my panic, I almost tried to throw myself across the old wooden table in the center of the room, before logic and reality reasserted themselves, I remembered I was 5’2”, unfit, and uncoordinated, and ran around it anyway. I did bang my leg pretty badly on one of the chairs, so I must’ve been destined to get hurt in that room one way or the other.

The heat was at my back again, and I could feel the skin on the back of my neck peeling and blistering. I wasn’t entirely sure why my clothes hadn’t caught on fire, but I wasn’t about to complain. Panting heavily, too air-starved to scream properly, I stumbled into the kitchen, knocking over a chair as I barrelled into it, and managed to make it to the sink and turn it on. The water was almost shockingly cold, but it was still better than the burning, oppressive heat.

Speaking of which.

The wraith swept into the room, leaving a trail of burnt wood behind it. Glowing embers littered the charred surface, and wisps of smoke curled up into the air, forming clouds on the ceiling. I knew I wasn’t imagining it now; it was definitely staring at me.

I met its gaze, trying not to shake. Without breaking eye contact, I began splashing the water on my skin, small bursts of relief from the oppressive heat that only lasted a second before being burned away.

“You’re not a wraith.” I wasn’t sure where I’d put it together, but as soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew I was right. “Are you.” My voice was raw and hoarse from the smoke, and I had to stop myself from coughing.

The wraith’s head tilted to the side slightly. It had stopped in the doorway, and I could see the air between it and the ground shimmering with heat. Tiny flickers of flame kept sparking from the wood, only to be snuffed out by my wards. I was pretty sure they were lasting longer than before, though. I was pretty sure that as soon as my wards didn’t have an entire ley line’s worth of power running through them, this entire house was going to go up like a pile of kindling.

“Or,” I amended, “not anymore.” Now my mind was racing, moving forward with a purpose, towards a conclusion. “You’re… aware, aren’t you. Not sentient, not a shade or a full ghost, but there’s something there.”

No movement. Just the crackle of the flames, and the sound of water rushing over my hands. Given that it wasn’t actively trying to kill me, for the first time ever, I figured I was onto something.

“So,” I continued, staring it down. “Either Gray Wilson was some kind of super-powerful prodigy, or…” the dots connected. “Someone did this to you.” Someone had… supercharged, for lack of a better word, this wraith, and either intentionally or as a side-effect had granted it limited intelligence. But… why? I couldn’t think of a single reason anyone would-

Melted flesh, and bones charred black.

…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…

“Oh fuck,” I said out loud, eyes widening. “It was- that was-” How hadn’t I seen it sooner? God, I was so bad at this. If Kath was here, she’d have gotten it instantly.

The wraith started floating forwards slowly, and I jerked backwards. It began drifting around the island in the center of the room towards me, and I scooted as far away as I could while still keeping my hands in the sink.

“Okay,” I said, trying to stay calm as it approached. “Okay. So you don’t want to talk. But I’ve got to ask. Why ‘silversmith’?”

It froze. The flames hung motionless in the air, and even the heat in the air vanished. I stared at it, confused. Had I triggered some kind of code phrase, or-

With a loud roar, the fire resumed moving, billowing outwards even further than it had been before. The heat returned, more intense, and I could feel its gaze upon me. It shot towards me, and I threw the entire bowl of water I’d been filling at it.

Plumes of steam erupted with a loud hiss, but aside from that, the wraith seemed unaffected. I yanked my hands back just before the steam reached them, and backed away. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why would I think that a fucking hand-tap’s worth of water would do anything. I’d need way more water than that to… to…

I turned and sprinted to the other side of the kitchen. Come on, come on. I threw open a cupboard, and sure enough, a large, heavy cast iron pan sat on one of the shelves. I snatched it and threw myself to the side as the wraith caught up with me. Where are you, where are you. Picturing the blueprints in my mind, I spun and swung the pan with all my strength against the wall. Wood cracked and splintered, and I hit it again, and again, the sound of metal clanging against metal filling the kitchen. My arms began to tire almost immediately, and I only got in about four good hits before the wraith’s approach forced me to move away. I hoped it would be enough. I scuttled backwards as the wraith passed in front of the cracked section of wall. On their own, my blows probably wouldn’t have been enough. But, add the intense heat of the wraith’s passing, and-

There was a painfully loud crunch, an equally loud hiss, and the wraith let out an ear-splitting screech; the first sound it had made. I threw myself to the side, dropping the pan, just as a spout of water shot out of the wall, coming from the pipe I’d managed to damage with the pan. The wraith heating up the metal had caused it to expand enough for the dings I’d given it to turn into a full-blown shower.

It screamed as the water bathed it, sending plumes of scalding steam into the air. I avoided the worst of it, but it still hit my face and hands. For a second, I thought that maybe the water had cooled it down, but then the burn began to set in. It felt like my skin was being set on fire. Still, though, I had it better than the wraith.

The screeching had died down to more of a whimper, as what was left of the wraith lay on the floor. It writhed around in a puddle of water, steaming and sizzling as the burst pipe continued to shower water down on it. It was already only half as big as it had been, and I could see it shrinking by the second. In barely any time at all, it was nothing but an ember flickering in the water. And then that too was snuffed out, and it was gone.

I slumped back against the wall, head drooping against my chest as water ran through my hair and dripped onto my chest.

“I don’t think the insurance is going to cover this,” I said out loud to no-one.

Burnout 1-VII

I sprinted out of the room, dragging Mrs. Wilson behind me by the hand. Behind us, the roaring of flames grew louder and louder, and I would swear that, inside that noise, was the sound of shrieking.

“Grey!” Mrs. Wilson screamed, sounding terrified. “Grey, please! It’s me!”

I glanced back over my shoulder to see her sobbing and blubbering, one hand stretched out towards the wraith behind us. The wraith right behind us.

Her fingers were nearly touching it now, and she was pulling against my grip. I’m not very strong, but adrenaline is a hell of a thing, and I managed to yank her forward just before they connected. “What are you doing?!” I screamed, dragging us around a corner, but her only response was a terrified sob.

I could feel the heat on my back, uncomfortably warm even from this distance. No chance of outrunning it; we needed to hide. I wracked my brain, trying to focus on the map of the house in my head. We needed… there!

We reached the end of the corridor, and Mrs. Wilson, actually showing some initiative, tried turning left, but I went the opposite direction, yanking her along with me. It nearly jerked my shoulder out of its socket; she wasn’t exactly light.

“Wh- the exit is-” she spluttered

“We can’t get out, remember?” I yelled back, glancing over my shoulder at her terrified face. “There’s only- gah!”

In the instant I’d looked away, the wraith had appeared in the corridor in front of us. A wash of heat rolled over us a split-second later, almost unbearably hot. There wasn’t any time to stop properly; we were going to run right into it, unless-

There was a door to my right. I didn’t know where it led, and I didn’t have time to try and figure it out. I grabbed the doorframe with my free hand, swinging round and slamming into the half-open door. I cried out in pain as I tumbled to the ground, dragging Mrs. Wilson down with me. Vision clouded and blurry with tears, I managed to kick the door closed behind us, just as the wraith appeared on the other side.

I allowed myself a few seconds to lie there, just breathing, face down on the cold tiles. The adrenaline began to fade away, and was quickly replaced with pain; the shoulder that had hit the door was already throbbing uncomfortably, the other one felt like it was on fire, and all of my exposed skin felt like it had been worked over with sandpaper.

Slowly, I managed to roll over onto my back without agitating my shoulders too much, and sat up from there. We were in a bathroom, it turned out, which explained the tiles. The lights were off, but enough moonlight entered through the open window to see.

“A-are… are we safe?” Mrs. Wilson asked tentatively. She was sitting with her knees clutched to her chest, back against the side of the tub. The edges of the few tufts of fur she had were singed, and her skin looked as bad as mine felt.

“Should be,” I said tiredly.

“But… the door is wooden.”

I laughed humourlessly. “The wards are protecting it. The same wards keeping us locked in here.”

“Can’t we climb out the window?” she asked hesitantly.

I reached into my pocket, wincing as the action agitated my shoulder, and dug around until I found a crumpled ball of paper. I pulled it out, and gently tossed it at the gap between the window and the frame. It bounced off the seemingly-empty air, sending small ripples through an ice-blue surface that faded away as quickly as it had appeared. “That’s a no,” I added.

“So… what do we do now?”

I sighed, shuffling along the tiles until I could lean back against the wall. “Wait, I guess. Nothing else we can do, really. I brought a…” I trailed off, glancing around. “Oh no. Oh, shiba. Byeong-shin, byeong-shin! Aghhh…” I cradled my head in my hands. “I left my bag in there.”

Before I could get properly worked up about it, my phone buzzed in my pocket. “June?” Kath asked as I picked up. “I’m outside. What’s happening?”

I sucked in a breath through my teeth. “Well, uh… it’s not great.”

I relayed what’d happened. “…you’re kidding me,” she said once I was done.

“Oh, I wish I was,” I replied tiredly. “So now we’re stuck in a kitschy bathroom, and I left all my gear in the other room.”

June.”

“I know, I know.” I rubbed my forehead. “Any suggestions?”

There was some rustling, and the sound of a car door shutting. “Well, I’m gonna have to call the cops.”

Somehow, Mrs. Wilson must have heard her. “No!” she cried, throwing herself forward and trying to grab the phone away from me. “You can’t!”

I leaned away, batting her hand away. “Yeah, do.”

“They’ll kill Grey!” she shrieked.

I ignored her. I wasn’t doing this again. “Make sure to tell them that it’s not contained, yeah?”

“I don’t tell your grandma how to suck eggs, June. I’m gonna try and make a trap at the front, maybe catch it when the wards come down.”

I winced involuntarily. Kath’s scriptwork was… uh, let’s say amateurish and leave it at that. She could do a few basic glyphs, but anything more complicated tended to fizzle. “How about you leave that to the police?” I suggested as delicately as I could.

“Hmph.” I took that as acknowledgment. “I’ll get the neighbours out, then, in case it spreads. Sit tight.” She hung up, and I slipped the phone back in my pocket.

“They can’t,” Mrs. Wilson repeated desperately, but I just kept ignoring her, hauling myself to my feet. I reached over into the tub, dropping the plug into the drain and opening the tap, so that it started to fill with cold water. “Please, Miss Yeong. Please.”

I’d managed to hold onto the chalk, somehow. I didn’t consciously remember slipping it into my pocket, but there it was. I pulled it out and knelt in front of the door, intending to give us some extra protection just in case, when a smell tickled my nose and stopped me cold.

Woodsmoke. Again. This wasn’t distant and somewhat faded like before, though. This was acrid, and fresh.

I dropped down until my face was against the floor and peered under it. Sure enough, the white flame of the wraith was still there, but there was also curls of grey smoke, and a slow rain of black ash.

“Impossible,” I whispered, standing again. With the amount of power running through my wards, trying to burn any part of the house should’ve been like trying to burn water. The amount of power that it would need to overcome them…

I didn’t get to ponder it, though, because a tiny speck appeared on the door, at about chest height, glowing cherry red and already beginning to spread.

I swore loudly and pressed both hands against the door. The magic I sent flowing down my arms and into the wood wasn’t organised and controlled, like the matrices had been. It was pure, raw, unfiltered. It wouldn’t make anything even resembling an actual ward, but I’m a wardlayer, and that means that I have a wardlayer’s magic. As long as I kept feeding it power, would operate like a very basic, but very powerful ward.

But not powerful enough. The entire door shook, and then burned away into ash in an instant, as an overwhelming wave of fire wiped out my efforts like they were nothing. The backlash sent me reeling, staggering backwards as my magic boiled and burned inside me. I toppled backwards into the bathub, creating a large splash and completely drenching me. I spluttered, wiping desperately at my eyes, and got them clear just in time to see the wraith approaching me.

And Mrs. Wilson standing between us.

“Grey,” she said, slowly approaching it. “It’s me, Grey. It’s Fiona. It’s okay, honey. It’s gonna all be okay.” Slowly, she reached out with one hand towards its chest, and, somehow, it didn’t seem to be burning her. In fact, the aura of heat seemed to be receding away. No. No way was this working. Surely not. “Grey, please,” she said, one hand resting on a chest of flame. I hauled myself out of the tub and pressed myself against the wall, as far away as I could get.

The wraith looked down at her, and if I didn’t know better, I would swear it tilted its head to the side.

Then the flames began spreading down her arm.

She jerked her hand away, screaming, but they didn’t actually seem to be burning her. They just hung around her arm, surrounding it up to the elbow in a ghostly corona.

“Mrs. Wilson,” I snapped, but she didn’t seem to hear me. “Fiona!” Slowly, she looked up at me, tears in her eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I-I think so,” she stammered. “It isn’t-”

The flames shifted, becoming more solid, more real. And then the skin starting sloughing off.

She screamed again, but seemed more out of horror than pain. The fat and muscle underneath burned and melted away, dripping to the ground and searing the wood, and within a few seconds, all that was left was charred and scorched bones. They dropped to the ground, landing in the puddle of melted fat with a soft plop. Slowly, Mrs. Wilson looked down at them, and then at the blackened stump on the end of her arm. Then she fainted.

It felt like she had the right idea. The air was naeuseatingly thick with the stench of charred meat, melted fat and smoke, and I had to cover my mouth with my elbow to get a proper breath in.

The wraith begin drifting forwards towards me. I’d been about to run to Mrs. Wilson’s side, but now I was cut off. Not only from her, but also from the door. I didn’t want to run, but it seemed to be ignoring her, and it wasn’t like I could really do anything to help her. I couldn’t even help myself. I began backing up, but ran into the wall almost immediately. Nowhere to go. I looked around desperately for anything I could use, sending a spray of water outwards from my hair-

Oh. Oh this is a dumb plan. This is a really dumb plan. I didn’t really have any other ideas or options, though, so before I could talk myself out of it, I dived forward, throwing myself past the wraith.

Wards are, at their most fundamental level, about enhancement. You take what’s already there, whether physical or metaphysical, and you manipulate or increase the aspects that get you what you want. That’s the lies-to-children version, of course, but the basic principle is somewhat sound.

As I dived, I sent my magic into the water that doused me, trying to enhance its… water-y-ness. Without a matrix or any solidity, the spell didn’t stick, of course, but just for a second, it worked, and then I was out in the corridor, slamming into the opposite wall, bruised, burned, but alive.

I scrambled to my feet and dashed away down the corridor, already feeling the heat at my back. My breath was short, my throat raw and sore from the smoke, and I felt like I was going to collapse at any moment. I almost envied Mrs. Wilson.

Almost.

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?”