Toulouse, 8 March, present day
A rancid cellar, re-evaluating some recent life decisions.
Magic is an overpriced escort, glammed up to the nines and looking for a good time.
It’ll make you feel great. It’ll flatter your ego, and there’s plenty of times it’ll blow your mind. The more you invest, both time and finances, the more it’ll play the game, the more it’ll feel like a genuine relationship until you think it really cares — that it honestly has your back.
Don’t be fooled. It’s all just business.
The thing about business deals is, sooner or later, you’re going to get screwed over, however solid you think your relationship is. Not in the good sense either. Happens to the best of us.
I mean, getting tortured to death by a shit wizard wasn’t on my agenda when I blew in through the front door of his house, overpowered to the nines, a magic-wielding badass ready to fuck things up. Funny how things work out, and by funny, I mean agonisingly painful, like being suspended from a set of depressingly solid, rust-stained chains currently doing interesting things to my various cracked and shattered ribs.
And by interesting, I mean if “how far out of alignment can you put parts of the human skeleton without it killing someone” is one of your topics of interest.
Incidentally, if it is, please stay the hell away from me and mine.
The only thing allowing movement is the blood slickening my skin around my ankles and wrists. The cold iron strums my forearm bones like washboards played in a skiffle band, only even more annoying. Just about. Have you ever heard a busker on a skiffle board? Every time one plays, I want to shower them in coins. Preferably heated up till they’re white hot.
My breathing’s transition from bubbling gurgles to maraca-like rattles doesn’t require centuries of medical expertise to recognise it as probably a bad sign.
It’s not just the agonising pain that makes the basement I’m in depressing. Mildew is not the décor choice of optimists. Through the sheen of grimy sweat stinging my one unswollen eye, the ethereal glow of magic sigils taunts me. The sneaky bastards. The language of the angels doesn’t make for comfortable reading, at least for a mortal mind like mine. It does a damn good job of keeping me trapped in place though.
Said sigils —all intricate swirls around the sweeping curves of the Kabbalist lettering— are also light-years beyond the capabilities of the spittle-flecked shithead of a mage standing before me.
Working out he’s incapable of having created the Enochian containment runes glowing on the walls isn’t hard. I’m more surprised he’s capable of walking without tripping over his own feet. Hell, one look at the complete fuck-up he made carving runes of persuasion into my flesh shows how rubbish he is. Top marks for gratuitous damage. Must try harder regarding actual magical prowess.
His efforts, displayed in inch-deep gashes across my skin, look like someone gave a spirograph set to an alcoholic deep in the DTs. They wouldn’t compel me to talk even if he had the magical knowledge and artistic temperament to engrave them correctly. But even assuming he could master writing that level of magical script correctly without it making his brain explode, I’m still totally out of his league talent-wise. He’s not got the power to force me to do anything.
As he continues to rant and rave at me, trying to get me to tell him what he wants to know, wondering why the runes of persuasion aren’t working (simple answer — because he’s a shit wizard), I temporarily zone out. An inner debate as to what is a worse form of torture —being physically sliced to ribbons or having to be this close to his body odour— distracts me. It’s a tough call to make. The continued screaming up in my face brings me back to the situation at hand. While the rancid breath accompanying it is a painful reminder of the importance to brush after every meal, as well as being further evidence that cleanliness was an early offering on the altar in his quest for magical power.
His scraggly, food-matted facial hair underlines that.
He clearly feels a beard lends him an air of Rasputin-level dark mysticism, but I’d go more with drug-addled village idiot chic, personally. He looks like Doctor Moreau got funky with a rat, a toad, and an incel.
His failure at forcing me to answer his ridiculous questions has driven him from ‘guy to avoid sitting next to in the pub’ to ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, get the fuck away from that lunatic’ in a relatively brief space of time. The erratic swaying of the gore-stained knife he keeps waving about would be disturbing enough even if it wasn’t my gore doing the staining. I was bloody attached to that gore.
‘Tell me what you are!’ The vein at his temple throbs like his head is about to pop. Sadly, I doubt I’ll ever get that lucky. ‘You aren’t human; else, you’d never have found my lair and been rendered helpless by my power.’
His power. Pah. What a load of bollocks. I’m not sure how these runes are restraining me, but one thing’s certain. It’s not because of his power.
The knife’s drunken dancing weaves closer to my one remaining good eye. ‘You don’t need to see to speak, creature.’ The squeaky tone, his voice cracking like an adolescent hitting the first agonies of puberty, doesn’t really aid him in his attempt to be menacing.
I chuckle, sending little tributaries of blood dribbling from the corners of my mouth to join the rivers currently streaming down my body. ‘Your lair? Sorry, your lair? Are you… are you serious? What are you, a fucking Bond villain? No, wait, don’t tell me — you’re an alpha lone wolf or coyote misunderstood by a society that will one day regret it ever dared reject your magnificent superiority.’
I flick my eyes up and down his spindly form. A filthy magician’s robe that looks suspiciously like a hastily altered threadbare dressing gown hangs from his bony shoulders. It doesn’t give him quite the aura of evil genius I suspect he was going for. ‘Nah, mec, you don’t fit as an alpha wolf. More likely a weasel or…’ I take a sniff, wincing. ‘Skunk, I’d say.’
I roar my agony at the low-set cement ceiling as a razor-like knife is buried several inches into my right shoulder. It being pulled back out again isn’t a barrel of laughs either. I gulp down desperate mouthfuls of air as it resumes its two-step choreography in front of my iris. Panting, physically broken, I look past its vanishing point to the insane little shitspawn wielding it.
‘Okay, okay — I’ll tell you,’ I whine, struggling to draw in enough whistling breath to make my words audible. A punctured lung will do that to the best of men. I am definitely not the best of men. ‘I’m…’
He leans forward without the knife ever leaving its threatening proximity. Greed for forbidden knowledge is carved more clearly on his pock-marked grubby features than his rubbish attempts at runes are on my body. ‘I’m… so… so…goddamn sexy, I wish I could have switched eyes with your mother to watch myself fuck her brains out last night, cadorna.’
Pithy put-down issued, I slam my head forward, embedding the blade’s tip deep into my brain. Then, accompanied by the sweet, sweet lullaby of his screams of impotent rage, I die.
Toulouse, 8 March, present day
Somewhere other than the cellar I just died in. A sentence I end up using more often than I really should.
I heave in air, filling flattened lungs that have forgotten how to inflate. They had one job to do, dammit, the lazy sods. Mind you, as they’ve been dead for a while, I suppose I can let them off.
My eyes snap open by force of will as I shoot bolt upright. As the lenses start getting their groove on, bringing things back into focus, the round face of a balding fellow looms above me, midway through snapping on disposable surgical gloves. He looks about as shocked and terrified as one would expect upon seeing a several-days-old corpse suddenly sitting up. I, meanwhile, continue my forward momentum, snapping my forehead to connect between his eyes with a satisfying crunch. The look of fear morphs steadily into glazed confusion before he slides to his knees.
I rub at my frown lines as nerve endings in my brand-new, second-hand body fire up. A quick pat in the appropriate places confirms I’m male again. While female incarnations do happen, they’re rare. With my reacquired manhood trying to climb back up into my body because of the freezing mortuary air, I swing my legs off the table and, with only the most miniscule of momentary wobbles, regain my feet.
Let’s pause here, with me cold, naked, and hardly in the most dignified of postures, and I’ll tell you a story. There’s not time to tell you everything, but perhaps a little background is a good idea. So I’ll tell you a tale that could begin with “Once upon a time” — You know what? As it’s mine to tell, I will do. I like fairy tales… even though this one doesn’t end like they do in modern times. More like a Brothers Grimm original. But anyway…
Once upon a time, in the south of France, there was a religious group whose beliefs became the latest craze sweeping the Languedoc. They were called the Good Christians at the time, although nowadays the term “Cathar” is used, and they had some beliefs that the established Church thought were pretty wacky, like vegetarianism, reincarnation, and dualism (two Gods — one good, one evil. Guess which one they thought made the world?).
Then there were the beliefs we had —yes, I was part of it— that the Church considered downright dangerous. Beliefs like equality between the sexes, tolerance for other religions, and that, perhaps, priests should concentrate on living humble, morally spotless lives rather than trying to amass wealth and power. I’m pretty sure the last one was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Church showed all its accrued Christian values by launching a crusade against us. They spent a hundred years wiping us out, along with everyone who’d ever supported us, creating the Inquisition as they went. Which is, I’m pretty sure, not entirely what Jesus Christ would have done in their shoes.
Back then, I was a Good Christian Perfect — a priest. As happens to most of us, I died, although how I died is a stranger tale than most, involving dark magic during that terrible, bloody crusade. What’s even weirder is that it didn’t stick. Instead, I woke up in the nearest dead body, and I did so every time I died. For over eight hundred years. Time changes a man. I might have been a Perfect once, but nowadays? Well, let’s just say I don’t think anyone’s likely to come to me looking for moral guidance. Better off asking a magic 8 ball. Or smoking one, maybe.
As I stand up, my feet seem to stretch, my legs enlarge, and my body becomes defined by centuries of martial arts and street fighting rather than channel surfing and TV dinners. Looking in the mirrored aluminium lining the sidewall, I see my original bronze, hawklike features staring back. Deep-brown, practically pitch-black eyes quirk sardonically. My hair’s short, kept cropped by preference. Thankfully, the magic seems to recognise that. My curly locks might look fabulous grown out, but they’re too convenient for enemies to grab hold of. I look like I’m in my mid-thirties. I’d say that is a more accurate count of the number of lives I’ve lived except I burnt through thirty-odd bodies in my first couple of centuries. How many times have I died since? I lost count long ago.
My dark Mediterranean skin is a natural result of centuries of Spaniards intermingling with North African rulers and Gallic northerners venturing towards the mountains. Occitans of my era were closer, both geographically and spiritually, to our cousins on the other side of the Pyrenees, and I blend easily into the cultural mix of modern-day Toulouse. I’m assumed to be from the Maghreb or have dual heritage or else hail from Gitan travelling folk — and in a way these are all the case. More precisely, my ethnic mix predates such distinctions.
Looking at myself in the burnished metal, I see the same physical form I’ve worn time after time, life after life since I died. Is this really the body I have now? Well, yes and no. The magic definitely reshapes it little by little. But I don’t get it all straight away. I look like myself, fully, sure. But underneath it, my physical tone remains that of an unfit late-twenties male who would struggle to walk further than the nearest takeaway. Thankfully, with my hectic, death-defying (or often, failing to death-defy) lifestyle, that will rapidly adjust. It’s an accelerated process, all tied into my reincarnation magic somehow. The only difference I’ve noticed when I come back compared to my first life is a slight change of height to keep up with evolutionary differences over the years. As a nifty bonus, I also come back without the scarring, amateur sigils, and loss of most bodily fluids accompanying my latest death. Personally, I just accept it. Cleverer minds than mine have tried to unravel the mystery without success. For me, looking like myself makes adjusting to a new body easier to manage. I’ll take that as a win, thanks very much. Maybe the magic is just responding to how I see myself in my head, reshaping my new body to fit my self-image. Call me vain if you want, although maybe not too loudly. Insulting powerful magicians who can make your eyeballs boil in your face is rarely a good survival tactic.
‘Right,’ I mutter to myself, well aware and long past caring that it is a sign of encroaching madness. ’Coldcocked one innocent bystander. Should keep me safely anchored.’
I don’t know if it is my over-active imagination, but I feel like I can sense the comfortable weight of sin on my soul, keeping me tied to the mortal plane. You might think after eight hundred years I’d be ready to let go and give it a rest. And honestly, there were a few times in my many lives when I felt ready to call it quits. Problem is, when a Cathar Perfect stops being perfect, there’s no happy afterlife waiting, no giving the wheel of Dharma another spin. The soul turns to dust on death. Gone. Obliterated. I broke my vows, sinned willingly. When I finally die once and for all, I’ll cease to be. End. Finito. I’m not ready for that. Not yet. So l have to make sure to never get too close to being Perfect.
I crack and roll my shoulders, wincing as the muscles perform a Mexican wave from left to right and back again. The stretching helps settle me though. I turn my attention to the unconscious heap next to the table; my first job is to verify he’s still breathing. I know I didn’t hit him hard enough to do any serious damage, but his romantic entanglement with the floor could have come with additional complications, so I give him a proper once-over. He seems to have escaped relatively unscathed apart from chipped upper incisors and impact bruising to the left temple. If left untended, it’ll stain the side of his head in an Impressionist seascape’s vibrant greens and blues. Pretty but painful. Like a rose’s thorns. Or reality TV stars trying to act.
Summoning the enamel shards to my hand with a thought, I carefully reconstruct his tooth casing. I heal his tissue damage partway — enough to be believable he fell without causing him too much pain past his initial waking up.
‘Sorry, Pascal,’ I say, patting his cheek. The poor sod always seems to be on duty when I die. I swear I don’t check his work schedule beforehand. Maybe he’s a workaholic, or my dying just syncs naturally with his roster, but I have to say, I’ve started finding his presence comforting. Like waking up to be greeted by a friend. Only one that you headbutt rather than say hi to.
I force muscles screaming in protest at being press-ganged into action to haul the deadweight coroner into a more comfortable position. He’ll wake up, assume he slipped over, and then continue with his day, blissfully ignorant that he is one corpse down. I can always pull what Aicha, a dear friend, calls my “Jedi Mind Tricks” on mortals when needed, but there isn’t any need.
The body being forgotten is an integral part of my reincarnation magic, no effort required on my part. The funeral will be closed casket, the families will ask no questions, and the ‘misplaced’ body becomes Paul Bonhomme, wandering the Toulousain streets once more. Pascal won’t question the situation any more than to sigh and make himself another coffee or, considering the clock on the wall says we are past midday, a pastis, going light on the water. It’s strange. Mind magic is normally bad news. This, though, seems like something else entirely. Just one more of the endless enigmas around my continued existence.
I want to stress again though, reincarnating, not body stealing, dammit. No matter how much Aicha enjoys pointing at me and screaming every time I turn up in a new one.
I make a slight gesture to open my etheric storage space, an invisible storage locker that follows me everywhere, if you will, and take out one of several burner phones I stashed in there. Tapping in Aicha’s number from memory, I let it ring three times, hang up, ring back for four rings, hang up, then call back again. I sigh at the questioning tinny squawks vibrating out of the speaker.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘Just get over to Purpan Hospital’s morgue and pick me up. Yes, again. Yes, I know. I’m less than happy about it too, but we can save the berating for later.’ I smile with all the friendliness of a mob boss discussing late repayment options. ‘Priority at the moment — we’ve got a shit wizard we need to fuck right up.’
Cursing myself for forgetting to stash sunglasses alongside my burner phone. To be remedied at a later date.
I stumble out of the main doors of Purpan Hospital, wincing into harsh streaming sunlight, my eyes still struggling to get their act together regarding basic focusing muscle movements. The warmth feels good. I’ve thrown together illusory clothes so as not to dish out heart attacks to the poor patients and doctors, but they’re not doing anything to actually stop the goosebumps rising on my skin. A tram glides to a stop opposite, discharging a mixture of hospital employees, glum visitors, and the occasional walking wounded lucky enough not to need an ambulance but not lucky enough to have a ride to A&E. The bustling hubbub ends, the hand-off of passengers in and out of the metallic carapace complete. After a momentary blare of a siren, the hushing slide of doors brings a comparative quiet back to my world.
With the smooth disappearance of the tram, I see Aicha across the tracks, waiting against a sporty looking Alpine A110. She certainly wasn’t driving that the last time I saw her. I don’t know how much time has passed since then though. Time flies when you’re having fun. Or when being artlessly carved up by insecure and mentally deranged mages. Potato, potahto.
Aicha regards me with the patient expression of a trained killer who knows the exact worth of every second currently wasted. The slight frown shows the chances of her demonstrating said skills on me for free are increasing equally rapidly. Tight black curls frame her sharp cheekbones and haughty features. Her eyes are two dark teardrops burned back into the shadow of the aquiline curve of her nose. A siyala tattoo divides her chin, its tree-branch growths like sprouting arrowheads, the interspersed seed dots marking her passage into womanhood. Although she isn’t tall, her presence carries the weight of character and experience, making people instinctively move aside to let her pass. Excluding the terminally stupid. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of some people to ignore the silent alarm bells that her aura must set ringing in the primal part of their brain, just so they can make some sleazy or sexist comment. Comments that usually precede them needing to visit the same premises I just vacated to have their foot surgically removed from their mouth. If they’re lucky.
She gives me a terse half-nod, flicking her head back, telling me to get in the car. Explanations can clearly wait.
Clambering into the backseat, I am beyond relieved to find a change of clothes. Jeans and a plain grey T-shirt, some dusk-blue Timberland Nubuck boots, and a grey-and-black Avirex jacket.
Once dressed, I scramble forwards through the middle aisle. Aicha, opening the door, pushes me towards the passenger seat, the instruction brooking no discussion.
‘I detest your driving when you’re fully settled in a body, saabi.’ Her constant, coiled-spring readiness is present in her voice and her posture. ‘The idea of allowing you to run amok in a new ride with a new ride —’ She snorts. ‘Is not my idea of advisable. For either of our health.’
‘Good to see you too, laguna,’ I reply. ‘And happy to be chauffeured about. Wouldn’t dream of objecting. Honestly, I’m just happy to be in one piece again. The last few day…’ I stop. ‘How long have I been missing?’
‘Three days,’ she answers. ‘Three days, thinking, “Surely he’s not such a dickhead, he’s died again already.” Three days, waiting to swing by here or Ranguil after realising that, yes, you are precisely such a dickhead. Here’s an idea. Try not dying for a bit.’
She clicks her tongue at me. It is as effective a castigation as any finger-wagging lecture ever could be. She has a point too. I don’t take good enough care of my borrowed forms. At least it’s distracted her from her usual reaction.
Suddenly, her face goes slack. Her arm rises slowly level, her finger pointing at me.
Apparently, it hasn’t sufficiently distracted her. I half-slap her hand away, groaning. ‘Yes, thank you, Donald Sutherland. That still feels as fresh as ever, multitudinous bodies later. I shall revoke your Netflix privileges if it continues.’ I wag my finger at her. The power of shared passwords compels you.
She responds with a dismissive wrist-wave. Then her features lock down again, and she returns to her high-strung, uber-vigilant state, sliding out into the flow of cars.
‘Where to then, Paul?’ she asks. Her visual scanning rate is a marvel, the sort of thing government spooks would kill to master. She is constantly aware, analysing all the pedestrians and vehicles in our vicinity, every glint and reflected image. Hundreds of years of survival as an independent woman in societies that would rather you simper in silence than get intimate with violence has honed her to a weapon-like readiness. Only the Nazis ever got the drop on her. She’s never filled me in on exactly what happened, but I’m guessing they used incredibly clever trickery combined with overwhelming force. Either way, being caught unprepared is not something she intends to allow to happen again in the next millennium.
Leaning forward, I switch on Radio Booster, one of the local stations. I know some people think radio is outdated, but hey, so am I. I can live with that. The live back and forth of young rappers thumps over boom bap beats, and I relax, enjoying the mix of wit and braggadocio.
I think if you asked most people how they’d imagine someone who was over eight hundred years old, a sage greybeard would spring to mind, every eye crinkle a trove of hidden knowledge. Alternatively, they might picture a grumbling curmudgeon, his fist waving at a world he no longer understands. Personally speaking, while there are times I feel every day of those eight hundred years weighing me down, I’ve never lost my passion for innovation and originality. I don’t look back on the past with rose-tinted fondness. If you think modern music is lewd, you should have heard the troubadours when they did their rounds of the Pyrenees. Prudishness over coarse language and sexual imagery is a modern invention. Me? I’m glad to see open expression becoming the norm once more. Change is the one constant. Rolling with it keeps life interesting. I look to each arriving generation to reinvigorate my soul with their new outlooks and approaches.
‘Over towards Arenes,’ I reply, the whoosh-click of the seatbelt synching momentarily with the drumbeat. I settle back in the seat, forcing my new usage-sore muscles to relax. There is no point in them complaining. I’m not about to break the habits of a hundred lifetimes just because they are a bunch of softies. ‘We’ve got a mystery to solve.’
‘That’s Velma, you fucking idiot.’
‘No worries. You’re still a fucking idiot though.’
We ease our way off the roundabout onto the Rocade, the ring road that loops round the periphery of the city like a three year old’s first crude attempt at a circle.
I fill her in as we drive. The short ten-minute trip is long enough for me to update her on my misadventures in tracking down the Mighty Wizard Tim wannabe.
‘You didn’t even get his name?’ The sharp eyebrow arching once more speaks volumes about her opinion of my poor detective work.
‘I didn’t really get any opportunity to ask questions outside of “Eh?” and “What the fuck?” before he started carving pretty patterns into me,’ I respond, frustration creeping into my tone. ‘Again, the most powerful Enochian runes I have ever encountered. From a cretin with such little talent that calling him a mage at all is like calling a duck an aquarian hell-beast. I was entirely blindsided!’
‘I’m assuming you have a better plan this time than “walk in blindly and get tortured to death”?’
Aicha is a perpetual planner. She insists it’s a positive character trait. I think it screams PTSD. My preference to avoid getting stabbed in the face means I keep that to myself.
“Of course,” I lie, then immediately start navigating her through the packed patchwork urban sprawl, heading towards Patte D’Oie before she can call me out on it.
Brutalist grey cubes dominate the skyline, brightened only by flag-line streamers of washing drying in the sun. Resilient concrete weeds sprout amongst a bouquet of individual buildings that look thrown together from different eras and areas. A mountain-air-fresh-blue-and-red chalet on one side looks plucked out of the backdrop to The Sound Of Music. On the other is a bright white mini-minimalist seventies dream of two-up, two-down. Together they squeeze like over-enthusiastic bodyguards the two-story shack between them. The shit wizard’s abode.
Reds and oranges paint the corrugated roof. Water stains run down the imperfect steel. Cracks emanate from each angular point of every piece of framework, and the wooden shades of windowpanes are an unhealthily swollen umber underneath the few remaining paint chips of sun-bleached green. The garden is littered with metal ephemera. Parts of rusted machine skeletons lie half swallowed by the rampant weeds and grass, nature winning out in the long run (she normally does). Broken glass shards refract anaemic rainbows from the sun’s lazy descent behind the hulking neighbouring tower blocks.
I point the house out, and we position ourselves across from it, snagging an on-street parking spot with views of both the building itself and the corners of each intersection. The road lies strung between two larger residential streets. I make enough illusory changes to my face to make me unrecognisable to the schmuck, but Aicha doesn’t bother. He didn’t know who or what I was. The chances of him being aware of who my friends are remain minimal. I swivel my gaze back and forth. Aicha is much more naturally aware than I am, but she’s not seen the guy, and his talent isn’t strong enough to make him obvious at a distance. I keep myself on high alert.
It turns out to be unnecessary. Within a few minutes of taking up position, the door cracks open. Out comes our shit wizard, nose-first, like a rodent scenting for danger before locking up. He ducks his head, which is wrapped in a filthy old tan raincoat, and engages in a brief tug-o-war with the half-unhinged wire gate at the edge of his property. I am not sure he is going to win, in all honesty, but eventually he stumbles out onto the pavement, then dips left and heads towards the corner store.
We follow discreetly, pacing him, casually closing while never giving him cause for alarm. He’s skittish though, his hands trembling violently. It looks like my suicide and the following “magically disintegrating corpse” trick is causing him more distress than the act of heinously torturing me. He turns onto a narrow footpath between two towers and finally glances backwards. We are already within arm’s reach. On its own, our closeness, undetected, would have been unnerving enough, but it’s not until I raise a don’t look here barrier at each end of the alleyway that the first inkling of his predicament trickles into his expression.
Aicha catches him around the Adam’s apple with one hand and pins him against the crumbling concrete of a wall. He squawks like a tonsillitis-ridden parrot. I release my illusion, and his eyes, already saucer-like, grow to the size of dinner plates. When Aicha pulls her hand back to leave him suspended against the wall, the reality of the situation is self-evident in his terrified expression as he gasps and chokes for air.
I suppose I should pity him. He’s a nothing, a pathetic failure from an uncaring society who discovered another secret, wondrous, magical society underneath and then promptly failed at that too. He is a reject of rejects, and if I was in a better mood, I might feel some sympathy for his predicament. But spending three days being carved up like a turkey after the person serving guzzled half a bottle of sherry has strangely reduced my capacity for sympathy.
‘So, funny thing,’ I start, walking over to him casually. ‘I don’t know your name or what you’re doing in my city, but what I do know is that’ —I tap him on the forehead in time with each word— ‘you… are… a… shit… wizard… Say it with me now.’
He coughs and splutters as a red flush spreads up his cheeks. Aicha eases back on the Darth Vader grip, and he sucks at the air like a kid in an ice-cream soda parlour with a blocked straw. I give him a few more taps on the forehead as a reminder.
‘I’m a shit wizard,’ he says, showing a capacity for learning I wasn’t sure he had.
‘You are. But credit where credit’s due, you kept me captive. Which shouldn’t have been possible, so let’s have a chat about that.’
‘Sure he’s not capable? Doesn’t look like it, but looks can be deceiving.’
It’s a valid point from Aicha. I’ve run into people who didn’t seem capable of hurting a fly but actually took great pleasure in plucking limbs off ogres for fun, like petals off a daisy. She loves me; she loves me not.
‘True, but in this case, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…’
‘You should probably lay off the class A hallucinogens?’
‘Again, true. Point is… Well, let me show you.’ I wave my hands, and an image of the half-cocked attempts at runes of persuasion he carved into me pop up, rotating holographically in the air.
Aicha looks at them, then does a double take like a nineties cartoon character. She slowly swivels her gaze from them, to him, to me, to the runes again. Her cheek muscles start twitching, almost in spasm, and a corner of her lips does a minute up-curl. ‘Are those… are those meant to be runes of persuasion? I’ve seen kobolds with palsy that can draw better than that. As for thinking they would work on him…’
The shit wizard looks terrified. I guess her expression is closer to a grimace than anything else. Also, she’s holding him dangling a metre off the floor by the neck with her talent, which I can understand isn’t casting her in the most positive light. But to me, she looks like she’s cracking up in hysterics, ripples of amusement spreading out across her expression. Micro-changes no one else will notice in her locked-down features.
I grin. It’s a genuine pleasure, honour, and privilege to see her loosen that rigid composure even a tiny bit. Few people get to know the woman underneath that hardened shell of self-control.
I wave a hand in his direction. ‘Plus, look at him. Even if he had the knowledge to draw them properly, do you think he’s got the power to make these work?’
Aicha fixes him with a gaze, her eyes unfocusing slightly. I know she’s looking at him in the magical spectrum, assessing how strong a Talented he really is. She looks again at the hovering hack-job runes, then pivots towards the sheet-white mage she has pinned against the wall, her features locking down, shaking her head. The small smile, precision-placed upon her features, holds no humour, no joy, and little of that treasured humanity she fights so hard to keep. This is her in her Erinyes aspect, the embodiment of furious justice.
‘Not at all. Now me, I can make these work just perfectly.’ She uses her finger to pull the translucent image across, overlaying it like a hectograph across the terrified creature. ‘I could use this as a working guide. Tattoos are so last season. Scarification is all the rage. Tell us who you work for.’
He blubbers, weeping huge, heaving, gasping sobs. ‘I can’t — I would, but I can’t.’
She pulls a knife from the air, its edge luminescent with arcane forces. ‘Oh, I beg to differ,’ she purrs, dark lightning stirring in her irises.
His collapse is instantaneous. This is not a man blessed by nature with an abundance of courage. Or talent. Or charm. Or indeed, very much at all. I kind of feel sorry for him, like I want to offer him a shoulder to cry on. Then I remember him driving a razor-sharp knife into said shoulder and so instead, sit back and let the good lady break the bastard.
‘I’ll talk, I’ll talk!’ Snot spumes out of his nostrils like nasal bubble gum. Incidentally, why has no one invented nasal bubble gum? Wonka missed a trick there. I mentally add sending an anonymous suggestion to the top confectionery manufacturers onto my to-do list.
He opens his mouth to spill his lily-livered guts and then stops, a single swift choke interrupting him. His tongue swells from the usual speckled white and pink to a mouth-filling mass, spoiling to sable in colour. It wiggles in a manner so unnatural, it’s clearly come loose from its moorings and is now operating as an independent agent. It undulates and pulses, then slithers rearwards, disappearing from sight. His features constrict with horror as his throat engorges, a slug-like shape visible through the stretched skin, crawling down his oesophagus.
‘Don’t you want to do a Nostromo two-step backwards?’ Aicha asks me. I look at her, blank-faced.
Forehead creasing, she stabs her eyebrows at me as if unable to understand my innate idiocy, then with a sigh, pops her eyes wide as she puts her right hand to her chest bone. With a rhythmic back and forth, she mimes said hand bursting from her sternum, snapping out towards me with a mouth made of her fingers and thumb. I am a little disappointed she doesn’t mime the second set of teeth somehow, but it finally clicks.
‘Ohhh — got you.’ I hastily shuffle backwards, pulling my sword from the ether in case we go full chest-burster, and step into an inside stance, my blade point aimed at his upper torso.
The shit wizard’s eyes roll backwards as he shakes seizure-like, the flickering of his eyelids like one of those eighteenth-century zoetropic hand spun animations, the red capillaries straining on the visible white parts of his eyes. As we prepare ourselves for the possibility of doing battle with a hoodoo equivalent of a Xenomorph from Alien, his ending becomes less dramatic, if no less disturbing.
Around his midsection, the spasmic movement speeds up, becoming a vibration. His stomach roils, rippling about like a lake peppered by hailstones in a sudden storm. The motion becomes increasingly wavelike, spreading up his torso and down his thighs. As we ready ourselves, the centre of the agitated mass blends together and the stains on the raincoat slide downwards as if sluiced off by a high-powered hose.
It isn’t simply the stains slewing away. The raincoat itself goes too and so does the shit wizard himself. Flesh liquefies, and a rapidly expanding hole forms in his guts, the chalk-grey concrete visible through it, growing from the size of a euro to a fist. I can make out a faded graffiti tag by Spazm still left as a piece of history on the wall behind him. The trickle becomes a torrent, and the wannabe Oscar Diggs disintegrates, liquefying before our eyes.
‘Well, that was anticlimactic and yet still mildly vomit inducing,’ I say, peering into the puddle of brown, red, and white slush quickly evaporating into nothingness.
‘An effective hex to have used on an ineffective shitstain.’ Aicha clicks her tongue as she frog-bends her knees to peer at the last traces of the nameless, talentless, luckless wizard. ‘Did you recognise the spell at all?’
I stretch my shoulders back, letting the tension dissipate, standing down from my readied state. ‘There are various schools of magic that could pull off similar curses. But it looked like the Eastern Yaga school sort of work. Although… I’ve seen something not dissimilar worked by a pissed-off caillech in the Wicklow Mountains as well.’ When so many of us magic users are long-lived, intermingling of magics is a natural by-product. Useful when we want to learn, less so when pinpointing origins.
We trudge back to the squat, ramshackle house — a drunken celebrant held upright by the accommodating arms of his long-suffering neighbours. The garden itself is unwarded, and the front door carries protections so fragile and poorly constructed that I went through them the first time I busted into his house without even needing to break them. This time, I slow down and look past the first layer of the workings cast by our Arnold Toht impersonator.
I look underneath the flaking emulsion, beneath the poorly shaped sigils, further and deeper in. As I concentrate, I can make out the sensation, then the visual shape of the Enochian runes that bound me, holding me powerless as soon as I entered. I’m reasonably skilled at deciphering and deactivating Enochian markings —I studied under the best, even if crafting them isn’t a main part of my skill set— but these are leagues beyond my capacity. That’s why they so effectively unmade my talent after my grand entrance, sapping both my magical and physical strength and leaving me at the mercy of the bargain-basement spell slinger I stumbled across.
These aren’t just beyond the shit wizard, though. They’re beyond me, beyond almost every Talented I’ve ever come across. There’s only one person I can think of who might have done this level of Kabbalist working — Isaac, and that’s because he created Kabbalah. Well, there is one other. Problem is, he’s been missing for over two hundred years. I’m pretty sure he’s dead, however much Isaac’s never given up hope.
Have you ever had a mentor, someone who’s there to help and guide you, to tolerate those moments of plain stupidity or rash foolishness, to help you become a better person? Could be a friend or a family member or a teacher. Doesn’t matter. Point is, it’s someone who changes your life, changes you. Someone who stays with you, guiding your steps forwards. A constant you can turn to when all else seems like shifting sands.
Then one day, something happens. A loss, a death. A pain that mentor figure can’t fully conceal because it is breaking something in them. Lessens them. For you, they never cease to be the giant they’ve always been, but you see behind the illusion to the human hurting under the façade. Perhaps they become quieter, less active. Or withdraw, disconnecting little by little from the world around them. That’s what Isaac did when he lost his brother Jakob, when his searching turned up nothing.
I look over at Aicha. ‘Could you do this?’ Simple question. Not that I believe she did it, but because I know she’ll be brutally honest. Brutality and honesty. Two things you can rely on Aicha for.
She looks, cocks her head, considering. Then shakes it. ‘No. Could undo it. Or smash it to pieces. From the outside, at least. But make it?’ She shakes her head again.
As I thought. Aicha’s a master of force, but this sort of finessed working isn’t her forte.
I try a different tack. ‘Who could work this?’
Her eyes narrow, concentration evident. ‘The Sistren of Bordeaux combined, perhaps? Still, not likely. Can’t think of any off the top of my head. Needs to be a top-tier Talented and Kabbalist.’
She’s right, as usual. It’s not just the terrifying level of power you’d need. I couldn’t have come up with these sigils, and I studied under the man who invented the whole discipline. A man I love like a father. A man who’s been consumed by the search for his lost brother. A brother, who is the only other Talented I can think of who could do these workings… if he isn’t dead, after all.
After all, he was there at the start of Kabbalah with Isaac. He carries an angel inside him too.
Problem is, if he isn’t dead, then where’s he been? He can’t have been held captive. The talent it’d take to constrain a Bene Elohim, the angel merged with him, should be beyond anyone from this plane of existence.
Problem with saying “can’t” in our world, though, is only three things ever limit you. A lack of knowledge. A lack of talent. Or a lack of imagination. Maybe the last one is my stumbling block.
Perfect example. Knowing the deadly silent killer opposite me as I do, radiating power and potential violence, I can’t imagine anyone ever getting the best of her, coming up with a way to hold her captive. Even though I know they did.
After all, I rescued her.