I sat, half hidden in the shadows of a large oak tree, on top of a branch about six feet from the ground, and waited for Hastofur to arrive.
The gun in my lap felt heavier than it should have. The card around my neck burned hot enough that I'd had to hang it outside my shirt, rather than under like usual.
It was the twilight blue hour, and the cemetery was completely quiet. Not even the birds were up.
I took a shaky breath.
Any second now, I thought. I'd sent a messenger imp that morning, saying I'd need to meet him, that I had some information about Titania I'd forgotten to give him. We were scheduled to meet. Any second now.
This is insane! shrieked the bit of my brain dedicated to self preservation. Suicide! Hastofur is going to kill you, then bring you back just so he can have fun killing you again! What's the point?
I didn't have an answer to that. Not one that would shut the thought up.
Riley helped me. He helped bossman. He didn't have to, but he did.
And it was true. He didn't have to help. And then, later, even after I got him into trouble at Shem's place, he'd still barged in thinking to save me. I hadn't forgotten that. It was almost like I owed him, even if there wasn't any specific deal involved. And now it was my fault he was dead.
But, at the same time, that was only part of it. A small part, in fact. There was something else, some primal instinct that went back long before my little fall and was screaming for Hastofur's blood. Some little ball of rage that I hadn't been able to tap into properly since Leigh had given me the card.
Riley was mine.
Hastofur took my kill.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself before I started frothing at the mouth. Deep breaths, deep breaths-
There was a shriek behind me. I squealed and nearly fell out of the tree.
I twisted myself around and looked down. The only thing odd was that a small jar someone had placed on top of a nearby gravestone was rattling. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander off.
Below me two figures, both shrouded in darkness, each sporting a pair of large, black wings, were arguing. Standing between them and looking incredibly confused, was the phantom of an elderly woman. She was stooped over slightly, with both hands clasped nervously in front of her chest. I mentally moved in for a closer look.
Neither of the figures were speaking in any way I could hear. The air between them hummed with some unseen force, shifting back and forth in some power struggle I couldn't catch onto. The one on the right eventually lost. The force pushed him backwards a few steps before toppling him over. He hit the grass and landed against another grave marker. The figure still standing grabbed hold of the ghost's arm and vanished. No smoke, no portals- they just weren't there anymore.
The figure on the grass hit the ground with his fist, then vanished as well.
Well, I thought, returning back to myself. That happened.
Psychopomps. Arguing. That was probably not a good sign, but I was about to die. What did I care?
A tendril of cold brushed against my neck and crept across my back. In my peripheral vision, I could see the color begin to drain away from the world. The air behind me hummed.
I had just enough time to think, oh hell, he's onto me, before rough hands grabbed me and pulled backwards into the portal that had just opened up behind me. I fell and landed on thick, clean smelling carpet. The room was part lounge, part home office, almost opulent and very familiar.
An equally familiar man stood looming over me with a look of mild interest. I should have been surprised to see him, but I was too angry to manage. I scrambled to my feet, gun still in hand. I aimed the nose at his chest.
"Hello, Bri," he said, apparently unfazed by the weapon in my hands.
"Why did you stop me?"
"I'm doing well, thank you for asking."
He went to sit at the book laden, paper strewn desk in the corner. My hands shook with the barely suppressed urge to shoot at and ruin all his papers.
"Why did you stop me? I could have taken him! I could have-"
"No you couldn't have," he said mildly, dragging out the 'n' in 'no'. He nonchalantly started gathering up the loose papers and placing them in the desk drawers. "I intercepted your messenger imp. Hastofur was never going to show up."
He glanced up and saw the look on my face. The corners of his mouth twitched. "It occurred to me that I ought to intervene before you did something . . . drastic. I'd rather not lose any potentially valuable assets to the cause when I don't have to."
"You could have found a new-"
"I was talking about you, Bri. Emptying that," he nodded at the gun, "on him would have only made him mad." He reached across the desk. "Let me see it."
Reluctantly, I handed it over.
"'Super Soaker Max D'," he said, reading the label on the side. "You were going to kill him with a water gun?" He wasn't even trying to hide the smile, now.
"Holy water water gun. And I don't give two shits for your cause! That bastard has it coming. He-"
He killed Riley.
"No he didn't," said Shemyaza calmly.
"Stop reading my mind," I snapped, almost on impulse. "You never were so nosy before. He did. He said so himself."
"No," said Shem. "He thinks he killed him. I switched out the father for a simulacrum before Hastofur even knew about the theft." He smiled at me, half puzzled, half amused. "You were really going to kill him over that? It's what you deserve for taking his charm like that."
"You knew I had it?"
"Of course I did. It was between you and the priest, and quite frankly I know you."
I didn't mention that it actually was Riley who'd stolen it and said, "You. . . "
"Saved your pet human? Yes. You really ought to take better care of your toys, Bri. They get lost so easy."
"Why? Why did you-?"
He shrugged. "So you'd owe me a favor."
I backpedaled. "Whoa now, I never asked you to-"
"Oh? Alright then." He craned his neck to look over my head at the door in the corner. By some unspoken signal, a large man in a green trimmed robe appeared.
"Kinsley?" said Shem. "Be a good man and kindly go kill Mr. Conner for me, will you?"
"There," said Shem. "Now that's settled-"
"Wait, hold up!"
"So you do want him alive."
He beamed. "Good! He's alive, I made it happen. Kinsley? Never mind about killing. Go see if he's ready for lunch instead."
"There, now to business. You owe me."
"Dammit, Shem-" I suddenly wished the dog was there. Any one of the fancy pieces of furniture here would make a lovely pile of ashes.
"Oh, don't be that way, Bri. This is a wonderful opportunity to get in at the near-ground floor with my new enterprise."
I scowled. "The taking over hell thing is an enterprise now?"
"Yes. If you'd come in but a week earlier, you could have been here when it was still a project, but alas." He lightly waved a hand, bidding some almost-was a sad farewell as it floated away.
I rubbed my temples. "Yeah. Whatever. What do you want? And when do I see Riley? I want to make sure you didn't break him in transit."
"You're worried about him. How cute. Feel free to visit once we're done here, Brother Thomas will lead you. While you're at it, do you think you could take the pestilence off him? Poor fellow hasn't gotten a good night's sleep in weeks."
"Maybe," I said. "What do you want, Shem?"
"I want the Grigori."
"Shoulda thought of that before going native, huh?" I didn't mean to say it. Granted, I thought it pretty loudly, but I hadn't intended for anyone but myself to hear it.
The smile was gone. "I'm not joking, Bri. I want you to find the rest of the gang. At least, those who haven't sworn allegiance to Lucifer. Preferably the other leaders- Aramos, Saquiel-"
"And the rest. Yeah, got it. I don't suppose there's any point in me asking why?"
"Sorry, nope. It's-"
"A big damn secret. Great. Shem, why the hell are you sending me instead of your little army? I haven't talked to most of those guys in ages. Why do you think I can find them?"
"Because I can't," he said flatly. "I've tried. Believe me, I've tried. I've told you before, you're the only one from the old days that I've been able to contact, and even then that wasn't me finding you but you breaking into my building ." He tapped his finger against the water gun still in his lap.
I let that sink in. "Oh," I said, much calmer now. "You think one of the up and ups spelled you?"
"That, or everyone else is hiding from me. Either way, I need you to be the go-between."
"Get Hastofur to do it. He probably rubs elbows with Azazel on a regular basis. He could ask-"
"No! No Azazel. No Tamiel, or any of the other defectors. I don't want anyone below to know that I'm looking."
I glowered. "You just like making things more difficult for me, don't you?"
"Sometimes, yes, but this isn't one of them." He sighed. "Alright, I'll sweeten the deal for you. If you do this for me, I'll put you and any of your little pets officially under my protection. I know you've got a couple of them. Granted, that doesn't mean much to anyone outside, but at least you won't have to worry about Hastofur. Deal?"
Fuck. And here I just got out of the last big debt I had.
"Fine," I hissed. "Whatever."
He grinned, showing off a perfect row of pearly whites. "Excellent," he said, getting up. "Now to just make this official. . . "
He set down the water gun and opened another drawer. A long knife was drawn out. "Oh come on, Shem! We don't really need to do this again, do we?"
"Sorry, Bri." he said as he examined the knife. "No room for wriggling in this." He glanced at me and shrugged, half apologetic. "Business." Keeping his eyes on me, he ran the blade across his palm. Steam rose up from the cut and yellow blood welled up in the center, where the cut was deepest.
He came out from behind the desk, holding the knife in his off-hand.
I sighed. "I can believe I have to do this twice," I said, dropping on one knee. "Three times, actually. This is the third, total."
"Well that's what you get for not being able to hold down a job. Quit complaining and give me your hand."
I did, and he gave me a cut to match his own, opening up the old scar that was already there. He dabbed some of his blood onto his fingers, which he then smeared onto my forehead in his personal namesign. After, he took my hand into both of his and squashed the cuts together. There was an electric jolt as the two different energies mixed, flared, and died.
"You swear fealty to me?" he said.
The sign on my forehead burned. "Yep."
He let go of my hand and wiped his own off on the side of his pant leg.
I got to my feet. "Thanks for keeping it short."
"I kinda figured you'dve gotten your fill of the three hour version already." He snapped his fingers, sending the faintest burst of magic around the room. I glanced at the door, and saw that the hallway that had been there was now gone, replaced by another one. Standing out there was a gaunt, dark haired man, slouching by the wall.
"Thomas will take you," Shem said, leading me to the door. "While time isn't of the essence, I'd highly appreciate you finding the others as quickly as possible."
"Yeah, yeah. Evil empires don't- uh. Are you taking one down, or putting a new one up?"
He shrugged. "Bit of both."
"Right. They don't do that themselves."
"Right. I'm going to let Hastofur know about our arrangement. He shouldn't try anything, but all the same, I recommend the father staying here for a week or so in order to let Hastofur cool off."
And make sure I do my job. I thought as loudly as I could.
If he'd heard me, he didn't act like it.
"Good luck, Bri. Call me when you get any leads. I'll call you in a week to check up on things."
The door slammed shut behind me before I could say another word, leaving me and Itchy Guy alone in the hall.
Brother Thomas, who I personally liked to think of as Itchy Guy, hadn't gotten any better in the weeks since I'd last seen him. He had deep, blue-gray circles under his eyes and little red bug bites sprinkled over what little sallow skin of his that was showing.
"Huh," I said, unable to hide my craftsman's pride. "I really did a number on you, didn't I?"
He glowered at me, then turned quickly down the hall. I hurried to catch up.
"You know, I can't help but notice your distinct lack of begging."
"For what?" he growled.
I shrugged. "Mercy. For me to take the curse off. That sort of thing."
He kept his eyes focused straight ahead, but I saw him scratch his shoulder. "I consider it a test. I'll not sully myself by begging."
"Not even a little pretty please? Just to stroke my ego?"
He glanced at me, lip curled in disgust, then looked away.
Figures. No respect at all.
* * * * *
The door he lead me too looked like every other door we passed- plain. White. Thin wood. The room it lead to was a modest, hotel-esque looking room, only without the dubious stains on the carpet, bed, and walls. There was a plain bed back against the far wall, but still managing to take up most of the center of the room, a bunny-eared TV on a small dresser big enough to hold maybe a weeks worth of clothes, and, tucked away in the corner, facing away from the door I'd come in, was Riley, sitting hunched over a small desk. He was writing something.
I crept quietly into the room and peered over his shoulder, hoping that in the forty-some-odd years I'd known him, his handwriting would have improved. Nope, it hadn't.
"Hey, Riley," I chirped, just behind his ear.
His hand jerked, cutting through the chicken scratch with a dark blue slash. He swiveled in the chair to better glare at me.
"In the flesh. As you seem to be! Great job on the whole 'not being dead' thing." I casually surveyed the room. "Doin' pretty good for a dead guy."
"That's not funny," he said.
I grinned. "It's a little funny."
"No," he said, setting his pen down. "It's not. Bri, why am I here?"
"What, they didn't tell you?"
"No. Your friend said you'd explain once you got here."
Oh Shem, you bastard!
He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair.
"I'm waiting, Bri."
"Well, there's this guy who kinda wants you dead."
It should probably say something about Riley that the next word out of his mouth wasn't 'why', but;
He closed his eyes and turned his head upwards. "Oh, God help me."
He didn't say it like 'oh help me, there's a demon out for my blood' but more like, 'oh help me, I have to put up with this bullshit again'.
"I'd watch the G word around here if I were you," I said, glancing up at the ceiling Just In Case. But there was no flash of lightning, or boom of thunder, so I figured it was okay and pressed on. "It's your own stupid fault for stealing the charm off Shem in the first place."
"You're the one who broke in to begin with! You dragged me into it!"
I put up both my hands in the universal 'calm down' gesture. "Now now, let's not get bogged down with 'who broke into where'-"
He gave an exasperated 'Ugh' noise and pinched the bridge of this nose. "Bri, how long do I have to stay here?"
"Not long. A couple days, maybe. A week tops."
He glowered. "Brilliant. Spectacular. I really owe you for this one."
"Hey, it could have been a lot worse. Besides, if it makes you feel any better, I just made a deal so the guy can't come after you again."
It took him a second to digest this. Then he looked up and gave me the thousand yard stare of someone who's heard something, but whose brain can't quite process the information due to the overload of stupid in it getting caught in the gears.
"You made a Faustian pact. With an angel."
"Well if you want to get technical-"
"You made a Faustian pact with an angel."
"I don't really see how that's a problem-"
"There are so many things fundamentally wrong with this situation, I can't even begin to articulate them all."
I rolled my eyes. "Alrighty then, I'd say this is about a fine a time to leave as any. You're upright, breathing, and making borderline snarky comments at me. About as good as you're ever going to get." I turned for the door.
He didn't bother standing up to see me out. "And what are you going to do?"
I grinned madly from the doorway, letting as many teeth in on the action as I could. "Try and bullshit my way out of this deal."
I slammed the door shut before he could say a word.
Itchy Guy was out in the hall, leaning on the wall across from the doorway, hunched in on himself.
"Alight, Tommy baby, take me home." I grabbed onto his sleeve and hurried in the direction I thought was out. It was possible that Riley would try and chase me down the hall to yell at me, but I kind of doubted it.
Itchy Guy wrested his arm back from me and took us down the hall, down another hall, through at least six consecutive right turns, through a lobby, and finally to an exit.
I stood in the doorway and blinked into the strong sunlight. Either I'd been in there longer than I'd thought, or Shem's magically induced labyrinth was actively sucking away time.
"I want my three hours back," I said.
"Shut up and get out," he said.
"You're rude, cantankerous, and not very likable," I said.
"Are you going to uplift the curse?"
"Say pretty please."
He grabbed me bodily by the shoulders and tossed me outside. The door slammed shut behind me.
"Love you too, Tommy!" I shouted from my spot on the pavement.
* * * * *
The house was quiet when I got home. Bossman was at work and wouldn't be back for a few hours, which was fine by me. He'd been acting all weird since the trip to Faerie. Something over there had stuck in his craw. I thought at first he was just mad at me, but that wouldn't explain the weird mood swings he'd been having. He'd go from solemn brooding to antsy fidgeting fast enough to give me whiplash.
There was no excited yapping at my arrival, nor the pitter-patter of tiny paws or the thumpa-thump of much larger ones. I wondered briefly where the dog was, and came up with the answer 'not in my way' and decided against looking for him.
I thought over Shemyaza's order on not talking to anyone down below, thought about how loosely the definition of 'fealty' could be played with, ultimately reasoned that it wasn't so much an order as it was very insistent advice, and that I didn't have to really take orders from him, I just had to not sell him out, which I wasn't planning on doing anyways. . .
Which basically meant, yeah. I started going over my internal rolodex of my fellow Grigori, all of which were working down below in jobs probably much less stressful than mine.
Let's see, Azazel? Fuck no. Sahdmeph? Still owed him money. Agrial, Donphael, Harapna? I couldn't remember any of their signs. I'd never really had the need to call on them, so I'd never bothered learning their personal sigils.
So, my choices were: go raid bossman's books, cobble together a general summoning with the word 'Grigori' swapped for 'demon' or 'spirit' or whatever the cannibalized spell I'd be using called for- which would take me hours, or call him.
I sighed. Sometimes it was such a burden, being lazy.
I grabbed some chalk from bossman's study and went to one of the guest rooms upstairs. Theoretically, I could do the summoning in the circle he had carved into the floor down there, but that was the sort for binding things in. This was a personal call, and something told me that it would probably be rude to try and lock him in.
Especially since he's strong enough to blow the room up without even trying, I thought.
I marked up the thick carpet with the appropriate signs, then added the name in the center. After that, I sealed the whole thing with a comfortably-sized circle. Once that was done, I cut the tip of my thumb with the little knife. A drop of yellow blood fell onto the name-sign, and the chalk began to glow.
Yellow mist started curling up from the name sign. It floated up, getting thicker and thicker, but still staying within the confines of the circle. I could just barely make out the solid shape of a figure rising up from the ground inside it, hunched over, with its arms crossed in front of its down-turned face.
The mist died quickly as the figure solidified properly.
Unlike Shemyaza, Tamiel's body was the same one he'd been using the last time I saw him, all those centuries ago. The exact same. He'd probably kept it on a shelf somewhere in the 'nth dimension so it wouldn't get dinged up. Still sticky-thin, still dark from all the sun. Still thinning in the hair department- he even still had the same half-healed cut on his left cheek Gabriel had given him.
A shot of cold panic coursed through my chest. My back started to ache, and I suddenly hoped, very loudly, in case he was listening and feeling obliging, that he wouldn't turn around.
He uncrossed his arms and straightened up. Solid gray eyes scanned the room.
In a voice that must have been the prototype for disinterested history teachers everywhere, he said,
"Irin. Why have you summoned me here?"
"How did you know I was-?
"You know my personal sign. You have brought me here using the blood of the host. You have an energy signature that, while I don't specifically recognize, feels familiar. Furthermore," He glanced down at the ring. "There is no binding on this circle, meaning I'm free to go at any moment, leading me to believe that this is a social call." He wrinkled his nose, as though he found the word distasteful.
"Oh. Well, you may not remember me, but my name's Bri, and I was-"
"The eighty-sixth of the fallen watchers, the forty-seventh to defect to Lucifer. At one time under my own command before transferring to Shemyaza's. Former third ranking high imp." The gray eyes flashed bright yellow for a second before returning to concrete dull. "Defector."
Seven silly serpentine seraphs sanguinely sip soup! I thought, trying to mask the potentially damning thought of How the blazes does he know I'm working for Shem?
"You knew all that off the top of your head?" I said as casually as I could manage.
"I like to keep track of those who, even temporarily, were under my command."
Fucking anal retentive. That's what he was. I'd forgotten how bad it had been, but now it was all coming back.
Maybe I should have called Sahdmeph instead. . .
"Well, good," I said. "That's actually what I called you about."
He didn't say anything, just looked at me. It was like the old days all over again, and I had just got caught dumping hallucinogenic cactus juice into the town well. Again. I squirmed.
"I was just thinking about the old gang, and how it's been so long since I'd seen them. I wanted to get in touch, but we kind of fell apart after Shemyaza went missing." I did my best to look pathetic. Lost, but with just a hint of optimistic hope. "I was wondering if you knew where any of them were."
Tamiel had always been a tough one to play. He scowled. "And what, pray tell, brought on this sudden onslaught of nostalgia when you wear the mark of your treachery like a badge?"
It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. em>Oh! I thought, relieved. That treachery. Right, the card. I'd forgotten about that. "I just miss them, is all."
He wasn't buying it. I hadn't expected him to. This was the warm-up lie. The lie you tell when you want people to suspect you of lying, making the resigned secondary lie seem like they wheedled the truth out of you.
I sighed and tried to look disgruntled.
"Fine, fine. Ruroi made a bet with me and Chaz and now he's trying to welch out. Neither of us knows where he is, so I was wondering if either you could give us a location or tell us who would know."
He seemed to mull this over. It did, admittedly, sound a lot more like me.
"Please, sir," I said, sounding undeniably pathetic. "You're the only one I could think to ask."
Eyes as cold as concrete peered down at me, and I got the distinct impression that, just then, Tamiel was looking a million miles away. "You were never a good subordinate," he said quietly, almost to himself. "Disobedient. Reckless. I didn't have the time, then, to amend this. Shemyaza switched you before I could. I'd all but forgotten. . . " he trailed off, still watching me. He hadn't blinked in a while.
I shifted nervously under the stone gaze.
"Fine," he said eventually. He held out his hand, and a sheet of old fashioned parchment appeared in a small bout of flame. "Take it."
I bit my tongue before I could say something stupid like, 'what, really? You fell for that?' and took the sheet.
"Thank you, Ta- uh. Sir."
He straightened. "Do not think your defection has gone unnoticed, Bri. While the lords of hell may see your -undoubtedly temporary- desertion as a trivial matter, I do not." His eyes flashed yellow again. "You will fall once more into our lord's hands, and I will be waiting."
"With a fruit basket and a welcome home party?"
He gave me a look that said, quite clearly, that he was not amused.
"Relative freedom has gone to your head," he said. "Lack of any real constraint has all but eradicated what little sense of respect or dignity you had. I will rectify this, in time."
I thought about having to work for Tamiel again, and was suddenly filled with the desire to go beat my brains in with a rock, rather than have to put up with him again.
"Hmm." he looked down at a spot on the floor, off to the left. "Interesting. I had not thought you'd be harboring one of them."
I looked at the spot on the floor. There was nothing there but floor, of course, but the spot was directly over the den. "Them? You mean the dog?"
Then, with the barest hint of a smile cracking through the concrete, he turned around. The back of his robes was stained with yellow blood. Some patches were still damp, like the wound had only occurred an hour or two ago. Protruding from the slits in the cloth allotted for them were two hunks of what had once been wings. Part of them, at least. Gabriel had torn them off pretty close to the root, meaning they only looked like so much oozing meat. There were still a few dusty gray feathers hanging loosely by the exposed quill. Just a few.
I must've flinched without realizing it. His smile grew a little wider into a discreet but undeniably extant smirk, the eyes shone a little brighter.
"Still feeling a bit sensitive, are we?"
"Go to hell, sir," I said feebly. "Tell everyone I said hi."
"I will be watching you, Irin."
Then he was gone. No flash of light, no crackle of thunder or puff of smoke. The only sign of his passing other than his absence was that the chalk circle had been scorched, leaving dark stains on the carpet.
Ass, I thought, trying to squelch down the shivers. He did that on purpose. I wasn't referring to the carpet. Ah well, at least I got a few sigils out of it.
I went downstairs to get the carpet cleaning spray from the laundry room, trying very hard not to think about what Tam would do to me if I ever slipped up and found myself working below again. Lecture me, probably.
I shuddered. I hated his lectures. Long, droning, will sapping, spirit sucking-
The bin of dog chow we keep in the laundry room was open. Dog kibble was scattered all across the floor.
Huh, I thought. That's off.
Had bossman come home early to feed the dog? Usually he wasn't so messy. Then I heard the unfamiliar sound of giggling. Not maniacal cackling, just lighthearted giggling.
My heart stopped for a split second, then resumed its work at ten times the usual pace.
Nobody could have gotten in. Bossman had the place warded up the wazoo. The only people allowed in were the ones one of us had invited. Anyone stupid enough to try and break in would find themselves in varying degrees of discomfort depending on their chosen entrance.
Whoever it was giggled again.
Well obviously somebody had gotten in.
Sorcerer? I thought, grabbing the mop. Did bossman tick anyone off? Or maybe something broke its way through the portal in the study when I was busy with Tamiel.
I found him in the second study, sitting in the middle of the rug and giving the dog a belly rub.
"Hi," he chirped. "I fed your dog."
I glared at the kid- a red-headed, sandy eyed, elfy faced, freckly, smiley scrap of boy child who was about as tall as I was and was probably younger than ten.
"You! John or Luke or whatever-"
"How did you get in here?"
He shrugged. "Does he have a name yet? How come he doesn't have tags yet? Do you-?"
"No," I said. "The question here is, how did you get into my house?"
"You left the window open."
"The window? You mean the second story window? That window?"
He shrugged again. "It's next to a tree."
"No it isn't!"
He looked at me innocently. "Yes, it is."
I resisted the urge to run over and check. "What are you doing here? How did you even find this place?"
He shrugged. "I wanted to see the doggie. You said I could have him."
"That was only if you actually took him."
The mongrel wriggled on the ground, scratching his back on the carpet and managing to scoot around without using his legs.
"You can't stay here," I said.
"Because I still haven't managed to get rid of the last stray that wandered in here. You're going home."
He pouted. "But I don't wanna."
I resisted the urge to start quoting Jagger at him and picked up the dog, holding it under its little armpits.
"Whatever. You know what would be really fun? If you got to show the dog where you lived."
"But I can't-"
"You don't have to keep him there; you can just show him around. I bet he'd love that, wouldn't you, mutt?" I shook the dog a bit. Its tongue flopped out of its open mouth, and its little tail wagged excitedly. It didn't seem to mind me holding it like that.
"C'mon," I said, holding the dog out. "The dog really likes you."
He got up and kissed the mongrel on the top of the head. "I love him. He's my second best friend."
"That was fast."
"I have a lot of second best friends. I got a couple third best friends too, and a bunch of fourth best friends." He took the dog from me and held it to his shoulders, like one would hold a baby they were trying to burp.
"Okay," he said. "I want him to meet my Grama. And my mom, when she gets back from work. You too! Both of you can meet her! And I can show you my room! And you can see my Legos, and-"
He grabbed my arm with his free hand and dragged out the door. I almost considered not going, but decided that it would probably be best if I did. I had to, after all, make sure he got home, then stayed there. Or at least away from me.
He navigated us to the front door with suspicious ease.
"Have. . . have you been in our house before?"
"Oh yeah," he said cheerfully. "Lot'sa times."
"Wonderful," I said as we got to the front door. It was still thoroughly locked and warded: I had to undo and redo everything before we could leave. "Just great."
* * * *
The walk should have taken longer. I recognized what part of town we wound up in: it was at least an hour and a half away. When I checked my watch, it said that it had taken us all of fifteen minutes.
"That was fast," I said as we went past a security gate, into a well-kept courtyard. The dog walked between us until it decided that a tree near by was probably more interesting in the long run and went to go sniff it.
"I walk fast," he said. There wasn't the slightest trace of dishonestly in his cheerful, disgustingly innocent face.
I looked away. "This is it?" I said.
"Yep." He started up the rough, wooden stairs, heading for the small balcony above.
"I don't know why they don't let you keep dogs," I said, looking around.
The low-rise, red-brown building was off to the side of an open courtyard filled with large, leafy trees that shaded most of the grounds. A small, paved path meandered through the courtyard and went past several other buildings. None of them were over three stories tall, with most stopping at two like the one in front of me. "The place is big enough for one."
A small face peeked over the balcony. "I think it's 'cause they're afraid he'll wreck up the place. Come on up, I want Grama to see the dog."
"No, I think I'm good down here, thanks. I'll just be heading off-"
The dog, of course, yapped and followed the kid up the stairs. Even from my spot on the ground, I could hear its happy panting and the patter of tiny paws on carpet.
I weighed the benefits of having finally lost the dog against the consequences of listening to bossman gripe about it for the next three weeks, swore, and then went up after them.
She was sitting on the balcony in a rocker that didn't look sturdy enough to hold her weight. She was facing the stairs, so we both saw each other around the same time. The dog had run inside the open apartment, and was, but the sound of it, running around wildly.
The boy stood by the woman, chattering.
"And Grama, this is my fifth third best friend who's name I can't remember and who gave me the dog. I went to their house today, that's how come I was gone for so long, and their house is really cool! It's got a big garden with weird flowers that cry when I touched them and trees with fruit made out of glass and-"
Shoot, he'd been in the garden? Bossman was not going to be happy when he found out. If he found out.
Yeah, he's not going to find out.
She smiled at him, then at the dog, who'd come out to see what was keeping the rest of us so long.
"He's a lovely dog," she said. "It's a shame you can't keep him."
"It's alright," he said loftily. "I can still visit him whenever I want."
"Ah," I said. "No. You can't."
He either didn't hear me or was ignoring me.
"Matty," said the woman. "Why don't you go inside and get us something to drink? I think there's still some lemonade in the fridge."
"Okeedokee," he said. He went into the house, and the dog followed happily after, leaving the woman and me alone.
When the kid had said 'grama', I'd imagined someone older. This woman was probably in her mid to late forties, with a stout frame and a head of black hair that was only just starting to gray around the edges.
That was all secondary stuff, though. The first thing I noticed was the smell. The woman reeked of witch. It was a different variation of a familiar smell. Bossman's sort of magic was all plants and potions and signs and summonings, with barely a hint of his own spice- just enough to kick start whatever he was doing.
This woman's smelled like- like-
I inhaled deeply and scanned through what the scent told me.
Electricity in the wires above-
The hum of generators and the scrape of metal on metal-
The smell of rust and oil and heat and thunder.
I let my mind out, just for a brief moment, to catch a glimpse of her.
Power burned beneath her skin. Raw, unmitigated power that sparked and flashed and burned white-hot.
She wasn't a witch. Witches were more like bossman. This was a sorceress.
The old woman watched me with a mischievous gleam in her eye.
"I know what you're thinking," she said.
Satan's ballsack, not another fucking telepath.
"You're thinking how irresponsible it is of me to let him wander around like that. A child his age."
"Oh," I said, relieved. "Ah. Right."
"I don't worry, though. He knows how to find his way around, even if he doesn't know it yet. I expect that's why you tried to deliver the dog to him. For protection."
"I know what you are," she said. "I can feel it, bubbling up through your skin."
Oh shit, I thought. Here comes the crosses and holy water and-
"Tell your lord that if he wants to keep tabs on Mathew, then he should have the spine to come here himself."
"You heard me. Furthermore," She shakily raised her cane and pointed at the dog, who was poking his head out the doorway, probably wondering why I wasn't inside yet. "Tell him presents aren't the same as actual quality time, especially if they're ones we can't keep." She fixed me with a hard glare. "He'dve known that if he'd come here himself, once in a while."
"I- I- Well, alright. I'll tell him, then. Next time I see him."
She nodded, apparently satisfied. "Good. I know he's having trouble with his ex, but that's no reason to be neglecting his son."
Right around then, I kinda got the feeling we weren't talking about Shemyaza, Lucifer, or bossman anymore.
"Er, right," I said, smooth as gravel. "The ex. That bitch, what's her face."
She arched her brows. "Well I suppose that's one way to put it." She squinted at me, and I felt tiny, mostly mental pricks and prods at my second skin.
And that was my cue to exit. My glamour may have been bone deep and snugger than a madman in a straitjacket, but if she was half the witch I though she was, she'd be able to pick through it and catch a glimpse of the real me.
I walked backwards down the steps as fast as feigned innocuousness would allow. "Well it was nice meeting you, nice talking to you, I'll tell Matty's dad to come play ball with him sometime, and I hope you have a nice day."
I felt one of the pricks go through. My glamour flickered just for a second- for less than a second. But it was long enough for her to see my face. Her eyes widened.
"Wait," she screamed. "You're no Fae! You're no Fae!"
She tried to pull herself up from the rocker. A ball of fizzing blue light gathered in her right hand.
I turned and ran.
"What do you want with Mathew? What do you want with our Mathew?"
A bolt of yellow lightning hit the spot where my foot had been a split second before.
"Don't come back!" she screeched, magnifying her voice so it sounded like she was screaming it right into my ear. "You don't ever come back!"
Yeesh, I thought, turning the corner. Try and do a good deed.