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The next day, I decided to finally get to work.
From the comfort of the guestroom bed, I looked over the list Tamiel had given me to see what I had to work with. There were six name signs, total. Half of whom belonged to people who hung around the blurry edges of my memory as Uninteresting Other People.
Out of the six, three names stuck out. One was Ruroi. I smiled a bit at that. According to my obviously infallible memory, Ruroi'd been a friendly, overly gullible scrap of feathers who got shy around humans and was afraid of camels. He registered in the rolodex in my mind under: friend/rube.
The next one on the list was-
Penemue. That scum-sucking, bottom-feeding, double-crossing, dirty-dealing, back-stabbing, yellow-bellied, self-centered, self-righteous, sanctimonious, pompous, pretentious, persnickety, lying, cheating, finicky, scheming, dirty rotten no-good tattle-tale! I'd cut open his cowardly snitch heart and show it to him while it was still beating! I'd tear him limb from limb and beat him to a mushy pulp with his own fists! That rat bastard. I'd go over there- wherever there was- and drag him back by the hair. I'd make his life miserable. I'd throw him hog-tied at Shem's feet, gagged, so I wouldn't have to hear his condescending, snotty, prissy voice. I'd . . I'd. . .
The gears in my head started to creak. If I brought Pen, there were really only two possible outcomes.
He came; Shem put him to scut work like me, digging up all the old gang. Which would be good if he hated it, which, knowing Pen, he would. Worst case down that road, though, was that he actually got saddled working with me. Which would satisfy the goal of making him miserable, but also make me miserable as well. At the other end of the spectrum: he came, didn't get sucked into recruitment duty, impressed Shem and becomes my de facto superior. My boss.
I dropped the idea like a hot plate. No way was I going to bring him into this.
After that was Chazaqiel.
“Okay, that’s it.”
I leapt off the bed and tore downstairs. Excitement bubbled up in my chest.
Chaz! Several images flickered across my mind.
Chaz, grinning like a loon as we dumped hallucinogenic cactus juice into the town well. Chaz, convincing the local headman that his wife would give birth to snakes if he didn’t coat himself in mud and act like a cow to scare the snake demons away. Chaz, who lead the midnight booze raids and invented the concept of the drinking game. Who used to make it rain for the farmers, provided they send a few gallons of wine his way before hand. Who’d teach wannabe sorcerers simple weather signs and laugh when they wound up getting chased by their own baby tornadoes, or drenched by their own rain clouds.
My partner in crime. And it had been ages.
I ran to bossman’s study, half expecting it to be locked. To my surprise, not only was it unlocked, but it was empty, too. It reeked of human exertion, plant, and wet dirt. All the bookshelves and the little tables had been shoved into the corner to make room for a mountain of damp mud looking stuff. The only piece of furniture allowed to remain in its place was the workbench, which was covered in funny smelling paper and tools. Chisels, little hammers, carving knives- that sort of thing.
"Boss?" I called. "You hidin' in here?"
Nothing. He was gone.
"Well," I said to the empty room. "I'mma go ahead and use your stuff, mmkay?"
There was no answer, of course, so I took it as a yes. I crawled over the pile of furniture and worked my way over to the book case.
See, unlike some people I know, I’m actually not that good at magic. Not the organized, have-to-put-effort-into-it sort that require actual thought and patience. Want a spur of the moment curse? A plague? Sarcasm? I got that shit covered. But actual spells. . . well, I usually rely on other people for those. I can take a crack at them, go through the motions, but unless they’re super easy or things I’ve seen done a zillion times, I usually wind up breaking them or doing them wrong.
I grabbed half a dozen pages worth of spells and headed upstairs, into the guest room I'd basically adopted as my own.
The crude summoning I'd used on Tamiel the other day were still there, burned into the carpet. The fibers had fused together, and there were thick scorch marks that Bossman would probably flip out over if he ever saw.
After a moment, I shrugged and scribbled Chazaqiel namesign over Tamiel's. Couldn't hurt, might help. It was worth a shot.
I took a step back, started up the spell, dropped a bit if blood into the circle, watched the while thing light up and-
-found myself thrown back against the wall hard enough to leave cracks in the plaster.
"Ow," I said, rubbing my head. "Ow."
So. That didn’t work, then. Shem was at least partly right, then. Chaz had done something so he wouldn’t be called up willy nilly, even if the summoner had the sign- which was usually a shoo-in.
The spell on the carpet was dead. Thoroughly spent. Now, instead of having a mostly-neat circle burned into the floor, the entire spot was a half-melted, half-ashed, puddle of goop that smelled like chemical smoke.
I went into the closet and dug around until I found a quilt. It was a small, patchwork mess that was probably a gift from some long forgotten relative of his. A quick shake to get all the dust and moths out- and viola! It covered up the whole goopy mess perfectly. Bossman would never know.
The next hour and a half was spent cobbling together trackers, summonings, ward-breakers, and any other spell I could think of that might be useful. The only things that resulted from these experiments was a large black stain on the carpet (hidden easily by moving the bed three feet to the left), a weird shimmery spot in the air where I think the fabric of the universe might've gotten tangled (which I figured bossman wouldn't notice because it was tucked in the corner of the room), and a large portion of wall melting slightly, then refreezing, looking like- well, like a big hunk of wall had melted then froze. There was no way to hide that, so I just gave up worrying about it and hoped bossman wouldn't notice.
Eventually, I got a hit. It was a summoning, but tweaked to hell and back again and crudely mashed up with six other sorts of summoning spells. Hopefully, with Chaz's signs thrown in, it would bring him right to me.
I made sure all the markings on the floor looked good and solid, then let yet another bit of blood onto the signs to get it all going. My thumb throbbed from being cut, recut, and squozen so many times that morning, but I ignored it. If this didn't work, well, then I'd just have to keep trying then, wouldn't I?
Everything seemed to be going well, until about halfway through, just when everything was starting to buzz and bubble and liven up, something snapped. The last thing I saw before being flung out of the house was the guest room going blurry and distant until with was nothing but a small, colored speck at the end of a dark tunnel.
* * * *
The spell spat me out smack-dab in the middle of a bunch of brambles. Large ones, that went about a foot over my head, with sap-smelling leaves and thorns. Lots of thorns. And vines. Spiny, stinging, hurty vines that snagged onto my cloths and clung.
Ah. I thought. Okay.
Slowly, I tried pushing through the plants, only to find that in the ten seconds I'd been there, my feet were already entangled, with the long spines digging into my ankles every time I tried to move. The more I wriggled, the harder the bushes wrapped around and the more stuck I was. So I stopped wriggling.
I was stuck. Hopelessly, inescapably stuck. Well, no biggie, I thought. I can just use the return spell. The one to take me home. I pulled at the vines and tried to reach for my pants pockets.
The one you forgot to put together.
Okay. Provided the spell had worked right and I wasn't a million billion miles off course, Chaz would be around here somewhere. So I did the only sensible thing to do in that sort of situation.
"Help!" I shouted. "Hey! Hello? Little help here? Hey!"
I went on like that for some time.
"Hello?" I droned, feeling too tired to die properly. "Anyone?" Something I couldn't see crawled along my arm. I just hoped it wasn't poisonous and ignored it. "Hello?"
There was a noise. I stopped and listened.
Yes, it was a distant hum that was rapidly getting louder. An engine, one for something big. Truck, maybe.
"Hey!" I shouted, trying to move as much as possible. The thorns dug deeper into my arms, but I didn't care. "Hey!"
The vehicle drew closer: I could hear the crunch of tires on gravel and the squeaking of something car related I'm sure.
"Over here, in here!"
The tire-on-dirt sound came to a stop somewhere close by. The engine died, and someone opened a door, then slammed it shut. A female voice called out.
"In here!" I shook the bush like crazy. Over the rustling of plant bits, I heard the woman shout something back.
"Okay!" I said for the sake of speaking. "Just start pulling branches and I'll try getting to-"
She said something I didn't catch, and then I heard the heavy footfalls of someone running on dirt. "Or you can just leave me. That's cool too."
I struggled and writhed against the plants, wishing death upon all humanity and lady drivers specifically when I was interrupted by the distinct sound of snipping. I stopped and watched as something in front of me slowly made its way through the brush, towards me.
Soon after, the plants right in front of me fell away, revealing a black haired woman in a straw hat wielding a pair of gardening shears. She grabbed my hand and pulled. Eventually, with much loss of skin and blood on my part, we managed to get out of the thicket.
We stood together, leaning against her small, light blue truck, panting like we'd just run a mile.
"Thanks," I said.
She spoke. It wasn't a language I was familiar with. I shook my head.
"Sorry, I don't understand you."
She smiled at me, a little nervously, I thought, and pointed up the mountainside.
"Up there?" I said, though I knew she couldn't understand.
She nodded and pointed to the interior of the truck.
We both got into the car and headed up the mountain.
* * * *
At first I thought it was a church. It had the same smell as a church, and for a second I thought things were going to get real awkward. But then we turned around the last rocky outcrop and saw that it wasn’t a church. It was a temple. It was topped with the low, Asian style slanty roofs that turned up at the edges. Beneath them were three more levels, each with their own eaves going along the edges.
I took a deep breath. Past the crisp mountain air, past the smell of foreign greenery, and past the smell of cold, there was the distinct smell of peace. Tranquility. Quiet. It made my nose burn and my skin crawl.
On cue, a little bald man in robes scurried across the clearing and into the pagoda’s entrance.
Ugh. Monks. Why the hell would Chazaqiel be here? And, while on that thread. . . I glanced at the woman. Why would she bring me here?
The truck pulled to a rickety stop a respectable distance away from the courtyard proper, still on the road, and we got out.
The monk who had gone inside returned with several other monks.
They were monks. Blatantly so. Bald heads, black robes, the light, airy, cautiously optimistic smell of someone who hadn't reached enlightenment just yet, but by golly was bound to get it eventually. I grit my teeth and kept my distance. I swear, there's something about that smell that makes me want to start lighting fires and pushing people down stairs. Old habits, I guess.
My new friend didn't notice my discomfort and smiled at me reassuringly. She said things I couldn't understand, and pointed to the monks.
"Sure," I said. "Whatever you say, lady."
She nodded a lot and kept smiling, then left me by the truck to go to the nearest monk.
I watched as she went around, chattering first with that monk, who brought her to another, who then found a third. It was amusing how stiff they all were around her, making very sure to keep their arms down by their sides, or their hands clasped behind their backs. Every so often she would point me out to them. I waved politely. One of them waved me over.
"Yes?" I said, approaching the group.
He said something to me in a language I didn't understand, speaking slowly, like that would help.
I shook my head.
"Sorry, dude. The gift of tongues was one of the first things to get repo'd. Right after the wings and before the flaming sword."
He smiled apologetically and spoke to the other three. One of them scurried off. Probably to get more monks.
Everyone else chattered with one another, occasionally stopping to look at me and say things that I'm sure must have been reassuring. All of us were smiling and nodding a lot and trying to be as generally inoffensive as we could be.
One of the monks returned, leading several other monks with him. One of them, the one in the middle of the group, was much older and more shriveled up than the others. They all started talking to him at once.
I watched them closely. There was something familiar about the old monk, though I couldn't put my finger on what, exactly, it was.
He bowed to me, and I bowed back so as not to raise a fuss. He then said something in that language everyone else had been using.
"Yeah, sorry. Still no comprende."
He frowned slightly. "Pardon. Do you prefer Spanish or English?"
"Oh! You speak English, then?"
He smiled politely. There was a lot of that going on around here. "I'm familiar with most languages. Pardon me."
With that, he turned to the other monks and rattled off a stream of language at them. This seemed to please everyone, and most of them dispersed, leaving just him, me, my ride, and two of the younger monk who'd greeted us. The lady I'd been with started talking to the English speaking monk.
"She says she pulled you out of the thicket. That you were stuck."
"Yeah. I'm actually possibly a little lost. I was looking for someone, and I think he might be around here somewhere."
He nodded and said something to the woman.
There really was something about him that was driving me nuts. Some quirk. Something about the way he held himself when he was listening. Receptive. Slightly hunched. Maybe it was the way he held his hands when he spoke. The way he held himself up when he was doing the talking rather than listening. Like a turtle confidently poking its head out, only to draw it respectably back when something approached. On a whim, I let my eyes close so my mind could wander.
The changes in the courtyard were subtle. The air took on a slight, misty blue tint, while the sun shined a little brighter. The stench of peace got about two times as strong.
The lady looked normal enough, but the monks shimmered with a soft golden light that hovered just above the surface of their skin. Some had it so faint, I could only see it if I mentally squinted really hard. Others had it bright enough to give me a migraine. All of them had it, except for one.
Fire burned beneath the old man's skin. It writhed and fought, like it was trying to break out, and was occasionally broken by the odd flicker of lightning spreading across its surface. There were hollow pits where his eyes should've been. The flames spat and flickered out through them, dying as soon as the hit the outside. When his mouth opened, I could see the fire inside. When he grinned, light escaped through the gaps in his teeth.
"Chaz? Is that you hiding inside that little old man?"
The old man jerked like I’d slapped him.
“Beg pardon?” he said.
“I can’t believe you’re possessing a human. Do you know how unsanitary that is? Do you even know what they do with those bodies? 'Cause I do, and I'm telling you, it's disgusting."
I gave a little grin to the lady and the monks, who were all watching the exchange with interest and mild anxiety. “Disgusting,” I said through the smile.
The old man gave everyone a strained smile and said something that seemed to calm them down.
“Who are you?” he said.
“What? You don’t recognize me? I’m hurt. You have cut me, good sir." I tapped the side of my face, next to my left eye. "Maybe if you actually look. . .”
I waited for him as he closed his eyes and did the same check I'd just done.
After a moment, he opened them again, wide, and the rest of his face went several shades paler. "Bri?”
“In the flesh.”
He spewed some words at his fellow monks and they all nodded. The woman waved goodbye and went off with them to the other side of the building, out of view. Only one was left, then, a youngish looking one who, as soon as everyone was gone, calmly sat down in the grass and waited.
“Bri, What are you doing here?"
"What, no hug?"
"How did you find me?"
“Accident. Summoning gone weird. That lady led me up here. Dunno what they've all been saying. Don't speak the language."
"Yeah, she's a local from town. One of the monks here is her brother and she was on the way to visit. She brought you along because I'm the only person in a fifty mile radius who speaks a language other than Mandarin." He rubbed his face and ran his hand over his head.
“Chaz,” I said patiently. "Has it occurred to you that you are a monk.”
"Yes," he said. "I'm well aware of that."
“A borrowed monk. You are renting a monk.”
“He wasn’t a monk when I borrowed him.”
"Well no wonder I couldn't call you up." I scowled at him. "You were holding onto your meatsuit too tightly."
"Oh? Was that you? I was wondering-"
“What’s the angle?” I said.
I held my arms out and gestured to everything. “This. What’s the angle? Is there something valuable hiding here? You came here on a dare? Owe somebody? Ooh, wait! Is it a prank?”
“Yeah!" I felt my smile stretching ear to ear. "Like, are you gonna do a few parlor tricks and claim to be the next Buddha? Or maybe burst into flames and tell them all Scientology’s the one true religion? Oh, I know! Maybe you could get some cactus juice and-“
“No! No. Nothing like that.”
"Oh." I deflated. "Then why?"
"Just because." He rubbed his arm awkwardly. "So, did you, er, have a point? Or were you just visiting for the sake of visiting?"
"Oh. Yeah. Shemyaza's back and he wants you to join his super special army of awesome. But no, really, why the monk?"
He stared. "Shem? He's back?"
I shrugged. "Yeah, came back a while ago. Planning through some circuitous plot he won't let me in on to dethrone Lucifer." I perked up. "Hey! His geas didn't shut me up that time! I swear, you never realize how annoying it is not to talk about something until you can't talk about it, you know?"
"Shem's back," he said again, like he was trying to process the words.
"Yep, and he wants us." I puffed up my chest proudly, drunk on giddiness. "You know, I didn't really like the idea at first, but heck, if means getting the old crew back together, this might not be boring! It could actually be fun. Hell, I got Ruroi's sign, maybe once we get back, you can help me-"
"Bri. . . "
"-And then Shem's gonna want to see you. You'll have to do that whole 'swearing fealty' thing again, but he doesn't do the three hour version like Tam maked us do-"
"And after we get Ruroi back, we can put our heads together and try to track down-"
The little old man currently housing my friend glowered at me. "I'm not going."
He said something to the sitting monk, who had been waiting patiently the whole time we were speaking. He nodded and got to his feet. They both turned towards the pagoda.
"I'm not going with you, Bri," he said again, refusing to look at me.
I stared, genuinely shocked. He didn't want to go? He couldn't do that!
"You can't do that!" I said.
"Say no. You can't."
He and the other monk started walking towards the building. I scurried top keep up with them. "I don't see why not."
"'Cause. That's why. 'Cause. Come on, don't you want to see Shem again?"
"Shem left us all to rot while he went gallivanting off to God knows where," he said calmly.
I winced at the G word out of habit, but continued on once it became apparent nobody was going to get blasted with any lightning. "Yeah, but he's back now. And he wants our help."
"I'd really rather not."
He whirled on me and said, with the stiffness of someone trying very hard not to shout, "Because if I actually do see him, then I'm afraid I may wind up getting disrobed for committing murder."
"So what? Who cares about that?"
He gave me a Look. I frowned. Other people have given me capital-letter-Looks before, but I'd never gotten one from Chaz.
"What?" I said, shifting slightly. "What did I do?"
"Nothing," he said, still looking at me funny. Like he'd just tasted something unpleasant. "You haven't changed at all, have you?"
"Nope!" I chirped. "Come on. Either Shem wins or he loses and dies. Either way, we'll have plenty of free time after to hang out. It'll be just like the old days, huh?"
For a second, the old monk looked sad. I wondered why.
"Bri," he said. "It really is good to see you, but I can't. Further more, I won't. I'm not one of his anymore. I don't have to come when he calls, and to be honest, I like it here." He gestured to the 'here' at large, including the young monk who was, again, watching us talk and waiting patiently. "I like the people. I like the peace. You know, you could try it. You don't have to go back."
I let all the disgust I could muster show on my face. "Yeck," I said. "Here? With all these monks running around loose? No booze, or noise? And you know selflessness gives me hives. Forget it."
"You never know, you might find you like it. . . "
"Yeah, no thanks. I got better things to do than contemplating nothing."
He sighed. "I figured you'd say that."
I bit the inside of my cheek to try and keep myself from screaming.
"This is really it? You're done? You're going to sit around contemplating all day? Or farming, or whatever this place does?"
"I guess so."
I stared. "That meat suit's gone to your head," I said. You're not thinking straight."
He shook his head sadly. "Go home, Bri." And with that, he and the monk walked away.
I watched them go, my fists clenching so hard that the nails bit into my palms.
I'd burn it down.
I'd burn the whole damned place to the ground and make him watch. And I'd boss Ruroi into helping. We'd torch the entire building- the entire mountain, and we'd dance around the rubble while all those little bald robed men went running down the mountainside, screaming. And then we'd drag him back. We'd pull him out of that defective body and then he'd forget this stupid place with its stupid monks and its stupid stinky air. Maybe that would knock some sense in to him. Maybe then he'd remember who his real friends were.
But first. . .
"Wait, Chaz!" I ran after them.
"Yes?" he said without turning.
"I, uh. I actually don't have a way of getting home. I was kind of wondering if you'd, you know. . . maybe, gimme a boost?"
He did turn, this time. His arms were crossed.
"I'm not supposed to touch you," he said. "We've rules about touching women. That's why he's here." He nodded his head towards the young monk, who gave a slight bow.
"Well good. I'm not really a woman, am I?"
For a split second, I thought I saw the slightest crack of a smile. "Fine, get over here."
I did, until I was less than a foot away from him. The watcher monk eyed us warily and said something in Mandarin. Chaz answered back and, in one small motion, flicked his finger painfully on my forehead.
Chaz, the monk, the truck and the monastery all melted away as I went flying back home.