My last conscious memory was the final Amazonian life leech larvae falling from my tweezers into the earthenware spice dish, where it wriggled with the rest like animated saffron stamens. After this, incoherent maybe-dreams.
I’d been in a spook house with Railey, there had been a ghost hiding from us, and it had been a nice house, a sorcerer’s house. I remembered it was strange to see a ghost, even that of a child, living with spell-casters. The two seldom mixed. And there had been a secret room with black magic written on the walls and a book depicting ceremonial bones, and the landlord had found us and killed me, then I ran and was chased all over the country but I could never say who was chasing me, but even now I remembered the way the bones oozed foul magic when I smashed them.
Incoherent definitely-dreams. I rubbed my forehead, discovering that my hands were coated in mud and dirt was packed around my nails.
The moody silence of squirrels and chittering robins must have woke me. Wind howled through the valley and there was the taste of rain in the air. Above me, the morning sky was being lost to clouds as dark and as fast as ink dropped into a rinsing cup. An orange glow marked the sun, but that was soon masked and the world turned gray.
When I sat upright, a grasshopper chewing tar on my chest went his own way with the click of wings. I lay at the edge of a field outside the barn which was both my workshop and living quarters. My back hadn’t appreciated the dead grass I’d slept on.
I coughed, a dry cough, tasting sour wine on the back of my throat. A sunburn pinked my exposed right side and dew stuck my clothes to me like a clammy second skin. It came to me, after I had finished coughing, that today was a new day so the appointment had happened yesterday. That could account for my present situation.
Or had it actually happened?
Yes, it had. I knew the witch doctor had arrived and the appointment had been kept. I also knew I had been returning home, but I had no notion of where I had been.
I hadn’t walked to the pioneer’s cemetery while tripping out on the witch doctor’s potion, had I? I looked again at my dirt-encrusted nails and remembered my dreams about bones. The cemetery was a couple miles off, I doubted I could have sleep-walked all the way there, but it wasn’t completely impossible.
My voice was a croak, weak and scratchy. Aside from the wind rustling through the grasses and disturbing the trees by the creek, the countryside was still and hushed and bigger than it ever had been before. There was no one else here.
Neither was there the close hug and awareness of magic, like I’d hoped to feel again.
I let my head fall on my arm, disappointed. Ah, well. At least there had been a cute guy in my dreams. He’d been chasing me, and not in a good way, but he’d been there. What he looked like, I couldn’t recall. Just that he hadn’t been the standard mainstream hunk. A bit of chill wind snuck through my shirt and made me shiver.
The first few fine flicks of rain sent up tiny bursts of dust on the ground beside me. I knew that I checked the other ingredients: the chamomile flowers, ox blood, eye of newt, mandrake root, and the two fungi known by names I could not pronounce. None of them were bad, so the potion shouldn’t have done this. Unless it had something to do with the way the witch doctor had neutralized the fungi and larvae. All the trials I did proved that the mixture was split-second heart stopping. But what had she done? I couldn’t remember. Not now.
I climbed to my knees, finding prickly seed heads of weeds with my palms and knees. At last I pulled myself onto a rock, still cold from the chill of a desert night. Sun peeked between the clouds and struck the tops of trees as I began to loosen my muscles.
I’d only ever been hung over once, on tequila and buttered scotch—not a combination I would recommend—and that had nothing on the stiff pain that ached through every muscle in my body right now. I felt like I’d eaten a bowl of broken pins and needles then washed it down with fire. I longed for the soothing cascade of a hot shower and maybe after that, maybe, I’d manage a slice of buttered toast and poached egg.
The witch doctor must have made me drink the potion. Usually the mandrake dreams were more scattered than this, but I often enough had lucid dreams. The pain had been real, but time and trauma are not friends to bearing accurate witness. I could have walked out here by myself and spent the night under the stars, but I really doubted I could have made it to the end of the rather long driveway, much less all the way out to the cemetery. Still, I’d done some digging somewhere, and the soil wasn’t native.
“Railey, you ’round?” I asked.
The crests of wheat grass waved about my elbow in place of a reply from Railey. I sighed. I hadn’t been expecting her voice.
“Guess the old woman knew what she was doing after all,” I grumbled. Old. That triggered the start of a memory. Old in the magical world meant dangerous.
I groaned, the barn seemed so far away, but storm clouds darkened the sun again, this time they meant business. I was being melodramatic. The day before had probably gone something like this: the witch doctor arrived, we talked, did the treatment, she saw me to my bed and eventually left, and after that I’d gone sleep walking and took a nap under the stars. This was my usual stargazing spot, after all.
With a flash of lightning, it started to rain. It rained like it always did in the desert, with gale-force winds whistling through the tin roof and the crack of thunder making the hair on my arm stand up.
Before me stood a barn door, square and with the boards in the center arranged like a Z. Its chipping red paint was peeling. The door wasn’t latched when I touched it. It rocked inward of its own accord, grating over the floor.
Spider webs met my face when I stepped inside. A faint glow of stormy skies lent my home a haunted sheen made ghostly when a flash of white lightning illuminated the recesses, showing my books had been pulled from their shelves and piled onto a clearing in a wreckage of broken trinkets. Several books were laid open, the pages lifting and falling in the brush of wind. My herbs scattered across the floor, leaving only a few sprigs and bits of twine dangling from the rafters.
That had to have been one bad mandrake trip. Or the witch doctor had used it as an excuse to search through my stuff. I hadn’t thought of that, usually I was so careful.
I stumbled towards the table and bopped a paint can with my bare foot. I hissed in pain before I actually felt the expected sting. Where was my shoe? The stubbed toe felt warm, numb but warm. Numb was a good word to describe all of me. Electricity ran through my nerves coupled with the thought, Railey hasn’t gone poltergeist, has she? A chill ran down my back, and I felt like this was happening to someone else and I was just an observer.
“Railey!” I meant to call her down and demand an explanation, to see if she was her usual ghostly self or just a shadow of what she once had been, but the effort of yelling caused a sharp pain in my chest.
It forced me to sit and breathe. Back to coughing. Rain on the tin roof, pattering away the minutes as I focused first on calm breathing then on subduing the sudden tremors in my limbs. My leg hurt, a lot. I knocked a vial off the work counter and onto the floor as I reached for my music player.
A couple minutes later, big band swing burst from speakers. I discovered the cause of one of my pains was a hand-sized burn on my calf. How did I get that? A boiling cup of water? But it didn’t look right for a liquid burn. Nor like something I’d get from an ember. Like a spell burn? I was beginning to feel a little afraid. Untwisting the top of a jar of salve, I realized that my hands were still encrusted with grime.
I hobbled over to the utility sink, wondering: should I be panicking? Should I be afraid? I didn’t know. But the burn was hurting and my hands were shaking and I wasn’t feeling like eating anything any longer.
“Railey, any chance you can tell me what happened?”
I might as well be speaking to air. The ghost was gone more often than not these days, but for some reason this time it felt more complete. Like she wouldn’t come back.
The wind wrenched open the shutters to the window above the sink, thrashing a few plump tomatoes to the ground as the shutters clattered against the siding. Rain rushed inside, sending flurries of icy drops across the counter. I scrambled to seize the shutters, fighting with the tomato planted outside—and that was when I realized what was wrong with it.
The tomato had become bushy. Suckers had sprouted between the main stalk and the leaves. Last time I had pruned it was the day before the old woman had come. That would have been probably the day before yesterday. Why did I see at least a week’s worth of growth on the plant? It was hard to deny the overripe tomatoes which had been green, and the sudden abundance of yellow flowers splayed up and down the plant.
“Must have had a warm couple of days,” I told myself. Tomatoes grew fast in good heat. But now a buzzing disbelief threatened to overtake reason.
It took me four tries to twist the knob for hot water.
How could it have possibly been a full week?
I knocked over the soap bottle.
Impossible. Straight-up impossible. Just get cleaned up, eat something, you’ll feel better, Fera, that’s what Railey would tell me. To stop my yammering and come down to planet Earth.
Bubbles stung like salt in an open wound, but I scrubbed down my hands, arms, face. I really was starting to feel better when I took off my outer shirt, and my fingers went through holes.
I stared at the gouges down the back, at the slashes which I had ignored when wrestling the shirt over the top of my head. Gouges which looked like a beast had drawn three sharp claws against it.
The water in the basin was pink and there were drops of scarlet blood. My stiff back took on new meaning and instantly began to radiate stinging pain. I grasped the sink to steady myself.
What had the witch doctor done to me? Had she made me her scapegoat? That’s the thing about mixing lambs with magicians, the non-magic-users can be taken advantage of. And on my calf there was the burn, could it be the burn left by a paralysis spell meant to stop a fleeing suspect?
Something was wrong with my breathing, was it too fast and too shallow, or was I breathing at all? Which way did I need to breathe to counter the heat rising in my cheeks?
“Oh,” was all I could say, feeling a bubble of dizziness press against my vision. “Don’t faint. Not now.”
Fainting wasn’t something I was prone to do, but I didn’t want to waste time passed out on the floor. Panic waves washed through my belly, sweeping up my chest and arms, seizing my throat. My shaking grew uncontrollable. I tried to drop the shirt, to free myself from that tainted reminder of what I could not remember, but it snagged on the rough edges of a broken nail.
Breath coming in frantic pants, I shook my hand. Shook it harder. And harder. Until I smacked it against the sink and the wet shirt slapped concrete floor and soaked my shoe and one bare foot. Slowly, as if a puppeteer had taken over and was guiding me, I felt my knees bend to the concrete in one smooth motion. I watched myself untie my shoe and take off my sock, then my jeans and other clothes, leaving brownish blood streaks on everything as I tossed one item after the other into the washing machine.
The storm raged on, the wind battering through cracks in the walls, and I was lost in it like a leaf tossed in its fury. Naked, I stepped into the metal grain silo which I’d converted into a shower, let the tepid water pour down, watching blood and gritty soil spiral down the drain. Eventually the water heater kicked on, choosing the boil-my-skin-off setting all by itself. I didn’t bother to turn up the cold water, just slumped on the floor and lathered up the soap, getting rid of the evidence. As thinking intruded on the peace the puppeteer had given me, I scrubbed more frantically and more and more until I was raw with pain and panic.
A million thoughts eddied through my mind like a tempest smashing a ship against rocks over and over again until nothing made sense and the battered remains of my thoughts were the ruined wreckage of reason. Eventually, my breathing calmed and my vision cleared.
I was curled up on my side in the shower, the water had cooled to a reasonable temperature again. My back, when I felt it with my fingers, was bruised and had been scratched though it was not even a full skin break. I’d been lucky. Once I realized this, I was lax with relief and could think again.
So I listed the facts. Things I knew for sure.
I had no solid recollections of the days prior.
I did have a long-standing meeting with a witch doctor right before this black-out.
I thought I knew what happened during this meeting.
But maybe I had it wrong.
Worse, I seemed to have come in contact with the magical community. It was entirely possible I’d been used.
And if I had been used, it was to achieve a nefarious end.
Which meant that either the Constabulary or the witch doctor would be banging down my door at any second.
Or the maybe even witch doctor’s other victim. The one I’d been used to commit a crime against.
Or I had taken a bad mandrake potion. That could have happened, too. …and, acquired my injuries how, exactly?
My eyes returned to the burn, staring at it as if it could somehow speak to me and put everything into place.
“Do I have to go to the Constabulary?” I asked myself, feeling my tentative control crumple like a piece of paper ready for the fire.
No, I reasoned. Not so long as I didn’t want to. I turned off the water, dried off, and applied half a jar of salve from toes to head. The bleeding stopped, scratches healed. Not too many deep wounds, however the burn on my calf blistered. The rain pounded harder on the roof trickled through a spot I thought I’d fixed. I put a cup on the counter to catch the drip. Thunder again.
Determined not to fall to pieces, I tried to re-assemble what I knew had happened—or what I thought I knew, at least as I dressed in clean-smelling clothes and fed myself cold cereal with milk and trail mix. And I chewed down one too many painkillers, too. Next to bear arms, both of the magical and knowledge kind.
On wobbly legs, I climbed onto the counter and reached on top of the rafters. My fingers found a small box with the best trinkets I had. When I opened it, I found my appointment and note book. I flipped to the witch doctor’s appointment and instead found a note written in white ink on black paper. A crow feather fell out of its fold.
Miss Feraline Hope Swift,
I usually do not aid my agents but I feel this case is an exception. Allow me to give you a few tips. First, you have one more use of your compass. I recommend you read the papers before deciding where to go. Second, I recommend you read the headlines, but not the articles. I fear the articles themselves are inaccurate. Third, your after-life is mine to use as I choose. No significant action needs to be taken on your part, except to behave as nature so inclines you to do. I have handed you this first case, but for the ones following, you need simply to watch for circumstances which break the natural order of life.
Make me proud.
P.S. Do not die again. It is terribly troublesome.
I sank down to sit on the counter, where I remained for several puzzled minutes, feeling again like the leaf in the wind or the boat being cast against rocks. The letter crumbled in my hands, breaking apart into feathers, the writing becoming the shine of light playing over them. I sort of stared at them for a long time before I resolved to take these feathers to the Constabulary, show them what I had, ask for their help. See if they could get to the bottom of this.
…but the papers, those nagged at me. Holding the compass, I jumped down from the counter and found my stack of Thaumaturgical Tribune. The most recent paper boasted a picture of me on the front page within an article issued by the Magic Constables.
It was a want ad.
Then I realized today’s paper said Thursday, and the last paper I remembered reading was Sunday’s. Which meant I was missing three days. Coincidentally, the ad had been issued for the last two days. It said simply, Report any sightings immediately.
Almost simultaneously, I was hit with three instincts. Run and hide, run and beg Uncle Don to take me as his client in case there were any charges to be made, and lastly to investigate my missing days. But the words “volatile and highly dangerous, do not approach” would definitely put off any potential interviews.
I didn’t even understand how I could be considered volatile and highly dangerous. I had lost my magic years ago. Yes, I owned trinkets and things with enchantments, but a decent sorcerer should not find that dangerous.
Clearly I was in trouble. If I wasn’t, then there wouldn’t be a want ad. There wouldn’t be a reward. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never had so much as a speeding ticket before.
This wouldn’t be so terrifying if I could fight the charges—whatever they were. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know if I was guilty or innocent. I could have done whatever it was. Suppose I had done something to warrant a nationwide want ad. Would they listen to my pleas of “I swear, Constable, I don’t remember doing anything”?
I wouldn’t. Sounds like a crappy lie.
Then I heard the bubbles start rattling in a blue willow kettle, and it began to whistle, corporeal steam issuing from its spout. For an instant, my spirits perked up: I’d bought the thing from a fair booth and had not been so certain of its alleged speaking capabilities. I lifted my head and listened as it said, “They are coming! They are coming! Leave now, Master, leave now!”
Warning enchantment, or did it cry out for other reasons, too? I debated staying or running. If it was the Constabulary, I’d be better off not fleeing from the law. I put on my best trinkets from the mess on the floor and slipped on some shoes, my blood pulsing with hot adrenaline. There was someone outside!
Collecting my thoughts, I listened to the shuffle of people outside adding to the din of the storm…a storm which suddenly seemed mute compared to their every movement. How many there were it was hard to tell, but they hadn’t spoken a word, and I thought all law enforcement had to identify themselves. Yet still, I waited, dreading when I’d discover who had tracked me to my home.
I readied myself, seeing one escape route after another closed off. Too many people to try to fight, no matter how I did it. Hiding in the loft would buy a few minutes, tops. I knew that I’d have to face these intruders, that even if I ran away and somehow reached the Constables alive, I would still have to face the law and hope they believed my story. The more I knew, the more convincing I’d be. My heart raced in my veins, I envisioned that someone stood at the main door, facing me, and motioned to the others that their victim was inside.
There was an explosive crash and splintering wood as a spell shattered my door and an icicle shot through my tea pot. Mist filled the room and the temperature fell, making me shiver on the spot. In the clatter of falling bits of door and pottery, I remembered reading but not acknowledging the single word: REWARD.
There came noises all around as they surrounded the building and I felt time creak by slower and slower, knowing they, too, were going to cover all my exits. Still I had doubts. Was this the law, or was this a bounty hunter? The mists cleared.
It was a tall man in black robes, but he had a spell hanging about him which made my eyes drift over him. He reminded me of the figure in my dreams, the one who had killed me.
“Feraline Hope Swift,” he said. Our eyes met through the spell for just a second, and though I could tell nothing else about him, he looked like a man who would do anything to not lose everything. Then he curled his hand in the start of a spell. “You are dead.”
Heat flooded my body. That wasn’t something law enforcement would say. I rushed the side door, meeting it with flat hands and all my weight.
The hinges were rusted as thin as a leaf so the door toppled with me on top of it. Whoever was on the other side broke my fall, grunting as they were smashed into the dirt. I doubted they were injured.
“Stop right there!” I heard the man shout from behind me.
I didn’t. Several feet away, the barnyard turned into a pit where the farmers of days gone by had pushed all the big boulders together and I entered this pit just as a spell skimmed my shoulder. The boulder cracked.
I knew they would come right after me. I also knew they’d outrun me. I sprinted behind a boulder where the ground was too hard for footprints, muffled my breathing, and found my invisibility ring.
“Get her! Which direction did she go?” The man sounded disgusted when no one responded immediately.
I thought frantically. I’d gone in the wrong direction for my car, and they’d probably hit it with a spell when it went down the very straight driveway, anyway. There was no time to make a proper portal, not that I could power it without magic, and definitely no time to rig up the compass to act as the power source. This meant I’d need to use the compass to go someplace I
already knew—it was a good trinket, yes, but it had its constraints. I had to assume that the compass was only good for one jump, and that jump had to take me where I could ditch the trackers when they did find me again.
A single lonely place came to mind.
I heard the men yelling and someone scuffing gravel. Loud footsteps coming in my direction.
Almost out of breath, I withdrew the compass and closed my eyes. The wind kicked up around me, and I knew the magic would attract their attention soon. An hour ago, I had been out here, a bad potion the worst thing on my mind.
Now I was wanted for doing something to someone I’d never met before, a powerful someone who had enough money to send a task force to hunt me down. Now I had fled the scene.
Now I was scrambling to stay alive.
A man in black rounded the corner and saw the distinctive dust devil marking my portal. His eyes bulged and the last thing I saw was his lips moving in a spell, then brightness and I felt like a freight train had smashed into my car as the portal tried to take me away.