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Archive for February, 2016

little cowboy

Prancing Pony

 

The two imps perched on the headboard of the bed and stared down at the pregnant woman.

“Shit,” breathed the one named Wigg.

“Should we tell the boss?” asked the other, whose name was Wall.

“What if we are wrong?” asked Wigg.

“What if we are right?” ventured Wall.

“He shoots the messengers, I’ve heard,” Wigg said, a worried frown on his imp face.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that too,” Wall said.

The baby crawled out of her mother’s belly and came to sit between the two imps. They both watched her, eyes wide, mouths agape.

“Oh, shit,” breathed Wigg.

“Oh, shit,” said the baby girl, a perfect mimic. And then she giggled.

The imps laughed, her giggle infectious.

“You are not supposed to wake up for years. Certainly not while you are in the womb,” Wall reminded the baby.

“Play with me,” the baby said. She grew imp wings just like theirs and hovered over her mother’s sleeping form. The baby girl cocked her head as if hearing something far away. She reached down to touch her mother’s hair.

“Whoa,” said Wall, intercepting her hand. “What do you think you are doing?”

The baby smiled at him and flitted away, stopping to hover near the ceiling, looking back at the two imps expectantly.

“I am not going to chase you,” Wall said sternly.

The child flitted through a wall and out into the yard. The imps launched themselves after her.

“Hey, you need to get back into your body, baby!” Wigg yelled.

“No,” said the child. “You go. Sit in the dark. Be bored. Wait to be born.”

“I am not the one trying to become human,” Wigg reminded her.

“Fraidy cat,” taunted the baby. “Afraid of the forge?”

“Hell, yes,” said Wigg fervently.

“Which is why everyone chooses to sleep through it,” Wall said patiently, buzzing across her path as she tried to fly after a cow. The cow lifted its head, snorted and galloped away, kicking up its heels. The baby laughed and raced away from the imps as they tried to herd her back towards the farmhouse.

The baby found a boy teaching his pony to dance. She sat on the pony’s withers, patting the bay’s short coat. The pony snorted and tried to buck but she caught at its tail and tangled its feet.

The boy cursed and hit the pony with his quirt. The baby scowled.

“Bad boy,” she said.

“You had to pick this family,” sighed Wall. “Not a one of them has a chance in hell at turning out good.”

“Sins of the fathers,” nodded Wigg.

“Sins?” asked the baby.

“The disturbances in the flow of the space-time continuum caused by the choices of your parents and their ancestors which will influence your decision making skills as you grow up,” Wall said.

“Er, what?” asked Wigg.

“I don’t know. I think I read that somewhere,” Wall told him with an apologetic shrug.

“Space-time,” nodded the baby girl as if that explained everything.

Wigg snorted, amused despite himself.

The baby let go of the pony and flitted above the boy’s head and then settled on his shoulders, riding him as she rode the pony, using his ears as reins. Light seeped out around her fingers. The boy stopped and looked confused.

“Hey, no, don’t do that!” scolded Wigg.

“Good boy,” giggled the baby, flitting away.

Wall stopped and looked back at the boy, puzzled. “What do you mean, good boy? Oh, shit…”

“What?” asked Wigg, turning back.

“Come back!” yelled Wall. “Undo what you just did! You are going to get him killed.”

“Good boy,” insisted the baby.

“Your uncle is going to beat him to death, now,” Wall cried out in frustration. “You have altered his timeline.”

“Uncle bad?” asked the baby, coming back to consider the boy, confused.

“Yeah, your uncle is bad. Your aunt is insane. Your dad is cursed. Your mamma is not witch enough to keep the world from eating her children.”

She patted the boy on the top of his head and smiled. “Boy good. Boy strong. Good will fight back and win.”

Wall looked at Wigg. “Confident, is our little ankle biter. Do you think that is wishful thinking or does she know something we don’t?”

Wigg studied the boy, puzzled. “Oh, shit.” The imp looked back at the baby.

“What?”

“She stole it.”

“Stole what?”

“His soul.”

Wigg zipped in front of the baby. “Put it back. It is not yours.”

“Mine,” said the baby, shaking her head stubbornly.

“He needs it.”

“It is safe, in here,” the child said, touching her heart. “Bad Uncles. Bad fathers. Crazy mothers. Cannot touch him now. He will grow up and be happy.”

“He’s supposed to grow up and kill his father in a fit of rage,” Wall said patiently. “Thereby balancing the forces of the Oneverse and atoning for his great grandfather’s murder at the hands of his sons.”

The baby cocked her head as if listening to some far off sound.

“OK,” the baby said, veering around Wigg and Wall and chasing after a cat busy stalking a field mouse in the high grass.

Wall looked at Wigg. “OK? What does that mean?”

Wigg looked back at the boy who was back at work teaching his pony to prance. Wigg got a funny look on his face and sat down hard in the grass to put his head between his knees. Wall sat next to him.

“What did she do?” whispered Wigg.

“Ten thousand years of karma is about to come to a crashing halt in his dad. She did something to the space-time continuum. Now he can’t pass his sins off to his children. Now he has to resolve it. By himself. The words crash and burn are taking on a whole new level of meaning. She is bloody minded and cruel, our baby.”

Wigg stared at the boy, squinting hard to see his future. “Not just the Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Her ma and pa. It’s all going to slam into a wall and rebound, splattering everyone connected to them.”

“We gotta tell the Boss,” Wall said.

****

Lucifer folded his wings as he settled onto the roof line of the old farm house. A baby with little imp wings and a cat’s tail was playing tag with the mourning doves.

The baby spotted him and settled on his head, grabbed his horns, bending down to look into his eyes.

“Hi,” said Lucifer.

“Hi,” said the baby. Two little horns began growing out of her forehead and the tail now mimicked his own.

The imps, perched in the tree branches overhead, began to giggle.

“You do not belong here,” Lucifer said, ignoring the shocking lack of discipline among his minions. “This is my domain.”

The baby tumbled off his head and grabbed her toes as her wings kept her afloat just in front of his nose “Mine, mine, mine,” she said.

“There are rules we follow here.”

“Rules,” said the baby. She made a rude noise.

“Without rules chaos will reign supreme.”

“Supreme. Me chaos supreme.”

“You are lost, obviously. Did you come though the Veil by accident? Go back where you belong,” sighed Lucifer in exasperation. “Once you are born it will be far more painful.”

“What?” Wigg asked, startled. “Is she a changeling?”

“Ah, that explains it,” said Wall. “The Boss’s enemies must be messing with him.”

“You my people,” the baby said, as she found his tail and began to swing on it.

Lucifer removed her fingers from his appendage and tucked his tail around his legs. “I am not your people. Take the force field off the boy, give him back his soul, and let him continue his journey.”

“No,” said the baby girl.

“Unforeseen consequences of this one act will cause you no end of problems, if you let this continue,” Lucifer said, trying to be reasonable. “This reality well will twist itself into knots trying to seek balance and I will have to clean up the mess.”

The baby patted him on the cheek with her tiny baby hand. “You mine, too.”

Lucifer shook his head, his confusion robbing him of words for a moment.

“What did you …?” he breathed.

“You safe,” said the baby girl, touching her heart. “Inside here.”

Lucifer stared at her. With an impish grin, the baby flitted up into the sky to harass a passing hawk.

Wall looked at Wigg. “Did she just … ?”

“Yeah,” breathed Wall.

“Can she do that?” Wigg asked. “Aren’t there rules against such things?”

“I think she just re-wrote the rules,” Wall said.

“Into what?” Wigg asked.

Lucifer launched himself into the sky and followed the baby, hovering protectively around her.

“Don’t know but we best find out real quick,” Wall said, leaping after Lucifer. Wigg had no other choice but to follow.

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Ice Queen

Ice Queen

 

Early chained her bike to the gas meter next to the steel door with The Magic Tree stenciled on it in fading purple paint. Her senior level astrophysics lab had run longer than she had wanted and now she was late for work. Hopefully her twelve o’clock appointment had not shown up yet.

Melody looked up from her place behind the counter and frowned as Early entered the back hallway. Early grimaced and mouthed “Sorry”. Melody pointed at the sessions room and gave her that look. Early sighed. Her first client was already waiting for her. She keyed in the security code on the employee’s break room and tossed her backpack and helmet onto a bench as she kicked off her bike shoes. Throwing open her locker she ignored the demure white blouse and pulled out the calico jumper. She dropped it over her head and pulled it down around her hips then dug around in the junk at the bottom of the locker to pull out a pair of cheap cloth Mary Janes. She stepped into them as she shoved the sleeves of her neon green cycling jersey up to her elbows. As a final touch, she pulled a dozen silver rings out of the jumper’s pockets and slipped them on all her fingers. Clients liked to watch her hands when she threw the cards, unconsciously attracted to the power that flowed there. She liked to add to the show with a little sparkle.

Early looked into the mirror, running her fingers through her short mop of tawny hair. The top of the cycling club logo peaked out above the low scooped neckline of her jumper, clashing horribly with the blue and pink calico flowers. Early grimaced. No time. If they had a problem with her looks, they didn’t belong at her table.

Opening her pack she pulled out her magic box and the leather medicine bag. The bag went around her neck. She adjusted it to show off the beading and the conch shells. Then she tucked the metal box under her arm and put her hand on the doorknob into the private meeting room. There she paused.

Her heart was still racing from the pell-mell trip across town from campus, sweat collecting in the hollows of her back. Early pressed her forehead against the wood and closed her eyes as she forced stillness into her mind and gathered energy around her.

The world talked to her behind her eyelids. Melody had reinforced her magically wards only that morning. Ghosts and shadows hung about on the front sidewalk, unable to gain entry into the shop, having been peeled away from the people they haunted at the doorway. Now they waited patiently for those who now browsed the aisles of the store. Early waved her hand in their direction, dissolving the shadow-beings and pushing the ghosts back across the veil.

A strange neediness seeped out of the room she was about to enter. She ignored it. Anyone who paid someone like her to tell their fortunes was usually desperate about something. Early had learned to deal with the clinging miasma of their desires.

When she thought she had a handle on the power of the world around her, she turned the doorknob and opened the door. A man dressed in a black suit sat in the chair reserved for her clients.

Male. Perhaps that explained the strangeness. Most of her clients were women.

He looked over his shoulder and smiled at her. It was a devastatingly beautiful smile. A smile women could get lost in. Early eyed him suspiciously. This man was too young to be here. Men didn’t start obsessing about life and death until they hit their mid-life crisis. This one was in his late thirties. Handsome but not ruggedly so. With his dark good looks, he might have stepped from the pages of her sister’s fashion magazines.

“Sorry I am late. Were you waiting long?” Early asked as she slid around the table and sat down. It was only when she looked up that she noticed the stiff white collar.

“Not long,” the priest said. Early resisted the urge to leap to her feet and leave. Instead, she scowled at him. Priests did not frequent New Age magic shops. What the hell was he doing here?

“I was reading one of your books to pass the time,” he said. He had an accent. European upper class. Well-educated.

Something about him put her teeth on edge. If this man was a parish priest, she would eat her medicine bag. Early glanced down at what he had in his hands. It was her tarot book written by a Jungian witch, opened to the card, Justice. Athena with her sword. Was that accidental or intentional?

Early reached across the table and took the book from him, being careful not to touch his hands. It was the hands that gave him away. These were not the hands of a priest, all soft and manicured. No, these hands were tanned and calloused, much like hers, their condition gotten from hiking and camping and long hours of practice with the weapons forms of martial arts. He shifted in his chair and she got a sense of muscles rippling under taut skin. The man was not just an athlete. He was a warrior.

Alarm bells were going off in the back of her skull. Early shifted to the edge of her chair and planted her feet, ready for anything.

“What can I do for you?” Early asked.

“I saw the sign out front. I was curious. Is it true?”

“Which part? The witch part? That’s just PR. Fills the seats,” she said quickly, trying to forestall the vituperative diatribe related to the oft misquoted “suffer not a witch to live”.

“So none of it is true? You are not a fortune teller or a healer?”

Early was in no mood to have a philosophical debate with a non-believer. She opened her mouth, getting ready to ask him to leave.

“What about the exorcist claim?” he continued. “Melody, up front, said, of all her sitting witches, you were the one to talk to about exorcism.”

Early shut her mouth and stared at him, trying not to betray her surprise. Melody needed to learn to be more careful about who she talked to.

“Who are you and why did you come here?” Early asked softly.

“We would like to hire you,” the priest said.

“We?”

“My boss and his bosses.”

“Who is your boss? He have a name?”

“I will let him tell you that when and if the time comes. For now, all you need to know is that I require the services of an exorcist.”

“Last I heard,” Early drawled in her best country accent, “you folks were the expert in such things. You fresh out of demon killers?”

“Time is of the essence. The nearest church-accredited exorcist is eighteen hours away on the other side of the world. The child is fragile and I do not think she will survive another eight hours of this torture, let alone most of a day. Will you do it?”

A little girl. They knew to bait the trap with the right meat but something stank about this whole thing.

“Why you?” Early asked.

He raised an eyebrow. “I am afraid I don’t understand the question.”

“I usually deal with the family. Why are you here, alone?”

“The family is part of the problem,” he said. A brief look of distaste flashed across his face.

Early tisked and began ticking off facts on her fingers. “Let me take a wild guess. The girl is not quite seven. The family is poor, uneducated and well under the thumb of some country parish priest. Zealots. She has been sexually abused, by, at the very least, her own father, but possibly by all the males in the extended family and perhaps some of the females. Emotional torture, for sure. Physical torture, perhaps. They thought she was just fey, but that was before the bad things started to happen. Fires. Dead pets. Unfortunate accidents. She is the common denominator in many catastrophic events. Someone finally thought to confront the child, point blank, but of course it was too late. The thing that is using her body controls her tongue and it told you crazy things, vile things, things no six-year-old should know. How much did I get right?”

“The family are devout Catholics. They would never …”

Early slammed her hands onto the table. “Don’t bullshit me!” she shouted. “Nobody just opens a door and invites the shadows in. They need help. A lot of it. If you want my help you will drop the PR double speak and give me solid details.”

“Not every man is your father, Earleen,” the priest said.

It felt like he had punched her in the gut. Early tried to get her breath back. He knew. How could he know? He was not just a random walk-in. He had done his research. He knew things only her old parish priest knew. Fuck, she thought. Fucking priests. Fucking Catholic Church. She should have burned down that church the day she left home for good.

“Get out,” she hissed.

The priest stared at her with his cold, black eyes. “You will let the child die, then?” he asked softly.

Early clenched her hands into fists. The urge to punch him in that beautiful face was almost overwhelming.

“Where is she? Give me an address. I will do this without you and your poisonous judgment.”

The priest shook his head. “I have a car and driver waiting outside. Come with me.”

“With you? I’d rather ride in a car with a cobra. Where is she?” Early insisted.

“St. Frances Xavier. Just across the river. They will not let you near her without my say so,” the priest said with utter certainty. Early averted her face and studied him out of the corner of her eye. She could usually tell when people were lying to her. This man was a stone. She could get no reading off him. She had no choice but to believe him.

“What if I call the cops and tell them a group of pederast priests has a child held against her will in that church? The cops would whisk her away from you and take her to a hospital where she belongs.”

“She has seen dozens of doctors and psychologists. None have helped her. They don’t know how. You would know that if you were a real exorcist.”

“Are you playing the ego card?” Early scoffed. “That only works if I consider you my equal. I do not. Give me a reason to trust you.”

The priest slid a white card out of an inside pocket and handed it to her. Father Dominic Savoy it read. “Below that, in Latin, it said. Officium de Liturgicis Celebrationibus Summi Pontificis. Early turned it over. The back was blank. She still knew less than nothing.

“So?” she asked, sliding the card back across the table.

Father Savoy suppressed a sneer. “Pontificis. It means Pontif. Pope. I am attached to the Holy See in Rome.

“The Holy … and you are here, on the other side of the world, in this Podunk town, because a child picked up a ghost or two? Surely you must realize that kids are like dust mops. They are magnets for shadows because they are so tasty. Or are you here to see if she has the stink of sainthood? Priests. You are like sharks when they smell blood on the water.”

“I would not be here if it were not necessary. I have assessed the situation. It requires someone more skilled than I. Will you come? The child fades with every passing moment.”

Early stared at him. She wanted to say no. She actually opened her mouth to say no but her next words surprised even her.

“Fuck it,” she said, rising. “Let’s go.”

Ten minutes later Early sat in the backseat of a black towncar next to the strange priest. The driver was thick-necked and silent and she was fairly certain he had a holster under that uniform jacket. What was she doing? Was she insane?

Once she decided to come, the future began to press down on her. She could not tell if the feeling came from the men in the car or from the child they were racing to save. She clutched her magic box against her chest, crushing the beads and shells of her medicine bag into her chest, imagining the worst, which was very bad indeed, so she was actually surprised when the car pulled into the private driveway behind St Francis Xavier Church. Father Savoy guided her to a side door. Behind it was a stairway. The priest led her down one flight to a brightly lit hallway. Doors lined both walls, some open, revealing storage closets and classrooms.

Memories of her own childhood washed over her. She pressed her lips together to keep from snarling.

Savoy brought her to the last door at the end of the hallway where a nun sat dozing in a chair. Savoy cleared his throat and she started, scrambling to her feet.

“Sorry, Monsignor. She had a rough night. I finally got her to quiet.”

“Open the door and then leave us, Sister Mary Agnes.”

The nun looked at Early.

“That her? What is she? Twelve? I thought you …”

“That will be all, Sister,” Savoy said firmly.

Mary Agnes bowed and did as he asked. Savoy opened the door and flipped a light switch. Early flinched at the harsh glare of the overhead florescent fixtures. It was another storage room but this one held only a bed and a single chair. A tiny figure lay strapped down in the middle of the bed.

Early hissed in rage. “Get out,” she snarled, turning on the priest and shoving him hard in the center of his chest. It was all bone and muscle, that chest. Savoy did not move.

“You should not be in here alone,” he said reasonably.

Early did not remove her hand and Savoy did not retreat.

“What is her name?” Early asked, ignoring his advice.

“Angelica,” Savoy said, “but her mother calls her …”

“I am sure I don’t care,” Early said coldly as she set down her box and grabbed the door jam and the edge of the door, pushing with all her strength.

He resisted for a moment then he bowed his head and retreated.

Early slammed the door in his face, locking it. Turning, she studied the room as she shed all the silver jewelry and dropped it in the pockets of her jumper. The jumper came off next. She rolled it up and dropped it on the floor by the door. Now dressed only in skin tight neon spandex, she crossed to the bed and unbuckled the straps. The girl did not react even though her eyes were open. She lay on the filthy mattress like a rag doll, all resistance gone out of her.

Early studied those dark eyes. She pressed her hand over them for a moment and then pulled it away. The pupils did not react. She dug a knuckle into the child’s sternum. She did not flinch. They had her drugged out of her mind.

“Son of a bitch,” Early hissed, her fury mounting. She had been counting on the child being conscious and engaged in what she was about to do. She should leave. Nothing good was going to come from this. Early press two fingers to the pulse point in Angelica’s throat. Faint and thready. Early did not have the luxury of waiting for the drugs to leave her system.

Early returned to her magic box. Before she touched it, she paused and closed her eyes. There were so many shadows in the room it was a wonder there was even a shred of oxygen left to breathe. They wanted her. They wanted her to lay down on the bed by Angelica and let them feed upon her. She could feel them trying to crawl up her nose and down her throat. The pressure on her body was intense. She needed to do something about them before the pressure turned to pain and incapacitated her.

First things first. She squatted and pried the lid off her box. Four candles and a lighter lay on top a velvet cloth. She grabbed them and walked the edge of the room, placing the candles in the four directions, lighting each and then walking to the next. Her circle brought her back to the door and the light switch. She flipped the switch. Darkness filled the room. Just for a moment, she thought she saw the walls seething with dark life, ants and spiders and rats and bats. She shook that image out of her head. It was just her mind wanting to fill in the blanks, replacing the uncomfortable with the definable.

When her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, she held up her hand, pushing softly at the energy that flowed around her. The dark tide skittered away from her power and shied away from the magic in the candles. That got her a little space. Clutching her medicine bag with her left hand, she waved her right hand. Shadows shredded and turned to smoke, forming an ice-cold ether that puddled on the floor. It barely made a dent in their numbers. She began wishing she had worn leathers and steel toed boots. She could feel the cold burning through her cloth shoes.

She squatted again and took out the velvet and the batting that protected the more fragile things in her box. The runes painted on the outside of the tin had started to glow as if the room was lit with a black light.

She took out the mud bowl. Early had made it with her own hands the day she turned fourteen, using clay from the creek by her house. She had anointed it with her own blood, using it as ink to paint magic sigils on the dried clay. On the next cloudless, moonless night, with every star in the heavens shining down upon her naked flesh, she fired it in a fire built from the twigs and branches of the trees around her childhood home, trees she had climbed as a child, trees that had kept her safe and hidden, trees that had held her up to the sky that the gods might wonder at her strangeness. After the fire had burned itself into embers, she had sprinkled it with white sage and sweetgrass collected from the hills around her house, bathing her body in the resulting smoke.

The blackened bowl was primitive and misshapen, with the charred imprints of sage and grass still etched in its surface. Early took out a small glass bottle and poured water gathered from a glacial stream into the bowl.

The objects in her medicine pouch began to pulse in time with her heart. Power flowed up out of the earth and ran through her body, dripping from her fingertips like molten lava. She took a pine branch from her box and standing, she dipped it into the water. She sprinkled water on the crown of her head and then she walked the room, retracing her first circle, flicking the drops of water before her. Each step called up the power of the earth under her feet as she whispered the words that defined the intent of her protective circle.

“Little witch,” something called from the darkness under the bed.

“A mud bowl. Ohhh, I am sooo afraid,” another sniggered.

“Sad, that magic wand. Too poor to get a real one?” taunted another.

“Is this a tea party? Are we playing pretend?”

“Oh, pooh. I left my bonnet at home.”

She ignored the beings around the bed. She would save them for last.

It took all her focus to stay present in the task at hand. The shadow beings and ghosts howled around her, agitated by her light and her magic. More oozed through the walls. The child had been a light, drawing them in like moths to a flame. Early had just made herself a into a bonfire. The shadows abandoned the girl and came at her in waves.

By the time she completed the circle, she could feel her skin burning with the power she had gathered. Her circle now enclosed the room. The ghosts and shadows caught inside could not get out. She turned and sent all her energy into the circle, burning them to ash.

The cat-calls from the bed stopped. The demons muttered softly, sounding a little worried.

Early put down the bowl and picked up a bottle, this one containing rosemary oil. Dipping her finger into it, she anointed the skin of her forehead, lips, the place over her heart, and the arches of her feet. This done, she walked the circle on last time, anointing the walls with spirals, as she muttered the words of her intention. “I say the words of unmaking …” she whispered.

“Abracadabra,” snorted one of the winged demons perched upon the head of the bed. It was getting easier to see them. Early averted her eyes. This was a new experience. She had never confronted a demon strong enough to maintain a physical presence on this plain for so long. Or were they hallucinations? Was her brain trying to fill in the blanks again? Did they actually look like this?

“Expelliarmus,” called another.

“Olly olly oxen free,” agreed the one with sunglasses.

“Free oxen? Dirty socialist,” observed another.

Early laughed and then stomped her foot, angry that they had distracted her.

She completed the circle and put the oil back in the box.

The spirals gathered the energy from the heart of space/time at the beginning of the Oneverse, as she willed them to do. Intent was everything in both law and witchcraft, after all. She could feel the winds of magic, unbound and set free, blow around her, cooling her too-hot cheeks.

Time to see to the child. Early turned and looked at the dark seething mass that surrounded the bed. A dozen pairs of eyes looked back at her.

Early drew near, curious.

“Do you not fear the magic?” she asked them.

They just shrugged.

“Magic is magic,” said the demon with the bat ears and the half dozen gold earrings.

“It is you that we should fear.” said another, shifting his wings restlessly.

“But we do not fear you,” a little one with zig-zag scars carved into its flesh said, as if to reassure her.

“Why?” she asked.

“You are like her,” said the one perched on Angelica’s knee. He patted the girl’s leg.

“Like me? What am I?”

“A spark,” said the one with the long fangs and the overbite.

“A finger puppet,” agreed another.

“A meat puppet,” laughed another.

“Yeah? Then whose hand do I have crammed up my ass?” Early drawled, not trusting anything they told her.

The demons looked at her, their ears suddenly gone flat against their skulls. They muttered among themselves for a moment.

“What? Not so glib now? No jokes?” Early scoffed. She shook her head. She had been a fool to listen to them. Early lifted her hand and let the energy build up in her fingertips.

“She don’t come down to play in the middlemarches, your ma. Not much, anyway.” one said hastily.

“Not ever, more like,” muttered another.

“Not since they killed the last middlemarch dragon,” said another, tugging on his forelock and bowing his head.

“Ten thousand years or more, that was,” one nodding solemnly. “Not a good day for all us magical folk.”

Early pressed her lips together to keep from laughing. Dragons. They were blowing smoke up her ass.

“This one,” said the one on Angelica’s knee, “Doesn’t matter how many things go extinct, it’s her ma’s job to be here. Her avatars don’t last long. Six is old. Hell, three is old. The middlemarches just chew through ’em like kibble.”

“Trick is to keep them out of the hands of the priests,” agreed the bat-eared demon.

“Priests,” spat another, as if the word were bitter medicine on its tongue.

Early paused. “The priest outside this room knows she is a, what did you call her? A spark? An avatar?”

The gaggle of demons laughed at the joke.

“Know? They are the ones who did this to her.”

“Right bloody minded, are the Papal Wizards,” nodded another. “The Boss has a special place for them in his heart.”

“Papal wizards?” Early said the words but they didn’t make sense. “What do you mean, they did this to her?”

“They know, don’t they,” mused one.

“Know what?” Early asked, starting to get angry again.

“That this place cannot exist without an All-Spark to keep it alive. A Mother whose heart is the womb from which all life in the middlemarches springs.”

“Yeah. Without her life spark no womb would ever quicken. Birthing and babies would stop. Green things would forget to come out of the ground. Seeds would never sprout. She gotta have at least one living finger puppet in the middlemarches at any one time. The priest hunt them out with their magic spells.”

“Wait. Wait. Back up. The Mother, Goddess, Spark, whatever you call it. This child is part of her? What do the priests do to the little sparks?”

“Gotta keep her asleep, don’t they.”

“If she wakes, then there will be hell to pay.”

“Paid in hell,” echoed another.

“Keep who asleep? The child?” Early asked.

“Pay attention, mud witch. The All Spark.”

“Clean the wax from your ears,.” said another.

“and other orifices,” muttered a third.

Early stamped her foot. Power echoed around her circle, coming back to her as distant thunder.

All ears flattened against skulls again.

“How do they keep her asleep?” Early insisted.

“They called us out of the Halls of Hell so you would waste your energy trying to banish us. The Boss, he allows it, cause he wants her kept safe. Sleep is better than the alternative.”

“And the child is a channel?” Early said. It was starting to make sense.

“She is doorway,” said the one sporting sunglasses.

“To the All Spark,” Early stated. “Send black magic down through the door and the All-Spark stays asleep?”

“They are powerful wizards, the Papal priests. The Holy See has a library in one of its deepest vaults and there they have spent the last two thousand years gathering the books. The wizards who survived the cullings found a home there.”

“Books?” Early breathed. “Magic books? Books of spells? Grimoires?”

“Yeah. That and more. The church would have you believe that they were all burned. They know how to call demons out of Hell. How to bind the great, timeless dragons to the earth so that they might drain their power and put it to their own use. How to say the words that make the All Spark sleep. How to block the veil to keep your ma at bay.”

“Hey, wait,” one of the demons asked suspiciously. “How exactly did you get into the middlecharches?”

“I have no memory of that,” Early said with a shrug. “So us humans have been praying to the wrong god? If we want things to change, we need to wake up the goddess of the middlemarches?”

“Sure. But it will never happen,” said the one under the bed.

“The Boss won’t allow it.”

“The priests will just put her back asleep again,” nodded the scarred demon.

“She won’t like it, neither,” said another.

Early scowled at the demon who said that. “Why?”

“Why why why why!” crowed a trio of identical demons perched on the foot of the bed.

“She don’t wanna wake up, do she, little mud witch,” shouted the bat eared demon. “What is there to wake up for?”

“The priests have taught her children to hate her,” the triplets chirped.

“Winner writes the history,” said another.

“The priest control the books.”

“Hell, they even control the words. Holy words have become profane. Profane is now holy. Messed up, is the middlemarches.”

“Upside down and backwards,” agreed another.

Early scowled at them, thinking. After a moment, she came to a decision.

“Fine. Keep your sleeping goddess. Give me the child,” Early said, the unseen fire gathering in her hands again.

The demons all laughed. “You can have her if you can find her,” they said, rising into the air as one on great leathery wings. Early built a staff of light in her fist and set it spinning in her hand until it was a blurr of motion. The demons scattered but could only get as far as the edges of her circle.

Early did not pursue them. Instead she sat on the edge of bed and ran her fingers over the child’s body, letting the energy in her hands flow where it wanted to go. The demons laughed at her.

Why became very apparent. The child was no longer in her body.

Dismay filled Early’s heart. She lifted her face to the four corners of the ceiling trying to sense if the child had gone out-of-body and now hung in the room as an observer.

“Come back,” Early cried to the world. “You don’t belong out there. Come back to your body and claim what is yours by right.”

“You think she is merely out-of-body?” laughed the bat eared demon. “She has fled this place. You will never find her. The Boss hides her.”

Early tried to give the child more energy but the thin body took all she had and more. The earth was not a big enough fuel source. Early cast her mind out into space and sucked down the power of the sun. Power surged up through her body. She became an empty vessel through which infinite power poured.

But the child’s body was an energy sink. No matter how much she poured into her, it was not enough. In fact, it disappeared is if the vessel she meant to fill was infinite.

The demons laughed at her, calling out words both profane and discouraging.

Early had her palms pressed to the girl’s chest when she felt the first death rattle.

“No!” shouted Early, sinking the hands of her etheric body into the child’s chest. It was instinctive, this. Like grabbing at your favorite china cup as it slipped off the table and fell to the floor. A fools move. Your reflexes were never faster than gravity.

The girls body was a merely a disguise. She was Nothingness. A portal. Early fell through.

Early stood on the landing of a stairwell. Alone. Nothing else existed in this place. Steps stretched up and down all around her. Early closed her eyes and opened them again. Was this illusion? Was she dreaming? It must be a dream. She was naked.

“Shit,” breathed Early. She stepped over to the railing and looked down. There was no bottom. Just more stairways and more landings. She looked up. More of the same.

A white haired child peeked over the railing and giggled.

“Angleica?” Early called. Angelica had black hair and brown eyes. This child had pale eyes, ice blue eyes. This could not be her yet she seemed familiar. “Don’t be afraid. Come back. I will keep you safe.”

The child turned and ran up the stairs. Early followed. It seemed the only sane thing to do. She ran until it seemed she had been running for months. Early stopped. This was some sort of trick. The girl, sensing her hesitation, stopped and peeked down at her.

“It is not far,” she said in a soft voice.

“What is not far?”

“The thing you seek, of course.” The girl turned and ran on.

Early followed. Her legs began to feel like jelly. How long had she been climbing? Trudging up one more staircase, she looked up to find the girl waiting for her on the next landing.

“This is not a game. Come back with me,” Earl demanded sternly.

The girl smiled and opened a door. Early had not seen doors on the landings before this one. This door had no handle. She walked up the stairs, waiting for the girl’s next move. The girl watched her progress, a solemn look on her face. Early reached out to grab her but the girl ducked under her reaching fingers and slipped inside.

Early lunged, grabbing the door before it closed, and spun through the opening, fearing that the whole illusion would collapse around her ears without the girl’s presence.

She stood on the side of a snow covered mountain. She was so far up, clouds surrounded her. Early spun around. The door to the stairwell was gone.

“Shit,” breathed Early. Now she was stuck. Early peered into the mists and blowing snow. A small form almost lost in the blizzard drew her on.

As Early approached it, the white-eyed child looked up at her and then pointed down at her feet.

They stood on a flat spot at the edge of a cliff. “This is your fault. You woke her. Now what are you going to do?” the child asked.

Confused, Early peered down at the ground. But it was not snow or earth under their feet. It was a block of ice. Bodies lay interred there. Only not all of them were dead. A woman of ethereal beauty stared up at Early. Early thought her dead, but then her eyelids blinked slowly.

“Oh, shit,” Early said, dropping to her knees. She brushed the snow from the glass-smooth ice. The ice melted here she touched it. Early stared at her hands. She still carried a residual of the magic she had used to wake the child. Not a lot but enough. She pressed her hands into the ice and melted it away from the head and neck of the woman. The woman blinked again.

“Wake up, Lady,” Early begged, letting the last of her strength bleed out into the icy flesh under her fingers.

A roaring drew Early’s attention away from the frozen face. Down below, on a trail full of switchbacks, a massive white bear charged towards them. Dark haired Angelica rode on his shoulders. Early heard the desperation and anguish in that roar. This bear did not want Early near the ice goddess. He meant to stop her. Early looked around for the white-eyed girl thinking to ask for help but she was gone.

She was on her own. Early patted the ice queen’s cheeks. “There is no time. Wake up. He is coming.”

The woman blinked up at her, desperation oozing off her like a fell wind. Early fed all the power she had left inside her into her hands, melting the ice and trying to warm the flesh of the ice queen. “I mean, really,” Early muttered, getting annoyed as the magic sputtered and faded inside her. “How did you let it get this bad? What good is a god who cannot protect her children?”

The woman looked to the side. Early followed her eyes. There was nothing there but a cliff and a drop off into infinity.

“You want me to help you die?” Early sat back on her heels, dismay in her heart.

The bear doubled the volume of his roars, and raced all the harder towards them. He knew what she wanted. He also knew he would not get there in time.

“Do you pity her?” asked the ice child.

Early jumped, startled. She was back.

“What?”

“You have a soft heart for the tragic and the frail. Do you feel her pain as your own?”

“This is not her fault. It was done to her.” Early said, angry that she had been reduced to defending impotent gods.

“So it would seem,” the girl said, looking off down the trail to where the bear was turning the last switchback.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“If you think mercy is such a great virtue then do it,” said the ice eyed child.

Early frowned.

“What of the green things and babies and all that shit?” Early asked.

“If you wish them to continue, they will continue,” shrugged the eerie child.

Early looked back at the bear. Angelica crouched over his shoulders, riding him like a race horse.

“Some people might miss her,” Early said.

“Some people don’t like change,” whispered the girl as she faded away.

Early looked down at the frozen goddess. The ice had melted. Her body was free. There were others in the ice with her but their eyes remained closed.

“Fine. Let’s do this,” she said, sitting down and placing her bare feet against the ice queen’s rib cage. Leaning back, Early pushed with all her might. The body resisted for a moment and then slid away, gathering speed on the ice as it neared the cliff edge. Early scrambled after, coming to the edge in time to see the body disappear into the mist at the bottom of the abyss.

The roaring of the bear reached a frenzied pitch. Early looked up. Angelica was gone.

“Time to get lost,” Early said. She leaped to her feet and turned to run but the bear was on her. She dodged its snapping jaws and tried to spin away as it swiped at her with its huge claws. She was not fast enough. Or perhaps she had drained too much power out of her body. Claws raked her chest, sending cold of such intensity into her body it felt like fire. Early stumbled and backed away. The bear followed. She put a foot behind her and found only air. She stood on the cliffs edge. Left with a choice of being mauled to death or falling, she chose the latter. Pushing off with her other foot, she fell backwards into the infinite abyss.

Early woke on a cold, hard floor. A bat eared demon squatted beside her, looking concerned.

“What are you looking at?” she growled. Her chest was on fire. She clutched it, lifting her head to check for blood. Nothing. She lifted her cycling jersey. Welts marred the skin over her heart. Not claw marks. A rune. But even as she watched, it faded.

“The Boss is pissed,” said Sunglasses.

“Well, good for him,” Early said rolling over and getting up on hands and knees. Her medicine bag lay in pieces all around her, the stones shattered, the gold melted, the seeds turned to blackened ash.

Early wanted to be ill. A sheen of sweat formed on her skin at the exertion. Why was she so tired?

Angelica! Early crawled over to the bed. The child was still, her skin waxen and blue. She did not need to touch her to know she was dead.

Early could not make her mind work. What was she supposed to do now?

“You killed her,” the triplets sang.

“There can be only one,” said another in fairly good imitation of a movie actor.

“Fuck you!” snarled Early. “Show a little respect for the dead.”

“The dead are just losers who quit,” crowed the triplets.

“Bastards!” Early hissed. Anger was a good fuel. She could burn that for a while. She rose to her feet and stared down at Angelica’s dead eyes. “None of this is my doing.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” said Sunglasses, a grin on its face.

“The game has changed,” said the scarred demon.

“New rules,” nodded another.

“What are the rules, Lady?” asked the bat eared demon.

“What? Why are you asking me?”

“You are the new rule maker,” it said reasonably.

“The king is dead, long live the king,” trilled the triplets.

Early shook her head. “Gah! You like biting flies. Why are you still here?”

“We are trapped by your magic, Lady. Break the circle and release us.”

****

Early unlocked the door and opened it. Dominic Savoy stood exactly where she had left him. He peered over her shoulder. All her magic implements were safely back in the tin box clutched under one arm. The jumper hung on her shoulders, limp and wrinkled. The florescent lights made the body on the bed seem all the more ghastly.

He pushed past her into the room. Early stepped out into the hall and headed for the staircase. There was nothing wrong with her that a bottle or two of wine would not cure. That and a hot bath and she meant to make all that happen really soon.

Savoy caught up with her in the parking lot as she walked down the driveway towards the bus stop.

“Wait. I need to know what happened,” he said.

She kept on walking. Savoy grabbed her by the elbow. Early stopped and looked down at his hand and then up at him. He let go of her.

“Tell me what you did.”

“Why?”

“Call it curiosity. I have reports to write. Superiors who will ask questions.”

“You paid for an exorcism. The room is clean. Will be clean until long after the bricks of the church turn to stone dust, but you already know that. You know magic. I sense that you are a dabbler.”

“The child is dead,” Savoy protested, ignoring her accusation. He could not admit to anything without revealing ten-thousand-year-old secrets.

Early studied him. Then she shrugged. “Think of it as a mercy killing. She had no chance of ever being normal. You would have locked her up in an asylum if she had lived.”

Early turned and continued walking.

“We want to keep you on retainer,” Savoy called after her.

Early scowled at the ground in front of her, trying to wrap her head around that thought. She turned and shook her head.

“I killed a child. Of all of us here, she was the least culpable. When does killing innocents get rewarded?”

“The Church has need of someone like you. Someone who is not afraid of getting their hands dirty.”

“You need an assassin?”

Savoy stared at her, solemn and silent.

Fucking priests, thought Early. These bastards needed watching. Perhaps she would take a page from their own book. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, the saying went.

“Sure,” said Early.

****

Early lay in the tub, a glass clutched in one hand, a half empty bottle of Cabernet in the other. Hot water trickled out of the faucet, keeping the water hot while she soaked. It was a form of ritual cleansing, this, with candles and tons of bath salt though no magic could wash the image of Angelica’s body out of her head.

She should have felt guilt or regret or horror but whenever she thought of the child’s death, the only emotion she felt was anger. A slow, simmering anger. It made the burn scar on her chest itch. Early scratched the double spiral and closed her eyes.

The things the demons said still lingered in her mind. Why did the wizard priests want to keep her All Spark out of the middlemarches? How had her puppet master beaten ten thousand years of wizardly circle magics?

Why did she trust anything a demon said?

The spiral on her chest flared white hot as something bloomed in the back of her mind.  A memory, whole and fully formed, of being a sentient cloud of space gas eating the sun and becoming pregnant with a small blue planet.

Her eyes flew open. “What the hell was that?” she asked the room.

Early turned off the water and got out of the tub. This was stupid. She was obviously drunker than she thought. Grabbing a towel, she dried off. Catching her reflection in the mirror, she paused and looked into her ice blue eyes. “When I said I wanted to recover my lost memories, I meant mine, not some dead All Spark.”

Somewhere on the other side of the Veil, a demon sniggered.

“Bastards,” growl Early, picking up her glass of wine and downing the contents.

 

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