“Why?” I stuttered, waving a hand vaguely in his direction. I tried again. “Why?”
Meraq shrugged and set down the plate and spatula to wipe his hands on a towel. “I was closest. The Thirteen had me down in Fayetteville following up a lead on a stolen artifact. If you want to wait a few more days I’m sure they could have someone ship out from the Twin Cities or Boise.”
I groaned and wiped a hand over my face, spun in a slow circle, and eventually came back around so that I was facing Meraq again. He hadn’t moved, towel still in his hands. He hadn’t changed, either: same thick black hair, same golden brown skin, same dark eyes, and lips that liked to quirk into a half-smile.
Not that he would have changed. None of us did after we found our elixir. I still had the scar from that wolf bite and Meraq still had whip marks on his back. (Solomon had been no different from any other king or tyrant when he heard the word no.)
“So, it’s me and we get this taken care of as soon as possible. Or you wait for someone else and hope that whatever this is that needs to be taken care of —”
“Alright, alright.” I held up a hand.
Meraq nodded and tossed the towel over his shoulder. He picked up the plate of pancakes again and set it down on the tiny table. “Knowing you, you skipped breakfast and probably lunch, too.”
My stomach grumbled.
“Grab the syrup and dried lemon peel, would you?”
While Meraq filled the table with food, I flipped open a cabinet door and dug around until I found what we needed. I pulled out the utensils, as well, and then cautiously lowered myself onto the bench opposite Meraq.
We ate in silence for long minutes. The pancakes were sweet, but not so sweet that they made my teeth hurt. The eggs were fluffy and tasted even better with lemon peel. There were spicy sausages, too, and thick pieces of garlic toast and tall glasses of orange juice.
Sitting here, with him, eating food that he had made … too many good memories.
“What happened to the motorcycle?”
Meraq looked up at me, one eyebrow raised. “Still have it. Sometimes I need to be a bit more stealthy, though. Look harmless.” He waved a fork. “Doesn’t get more harmless than a twenty year-old RV with worn tires and squeaky brakes.”
I cleared my throat. “Have you … uh … been out to the project site lately?”
He nodded slowly. “About a year ago. It’s coming along. Newton’s calculations were right. Another ten years and we’ll be able to leave.”
I glanced towards the curtained window that faced my store.
“Will you have to clear out before then?”
I drew a deep breath and turned back to him. “No. Not if the timetable is accurate. Any longer than that? Yeah. I’ll have to leave. Maybe head up to Alaska for a while. Take up ice fishing.”
Meraq huffed a laugh and leaned back in his seat. “Fuck you will. You’ll find some small library in some small town in the middle of nowhere and bury yourself in books again.”
I tried not to smile, but failed. I hid the expression behind my glass and finished off the orange juice.
“I’m sorry.” Meraq pushed his empty plate aside. “I know how much this place means to you. A home. Again. A place to stay and build.” He crossed his arms and leaned on the table. “You’re not staying staying, right? You’re coming with us?”
I could barely hear the question mark at the end.
I pushed a bit of egg around my plate.
“Lyvennet.” Meraq leaned back on the bench. “Oh my God, I don’t believe you! You’re seriously considering it! You’re thinking about staying! What the fuck?”
“No, I’m not.”
He scowled at me.
“I’m not. Yes, I’m planning to leave along with everyone else. It’s just … this is home. This planet, these people. We were born here. Yes, there’s another world on the other side of the Porta Alchemica, but no one knows what it’s like. Palombara went through four hundred years ago and we get a single vague message from him two hundred years later and now everyone’s convinced that leaving is our only option.”
“It is our only option. You want to live in hiding for the rest of your life? Constantly moving? Afraid that someone will figure out who and what you are? Can you imagine what the governments of the world will do if they find out that all the alchemages aren’t dead? You want to be sacrificed, too, to end the next war? Or the one after that, or the one after that? Like Andrea and Lorenzo and Yi?”
I flinched. “Andrea volunteered. She was tired.”
Meraq grimaced and ran a hand through his hair.
Silence. A very long silence.
“Okay. So. This dead guy with the Ring of Concealment.” Meraq gathered up the dirty plates and cups and dumped them into the sink. “You sure he was an alchemage?”
It was easier to talk to Meraq this way, his back to me as he started cleaning the dishes. I pulled out my phone and brought up the email Ernie had sent; it contained a bit more information on our mysterious Mr. Galliam. I filled in Meraq while I scrolled, splitting my focus as I told him about the Ring of Concealment, the sigils, the boxes of what might be books, and Galliam’s service during the war.
I stopped when one piece of information caught my attention.
“Hunh. Yeah. She was Polish.”
Meraq frowned at me. “Who?”
“Galliam’s wife.” I squinted at the scanned marriage certificate, the ink badly faded. “I can’t make out a surname, but her given name was Richeza, and her birthplace ooohhhh. That’s bad.”
Meraq came around to peer over my shoulder. “Wałbrzych.”
“As in Project Riese.”
“As in the bunker where the Alchemagistisch Bataillon stored the Porta Alchemica after they stole it from Mussolini.”
Meraq dropped onto the bench on the other side of the table and stared at me. “Not a coincidence. You sure she’s dead, too?”
I pursed my lips and blew a long breath. “No idea. All Ernie could dig up was the marriage certificate. No immigration file. No hospital records. No death certificate. But that doesn’t mean anything. Not everything has been digitized, especially records from more rural areas.” I scratched my cheek. “Could he have reached out to Maria Hebraea? I mean, given his obvious obsession with the Third Alchemagistisch Bataillon ….”
“Maybe. I can send her a message after we figure out this Ring of Concealment.” Meraq pushed out of his seat and walked to the front of the RV. He started digging around in the dashboard compartment. “Where’s this guy’s house?”
“Up in the mountains, past Cashiers.”
Meraq came back with a map and spread it out on the table. He traced the interstate and smaller highways as far as Cashiers. “Okay. Get your things. We leave in five.”
“You know, I can drive us out there. Or you can follow me.”
“How long have you been up? I slept all afternoon. You can nap on the way. I’ll wake you when we get off the highway. Or do you want to be dead on your feet while we’re trying to disarm a Ring of Concealment?”
I opened my mouth, closed it, and nodded.
Ten minutes later we were pulling out of the parking lot. I left the cash tills uncounted, locked up in the safe, with a note of apology to Ernie. I grabbed my toolkit from my truck and a handful of not-decorative rocks from my desk, along with the binders of pins and badges. No sooner had I clicked my seatbelt then Meraq hit the accelerator. The RV groaned and squeaked and lumbered past the DIY store and the yoga studio.
I managed to stay awake for another twenty minutes, hoping to find more useful information in the files that Ernie had dug up. There was a short paragraph in Galliam’s military record, only half blacked-out, that mentioned his training at Fort Bragg. That tickled something in the back of my brain, but I was too tired to dig it out.
I tucked my phone back into my pocket, crossed my arms, and fell asleep. I dreamt of Lucretia burning to ash, and Andrea stepping from the back of a plane, a-bomb strapped to her chest, and of the Porta Alchemica, burning and shattering into a thousand pieces.
A warm hand touched my thigh. “We’re here. Which way?”
I jerked awake, heart thudding. Blinking, I looked around. Meraq next to me. Out the window, the exit off the highway, the road leading up into the mountains.
“Um. That way. Right.”
We climbed slowly, Meraq following my directions. Eventually, we left the main road for a potholed side road. We turned off that, too, and continued along Mr. Galliam’s gravel driveway, following the curves and twists. There were no other cars, no other lights. Trees hugged us on both sides, their branches scraping the RV. I rolled down the window, listening to the tires and the distant hooting of owls and the howls of wolves. The night was still warm, and I could smell the leaves and the dirt.
Glass glimmered ahead of us. The RV pulled onto the wide grass-and-dirt patch in front of the house, headlights reflected by the windows. The tires fell into a rut, and Meraq gunned the engine to push clear. The RV creaked to a stop, front bumper just inches shy of the porch.
“Thank you for not breaking the house.”
Meraq grinned, clicking off the engine and tossing aside his seatbelt. “Smartass. Speaking of, what kind of protections are on the house?”
“None that I know of. I assume Mrs. Mellin or one of her strapping sons or the dozen other people who have been through here since the body was discovered would have set them off.” I frowned. “But I wasn’t looking for protections, either.”
Meraq climbed out of his seat and headed towards the back of the RV. “Let me get my stuff. I’ll go left —”
“ — And I’ll go right.”
Too many memories associated with that phrase: an alchemage in Baghdad driven mad by her quest for immortality, a cockatrice loose in Cairo after it killed its creator, the abandoned alchemage laboratory in Venice that was leaking awful things into the canals. Others. So many others. I pushed the memories aside and climbed out of the RV. Meraq followed, pacing in a slow sunwise circle around the house, bag over his shoulder, flashlight in hand. I went opposite, moonwise, my skull-crusher flashlight sweeping back and forth across the foundation of the house.
We circled three times, meeting up again by the front steps. I shook my head at Meraq’s raised eyebrows.
“In we go, then.” He waved his flashlight up the steps, focusing it on the front door.
The lock was easy. I shoved one of the not-decorative rocks against the keyhole. The rock sizzled and melted, filling the lock, slowly extending into a shape something like a key. I turned it, the tumblers clicked, and the door creaked open.
Meraq grinned at me. “Aren’t you glad I taught you that trick?”
“Pretty sure I learned it from Andrea. I remember digging for chunks of iron in the canal muck in Venice.”
He frowned. “You sure? Well, maybe I learned it from Andrea, too.”
I swept my flashlight at an angle across the inside of the doorframe. Again, it was clear. Stepping through, I felt Meraq behind me as we moved cautiously through the maze of junk. I tripped against a box of magazines, then stumbled into a tower of newspapers. Meraq grabbed my arm, steadying me. I felt my muscles tense and he let go. After an awkward moment, he cleared his throat.
“Did you learn anything else about Galliam? You fell asleep pretty fast on the drive here.”
“Uh. … He trained at Fort Bragg.”
Meraq’s voice was flat. “In Fayetteville.”
I blinked and turned, remembering at the last moment to point my flashlight at his chest rather than in his face. “Missing artifact?”
“Newtonian spectacles. When exactly did Galliam die?”
“First of June, give or take. No one noticed for three weeks. Newtonian spectacles. Like maybe the kind someone would need to read alchemagical ink?”
“Fuck. Where were they?”
“Fort Bragg museum, part of a World War II Alchemage display. They were anonymously donated about twenty years ago.” Meraq waved his flashlight. “We need to get into that Ring of Concealment.”
We shoved our way through the rest of the labyrinth. It took only a moment and a light push of my essence to open the padlock. The climb down the stairs was awkward. I dragged my hand against the dirt wall the whole way, the stairs creaking and groaning. I almost sighed in relief when my feet finally touched the concrete floor. Meraq pressed his fingers lightly against my shoulder, pushing me further forward until we stood side by side, our flashlights illuminating the stack of boxes in the center of the room.
“Yeah, that’s not weird,” he said. “Any guess as to what the Roman numerals mean?”
I shrugged. “Could be anything. The order Galliam packed them. Although he stacked them randomly. Maybe the order of importance of the books they contain — uh, that’s assuming they actually do contain books.”
Meraq grunted. Moving around the room, he switched on each of the ceiling lights, jumping just like I had to reach the thin chains. I did my best to ignore the wedge of flat, muscular stomach that was exposed every time he raised his arm. The lights seemed to provide even less illumination now then they had this morning. There was no way we could work like this.
Dropping my tool bag on the bottom step, I took a swig from my water bottle, then dug out a few more of the not-decorative rocks; the golden yellow ones, this time. I added a bit of my breath and essence, licked one side of each, and started attaching them to the walls as I moved around the room. They pulsed softly in my wake, gradually growing brighter until the entire basement was lit up like a summer afternoon.
One of the earliest tools created by alchemages, and one of the few that was widely shared. No one liked working around dangerous chemicals and flammable paper with only candles for illumination.
Once I was done, Meraq carefully began to move the rug out of the way, revealing the golden ring. When it was completely visible, he stood back and whistled.
“You weren’t kidding. Galliam was damned serious about his security.”
“Just as paranoid as every other alchemage I’ve ever met.”
That earned another grunt. “So. How do we get past this thing?”
The Clock of Unwinding didn’t work. Neither did the Unserpent, or the Whirlwind of Infinity, although it did rip chunks of earth out of the walls. We moved through the classic mechanisms, into increasingly obscure and arcane alchemagery — things I had only read about or heard about second-hand, but never actually tried. Until now. Palombara’s Umbrella. The Eye of Fenris. Inverted Ouroborous. The Tripled Triangle of Paracelsus.
I suggested — half-serious — that we burn our way down through the concrete and just rip up the ring.
Meraq shook his head. “Galliam built pressure and air sensitivity into the sigils.” He pointed, tracing the curves without actually touching the iron swirls. “If I’m reading this right, everything inside the ring will burn to ash if we try to bypass it that way.”
“Solve the puzzle, win the prize,” I muttered and dropped to the floor. Crossing my legs, I scowled at the stack of boxes.
I scowled harder. From here, I could see all of the markered numerals.
“They’re out of order.”
Meraq rubbed the back of his neck, head tilted as he stared up at the ceiling. “What?”
“What if he stacked the boxes like this on purpose?” I traced the pile, following the numbers from the bottom to the top, west to east. “Base matter to aether. Sunset to sunrise.”
I felt Meraq crouch beside me. “Two, twelve, five, one, ten, three, eleven, six, thirteen, four, seven, fourteen, eight, nine, fifteen. Letters of the alphabet.”
“In English, bleaj — nope. Gibberish. Doesn’t work in Latin or Greek either.”
“Periodic table of the elements?”
“Don’t know many alchemages who have ready access to fluorine or neon.”
Meraq scratched his cheek. “Maybe it’s one long number.”
“212,511,031,161,347,148,915. I don’t know that number. That is a very long number.”
“I don’t know that number either, and I said that it would be long.” He dropped onto the floor next to me, running his hands through his hair. He slouched forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “This seems to be all about books. Could the number be about books?”
I lurched upright. “Shit! It’s a Library of Congress call number!” I yanked my phone from my pocket and hastily typed in the search. “It’s letters and numbers. That’s why it’s so long and weird. Letters first for the class and subclass ….” The little wheel turned and a second later the result popped up. “… And then numbers to narrow it down to an exact title.” I turned the phone so that Meraq could see the result.
He was better with the guttural Vs and Ws and jagged Zs of eastern Europe. He read off the title slowly, enunciating carefully.
“Za Mauzoleum w Wałbrzych i Jego Historia Sekret.”
The Ring of Protection lit up, momentarily drowning out the ceiling lights and the not-decorative rocks. I threw my hand up in front of my eyes, leaning back. I felt Meraq grab my leg and my whole body tightened. I could see the iron sigils against my eyelids. And then the light was gone.
I blinked rapidly, my eyes watering. When I could see again, the inscriptions were gone. The Ring was melting, the gold sliding across the concrete in a rapidly cooling pool. I could smell sulphur and salt, and tasted burned earth and hot lead. The rug smoked in a few places.
“Mr. Galliam, I am seriously impressed.” Meraq released my leg. He flexed his fingers and pushed himself to his feet. Bending forward, his head moving back and forth, he examined the ring. Then he stepped over it.
“Fuck!” I jumped to my feet. “Seriously? Stupid!”
He shrugged. “Inscriptions are gone. Ring is melted. I’d call it good.” He turned to study the stack of boxes. “Shall we find out what he was so paranoid about?”
It was another puzzle. It had to be. There was no way that Galliam had gone to all this trouble to protect a bunch of ordinary, mundane books. There seemed to be no order to how they had been packed. The books were not organized by topic, author, publication year, or even size and color. There were well over a hundred of them and, yes, they were nice books. Mostly. Pristine copies of Hurston and Fortune and Yeats, among others. But they were neither rare nor expensive. The majority looked like they had never been cracked open; just stuffed spine-up into these boxes and then stacked in Galliam’s basement.
Two hours after we had solved the Ring of Concealment and here we still sat, the boxes spread around us in a crude circle, tops ripped open. The rug, slightly burned, had been kicked to the side.
This was another puzzle. It had to be.
I rubbed the heel of my hand over my eyes, then jumped when Meraq snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s another Vocal Key. The numerals are dual purpose.” He lifted onto his knees and started to shove the boxes around. “Put them in numerical order.”
I followed his lead, dragging the boxes across the concrete until they lay in a neat line.
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
Meraq waved at the books, the titles on their spines clearly legible — and very clearly a Vocal Key. “Care to do the honors?”
I nodded and took a couple of quick swigs from my water bottle. I mentally read through the Key a few times — not something I wanted to stutter mid-sentence — nodded again, and spoke.
“In the seven woods where range the wild swans and the winged bull ….
I stepped carefully, following the line of boxes, eyes fixed on the words below me: gold embossed and black ink and faded red, printed in simple text and elegant calligraphy. A mesmerizing swirl of colors and styles. The air thickened around me and sweat beaded on my forehead. The not-decorative rocks pulsed softly.
“ … where dost wait journey’s end.”
The air stuck to my skin and clothes and it was hard to breathe.
The floor inside the remains of the Ring shivered and rippled. The concrete softened back into its original gravel, sand, lime, and water. As it continued to shiver, a depression formed, spiraling down; like a hollow filling in.
And then the sand and water and gravel fell away as a box rose to the surface.
The wavering and rippling slowed and stopped. The concrete hardened beneath the box.
“Huh,” I said.
We circled around it, Meraq sunwise, me moonwise, three times. Just in case.
It was a simple military issue foot locker. Galliam’s name and service number were stenciled on the top and sides, along with the logo for Fort Bragg’s Second Alchemage Battalion. He would never have taken this when he parachuted behind enemy lines in Europe; after he ghosted, he must have returned to the base at some point to collect his belongings.
No padlock, no inscriptions. Just a latch flipped down over the ring where the padlock would hang.
“So, what do you think?” Meraq asked. “We done or is there another puzzle?”
I crouched in front of the foot locker, studying it carefully. The United States had four alchemage battalions during World War II. I had served with the First Battalion out of Fort Carson: me, Andrea, Phillipus, a bunch of professional soldiers, and a motley crew of peace-time farmers, waitresses, mechanics, accountants, teachers, and one horse breeder. Hastily thrown together, quickly trained, and then tossed onto the beaches of Normandy.
Pieces of Phillipus were probably still mixed with the sand. It took a long time for an immortal alchemage’s body to decompose, even if it had been blown apart by a 20mm anti-tank cannon.
Between us, Andrea and I had gotten half our battalion off the beach and up the cliff. Where the rest of the war waited.
Galliam had not been a member of the Second Alchemage Battalion. Based on what I had read in his files, he had only turned to alchemagery after the war; or maybe very late in the war, when it was clear that the Allies had the upper hand and fascists were fleeing Europe like human rats. Not a member of that Battalion, but he would have trained alongside them at Fort Bragg; come to admire them enough that he etched their logo onto the trunk that hid whatever he had spent his life protecting.
Every battalion had an official slogan, one handed down the chain of command. But there was always a second slogan, private, created by the soldiers themselves to alleviate boredom and ease fear. Phillipus had come up with the First Battalion’s — Through Fire and Ice.
The Second Alchemage Battalion out of Fort Bragg?
“Like Devils From the Deepest Dark.”
The latch snapped upright.
Meraq dropped down next to me, his shoulder brushing my arm. Together, we lifted the lid. The hinges squeaked softly.
We stared down at the single book lying on the bottom of the trunk.
Dull brown leather. Embossed logo in solid black and red: a swastika in the center of The Squared Circle. Around the logo, in barely legible calligraphy: Das Buch — Dritte Alchemagistisch Bataillon.
For a long moment, I couldn’t breathe. “That’s human skin, isn’t it.”
“Yep. So on a trouble scale of one to ten —”
“We are so far passed ten. Leagues, light years, beyond ten.”
“If Galliam was right and some of the Third Alchemagistisch survived —”
“They will definitely come looking for their human skin book filled with all of the terrible, atrocious, horrendous alchemagery they discovered during the war.”
“You’re using big dictionary words.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a little pissed at myself at the moment. The Ring of Concealment should have been a fucking clue. We should have left it alone. Left it where it was.”
Meraq inhaled sharply, once, and then again. He looked around the basement, at the melted Ring, the ripped boxes, the chunks of dirt missing from the walls. Finally he shook his head and turned back to the trunk and its hideous treasure. “It’s done. We can’t put it all back together. Not now. We just need to get the book to the Thirteen. Maria Hebraea will definitely want to see it. Getting it out to the project site shouldn’t be … too … difficult.”
I shot him an exasperated glare.
He ignored me and pushed himself to his feet. Crossing the room to my tool bag, he rooted around inside it until he came up with a towel.
I didn’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to touch the damn thing, either.
Meraq came back to the trunk, leaned in, and carefully wrapped the towel around the book. There was just enough fabric for him to tie the ends in a chunky knot. Once he had lifted it free, he tucked the whole thing back in my bag.
We spent the next twenty minutes restoring some semblance of order to the basement. We covered the melted gold ring with the slightly burned rug. We taped up the boxes again and stacked them in their original configuration. I pulled the not-decorative rocks off the walls, decided there was nothing I could do about the chunks that had been ripped out by the Whirlwind of Infinity, and waited on the bottom step while Meraq clicked off the ceiling lights.
The tool bag felt heavy when I picked it up and slowly climbed the stairs. Heavier than it should have, with just a single book added to it.
At the top of the steps, I squeezed to the side to give Meraq room to move around me. He brushed against my shoulder again, staggering slightly as his feet hit a stack of yarn boxes.
I grabbed his arm to steady him, and he offered me a tired smile.
I quickly let go, trying to ignore how suddenly his smile disappeared and turned into a resigned grimace.
The door scraped and squeaked. With a brief push of my essence, I clicked the padlock back into place.
Maybe I could cry off tomorrow. Call in sick at work. Let Ernie handle things while I slept for a really long, long time. Call Mrs. Mellin and let her know that it would be a day or two before I could return to claim the two thousand dollars’ worth of books that I had purchased sight unseen.
My turn to grimace as I followed Meraq back through the maze. There was a couple hundred dollars there, maybe. Barely worth the time to process, sticker, and shelve.
The front door protested as Meraq pushed it open.
“Ah,” he said.
I almost ran into his back. He stopped just across the threshold, shoulders stiff, head canted slightly to one side.
I knew that look.
I peered around him, then moved to his side.
Mrs. Mellin stood at the bottom of the front steps, graying ponytail ruffled by the breeze. The creaky old RV loomed to one side. Two of her strapping sons stood at either end of the porch, blocking our escape routes. There was no sign of the third one, the skinny teenager with the bad attitude.
“Right. Of course. This was a set-up. I see that now.” I smiled big at the Strapping Son who watched from our right flank. His Panthers jersey was almost solid black, the letters only faintly reflecting the moonlight.
Meraq waggled his thumb at me. “He’s a little slow on the up-take.”
“Shut up.” I turned back to Mrs. Mellin. “You needed me to get past the Ring of Concealment. Gotcha. I am curious about one thing, however —”
“How did they know to call you?”
“Really?” I glared at Meraq. “Fight for our lives, here. Stop interrupting.”
“Pfft. Fight for our lives?” He cast an incredulous look at Strapping Son Number Two, who was leering at us from the left. “Can you believe this guy? I’m sorry, I know you put a lot of work into this diabolical little plan of yours, but, seriously you’re like … I don’t know … a four.”
Meraq nodded. “Four. Maybe four-and-a-half, tops.”
The two older sons pulled broken knives from their belts. The blades were a sickly white. The tips had been hacked off, leaving jagged edges that bled a watery puss.
“Wow, Rouh Blades.” Meraq rocked up on his toes and nodded. “Okay, that raises you a couple of points.” He turned to me, whispering loudly, “This means they’re evil and we can kill them without feeling bad about it.”
“The book,” Mrs. Mellin said. Her voice was flat, almost bored.
“One question first —”
“No,” she said, and threw a Gorgon Stone at my head.
I blocked it, though barely and not gracefully. I shoved the tool bag in front of my face. The Stone hit the bottom of the bag, shattering into a fine powder. I held my breath. The bag crackled, fabric transforming, alchemagery consuming it and twisting it into a new substance: stone.
The sudden weight dragged on my arm. I let it carry me down to the porch. The stone cracked open against the wood, spilling the contents of the bag. I instinctively scooped up two handfuls of useful supplies, kicking the book behind me and back into the house. I rolled as I went, spinning towards the junior Mellin on my left.
He was already leaping up and over the railing of the porch, soul knife dripping.
I had used up most of my tools trying to solve the Ring in the basement, but I still had a few left — like The Blindness of Oedipus. A tea bag filled with the proper amounts of lead, iron, earth, and a few elements of my own creation. It ripped open as it flew, no Vocal Key required, spilling its contents over his chest and face. He got in one swipe with the Rouh Blade, tearing through my sleeve but missing my skin, and then the powder sank into his eyes.
He shrieked and staggered to the side, arm jabbing and swinging widely. His eyes were bleeding.
I dodged one way, then another, keeping just out of reach of the knife. He lifted his arm high and I hurled Khione’s Kiss at him. The hard, clear marble hit the underside of his wrist, shattering, melting, and immediately reforming. It spread up his arm, across his wrist and his hand, freezing the skin, the fat, the blood vessels, the muscle, the marrow in his bones.
He was crying now. I almost felt sorry for what I had done.
Then his frozen arm came down and I didn’t move fast enough. The broken blade caught in the front of my shirt, grazed my collar bone. If it had been any other knife, I wouldn’t have even felt the cut. But I felt this knife. I felt it tear through the top layer of my skin, the weepy, watery puss burning as it ripped apart tissue, cells, atoms, digging down and down, hunting for my soul.
I screamed and fell.
His arm snapped off at the elbow. It smashed against the porch, shattering into chunks and sharp, clear shards that cascaded across the wood. The sound was almost musical.
His scream was even louder and more agonized then my own, tinged with shock and disbelief. He stumbled away, tipped over the railing, and ran, disappearing among the dark trees.
My teeth were chattering as the alchemagical fluid from the soul knife continued to dig through my body. It wouldn’t kill me. No. This was worse. It would devour my soul and leave behind a walking, talking, emotionless not-dead, not-alive thing.
I rolled onto my side, pushed up onto one arm, and craned my head around. I caught a quick glimpse of Meraq struggling with the second strapping son, his hand around the boy’s wrist to keep the knife up and away. Watery puss dripped from the jagged edge onto Meraq’s cheek and I saw him flinch.
Then Mrs. Mellin was on me. She kicked me in the stomach and slammed down on top of my chest, pinning me to the porch. There was something bright and hot in her left hand. The cut on my collar bone hurt. My entire chest hurt. I kicked up my leg, caught her around the throat, and wrenched her backwards. She crashed back, snarling insults and curses.
A skinny shape dodged past me and into the house. The youngest son, the teen with an attitude. Rev, that was his name.
Shit. He was going for the book.
I reached out, feeling with my fingers. Found a cold chunk of used-to-be arm. Grabbing it, I lurched up just as Mrs. Mellin pulled herself free of my leg. I slammed the frozen piece of her son’s arm into her face.
She wailed, her nose spitting blood. The bright, hot thing in her hand flared and I got a better look at it.
Well, this lady was all about the evil, wasn’t she?
I hit her again and her focus cracked, wavered. The Salamander’s Eye flared again and started to grow, spreading across her palm. Her eyes widened.
I kicked her hard in the chest. She stumbled back, gasping, focus broken, and fire erupted across her hand. It spread so quickly that she didn’t even have time to scream. It burned and burned, down through her skin and bones. Her body crumbled. She fell, a pile of ashes, with only her burning heart left. And it would continue to burn for a very, very long time, until there was nothing left of her, not even her soul.
The cut from the Rouh Blade continued to slice deeper, hunting. Fuck, that hurt.
A thud from inside the house, barely audible above the sound of Meraq and the other son still fighting. I rolled my head, peering through the open door. I could just make out the kid, his eyes wide and angry, the towel-wrapped book held tight against his chest.
There was a shout behind me and a crash. The second strapping son slammed against the porch railing, his face an ugly swollen green, his bloated tongue sticking out of his mouth. He gurgled, slid to the floor, and was still.
“Shit,” Meraq panted. “Fucker tried a Philadelphia’s Noose on me.”
Boxes fell inside the house. I twisted around in time to see Rev dodge and disappear into the maze of hoarded junk.
Grunting, I pushed myself upright. I almost fell as pain flared through my torso.
Meraq caught me, his arms tight, comforting. I could see the scar on his cheek from the dribble of soul knife fluid. He lowered me back down to the floor. “Sit. Just hold on.”
He turned and jumped down the steps. Yanking open the side door of the RV, he leapt inside. I heard cabinets slamming open and closed, swearing, something heavy and metal crashing to the floor. And then he was back, two bottles in one hand, a bowl of leaves in the other.
He shoved one bottle at me. “Drink.”
I swigged it down without argument. The liquid was cool and tasted faintly of mint.
Meraq set the bowl on the floor. He had spent millennia wandering the world with soldiers, mercenaries, and adventurers; he had too much practice making spagyrics. Nettle, dandelion, rue, meadowsweet, earth, salt, and other things that I recognized but he had never taught me to how to make. He set it all on fire and, when it had burned down, he poured the remaining bottle of liquid into the bowl. He shoved it at me.
“Drink. I’m going to look for the kid.”
I wrinkled my nose, but did as I was told. He turned and jumped down the steps again; a moment later, I lost him around the corner of the house. The sludge tasted awful and it was gritty sliding down my throat. But the ache in my chest began to ease almost immediately. The more I drank, the more the pain lessened. I could feel the fluid from the soul knife bubbling and shifting. I finished the last of the sludge and pulled my shirt to the side. The cut had healed to a bright red line.
I wondered if the scar would be permanent, or if my elixir of life was strong enough to erase it.
Mrs. Mellin’s heart continued to burn.
It was a long time before my teeth stopped chattering. When my legs felt steady enough, I awkwardly pushed myself to my feet, leaning on the doorframe. I stumbled down the steps, hunted around inside Meraq’s clunky RV, and eventually found a small, handled cooler in a cabinet. I grabbed the brush and dustpan hanging on the outside of the bathroom door and used those to very carefully sweep the ashes and burning heart into the cooler.
The heat was enough to melt the bristles of the brush and the edge of the dustpan. We would need to find or create some ice, or the heart would burn through the bottom of the cooler, too.
I looked up as Meraq reappeared around the side of the house, his face twisted with annoyance and frustration. Leaves tuck out of his hair.
“The brat with the book. I don’t care about One-Arm.”
“His name is Rev Mellin. The brat.”
Meraq nodded and scrubbed a hand over his forehead. “I need to alert the Thirteen. Newton’s going to shit a brick.”
I snorted. “I’d worry more about Maria Hebraea.”
We burned the remaining body to a powder so fine that the wind carried the ashes away within a matter of minutes. We locked the front door, circled the house again to make sure we had left no trace, stowed the burning heart in the RV’s freezer, and then drove away.
I slept fitfully. Bad dreams. Memories from the war and diving the canals of Venice.
Meraq blasted the radio and the squeaky air conditioning to keep himself awake.
I woke up when the RV lurched to an abrupt halt, and opened my eyes to find that we were back in the parking lot in front of Bunkum Books. I pulled out my phone, blinked blearily, and finally made out the time.
Five in the a.m.
Fuck. The morning crew would start arriving at nine.
Meraq dropped his head back against the seat and sighed long and loud.
“You could stay,” he said.
“Um.” I swallowed. “No. That would be a bad idea.”
He rolled his head towards me, his eyes bloodshot, his skin greying with exhaustion. “Sleep, Lyv. Just to sleep.”
I swallowed again and shook my head. Turning away, I shoved the door open and almost fell out of the RV. Before I closed it, though, I stopped. “Thank you. For coming. For helping me.”
His answer was a tired, sad smile.
“And … keep me in the loop on this one, okay? I want to know when the brat and the book are no longer on the loose.”
“Count on it.”
I closed the door and slowly crossed the parking lot towards home.
[Continue to the Epilogue.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]