11. Time & Angels
I spring to my feet at the fear in Jay’s voice even as every door, window and wall of the house explodes inward, pieces of wood and glass and steel glimmering in the air to hurtle elsewhere and vanish in a twisting of the air.
“They’re coming,” Leona says calmly, standing easily in the middle of dead earth.
“You turned it into a ward trap,” the magician says slowly.
“Every piece, hurled into them like a billion knives,” she says with a smile as sharp as the bones of the house had been. “Enough magic to murder every minion they could create or summon.”
“And now?” he says.
“Unless you have a miracle?” The magician shakes his head and Leona’s gaze flicks to Jay, who is still grabs my hand and tries to drag me away, giving up on trying with the magician. “Then we see what they will do, won’t we?”
“It is too early for that.”
“There are two of us. That’s all and it: we’re good, but numbers count and they’ve spent a long time being seriously pissed off at us. We can hurt them. Maybe even destroy them. But we can’t do that and close the opening they’ll make into the world.”
“Yes,” the magician says. “Charlie, keep Jay safe. Jay, keep Charlie safe. Leona: be prepared to close the way they make into the world. There are options other than magic.”
“Honcho,” Jay says, his voice small and scared.
I keep silent, because Leona has turned pale and just nods her head tightly.
The magician smiles for a moment, and makes to speak when the world falls apart. The air is simply gone, replaced by sickly shadows from which actual demons and angels emerge, the latter on gossamer wings of light, the former engulfed in blue-black flames. I can see fires behind the fires, wings beyond the wings as they spill out into the world in alien fractals. They smile, and their smiles are cruel and bleak, and their laughs are alien and hungry chitterings as the world seems to push at them. Vines wreathe up from the earth only to fall away, the earth around them buckling as trying to hurl them away.
The god inside me rears up and out: claws, fur and teeth engulf me in a roar of power and rage and for a moment – just one – there is nothing to me save its hunger and power, but a hand gripping mine tightly pulls me back as Jay glares up at me and screams, “If you fall apart I’m going to get mad!”
“Okay. Okay.” I bare my teeth; demons and angels fall back from me. A few begin to circle, eyes locked hungrily on Jay, whispers of ‘human food’ passing among them in tones like drowning babies. I flex claws, call up hunger, and know I’m going to die. There are too many, and more with each moment as if each one was unfolding others from itself.
The magician coughs. Nothing more, but he seems solid, more real, as if the world was a poor chalk drawing around him as he stands, hands shoved deeply into pockets. He takes a breath. A second. A third. Demons and angels swarm, only to fall back from him as Leona weaves wards and curses and hurls them with brutal efficiency. Each is visible, a blaze of violet or red flaring against demons and angels, holding them away as one would the tide.
I slice and stab with claws and teeth, tear into them with hunger and watch demons falls back. Each one that swings at me is met by Jay, and fire and blades of light slide off his skin without leaving a mark at all. We are dancing, and all know it, and they are toying with us at a tempo we can hold, savouring their victory and laughing at our weakness.
The magician takes a fifth breath, leans back, and screams.
The sound isn’t human, not at all even though it comes from a human throat. It sounds like the cry of an eagle mixed with a crow and something higher and deeper by far. The god inside me folds in, fleeing deep with a speed that leaves me sore and breathless, and the sound drives me to my knees a moment later. Leona is already curled up, hands over her head. Jay is gripping my right hand in both of his but seems untouched by the sound even as the magician drops to his knees and begins coughing up blood while Leona staggers to her feet and gestures into the air before collapsing unconscious to the ground.
Whatever was out there, whatever it looked like, is simply gone. No demons. No angels. The air entirely normal as if nothing had happened at all. Only the hole where a house had been remained as a sign; that and the eerie silence about us devoid of a single insect or animal. That and Jay letting go of my hand to bolt over to the magician, hovering over him anxiously.
I walk over, my feet unsteady. My clothing is shredded apart, as is Jay’s. The magician seems entirely fine, somehow, despite coughing blood, and stands slowly as I approach, waving Jay away sharply.
“No,” the magician says, his voice low and hoarse.
Jay pales and – then he fades. That’s the only word I have for it. He pulls the world around him like a cloak and is simply gone, vanishing from sight a moment before a being imprints itself on the world in front of the magician. It has male features, a translucent creature that is very much an it, devoid of clothing and as pale as unfallen snow from the hair to eyes.
“Huh,” it says, the voice entirely human. “Among those who’ve learned my name, I wouldn’t have figured you likely to invoke it.”
“Nor would I,” the magician says, his smile as exhausted his voice. “Charlie, this is Arth’Ba’Toch. Arth, Charlie.”
“I am called Winter on this world,” the entity says, and smiles almost shyly to me before looking about. “Why did – ah,” it says, gaze flicking past me into the distance. “I see. You always did have a knack for making interesting bargains.”
The magician bows, but his gaze doesn’t leave the other person at all. “Your aid comes at a cost.”
“It does.” Winter sounds tired. “And those who are outside the universe cannot pay it even if they should.”
I keep quiet, unable to not look at Winter. It – he – is translucent, but what I’m seeing through him isn’t this world as all as much as whirls and colours, shapes and forms at once alien and familiar.
“Winter,” the magician says mildly.
Winter blinks, and his skin is just pale skin a moment later. “My apologies. I have few dealings with god eaters.” He cocks his head to the side. “Did you consider eating me, Charlie?”
I blink and shake my head a moment later; I hadn’t even tried and the god inside me is cowering as deeply as it ever has. “No.” Nothing else: I don’t want to know what this thing is, or what it might do. That much I’m certain of.
A flash of something like hurt crosses his face before Winter turns back to the magician. “You’ve made a choice, then.”
“Leona. And myself. She caused this.”
“Her life is forfeit to others for her – changes,” Winter says smoothly. “What she has left and yourself would not be enough.”
“I can offer my father.”
Winter smiles sadly. “You could. And I would be bound to accept such a thing, but what happened here is not your failure, magician. You are in debt to the powers that walk between, and this debt I give to you to balance your books against them.”
The magician freezes, his face an open book of shock for a moment. “You would do this for me? Why?”
“Because of what will come. And because no one deserves a fate they cannot fight. The world has prisons enough without adding more, and powers enough without forcing such a burden on another.” And Winter doesn’t move, but is no longer Winter. His voice is impossible, a crushing weight on the world that was colour as much as noise, images as much as words. “What I am should not be sought out.”
Somehow the magician stands even as I’m staggering back rubbing my ears. “No kidding,” is all he says, so dry and casual it helps me keep my feet.
Winter blinks, and the awful pressure of him on the world fades. “Then you should not have asked.”
And the magician lets out a small, weak laugh at that and bows. “Probably not. I would thank you, but I’m wise enough to know one doesn’t thank a true power.” He straightens and holds Winter’s gaze, his own leeched of humour. “I will do what I can to prevent another power such as yourself from being born, and I do this freely.”
Winter’s answer is a summery smile that seems to linger in the air as he is simply gone, his absence a relief. I don’t realize how desperate my breaths had been or how hard my heart was hammering off-key in me until he has left. “Holy shit,” I say.
“Shit, yes. Not holy,” the magician says, slipping into himself with almost no effort. He walks over, ignoring the unconscious Leona. “Jay ran west. We’ll need a car to follow him.”
“That’s it?” I said as we were halfway into the next field. “We’re just leaving Leo – Leona – whatever, there?”
The magician sighs. “I can’t explain away what Leona did nor why. What is real about ourselves – what is true, as much as we can be true to ourselves – are the things we most hide from the world. Very often all that makes us unique are the facets of ourselves no one ever sees.”
“She wanted to die and take you with her. Because you both survived when everyone else died.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.”
“We could always go back and ask her,” I snap.
He smiles then, that one smile of sad wisdom that says he is a magician so clearly it almost hurts to see. “What makes you think she knows?”