Ten minutes later, behind the locked door of the Medieval Metaphysics room, Evelyn provided a practical answer to ‘what is magic?’
Magic, in this quick and dirty example, started when she noticed the smear of Twil’s blood on her walking stick. She was still shaking, but her lips curled into that sharp, devious smile.
She grunted in reply. That’s all I got.
I was too busy crashing out on adrenaline.
Raine would get here any minute. She’d had to skip straight out of a lecture. From the tone in her voice down the phone, she’d probably cross campus in record time. A twinge of guilt plucked at my gut.
Guilt, however, paled in comparison to the high still racing through my heart and pounding in my head.
I’d acted tough and won. Was this what Raine felt like all the time? Powerful but spent, shaky and winded? I suspected not. I leaned against the back of a chair and focused on my breathing, one hand wandering up to rub at the bruise inside my chest.
Evelyn slapped her walking stick onto the table and dug around in her tote bag, pulling out odds and ends – a box of cotton buds, a hand mirror, a tub of Vaseline and a black marker pen. She dumped it all on the table. Her hands still quivered as she found an unlabelled bottle of pills and popped two slender white tablets into her mouth, swallowed them dry.
“What are those?” I asked.
Evelyn stared at the detritus on the table, her lips moving in silent thought.
“Evelyn? What did you just take?”
She grabbed the mirror and the marker pen, sat down in her chair facing the door, and got to work.
A visible, focused calm settled over Evelyn as she drew curved symbols around the edge of the mirror, her hands steady and working fast after the first minute. The bottle of painkillers tempted me too, but the bruise inside was immune to ibuprofen and paracetamol and codeine. Not to mention the pills probably weren’t painkillers at all.
Evelyn finished drawing and grabbed her walking stick, then wiped at the sticky red patch with cotton buds.
With painstaking attention to detail, eyes tightly focused, fingers braced against the bare glass, she drew a spiral design in the centre of the mirror – in Twil’s blood.
A deep sense of unreality crept over me, in silence half born of sudden exhaustion, half fear of violating Evelyn’s unspoken ritual quiet, broken only by the scuff of the cotton buds and her constant stream of low muttering. The room was soaked in a deep twilight, with the lights off and blankets pinned over the back windows, the overstuffed bookshelves towering over us in the gloom.
I stepped over to the windows and the big desk along the back, flicked the switch on one of the lamps. Soft orange glow chased the shadows away, into the corners and under the bookcases.
Evelyn’s head snapped up. She stared at me.
“It was dark.” I hiccuped.
Expressionless, she bent to her work once more.
I sat down and rubbed my sternum. The ache and the adrenaline crash fogged the inside of my head.
“There,” Evelyn said. She straightened up, tugged the blanket off the back of the armchair to settle it over her knees, and placed the finished mirror-design on her lap. She braced her right hand against the surface, thumb and two fingers resting at what seemed like very specific points of the design. “Not my greatest working, but it’ll do. I hope Twil tries it on again, I really hope she does.”
“I assume that’s magic?”
“Just a slapdash job. Very little range, and it’s only good for one use, but it’ll give Twil a nasty little surprise.”
“Evelyn, what just happened?” I picked through my adrenaline-fuzzed memories. “What was that all about? Who is Twil, exactly?”
“An idiot and an irritation. Really, there wasn’t any need to muck about calling Raine. Twil is essentially harmless. That was all so much guff and drama.”
“You use magic on harmless people?”
“This is to remind her not to fuck with me.” Evelyn hesitated. “Us,” she added. “I mean us.”
I opened my mouth again but Evelyn whipped around to glare at the door. She waved me into expectant silence. My heart caught in my throat.
Then the triple-knock, the key in the door, the breathless rush.
Raine barrelled into the room, flushed and wild eyed, thankfully faster than Evelyn could panic-cast the blood-mirror bear trap in her lap. Raine jerked to a halt, as if she’d expected to throw herself headfirst into the middle of a fight. I admit, the look rather suited her.
“You’re both alright?” she asked.
“Yes, we’re fine, we’re okay.” I smiled in relief. “Hey Raine.”
“Close the bloody door!” Evelyn snapped.
“Don’t look so happy to see me then.” Raine winked, but she did close the door and throw the latch. “It was Twil, right? On her own? What happened, where is she now?”
“Lurking, I suspect,” Evelyn said.
I nodded. “Yes, on her own. I’d never seen her before. We were in the library, I-”
Evelyn raised her voice. “I suggest you get out of the way of the door.”
Raine quirked an eyebrow at the mirror-and-blood construction in Evelyn’s lap. “Oooh, Evee, you got some voodoo brewing down there?”
“No, I thought I’d expend all the effort just for fun. What does it look like?”
“What are you gonna do, blast the door into Twil’s face?”
“Something along those lines.”
“Can she actually do that?” I asked. “Is that possible?”
“Of course I can’t,” Evelyn snapped, as Raine shrugged and said “Sure, why not?”
They shared a look. Raine cracked a grin and Evelyn scowled before she resumed staring daggers at the door. Raine glanced between the two of us, wiggled her eyebrows, and stepped out of the way of the firing line with a flourish of one arm.
“So, you two were having a girls’ morning out together, doing some bonding over library books, when Twil rocked up and ruined your day?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. The guilt twisted in my chest.
Raine pointed two finger-guns in my direction, struck a dramatic pose, and grinned. It worked. I almost giggled, despite everything.
Raine was wearing a thick black polo-neck underneath her leather jacket. Her boots – not the faded rose ones today – looked sturdy enough to see off any foe all on their own. She had her hair swept back, as if she’d just run a hand through it, an effortless artful disarray.
There’s a unique emotional spice, when you’ve met a person you like an awful lot, and they arrive in your day. You notice every detail, every little change, every minor adjustment of gesture.
Raine had a glove on her right hand. An exercise glove, old and tatty, with silvery wire wrapped around the plastic knuckle brace.
I’d never seen it before.
“It’s really good to see you,” I said, for more than one reason.
“Heather, I am not mad at you. You’ve done nothing wrong. Thank you, for calling me for help.” The finger-guns swivelled to Evelyn, who steadfastly ignored the show. “I’m not actually mad at you either, Evee, just totally mystified.”
“As usual, then,” Evelyn grunted.
“Like, hey, don’t we have this, you know, arrangement where you let me know where you’re at, ask me to come with you, organise things in advance, because otherwise spooky ghost lizards and super-zombies from dimension X might kidnap you and eat your brains. Ring a bell at all, Evee?”
Raine’s good humour seemed genuine. Simple relief, perhaps, but from anybody else I’d have expected shouting, anger, or passive aggression at the very least.
“Yes, yes, I haven’t suddenly gone senile,” Evelyn said. “Ever consider that perhaps I’ve grown out of it at last? Don’t you have other things to worry about now?”
“That’s not what you sounded like earlier,” I said.
I regretted speaking up; Evelyn turned the full force of her frown on me, silent reminder of the day I’d surprised her in this very same room. I resisted a gut-strong urge to curl up and vanish into the chair, forced myself to look her in the eye, get this nonsense under control.
“You were as scared as I was,” I said.
Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me – but then blinked and swallowed, her expression softening. “I … yes, Heather. I … you helped me. Thank you. I needed … ” She glanced at Raine with obvious discomfort.
“Don’t mind me,” Raine said, barely suppressing a grin.
“And don’t you pull a silly face at this! It’s important. Heather and I shared a … moment. We came to an understanding.” She sighed heavily. “And yes, she’s right. You’re right, Heather. I was scared, but only because Twil caught us off guard. She won’t be doing that again.”
Raine clapped her hands together and beamed at us. “Look, you’re both safe, and that’s all that matters. Please, Evee, if you need to rush out somewhere, just call me, yeah? You know I don’t mind. Ever.”
Evelyn grunted and returned to watching the door.
I wished I understood their relationship. Maybe with Evelyn, in private, maybe I could get her to talk about it, if I approached the subject the right way? I cursed myself for such intrusive thoughts, but I felt a burning need to know. Why was Raine so devoted?
Raine leaned down to peer at my face, her hair hanging sideways and her grin at an angle.
“You are far from alright, Heather. I can tell, you know, especially with you.”
“I’m … shaken. We both were. The ache is really bad. I think it was all the adrenaline.”
Raine perched on the arm of the chair. She started rubbing my back in exactly the right way.
No idea how she’d learnt so fast. In the space of two weeks, she’d already figured out the precise way to melt my muscles. For a long few minutes she didn’t say a word, just kneaded the tension out of my shoulders. Adrenaline and panic drained away. Raine was here. Safe now.
A little voice in my mind whispered those damnable words; ‘damsel in distress’. I told it to shut up.
“So what did Twil do?” Raine said.
I told her.
The more I spoke, the further Raine sharpened into rapt attention, focused and listening, asking no questions. I recognised the change coming over her. Tense, quiet, ready. I found it deeply, astoundingly attractive.
Or rather, I would have, if the puzzle pieces weren’t slotting into place.
No longer buzzing with adrenaline and jumping at shadows, I hesitated at the clues in my own memory. I couldn’t be right, it was too absurd. If I was correct then the world was dumber and more annoying than I’d dared imagine. I let my explanation trail off as I stared at Raine. She raised her eyebrows.
“Heather? It’s okay, you-”
“What is Twil, exactly?”
Raine paused, split-second hesitation. Any other time, any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have noticed. “Okay so, Twil Hopton, that’s her name, here’s the 101. She’s not that hard to deal with, but she does represent some potentially dangerous people, depending-”
“No, that’s not what I meant.” My throat tightened. “What is she?”
Raine glanced at Evelyn for help. “Uh, Evee, this didn’t come up?”
My friends shared a look for just a moment too long. Evelyn shrugged and Raine bit her lower lip.
I felt myself bristle, left on the outside of some secret communication. Is that what they thought of me? The hesitation all but confirmed my worst suspicions, that the world was bonkers. I couldn’t believe this. Absurdity.
“I can put two and two together,” I said. Raine raised a placating hand but I forged on. “The growling noises Twil made. The dog jokes you were throwing at her, Evelyn, which seemed to strike such a nerve. And you,” I frowned at Raine. “Do you think I don’t notice things? You’ve got silver wire wrapped around a weightlifting glove.”
“Uh, that I have. Well spotted, yeah.” At least Raine had the sense to look guilty. She raised the makeshift knuckle-duster and gave me a sheepish smile.
“I’m not completely culturally ignorant.”
“I knew you’d get it, Heather, I just wanted to be gentle and-”
“She’s a werewolf.” I said. “Twil’s a werewolf.”
The word didn’t seem real. I huffed and crossed my arms over my chest.
“Werewolf is hardly the right term,” Evelyn said. “But you’re basically correct. Don’t be so surprised, I thought it was obvious.”
“Werewolf.” I jammed as much scorn into my voice as I could muster, which at that exact moment was rather a lot. “I can’t believe this. This is nonsense.”
“She doesn’t actually turn into a wolf,” Raine said. “She just … summons it. Kind of.”
“Oh yes, because that makes all the difference, great.”
“You’ve dealt with far worse. It’s not that wacky.”
Memories of the confrontation in the library basement repeated in my mind, slotted into a new context, but one shone out above all the others. A cold hand crept up my spine.
“Evelyn,” I said. “What exactly did you mean when you told Twil she needs to ‘get over Raine’?”
“Ah.” Raine winced.
Evelyn snorted with dark amusement. “This is what you get, Raine, your chickens come home to roost. Or wolves. Whatever.”
“You have a werewolf ex-girlfriend.” I gaped at Raine.
“No, no!” Raine put her hands up. “No, it was like, a week, or maybe two. And it was all her.”
“You have a jealous werewolf ex-girlfriend and you thought this wasn’t relevant information that I needed to know?”
“I didn’t even know she still came up to Sharrowford. I thought she was gone for good.”
“And she smelled you on me,” I said.
Raine frowned, hair-trigger switch to serious. “She said that?”
“She said I reeked of both of you. She probably thinks you and I are … you know.” I threw up my hands, too exasperated for embarrassment.
“A safe assumption,” Evelyn muttered.
I closed my eyes and put my head in my hands. I felt a headache coming on, and this time it had nothing to do with impossible math.
“Heather, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you,” Raine said. Her hands found my shoulders again and squeezed. “I really didn’t think she was even around any more. If I thought you were in the slightest amount of danger, I would have warned you. I’d knock her lights out if she threatened you.”
I knew I didn’t have any right to be mad at Raine. After all, we weren’t lovers. Just friends. Right? This was her ex, her past, her business. None of my concern. I had no right to demand anything.
Her ex-girlfriend also happened to be an insupportable break with even my tenuous standards of acceptable reality.
“Magic and monsters and other dimensions I can just about deal with. Werewolves are a step too far. Let alone jealous werewolf ex-girlfriends. When did I end up in a bad supernatural romance novel?”
“Romance?” Raine’s voice kinked with amusement.
I blushed furiously, amazed she had the audacity right now.
She kept rubbing my shoulders and I kept my face hidden, trying to accept this incredibly stupid addition to my incomplete model of the world.
“Do you want the full lowdown on her?” Raine asked.
“Oh, why not? I suppose I should at least try to understand. Can hardly make less sense at this point.”
“You got it, Heather. Like I was saying, Twil represents some potentially dangerous people, depending on what they’re after right now.”
Evelyn snorted a derisive laugh. “Idiots and amateurs, begging to get their minds eaten by an Outsider.”
“A cult?” I asked, looking up again. “She’s in a cult as well? Oh, great, this gets better and better.”
“Not actually from Sharrowford,” Raine said. “There’s a cult up in Brinkwood, two train stops north of the city. Pokey little village on the edge of the woods. You ever been past there?”
I recalled a rotting ex-mill town seen from dirty train windows, trees marching down to a valley in the mid-distance. “I think so.”
“It’s a run down place. They’ve got some fancy name for themselves, but we just call them the Brinkwood cult. They’re a bit mad, but not screaming avocado batshit level like the Masonic-lodge wannabees in Sharrowford itself.”
“’Screaming avocado batshit’?”
“Let’s just say the Sharrowford cult is real bad news. The Brinkwood weirdos, eh, I’d rather we never have to deal with them again, but they’re not stab-happy.”
“Probably because they’re much older,” Evelyn supplied without looking away from the door. “A little stability goes a long way.”
That piqued my interest for real. These people had history, local history? “How old?”
“Approximately three hundred years, at an educated guess,” Evelyn said. “My grandmother had them well-documented, from a safe distance. They probably started as a group of Quakers, tried to rebuild the abandoned church out in the woods, where Lowdon village used to be. That’s about three miles north of Brinkwood. They found something there in the basement, hibernating, and they’ve been worshipping it ever since. At least, that’s what they tell themselves.”
“What did they find?”
Evelyn shrugged. “Something washed up from Outside. Stranded and crippled and half-dead, I suspect.”
“Well,” Raine said after Evelyn fell silent. “Cut a long story short, Twil’s the cult’s greatest success story. The reason I know all this is we were friends for a bit.”
“Friends,” I echoed.
“Yeah, friends, really. I mean, yes, she had a crush on me, I think?”
“You encouraged her enough,” Evelyn said.
“Ahem, well.” Raine spread her hands in an apologetic shrug. “I may have. Poor decision, I know, yeah. Fair cop, I admit that.”
“I don’t want to know,” I lied. I was dying to know.
“Twil wasn’t born a werewolf,” Evelyn said. “As far as I know, werewolves don’t even exist. She’s the product of a experiment a few years back, to bind a demon or a spirit or some other Godforsaken thing to human flesh, without displacing the human soul. Her back’s covered with a mural of binding tattoos. Keeps them carefully hidden, but Raine saw.”
Raine winced again.
“Right,” I said, voice tight.
“She showed me!” Raine said. “I wasn’t getting her naked, I swear.”
“Lucky for us, the Brinkwood cult had some kind of internal power struggle right after they made themselves a werewolf foot soldier. Since then – nothing. Twil’s basically been left to have a mostly normal life. Her grandfather died, which I suspect meant a change of cult leadership. They seem more concerned with tending to their crippled God these days. They took some interest in my library about a year ago, but I sent them packing. That’s how we met Twil, she’s developed a bee in her bonnet about us. Blame Raine.”
“She hasn’t been around in at least six months,” Raine said. “She’s probably here on actual cult business. They could be up to anything. Including spying on us. Wish I knew why. Maybe I should beat it out of her.”
“So what do we do? Break out the wolfsbane? Wait for a full moon?” I couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
“I need to find her and shoo her back to the sticks, that’s all. Seriously Heather, I won’t let her hurt you, even if she did smell my scent on you. She can take it up with me.”
“Oh, I can’t sit here and listen to this nonsense,” Evelyn snapped. “Stop trying to scare her, Raine, it’s not going to help you get into her knickers any faster.”
“Evelyn, please!” I said. Raine laughed and ruffled my hair.
“Twil’s not going to bother Heather one bit,” Evelyn continued. “She’s going to come here, to finish up what she started, with me. Why in hell would she bother Heather? She doesn’t even know her. She was on the same old hobby horse as usual, pissing and moaning about the books. This time I’m going to teach her a lesson. This is the last time, last time she does this.”
“Evee, you’re my friend and I love you, but why didn’t you call me the moment you saw her?”
“Certainly, I should have taken out my mobile phone while trapped in a corridor with her. ‘Just a moment, Twil old dear, I’m going to call Raine to come punch you in the face for me.’ That would have diffused the situation very handily, wouldn’t it?”
“Better than breaking her nose with your stick. She might have hurt you. Or Heather. I wish I’d been there.”
“Oh, nonsense.” Evelyn pulled herself around to face the door again. “She wouldn’t have dared. It was all front and bluster. You know her, Raine. You know she’s not dangerous, not really.”
I raised my hand. “I do seem to recall her winding up a punch at me.”
“See, Evee?” Raine turned back to me. “Damn, she didn’t actually hit you, did she?”
“No. And to be fair, I did slap her first.”
“You … what? You slapped her?” A grin crept across Raine’s face. “You slapped her? You slapped Twil?”
“I know! I don’t know what came over me. It’s not a behaviour that should be encouraged, please.”
Raine raised her hand for a high-five. I blushed and hesitated.
“Come on, Heather, you earned it.”
“F-fine.” I touched my hand to Raine’s. Not much of a high-five. “It does complicate things though. She was provoked. I struck first. I slapped a werewolf. Oh, that’s such an intolerable word.”
“From the sound of things, she deserved it.”
“It makes absolutely zero difference,” Evelyn said, punctuating her words by jabbing the arm of her chair. “She wouldn’t bother with Heather, she’s waiting outside for me to leave. But I have more patience.”
Raine sighed and spread her hands in a wide shrug, a good-natured grin on her face. “Can’t leave you two alone for five minutes, can I?”
“Believe what you want. Perhaps you should listen to-”
A knock shook the door of the Medieval Metaphysics room. Three sharp raps. My heart jumped.
“Ha! I told you so,” Evelyn said.
She stared at the door with an evil glint in her eye and re-oriented her fingertips against the bloodied glass once more.
Ten minutes later, behind the locked door of the Medieval Metaphysics room, Evelyn provided a practical answer to ‘what is magic?’