My Big Idea is as follows: I put up a short story to celebrate every week sales reach a certain (modest) number, to thank readers for buying hardcover, and as a show of faith that blogs and free content make a difference.
People who link to the short story get entered for a draw for a Prize Pack (this week's is a Demon's Lexicon audio book, a selection of bookmarks and an Irish silver knife charm). Links from book bloggers count as extra, as I think book bloggers are awesome.
This story is set in the universe of The Demon's Lexicon, but it doesn't spoil you for any of it: it's the back story of one of the characters. The first part of this story is up here.
Thanks for everyone who's been reading The Demon's Lexicon, and hope you enjoy!
I would also like to give huge thanks to the creator of a new thing that thrills me to my socks - a Demon's Lexicon fan forum. In order to celebrate the new fan forum, I'd love you guys to go there and discuss what story you'd like to see up here next, and I promise to comply with the wishes of the majority. ;)
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy!
“This is why we’re called the Obsidian Circle,” Laura said.
The floor of the cellar was earth, and buried a little in the earth were huge rocks. There was light streaming in from the open door at the top of the cellar steps, and when the faint light hit the surfaces of the rocks they glimmered like dark mirrors, with faces in them just on the verge of sight.
“Magicians in days long gone by used to pass obsidian ropes through their own tongues to make demons speak to them,” Laura said. “People thought of it as the earth’s blood.”
The light on the rocks was ghost-light green, and then when Gerald moved the rocks were black again, so black that the white light could only bounce off it, defeated.
“You can make knives out of obsidian that cut cleaner than steel,” Laura said. “Blood calls to blood. Obsidian is for iron strength, and we are the strongest of all the magicians.”
The rocks were each like a dark well of power, and the mark on Gerald’s chest burned. He felt a little bit like a baby bird, turning his face up to his mother with a wide-open, hungry mouth.
“Every circle we make is a pale reflection of this circle,” Laura told him. “When I teach you to draw a circle, I want you to remember this one. It is the heart of our Circle. That means it is your heart, and mine.”
Gerald liked the idea that they had the same heart.
He memorized the way it looked, the obsidian circle, and upstairs in a bare sunlit room under Laura’s direction, he was able to form the shape of it perfectly against the wood.
The demon rose from it the first time, Anzu gleaming like an idol made out of gold, tattoos writing themselves along his shoulders and arms as he stood there, and then in dark shadows along his unfurling wings. Gerald saw eagles flying with something in their talons, knives wielded and children being thrown into the mouth of a fiery god.
“I’m starving,” Anzu whispered.
“You have a job to do,” Laura told him. “We have some things to show Gerald.”
Shadows writhed and turned to monsters on Anzu’s golden skin, cast by nothing, as Laura went to a cage with a crow in it and opened the cage into the circle. The crow shrank back against the bars, but Anzu turned into smoke and shadows and came at it, filtering in through its eyes and its open beak.
The bird cawed, banged against the bars in a moment of frantic desperate struggle, and then went profoundly quiet.
“All right then,” Laura said. “Now, Gerald, I don’t want to do this for you this time. You’re carrying a sigil. You have power. So use it.”
Charles and Hannah had told him that everything would unlock, the floodgates of power would open, when he was sixteen: but that was half a lifetime away and Gerald wanted to share a heart with them all now. It didn’t matter how difficult the smallest tasks were. He could think shortcuts around and into magic. Failure was not an option.
He made his bones feel hollow first. That was the most important thing and Charles had it quite wrong: feathers hardly mattered at all.
It was vital that he did not think what he must look like, as he moved the illusion into all its different phases, building the bird by fractions. Bones growing hollow and tiny with skin draped over them as if he was melting, the shriveling of his eyes to bird eyes in a face that was still human.
Gerald figured it didn’t much matter being a monster in stages, if the end result was beautiful.
And Laura was so pleased with him when he was done.
“Your protégé is coming along quite nicely,” Arthur had said at dinner yesterday, and Laura had glowed with pride.
Gerald hadn’t much cared for Arthur treating him like a pet dog who’d done some marvelous tricks, but then he reminded himself as Arthur often reminded him that not many magicians would have let someone so young stay. It was only natural that Arthur was sometimes a little dismissive of him. It’d be different once he really proved himself, once he was a true magician.
He had stayed a month at the house of the Obsidian Circle, and he never wanted to leave. He’d even stopped fearing they would make him leave.
Now he just had to prove he belonged.
Laura nodded her approval and threw open the windows, transforming as she did so, fingers becoming wings on the latch, and the three crows flew out into a radiant blue sky.
“This is a reward, you know,” Laura told him as they swung through the air. “We’re trusting you with one of our secrets.”
Like the stone circle, the heart of the house.
Gerald began to feel a little excited, imagining all the marvels they might have, magic like hidden treasure.
Crossing through the counties of England wasn’t hard when in the air. As the crow flew, it was only half an hour to Cornwall where the fields were yellow and the land had sharp angles, and then only a few minutes before they reached their destination, which had Laura hovering even though Anzu flew on.
It was a narrow grey road with a boy running down it.
Over the last month Gerald had started to think of himself as the only child in the world, hopelessly and impossibly young. It was a shock to see someone who he thought might be younger than he was.
The boy was tall and thin, and he was running in the way the boys who were always front in the pack at school cross-country races ran, loose and easy and incredibly fast despite the heavy schoolbag that kept sliding off one shoulder.
He was just a boy. There was no taste of magic about him, nothing interesting at all. But Laura slowed her flight and glided above his red head, so Gerald checked himself as well.
The boy kept running, tireless and strange. Gerald had never been much for sports at school, and of course Ashling had seen to it that he was always picked last for teams.
The boy vaulted over the back of a garden fence without even a pause, landing on his feet like a cat, and the two people in the garden turned towards him with a strange suddenness as if they were expecting an attack.
It was a small, nice garden. There were carefully pruned bushes and a tree with a dartboard nailed to its trunk. Anzu was already in the tree, watching the garden below.
There was a deck chair with a man in it, broad-shouldered and with his red hair cropped so short the curl in it was almost lost, a pile of papers at his right hand and another boy at his left.
This boy was even younger than the first one. He was black-haired, short and stocky, and when the man’s face lit up the dark boy’s face did not change from its still, faintly unpleasant expression. He looked like nothing so much as a bad-tempered goblin.
“Welcome home, Alan,” said the man to the boy who’d come over the wall. “Can you tell me what’s wrong with coming through the front door? Not original enough for you?”
He spoke fondly, a smile irradiating his whole handsome face as he looked on Alan. It was pretty clear which child was his favourite.
Laura moved gently into the shadows of the tree, resting there hidden and safe. Gerald followed her, taking his time about it and being casual, the way she’d taught him to do most things.
He’d been the brother of the favourite child for eleven years. He found himself looking at the goblin boy with a little sympathy.
“Quicker this way,” said Alan the athlete, cheerfully. He was looking at the other boy, and not his father. “Told you football practise wouldn’t take so long. I’m back already. Did you miss me, Nick?”
Nick the goblin fixed him with a baleful stare.
Alan slung down his bag, books spilling onto the sunlit grass, and went over to give his brother a one-armed hug. Nick recoiled from him with a blow and a shudder, as if trying to escape from the coils of a python.
Gerald withdrew his sympathy. He couldn’t imagine Ashling trying to hug him.
“What, no hug for your old dad?” said the father, opening his arms. “Just ignore me, I see how it is. All I do is slave every day to keep you two in clothes and food – in Nick’s case, of course, about four times the amount of food other people eat – and where is the appreciation?”
Not that it had ever been an option for Gerald, but Ashling had started restricting hugs by now, and she was a girl. Alan couldn’t have been more than a year younger than Gerald, and it was kind of shameful the way he walked into his father’s arms and hung on around his neck as if he was five.
“So how was your day, my boy?” asked the man, smoothing one big hand down his son’s narrow back. When he finally let the boy go, he ruffled his hair so the curls stood straight up on Alan’s head like a bush after a storm.
“Good,” said Alan, and launched into a monologue about full marks in his spelling test and the hilarious thing Gregory and Mary did at lunchtime and how his Latin was coming along and how Tacitus was incredibly fascinating. He walked back to his bag and started sorting through the books there, apparently on a mission to find pieces of work and interesting passages from books to show his father.
Oddly enough, Nick followed Alan when he moved and stood watching him sort through his books, standing a few paces away.
“Hey, you,” Alan said, lifting his head. “I found a book I’m going to read to you tonight. I think you’ll like it.”
He got the baleful stare again for his pains. Then he reached out, but his fingers never got within range of Nick’s face. Nick bolted backwards and glared, and Alan smiled at him.
“I got top marks in geography,” he said, glancing at his father. It was a rather anxious look, Gerald thought, and strange for a child to give a parent.
It made his father smile, and Alan grinned brilliantly back at him and began the search through his books and the speech on how wonderful and amazing his day had been anew. He spoke with total conviction but also the ease of long practise, Gerald thought, like an actor very familiar with his lines.
Nick circled like a wary animal and then moved back in to watch solemnly from a little distance away, a small sulky planet naturally in orbit around a sun.
Halfway through Alan’s chipper little monologue, Gerald worked out why Laura had brought him to this house.
It was nothing like the house of the Obsidian Circle. It felt normal at first, totally normal, but the longer Gerald sat there in the shadow of the trees the more he knew that simply wasn’t true. There was something here, trying to catch at his attention, like a glint of firelight coming from ashes that looked grey and dead except for the burning scarlet hidden at its heart.
There was power here, but hidden somehow.
“Is it some kind of illusion?” Gerald murmured to Laura, softer than the wind in the trees.
Laura laughed and said, “Oh, well done. All four of them are wearing talismans. Those are filthy charms that kill magic at a touch – unless the magic is very strong.”
Very strong magic, hidden here. Gerald looked at the house hungrily, and wondered why they couldn’t just take it.
“The Goblin Market makes the talismans,” Laura said. “Just to make our lives more difficult. And to make some cash, of course. That’s the Market’s main concern.”
If Gerald had looked over all he would have seen was the beak on a bird, but he knew Laura well enough to know her lip was curling. He’d already had the Goblin Market explained to him, people who took all the advantage they could of small magics, who lived to make money off power and associated with disgusting necromancers and pied pipers, but who hated and interfered with the higher magics. As if it was any of their business.
“So these people are part of the Goblin Market?” he asked.
“Much more than that,” Laura replied.
Gerald was evolving a theory that one of the family was a pied piper, and had stolen the youngest child’s voice, when Alan asked Nick what he wanted to do before dinner and Nick spoke.
His voice was scratchy in his throat, deep for a little boy’s voice, but definitely there.
He crept a little closer to Alan and said, “I want to play a game.”
Gerald was watching him closely, watching for magic. Nick put his hand into the pocket of his jeans and instead of magic, he drew out a knife.
The blade glinted in the sunlight, sharp and bright in that small hand.
Instead of recoiling, Alan grinned and said, “Winner gets to pick what we have for dinner.”
Then he popped something beneath one sleeve, there was a little sound, and he suddenly had a knife in his hand too. He hurled it at the dartboard affixed to the tree where Laura and Gerald were hiding.
The knife hit the bull’s eye. There were long grooves in the dartboard, Gerald noticed now, not the pinpricks left by darts but the traces of many knives.
This home only looked normal at first glance.
The man in the deck chair had his face turned away a little. He looked sad.
Alan was smiling. “Come on, Nick,” he said, and made another lunge to hug him, not seeming to mind as much when Nick slid away. “Beat that.”
Nick’s face was upturned to the sky, eyes black as shadows. Gerald saw his shoulders brace as he took aim.
He didn’t hit the bull’s eye. He didn’t hit the dartboard.
He hit the bird who was Anzu, perched at the top of the tree. The bird never gave a death cry. There was just a dark shape falling to the ground, and a dark shape streaming upwards into the sky, body and demon parted in death, and silence.
Nick said, “I win.”
“Come on,” Laura said. “Time to go.”
Gerald followed her lead, grateful to get away from this strange place as he’d been to get away from the necromancer and his tower of bones. He rose into the sky, and as he went he saw the face at the window.
She was standing on the second floor of the house, still and pale. Her black hair was drifting around her shoulders like a cloud made of shadows, and her eyes were pale and empty. For a moment Gerald felt something like when he saw all new magicians, felt that twinge of recognition, of belonging and joy, but the power he saw in this woman was twisted and crushed.
“Who is that?” he called out into the sky.
“That’s the Lady Livia,” Laura’s voice drifted back to him from above. “This is the house of the Ryves family. And that is the woman Arthur loves.”
In one day, then, Gerald had been shown the heart of their house, and the heart of their leader.
They returned to the room and a storm of feathers. They were black feathers, as if someone had plucked every feather from every bird in a murder of crows and thrown them into the air, and they kept whirling and falling again as if Gerald was trapped in a nightmare snowglobe.
Laura put her arm around him, shielding, and her voice scythed out through the darkness.
“Anzu, stop this now!”
The feathers were suddenly falling only inside the demon’s circle, burning to ash when they hit its limits.
Dimly through the falling, burning shadows Gerald could see Anzu, lying in the circle with his hair long and hiding his face, like a waterfall of molten gold. The wings he wore were skeletal, arching over his back like tree branches naked in the dead of winter.
“You were not summoned to have temper tantrums!”
Anzu lifted his head, and the tips of his bone-wings hit the floor, skittering along the boards like huge white spider legs.
“You did not just receive a knife to the throat!”
“No, I didn’t,” Laura said sharply. “I kept myself hidden, and so did Gerald. A child knows better than you do. If you think you’re getting rewarded for this day’s work, demon, you are very much mistaken.”
The feathers were falling ever more gently, lightly. A feather fell on Anzu’s bright hair and sizzled into nothing, like a snowflake landing on a hot stove.
“There are other circles,” Anzu said slowly, at last.
“And yet you always come back to us,” Laura told him.
Anzu was silent. Demons did not respond the same way humans did, Gerald had noticed over the past weeks. They answered questions, but any idea of feeling obliged to speak because someone else had spoken was alien to them. Anzu just watched, the way demons did, waiting for a moment of weakness.
“There are some things I want to teach Gerald, though,” Laura continued sweetly. “Give us some power, and I think he can be trusted to let you go walkies for a bit.”
Gerald’s heart pounded hard. He’d never been allowed to release a demon before, though the forms had been one of the first things he’d learned.
Anzu’s mouth twisted, then formed a twisted smile. “I do adore a little exercise.”
Gerald glanced over at Laura, who bent her silver-shot head and said: “Go, Gerald,” softly and encouragingly.
“I am Gerald of the Obsidian Circle. I have power over you. I call on you to free you, Anzu,” Gerald said carefully. “I free you to walk a path from our circle to a window. I free you to the limits of my desire, in exchange for power. I free you: I pay you in blood.”
“Do you indeed?” Anzu laughed softly. “Whose?”
Despite the demon’s laughter, Gerald could already feel the power building and brimming in the stone circle below, flowing out to them all. There was power building warm and sweet at the centre of his chest, at the focus of his mark. It felt like love.
Anzu was moving to the edge of his circle, turning to smoke, the feathers he’d created falling through him now, his skeletal wings no more than pale outlines of light.
Gerald knew better than to ask a demon something without reason, but he did it anyway. “Why do you keep coming back to us?”
Astonishingly, Anzu answered without asking a price for his answer. He turned to Gerald with fire and hunger in his eyes, and said:
“The Obsidian Circle lost something of mine.” He kept his gaze on Gerald even as he faded to shadow, his eyes still burning. “I want it back.”
Then he was gone, his desire hanging on the air. In the circle, feathers fell, no longer burning but settling on the floor, turning the circle into a little pool of darkness.
Laura used the power and turned it into luck. They went to the races and bet on horses, seeing the flow of horses change even as they made their bets, laughing when they were handed their money.
No magician ever needed to work unless they wanted to, not at anything but magic. Gerald ended up having to stuff the old, folded pieces of paper into Laura’s overflowing handbag, into his own bulging pockets.
Luck was easy to create. Even the humans wanted the world to change around them, to bend to their desires. All Gerald had to do was think of the world between his hands, changing course just a little.
As a reward Laura gave him a book on changing the weather, and Gerald was curled up by a fire in the library reading it, nestled snug in his favourite armchair, when he looked up and saw Arthur standing in front of the fire.
Arthur was not looking at him but into the flames, his shadow cast over their leaping brightness. Firelight cast a bright pattern on his cheekbones, but mostly his profile was in shadow.
“Sir?” Gerald asked.
Arthur’s eyes swung to him. They were very pale eyes, ice pale: pale eyes were lucky among their people. Laura had told Gerald about an earlier time, before the demons started measuring out power so carefully, when they would fill you with so much magic that a magician’s eyes would change.
No longer windows to the soul, but windows to something better: shimmering silver power.
Gerald’s own eyes were grey. He would have liked to have eyes like Arthur’s, even though Laura assured him that eye colour didn’t really mean anything. The days when it had meant power were long past.
“What do you think of humans?” Arthur inquired.
“Sorry?” Gerald asked.
“I have just received your school report,” Arthur informed him. “They say you’re doing excellently. They say you’ve settled into school and are getting along well with your peers.”
Arthur didn’t sound happy about that. Gerald had thought he would be.
“Typically a young magician does not do well at school,” Arthur said. “We take them in at sixteen, or older if it takes longer to find them. By then they resent humans, loathe being trapped by their rules and forced to learn things that will never be of use to them.”
“They might be of some use,” Gerald offered in a low voice.
They’d been taught about cloud formation in school, and the geography teacher had let Gerald take out some more books on the subject. Gerald already thought it was going to help him with weather magic. Understanding something gave you power over it, and with five years to go until he was sixteen, Gerald knew he needed all the power he could lay his hands on.
“What?” Arthur snapped, and Gerald flinched back.
“We all have different views on humans,” Arthur said. “But I believe you know what happened to Rufus.”
Gerald had heard the stories. Rufus had had a human wife, not so long ago, and a child. When the child had started to display signs of power from the cradle, Rufus had told his wife about them.
She’d taken it badly. She’d also taken the child.
The Circle had been forced to pursue her, to protect the child, to protect themselves. Arthur had been furious.
It had been an accident, of course, Laura had assured him. The Circle would never have deliberately hurt a magical child. But the human woman had been panicked and irrational. She hadn’t cared who she hurt.
Rufus didn’t have a wife or a child now. He lived with the Circle now.
“Would you describe yourself as a human sympathizer?” Arthur inquired.
Gerald stared. “No,” he said. “I know them. Sir. I can’t imagine ever wanting to get close to one.”
If they were close, they could hurt you.
Arthur looked at him. His face looked modeled, so well-formed that it seemed like a sculpture, and about as cold, but there was a faint light of approval in those icy eyes.
“Very sensible,” he said. “They’re just not very interesting, are they?”
Which was just as stupid as his views on human lessons. Laura had said Arthur was raised by magician parents, branded with a sigil the day he’d turned sixteen. Magic had come easily and gone smoothly for him.
He’d never been eleven and part of a Circle with a body incapable of the highest magic. He’d never learned to use every avenue to power he could find, because he’d never been desperate. Arthur had been given so many things, the only thing he knew how to do was take.
For the first day he’d seemed like a hero. For the first week, Gerald had still been in awe.
By now, Gerald knew he was smarter than Arthur. Smart enough never to let Arthur know what he thought of him.
“I couldn’t take a personal interest in one, no,” Gerald said smoothly. He let Arthur see him peep up at his leader, anxious for more approval.
Arthur smiled at him benevolently. “Very sensible,” he said again. “You don’t want to get into a mess like Rufus did when you’re older, eh?”
“I don’t even understand how he could,” Gerald said truthfully.
Trusting humans was stupid enough, but not all the magicians had Gerald’s experience of them, had lived with humans who knew. But how had Rufus been able to choose one of them, after he’d known about magicians? They were just faces in a teeming crowd, endless and meaningless.
It wasn’t like magicians, when you could simply look at one another and feel a rush of joy and belonging, feel the thrill of your magic racing in time with theirs, like putting your mouth to their pulse.
Arthur’s lips curled. “Some people might say you’ll understand when you’re older,” he said. “But I wouldn’t agree. It’s always different with other magicians: always better. I remember when I first saw my wife.”
Gerald shifted, remembering that woman’s pale face at the window, and Arthur nodded at him.
“Laura told me you saw her,” he said. “Livia. What did you think of her?”
“She’d have beautiful magic,” Gerald said. “If it wasn’t for that talisman.”
Arthur nodded slowly. “Humans dream about it,” he said. “About doing what we do. Flying, changing the weather, controlling the luck, and above all else walking into a crowded room and seeing just one face there and knowing. Instantly knowing.”
“Why,” Gerald began, and then knew he was being stupid, knew he couldn’t ask why Lady Livia was far away from them all, her magic crushed, in that strange house with that man and those children. He thought of a different way to ask. “Why isn’t she here where she belongs, sir?”
“Sacrifices had to be made,” said Arthur. “She’ll be here one day.”
He clasped his hands behind his back, still staring into the flames.
“Are they keeping her away from us, sir?”
“She’s confused just now,” Arthur said. “But that’s going to change. That is something you’ll understand when you’re older, Gerald. Love means never taking no for an answer.”
Gerald agreed, up to a point.
That morning he took the bus into school with Leslie and Max. He’d watched them very carefully before coming over and making friends. It hadn’t been hard. They were amazed by how much they had in common: they even had the same favourite movie. Max waved Gerald over and immediately launched into a conversation about the annoying grandmother who’d just moved in with them.
Gerald was used to being on the outside at school, watching and waiting for an opportunity to hurt Ashling. Now he had a different goal, that was all.
There was a lot to be learned from humans.
For one thing, he was learning how to maneuver people into situations where saying ‘no’ to him never even occurred to them.
It didn’t mean he had any particular feelings about specific humans. They were all pretty forgettable.
He did remember that younger boy, the one with the black eyes who had thrown the knife at the Circle’s demon and violently rejected affection from his own family, as if it simply didn’t matter to him. As if it would always be on offer.
Gerald hadn’t liked Nick Ryves.
“If you had one wish, what would it be?”
If it had been Leslie or Max asking that question, Gerald would have understood it and had a ready answer. Since it was Laura, he knew it was a test.
They sat together in the room for demon summoning, hands linked, the room lit by the shimmering magic of Anzu’s circle.
This was a vigil, Laura had said. It was traditional for a young magician to have one after taking the sigil, but some of the Obsidian Circle had said Gerald should wait until he was sixteen to perform it.
Gerald had no interest in waiting.
He looked at Laura, sitting cross-legged on the floor, her face serene, and then at Anzu, who looked bored. The talons on the tips of his fingers were ringed by fire, and occasionally Anzu would blow them out like a girl blowing daintily on her manicure. After a few moments the flames would flicker back into life and Anzu would run his fingers through his hair, raking fiery paths through the gold.
“I would like to reach the source of all magic,” Gerald said. “With my Circle at my back. And I could see it, and understand it completely, and measure how much we wanted, and only keep enough to control.”
“Magic once called is difficult to dismiss,” Laura said softly. “You would be utterly destroyed.”
Gerald tilted his head and gave her the smile that seemed to charm all the teachers in his new school. Laura looked mildly amused.
“I’d like to give it a try, all the same.”
“Have you thought about taking a job? When you’re older?”
Rufus worked in a bank, and Laura was a photographer, and James was an actor. Most of the other Circle magicians didn’t work, though a lot of them had specialties when it came to magic. Gerald had been thinking more about which specialties he might focus on.
“I’m really more interested in magic,” he said apologetically.
“Magic can enhance your job,” Laura said. “And the job can enhance your magical skills. Allow me to demonstrate.”
She lifted a hand and suddenly Gerald was in a desert, hot wind in his hair, a camera in his hands. It was such a little thing, but he could shape the world with it, capture it with one mechanical click. There were scarlet mountains stretching out in front of him, so vast that they stretched out into a red haze, and he felt as if he could hold them all in the hollow of his hand.
Then he was back in the darkened room, staring across at Laura.
“Oh, I see,” he said. “You can get a whole new perspective on magic. And it makes illusions easier, too.”
Laura tilted her head. "Would it?” she asked. “How?”
Gerald searched for the power to show her, and then found he did not have half enough. He glanced over at Anzu, and saw Laura’s tiny encouraging smile from the corner of his eye.
“I am Gerald of the Obsidian Circle, and I have power over you. Go from your circle to a window, and back to me. And share some of your magic with me in return.”
Anzu gave a languorous sigh, as if he’d been waiting too long to return to that window, and Gerald felt the magic travel from demon to circle to him.
He didn’t even notice when Anzu turned to smoke and filtered out of the room.
He was busy using his new power, combining it with his vision of something he’d never seen, and making the world shimmer around them into a variety of different images. All he had to do was use the magic to suggest something to Laura’s mind, and hers would fill in the details.
People created most of their illusions for themselves.
Gerald leaned back, triumphant. “You see?” he asked. “Aren’t you proud of me?”
He bit his lip as soon as he’d spoken. Laura’s smile faded.
“Gerald,” she said. “I want to make this perfectly clear. I have no interest in children. Or in being a mother.”
Gerald swallowed. “Right,” he said. “Of course.”
“The reason I came for you was because you are going to be strong,” Laura said softly. “And because I am interested to see if a boy taken young will develop in a different way than… Arthur’s usual style of magician. If you understand me.”
Gerald nodded and tried to look adult. “I think I do.”
“So if you’re looking for an emotional attachment-”
“I’m looking for a teacher,” Gerald interrupted, and watched Laura’s shoulders relax, saw that she was hearing what she wanted to hear. “And maybe,” he continued. “Maybe, when I’ve learned more. A partner in – not being Arthur’s usual style of magician.”
Laura didn’t say no to him.
“Open the window,” Anzu said to him the next day.
It was late afternoon, and Anzu was lying stretched out in a pool of sunlight, wings folded behind him to create a feathery pillow for his head and shoulders. The summoning circle was drawn wide, almost touching the wall on both sides of the room, and Gerald had to maneuver on the tips of his toes to get the window open without straying into the circle.
The window once open, the summer breeze came floating in, and with it the sound of a choir rehearsing.
“Were you hoping that I’d cross the circle so you could kill me, or did you want to hear the singing?” Gerald asked.
Anzu grinned at him, mouth and teeth red as if he’d been drinking blood.
“Can’t it be both?”
Since demons could not lie, Gerald thought that was interesting.
“You like music?”
“I have an affinity for birds,” Anzu said, moving from prone to a crouch in one liquid movement. He cast a look at his own wings curling above his head, and then a scornful look at Gerald. “Others might have guessed that by now.”
“And why’s that?” Gerald asked.
Anzu’s eyes narrowed, bright and terrible. “Because birds are kept in cages,” he bit out.
“So be free,” Gerald said. “From this circle to a window. In exchange for power.”
He was not expecting Anzu to tip back his head and laugh, a low terrible sound like a riptide roaring in his ears.
“Third time,” he said.
“So?” Gerald said uneasily. “So what?”
He knew it was nothing. Demons liked to unsettle humans. They tried every way they knew how. That was all.
Anzu was only smiling at him like that to upset him.
Anzu leaned down, as if he could lean across the limits of the circle and whisper in Gerald’s ear. His eyes were like funhouse mirrors, throwing a reflection of Gerald’s face back at him, pale and warped.
“Pride goes before a fall, little magician,” he murmured. “And after you fall, there’s me.”
He snapped those bloody teeth in front of Gerald’s face, and laughed when Gerald jumped. Then he dissolved into smoke and wind, and sped away on his errand, and Gerald forgot the dark moment and felt power slide sweet through his veins.
He hadn’t even particularly needed the power. He’d just wanted the rush.
He remembered that, that it had been a whim, that it had been a careless wish for power, that evening when he was sitting in the garden and making the flowers trade places with each other in their beds, when a shadow fell over him and the flowers stopped dancing under his hands.
He looked up into eyes like doors into the dark, in the face of a stranger.
It was the opposite of seeing a magician. His skin felt as if it was in revolt, wanting to creep away and leave him nothing but bones and exposed flesh. This is not one of your kind, his magic told him.
But there was power there.
Power, and something else familiar.
Gerald was sure he’d never seen this woman before, but she stood staring at him as if she knew him, her fluffy blonde head tilted like a bird’s.
Like a bird’s.
Gerald made a small sound. He wanted to flatten himself on the ground, like a mouse fearing an owl had spotted him.
The small blonde woman tilted her head back in a silent laugh, and then her whole face twisted, bulged grotesquely, teeth falling out of her mouth and her lips and nose melting terribly together to form an approximation of a bird’s beak.
The transformation was shaking her body apart, and the neck of her shirt fell open a little.
Gerald saw a sigil there. Not the sigil of the Obsidian Circle, another sigil, a symbol of a heart in a fire, but it marked the woman as a magician.
She had been a magician, one of his own, Gerald’s body was telling him. But she wasn’t anymore.
The woman lunged at him, snapping her beak in his face. The same way Anzu had only hours ago.
Gerald screamed, then. He couldn’t help it. He screamed and ran and she chased him, silent and awful, and the other magicians must have intercepted the demon, he didn’t even see them, he was crying openly and he couldn’t let anyone see him break down.
He raced into his room and opened the wardrobe door, and climbed in. It was small and dark and safe there. The clothes he’d been wearing when the magicians took him away were hanging up there, and he put his face against his jeans and thought about going back to Ireland.
That necromancer with his hands overflowing with the dead. He’d known where being a magician led. He’d chosen to do something else.
Nobody will have suffered but me.
Gerald curled into a tight, tight ball. Someone had suffered for him, though, someone had suffered in his place so he could have the magic he felt coursing through his body right now.
There was no way back to Ireland. That door was closed to him. And Laura had made it perfectly clear that he was no use to her without magic. There was nowhere to go, and nobody to be but himself, cold and alone in this dark place, thinking about the woman with the demon inside her.
Gerald had let Anzu have her. One of his own.
He pressed his forehead against his knees and rocked back and forth in the tiny space of the wardrobe, trying to think, trying to make a plan, find a way out of all this. He didn’t seem able to do anything but cry.
Nobody came for him this time.
Nobody had come for him the first time, not really. Laura had come for herself: he understood that now.
Gerald laid his wet, heated cheek against the wood at the back of the wardrobe door. His swollen eyes ached, and he could not stop shaking.
There would be no rescue, not ever.
It took the woman four days to die. She sat down to dinner with them, and the whole Circle was thrown into unrest. Gerald got the impression that demons usually stayed as far away from magicians as they could.
Anzu was tormenting him deliberately. But Gerald had been tormented before. He knew how to make it a lesson for himself.
The first dinner, Gerald had to run away and vomit, helplessly, into a toilet, and then lie on the bathroom floor and cry.
By the fourth dinner, the woman’s hands were moving slowly, the skin over them stretched tight and mottled. She was rotting from the inside out, her black eyes still bright and fixed malevolently on Gerald.
Gerald smiled at her and passed her the bread.
On the morning of the fifth day, Gerald woke up to dawn light and Anzu back in his summoning circle, being punished by Arthur and Laura.
Gerald stood at the door watching them for a little while, and then spoke.
“He does it on purpose,” he said. “He chooses magicians, even though humans would be easier to get at. Because he hates us.”
“He takes whatever he can get,” Arthur said contemptuously. “And he delights in causing annoyance or pain. That’s all it is.”
“Why not stop him?” Gerald asked in a quiet voice.
Laura had been pacing around the circle, grey dressing gown flaring, looking less calm than usual. She glanced at him sharply.
“What do you mean?”
“My friend Max at school has a grandmother who’s very old and who annoys his whole family,” Gerald said. “They all wish she’d go away. And she probably doesn’t have long to live as it is.”
He had not expected Laura and Arthur to look at him the way they did then. Laura’s hand clutched at her dressing gown in an almost spasmodic movement.
“All we have to do is send the demon to a specific window,” Gerald continued uncertainly.
“We never do anything like that,” Arthur barked at him.
“But if the demon’s going to possess and kill people because of us, then we should-”
“It’s the demon’s business what it does!” Laura almost shrieked.
Laura shook her head firmly, her gaze turned away from him, and Gerald suddenly recognized that look. His mother looked the same way whenever he did magic, making it something she was forbidding and didn’t even want to see at the same time, as if she couldn’t bear its existence.
“We have nothing to do with what the demon does when we let it go,” Laura informed him. "Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Gerald answered slowly. “Yes, I understand perfectly.”
The room at this time of day was all shadows and pale light. They were all staring at each other, tired and rumpled.
Except for the demon, of course. Anzu was standing in a ray of dawn light, looking young and pale and pure, wrapped in soft white. His wings were like snow, gently curled around his body, wingtips crossed over his stomach.
And the low, dark sound of his laughter was coiling through the room. Gerald saw Laura shudder.
“Oh, that’s rich,” Anzu said. “Hear our little boy. Let’s feed frail old ladies to demons. Nobody will miss them. How quickly they grow.”
“Shut up, demon,” Arthur commanded.
“What lovely little monsters this Circle makes,” Anzu purred. “You must be so proud.”
“Shut up!” Laura nearly screamed. She walked over to Gerald quickly, and slid her arm around him, holding on a little too tight, slipping a hand briefly over his ear as if to block out the demon’s words. “Shut up,” she repeated, and rocked Gerald against her for a moment. “Let’s go get breakfast,” she said. “And let’s talk no more about this.”
Arthur led the way, as he always did.
Gerald lingered with the demon.
Anzu had stopped laughing, but he still looked amused, his dark smile the only thing marring the illusion of angelic innocence, light shimmering all around him. Death would be beautiful, when Gerald sent it out. The humans might welcome it.
This made perfect sense. He didn’t know why Laura had looked the way she had.
“I’m waiting,” Anzu murmured, low and cold.
There was no way back. There was no other path to choose. And the power was waiting for him. Gerald lifted a hand and began to speak the form that would release the demon.
“I am Gerald of the Obsidian Circle,” he said. “And I have power over you.”