CW: self-harm/cutting (aftermath on screen), psychosis, delusions, paranoia, disordered eating, injury, passive suicidal ideation, horrible self-esteem
All Bards build their own spells eventually; it’s the most intrinsic part of Songwork, that your most efficient and effective spells will always be the ones you write yourself. Still, there are some practical concerns. When writing spellsongs, always know what mode you’re using. Ionian is triumphant, glorious; Aeolian is for mourning. Dorian is for summoning and enchanting; Phrygian is for questing and searching. Lydian is used for binding and trapping. Mixolydian is the mode for glamours and romancing. And above all, avoid Locrian when you can; while sometimes a touch of uneasiness is what you need, Locrian stirs rage and fear in the hearts of men, demon and animals alike. Use it wisely — and sparingly.–Thaumatist Independent Jan Kieransohn Vandemeer, 1914; “Revisiting the Mechanics of Songwork; Rote Learning versus Creativity”
All Bards build their own spells eventually; it’s the most intrinsic part of Songwork, that your most efficient and effective spells will always be the ones you write yourself. Still, there are some practical concerns. When writing spellsongs, always know what mode you’re using. Ionian is triumphant, glorious; Aeolian is for mourning. Dorian is for summoning and enchanting; Phrygian is for questing and searching. Lydian is used for binding and trapping. Mixolydian is the mode for glamours and romancing. And above all, avoid Locrian when you can; while sometimes a touch of uneasiness is what you need, Locrian stirs rage and fear in the hearts of men, demon and animals alike. Use it wisely — and sparingly.
–Thaumatist Independent Jan Kieransohn Vandemeer, 1914; “Revisiting the Mechanics of Songwork; Rote Learning versus Creativity”
The library was one of the places in Den Elessa that Rook had actually missed. The library in Drijkanberg wasn’t bad, no; nor was the one in Haberjasse, although it was even smaller than the Drijkanberg one, and he’d only stopped in once on the way to Den Arden. Nor was the Den Elessa Centrum Library the biggest one even in Den Elessa; that honour belonged to the shared Collegiates’ Archive that sat at the crossing points of the four Colleges. No, it was just… the one that he felt the most comfortable in.
He’d spent a little bit of time getting lectured about the overdue book he’d accidentally lugged all the way to the Zweispars and back, and the other one that he — definitely hadn’t lost, it was just probably somewhere in the spare room’s stacks. All fair enough, and sort of reassuring. When he’d turned around, he’d been more than a little surprised to find Csindra standing at one of the shelves, reading one of the books with laser focus. He knew she could read — she’d been sneaking glances at his notebook when he caught her, after all — but it was always a bit of a hit or miss, even within the military.
“Found something you like?”
“It’s not exactly light reading,” she replied, a teasing note in her voice.
Rook peered over her shoulder. “Anyone whosoever lies with a demon shall be put to—” He stared at her. “I bring you to a library and you pick up the law code?”
She shrugged. “I have my reasons.”
“Yeah, three guesses what those are.” She was focused, he’d give her that. He’d expected at least a little bit of wavering from the mission, given he’d practically blackmailed her into it, but no, she was determined. Practically more set on it than he was, to be honest, which wasn’t the most heartening thought.
He rolled his eyes and left her to it, climbing up one of the ladders to check out some of the older books that lived at the very top of the stacks. He had an excuse ready on his lips about research, but really, he just liked how it looked — both the old books, and the view. He gazed at them for a moment, before glancing back down at Csindra. When she thought he wasn’t looking, she had her fingers brushing over the spines, wonder showing through the cynical mask. She’d been terrified of the elevator; she was equally awestruck by the sheer number of books here, even if she was too proud to let it show.
Then he bonked his head, gently, against the leather bindings of the books in front of him. Now he was the one getting distracted. He had to stay focused —
It could be a human—
His hand twitched on the ladder. Yeah, the less he thought about that the better. Phania isn’t even in Den Elessa anymore, he reminded himself. That was a good thing. It meant he didn’t have to add this to the list of things he’d hidden from her. No, she was out in… where was it, the cliffs? On the Den Niederung border, anyway. Wolfie was harder to shake, but he wasn’t the most attentive. And Jacob…
Rook felt himself trip over that, like missing a step in the dark. Most of the time, he didn’t even consciously acknowledge that he was hiding — something, anything — let alone more than one thing. Just a big pile of twisted fear that came for him when he let his guard down. What was he hiding? Plenty of people probably suspected that there was something wrong with him. Something hard to describe, something that stank of feral magic but couldn’t quite be pinned down. Even when he did start to name that much even to himself, he managed not to let himself acknowledge that he’d kept or introduced distance in all of his friendships, all of his relationships. He didn’t want anybody too close, so he kept them all at arm’s length… except Jacob.
You can do it with him if you need to. You just don’t.
The twinge in his chest suggested otherwise. Whatever. He’d get over it. It was a crush, not the end of the world. Still, he found himself examining his bone-thin fingers on the ladder, wondering what was wrong with him that he was happier to let a complete stranger poke at his secrets than any of the people who he would have called friends. He supposed the answer was pretty easy, though. If he needed to control the situation, he could. He didn’t need Csindra’s respect, or love, or admiration. He didn’t need to keep her alive. He didn’t need her to like him.
Now they were in his apartment, and whatever distraction Rook had found in talking to Jacob was gone. Csindra was still poring over the book. He didn’t want to ask her why. He should — he knew that. Was she reading it for the case, or was she reading it for him?
It’s not feral magic. It isn’t. It’s probably something from using all four styles, or overusing Bloodwork, or something like that. You haven’t even had an incident since getting back.
Which didn’t explain his familiar. Or the ease he had with thaumaturgy in the first place. Or, Visser scheisse, where the hell he’d come from in the first place.
Rook left Csindra to the book, lighting an oil lamp in the corner with one of his spare matches and unwrapping his familiar from his neck. “There you go,” he murmured, easing the snake down to the swiftly-warming glass. “Sorry I’m not warmer.”
The snake pressed his snout to Rook’s hand for a moment before coiling into a little pile next to the lamp. If snakes could purr, Rook was sure he would have been, and the corner of his mouth crooked up into a smile. Poor guy. Being cold-blooded had been a lot easier down in the Zweispars. Hopefully his next form was a little better adjusted for Den Elessa.
Then Rook closed his eyes, trying to figure out which part of his body was hurting now. It kept changing. His stomach? No, he’d made a point of not eating much, so there wasn’t anything for his stomach to complain about, and he’d drunk enough water that it would stay quiet on him. His knees had been bad since Den Arden, so that wasn’t new. Elbows, a little. The ladder had been a bad idea.
He sat down on the loveseat, wincing a little as the headache lanced through his skull. Or that. That was the simple answer. Trying to listen through static half the fucking day wasn’t doing his head any favours. He opened one eye, watching Csindra put the book down on the table and continue reading. “You are dedicated,” he mumbled.
It took her a moment to react. “Hm? Oh. Yeah.”
“How on earth are you finding a legal code so interesting?”
She shrugged again, but after a few moments of silence, she rested her elbow on the table. “When’d the 214th shift from demons to feral magic in general?”
Huh? “Come again?”
“Oh, just — this is an older legal code. I guess you missed that.” She propped up the book, and Rook squinted a little. 1840.
“And you think I’m a nerd?”
“I was just curious. Also, I wasn’t sure where the newer ones were.”
“You could have asked.”
She shrugged again, which was getting just a little bit frustrating. And this time, she didn’t continue. After a moment, Rook realized that she’d asked him a question, and struggled to remember what exactly it had been. Right. Demons. “Uh, I dunno exactly. We still care about demons. They’re still feral magic.” He couldn’t quite see the point of this line of questioning. National Security covered national security. Feral magic meant both demons and people who tried to use feral magic, like idiots. “I think it was under Forrath. Back then, some time. When people started trying to use feral magic instead of thaumaturgy, at least more often — which just gets them killed.”
“It says here the penalty is death for using feral magic.”
He nodded, then wished he hadn’t. He wasn’t sure, now, if this was a real headache or one of the other kind, the kind where he was trying to think through a fog, and when it cleared, he’d realize he’d done something he hadn’t meant to. Hopefully the first. “I mean, yeah. On paper. That’s still true, just turns out you die if you try it anyway.”
Csindra didn’t hide her expression fast enough, and the twinge in his chest suddenly felt a lot more real than normal.
“Spit it out. Tell me the truth,” he said, feeling how blank his voice was coming out, pain putting an edge to his words he didn’t intend (have you been in pain all day, Rook) “or Rustelozen sla me neer, I’ll make you.”
“I’m sure you’ve got practice with that,” she shot back, closing the book in front of her with a ‘thump’. “And I’m not planning on lying to you. I do want to understand.”
She conspicuously bit back whatever she was going to say — and he could tell. People always thought he couldn’t. “Alright. Your feral magic policy. Both in here and the one I’ve seen in the files for the case as the standard, or whatever. Capture, divert, destroy. Explain it to me.”
Changing the topic. Smooth. Nobody wanted to say out loud what they thought he was — what they suspected he was. What he suspected, and wanted to find any other answer to. Anything. Still, this was better. Maybe. So he acknowledged the switch with nothing more than a rueful snort. “Rural or not, I doubt you’ve never seen feral magic in action.”
“I have, but I still want you to explain it.”
He glanced at the kitchen, trying to will himself to get to his feet and make some tea, or something. He couldn’t manage it. Maybe in a bit. “Capture. Use thaumaturgy to cage or trap feral magic, especially if it’s taken any kind of shape. So demons, wraiths, spirits, etcetera.” Like Phania, or him, or Wolfie, caging a drabuka with song and smoke.
“I’m guessing for experiments, not so much fair trial.”
He just glossed past that one, especially because otherwise he’d start defending Phania, which meant talking about her. “Divert’s pretty easy. Especially if it’s a force or a phenomenon, just make it go somewhere else. Cheaper, easier, makes everybody happy. Like the quickwater that ends up in people’s basements sometimes during floods.”
Csindra raised her eyebrows at that one. “…Quickwater?”
He chuckled quietly. “Scheffen calls it that. Looks completely normal until something living touches it, then it gets dragged in and reduced to bones in seconds. It’s like battery acid.”
“Oh, I get it. Quicklime, quicksand, quickwater. Cute.”
“Yeah. And it’s just easier to drain it, because once it hits a normal water source, it’s fine again, because it’s magic, not poison.”
Csindra took a deep breath, taking this in. “And destroy?”
Rook hesitated. Technically, you couldn’t destroy feral magic. What you really did when you battled it head-on was weakened it into retreat. Theoretically, enough of its opposite destroyed it; but it usually withdrew long before that. “Use its opposite, take it head-on. Not, uh, recommended but works sometimes.”
“You can’t kill édjan’na.”
“You know an awful lot about feral magic for a Cutter,” he grumbled.
“And you know horrifyingly little, all things conside—” She shut up — but not fast enough.
His eyes had slid out of focus. Now they focused again. The pounding in his head hadn’t gone away, but now it was an underlying beat to crystalline-clear understanding that he was in danger. She knows she knows she knows—
Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up. That had been the whole point of bringing her here. Of course she knew — except they’d been walking this tightrope of non-acknowledgment. She knew what he’d told her, which was everything he knew, or knew for certain, except —
(you know an awful lot more than that)
“It’s not what you think,” he managed to get out, and it sounded almost normal. He could make it sound convincing, because feral magic — it was like an inferno. He’d seen it in action. It burned whatever it touched. It was like lightning in a bottle, if lightning had learned that humans were its enemy. “And that’s not what we’re talking about right now.” He opened the folder on the table —
Which had been a mistake. The photos hadn’t bothered him before. They bothered him now, the buzzing in his ears getting loud again. You could do that, something whispered to him, maybe just his own conscience, maybe something else. Remember what you did? Remember? Do you remember?
Csindra leaned her elbows on the table. “Most o— demons can’t actually use magic. They’re made of it, sure, but they can’t…” She gestured at the picture. “They have their specific tricks.”
“Aren’t intelligent. I mean, literally. They’re not, uh… There’s no actual brain, I think is the way to put it?” Csindra wrinkled her nose. “I know words for these in Kanet’valan.”
“I think so. They’re conscious, but not actually thinking.”
Which meant a wraith definitely couldn’t have done these, either. He’d said as much to Olive, hadn’t he? Demons didn’t care about family lines. And if you got as far as thinking about someone directing a wraith, you were right back at someone using feral magic. If someone could direct wraiths, do anything more with them than chase them off or trap them…
“You said most demons,” he mumbled.
“Yeah, there’s a few. It’s not one of them, though – nevat’wa nok’ra, anyway.”
“Roughly translates to I fucking hope not.”
“How come?” He still didn’t look at her. It would make his head hurt too much.
“If we’re dealing with the Odjon’nadja, there’s not a force on earth that can help you, so let’s hope not.”
Rook couldn’t help the snort — then finally did glance up and managed to get the smirk off his face at Csindra’s glare. “Bit dramatic.”
“Do you even know what they are?”
“That’s like saying a calla lily’s a flower.”
That got his attention a little more. Calla lilies were one of the most poisonous flowers in the Smokework text.
Csindra groaned. “I don’t know if they’re even in your files, they’ve been pretty smart. And —” She fell quiet, grimacing and clearly chewing it over.
Rook shook his head a little, trying to clear it. Looking at Csindra wasn’t hurting his head like he thought it would. “That sounds like you know them a little more personally.”
“No. They’re just…” Csindra rubbed her face. “You don’t need to know.”
“Oh, no. Don’t pull that. Demons are dangerous, you can’t just—”
“You don’t. Need. To know.”
Rook felt the temper surging up his throat. “You said you’d help me. What are the Odjon’nadja?”
“It can’t have been them, Rook—”
“I’m not asking for the fucking case.” He became aware of his fingers digging into the seat of the couch, and took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax at least enough to release them. When he did, though, he felt a jolt of horror in his throat as his fingers slid out of the fabric, instead of off. He’d punched through the couch, somehow.
So he didn’t, until he had to, and his fingers looked normal, they did, except had there been a hint of edge still on his nails? No. He was imagining it.
Csindra took a deep breath — then leaned back, hand on her axe handle. He hadn’t noticed until now that it wasn’t up by the door, or anywhere else — no, it was unsheathed and lying by her side.
Rook narrowed his eyes, suddenly glad he’d never unbuckled his knife from his thigh. “’Fess up, Djaneki. What’ve you been hiding from me?”
“Not hiding. Just… measuring.”
“Measuring what?” Then it clicked. “Measuring me.”
“I’m not spilling all my secrets to someone after a few hours on a train.”
That… was reasonable. Entirely reasonable, actually, Enough that it bothered him. She was acting like he’d been working for her instead of the other way around, practically. “And now?”
“I’m… still thinking.” She sighed. “Odjakenez.”
It took him a sec to recognize the word. “Oh, right. Odjakens.” Edjanna, odjanin, odjaken. There was a resonance to them, at least.
She winced — but moved on. He couldn’t hear the difference, actually, but clearly there had been one. “I’m not one.”
“Right, I was wondering — if odjakens are just thaums, what’s the difference?”
Csindra exhaled. “Because odjakenez aren’t thaumatists. They’re —” She paused. “Something else.”
He tried not to snort again, especially after how Csindra had glared at him before. The way Csindra had made a point of showing off her axe made that seem like a bad idea. “Demonbound?”
“I hate that word. But sure.”
A prickle of nerves lanced up his arm. Hide. Run. Stop her. She knows. She can tell. She can see.
“So you’re wasting my time with a fairytale,” he found himself saying, not feeling quite in control. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to hear what she was going to say. He’d asked, but then the word demonbound —
“Humans using feral magic is scientifically impossible.”
“Scienti-” Csindra scoffed, head falling into her hands. “It’s magic. You just called magic, scientifically impossible.”
“Any sufficiently analyzed magic system is—”
“I hate white people.”
“Hey, I’m not the one being all fidgety about bringing up fairy tales.”
“Den Niederung isn’t a fairytale.”
“Nobody knows what happened in Den Niederung.” The static was so fucking loud. Part of him underneath all of it was urging him to tap out, find some way out of the conversation until he could think, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t, because if he let on to anybody just how bad it was —
“The full story, no.”
“Jonis vol’, no. I hate those assholes.”
Then why was every danger signal he had going off?
“Rook, are you —”
He could do this. He’d done it before. He told them to shut up, to shut the hell up, because he had shit to do, and then for the moment, pretended they weren’t there. “Fine, don’t worry. Okay. So a demonbound was responsible for Den Niederung, is what you’re telling me.” The word demonbound. He ran away from it, didn’t even think about it if he could help it — because humans couldn’t use feral magic. If they did, if they could, then they weren’t human. They were something else.
“You said it, not me.”
“Don’t be so irritating. You’re already telling me — in not so many words — that you’ll kill me if I tell anyone.”
“I don’t want to,” she sighed. “These things are secret for a reason.”
“Assuming that you even could.”
“Do you really want to risk it?”
No, he decided. He could keep the pretense up for the moment. If it came to it, though, Csindra would see how weak he really was at the moment; barely able to focus on what was in front of him.
It hurt to. He had to keep it together. Ignore the static a little longer. Play the part. “So our serial killer is almost definitely one of these, odjakens, for some reason.”
“That or one of the demons, but I’ll bet you anything.”
“So your suggestion is, what, catch them without any military resources or back-up, to keep the secret from getting out that it’s possible? To keep your provincial town from getting clobbered by possible backlash?”
Csindra was amused by something, but she wasn’t sharing what, even as she cast a darkly humoured look his way. “That would be the general shape of it, yes.”
“And I’m going along with this because you have a very big axe, and my familiar thinks you’re harmless despite the very big axe.” He sighed, resting his head and elbow on the arm of the sofa. “I should have left you in jail.”
“You could always try to kill me first.”
There it was. The challenge – unintended — to his strength. “And then what?” he snarled — with more honesty than he’d meant, and once he heard the note in his own voice, it was hard to stop. “Go back to feeling like a ticking bomb? Spend another six years trying not to self-destruct or kill someone else by mistake?”
Fuck, he’d said it, and he couldn’t unsay it. One word. One word off. Mouth out of sync with his thoughts.
She knows. She knows. She knows. Now she KNOWS and it’s YOUR FAULT–
It wasn’t him. It wasn’t his voice. They had never been his voice, the things that spoke to him when he didn’t keep it under control, they were something else, something cruel (of course it’s your voice, you sick freak, who else would it be, take responsibility for something in your life) (SHE KNOWS ABOUT US SHE KNOWS WHAT YOU DID)
The lightbulb in the anbaric lamp above them burst with a shatter of glass, showering down on them. Csindra covered her face with her arm — Rook started to, but the sound made him stop. It was lingering in the air, longer than it should have, louder than a crash of glass should be. I’m imagining it. Except it held, and held, like a string close to snapping. He could hear the two notes in it now, B flat and G if you turned your head, a little off pitch —
It was getting louder.
Csindra raised her head, watching him. “Rook. Rook.”
“I’m not—” He closed his eyes. Go away, go away. Hallucinations in the dead of night were one thing. It was still getting louder. The thumping of his heartbeat was joining it, too, a howl undercut by a rapid drumming on his bones — not Songwork, not like Songwork at all, Songwork you control, Songwork is actually music —
He couldn’t. If he got up, he was acknowledging it was real —
Rook opened his eyes with sudden panic. He could see it now — and his rational mind, what of it was working, told him the truth. Not a hallucination. Not his imagination.
It was a wraith. Except every wraith he’d ever seen had been ones on a rampage already, leaving destruction in their wake. This one was different; the wraith was circling the room the same way the sound was, with no more consistency than ice or snow or the mists on a mountaintop. With every touch of its disembodied, shifting limbs against the wall or ceiling, it left patches of frost – and the space where its eyes should be was pointed straight at Csindra.
It was going to kill her. That was what they—
(who are they Rook)
—were trying to tell him.
Flute. He needed his flute.
Rook got to his feet, keeping his eyes on the wraith. Feral magic could look like this, he reminded himself. It didn’t have to have anything to do with him. They were already hunting a killer. That was it, that was all, it had nothing to do with him. The bookcase was… five steps. Five steps away. He could do that. Second shelf down, on top of the — the — he couldn’t remember. Think. Nearer to him than the door, on top of the book of fairytales. Irony as she was cast. Four. Three. Two—
The sound was so loud now that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to hear himself play; a grating, tearing noise like rocks grinding against each other.
“Move,” he ordered. It was all he could get out of his mouth. She might not even hear it. But whether because she had, or out of sheer impulse, Csindra threw herself against the wall.
The scream from the wraith hit him by surprise, accompanied with a blast of cold. Good thing it wasn’t the metal flute he had, or he would have dropped it. As it was, his fingers ached in protest.
He took a deep breath, lungs filling with cold air, then put the flute to his lips and began to play.
What he’d actually planned on, he wasn’t sure. A binding spell? A warming spell? Something to chase it off? Instead, what came out of his flute was a lullaby, with no magic in it at all except what it carried in the notes. He couldn’t remember learning it, or even where he’d heard it; he didn’t know the lyrics, just that it had something to do with horses, images flickering at the edges of his memory.
The sound began to subside, almost immediately. The wraith didn’t disappear. It paused where it was on the ceiling, a ghost of mist and shadow, the oil-lamp in the corner illuminating it in strange light that sometimes bounced off of it, sometimes through it. As it moved, Rook thought he could see fragments of iridescence on its surface. Like a soap bubble, he thought. Or oil.
“Rook,” Csindra hissed. She was expecting magic, not music.
He’d meant to. But he knew this song. It had come to his fingers all of a sudden, like he’d known it all his life.
The wraith descended from the ceiling, straightening up until it looked more like a person than a poltergeist. A silhouette of smoke. It’s almost the same colour I am, he thought idly, fingers dancing across his flute without even having to think about it — blacks and bays, dapples and greys —
And then it was in front of him, and he had to remind himself to keep playing at all.
It wasn’t a wraith at all. Whatever it was, it was… beautiful. It was only a little taller than him, but its hair billowed around its head, moving on invisible currents and as pure-white as snow. Everything from its pupils to its skin to the flesh of its mouth were pure white, translucent-shimmering, and he couldn’t remember why he’d been so afraid.
He could feel his heartbeat calming down. The room was feeling more open already. The wraith was still here.
I could just let it go, he thought, feeling a bit dizzy. He’d seen feral magic take all sorts of shapes before. He’d never gotten this close. He’d never felt this safe.
Something was still wrong, he knew, something in the back of his head —
The heat came all at once, and he nearly dropped his flute, notes fumbling away. The wraith didn’t look angry; just sad as it vanished in the flicker of flames he couldn’t see — and even if he couldn’t, they were too close, and it hurt, everything stung and prickled in a way that didn’t make sense, nothing about this made any sense —
His flute tumbled out of his fingers and, when he tried to reach for it, the floor came up to meet him instead. He’d almost been waiting for it, all this time. At least he had an excuse. As the heat finally began to dissipate, he turned his head to where it had come from.
Csindra waited a little longer, then closed her hands with a suppressed noise of pain, snuffing out the flames in both of them. Only then did she rush to his side, still-hot fingers pressing to his neck.
“What are you doing?” he tried to ask, but his lips were numb. Not numb, he realized — they were cold. He hadn’t fallen because of his knees; he’d fallen because he was freezing.
“Saving your life, you idiot. How have you stayed alive this long?”
“Spite,” he joked, impulse winning out — and Csindra slapped him across the face. He shook his head, trying to shake the startled response. He hadn’t expected that.
“Take me seriously. That was an édjan’na – kònikédjan, I think —”
“Koh— I don’t know any of these words.”
“I don’t have time to teach you Kanet’valan right now,” she grumbled, hand on his forehead and checking his temperature — although, Rook thought with a suppressed laugh, she probably wasn’t getting any kind of accurate read with her hands still half-burning. “It was freezing you to death. It didn’t mean to. It’s just what it does.”
“So first you’re making a case for feral magic, and now we’re back at it being an enemy—”
“No, Rook,” Csindra groaned. “This! This is exactly why we don’t tell you about this crap! You fucking idiots will demand a mountain moves for you or bore a hole through it rather than just go around the damn thing, and then when it falls on you, you cry foul and say this means war.”
“Idiots?” he slurred.
“Elessans.” She yanked him up into a sitting position, pushing him against the bookcase none-too-gently. He noticed that her palms were burnt; whatever spell she’d been casting, it didn’t insulate her from the flame itself. “Is it so hard to acknowledge that sometimes, things just… exist? They’re not good, or bad. It’s your job to let them exist.”
That… made sense. It was hard. Not because it should have been; just because it’d never occurred to him that neutral was an option. The wraith had seemed so kind, when he’d started playing — so different from the feral magic he was used to.
The tips of his fingers were blue.
He closed his eyes, still trying to catch his breath and hearing with a grimace how it rattled in his chest. “Where’d it come from?” he asked, lips still not quite working.
She just glared at him. “You got scared. Can’t imagine they’re unrelated.”
“You don’t know?”
“Typical. I know something about feral magic that isn’t ‘burn it down’ and you think I’m an expert.” She glanced at him, then groaned, clearly conceding some ground. “I’m not even an expert on Bloodwork. I don’t… I keep trying to tell you I’m not your person. You seem to think I am, and worse, so does everything else, so I guess I’ll do my best, but I’m not any better at this than you are.”
“You seem to know what you’re doing.”
She laughed a little at that, and when the anger on her face broke away, Rook could see the fear underneath. She’d hidden it well; he supposed she had to. Fear for both of them, for him, or just for herself? “That makes one of us. Damn it, Rook. You were just…”
He’d meant to use magic. But the wraith had felt like a friend. Like someone he recognized. And the song…
He swallowed. The paranoia had gone back to being a quiet, waiting thing in the corner. For now. He wasn’t going to risk waking it up again. “…You think this, uh, killer is an odjaken.”
He couldn’t help it; he glanced up at her face to gage her reaction. It was hard to read; a bit of frustration, a bit of fear; but no anger. He wasn’t sure why he was expecting anger. He wasn’t being truthful with her, but he wasn’t lying. He just didn’t want to talk about it yet. “Yeah,” she said finally. “Looks like it.”
“I don’t know. You might be right. And that sounds better than whatever the things are you won’t even talk about.”
Two conversations, one set of words. Maybe she was having the same dual-layered conversation he was, maybe she wasn’t. You never knew with people. “That’s… arguable,” she mumbled, “but at least odjakenez are people.”
He grabbed onto that, held it close, refused to let it show that it mattered that much — and hoped she’d meant it.
“Well,” she sighed, “one way or another, you’re stuck with me until we figure out what the hell is up with you.”
“What, professional curiosity?”
“Because you look like shit,” she replied instead, so blunt it shocked him back into silence. Jacob would tell him if he looked tired, sure. Olive would nag him about eating more. Sylvia… mostly just told him off about one thing or another. Wolfie would never say a word, not even before — and Phania…
It took him a couple seconds too long, but then he scoffed. “I just look like this, Djaneki. I—”
“I know what an albino looks like—”
“Technically, not an albino,” he grumbled quietly.
“—but you constantly look ready to fall over. You’re so thin I can see your ribs. I don’t think I saw you actually eat anything once today — maybe half a bread roll at lunch. You drugged yourself to sleep last night and I’m guessing it’s not the first time—”
“Alright, fine, I get your point,” he snapped, avoiding her eyes again. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You deserve better.”
Well, how the hell was he supposed to take that? He leant his head back against the bookshelf, mulling over the responses that had leapt to his lips. No I don’t. That would take explaining, even if he lowered himself enough to actually admitting it. What better? Except he knew other people didn’t struggle this badly with… well, living. Even a year ago, he hadn’t. Things had just… unraveled, piece by piece. Why do you care so much? That one he really did want to ask, but he was scared of the answer — that he was reading into things. He wasn’t good at people. He didn’t — well, he wanted friends, conceptually. He just kept fucking it up every time he got the chance. He had an idea in his head of what having friends like him would be like, but he didn’t know how to put that in practice. Like him. Nobody was like him.
He found himself with a little grin on his face. “Are you more pissed at me for almost dying or for being so useless that you have to help me?” Still self-deprecating. Better than some
“Jury’s out. Both. Both works.”
He could feel his movement coming back, although the temperature change was hitting all of his joints, not just his knees. “Your turn.”
He straightened up a little more, wincing against the bookcase, and held out his hand. “You’re a Cutter. Gimme.”
Csindra rolled her eyes, but handed him her arm, clearly thinking he’d overlooked it or wouldn’t think to ask. She’d clearly used her axe-blade in the absence of anything else; the cut was deeper than it should have been, and a little jagged at the edges. She’d gone for the fleshy part of her arm, though, so she knew what she was doing. The burns were a different story; they would blister if he didn’t help.
“Hey, buddy,” he called out. “You okay?”
There was a little quiet hiss in response. Poor guy. It was probably freezing, but at least the lamp was still working.
“I’m gonna need… aloe, birchbark, and acanthus.”
Csindra watched in curiosity. “How does he—” She was interrupted by the sounds of flowerpots scraping against the hardwood. “You’re kidding me.”
Rook snickered, then turned his head as his familiar slithered onto his lap, aloe plant now parked next to the two of them. The snake wriggled against his legs, clearly trying to take some of the body heat in, before disappearing and coming back — slowly — with the acanthus pot and a little bag in its mouth.
“The bag is the birchbark?” Csindra guessed.
“You don’t see a birch tree in here, do you?” Rook fumbled behind him for a lighter and knife. A couple crushed acanthus leaves there, and one on top of a roll of birchbark; then he cut off the tip of one of the aloe leaves, peeling off the skin and putting it with the birch and acanthus. The aloe gel itself he smeared gently onto Csindra’s burnt palms, then mixed in the acanthus. He put a little extra gel on the cut in her arm, snorting a bit as she winced. “Come on, big tough merc can’t handle some stinging?”
“I hate the way aloe feels.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re from where it grows on its own, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Got dared to eat some once.” At Rook’s stare, she added defensively, “I was a kid. It looked like it should taste good.”
“You had to find out the hard way?”
She just stuck out her tongue. Rook smiled, then finished wrapping the scrap of aloe skin and acanthus leaves in the birchbark, tying it closed with three extra slivers of birch inside. He set the lighter to the top of the completed wick, then set it onto one of the wooden incense burners he had around, focusing on the smoke and smell of it. Smokework was weird, sometimes. Plenty of the ingredients had magic of their own — the healing properties they were used for by everyone else. Smokework just did something more with it.
Acanthus for relief. He passed his hand through the smoke, although he didn’t really need to do the gestures with this kind of Smokework. The poultice on Csindra’s hands and arm glowed slightly. Birch for… regeneration. He’d put four in, right? Yeah, he had. He could feel the spell working already, speeding up the process of healing — not by a lot, he didn’t have the energy for that, but enough to help. Aloe for — He hesitated, inexplicably embarrassed. Aloe for affection. It was just in there to help bind the other two together, really.
Yeah, he could tell himself that all he wanted. It wasn’t her fault that his friends had a habit of running away scared.
And this is your second spell today, remember?
The two were completely different. The one earlier in the day had been a Grand Arcanum spell, for one, although not one of the worst ones, and boosted with a little bit of Bloodwork to keep him focused. This hardly took any more effort than breathing.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“Hey, it’s not a cure. It’ll just help a bit, but what would really help is you not slashing yourself up—”
“Navóne vol, you sound like my mother. She was good with these too.”
“Smokework?” he asked, but she shook her head.
“She might know a little, but no, just the herbal remedies in general. I was wondering why you didn’t scar much.”
Rook shrugged. “I have older ones, but uh — Scheffen didn’t like how much I did it.”
“So you just got better at hiding it?”
“I did stop for a while. I still don’t do it unless I’m using it for something. It was the habit I had to get out of — too much magic drifting about unused, and…” He wasn’t sure how to put it in words.
“It’s easy to get hooked on it. Yeah,” she said quietly.
“Your mum didn’t help you with the scarring?”
“My mum doesn’t know.”
Rook was about to nod — and then the present tense hit him like a ton of bricks. Doesn’t. Not didn’t. Not like Scheffen telling him off when he’d first started. Csindra’s mother didn’t know she did Bloodwork at all. He couldn’t blame her, but… still. It wasn’t like he knew anything about how mothers worked. Scheffen had been crystal clear that she didn’t count.
I should tell her about the spell, he thought with a twinge of guilt. Or, better idea, he’d just lift it before she found out. That sounded like a great idea. Because now — well, now, he felt bad. I’ll just lift it. Easy-peasy.
He’d just sleep a little first. No problem.
Then he could deal with the rest.
Lots happening in this chapter! And another red TW, oh dear… Well, look, if you didn’t know by now that Rook has some serious issues, I don’t know what to tell you. For what it’s worth, the narrative is deliberately vague about the spell that Rook cast, also because Rook is being a bit deliberately vague about it to himself.
The ‘modes’ mentioned in the chapter quote, by the way, are all real things! Most people are at least passingly familiar with the idea of keys, at least ‘major’ and ‘minor’ keys – major keys make things sound happy, minor keys make things sound sad and unresolved. What this leaves out is that there are actually multiple minor keys. A “major” key, or major scale, starts and end on the same note, and uses all the keys appropriate for that scale. For example, a C major scale is the easiest to visualize, because on a keyboard, it only uses the white keys – no sharps or flats, which is what the black keys on a piano are. C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Normally, when you start on another note for a major scale, you shift into whatever that key is, to make it “sound” major. (Ex: The key of G starts on G, but instead has the notes G-A-B-C-D-E-F#) Different modes start on a different note, but keeping all the notes the same. For example, the first mode, Ionian, is just a standard major – in C major, it’s as shown above, same with G. Dorian is the second mode up, which means it starts on the second note. So a Dorian scale for C major is D-E-F-G-A-B-C, and a Dorian scale for G major is A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. (So it looks like a C major scale, sort of, but it doesn’t sound like one.) In order, they’re Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. Of these, Aeolian is the most common other than a standard Ionian/major – it’s basically a normal minor key. The least common is Locrian, which is why here it’s mentioned as being the one that makes people uncomfortable and aggressive. “But why?” Well, listen for yourself. There are very few popular songs written in Locrian… but one that most people know is Army of Me by Bjork, where the instrumental part is written in a Locrian key.
Yeah, now you get it. (This is the great part about music. It all sounds like very boring math and then you hear it in action and get an immediate demonstration.) (I mean. It is very boring math. This is what happens when you’re taught in the classical fashion instead of Rocker Punk Style where you just bang on a guitar until it sounds good.)
This is the…. second? Second piece of Smokework we’ve seen, and the first time we’ve actually seen it being used I think – so this is a good time to mention that I’m (slowly) putting up all of my Smokework plants over on this page. All of the medicinal uses of the featured plants are taken from at least semi-reliable sources; I can certainly attest that aloe vera is actually used like this. The symbols are a little more complex. Some plants have a long history of symbolism associated with them; some, well, don’t. Others probably do, but the culture they’re from is closed and/or not particularly easy to get information on. I’ll get more into that later, but “acanthus for relief” isn’t one you’ll find in a lot of places, while birch for regeneration and aloe for affection are both well-attested.
Edited July 4th, 2022.
Song: All the Pretty Little Ponies by Kenny Loggins
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