Inkling – Fifteen Minute Fiction

Inkling

An Ongoing Flash Fiction Serial

by
Reesa Herberth

Grayson didn’t have a thing for tattoos, no matter what Jordan said.  Just because his last three furtive hookups had involved people who liked to carry art on their skin, that didn’t make it a Thing.

Then again, as Things went, it wasn’t any worse than liking redheads, or breasts large enough to have their own gravitational pull.  He could appreciate both, but neither of them were as immediately inspiring as the flash of ink on someone else’s skin.

Fine, fine, it was totally a Thing.  He had a Thing.

He also had a customer, and he was pretty certain that he’d been staring at him for a little too long, if the vaguely annoyed expression was any indication.

“Uh, hi.  I mean, welcome to Rosenguild Fine Art Supplies.  Can I help you with anything?”

Whoops.

“Yes, they hurt, no, I don’t have time to tell you what they all mean, and can you please show me where you’ve moved the gesso?”

Grays got to his feet, worrying the corner of his lip with his teeth while he shuffled around the end of the counter and up the cluttered main aisle.  Eva, making full use of her managerial might, had been reading some article on how to keep shoppers in the store longer.  Apparently it involved moving the inventory around every three to six months, subtly warping the expectations of which items should be together on the shelves.  Grays personally thought it was a load of crap, and when he couldn’t find something in a store, he left.

“It should be here.”  He trailed off, staring at the empty space at the end of the paint aisle.

“Yeah.  I know.  But it’s not, and I’ve got about fifteen minutes to get back to school before I get marked absent, fail a course I didn’t even want to take, and flunk out of community college.”

“Hang on.”  Grays pushed his hair out of his eyes, hustling into the back room.  He dodged boxes and empty pallets, narrowly avoided tripping over a roll of vinyl, and finally found Eva in her office, watching a video on her computer.  She paused it when he came in, holding up her index finger.

“I know why I’m not a great manager yet.  It’s because I don’t know where you’re at.”

His shoulders slumped, and he sighed.  “Really?  I thought it was because you keep ending sentences in prepositions.”

Eva smiled at him, snapping her fingers before she lowered them.  “That’s it!  See, that right there!  Exactly what I mean.”

“Where’s the gesso?”

She smiled at him, her dark head bobbing up and down.  “It’s where it’s supposed to be.”

“No, it’s not with the paint, and I’ve got this guy who needs some right away, or like, the world will end and velociraptors will consume our spleens.”

“Vivid!”  She said it like it could have been a good thing, but with Eva, you could never be sure.

“The gesso, Eva.  Where is the gesso?”

“It’s on the aisle where everything begins.”  It was the most relevant information she’d ever given him on their new layout, and it was still nearly useless.  He nodded like he knew what the hell she was talking about, backing out of her office before he hustled to the front of the store.

His customer was still waiting for him, fingers twitching against the leg of his jeans as he poked through towers of clay and sketchbooks.  “I knew I should’ve gone to Crafts’N’More.”

“Bite your tongue.”  Glancing at the stockroom doors to make sure Eva hadn’t followed him out, he rolled his eyes.  “Although at least you’d be able to find something there, I guess.  Come on, I can help you.”

Heading for the front door, he waited until the guy exited before yelling into the empty store.  “Eva, I’m taking a break.”  He didn’t really care if she heard him or not, since anyone else who walked in would probably think they were closed for renovations.

Tattooed guy was watching him when he turned around, and Grays pointed across the parking lot at his car.  He ignored his companion as they made their way across the blacktop, mostly because there were potholes to avoid, and he wasn’t particularly adept at not twisting his ankles in stupid ways while other people watched.

He unlocked the lid of his trunk, using the hem of his shirt to keep his fingers from burning on the hot metal until he could prop it open with the old baseball bat he kept for just that purpose.  He was greeted by a mess of supplies and the milk crates that once held them, and Grays rooted around in the paints, dirty shirts, and rolls of canvas until he came up with a half-used jar of gesso.

Managing to extricate himself from the trunk without smacking his head, Grayson turned around and held the jar out.  “Here you go.  Prime your canvas in good health, my friend.”

The guy smiled at him, the first time he’d done it since walking into the store, and Grays had a second to think that maybe it wasn’t just the tattoos that made him worth looking at.  Then something in the corner of his vision twisted, and a fire breathing dog came bounding towards them, drooling wisps of flame as it snarled.

There was absolutely no relevant question that Grayson could ask in the time available, so he yanked the baseball bat out of his trunk, brandishing it in front of him like a sword.  He couldn’t imagine what good it was going to do him against something the size of a small pony that was literally spitting fire, but an aluminum bat seemed more useful than a paintbrush.

Tattooed Guy stepped in front of him, and Grayson didn’t argue.  His manly pride could handle not being eaten alive.

“Ffokcab.”  As low and growling as the sounds emanating from the dog in front of them, Tattooed Guy’s voice rolled over the slurred syllables.  He traced the outline of one of his tattoos with the index finger of his right hand, never breaking eye contact with the creature, that, okay, definitely wasn’t a dog.  The ink on his skin started to glow around the edges, a bright blue-white halo that surrounded the piece of art as is lifted off his arm.  Gripping it like a Frisbee, he flung it across the parking lot, directly into the stream of flame that was coming right at them.

The resulting explosion seemed to happen in slow motion, and for all Grays knew, it did.  The shockwave knocked him over, and he barely had time to raise his arms to cover his head before he hit the ground.  He couldn’t tell if he was injured, and he didn’t have a moment to worry about it, because Tattooed Guy had an arm under him, tugging him back to his feet and pulling him around the side of the car.

Words weren’t coming at the same time as the sounds that formed them, and it took far too long to figure out that he was being asked a question.  “Keys, can you give me your keys?”

Grays pulled them out of his pocket, and when he couldn’t get his fingers to unclench, the guy pulled them away.

He unlocked the door and shoved Grays into the passenger seat.  After a pause to look through the window, he crawled over Grayson and settled into the driver’s seat before leaning back across the pull the door shut.

The car started after a fitful cough of protest, and they zipped out of the parking space, whipping around to face the fire-breathing creature.

“I’m really sorry about your car,” he said, and he actually sounded apologetic as he took aim at the creature and hit the gas.  It bounced up over the bumper onto the hood, and Grayson could see steam rising from its hide before it slid off the car and they sped out of the parking lot.

Grays gathered all of his wits about him, found the supply lacking, and spoke anyway.  “I think my break is over.”  He glanced at the clock on his radio, then back at the man behind the wheel.  “And you’re totally going to be late to class, dude.”  Scrambling up on his knees, he twisted around to look behind them, but they were around the corner, and he couldn’t see anything following them.  “Pretty sure you can tell them the dog ate your homework, though.”

They drove a few more blocks in relative silence, the adrenaline buzzing in Grayson’s head like the seeds of a headache.  After another turn, and realizing that he didn’t have a clue where they were going, he tried to say something with a little more coherency.  “Can you at least tell me your name, so I know who to blame when Eva fires me?”

“It’s Collin.  And I’m really sorry.  Maybe I can talk to her.  Say there was an emergency, and you had to take me to the hospital or something.”

Grays shuddered at the mention of hospitals, and began running his hands through his hair, checking for any injuries he might have sustained in the blast.  Bruises on his forearms seemed to be the worst of it, and since he’d just had a treatment the week before, he hoped they wouldn’t swell too much.

Taking charge of his illness was second nature by now, but still made him feel competent, on top of things.  The feeling faded, leading him right back to the questions he’d been avoiding.  “I know I’m supposed to think I’m going nuts right now.  What if we assume for the moment that I believe everything I just saw happened exactly the way it seemed to.  Could you tell me why it happened, and how I can avoid it ever happening again?”

Collin looked at him, long enough that Grays felt compelled to wave his hand in the direction of the windshield.  “Eyes front while you drive, please.”

Collin made another turn, winding them past a taco shop Grays recognized, and then he pulled into a parking spot on the street, idling and wasting Grayson’s gas.  “Know anything about black dogs?”

Grays nodded, because nobody had read as many ghost stories as he had when he was a kid.  “Aren’t they usually sent to warn someone they’re going to die, or guide them into the afterlife once they have?”

Collin made a faint noise in his throat that Grays would have taken for a laugh, if he hadn’t looked a little frantic for a second.  “Yeah, well.  That one was a little more direct than most.”  He took one hand off the wheel, rubbing over the tattoo he’d outlined earlier.  “My family keeps them as pets.”

“Huh.”

This time, Collin did laugh, scrubbing a hand across his face.  “Not that I go around telling a lot of people, but most of them don’t react that well.”

Grays shrugged.  “What else am I gonna do?  Demand that you take me back to work, where I absolutely didn’t see a nightmare monster try to eat me?  Also, if I get out of the car, this becomes grand theft auto, rather than me letting you drive.”

There was a beat while Collin looked around the car, from the cracked vinyl of the dashboard to the seat covers Grays had made out of thrift store quilts.  “I think you’d have a hard time making a case for anything more than a misdemeanor.”

Folding his arms across his chest, Grayson glared.  “My car does exactly what I need it to do.”

“Hey, it runs when it counts.  I’m not complaining.”

The traffic noise rumbled through the windows, a steady whine of cars speeding by while they hugged the curb.  Grayson pulled his phone out and hit the speed dial for the store.

“Eva?  Hey, it’s Grays.  I’m—Oh, the fire trucks are there?  Yeah, I got knocked down in the blast, and it looked pretty bad, so I’m driving myself to the hospital.  No, no, hands-free, I promise.  But I feel pretty beat up—Okay, yeah, I’ll see you on Tuesday.  Thanks, Eva.”

Dropping his phone into the pocket of his flannel shirt, Grays looked at Collin.  “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but there’s no way I can deal with this crazy and having to look all over the store for gum erasers today.  I have limits.”

The tattoos on Collin’s arms stretched as he leaned back in the driver’s seat, his hands clenching tight around the wheel.  They looked normal enough, the lines sharp and clear, almost wet.  The one Collin had pulled off earlier, birds chasing each other in a circle, wasn’t any worse for the wear, and Grays didn’t realize that he was going to say something stupid until he’d already started talking.

“Does it grow back?”  He manages to stop short of actually touching the ink, snatching his hand back and glaring at it as though he hadn’t been the one controlling the motion. “Because it looked like you took it off your skin, earlier.  Back when the black dog was trying to eat us, and I was losing my mind.”

It’s a good thing, his hand resting on his knee, because he can squeeze his kneecap to hide some of the shaking.  Likewise, the fact that his blood is pounding in his ears means that it’s still inside him, and Grays is a pretty simple guy, so he appreciates the little things.  For a second he thinks he might rattle apart, like his car, the shaking and the pounding tearing him at the seams, but he takes a deep breath and gets a handle on himself before it has the chance to happen.

“It’s a physical representation of a stunning and binding spell.  It doesn’t actually come off, it just looks like it.”  Collin’s voice was even, not at all like he was talking Grayson down, and hopefully not like he was getting ready to wipe someone’s memory and steal their car.  “I can get out here, or we can both keep driving, but either way, we should move again.  I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of this because you were trying to be nice.”

“Where are you going?”  Grayson looked up from the careful study of his jeans, in time to catch the flash of uncertainty on Collin’s face.

“There’s a safehouse downtown, if I can find it.  So there, I guess.”

Grays tried to keep the skepticism out of his voice, but he still wound up sounding like his Mom.  “You guess.  You don’t know for sure?”  Art school, Grayson?  That’s your plan? Apparently, breeding would tell.

Pulling himself out of whatever fit of indecisiveness he was having, Collin sat up straight, finally letting go of the wheel.  “I’ve got a general idea of where it is, but I don’t know if they’ll let me in or not.”  The flash of dark in his eyes made the wry twist of his smile look almost cruel.  “Usually I’d be the person they’re trying to keep out.

He’d always been a sucker for a good story, and Grays could smell the hint of redemption in this one, or maybe adventure.  Either way, he had the afternoon off, and it wasn’t like things were going to get any less weird if he made Collin take the public transportation.  He waved his hand at the passing traffic, almost impatient now that he’d made up his mind.  “Just drive.  I can only imagine what a pain in the ass it would be to validate a bus transfer while you’re trying to avoid getting eaten by a fire-breathing dog.”

“I… Thanks.  You don’t have to get more involved though.”  Collin’s grin wiped away the lingering uncertainty, whether sincere or not.  “I’m sure I can find someone else to steal a car from.”

“Not someone who won’t press charges.  It’s fine.  You can buy me some gas, or a burrito or something.”  He fell silent as Collin pulled the car back into traffic, and started imagining how he’d panel this, if his life were a comic book.

~_~_~_~

The 101 to the 202, then off at 32nd Street, downtown, and somehow, Grays hadn’t been imagining that their destination would be tucked in a tired old strip mall.  Everything else in the valley was, but in the back of his mind, he’d been hoping for something a little more impressive than tan stucco and a clay tile roof.

The long strand of brass bells on the door rang as they entered, and the mingled scents of patchouli, rose, and dark spice filled his nose.  There was no one at the front counter, a glass display case filled with jewelry and crystal balls, and in fact, there seemed to be nobody else in the whole store.  Some kind of noise played over a few unobtrusive speakers, not cohesive enough to be called music, nor random enough to be called sound effects.  An owl hooted, and the low whistle of a wooden pipe followed, almost soothing, until something screamed behind him.

Grays jumped and muffled a scream of his own, enough that he heard the second yelp and started to turn before Collin caught his arm.  “Don’t turn around.  Trust me.  Just walk forward, and don’t look back.”

The third yelp sounded closer, and Grays shuddered as something brushed against the back of his leg, closing his eyes to avoid looking.  “You realize that telling someone not to look behind themselves is every bit as unnerving as a cat staring over your shoulder at nothing, right?”

Collin’s hand was firm on his upper arm, marching them farther into the store.  Farther away from his car, and any hope of getting out of this in the next few minutes.  When Grayson slowed his steps, doing his level best to ignore the sound of clicking claws that followed them, Collin paused beside him, but didn’t let go.

“There’s nothing behind us.  Except that the nothing behind us looks like a giant fox, which may or may not be the corporeal form taken by the familiar of the woman who runs this place.”  Collin looked at him for a second, nothing particularly comforting conveyed by the tight set of his mouth, and continued.  “If you don’t see the fox, the fox can’t hurt you.  So if you feel the need to turn around, keep your eyes closed, and run.”

Grays jerked his arm out of Collin’s grip before taking a deep breath and another step forward.  “Right.  Got it.  So when I update my Facebook status later, I can change it to Absolutely did not get eaten by any form of imaginary canine today?”

The low growl at their heels made Collin flinch, and he touched the tip of a finger to the edge of one of his tattoos, a swirling tangle of knotwork inked around his elbow.  “That’s the hope.”

Grays nodded.  The aisle stretched before them, longer by half than it had been when they entered the store, and darker as they went.  “Annual inventory in this place must be a real nightmare.”  He didn’t need to look behind them to see the flicker of motion, not when it was reflected in the facets of every crystal they passed.  The array of incense, candles, and dishes of polished stones gave way to rounds of glass, flat black and reflecting nothing until Grayson’s gaze started to move away.  Then it was a glimpse of teeth, before they were obscured by the fog of breath that came from absolutely nothing.

“Do you even know where we’re going?”

Collin didn’t answer, shaking where he stood next to Grays, with the fingers of his right hand curled over the sharp knob of his elbow.  He opened his mouth, a creak of sound dying before it ever formed a word that Grayson could hope to understand.  He tried once more, swallowing before he was able to speak.  “I thought I did, but this won’t work.  We could keep walking for days, and never get to the back of the store.  I don’t think they’ll help me.”

Grayson took a cue from Collin, grabbing his arm and pulling him along even when one of the mirrors fell to the floor and shattered.  “Speaking as a retail employee, I have to say, that’s absolutely appalling customer service.  I think you should ask for the manager.”  Grays pointed ahead with his free hand, towards a dark red curtain that blocked off a doorway in the far left corner.  Delusional or not, it seemed a little closer than it had been a few moments before.  “And since I don’t see anyone out on the floor, it’s a safe bet that the manager must be in the back.  Come on.”

The snarling yip that followed them sounded almost amused.

The sharp bite of ozone filled the air as Grays dragged them both forward, and the background noise changed to a rolling bell of thunder that shook the shelves, but didn’t overpower the animal panting at their heels.  Resolute as the square footage multiplied before his eyes, the linoleum stretching like a snake going through a growth spurt, he looked at Collin.

“Did you shoplift?”

“He knows why he isn’t wanted here.  If you both turn around and leave, I’ll forget you were ever here.”

Grays was in over his head.  He didn’t really know what they’d come here for, if the store wasn’t some kind of safe harbor.  Arguing with an unseen, unwelcoming host didn’t seem prudent.

“I’ve renounced my blood, if that makes any difference.”  Collin finally spoke up for himself, pulling his arm free from Grayson’s now-slackened hold.  “My uncle is hunting me, and I need to hide.”  His voice never wavered, even when his lip curled over the last few words.

“Your uncle will hunt you right through my doors, as long as there’s still blood in your veins.  He doesn’t care if you run away from home, and neither do I.”

Collin’s expression turned hard, and he nodded, an almost imperceptible bob of his head.  “I’m going, and I’m sorry if it brings you any trouble.”  He turned without hesitation, and Grays didn’t think twice about following suit.  The door they’d come through a few minutes ago was only a few feet away, and there was a woman sitting at the counter, her eyes narrow and fixed on them.

Something furry and heavy leaned against his legs, and Grayson shuddered when it licked his fingers, looking down without thinking about it.  The fox was huge, larger than any coyote or wolf he’d ever seen, and its acid-green eyes were a bright contrast with the copper fur being shed all over his jeans.  When it caught Grays looking, it slurped his fingers again, and he yanked his hand back.  “Oh, gross.”  The fox laid its ears back.

“You should go first.”  Grays looked back up to Collin, and he suspected he was making a face that someone kind might call “inquisitive”, and someone honest might call “constipated”.

“Oh, fuck that.  You still owe me gas money and a burrito.”  There was no reason for him to stay, and a multitude of reasons he never should have come with at all, but Grays resisted the idea of leaving Collin there when it was obvious he wasn’t going to get any help.  “Is there another safehouse I can take you to?”

The woman behind the counter laughed loud enough that the fox yipped in response, slinking back a step.  “Got yourself a fresh one, Bastion?”  Her fingers twitched, and the strong scent of tobacco filled the air, no doubt rising from the lit cigarette that appeared in her hand.  She gestured at Grays with it, the smoke curling into shapes around her.  “There’s not a soul of magic in the entire valley that would so much as piss on him if he was on fire, and you’d do well to make a run for it now.  If he’s bound you somehow, just say the word, and I’ll be happy to sever it.”  Another twitch of her fingers, and a tiny brass knife materialized on the counter between them.  Grays didn’t want to think about the dark stain curved along the edge of the blade, and where it had probably come from.

Collin sighed, his voice low with secrets when he answered her.  “I can’t bind him to me, Emygdia.  I bargained with my uncle.  All the magic in my body, and he’d let me live a normal life.”

Something like pity crossed her face, quickly erased.  “And what bargain has he ever honored?”  The fox moved, and Grays tried to divide his attention between the three of them.  It circled Collin, sniffing at him, and whined before trotting behind the counter.  Emygdia reached down to stroke its ears, but she looked like she was listening to someone speaking.  “He says you smell of magic.  Your own magic, but not.”  Her dark brows lifted, hidden by her raven-black bangs.  “So how does that work, little liar?”

“I know my family.  I made contingency plans.  But I’m not lying about this.  There’s no magic left in my body, and we’re close enough kin that the contract between us should be binding.”  Unconsciously or not, Collin scratched his arm, over the tattoo Grays had seem him rip off his flesh and use in a decidedly non-mundane fashion earlier.  Not saying anything might have been smarter, but there was the taste of a lie in the room, and Grays didn’t owe him anything.

“What about in the parking lot?  That wasn’t a flaming hubcap that you tossed at the nice doggy.”  He stood up straighter, shoving the hair out of his face because his Mom was forever telling him that he didn’t look convincing with blue-tipped bangs obscuring his eyes.

Collin expelled a breath, looking frustrated, but it was Emygdia who spoke.  “He’s built from secrets more than any flesh and bone.  Don’t go expecting the truth from a Bastion.”

Collin spoke again, low, glaring at Emygdia as though he’d prefer to yell.  “If I was lying, I never would have come here.  You might not trade in kind with the family, but there are plenty of people in the valley who know my name, and who would throw their lot in with me just to try ousting my uncle.  I could lie, say I still have the power for it, but I don’t.  And I don’t want that.  He promised me a life, free of his interference, and that’s all I need from him.  If he finds out what I’ve done, dying will be the least of my worries.  If he thinks someone else knows anything…”  His cadence didn’t change, but his gaze dropped, until his final words were addressed more to the floor than either of them.  “Secrets aren’t the same thing as lies.”

“They both get people killed, kid, and I’ve got no use for either from the likes of you.”  Emygdia propped her elbow on the counter, holding her cigarette dangerously close to her hair as she leaned forward.  “Unless you’ve got something other than your name to trade on, get the hell out of my store.”

Collin’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced around the store as though someone might be watching them.  Grays didn’t really think it was outside the realm of possibility.

“What can I get for a guaranteed safe passage into his home?”  The smile he flashed at her was tight and unpleasant.  “In is the only thing I can promise on that, mind you.  Out is someone else’s responsibility.”

Even as the obvious outsider, Grays could tell immediately that Collin wasn’t offering someone the key to his Uncle’s townhouse so they could throw a kegger.  Emygdia’s interest was instant, a sharp tang sparking in the air around them that raised the hair on Grayson’s arms.  She didn’t answer right away, taking a slow drag.  None of the smoke emerged when she breathed out again.  That couldn’t be healthy.  “Are you seriously asking me to strike a bargain with you, knowing that given half the chance, you’d betray the sanctuary of your own family?”

“Absolutely.”  Looking past Grays, out the front of the shop, Collin shrugged.  “I’ve got nothing else to offer, at least nothing you’d want, and he broke our bargain.  As the wronged party, I have a free passage back into his homestead to exact my vengeance.  Nothing says I can’t take someone else with me.”  Pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, he laughed a little.  “For that matter, I know all the back doors, and most of the traps.”

Grays wasn’t too familiar with the kind of desperation that seemed to settle into the worried lines of Collin’s face, but he was an artist, and no stranger to the edges of emotion.  Emygdia recognized it on her own, and she waved a hand in front of her face, the cigarette gone, and her impression of humanity stretching thin.  Stepping back unconsciously, Grays found himself pressed against the solid weight of her fox.  He didn’t know what she was, but the light in her eyes wasn’t a metaphor, and the subtle shift of her face remade her into someone, something, even less likely to belong in a strip mall in the middle of Phoenix.

“You offer too much, Bastion.  If what you say is true, there’s nothing to stop anyone from claiming you and taking that knowledge however they can manage.”

“Anyone who wants it is welcome to try.  I’m only useful to them alive.  Uncle Castan is going to kill me, and that’s a lot harder to recover from.”

In the most sudden move he’d made since the parking lot, Collin stepped up to the counter, accompanied by the low growl from behind Grays.  “I won’t beg for sanctuary, Emygdia, but I’ll bargain for help.  My blood might not sing anymore, but it’s plenty binding, if that’s what you want.”

Grays yelled a warning when she lunged forward, grabbing Collin’s right hand and slashing her knife across it so quickly that it was several seconds before the wound even began to bleed.  Collin winced, but he did nothing to free himself, and Grays couldn’t look away as the blood began to drip across the counter, sizzling on the glass like acid.

 

“Just a drop for the past, and a drop for the finding—“

“A drop for the need, and a drop for the binding.”  Through gritted teeth, Collin’s voice remained steady, and there was a flow to the words that Grays appreciated, a rhythm that made them something more than creepy poetry.  Or maybe that was the green glow rising from the counter as Collin’s blood boiled away to a mist.

The mystical mood was broken a bit when Emygdia looked up at Collin and raised one dark brow.  “You want specifics, or do we both know what we’re getting out of this?”

“Specifics just make things harder to navigate.  I’m good with generalities.”

The mist curled and twisted around their joined hands, drawing long shadows around them that Grays wanted to sketch, but would never quite manage, because they were cast from different directions, and moved without any relevance to the objects they sprang from.  He wasn’t used to shadows with no sense of propriety.

It ended abruptly, and the sun returned in such a brilliant fashion that Grays realized it had been missing for several minutes, locked outside this strange little box of impossibilities.  He turned, trying to see where the shop sprawled out into the endless, but there was nothing stranger to be found than the vaguely organized collection of things you might expect in an occult shop.  Notably absent were a fox the size of his car, and any trace of blood, acidic or otherwise, on the counter.

“This is the most fucked up afternoon I’ve had since I accidentally dosed the day before midterms.”  He didn’t know why he thought it was a good idea to remind them he was in the room, but Emygdia, at least, cracked a smile at him.

“That’s what you get for being nice.”  Collin’s hand fell to his side, and he took what seemed to be a measured breath before holding his hand (uninjured, Grayson noted) out to Emygdia.

She reached into the pocket of her jeans and handed him a rock.  Just a plain river rock that could have been pulled from any front yard in Phoenix.  Well, any front yard that wasn’t green painted gravel.  Collin took it carefully, his thumb brushing over the smooth surface.

“Best I can do for you, Bastion.  I can’t risk the safety of anyone else in my realm by letting you in, but as long as you find an established dwelling and plant that rock by the front door, inside, mind you, you’ll have a safe zone unless someone comes knocking and you let them in.”

“Will it work at my place?”

She shrugged.  “Sure, but if he knows where you live, a little thing like that isn’t going to stop him.  It’s a masking spell and a temporary grant of homestead, not a shield.  It won’t work at a hotel either.  The boundaries of residence aren’t clear enough there.  I’d lay low for awhile, if I was you.”

“Fucking perfect.”  He slipped the stone into his pocket, looking back up at her with what Grays could tell was a totally fake smile.  “And I suppose you’ll just come calling for yours whenever you feel like it, right?”

“That’s the plan.”  Emygdia favored them both with a bland look, then crooked her finger at Grayson.  “You should come here.  You want to come here.”

He very much did not, but Grays found himself compelled across the space between them, managing to stop just shy of her touch, and only because he fought the urge to move tooth and nail, twitching like there were bugs under his skin.  “I don’t.”  It was all he could say, the diversion of speaking enough to break his hold on what little control he’d kept.

Her fingers were too warm against his skin, and her eyes were beyond anything he’d ever imagined; endless, bottomless, ancient.  When she smiled at him, her teeth were pointed, her breath the smell of burning sweetgrass, and she licked her lips slowly.

“You shouldn’t have brought your friend.  He can’t see what he’s seen, even if he doesn’t understand it.  It’s been a long time since I devoured a memory.”  Emygdia leaned in close, and Grayson didn’t know whether to look at her eyes or her teeth, both equally terrifying, and equally near.  “I remember what youth tastes like, though, and he’ll do.”

The worst part was knowing that no matter what happened, he’d gotten himself into it.

No, scratch that.  The worst part was her teeth, the way she seemed to inhale him, like she was taking in his life breath by breath.

“Stop it.  He’s under my protection.”

Emygdia smiled, and watching her features smooth back out into something almost human made Grays want to flinch, except he’d forgotten how to move, or she wasn’t letting him anymore.  He could hear the blood rushing in his ears, the throbbing whooshwhoosh of it almost painful as he stared at her.  If he wasn’t going anywhere, at least he was going to meet her eyes, no matter how uncomfortable it made him.

“That’s all I wanted to know.”  Grays refused to slouch away once her hold on him was gone, glaring as he shed the feeling of her compulsion.  Her laughter was sharp, but not so pointed that it didn’t seem real.  “It’s okay, shake off that scruffing, puppy.  I won’t think less of you.”

“Could you?”  The words escaped him without thought, and for a second he swore he could see them hovering in the air, letters and syllables like soap bubbles before he blinked and they were gone.

“There’s room.”  Waggling her fingers towards the door, Emygdia watched him, but when she spoke again it was to Collin.  “Have a care with him, Bastion.  He’s got a bite lurking in there, I think.”

When the world around him changed, Grays expected there to be some sign.  He expected a flash, a bang, maybe a little sparkle, but definitely more than finding himself in the parking lot with no warning at all, and the store they’d just been in abandoned and dark.

The world turned with him when Grays moved.  He swore the asphalt swirled under his sneakers when he moved, rippling out like he’d stepped in a puddle.  “Why is the sky purple?  Why—“  He couldn’t finish his questions.  Collin’s eyes weren’t right, and the smudge of shadow between them stretched wide, obscuring the sickly green rays of the oxidized copper sun.  Fireflies darted across the parking lot, but there were no fireflies in Phoenix.

“It’s magic afterburn.  You’re seeing the shell of Emygdia’s spells as they collapse.  It’ll fade in a few minutes.”

Grayson laughed, and there were the soap bubbles again, oil-sheen rainbow and drifting up into the sky.  He didn’t realize he was following them until Collin grabbed his foot, holding him still as he hovered five feet above the ground and giggled uncontrollably.  “The world tickles.”

Collin grinned at Grays, his teeth bright as he laughed.  “Oh my god, you’re so spell drunk right now.  You know if I let you go, you’ll fly higher and higher, right up until you don’t float anymore, right?”

“Splat.”  The giggling was only making it worse, each golden sound tingling like champagne in his throat.  “I did that once.  For a project.  Covered myself in paint and fell on the canvas.  Splat.”

Collin pulled the leg of his jeans, tugging him back and forth like a helium balloon.  “I bet you didn’t do it from fifty feet up, did you?”

“My Mom would kill me.  You know, if the blood loss didn’t do it first.”

“Your Mom has good sense.”  Using the hand not wrapped firmly around Grayson’s ankle, Collin fished in his pockets for something, coming up with a tin of mints and popping the lid.  He offered the tin up to Grays, shaking it like a bag of cat treats.  “If you come down, you can have candy.”

He didn’t even know he liked mints, until they started marching through the air towards him, ants on the wing, or the dance of the wintergreen fairies.

Collin rolled his eyes, snapping the tin shut.  “As charming as this Mary Poppins interlude is, I need to get going.  So could you come down here and hold onto something, so I can head out?”

It was hard to grumble when you felt like you were made of spun sugar and breeze, but Grays had worked retail long enough that he could grumble at the drop of a hat.  Taking one final look around from a height he wasn’t likely to achieve again without stilts, he sort of aimed towards the ground, guided by Collin’s hand, and managed a nearly-graceful landing, even though his shoes kept trying to leave the earth again.

“Where are you going?”  He smiled, a sloppy sort of thing that stopped just short of a laugh.  “It might be the, you know, potential head injury, or the sixteen impossible things I’ve seen in the last two hours, but if you need a ride somewhere, I could be convinced to give you one.”

Pushing up his sleeves, Collin ran his hands over his arms, obscuring and revealing his tattoos by turns.  “I shouldn’t get you any deeper into this than you already are.”  A quick glance back at the empty shop, and he turned his attention on Grays again.  “I can’t guarantee it, but I think she liked you.  If anything happened, if I screwed it up and something came after you, you could probably come here and seek shelter.”

“Why won’t she give it to you?”

“It’s complicated.  Ancient history, most of it.  She can’t give me shelter without bringing me into her homestead, and because my uncle’s blood claim takes precedence over the rights of a guest, he’s basically have a free pass into her realm.”  He didn’t seem to realize he’d started chewing his thumb, worrying the corner between words and looking over Grayson’s shoulder.  “It could wind up hurting a lot of people, and I don’t want that.”

Grays nodded like he understood, but his reply was cut off by the roll of thunder, out of nowhere.  It was late for monsoons, late enough that he glanced up to see which direction the clouds would roll in from.  “How long does this magic hangover stuff last?  Those clouds are… What the hell?”

The clouds were coming in from the west, but he would have sworn that tiny bits of them were breaking off, zipping away lightning fast as they sank towards the ground.

“Shit.  You need to go home, and stay in your house, okay?  It’ll be over by tomorrow.  I have to go, I have to find somewhere to hide.”  Collin grabbed Grayson’s arm and shoved towards the car, but his attention remained on the sky.  “It’s not a cloud, it’s an illusion.  He must have sent the flock out looking for me, when the dogs didn’t come back.”  The grip on Grayson’s sleeve went slack, clearly forgotten.  “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”  Tearing his attention away from the sky, Collin’s smile was rueful.  “Normally that would count for a little more, but I don’t think I’m going to be around long enough for you to cash in.”

More than anything, the resigned fear was what prompted Grays to latch onto Collin and drag him to the car, though he wasn’t getting very far.  “Just come with me.  Maybe we can make it to my house before… Uh.  What’s going to happen?  What flock?”

“Demons.  You can’t.  You don’t even know me.”

Grays, hardly the most physically capable of young men, managed to shove Collin into the front seat, and pixie dust hangover or not, this time his quiet laugh was faintly bitter, the taste of almonds and stupid decisions at the back of his throat.  He snorted, slamming the door to make sure it latched.  It was probably better that Collin was sealed away from his bemused muttering.

“Yeah, like you’re the first stranger with demons I’ve taken home.  Please.”

~*~*~*~


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