Where are we going again? Snowflake asked me.
I glanced around to make sure there was nobody around. I get enough weird looks without people seeing me talking to a husky. “We’re going to see my friend Mohammad,” I replied aloud. I’ve long since given up on pretending that Snowflake doesn’t understand English, and talking is easier than telepathy.
I don’t know him.
“Nope,” I agreed. “You haven’t met him. I haven’t seen him in years. He teaches at the college I went to.”
Oh. What’s he want?
“Now that is a question,” I said. “He was…less than clear over the phone. Whatever it was, it sounded like he wanted to talk to me. Hell if I know why.”
So why are you bringing me?
“You’re the only thug I could find on short notice,” I explained. “And, strangely enough, these days I have a thing about going somewhere based on sketchy phone calls without a thug.”
As though to illustrate my point, the bulb of a streetlight exploded above and behind me. Not an explosion in the typical sense, you understand; there was no noticeable heat, very little concussive force. Just a rapidly expanding cloud of shrapnel, which was plenty dangerous on its own.
Snowflake and I both dove forward instantly. That’s actually sort of unusual, as people go. Most people, confronted with danger, will spend at least a tiny instant shocked, trying to figure out what’s going on. I used to be like that, before my life turned into a roller coaster between “surprisingly happy” and “living hell.”
These days, not so much. I’d been exposed to so many assassination attempts—and, by virtue of being near me, so had Snowflake—that violence and destruction no longer came as a surprise. Not even an interruption in routine. Which probably is, itself, the sign of a serious and troubling psychological problem. On the bright side, it meant that I reacted nearly instantly to such events, and usually in a remarkably efficient way. I’ve gotten good at staying alive.
Which I’m pretty sure is the whole point of the exercise. I liked to think that I was obtaining a certain amount of psychological insight into the person targeting me, and it really did feel almost like a training exercise. Granted it was one which, if I made a mistake, would be more than happy to kill me, but it was still meant to be survivable if I reacted correctly.
In this case, that meant diving away from the source of danger instantly, before I was even aware what had happened. Once I realized what it was, I reached out with a semi-instinctive blast of wind, pushing against the shards of glass and throwing them the other way. The few that got through I caught in a thick layer of condensed air well before they touched us.
It wasn’t a perfect defense. Bullets, for example, have too much kinetic energy relative to their size for me to stop that way. I’d done the math once and estimated that, in order to stop the average medium-caliber bullet with my best density of thickened air, I would need almost fifty yards. That, as should be pretty obvious, isn’t something I’m terribly likely to have available when somebody’s shooting at me.
But for this? Yeah, I could make it work.
I stood up, brushed myself off, and turned to look at the wreckage. There were itty-bitty pieces of glass scattered for about ten yards in all directions from the epicenter, excepting about a ten-degree arc around Snowflake and myself. The shards of glass still hanging in the air were actually kind of pretty, too. Almost like a prism. I relaxed and they dropped, hitting the ground with a gentle tinkling sound.
“Scoreboard,” I said, just now feeling the adrenaline rush. “Them: zero. Us: five hundred eighty-two. You know, I think they’re really starting to grasp at straws here. That’s the third explosion this week.”
What? Everybody needs a hobby.
Mohammed met me at the door. He looked…old, and tired, with more lines on his face than the last time I’d seen him. I was betting he hadn’t slept in a while; he had the sort of worn, quietly desperate feel I associated with people under stress and near the end of their rope. In spite of that he managed a weary smile when he saw me.
“Winter,” he said. “Please, come in. Are you well?”
I stepped across the threshold, hanging my coat and hat on the stand near the door. I didn’t really need them, but camouflage is second nature to me. “I am,” I said to him. “And yourself?” Mohammed obviously had bigger things preying on his mind, but he wouldn’t skip the politnesses. That was the kind of man he was.
He waved one hand dismissively. “A passing flu. It is nothing. Can I get you something? Some tea, perhaps?”
“As tempting as that sounds, perhaps business should come first?”
He nodded gratefully. “Yes, I think that may be the case.”
“So what did you need? And why are we here, for that matter?” Here being a small, rundown house in the middle of a small, rundown neighborhood. It was scrupulously clean inside, and felt intensely homey, right down to smelling of spice and baking. It was also very definitely not Mohammed’s house. He did quite well for himself teaching at the college, and had a nice place not far from it. I had a hard time believing he’d gone from that to living here.
“Ah,” he said. “That is where things become…complicated.”
I sighed. “Somehow I just knew you were going to say that.” I glanced at Snowflake, silently telling her to wait here, and followed Mohammed up the stairs.
Upstairs was more of the same. There were cracks in the walls and the paint was faded, but everything was clean and well-maintained, the flat and colorless carpet scrupulously vacuumed. Mohammed led me down a short hallway and into what was very obviously a young man’s bedroom.
Here, the unfailing cleanliness was abandoned. Oh, it wasn’t anything like as bad as some rooms of its type; it didn’t even smell. But there was a little clutter, things that hadn’t been put back in their proper places. Posters on the walls showcased a fondness for extreme sports and classic rock. This room, too, felt homey, comfortable and welcoming. Places really do have an aura of sorts, which I’d been more sensitive to ever since I visited the spirit world, and this home felt well-loved.
There were two things out of place. One was the chair pulled up next to the bed. A woman sat on it, head bowed in prayer. I wasn’t sure what language she was whispering in; Arabic or something similar, probably, given that she knew Mohammed. She had the same worn, weary look that he did.
The second was the person on the bed. He looked about seventeen, and this was obviously his room. He was also very obviously the woman’s son. He lay atop the covers, fully dressed. It didn’t look like he was asleep. It looked more like he was dead. His eyes were closed, his hands folded on his breast. Aside from the faint motion of his breathing, he moved not at all, not even a reflexive twitch or murmur.
While I looked around Mohammed walked over to his mother. He said a few words to her in the same language she’d been using. She nodded stiffly, stood up, and walked out of the room, closing the door gently behind herself. I pretended not to notice the tears in her eyes.
I walked over to stand next to the bed. There was magic present, I noted, human in origin with a touch of bitterness underneath, and strong enough to make my sinuses itch. More like bleach than the normal disinfectant. Interesting.
“Has he been like this long?” I asked Mohammed.
“Nearly a day now,” he replied. “Fatima—his mother—she says that yesterday Abdul seemed tired when he returned from school, progressing to dizziness and confusion. About an hour later he collapsed.”
“Have you contacted a doctor?” I asked, focusing on sorting out the layers of magic hanging around Abdul.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “That was the first thing she thought to do. They could find nothing wrong. They suggested more tests, perhaps a stay in the hospital, or consulting a psychiatrist, but they have no money for such things. And I think not even the doctors thought that it would be of help.”
I passed a gentle wave of magic over the boy, raw energy that hadn’t been forced by my will into an actual spell. The scent didn’t waver or shift in the slightest, and I frowned. “Probably right,” I said absently. “How about an exorcist?”
Mohammed smiled without much humor. “That was the second thing,” he said. “He seemed to stir and even to cry out, but afterward returned to…this. The imam said that he could feel a presence in the boy, but it didn’t seem to respond to the words of the Prophet.”
“Interesting,” I said absently. “So medicine didn’t work, the imam couldn’t fix it, you called me…why? Because I’m a werewolf?” It wouldn’t be the first time people assumed that somehow, by virtue of not being quite human, I knew everything there was to know about the supernatural. Granted, that wasn’t as false of an assumption in my case as some, but still. It’s kinda weird to pick a total stranger, based purely on them being a werewolf, and ask them to recommend a good medium. That’s just asking to be conned.
“You are many things,” Mohammed said, a gently chiding note in his voice. “And a werewolf is not, I think, first among them.” He regarded me levelly. “I know that you are a man of power, Winter. You do not wish to speak of such things, and I respect this.” He nodded at Abdul. “This man needs your help. Please.”
I sighed. “Of course, of course. You didn’t need to fight dirty, you know.” For a man with no real connection to the supernatural world, Mohammed was pretty perceptive, and surprisingly open-minded. I’m pretty sure he knows that a good portion of his students and coworkers alike aren’t human by any traditional definition, although he would never say so openly.
“I’ll do what I can,” I said after a moment. “Although it isn’t likely to be much. And…I would appreciate it if you could perhaps…keep this between us?”
“Of course,” he assured me.
“Okay,” I said. “How well would you say you know Abdul here?”
“Quite well, I would say. Why?”
“Somebody’s gotta make some decisions here,” I said. “And since Abdul doesn’t appear to be at home right now, I figure you’re as good a pick as anybody.”
“Perhaps his mother should be here.”
I shook my head. “I’m not looking for someone to chart his path for him or impose their beliefs on him. Just somebody who knows him well enough to tell me what he’d want, if he were able to choose himself. I trust you for that.”
He hesitated, then nodded resignedly. “Very well. Do you think that you can help him?”
“Maybe,” I said. “There’s magic at work here. Human, I would say, or a very close relative…not werewolf, but….” I shook my head. “Not important right now. From the way that it reacts I think he’s almost certainly not exhibiting a developing talent himself, which means that someone else is responsible.”
Mohammed’s lips tightened. “A curse? Black magic?”
“That’s a possibility, yes.”
“Can you find the one who did it?”
I shrugged. “Given three or four hours to examine this, a chance to compare it to similar spells cast by the same person, an object bearing their scent, and a healthy dose of luck, maybe. Which means no.”
“You said a curse was a possibility,” he said after a moment. “What other possibilities are there?”
“Well,” I said, “it could always be black magic, like you suggested. Or it could be an accident—sometimes kids, who don’t know what they’re doing or even that they have magic, can cause problems like this without meaning to. Or, heck, could be something beneficial.”
“I fail to see how this,” Mohammed gestured vaguely at the boy on the bed, “could possibly be of benefit.”
“Well, it could be that someone felt they needed to incapacitate him for some reason. It’s generally considered preferable to put someone out for a day or so than kill them outright. Of course, the fact that it apparently took more than an hour to activate makes that seem unlikely. Or it could be that they were attempting to prevent something worse—like, if they knew that going to school today would get him shot they make sure he can’t.”
“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “But you do not think this is the case?”
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “If I had to guess, I’d say that you were right the first time. Somebody put a curse on him.”
“What is to be done about it?”
“Ah,” I said. “Now, that is where the choices come in. The first thing you could try is another exorcism. This isn’t quite what those are meant to deal with, but magic does react to prayer sometimes. A sufficient concentration of faith and the desire to heal might be enough to deal with this. I’m not sure how big you’d have to get, but definitely a lot more than last time.”
“That would be…difficult to arrange,” Mohammed said reluctantly.
“I know. That leaves us with a variety of less…palatable options. First off, I could summon a demon and see if it can help him.”
Mohammed shook his head vehemently. “No. Absolutely not. Abdul is a very devout young man. He would absolutely not want you to condemn your soul on his behalf.”
“What?” Suddenly I realized my mistake and shook my head. “Sorry. Poor wording. I don’t really deal with that kind of demon. I mean more…it’s a nonphysical being which embodies a given concept. If I could find one whose nature is of healing and compassion, and if the malady afflicting him is spiritual in origin, then that spirit might be able to help him.”
Mohammed frowned. “I am…uneasy with this idea.”
“Well,” I admitted, “it’s not a perfect solution. This doesn’t really feel like shamanic magic, so it might not accomplish anything. And, even if it does, such beings tend to charge a fee. If we get it to work, I can either pay it myself, or he can. Up to him.”
“He would prefer you not indebt yourself for him,” Mohammed said, “if it comes to that. But I think perhaps that this is not the best solution.”
I snorted. “I’ll warn you right now, I don’t have a best solution. If I did, I would have just done it instead of talking about it. But okay, let’s move on. I could also call up my…mentor, you might call him. He’s very skilled, and I can practically guarantee that he would be of some assistance here. However, he is also very expensive. I honestly can’t say what he might charge, and I can’t guarantee that I would be able to cover the expense.”
“Perhaps these are not the best ideas either.”
“Well, no. That only really leaves one option left, which is that I try and help him myself.” I held up one hand to forestall whatever he was going to say. “Now, I have to tell you, this is not my specialty. If this was done the way I think it was, I could conceivably fix it, but it isn’t something I’ve ever tried before. There’s a very good chance that I would cause more harm than I’d fix, accidentally.”
Mohammed and I stood in silence for a few minutes, staring down at Abdul’s unconscious form as he thought. “That, I think, is the best choice,” he said, finally. “Abdul would prefer to risk his own wellbeing than to put you into danger.”
I nodded. I couldn’t say I agreed with the attitude, but if Mohammed told me that the boy felt that way, I believed him. “You’re aware, of course,” I said with a bit of curiosity, “that this is quite likely forbidden by your faith.”
“Allah teaches that we should endeavor to help our fellow man,” Mohammed said firmly. “If that means turning to magic, then that is what must be done.”
“Even if the one helping is a heathen?”
Mohammed smiled. “Especially then. Whatever path you follow, Winter, I have known you to be a good man. I do not think that God wishes us to disdain such men simply because they have not yet heard the voice of His prophet.”
My lips twitched into a twisted smile. “Thank you for saying that, but I don’t think I’m all so good a man as that.” I shook my head. “In any case,” I said, businesslike once more. “I need privacy for this. I should warn you that, whether or not this works, it’s likely to be painful for Abdul. That’s inevitable. It would be best for you to wait downstairs.”
“What if you require assistance?”
“Unlikely,” I said. “However…I suppose, if you really want, you can wait in the hallway. Fatima, however, should probably not be nearby. If things start getting weirder than you think you can handle, leave. And if my dog seems to be trying to tell you something, for God’s sake listen.”
He nodded soberly and left the room.
“So,” I said to the empty air. “Here we are. Again. How do I keep getting into these things?”
Alone with Abdul’s seemingly lifeless body, the room no longer felt homey. It didn’t even feel creepy. That was entirely too small a word for the hostile, sullen atmosphere that seemed to have developed. I have literally been in prisons and torture chambers that didn’t have as disturbing or menacing a feel to them on a spiritual level as that bedroom.
“Okay,” I said to myself, aloud—’cause, you know, why not? “Don’t let it get to you. Let’s get to work. Sooner we start, the sooner we get to leave. What’s the first thing we need to do?”
“Figure out the extent of the problem,” I answered. And yes, I’m aware that this wasn’t exactly evidence of my mental stability. That is largely because I have none. “First step is to sort out what needs doing.”
Following my own advice, I set to work. The first thing I did was give Abdul a quick but reasonably thorough physical check-over. Heartbeat was slow but strong. Normal pupillary response. Normal reflexes were present, although not very pronounced. He made no deliberate movement this whole time, not even a twitch.
That was, believe it or not, a good sign. The presence of reflexes suggested that he wasn’t physically impaired—he hadn’t, for example, been given an artificial case of total locked-in syndrome, which is quite possible for some types of witch.
That left, essentially, two possibilities. The first was that he had suffered a spiritual attack. The simplest way to do that would be to isolate him within the spirit world, without an understanding of where he was, what had happened, or how to get out. If that had happened, from his perspective, he would be just fine. He just wouldn’t be in his body and, depending on how deep he was into that world, he might not even be aware that he had a body. If that was the case, the automatic systems keeping him alive would eventually fail. This would lead to either death or a persistent vegetative state, depending. I could maybe do something about that, but it would be extremely risky for both of us. I’d barely dabbled with spiritual magic at all.
The other possibility was that this was a strictly mental effect, targeting Abdul’s mental functions and intellect without interacting with his body at all. I was guessing that was what I was looking at; it was a common trick, and there were a lot more witches running around than shamans capable of trapping someone in the spirit world.
There were a lot of kinds of mental attack, though. In the best case scenario, he might have been hit with an industrial strength sleeping spell, in which case he was probably just fine underneath. That would probably even wear off on its own, unless we were dealing with a Sleeping Beauty-style, high-level curse. Worse than that would be if he had been somehow cut off from his body. In that case he would be perfectly aware, conscious of everything that happened, but unable to affect his body in even the slightest way, as though he were paralyzed. Moderately hellish, but not likely to leave permanent damage.
Worst case, of course, would be if someone had just decided to crush his mind completely. That takes the most effort, but it has the advantage of simplicity. And, of course, permanence. If that had happened the results would be essentially the same as if he’d suffered massive damage to the central nervous system, except that brain scans and such wouldn’t detect anything.
“Okay,” I said. “That narrows it down a little. Now let’s see what we’re working with.”
I’ve been getting better at complex, high-level magic, largely due to constant practice. It took me only a few minutes to drop into a relatively deep trance. I blocked out the various physical and mental sensations I was feeling almost absentmindedly, focusing entirely on the magic in the room.
I could detect a rather complex, multilayered spell. The predominant odor was human disinfectant. Under that I could detect bleach, anise, and dust, the combination bitter and unpalatable. The pattern was familiar, but I wasn’t sure why or from where. I snagged onto the spell, which felt cold and bitter and tasted like ashes on my metaphysical tongue. And then I found Abdul.
I don’t think I can adequately express what I experienced then. Pain, I suppose, but that word seems entirely inadequate to the task of describing what Abdul was feeling. He wasn’t just in agony, he was in a whole other realm of suffering.
Just touching that storm of pain, of rage and terror, was enough to throw me out of my trance entirely. I came back to myself lying on the floor, eyes closed, panting slightly in reaction.
“Okay,” I said aloud. “That’s just great.” Getting Abdul out from under that curse had just jumped a few priority levels. I mean, I’m not above the occasional killing in a reasonably good cause, but that was crossing the line into a fate literally worse than death. Being paralyzed, helpless to actually do anything, and suffering in that way…yeah, that wasn’t something I could tolerate.
After a few minutes of examination, carefully not looking too closely at Abdul himself, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what the spell was intended to do. It was mental in nature, as I’d thought, but the details were a little more interesting. Abdul was aware, conscious, but held separate from his body. It’s possible to dissociate your mind without causing any harm, but this particular spell hadn’t been set up that way; the kid’s mind was being shredded by the way that it was held away from his body.
It was a cruel, ugly bit of magic, but not actually that well-done. I think it actually would have degraded all on its own within, at the most, another couple days; magic just doesn’t like to behave in an ordered, consistent, purposeful way. Unless it’s absolutely flawless or constantly maintained, any given spell will decay back to its original, chaotic state, given enough time.
Of course, Abdul probably didn’t have that kind of time. With the strain his mind was under, I figured he had no more than a day before he started to suffer irreparable harm to his psyche.
So I started chipping away at the spell. I wasn’t used to working with human minds, but mental magic was still my natural talent, and it was something I could do. This particular application was rather far outside my comfort zone, though, and I had to be extremely delicate with it. A small miscalculation on my part could break the spell in the wrong way, splitting Abdul’s mind and body apart completely. If that happened, it would take someone a lot more skilled than me to piece him back together again.
Eventually, though, I did have it finished. I checked that everything was ready. Then I checked again. Then, because eventually you have to stop putting the thing off and just do it, I broke the backbone support of the magical structure. It collapsed in on itself almost instantly, the magic degrading back into its chaotic form.
And that is when, to put it simply, things got crazy.
I opened my eyes and, about ten seconds later, Abdul opened his. He blinked a few times. Depth and rate of respiration increased as he did, until he was almost hyperventilating and twitching—a long way away from the Sleeping Beauty impression. Then his eyes fixed on me, and what I saw inside them made my heart sink.
Madness. Abdul wasn’t sane right now. I could see, too, that he was still in pain, still experiencing that horrific agony I’d touched on before.
And right about then was when he started trying to claw my freaking eyes out.
Luckily he didn’t seem to be thinking clearly, or at all for that matter. He lunged at me without bracing himself or even sitting up, and as a result mostly he just flopped onto the floor. He came to his feet rapidly, though, his face so contorted that I honestly couldn’t say whether he was snarling in rage or grimacing in agony.
He rushed me clumsily, stupidly. I sidestepped easily, more occupied with the problem of what the hell was going on than with actually fighting. We repeated that pattern several times. He stumbled twice, and once literally fell on his face, without ever getting close to me.
This could be just the mindless retaliation of someone who had been pushed beyond the bounds of sanity and wanted nothing more than to make the pain go away. Could be, but I didn’t think so.
When it did occur to me what was going on, it was so obvious I couldn’t believe I’d overlooked it earlier. “Aw, crap,” I said. I’d really screwed up.
The next time he charged at me, literally frothing at the mouth now, I tripped him instead of just sidestepping. He fell to the ground, caught totally by surprise, and I immediately dropped to hold him in place. I’m not a terribly good wrestler, but I do have a werewolf’s strength, and he wasn’t going to be getting out anytime soon.
I feel I should clarify something, right now, for all you martial arts aficionados who are screaming that superior strength isn’t a guarantor of victory even in a wrestling match, dammit. You are absolutely correct, and I applaud you. Excellent work catching that.
However, you have overlooked one critical fact, which is that Abdul wasn’t fighting rationally. It’s true that skill and experience can make up for a lot of difference in size and strength. However, if the kid even had those things, he wasn’t in a sane enough frame of mind to use them. He was just struggling mindlessly, trying to throw me off with main force, and against that tactic I was more than good enough to defend.
He switched tactics and started trying to bite me, which was more than slightly creepy even for somebody who’s had werewolves and faerie hounds try the same thing. I mean, I expect that from monsters, but people don’t generally bite other people.
I fended him off absently and focused on what I was smelling. Yep. Still magic present, more of it than would be accounted for by the remnant of a shattered spell. I’d really screwed up, acting without thinking. You’d think someday I’d learn, but nooo, I just keep making the same mistake. Honestly, I’d feel pretty dumb except that it seems like everybody else is doing the same damn thing. In my experience, the only terrible mistake more common than acting without thinking is thinking without acting.
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry about this, but you’ve gotta take another nap. You want this the easy way or the hard way?”
His teeth closed a couple inches from my nose, and I flinched back involuntarily. “Okay,” I muttered. “That’d be the hard way, then.”
I stood up, physically dragging Abdul with me by main force, and tossed him into the corner. Then, before he could stand, I pulled off my sweatshirt. I don’t mean that I unzipped it. I simply pulled on it, exercising my will on it as I did, and it split evenly around me, reshaping from a hoodie into a shapeless mass that hung from my hand like an insubstantial blanket.
See, I used to have a rope that I spun from shadows and moonlight. It was useful enough that, when it was destroyed, I’d immediately started thinking about a replacement. But then it occurred to me….
Why stop with just a rope?
My brand-new cloak of shadows was without a doubt my most complicated, well-made, and useful creation yet. It defaults to form a simple, literal cloak; however, under the influence of my magic, it can reshape into very nearly any configuration, from an inconspicuous hoodie to a towel. It can provide anywhere from as little insulation as a normal shadow to a reasonably good sleeping bag impression.
When Alexander he saw it, he declared that my time as an apprentice was over. I believe his exact words were actually, “Anybody who can make something good enough that I wish I’d thought of it first had better call himself a journeyman at least, or I’d be insulted. Now get out.”
Oh, and the best part, at least for my current purposes? It still worked as a rope.
I threw the shapeless mass of shadow at Abdul where he was just now struggling to his feet. As it flew it transformed into a vaguely net-shaped mass of shadow, which affected its flight not in the slightest. That, you see, is the really nice part of using congealed shadow for something like this; having no actual mass or inertia to speak of, it didn’t have to deal with things like gravity and air resistance in the same way most things do.
The net caught him just as he was standing and settled into place around him. Then, once again prodded by my will, it shifted around again, loops of netting retracting and twisting into place to form a simple set of restraints. I pushed more power into the shadow, forcing it to congeal to a consistency roughly equivalent to that of duct tape. It was tiring, maintaining that for long—shadows and moonbeams are, after all, not noted for their efficacy at stopping things from moving. I was forcing them to act against their nature, which is always a pretty serious energy drain.
On the other hand, it was also awesome. Not only do I have a literal cloak of shadows, it’s actually useful. I can think of at least nine fictional assassins who would quite seriously kill for that, purely for the thematic value.
I hefted Abdul, keeping his mouth well away from me, and dumped him on the bed again. A quick twist of magic, another surge of power, and the shadows binding him spun out extensions to wrap around the bedposts. The amount of shadow was fixed, which meant that this spun all of the strands thinner and required even more energy to keep solid, but it would do for a temporary fix.
“Sorry about that,” I said, standing the chair back up and sitting down. “Okay. Round two.”
As I’d expected, the second section of the curse was easy to find, although somewhat more deeply buried than the first. I didn’t have to wonder what it did, either; it was pretty obvious just from basic logic.
See, he was in more suffering than just being conscious but unable to act would account for. That, combined with the feeling of intrusiveness that I’d experienced when looking at the ideas and concepts which defined this working, suggested that the curse on Abdul had been specifically designed to inflict pain.
Now, this could have been done as a part of the same spell I had already broken. But it hadn’t, and I thought I knew why. Whoever had done this had wanted that spell to break, wanted Abdul to regain physical volition without in any way ceasing to suffer. Why, I wasn’t sure. I could think of quite a few motivations that might inspire that, most of which didn’t make a whole lot of sense under the circumstances.
What I did know was that I wasn’t about to tolerate it. I found the magic causing the problem, and winced. It reeked of the same bitter, anise-and-dust smell as before, much uglier than the last layer had been. What was more, it was…well. If the last spell had been like a fishhook stuck into the metaphysical fabric of Abdul’s mind, this was more like a chain of fishhooks, or maybe barbed wire, strung all through it. Those spikes were what was causing him pain.
To continue the metaphor, I broke off as many of those barbs as I could. Then, since every second they were in there was causing damage and I could feel that my own actions weren’t helping, I mentally shrugged and yanked on it.
What? I’m not good at this. I said that already. I mean, if this curse had been laid on an animal or something I could probably have dealt with it quickly and painlessly, but I’m no good at mental magic involving humans.
With that done I simply sat for a few minutes, eyes closed, resting and rebuilding my reserves of power. That particular trick was probably the best one Alexander had ever taught me. Then, once I felt up to moving again, I sat up straight and opened my eyes.
Abdul was unconscious again, but without the eerie malevolent feel of before. It looked like he was just sleeping naturally. I couldn’t smell magic anymore, and I was pretty sure that I was done here.
I stood up, only slightly unsteady on my feet, and reached out to grab the nearest strand of darkness. With a quick tug and a mental effort, it all pulled loose, then reshaped itself into the hoodie I’d worn in. I must have been working pretty hard, because even that was an effort. I walked out of the room, careful not to make any noise that might wake the boy.
“Is it done?” Mohammed asked. As I’d suggested, he was in the hallway, leaning against the opposite wall.
“Hope so,” I said wearily. “Think he’s sleeping normally now. Should be awake within…nine, maybe ten hours?” I shrugged. “He might need, I don’t know, therapy or something. And he should see a doctor, I think. It got a bit…rowdy there for a minute.”
He smiled. “Yes, I heard. I will tell Fatima what is to be done. Thank you.”
“Didn’t do it for you,” I said.
His smile grew slightly broader. “I know,” he said simply.
I grunted, moving toward the staircase. “Very funny,” I told him. “How long was I in there?”
“Slightly more than an hour.”
“Really?” I was surprised. It hadn’t felt like more than a quarter of that.
Mohammed insisted I have tea and some kind of crunchy baked thing before I left, assisted by Fatima. Being a sucker for good baking, I didn’t argue very much. Her accent was basically the same as his, except quite a bit thicker; English was quite clearly neither her first language nor her favorite. She watched me with an expression that mingled wonder, interest, and fear into something a little like awe. I could practically see her adding up all the weird features of my appearance and behavior, and wondering what I really was. I provided no assistance in this regard, and of course neither of them asked.
What? Spreading weird stories about myself is kind of a hobby by now. At least this time it was the good kind of story.