Marx returned to his mom's apartment on a Sunday night. The weekend had been spent with his dad, which translated into two mornings in a row getting up at 6:00 a.m. to go hiking in the woods behind his dad's house. Marx didn't mind the hikes really, and he wasn't out of shape or anything. It was just that his dad was insanely in shape and didn't quite comprehend why anyone would want to walk the trails when they could jog.
So when Marx returned to his mom's place he was more than ready to drop his duffel at the door and pass out until he had to get up for school the next morning. It didn't quite happen like that, naturally.
The first thing he noticed was the smell, which rolled over him like a damp blanket the moment he opened his bedroom door. Marx gagged and managed the duffel-dropping part of his plans, at least. He was already reaching to slam the door shut when he caught sight of something that looked like an agitated sphere of mist hovering just above his desk. Marx froze, the smell briefly forgotten.
The spirit was gray and ragged at the edges and had no actual shape as far as Marx could tell. He guessed it was the kind that used to have a body, but he had no idea what that body had been or how long ago it had died.
Marx hesitated, then took a step forward and did his best to breath through his mouth. He could still taste the reek though, which was almost worse than just smelling it.
Stranger, the thought streaked across his mind, alien and frantic.
"Can I help you?" Marx asked carefully. He glanced around his room for a body, but nothing seemed out of place.
Predator. Fly away. The mist swirled harder, spattering a sense of agitation across Marx like soda flying from someone's nose.
"No hang on, I'm not a predator. I
" Marx took a gasp of air. "Look, did you need something?"
The ball of mist sent out an entire cocktail then of confusion and more agitation and a primal fear that didn't have any of the intelligence behind it that Marx might associate with a person. An animal's fear then, and an uncomplicated animal at that.
Marx frowned abruptly. Few animal spirits saw the point of sticking around after they died.
Fly! The ball of mist gave one last, wild wave of panic before it abruptly slumped on itself. Marx watched it carefully, but the spirit only gave a small shudder and stayed where it was.
"Listen," he tried one more time. "Where's your body? It's in here, isn't it?" The ball of mist didn't answer. "Are you stuck here?"
He felt a small tendril of weariness, and then silence again. Marx didn't think it'd be holding itself together for much longer.
"Right," he muttered, "Well, thanks for dying in my room." He chanced a breath through his nose and gagged again.
"Mom!" he called, turning to leave his room.
Fifteen minutes later found Marx and his mom scouring the small bedroom with dishtowels held to their noses.
"And you're sure you didn't leave you window open over the weekend?" his mom asked as she peered under his desk. She was still in the gray business suit she'd worn to work that day. "Or Fred might have found something."
"I didn't leave the window open," Marx assured her, trying to ignore the morose spirit lying an arm's length from his mom's head. "And Fred couldn't catch anything to save his life."
"Just asking," his mom straightened and looked around the room. "Help me drag the bed from the wall."
"I already checked under the bed," Marx said as he and his mom grabbed the headboard and pulled with low grunts.
"I'm checking again," she told him, then climbed on his bed and peered down into the space between it and the wall. Her face abruptly crumpled into one of distaste.
"Found it," she stated.
"It" was a dead pigeon, quietly decomposing on Marx's dusty floorboards. It lay on its back with its scaly legs stiffly held out and its wings outstretched, as if someone had experienced a sudden fit of creativity with it. The glassy eyes watched Marx with something bordering sullen reproach, like it was his fault that someone had exercised said creativity on its dead body.
"Go get a trash bag and latex gloves," his mom told Marx, pulling him from thoughts about dead pigeons and post-mortem art. He scrambled from the bed, but not before glancing to the pigeon's spirit on his desk. It hadn't moved, and why was it still hanging around its body days after the fact? Marx felt a sudden swell of unease about the entire situation that was entirely his own.
Sara liked to tell people that she'd majored in underwater basket weaving. It was a funny line, and it distracted people (at least half the time) from pursuing the topic of her secondary education. It wasn't that she really regretted her major. She'd had fun and she'd learned quite a bit, and she knew there were (theoretically) plenty of successful jobs out there where she could use her degree.
She just didn't like the way that people heard "English major, emphasis on literature and folklore" and then looked at her with sympathetic comprehension. In those moments she was Sara Landwere, case specimen of the 24-year-old post-grad waitressing to pay off her student loans for a useless major.
It annoyed her, to be perfectly honest.
So she threw out the basket weaving line, got a laugh and then steered the conversation into topics that didn't include those "well what did you expect?" looks.
Really, if she wanted, she could have dropped the underwater basket weaving and said instead, "well don't worry, the waitressing's just a day job. I also run around and convince people's boggarts to behave or ask great aunt Mildred's ghost to go find herself an afterlife."
She could say that, but she thought she'd get a lot worse than "well what did you expect?" looks.
Sara wiped the counter with a spent rag, pausing once to dig at a splat of crusted ketchup. Satisfied, she slapped the rag on a bar to dry and checked the clock. Five minutes for her shift to end.
The diner's door jangled and a young couple entered. They were closely followed by a boy who looked as if he were teetering on the cusp of puberty and had yet to be told what that meant exactly. As the couple took a booth, he scanned the diner with dark eyes then made for the counter behind which Sara stood.
"Hey," she greeted as Marx flung his backpack on a stool, then climbed into the one next to it. "You have an hour?"
Marx glanced around again before returning his attention to Sara.
"Sure," he said. "A job?"
"Mm," Sara checked to be sure Kelly had the couple covered. "It's a heather witch on the south side of the city. I didn't get everything she said, her accent was hard to understand over the phone, but I think there's a boggart involved." She glanced to Marx. "Sounds fun, right?"
"Sure," Marx nodded loosely. His eyes had slid over the nearly empty diner again. "Sara?"
Marx looked back to her. "If you were to find a dead pigeon in your room, would that mean anything to you?" he asked a little too quickly.
"A dead pigeon?" she asked. "No. I mean, possibly that I'll have to buy disinfectant."
"No, no, I'm asking whether a dead pigeon means anything to your people-"
"Your people too, Marx."
"-like, I dunno, a warning?" Marx ignored her.
"Why on earth would anyone use a dead pigeon as a warning?"
"What do you mean?"
Sara leaned on the counter. "If you wanted to threaten someone, you'd leave an anonymous voicemail or
throw a brick through their window." She caught sight of Marx's eyebrows shooting up. "Well, I don't know. It's cleaner."
"Maybe they want dirty. To create a certain mood."
"Maybe you've watched too many mobster films."
Sara sighed, then ran an idle hand through her hair and squinted at the ceiling in thought.
"No, I've never heard of pigeons being used as a warning," she said. "Were there any runes surrounding the carcass?"
"Thank god, no."
"Okay," Sara straightened. "Then it was just a dead pigeon that ended up under your bed for mundane, though unfortunate reasons-"
"Its spirit was hanging around in my room."
Marx watched Sara's eyes widen.
"Well that's a bit different then," she admitted.
"Yeah." Marx watched as Sara briefly rubbed at her face with her hand.
"It happens, of course," said after a moment. "Did you try talking to the spirit?"
"Sure, but all it gave was pigeon thoughts."
"Hang on, is it still there?" Sara brought her head up. "Maybe I could-"
"It disintegrated this morning," Marx shrugged apologetically.
"Ok," Sara nodded. "Ok." she glanced at Marx. "We could
ask Bixby about this. He'd know something."
"Bixby," Marx nodded, his back straightening. "I hadn't thought of him." Sara could hear the slight relief in Marx's voice, and it struck her again how much of a kid he still was. She found herself wishing yet again that he'd buck up and tell his parents about his abilities, then let them play parent instead of her. They'd undoubtedly be much better at it.
"Alright," Sara looked at the clock again. "I'm going to sign out and we'll go to the witch, then Bixby. Sound good?" Marx nodded as she turned and headed for the kitchen.
A few minutes later, Sara and Marx emerged from the diner and shivered spasmodically as the early-spring Chicago wind found them under their layers of sweaters and coats. They turned and headed south, arms crossed and chins ducked.
"We could take the subway," Marx suggested carefully.
"You can pay for me then," Sara didn't need to look in Marx's direction to know he was rolling his eyes. Marx, for his part, settled for being glad that his backpack kept the worst of the wind off.
They made it to the south end of the city in good time and quickly found the address the heather witch had given. ("I hope I heard right," Sara muttered as they approached the apartment building. "Her accent was so thick.") Marx hopped up the steps and peered at the panel of resident names and buzzers.
"Is it Dashkov?" he asked. "That sounds Russian."
"Yes, actually," Sara sounded pleased as she looked over his shoulder. Marx jabbed at the buzzer. He and Sara waited a moment, Sara giving another shudder at the wind, before a voice crackled over the intercom.
"Yes?" a thickly accented woman's voice came through.
"Miss Dashkov?" Sara spoke. "It's Sara Landwere. We spoke on the phone-?"
"Yes yes," Miss Dashkov said. She added something intelligible then, "Come." The door buzzed and Marx and Sara bounded into the wall of warmth that was the apartment's lobby.
"A boggart, you said?" Marx asked as he pulled his coat collar down and stripped his gloves. He started jogging up the stairs, Sara at his heels.
"I'm pretty sure that's what she was trying to say," Sara shrugged. "Something causing minor trouble." Marx made a noncommittal noise as they reached the third floor landing. He paused, scanning the cluster of doors.
"Here," Sara strode forward and knocked at apartment 35. The door immediately swung open to reveal a woman in a neat purple poncho who, while not young, was certainly not old yet. Marx guessed in her late thirties.
"Miss Dashkov?" Sara smiled and stuck out her hand. "Sara Landwere and Marx Santos."
"Irina, please," the woman smiled tightly and took Sara's hand. "Glad you here. Herringford say you pretty good."
"We like to think so," Sara replied easily. "May we come in?" Irina turned back into her apartment with a vague hand wave, Sara taking the cue to follow. Marx stepped behind Sara into the apartment's short entry hall, immediately wrinkling his nose at the sweet scent of tobacco. It smelled like his dad back before he'd undergone his healthy-living conversion.
"It show up two, ah, weeks ago," Irina's voice echoed from somewhere ahead. "Make noise, trouble. I try zel'e from old country. Bit of warm milk, sprinkle with rosemary bread. No good."
"No?" Sara looked around as she and Marx emerged into the main living room. It didn't look particularly magic-ridden, though they never did. The two sofas were neat and attractive, the walls brightly painted and decorated. A touch-screen cell phone lay on top of a TV that was not yet too old to look shabby. A perfectly normal apartment for a youngish woman doing reasonably well in life, bar perhaps the smell of tobacco.
Still, Sara could see the thick use of magic in the room, like fluorescent light. It threw everything into a slightly odd light, made the shadows a little different. She glanced to Marx to see if he was paying attention to it, but his face was turned away from her, examining a shelf full of cheap porcelain figurines.
"I had more," Irina said, and Sara looked to find her approaching the shelf of porcelains. She picked up a little cat wearing a gardening sun hat and holding a tiny red flower. "It has
other cat. Companion. Domovi smash it into wall, with two others." Irina replaced the gardening cat and sniffed unappreciatively. "Herringford want $45 to put them back together with no cracks." She added a phrase that Marx thought wasn't necessarily a compliment.
He wondered briefly why Irina hadn't done the job herself, before he recalled that she was a heather witch. He didn't remember much from what Sara had told him, but he knew the key point was that they could only work with woods and grasses and such; plant material.
"So why are they called heather witches?" he'd asked after Sara had explained.
She'd shrugged. "It's a term that came here from England, I think. I dunno, probably hanging around in the moors and making use of all that heather. Heather witches."
Indeed, now that Marx looked, he spotted the bough of dried grasses and twigs hanging over the doorway leading into the kitchen. It could have been a decorative accent, but Marx felt the hum of its magic seeping into the rest of the apartment like a generator.
"What else has this thing been doing?" Marx asked, turning from the bough and squinting around at the room.
"Eh, few cups broken," Irina waved her hand. "Lights come on and off, cries like dog at night. No sleep for me." She gave a wry half-grin.
"You said domovi
" Sara said.
"I no know what it is," Irina shrugged. "In Russia, this kind of thing come because we make the domovi not happy."
"What's a domovi?" Marx looked between the two women.
"Russian domestic spirit," Sara told him. "It's like a brownie when it's happy, helps around the house and guards the home."
"But when domovi not happy, it make trouble," Irina finished.
"Oh, so it is a boggart, basically," Mark nodded. He could handle a boggart.
"Domovi are little men with moustaches, so no, not entirely like a boggart," Sara told him. "But we really don't know what this is." She shoved her hands into her jacket pockets and scanned the apartment again. "I guess we'll find out."
Sara and Marx started in the kitchen, since Irina reported that was where the disturbances had been most concentrated.
"You felt the thing on the porcelains," Sara didn't ask as much as state as she and Marx poked around the silverware drawer. Marx shifted, listening to Irina shuffling things around in the living room and pretending she wasn't trying to eavesdrop.
"How did you know?" he asked.
"You tilt your head to the left when you're feeling for something," Sara made a dismissive sound at the silverware and straightened.
"Right." Marx closed the drawer.
"What could you tell from it?" Sara watched him as Marx scratched at his nose, looking a little like a reluctant student being quizzed.
"I felt Irina's residue on them," he said. "And then there was something else, something that felt sentient. But I'm not entirely sure it was
" he hesitated. "Well I wouldn't be completely sure it was a human."
"I wouldn't expect it to be human," Sara allowed. "Anything else? A feeling of resentment perhaps? Or maybe just mischievousness."
"I couldn't tell," Marx shrugged. "It was too vague."
"Fair enough," Sara nodded and turned to stride toward what looked like a broom closet. "Well, it's more than just a bundle of bad energy, I think," she opened it and peered inside. "Stay open, see if you can feel whatever was on those porcelains." Marx looked into the closet behind Sara, but he felt only the thin, viscous presence of old objects collecting thoughts like dust. Nothing smart enough to throw cups.
"Hm," Sara grunted as they simultaneously pulled from the closet, giving the kitchen another glance as if the spirit had been there the whole time and they simply hadn't noticed. Which had happened to her on more than one occasion.
They spent another ten minutes in the kitchen and fifteen in the living room before they had to admit that there was nothing suspicious to be found.
The buzzing of magic from Irina's boughs had intensified too, no doubt because of heightened anxiety from Irina herself. Marx wished she'd stop; it was going to give him a headache soon.
"You find anything?" the heather witch asked as Sara extracted herself from behind one of the couches. Sara sneezed, straightened her jacket, then glanced to Irina.
"Herringford say you pretty good," Irina cocked her head.
"I hope he also told you it's not unusual for us to have to come back three or four times to ferret the thing out," Sara replied coolly. Irina appraised her for another moment before making a dismissive sound.
"You'll want to see rest of place, yes?" she asked.
"Looks like it," Sara gestured to Marx to follow her as Irina led them into a small hallway leading from the living room. "Do you have any closets or small spaces that don't get disturbed much?" Sara asked.
Marx instinctively jerked his head up when they passed beneath a second bough of grasses, then refocused on feeling for the boggart. Domovi. Whatever.
Sara glanced at his movement before bringing her gaze to the bough as well. For her, it shivered slightly, like it was caught behind a heat haze. The odd shadows penetrated it much deeper than any other object in the apartment.
"A few places," Irina turned back to the pair. "Would try-"
"Hang on." Sara and Irina turned to Marx, who stood with his arms half raised and a frown on his face.
"You feel something?" Sara took a step forward.
"I did, for a second," Marx let his arms drop. "It's gone now. But I think something just entered the apartment. I felt it
brush against Irina's magic."
"What?" Irina sounded affronted. "I no feel anything." The heather witch brushed past Sara and Marx and went to the bough hanging on the wall. Marx's breath hitched when Irina put a hand on it and joined her own magic to the system's, the humming bubbling up on itself.
"I didn't see anything," Sara swiftly scanned the hallway, wishing not for the first time that she could feel the magic and spirits rather than just see and hear them. All she could see now was a sudden, wild rippling spreading across the apartment from the point of contact between Irina and her bough.
"I'm not surprised, it was pretty quick," Marx told her in a tight voice, and she looked in his direction to find him standing much too stiffly for a fourteen-year-old. "It wasn't small, whatever it was-" Marx cut himself off at the odd expression on Sara's face. "What?"
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Marx hesitated. "Fine," he said, then added a small smile. A line appeared between Sara's eyebrows. It was oddly familiar, and Marx suddenly recognized it as something like what his mom adopted when he came home with a split lip and told her he'd simply been caught in the face while playing kickball again.
Sara stared him down for another moment before she shoved a strand of hair from her face and returned to scanning the small hallway.
"You're an awful liar," she muttered before speaking in a normal voice, "Something tricky, then," she sniffed. "It's possible this is something bigger than a boggart."
"Poltergeist?" Marx suggested.
Sara didn't answer. She lifted her head slightly and took a second, sharper sniff.
"I no sense anything," Irina suddenly pulled her hand from the bough and Marx felt himself slump slightly with relieved tension. As he blinked hard, Marx became aware that Irina was asking him something.
"What?" he lifted his head.
"I say, you sure you feel this?"
"I- yes, I did," Marx said, straightening. Irina raised a single eyebrow as indication of what she thought of that.
"The tobacco smell," Sara cut in. "It got stronger." Marx took a whiff and blinked from the thickness.
"Tabaka?" Irina frowned. "No, I no smoke."
"But you burn tobacco for your magic." Sara said.
"Some of the time," Irina shook her head. "Not for many months. And I no smoke. No smell tabaka here." Sara and Marx glanced at one another.
"Spirit's doing then," Sara muttered. She took a few steps forward, still inhaling sharply, before she paused in front of a closed door. "What's this?" she pointed.
"That the guest bedroom," Irina supplied. "Too very quiet. I no go in much."
"Sounds ideal then," Sara said, reaching out to pull the door open.
The man sitting on the flowery duvet was smoking a long pipe, a shroud of gray, sweet-smelling smoke wreathing his head. He didn't look perturbed at the sight of Marx and Sara staring at him from the doorway. He merely smiled and exhaled another mass of smoke.
"What in there?" Irina asked from behind Marx and Sara. "Domovi?"
"I don't know," Sara murmured.
"Domovi?" the man sounded thoughtful. "Little hairy men, right? I met one once. Told me I should stay at home more, like my sister." He laughed like it was a grand joke indeed.
"Irina," Sara half turned toward their client. "You can't see anything? Smell anything?"
"Is empty room," Irina said, oblivious to the cheery wave the man gave her. "You two see it?"
"Mm," Sara returned her attention to the man. "We're going to go in there and talk to it. Can you wait outside?"
"It sneak past my suk," Irina sounded sour. "More powerful than domovi."
"I'd hope so," the man said.
"I want apartment to stay in one piece," Irina retreated a few steps and allowed Marx to close the door. He turned back to the bedroom to find the man still looking quite at home on the bed, pipe in hand. He tried to get some sense of what it might be, but all he felt from it was
movement. The thing that looked like a dark-skinned man with a cheerful face felt more like a layered, folded mass of energy that was eager to get going to some unknown destination. He frowned, wondering whether they were facing one of the really old and powerful spirits. He really hoped they weren't.
Sara caught his frown before returning her attention to the man.
"Well," she said, shoving her hands nonchalantly into her pockets. "That was very clever of you. It'd take a lot to sneak past a witch's defenses."
"I didn't sneak," the man arched his eyebrows. "Goodness, we haven't even introduced ourselves and already accusations are flying."
Marx glanced to Sara, whose eyes narrowed. He could tell she was thinking, running through all the possible entities the strange man could be. "Our apologies," she finally said. Politeness usually went over well with any spirit. "We're just doing our job. We're trying to convince whatever has been bothering Irina Dashkov to leave, or stop."
"And so you need to act like the alpha males."
"For lack of a better term."
"Mm," the man looked thoughtful as he stretched his legs out in front of him. Sara saw his feet were bare and calloused and caked in dirt. They shimmered with that heat-haze too, even more that the rest of the man's body, and she wondered why. In any case, there was energy, magical or otherwise, spilling off of this thing in waves. She knew Marx wouldn't see it, but she suspected he felt it.
"Well," the man said brightly, pulling Sara from her thoughts, "I'll be able to make your job easy then. I'll need no persuading to be on my way." He perked up. "I'll even replace the things I ruined."
"So you have been the one causing trouble here," Marx said. The man shrugged and grinned yet again.
"Have I? Trouble is so very much a subjective term. Besides, a soul has to entertain himself some way when he's waiting."
"Waiting for what?" Sara asked.
"Well for you two."
There was a moment of silence. Marx could almost see the tension in the room ratchet a few levels, most of it coming from Sara as her back straightened and her eyes took on a sudden brightness that Marx had only seen on a few occasions, most notably the time they were being threatened in a dark alley by a couple of leprechauns with a hellhound.
"And why would you be interested in us?" she voiced Marx's thoughts in a cool voice.
"Why not?" the man enquired as if genuinely interested. Marx wondered if he didn't hear Sara's tone, or he didn't care. Likely the latter.
Sara shook her head at the man. "We work with minor spirits, only in the Chicago area. What could we have possibly done to attract the attention of something like you?"
"Something like me," the man mused, tapping his chin with the stem of his pipe. He looked to them with a fresh gleam in his eye. "And what am I exactly?"
"Not a boggart," Marx offered.
"Bah, any senile fool could tell me that." The man chewed on his pipe stem reflectively. "But to be honest with you two, I'd be hard-pressed to say precisely what I am."
"Do you have a name then?" Sara asked, and Marx couldn't help but notice that her posture hadn't slumped in the slightest. It seemed to have straightened, and Marx had to wonder suddenly why he wasn't feeling anything like nervousness or tension. Only a steady beat of growing excitement.
The man pulled the stem from between his teeth. "Don't know that either," he admitted. "But you can call me Mudd. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
Sara nodded and made a noncommittal sound. "Mudd. Care to tell us why you've been hanging around Irina's apartment?"
"How did you know we'd come?" Marx added.
"That part was easy," Mudd nodded. "I come bother a heather witch with a limited income in windy Chicago? There are Sara Landwere and Marx Santos."
Something in Sara shifted in discomfort at the familiar way in which Mudd said her and Marx's names, but she did her best not to let it show through.
"You could have come and found us yourself," Sara pointed out.
"Oh but that would be so
direct," Mudd made a face. "This was considerably more interesting."
"Mm," Sara's eyebrows quirked.
"But that's hardly the point," Mudd continued. "This is the important part." He paused, his face widening into yet another grin. "I have come to request your help." Marx and Sara did not return his grin.
"With what?" Marx ventured.
"Eh, it's complicated," Mudd waved a hand and took another drag from his pipe. "But things are happening." He paused. "Things are always happening though, aren't they? I mean bad things. Things that shouldn't really be happening."
Something subtle clicked in Marx's mind.
"Like pigeons dying for no reason? And their spirits hanging around their bodies for days?" he asked suddenly. He felt the anticipation in him surge forward.
"Yes, things like that," Mudd pointed triumphantly at Marx. "That's right, you found that last night, didn't you?"
"You put the pigeon there?" Marx asked.
"Certainly not," Mudd replied, looking mildly insulted. "No one put it there. I told you, the Book's been making things to go pear-shaped all over."
"Which book?" Sara asked.
"The Book," Mudd straightened. "Capitalized. It's
well it's been broken a bit. And the Stories are
not working anymore. It's bad," he clarified to the pair. When he was met with incredulous looks, he sighed and scratched his nose. "The Book holds all the stories; every one that has ever been told."
"There's not been any evidence for-"
"Lovely, but I've seen them, I've entered them," Mud cut Sara off with a wave of his hand. "The point is that the Book has been damaged by my sister and now the stories are collapsing into each other. It's causing quite a bit of trouble."
"Trouble being odd pigeon deaths?" Sara cocked her head.
"Yes, in fact," Mudd lifted his chin. "Think about it. Some of the oldest stories are about death. Those stories are breaking down, merging into a useless lump. It's already killed that pigeon and snagged its spirit, and by next week you'll see the same happening to people. It'll be nasty, nasty business."
"But why?" Sara asked, and her heart sank at the slight edge of panic in her voice. Panic at what precisely, she couldn't pinpoint. The entire insane situation, most likely, and a few things aside. "Because this Book is broken?"
"Yes! Well, Unwriting itself, to be precise, but yes." Mudd grinned. "I knew you two would understand."
"No, we don't understand," Sara's arms crossed. "Why on earth should we believe you? And even if we did believe you, why do you need us?"
"I believe him Sara-"
"Not now, Marx." Marx snapped his mouth shut and jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. Mudd's grin had vanished, and he leaned back slightly to draw in from his pipe.
"You're acting like my sister," he observed in a tone of voice that didn't suggest that this was a positive thing.
"Lovely. Answer the questions."
Mudd huffed sharply, sending a cloud of smoke into the room. "My sister and I need mortals to go into the Book. They'll need to sort out these stories before things get any worse."
"Can you and your sister not go there?" Marx enquired. He flinched at the thick wash of anger that abruptly swept from Mudd.
"No," he replied shortly. Marx and Sara watched him stare at his pipe for a moment, then return his gaze to the pair. "I'll help you, of course," he continued. "In the way I can."
"When would we have to go?" Marx felt the words leave his throat almost before he had the chance to think them. But he didn't feel surprised at himself, oddly enough. Just anticipatory.
"What?" Sara turned to Marx, a deep frown on her face.
we should go in this Book." Marx swallowed at his words, at the expression that sprawled across Sara's face.
"What are you-" Sara cut herself off suddenly, turning to Mudd. "Can we have a moment?" Mudd gestured vaguely, then swiveled around on his buttocks and faced the opposite wall. Sara stared at his back, then turned on Marx. He made a small sound of surprise as Sara grabbed his arm in a death grip and steered him to the corner of the room.
"Let go," Marx wrenched his arm from Sara, turning to face her. "What?"
"Marx," Sara ran a hand through her hair and closed her eyes briefly. "There's a basic tenant in our line of work. It says to never trust powerful spirits. Ever. Use your head, Marx," she made a flailing, slightly helpless gesture. "I don't even know what he is."
"I can feel something about him though," Marx said quickly. "He's telling us the truth." Sara gave him a look then that Marx knew from his mom as well. It partially said 'sorry, but you're a kid and I know better.' It also had a liberal helping of Sara's unique 'what the hell are you talking about?' Marx never liked that look. "You can't feel his energy," he added quickly.
"Even if he is then," Sara gestured towards Mudd. "Are we really going to go gallivanting in a
Book? Which sounds sketchy, by the way. I've never heard any reputable source say there's a Book you can walk into."
"Few have, I wouldn't feel too bad about it," Mudd supplied.
"Besides which, I have a job and you have school and a mom," Sara continued unperturbed. "You're going to disappear and have your mom call the amber alert?"
Marx made a low sound of frustration. Sara would use his mom.
"The time is relative," Mudd added. "I can certainly shift things around for you to spend at maximum a few minutes in the Book."
"That's not the point," Sara snapped.
"I think it clears some things up," Marx said.
"It absolutely does not."
"Sara, think what would happen if what happened to that pigeon happened on a wider scale-"
"And why on earth would that happen?"
"Because he said it would and he's telling the truth-"
"You don't know that!"
"But I do! I feel it!"
"God d-" Sara made some unintelligible sound. "You sensitives and your feelings."
Sara and Marx watched one another for another tense moment, Sara's fist clenching and unclenching.
"We have to help," he stated.
Marx knew he'd won when her face abruptly fell.
"So you're going in and damn everything else," she said flatly.
Marx nodded, albeit a little guiltily. "It feels right," he said. "Not in the soppy way. I literally feel this movement." He paused to gather his thoughts. "This intense movement. It's pushing at me. It wants me to go."
"You realize how incredibly unfounded your reasoning sounds," Sara muttered, but she didn't meet his eye either.
"There's a reason no one likes Sensitives and their feelings," Marx raised his eyebrows wryly.
"True that." Sara exhaled sharply and he saw a twitch of her mouth that could have almost been a smile. Then she looked Marx over with a no-nonsense tone in her stance once more. "Well I suppose I'm coming with you."
"You don't have to-"
"Of course I do. You'll be dead in an hour without me." Marx knew better than to dispute the truth of that statement. "Mudd," Sara turned sharply back to the bed. "Do we have time to go back to my apartment and get anything?"
"You could," Mud replied idly, still facing the wall. "But I don't think it's going to help." He glanced back to them. "The rules are constantly in flux where you're going. Talismans and charms and spells will fail at some point, I can tell you that much."
"And our abilities?" Marx asked suddenly.
Mudd shrugged and turned back around. "Questionable." The insistent, almost euphoric sensation loosened its hold on Marx slightly. His sensitivity to magic and spirits was something he was only now starting to get used to, actually starting to depend on as much as his other senses. Loosing it would be like
loosing the use of his left hand. Not incapacitating, but odd, and inconvenient.
He chanced a glance at Sara and saw the same wariness in her face. She caught his eye and now it was her turn to raise her eyebrows ironically, so he looked away before she could make him question himself. "But you said you'd be able to help us?" Marx asked Mudd.
"Oh yes, I can help," Mudd grinned. He glanced around the room as if searching for something before he chanced a look at the pipe in his hand and grinned even wider. "This," he held it aloft triumphantly. "I'll give you this."
Marx heard the loud exhale from Sara that spoke partially of defeat, but mostly of a growing desire to strangle someone. He suspected Mudd and himself rated equally on her list at this point.
"How will it help?" he asked Mudd instead. Mudd seemed to need a moment to consider this before he nodded and bent over the pipe. Marx thought he heard a whisper before a ripple of energy spat from the pipe. Marx felt a wave of lightheadedness and staggered a few steps in surprise.
"Marx?" He sensed Sara's presence suddenly at his elbow, but he waved a vague hand at her.
"M'fine," he said. He blinked hard, then straightened. "Fine."
Anything Sara might have wanted to say was forgotten when Mudd held the pipe up with a satisfied smirk on his face.
"Not bad," he commented. "Not bad at all."
The pipe still looked like a pipe, for all intents and purposes. It had gained a darker and glossier sheen in its wood, and the smell of tobacco was even sharper than before. When they peered closer, Marx and Sara could see delicate carvings in the bowl and stem, images that neither could make out clearly, but seemed to wriggle and shift around the pipe without actually moving at all.
For Sara the pipe shimmered almost violently, the shadow of its bowl deep and alien. Marx's head pounded just looking at it. The pipe sparkled with its new energy for another few moments before it settled, and the ripples subdued into a mild hum.
"What did you do?" Marx asked in a strained voice.
"Gave it a function," Mudd replied happily. A certain spark entered his dark eyes. "It's function is now Trouble. Appropriate, yes? You two make a job out of seeking and solving trouble. Trouble was why this whole mess started. Trouble is how you found me." He nodded to himself. "Yes, trouble is a fine function."
"Why a pipe?" Sara asked, sensing that she was going to regret the answer. Mudd looked confused for a moment.
"It's a pipe kind of day," he shrugged, then without warning tossed it in their direction. Sara caught it automatically, then instantly held it delicately between thumb and finger as if it might burn her. It didn't. Marx leaned in closer to examine it, but besides its low hum of magic, it looked like any other nice pipe one might find at a higher-end antique mall. Well, there was the fact that he glimpsed some kind of four-legged animal bounding across the bowl, but he could easily have imagined that bit.
"What do we do with it?" Sara looked back at Mudd. "How do we use it?"
"How should I know?" Mudd asked. "I only make these kind of things. It's people like you who have to use them." Sara pursed her lips in thought, then stuck the pipe in her jacket pocket. Marx felt it vibrating at him through the fabric.
"So, that's it?" Sara asked. "No tools, we loose our abilities, we get a pipe and you send us into this Book?"
"I'm not telling you you'll loose your abilities," Mudd said reasonably. "I'm only alerting you to the possibility."
Sara made a small noise that indicated her thoughts on that.
"Sara, come on," Marx muttered. "It'll be fine." Sara looked down to him and Marx found himself seeing something he nearly didn't recognize in her face. It looked an awful lot like nervousness.
"I don't think we can count on that," she said. He didn't have an appropriate reply to that, he found. And again the doubt seeped in, and again the odd insistence reigning in his mind forced it back and told him that he was to enter this Book as soon as possible, and if Sara was to accompany him then all the better. It didn't make him feel any less guilty about dragging her in, though. He knew very well she felt responsible for him when it came to the things like this, things so far removed from the mundane and safer world of his parents and schoolmates. And while he sometimes resented the babysitting, most of the time he'd had to admit that he was glad there was someone with knowledge of the magical world who decided he was worth letting stick around.
"Right," Mudd slid from the bed and lifted the hem of the duvet. He peered into the dimness, then looked back to Sara and Marx with an expectant look. "This way please."
Marx chanced a look at Sara, but she didn't look frustrated anymore. Just grim. She took a few steps forward, looked at the bed, then back to Mudd.
"I still don't trust you," she stated. The entire things felt unreal at this point. She was going to crawl under a bed, obviously a gateway of some type, put together by this
thing. And she had a fourteen-year-old Sensitive to worry about. Who had been the one to push her into this in the first place and oh Lord what would her aunt Gabrielle be saying to her right now? She mentally winced and pushed the thought away.
Mudd was watching her steadily, then a small smile curved on his lips. "I stopped trusting myself life-times ago," he offered. Sara nodded, then straightened her shoulders and checked for the charm-stone she'd had since middle school and wondered whether it would fail, after all these years, in this Book.
"Enough stalling," she told no one in particular. "I'm going first. Oh, and Mudd?" The man raised an eyebrow expectantly. "I expect Irina's mysterious domovi-boggart thing to be gone."
"Naturally," he grinned and gave a rakish wink. She rolled her eyes at him, then got on her knees and peered under the bed. She saw the magic, in the way the shadow shifted and rippled, so she knew she'd be going somewhere besides the other side of the bed at least. She wasn't sure whether to consider that a positive.
"Where will the gateway deposit us exactly?" she asked.
"In the Book. Can't specify where precisely," Mudd offered unhelpfully. "It's a bit of a mess, if you'll recall."
"Right. Marx, don't follow until you hear me say it's okay," she shot one last warning glance to Mudd, then went on her belly and pulled herself forward military-style. The gap was adequate, but not necessarily generous and she felt the top of her head and bottom brush the underside of the mattress as she pulled herself further into the darkness. She made a few more wriggles forward before she paused. It was dim and dusty and she still felt for all the world like she was simply wedged under one of her clients' beds for whatever insane reason. She contorted herself to look back at the strip of light from the bedroom. Her eyebrows rose in surprise at how far away it already looked, a touch too far to be the width of a bed. She saw Marx's and Mudd's faces peering at her.
"Marx!" she called. "Come on!" He thumped to the floor and crawled forward. She waited, trying to ignore the disturbed carpet of dust drifting up to coat her face.
"You have the pipe?" Mudd's voice came nearly too distantly as Marx stopped beside her.
Sara checked. "Yes!" she called back.
"Good. Don't loose it, don't break it," Mudd stated. "Just keep moving forward until you get there. Good luck."
"You'd better hope," Sara muttered. She angled her body away from the bar of bedroom light and dragged herself into the darkness. "Right. I've obviously lost all common sense. C'mon."
They moved forward. Marx kept glancing back at the bedroom light and Mudd's watching face every few seconds, until the image blurred and shrank into a thin horizon-light, then disappeared altogether. The darkness ahead was still very present. He felt his heart beating a staccato against the wooden floorboards which, he suddenly realized, hadn't been floorboards for a while now. It was something smooth speckled with grit, like a dirty gym floor. He crawled forward faster, feeling Sara's jerking gym shoes bump against his shoulder.
He realizes belatedly that his backpack was still sitting in Irina's living room, wherever he had dumped it before starting the search for the domovi-boggart. He wondered if Irina would be incriminated by the backpack when he didn't come home and his mom called--no. Mudd had said he could manipulate the time. He and Sara would come back from the Book a mere few minutes after disappearing under the bed and
.they would be returning, wouldn't they?
"Are we going to get lost?" he asked Sara, trying to distract himself from the fact that the thick eagerness for this trip was ebbing at an alarming rate.
"Can't," Sara's voice grunted from somewhere ahead and to the right. "These kind of gateways have a specific location. Or somewhat specific, at least." She added something about unknown spirits and going into their gateways under her breath, which didn't help the knot of guilt and nervousness building in Marx's stomach.
They continued shuffling forward, and at some point Sara couldn't for the life of her say how long they had been crawling forward into the darkness and dirt and dust. It was a good sign, it meant they were right in the midst of the gateway. She told Marx as much, and got a vague huff in reply.
"Is the magic getting to you?" she called back.
"No," Marx said. Then grumpily, "I'm not an old lady." Swooning twice in one day was pathetic even for him.
"Sensitives are always inconveniently reacting to magic, Marx," Sara told him reasonably. "There are prescriptions."
"Sorry. Me and my feelings."
"Listen," there was a pause in the shuffling sounds ahead of him. "I was being bitchy. So I'm sorry. For that."
"Yeah I know." Marx exhaled sharply. Then, "I guess, sorry for forcing you into this."
"I accept, despite my better judgment," Sara told him, but he heard the smile in her voice. "Having doubts yet?"
"No doubts, necessarily." He frowned. "How about uneasy thoughts?"
"Uneasy thoughts," Sara agreed. "Well, my thoughts are that we can't turn back at this point, so I suppose we keep moving forward and take what we meet and I continue to babysit you while you follow mysterious spiritual instructions."
"Sounds solid," Marx grinned, and even if she couldn't see it, he felt Sara would hear it.
"Right," Sara shifted ahead of him, "Well then. Happy as I am to have bonding moments, my shoulders are killing me."
"I'm following you," Marx told her.
They kept moving forward, using their arms to drag themselves forward and keeping their heads low to avoid the surface looming above them. Time passed, but whether it came in minutes, hours or days neither could tell.
"There!" Sara suddenly called out. She and Marx awkwardly craned their necks forward to see a lightening of the darkness, emanating from a ghostly hairline of light in the distance. "C'mon," Sara urged Marx
His excitement coming back in full force, Marx pulled himself forward even faster, his breath coming in short pants. The hairline became a thin pole, became a jagged opening of light. He could see Sara ahead of him clearly at this point.
"It looks almost like the opening of a cave," he said, as they got closer still. He peered at the ragged patch of light, wondering why he saw nothing else. No trees, no furniture, nothing. Just a wall of light.
"Sort of like a cave," Sara allowed. She dragged herself forward again, until she abruptly realized that she was a few short wriggles from the wall of light. She paused, then twisted around to face Marx. "When we go through this, be ready."
Sara's mouth was a thin line of determination.