I couldn’t really blame them for wanting to help me get far, far away. My abrupt disappearance, and even more sudden reappearance, covered in blood and accompanied by Con being — well, Con — crackling with magic and power and darkness, and everything that happened with the goddess, were enough to seriously rattle everyone. Hells, I’d be scared of me! Once the dust had settled, it seemed that everyone’s impulse was to keep me as far away as possible — for my own safety, naturally. Of course, they all had different ideas about how best to achieve this, and where I should go.
Mel offered to take me on his motorbike, just the two of us, riding away in whatever direction our fancy took us, packs on our backs, hopping from truckstop to truckstop with the road unwinding until we had outrun the danger. I couldn’t deny the idea had its appeal — just leaving all my problems behind, running until we felt we were a safe distance, and only pausing to rest.
Pat had some over-the-top plan to get me to an SOF training facility beyond the influence of the goddess. He had a ridiculous invented pretext that he was going to use to explain my presence there, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that he just wanted to test what I could do and figure out what I was. When he broached the subject at Charlie’s between mouthfuls of cinnamon roll and coffee, I told him in no uncertain terms that it was a terrible idea, and there was no way I was going anywhere near SOF if I could help it. He took the hint.
Even Yolande got in on the act, with some complicated idea involving unobtrusiveness charms, hiding out in my house, and casting powerful wards that would trigger reactions the moment anyone passed over them. And I suspected Con was just waiting for me to ask him if I could hide out at his — what had he called it? ‘earth-place’ — which was just a whole other bunch of questions I wasn’t ready to answer.
But it was Mom who hit upon the best escape plan. She picked her moment, too, barging into the kitchen at the coffeehouse when I was up to my elbows in cookie dough, surrounded by a series of dirty mixing bowls and half-open packets of different kinds of chocolate.
‘If you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful and stir that chocolate mixture on the stove,’ I said, scattering ground almonds into the dough.
‘What would you say,’ she asked, carefully, tentatively, ‘if I told you I knew where your father’s people were living, and how to contact them?’
‘I’d say you’d been hanging onto that secret for long enough!’
‘I could say I’d been keeping them from you for your own protection, but the truth is you’ve been protecting yourself from who-knows-what for quite a while, haven’t you?’
I didn’t answer, but just concentrated on ladling the cookie dough out onto trays for baking. The webs of light on my hands flared briefly, but I ignored them.
‘Anyway, I think it would do you good to get away from here until things have calmed down a bit, and if you agree, I can put you in touch with Onyx's — with your father’s sisters — and you can go and stay with them. You don’t need to tell them all the details, and you can come back here whenever you want, but I think this would be the easiest way to get you out. If nothing else, you certainly need a vacation!’
I wanted to be angry with her, I really did. I’d had enough of people making decisions for me, keeping important information from me, keeping me in the dark. But I could see the logic of what she was saying. I really did need to disappear for a while. All the others' plans would have raised questions about my absence. But who would question a niece visiting her aunts? And if they could be vague about the exact location of those aunts’ house, and how long I was going to be gone, so much the better.
‘Charlie had better find someone good to work in the bakery while I’m away, is all I’m saying.’
It took less time to organise than I’d worried. I suspected that Mom might have called in advance to arrange things (and smooth the way if she thought they weren’t going to be open to letting me come and stay), and in almost no time at all, I was leaving a list of instructions for my replacement at Charlie’s, priming Yolande on what to say to Con if he showed up (I couldn’t imagine that he would without my call, but it paid to take precautions), and loading my things onto Mel’s motorbike. A round of goodbyes to Mom, Charlie, and the coffeehouse regulars, and we were gone, roaring away out of Old Town, away from the city, and out onto the open road.
We weren’t stupid enough to travel at night, and the journey was easily done in a day. I didn’t know exactly where we were going, and after a while I just relaxed, and let the road unfold in front of me, feeling the sun on my back and the wind whistling through my hair. I had no idea how much time had passed before Mel stopped abruptly, frowning down at the road as it continued along the side of a hill.
‘I think this is as far as I can take you,’ he said, and sure enough, when I stretched my hand forward it met with the dead weight of magic, surging and raging across the road.
And then the three figures appeared, awakening a flash of memory in me.
‘Ruby! Em! And ... and is it that Amber? It must’ve been a good fifteen, twenty years since I saw you.’
While I had met up with my grandmother for years afterwards, I hadn’t seen any of my father’s other relatives since he and my mom separated, and I was almost surprised when my cousin, Amber, confirmed that it was indeed her and I’d managed to recognise her after all those years. My aunts looked as I’d remembered them, perhaps with slightly more grey in their hair and tiredness around their eyes, but still tough and wild and a little bit dangerous-looking.
Mel looked at me, with a question in his eyes.
‘It’s all right. I’m good to go.’
And with a quick kiss, I said goodbye to him, took my pack, and followed my aunts down the road.
The air seemed almost to close up behind us — oh, I could still see the road, and the lingering smoke from Mel’s motorbike after he’d roared away, but it was as if a door had slammed shut, such was the power of the various charms and wards that had been knitted together. I didn’t know exactly where they were located, and I didn’t think it would be polite to ask, and I assumed that the frankly insane levels of security must have been there for a reason.
Although my aunts had moved since the years I’d lived with my father, their place was almost exactly what I was expecting — a ramshackle collection of buildings with a bunch of run-down looking cars outside, squashy, mismatched furniture inside, and somehow more rooms than seemed possible to fit into houses of their size.
Just as in my childhood, there was a lot of coming and going — relatives dropping by unannounced, a series of tense-looking friends crashing on the couch, carrying bags they wouldn’t open and weapons hidden unobtrusively under their clothes, as well as whichever strays Em had decided to take care of that week. Amber was apparently nursing the wounds of a relationship gone sour, and had come back for a few weeks of her mother’s cooking and the sympathy and support of the extended family while she decided what to do next.
Conspicuous in their absence were my uncles — the men my aunts had married, who I remembered being around when I was a child. I didn’t like to ask about them, but as if she sensed my unspoken questions, Ruby pulled me aside and told me that her husband, and her sister’s, were long gone, having bailed years ago.
‘It’s hard to love a Blaise,’ she said, without any bitterness, by way of explanation.
Space was found for me in one tiny, unoccupied room on the top floor, nestled into the roof, with exposed beams and a gently sloping ceiling. Best of all, it was on the eastern side of the building, and had a skylight which flooded the room with a blaze of sunshine for most of the morning and made my spirits soar.
And so slowly, carefully, under the light of the morning sun, I began to feel that I was coming back to myself.
Of course I didn’t feel completely at ease in the place until I’d baked in its kitchen. Em waved away my early attempts, saying I needed to rest, that she and Ruby could cook perfectly well for all of us (I think there were about ten extra people crashing at their place at that point), but I was insistent, and eventually they opened the kitchen to me.
I was lacking some of my usual ingredients, and I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t have access to an industrial oven (and thus probably shouldn’t try to cook in industrial quantities), but since when had I ever done anything on a small scale? I think anyone would have been pleased with the milk and white chocolate muffins, hazelnut swirls, and gigantic, cinnamon-rich apple pie (made with apples from a tree that grew all twisty and gnarled wildness of the back garden) that I produced. It took me all morning, and three cups of coffee, chatting to Amber while she idly transformed twists of paper into little seedlings (plants were most definitely her element), but it was worth it to see the reactions of everyone when I put the food in front of them. After all, feeding people was my kind of everyday magic.
And so the weeks drifted by, in a cloud of cinnamon and flour, and long hours out in the garden with Ruby, digging up potatoes and stepping around the truly magnificent pumpkin that was growing like a king in pride of place in the vegetable patch. When the shadows lengthened and my strength started to flag, I retreated indoors and curled up in whatever chair was free in the living room, reading my way through Amber’s collection of unbelievably trashy novels (the kind where Others had complicated feudal courts and were always stealing humans away to sort out their political and romantic problems) or chatting with whoever had shown up that morning on the doorstep.
Em eventually broached the subject of magic-use with me. Not, like Pat, to test my abilities and classify me into some kind of category, or like Yolande, out of concern, but as an aunt to a niece, one magic-handler to another.
Hers was a strange kind of magic, drawing mostly on the written word, and sometimes even on the physical properties of books themselves — the glue, paper, ink and stitching. She was the only person I knew whose powers were amplified by objects that had been transformed by human hands, and I don’t think even she understood her magic entirely.
While my own magic was very different, the pair of us worked at it together from time to time. I think her intention was to strengthen me, but the truth was that I kept something of myself back, some of that dark, unsettling power that had become a part of me since Con and I were thrown together and I made the choice to save him. Nobody, not even one of my Blaise relatives, was going to be able to help me understand that power, and so I put it aside as best I could, saving it up for when I left the sanctuary of my aunts’ home and returned to moonless nights, and Con, and darkness.
One evening, they took me through my skylight to sit on the roof as the sun dipped below the curve of the hill and the sky became heavy with night.
‘Look out over the valley, Rae, and tell me what you see,’ said Em.
I was drowsy, and the lack of light made me slow and unobservant, but I turned my face obediently towards the valley, where lights were coming on all over the town. My aunts’ place was some distance from the town itself, but close enough, I realised, to be able to keep an eye on it from the height of the hill.
It took me a while to see it, but when I did, it was unmistakable.
‘There are bad spots all over the town, and there is something very wrong with the land — a kind of supernatural sickness — just a few miles on the other side of the valley.’
The sickness loomed like some lurking, hulking menace, just outside of town.
‘So you see it too?’ asked Ruby, shivering under the blanket she’d wrapped around her shoulders.
‘It’s getting worse,’ said Em. ‘It’s been getting worse for years, but never quite gets into the city itself. We moved here partly because we wanted to try and hold back the tide, keep back the full force of the threat that’s facing everyone, but it gets harder as the years go on.’
I remembered what the SOF guys had told me (it seemed like an age ago), about the war, and about time running out. I was under no illusion how things were going to end, and how soon that end could come. But it was another thing to be taken up and shown it, in all its terrifying finality, for myself.
‘Things are bad where I came from,’ I said. ‘I feel a responsibility to go back eventually and do what I can to help out.’
‘We weren’t showing you this to try to convince you to stay. Even Amber’s going to head out eventually, once she’s realised that the place she’s run from is big enough for both her and her ex. It was more so you could see what we’re facing, and to let you know that we may need your help here in the future. But you need to figure things out. You need to work out how to let in whatever darkness you’ve been holding back when you work with me. You need to answer questions about yourself, and you’re not going to be able to answer them here.’
Ruby nodded hard at her sister’s words.
‘You’ll always be welcome here,’ she said, ‘and I’ll teach you the trick of getting through the wards down the road, so you don’t need us to let you in next time.’
There was no need to call Mel to collect me. One of Em’s strays, an older man who spoke little and carried himself as if he’d suffered an injury to his leg, was heading out my way, and offered to drive me in his car. And so, after four months that seemed to have existed almost outside time, I returned the way I had come, with less fear, more knowledge, and somehow even more questions than before.
I pressed my head against the window as we sped along the highway. All the difficult things I’d put aside before leaving for my aunts’ place — what to tell Mel, how exactly I wanted to deal with the SOF, the ongoing threat of the goddess, and of course Con, the most difficult thing of all — were still going to be waiting for me when I got back. The things I carried were complicated, frightening, and impossible. And yet it would never be enough for me to sit things out with my Blaise relatives — because even if I chose to take on their cause as my own, it would be the easier option. I had to return.
The sun shone down on me, carrying me forward along the open road.