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‘I’m glad we’re hanging out,’ Aubrey said. She and Dani were walking side by side through the woods behind Amnesty lodge, taking shelter beneath the shade of the pines from the sweltering heat outside. They bumped shoulders occasionally when their strides got out of sync. Every time they bumped Aubrey glanced sideways at Dani, and Dani glanced down and away and smiled. It was a good energy. Made her feel fizzy inside. ‘I mean, Duck and Ned are great, but they’re like old old.’

Dani laughed. ‘That’s how it is in a small town,’ she said. ‘Forget demographics; you’ve just gotta find whoever’s cool and hang out with them. And the Lodge is like a small town writ even smaller. Not a lot of social opportunities. Guess what I’m saying is I’m glad we’re hanging out too.’

It was on the tip of Aubrey’s tongue to ask her what kept her in Kepler, but something about Dani’s wistful expression warned her that that might be a question with a sad answer. Instead she asked,

‘So there’s quite a few of you guys over here, but Mama said only Barclay’s in the Pine Guard, and you seem to be sorta…Pine Guard adjacent? What’s that about?’

‘I mean, you’ve got to remember most of us Sylphs are just ordinary people who ended up here by accident,’ Dani said. ‘We’re not all up to fighting monsters. Barclay’s in the Guard because he’s one tough motherfucker.’ She was delightful when she cursed: sparingly, in that mellow West Virginia drawl with her golden hair and flowing skirt. ‘And me, well, I’m kind of the magic expert.’

‘Dope!’

‘The magic expert here,’ Dani said hastily. ‘Like, I don’t know much really, but we’ve got to make do with whoever comes over…’

‘So that’s why Mama asked you your opinion about me…yeah, that tracks,’ Aubrey said. ‘Soooo…any ideas how my magic is going to develop?’

‘Um, well, it’s probably going to get stronger and more controlled, especially now you’ve found a coven – ’

‘A what now?’

‘Like, a group…that’s how it tends to work on Sylvane, anyway…magic users form a group, and their magic gets a lot stronger, and also they bond really deeply.’

‘Wait, is that why I’m getting along so well with the two old guys?’ Aubrey said.

‘Probably, yeah. And you had magic of your own before, but right after you met them you suddenly knew how to use it to fight a monster, right?’

‘Yeah. None of us even hesitated. Fuck.’ Aubrey blinked. ‘So we’re friends because of magic?’

‘Or you can do magic because you’re friends,’ Dani said. ‘I’ve heard that’s important too. Feeling comfortable and so on. Kind of a chicken and egg scenario. Plus there’s probably some trauma bonding going on now too.’

‘Oh yeah, gotta love that good old trauma bonding,’ Aubrey muttered. She shivered for a moment, picturing a bear-like creature roaring, burning, sloughing off its skin…she pushed the thought away. Heroism! Doing the right thing!

God, danger aside, what was going to happen to her magician’s career if she lost the buzz she’d been building, hanging round in this town? How was she going to earn a living? But she didn’t want to move on. She wanted to explore this thing with Dani. The thought of leaving Duck and Ned was like a sudden stab, abrupt and shockingly painful. How had she got tangled up here so fast? She felt a twist, as though unseen threads were coiling around her, winching her slowly towards the centre of a web whose design she couldn’t begin to guess. She started to see why Duck wasn’t so thrilled to be in the middle of some magical destiny.

‘So, wait...’ she said. ‘Can Ned and Duck and me…stop being friends?’

‘Oh, sure,’ Dani said. ‘You can stop being friends with anyone. But that always hurts.’

Aubrey fell silent, too caught up in the painful truth of that to answer.

‘So, how will your magic develop?’ Dani broke the silence. ‘It’ll get more powerful, more controlled, and probably more versatile? Like, people have magical energy, right, but it tends to manifest itself in a certain kind of magic at first, like for you it’s fire…’

‘But it could be water or earth or air?’ Aubrey guessed.

‘It could be one of the classical elements, yes, but it’s not limited to that, it’s about the way you think.’

‘So I’m a firey person?’

‘Yeah. And people could start out with, I don’t know, warding magic, or illusory magic, or healing or growing or anything…’

‘And I might learn to do all those things?’

‘Well, some of those will come easier than others, but in principle, yes, magic is just a power source. You can use it for anything.’

‘Sweet! So, is Duck magic?’

‘Super magic. He takes hits that should lay one of your kind out, and I’m pretty sure he’s cast protective wards all round the ranger station without knowing it.’

‘Wow. He’ll flip when I tell him that. Is Ned magic?’

‘Well, that’s a little more complicated,’ Dani said. ‘So, there are these people…on Sylvane we call them Keys. Because they unlock the group’s magic.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘So sometimes there’ll be people who know each other but it’s not until the Key shows up that they all suddenly join together and start doing magic…basically, the Key is that one friend who makes the squad work.’

‘Magically or socially?’

‘Both.’

‘Damn.’ Aubrey actually stopped walking to think about it. ‘That makes sense. Like, so much sense. Duck and Ned were kind of buddies before I showed up, Ned and I get on great, but I don’t think I’d get on with Duck if it wasn’t for Ned. You know he chased me out of the forest for playing with fire? I deserved it, but it wasn’t a great start.’

‘Oh, Aubrey,’ Dani laughed, shaking her head. ‘Duck’s forgiving, though. Why do you think you wouldn’t be friends?’

‘Ugh, I’m going to sound like a dick for saying this,’ Aubrey said, ‘but I thought…Duck wasn’t…fun, you know?’

‘I mean, he’s not,’ Dani said.

‘No no no, but he is!’ Aubrey exclaimed. ‘But I realised, Ned’s fun, and Ned likes Duck, maybe I should look at Duck again and try and figure out why Ned spends time with him, and I realised Duck’s not in your face but he’s sarcastic as fuck sometimes.’

‘Huh. I always assumed he kind of had no sense of humour.’

‘I think that his humour is to pretend he has no sense of humour and the joke’s on us for believing it. But the other thing is, I don’t think I’d have dared make friends with him by myself. If someone shows anything less than Ned levels of pleased to see me I tend to assume they hate me.’

‘Oh, Aubrey!’ Dani exclaimed, stopping to look at her. Her face was surprised and sad.

‘Yeah,’ Aubrey said. ‘Social anxiety. Sorry, was that oversharing? It was oversharing, wasn’t it?’

‘Not all sharing is oversharing,’ Dani said. ‘I want to know stuff about you.’

‘I, um…thanks, you too?’ Aubrey squeaked. God, I’m such a dork.

They walked on in silence for a few minutes, and then Dani nudged Aubrey gently with her shoulder and spoke again.

‘You look like you’re thinking about something real hard,’ she said.

‘Yeah, it’s just, um…’ Aubrey sighed. ‘I was thinking about how you said that you can use magic any way. Warding, healing, growing. But it manifests in the most natural way to you first. And I’m just wondering what it says about me that I learned magic and immediately weaponised it.’

‘You didn’t learn magic and immediately weaponise it!’ Dani said at once, indignantly. ‘You learned magic and immediately used it to entertain small children!’

Aubrey stopped in her tracks, then burst out laughing. ‘Hey, you’re right, guess I did!’ she said. ‘I mean, that was just stage magic, though.’

‘Was it?’ Dani gave her a side-long look, half-amused, half-compassionate, daring her to carry on arguing.

‘Not completely,’ Aubrey said. ‘So I may be very silly, but I’m not part of the military industrial complex yet.’

‘Sure, let’s go with that for now,’ Dani said. ‘So, I also have a question?’

‘Shoot.’

‘You said you’re too shy to make friends with anyone who’s quieter than Ned, but I’m quieter than Ned.’

‘Oh,’ Aubrey said, ‘well, it’s a general, like, not a hard and fast rule, um…I put in more effort with you because I really wanted to be your…friend? Even though it was scary?’

I’m scary?’ Dani shook her head. ‘I’m glad you did. This is great.’

Aubrey smiled at Dani, and Dani smiled back, and put her hand in the crook of Aubrey’s elbow and squeezed, and then glanced down and away, and Aubrey’s throat closed up and her stomach turned over.

‘What time is it?’ Dani asked suddenly. Aubrey looked at her watch and yelped.

Shit, I’m supposed to be meeting the Pine Guard in ten minutes!’

‘Drat, I’m supposed to be helping Barclay right now. Quick, where are you meeting them?’

‘Giovanni’s.’

‘Look, we’re nearly back at the lodge, you’ll make it if you run.’

‘Ugh, it’s too hot to run,’ Aubrey moaned. ‘Don’t wanna.’

‘You gotta, superhero,’ Dani said, tugging her by the elbow through the trees, back to the lodge. Aubrey guessed she could stand running if it was hand in hand with someone like Dani.

‘Right.’ She checked her reflection in one of the lodge windows. It was only ten to eleven and she’d already sweated right through her shirt, but there was no time to fix that now. ‘Can I set foot in the diner like this? Will I offend my comrades’ old-person sensibilities?’

‘Don’t fret, you look splendid,’ Dani told her, straightening the collar of her shirt.

‘Thanks. I’m going for the dorky futch seductress look,’ Aubrey said, fluffing her hair a little in the glass.

‘You’re nailing it,’ Dani said.

‘I…’ Aubrey said. Chickened out. Give it time. ‘I gotta go!’

*     *     *

Aubrey dashed into Giovanni’s, trying not to look out of breath. There were exactly four places in Kepler where you could go to eat: Pizza Hut; The Vinyard, which was the fancy restaurant; Giovanni’s, which was pizzeria, diner and café all rolled into one; and Amnesty lodge, where they served really good apple cider in summer but everybody agreed that the atmosphere was weird. Or you could go up to the Cryptonomica and get a soda out of the vending machine. That was pretty sweet, even if the dust did make her sneeze.

She looked around for Ned and Duck, and quickly spotted Ned’s broad back and bushy beard in a corner booth. To her surprise, he was sitting alone. She had been sure she’d be the last one there.

‘Hi Ned,’ she said, sliding into the booth. ‘Ready for the…’ she glanced around. ‘…secret meeting?’

‘First rule of running an illicit action, young Aubrey,’ Ned said, ‘relax and talk loud.’

‘Right,’ Aubrey said, a trifle awkwardly. She’d started to wonder whether Ned was entirely joking when he talked like he knew about that stuff.

‘Seriously, stop looking over your shoulder. You look shadier than I do, and that’s saying something.’

‘I don’t see why we can’t have these at the Cryptonomica,’ Aubrey grumbled.

‘It’s a museum, not a clubhouse,’ Ned said. ‘Besides, Duck likes the coffee here.’

‘I think the real reason is that you don’t know how to make Kirby leave when we need to talk in secret.’

‘Kirby is a courteous guest and leaves when I bid him!’ Ned said indignantly.

‘Kirby’s like a cat; you basically own him but he still does whatever he wants.’

Ned was spared from answering by the arrival of the server with plates and a pot of coffee.

‘I ordered you pancakes, Aubrey,’ Ned explained. ‘Hope you don’t mind.’

‘Aww, thank you!’ Aubrey exclaimed, genuinely touched. Diner pancakes were a real luxury when you were a travelling magician. From what she’d gathered Ned was about one rung above her in terms of financial security, but if he wanted to spend whatever money he had on treating her and also drones, she figured it was up to him.

‘So where’s Duck?’ she asked through a mouthful of whipped cream and strawberry jam.

‘I should think he’s tied up at the station,’ Ned said, ‘and of course he can’t call us because of the radio quiet zone.’

‘Not like him to be…’ Aubrey checked her watch. ‘…fifteen minutes late.’

‘Well, it’s a busy time. Summer. Hikers. Forest fires.’

‘Who’d want to go hiking in this?’ Aubrey said, unsticking herself from the seat. The fan whirred over their head, but the air was still breathlessly hot. She thought about sending the coffee back and asking them to put some ice in it. ‘Speaking of forest fires, we should talk about this month’s bom-bom.’

‘Ah, yes.’ Ned rummaged in his bag and produced a whole stack of books. ‘I’ve come prepared.’

‘Wow,’ Aubrey said. ‘Okay. So, I’ve got another weird report from Jake Kool-Ice. He had to stamp out a forest fire yesterday, and he swears it was making shapes. Like, forming into flame animals or something.’

‘Just like my customers were saying,’ Ned said, nodding sagely.

‘Also Kool-Ice swears the forest fires have been much more frequent than usual for the time of year, though I’m not going to take the word of a frosty dudebro on that.’

‘I’m not going to ask,’ Ned said. ‘So, shall I tell you what my research has uncovered?’

‘Oh, please do!’ Aubrey said, sliding round the booth towards him to get a better view of the books.

‘Shall I give you the unabridged version, since old Duck isn’t here to complain about relevance?’ Ned asked.

‘Yes, weave me a story, Ned!’ Aubrey said. Talking nonsense was catching, apparently.

‘As you command!’ Ned opened a large black notebook bulging with loose papers. ‘I doubt it will surprise you to learn that legends of fiery monsters are ten a penny, death by immolation being an abiding human fear. And we have plenty to choose from, here in the melting pot. 1952.’ He tapped the page, where a newspaper clipping had been pasted in. ‘A mysterious creature falls from the sky in a streak of light, right here in West Virginia. It manifests itself in a ball of flame, witnessed by a large group of adults and children from a local farm. Fumes from the fire burned the witnesses’ lungs, and the local police found black liquid at the site of the encounter.’

Aubrey had been laughing along until the last point, which made her sit up and think. Ned’s stories always had a sting in the tail.

‘That’s…interesting,’ she said. ‘With the black ooze. It’s probably too early for us, though; Mama said the gate only opened in the eighties.’

‘Alright, Ranger Newton,’ Ned said. ‘Relevance, relevance…let me see. Ah, this one was popular right up until I first came around these parts. A ghoul who can spit fire. Usually encountered by teens in the woods at night. Often cited as the cause of brush fires…I believe Duck has had that excuse told to his face once before. The problem is that I rather suspect this legend has its origins in the old Irish myth of Caorthannach, rather than in any local phenomenon.’

‘Who was Caorthannach?’ Aubrey asked.

‘The mother of the Devil himself!’ Ned declared, ‘or at least, so they say. When St Patrick banished the snakes out of Ireland, none proved more recalcitrant than Caorthannach. He chased her all across Ireland on the fastest horse in the land, while she spat poison into every well that they passed, and torched every field.’

‘How did he defeat her?’ Aubrey asked.

‘Divine intervention.’

‘Well, we’ve got destiny, will that count?’

‘One can only hope. The other interesting piece of information I found was a spate of rumours around 1917. People were struck down with a high fever and at the same time became violent and erratic. They had nightmares in which they were devoured by flaming beasts. The superstitious claimed that the beasts had devoured them from within and turned them against their own loved ones. Of course, that was around the time of the Spanish influenza, so we can probably attribute it to that.’

‘Blech.’ Aubrey shuddered. ‘I don’t like that one.’

‘I don’t like any of them, as they relate to me personally,’ Ned said, ‘but as a story I’d say it’s the best of the bunch. There’s a nice element of psychological horror.’

‘Nope,’ Aubrey said. ‘I love a good spatter film, but you show me any of that mindfuckery and I’m out. So the question is, how do we fight a fire monster?’

‘Perhaps a giant hose?’ Ned suggested.

‘Oooh, quite possibly! Look, seriously, where is Duck?’

Ned checked his watch. ‘Twenty five minutes past. There must be some emergency. Injured hiker, maybe, or an animal needed sedating.’

‘You don’t think he’s in trouble, do you?’ Aubrey said.

‘Now, let’s not rush to that conclusion…’

‘I don’t like it.’ Suddenly unease had got its claws into Aubrey, and she couldn’t get free. ‘He’s in the forest and there’s a monster in the forest, what if they’re in the same bit of the forest? We should look for him!’

‘We can try,’ Ned said slowly, ‘but Duck doesn’t keep to the station when he’s working, and the Monongohela Forest is a big place. I think we’d do best to wait a little longer and –’

The diner door swung open, and Duck walked into the room.

Duck!’ Aubrey yelped, shrill with relief. That got her a couple of odd looks from the people around them, so she tried to turn it into ordinary enthusiasm by adding a jaunty little wave. Duck gave her a dubious look and a grimace of a smile and slunk over to join them in the booth.

Dishevelled was the only way to describe him. His face and shirt were damp with sweat, his trousers stained like he’d spent all morning on his knees in the dirt. He smelled of wood smoke, and not in a romance novel cliché way. His clothes reeked of it. Aubrey felt her throat starting to tickle.

‘The truant appears!’ Ned said probingly.

‘Got tied up at the station,’ Duck grunted.

‘You look like you got dragged through a hedge,’ Aubrey said. She leaned closer and whispered, ‘did you fight a bom-bom?’

‘I fought a forest fire,’ Duck said.

Shit!

‘Bad one,’ Duck said darkly. ‘Thought for a while we weren’t gonna get it under control. I’m telling you, if I catch another stupid kid setting off firecrackers in the dry season…’

‘Well, the good news is that you might not have to put any of the local youth in timeout this time,’ Ned said. ‘Aubrey and I theorise that the frequent forest fires are being caused by this month’s bom-bom.

‘Would you stop calling them that?’ Duck snapped. He rubbed a hand over his face. ‘Sorry, sorry. I was late, my bad, what did I miss?’

Ned began to summarise what he’d just told Aubrey. Duck grabbed one notebook and then another, half-listening as he flipped through the gathered info.

‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘it sure is interesting, though I’m not sure all of this is strictly relevant.’

Ned and Aubrey shared a look.

‘It’s a lead, for sure,’ Duck said, ‘but I don’t think we can conclude that it’s definitely the abomination causing these fires.’

‘Wait, you don’t?’ Aubrey said in surprise. ‘I thought we had this one pretty much figured out.’

‘So this summary dismissal is all that my careful research merits!’ Ned said mournfully. ‘Perhaps Duck still holds out hope that last month’s incident was an isolated one, Aubrey.’

‘Seriously?’ Aubrey said, turning to Duck. ‘You’re still hoping all of this is just going to go away?’

‘No, I ain’t that much of an optimist,’ Duck said. ‘I just don’t want us to rush in assuming we’re fighting a fire demon and find out we’re totally wrong.’

‘Oh, right,’ Aubrey said. ‘Makes sense. But you’ve got to admit this is something, right? Aren’t you a bit excited?’

‘Excited?’ Duck threw a glance of distaste at the notebooks. ‘Not so much.’

Aubrey shivered. Under his eyes, the notebooks suddenly didn’t seem full of clues and plans. They seemed full of monsters.

‘I’m just saying,’ Duck continued, ‘I was putting out fires all morning and I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.’

‘Oh, damn, I forgot!’ Aubrey exclaimed. ‘Are you alright – ?’

‘I’m fine,’ Duck brushed her off at once. Aubrey fell silent, stung. ‘Been doing this for years. And I reckon most likely it’s just the time of year.’

‘On the one hand, natural forest fires must far outweigh abominable ones in frequency,’ Ned said. ‘On the other, your ability to fail to see things out of the ordinary is second to none, friend Duck.’

‘That’s true,’ Duck shrugged. ‘So, we’re agreed that we’ll take a couple more days to gather intel before we try to tackle this month’s abomination?’

‘Agreed,’ Aubrey said. ‘And then we go out and do battle with a probably awesome fire monster.’

‘Fire isn’t awesome, Aubrey,’ Duck said quietly.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Aubrey said.

‘I’m familiar with the risks fire poses,’ Ned said, ‘but perhaps a refresher from the local forestry department wouldn’t come amiss.’

‘I’m sorry, alright!’ Aubrey said. ‘I’m sorry that I practised my routine in the forest, even though it was only flash paper which burns at very low temperatures, I admit I should never have done it and I won’t do it again – ’

‘I wasn’t trying to bring that up,’ Duck said, raising his hands. ‘I meant that monsters aren’t awesome.’

‘I know they’re not!’

‘You did just say that they were,’ Ned put in.

‘Not the monster,’ Aubrey said, ‘but what we did…’

‘Nearly getting killed?’ Duck suggested.

‘Going into danger and winning!’ Aubrey said. ‘Protecting people!’

‘Oh, you wet blanket, don’t take that away from her!’ Ned cried sentimentally.

‘I don’t mean to take anything away from anyone,’ Duck said. His voice was as low and even as ever, but his hand on the table had balled into a fist.

‘On the other hand, Aubrey,’ Ned said, ‘perhaps you hear Duck as something of a voice of reason?’

‘Yes, I…that’s a good way of putting it,’ Aubrey said, trying to scramble her feelings together into words. How had she got so emotional all of a sudden? ‘Listen, Duck, I know it’s dangerous out there, but I’m going to concentrate on the part where we’re heroes…because if I don’t I might freak out.’

‘Well maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing,’ Duck said.

‘What, you want me to freak out in the middle of a fight?’ Aubrey said.

‘I want,’ Duck said, very low, very even, ‘for you to consider what we’re getting into. Something as big as this, considering it should be an ongoing thing. Don’t feel like you’re stuck doing this.’

‘I am, though,’ Aubrey said, even as thoughts flashed through her head about her show and the road and the money and when she was going to get in touch with her family and what she was going to say. Hello, Mum and Dad, I’ve settled down in this small town forever and I can’t tell you why, bye! ‘The people here need someone to protect them. I know you’ve had half a mind to quit right from the start, but I haven’t.’

She’d never seen someone blanch in real life before, but Duck managed it. He went pale under what she belatedly realised was a fine layer of honest-to-God soot on his face. She realised how spiteful her words had sounded, and her heart twisted.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘that was mean. Hey, we’re done talking shop, let’s order another pot of coffee and have a chat, huh?’

‘Sorry, but there’s a pile of stuff needs doing up at the station,’ Duck said, pushing back his chair.

‘See how he rejects the olive branch!’ Ned exclaimed. Aubrey turned her face away from him. She suddenly felt like crying.

‘I ain’t rejecting nothing,’ Duck said. ‘By the way, Ned, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that Bigfoot footage. Reckon…’ He did a glance all round the room just like Ned had told Aubrey not to do. Now she was seeing it from the outside, she could see how suspicious it looked. ‘Reckon there’s people who might be more comfortable if you took it down.’

‘Ah, I’m sorry, but no can do, my friend,’ Ned said, helping himself to more coffee. Aubrey remembered another grifting lesson he’d taught her: sudden, very nonchalant action means the person is uncomfortable.

‘Reckon you could do it just fine,’ Duck said.

‘Wait, wait, stop,’ Aubrey said. ‘So you don’t believe the fire’s a bom-bom, but you do believe that Barclay’s…’ She trailed off with a significant look.

‘Why on Earth would I not believe that?’ Duck said. ‘I saw it with my own eyes, didn’t I?’

‘You won’t believe there’s something supernatural going on when it means we might have solved our problem for the month, but you will believe it when it means Ned has to take down his video?’

‘I believe there’s something supernatural going on in some situations but not every situation,’ Duck said. 'I think you’re being very illogical, Aubrey.’

She was, and she knew it, but her mouth just kept moving. ‘You just want to focus on all the worst parts of this and ignore the parts where it could be fun! Like now, you won’t stay to drink coffee but you’ll stay to lecture Ned – ’

‘Some of us have jobs to get back to,’ Duck said coldly. Aubrey jumped to her feet.

Some of us,’ she yelled, ‘actually enjoy being part of a team and having friends and – ’

Ned stood up too. He started to shuffle out of the booth, and Duck had to stand to let him past. Aubrey found herself following him, and Duck fell in behind. Somehow Ned swept them all out of the restaurant by sheer force of personality.

‘Dirty laundry, public,’ he said, holding the passenger door of the Continental open for Aubrey. ‘Perhaps we ought to adjourn this meeting until tempers cool.’

‘Fine,’ Aubrey snapped. ‘Duck’s just itching to get away from us anyway.’

‘When I’m being shouted at, for sure,’ Duck said, climbing into the back seat and closing the door hard. ‘I’d say we’ve discussed everything that needs discussing, and then some.’

‘It’s not about what needs discussing!’ Aubrey snapped. It was much harder to shout at Duck now she had to keep craning her neck round to do it. ‘You try to keep some kind of professional distance, then you make out like you disapprove of me, then you try to trick us into thinking you’re just a boring person, even a stupid person, anything to avoid getting close to us – what if that doesn’t work, are you going to pretend to be mean?’

‘I certainly hope I’ve never been mean to you, Aubrey. But really, this all seems a bit much just because I didn’t want to stay for a drink.’

‘It’s not just because – ’ Aubrey choked off angrily.

‘Now that was rather unkind,’ Ned said. ‘Come, Duck, you know it’s not just that.’

‘No I don’t. I’m not a mind reader.’

‘She’s trying her best to tell you how she feels, but you gotta work with her.’

‘Nah, I’m afraid I’m stumped.’

‘Look,’ Aubrey said, ‘I’m not just excited about slinging fire at monsters, I know that’s dangerous, you don’t need to tell me that…’

‘I’m sorry. That was patronising of me.’

‘Sorry, sorry, I got off track. What I mean is, I’m excited about doing something important…with you. Both of you. Because we’re a team. And friends. Right?’

‘You want to be friends with a couple of old guys like us?’ Duck said. ‘Meanin’ no offense to you of course, Ned.’

‘It’s just…’ Aubrey said, ‘I was talking to Dani…and I know we’re all really different people but it just feels like we’re…’

‘Destined?’ Duck offered. His little smile in the rear-view mirror was the bitterest thing she had ever seen.

‘Is that what this is to you?’ Aubrey shouted, twisting right round and kneeling on the seat. ‘What, you think we’re like the sword and, and the glow lady and part of your magical destiny and you just have to put up with us like you put up with getting attacked by monsters, or, I don’t know, doing laundry or – ’

‘Aubrey, please resume your seat, I cannot pilot our vehicle under these conditions!’ Ned said loudly.

‘It’s called driving a car, Ned,’ Duck said, pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘For God’s sake, what did you have to get her all worked up for?’

‘I got worked up myself because you’re being a dick!’ Aubrey yelled.

There were several seconds of silence.

‘I must confess,’ Ned said at last, in an unusually small voice, ‘that I too find our Duck’s…recalcitrance…towards friendship a little hurtful at times.’

‘Well, you two have the knack for it more than me,’ Duck said.

‘Wait,’ Aubrey said. ‘You think we don’t want you around?’

Even as Duck was giving a laugh and a shake of his head, things slotted further into place.

‘You think we only want you around for your sword and your invincible face and your magical destiny?’

The silence stretched and stretched. Duck didn’t laugh a dismissal this time. He didn’t say anything.

Ned brought the car to a stop. ‘I believe this is your residence, Duck,’ he said. ‘Now you two, make peace. Just say the words, even if you don’t think you mean it. You’ll feel better.’

‘I got upset because I was worried about you!’ Aubrey said to Duck.

‘What’s there to worry for?’ he muttered.

‘Um, that you came into the café late and on fire?’

‘S’my job, Aubrey. I’m used to it,’ Duck said, pushing open the car door. Aubrey watched him, looking a little weary, a little grey, brushing off her poorly-worded concern; she remembered him stumbling through the arch and seeing the abomination and jumping and waving to make it run at him. There were a dozen things she wanted to say.

I want to look after you when you’re scared.

I know this situation sucks but I need not to be reminded constantly of all the ways it sucks.

I know it’s weird for the three of us to be friends but it feels right and also magically compelled and I know you hate that but I like you.

Least said, soonest mended, her mother would have said. It was probably best to drop it.

‘Bye Aubrey, bye Ned,’ Duck said, sounding very subdued.

‘Bye,’ Aubrey said dully. Ned was staring through the windshield. He looked uncharacteristically serious, and sad. Then he straightened up and frowned.

‘But soft what light?’ he muttered, peering forward. Aubrey followed his gaze, and Duck stopped and turned.

At first she thought it was a plume of smoke from a neighbour’s fire, but it was floating downwards, not up. It wasn’t big; perhaps the size of a very large house cat, but unlike the bobcats they had fought before, this one wasn’t the shell of a real animal. Its cat-shape was simply a loose configuration of black vapour. It moved like blown smoke, hints of flame flickering vaguely around its edges.

‘Oh fuck, it’s the bom-bom,’ Aubrey whispered.

It came floating down onto Duck’s lawn in a weird slow-motion version of a cat’s jump, and where its paws landed the grass curled away in little black cinders.

‘Aww, hell no,’ Duck said.

‘Guys, I don’t know if we should tackle this one,’ Aubrey said. There was something about that fire. Her fingers itched. ‘We had backup last time; we haven’t had time to plan…’

‘I don’t think we can afford to wait,’ Duck said, sliding out of the car, his eyes intent on the abomination. ‘If that thing gets into the brush this whole town could go up like a tinder box.’

‘What even is a tinder…you know what, never mind,’ Aubrey said. ‘Where’s Beacon?’

‘In the house.’

Why don’t you have him on you?’ Aubrey exploded.

‘Because he’s a sword!’

‘He’s a collapsible – okay. Ned and I will corral the bom-bom while you grab the sword.’

‘Well I’m kind of sturdy and you’ve got your fire powers,’ Duck said, ‘so I’m thinking you and I corral the bom-bom while Ned grabs the sword.’

‘Suits me,’ Ned said, climbing out of the car and beginning to circle towards the house. Duck tossed him his keys. ‘Just try not to engage it until I’m back.’

He disappeared into the house. Aubrey didn’t even know what he could do to help them, but she felt sure that they should wait for him before they attacked. She felt more solid and more powerful with him there, just like Dani had said.

The abomination wasn’t paying them much mind. It stalked in a random path across the lawn, exactly like a house cat, leaving a trail of blackened grass behind it. Aubrey could hear a low sound, like the crackling of flames and yet somehow mind-bending. A hot wind suddenly blew across the garden, sighing in the pines and bringing the smell of hay from the tall grasses in the vacant lot nearby. Everything was bleached yellowish-white by the sun. The house was built with wooden beams. Aubrey could see why Duck was worried. In this heat, a spark would be enough.

‘Pine resin,’ Duck muttered. ‘You put a match to it and – shit!

The abomination had made a lazy leap; it was floating through the air in a bound to carry it into the empty lot full of dry grass. Insubstantial as it was, it moved more slowly than a real animal would. Slowly enough to let them see everything with horrible clarity; too fast for Aubrey to think how to intercept it.

Before she could do more than squeak, Duck was barrelling across the lawn. He leapt full on the thing, wrapping it in a bear hug and pinning it to the ground under his body. Aubrey gasped in horror; it would burn him, it –

But it wasn’t burning him. It was shrinking. Duck fell forward as its mass vanished from under him. It fizzled to nothing with a crackle like a sparkler. Duck went limp, face-down in the grass.

Aubrey dashed forward, grabbing him by the shoulder and rolling him onto his back. His eyes were almost shut, showing an eerie sliver of white. His head rolled freely. She put her hand to his sternum and felt a patch of warmth, fading even as she touched it, as though some hot thing was retreating deeper into his chest.

Ned! Ned!’ Aubrey shrieked. Ned appeared at the door to the house, Beacon tightly furled and dormant in his hand.

‘Aubrey, what happened?’ he shouted, dashing down the steps.

‘The bom-bom tried to jump into the grass and Duck grabbed it and it, I think it went inside him – ’

Inside him?’ Ned fell to his knees beside her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘It vanished and he just collapsed. His chest felt warm. What do we do?’

‘Duck?’ Ned said. He shook Duck’s shoulder, tapped his face. ‘Buddy?’

‘He’s warm,’ Aubrey muttered. She could see sweat forming on Duck’s lip and brow, fresher than the film of it that was coating all of them in the heat. ‘Is he supposed to be that warm?’

Ned pressed his hand to Duck’s forehead, looking at her helplessly. Aubrey shook her head. What could they do? Duck was the one with the destiny, the magic sword, the first aid training, the steady job, the common sense. She had flamethrowers for hands and Ned had a gun and a stick. They were useless without someone to aim them.

‘He has been possessed,’ a dry, cracked voice said.

Aubrey and Ned both jumped violently, heads whipping round. Beacon was unfurling slowly from where Ned had dropped him in the grass.

‘Possessed?’ Aubrey squeaked. She thought of Ned’s final story. The beasts devoured them from within and turned them against their own loved ones.

‘The demon knows that he is no common man,’ Beacon minced. ‘It seeks to make his strength its own.’

‘What’s it doing to him?’ Ned barked. ‘Why can’t we wake him up?’

‘Now it is keeping him subdued, securing its grip on his body and mind. When he awakes, I don’t doubt it will use him to inflict harm on your town.’

Shit,’ Aubrey whispered. ‘How long’ve we got before this thing wakes him up?’

‘I do not know.’ Beacon raised himself on his blade to peer at Duck from burnished, beetle-wing eyes. His mouth moved slowly like something from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. ‘Perhaps moments. You must act quickly. It would be better for you to run him through with me now that to let him work its will.’

‘Woah, woah, woah!’ Ned shouted, recoiling. ‘Nobody’s getting run through with anything!’

‘You will not be able to defeat the monster while it wears his form!’ Beacon insisted. ‘Do you think it will hesitate to use the powers that he does his best to ignore? You haven’t seen a fraction of what this body could do.’

‘We’re not hurting him!’ Aubrey yelled.

‘Do you think he would wish to hurt you?’ Beacon returned.

Aubrey blinked back tears, pressing her palm to Duck’s burning cheek as she scanned his face for any sign that he could hear them. No, she thought. No he wouldn’t.

‘If you refuse to put an end to the monster while it’s inside him,’ Beacon said, ‘then you must get it out.’

‘And how do we do that?’ Ned demanded.

‘Let the girl use her magics.’

‘How is making fire supposed to help with this?’ Aubrey shouted. ‘I’m not an exorcist!’

‘Its true body is magical, and magic you can wield. Perhaps you can touch it.’

‘I don’t know how!’

‘Stop your snivelling, girl!’ Beacon snapped. ‘Are you not the magician chosen by the mother of this forest to aid the Chosen in fulfilling his destiny? Whose task is it to protect him from magical enemies, if not yours? Use your magic, or use me!’

‘Stop it!’ Ned said fiercely. ‘It is not a choice between impossible magic and cold-blooded murder – ’

‘Actually,’ Aubrey said, ‘Dani said it might be possible.’

‘What do you mean?’ Ned asked, astonished.

‘She said once I got a handle on my magic it could be used in other ways. I’ll try. I gotta.’

‘Good,’ Beacon said. ‘Racketeer, I do not know what use these two find for you, but you’re needed now.’

‘Honoured, I’m sure,’ Ned said. ‘What do I do?’

‘Restrain Duck Newton’s body. The monster will surely try to attack when the girl begins her work.’

‘Right,’ Ned said, shuffling in close to Duck and Aubrey. He fumbled awkwardly with Duck for a moment, and settled on pulling him into a kind of bear hug, limp arms pinned to his sides.

‘Yup, like that,’ Aubrey said tersely. ‘Sit him up, hold him facing me. I’m going to start with his chest; that’s where it went into him.

Ned gave her a nod over Duck’s shoulder. His face was deathly pale.

‘Have me within reach,’ Beacon said, ‘but do not let Duck Newton lay hands on me. Not for nothing am I called the most terrible weapon ever created.’

Ned groped for the sword and set him on the grass an arm’s length behind him.

‘Ready when you are, Aubrey,’ he said weakly.

What the hell should I do, Aubrey thought desperately. Well, start by manifesting some magic. Make some fire. She blew out a long breath, centring herself, and fire blossomed over both her hands. She stared into the dancing flames, trying to sense how they worked, what it was that powered them. She made the fire die back, down to just a flicker, and further still, until there was nothing but a soft glow limning her fingers. She had never produced something so faint before. She felt that she could sense the details of her magic more clearly now that there wasn’t so much heat and light in the way. It wasn’t really fire at all, but some other kind of energy that expressed itself as fire when she released it with force. But like Dani had said, it could be anything at all.

She poised her glowing hands over Duck’s chest. His breath was coming in quick, shallow pants. Aubrey nodded. Ned nodded back.

She grabbed.

Her fingers hit Duck’s chest, but the magic around them passed straight through it. She made fists in his shirt, and the magic made fists too and grabbed…something. Duck’s eyes flew open. Aubrey stared. They were empty of recognition, flickering with flame. His face twisted in a snarl, and he lunged at Aubrey with hands like claws.

Ned dragged him back, grunting with effort. Aubrey’s hands pulled free of Duck’s chest, and she found herself with a double handful of the abomination’s substance. It had no cat-shape now; it was just an amorphous mass of smoke and flame. She was pulling it out of Duck’s chest like stuffing. She could feel how it was hanging on, how it had knitted itself into his sinews, how it was up behind his eyes, trying to get its hooks into his brain.

She was dimly aware that Ned was fighting his own furious battle with Duck’s body, but she could hardly register them. All her focus was on holding the abomination. It burned her hands. Its presence shot through all her magic, stinging her nerves, smarting like smoke in her eyes and nose and throat. She gritted her teeth and heaved, dragging more of the thing out of Duck. She actually felt it shift inside him, a horrible, organic slide like a grub in wood. And then suddenly the smoke wasn’t amorphous any more. It formed itself into a great cat’s head, blaring its fanged snarl right into her face. At the same time, Duck’s eyes cleared, and he began to scream.

‘That’s right, you can’t puppeteer him, you fight me your damned self!’ Aubrey shouted. Duck’s scream should have terrified her, but instead it acted like a shot of adrenaline. She wanted to fight this thing that was hurting him, rend it, crush it into dust.

‘Aubrey!’ Duck gasped. Aubrey pulled. Duck threw his arms backwards around Ned, bracing as the thing tried to drag his body forward from the chest. It bent him until she thought his spine would crack.

The abomination let go all in an instant. She felt it furl up all its hooks and tendrils and gather itself in a rush, and then it was leaping at her in cat form, bearing her to the ground. Aubrey shrieked, hanging on like grim death. The thing’s form wasn’t fixed. It should have been about to reshape itself around her grip and overwhelm her. Yet somehow she sensed that her magic was hindering it, hurting it. She kicked out, screaming blue murder as she tried to wrestle it off her. The two of them rolled and struggled like a pair of fighting cats.

‘Aubrey, get clear!’ Ned roared. Aubrey kicked free and rolled to the side as Ned came leaping forward, holding Beacon straight and shining in his hands. He stabbed down, and the sword went right through the abomination and feet deep into the ground, pinning it. Ned dived out of the way as Aubrey jumped to her feet and blasted it with all the fire she could muster.

The thing writhed in the withering flames, its dying shriek rending the air. Aubrey didn’t let up. She poured out fire until the abomination shrivelled away to nothing, and Beacon fell to the ground with a ringing thump.

The whole lawn was ablaze. Aubrey sucked in one sharp, angry breath, and felt all the heat return to her. Her veins bubbled over with power. The scorched grass disappeared beneath a layer of crackling frost.

Aubrey staggered, panting, reeling into the sudden stillness. The screams, the heat, the roaring of fire, was all suddenly gone. The world was cold and calm.

‘Holy titty-fucking Christ!’ Ned gasped, sprawled in a heap on the ground.

‘Oh yes,’ Beacon cackled. His metal had gone from glowing orange to grey in an instant. ‘Oh, I’ll make heroes of you three yet, just you wait and see.’

‘Ugh,’ Duck groaned weakly.

Duck!’ Aubrey wailed, launching herself at him. Ned was right behind her. Duck had been trying to sit up, but he didn’t get very far.

‘Y’know you’re not really supposed to shake an injured person,’ he mumbled. ‘Don’t suppose either of you know any first aid? No, no, don’t worry, I’ll roll myself into the recovery position.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Aubrey blurted, forehead on his shoulder, rocking him gently. Ned was actually petting his hair. ‘You can teach us first aid and we’ll listen, I promise. I’ll even go on a course.’

‘Lesson one: don’t smother me to death,’ Duck said. Ned and Aubrey both let go of him and scooched back sheepishly, Aubrey noting how weak his voice sounded still.

‘Should we, like, take you to a hospital or something?,' she said. 'We could always say you just had a funny turn and fell down ’cause you’re super old.’

‘Reckon I’ll be alright,’ Duck said. ‘I don’t know what they could do for something like this anyway. You should probably scrape me off the lawn before Mrs Pearson looks out of her window, though.’

Ned got his shoulder under Duck’s arm and hauled him to his feet, helping him shuffle across the lawn and into the house. When they reached the burnt-out patch where the abomination had died, Duck stooped gingerly and scooped up Beacon. He clutched the sword to his chest like a life-belt, which was…interesting, to say the least. Beacon was still humming contentedly to himself, apparently well-pleased with the ferocity of the battle.

‘How’re we going to explain the lawn being burnt and iced over?’ Duck asked.

‘Wasn’t us!’ Aubrey said at once. ‘Beyond that, I got nothing. Quick, let’s get inside!’

‘And now,’ Ned said, depositing Duck on the couch, ‘a drop of something to steady the nerves, I think! Duck, I know you’ve got at least one bottle of the good stuff knocking around, you old stick-in-the-mud.’

‘It’s not even gone twelve, Ned,’ Duck grumbled, leaning back with his eyes shut.

‘Tell that to the monster that attacked us before the sun was over the yardarm,’ Ned said.

‘There’s some whiskey you’re welcome to if you want it, but I’d honestly rather have a cup of coffee.’

‘Whiskey for myself, and coffee for my fallen comrade! I think that can be arranged.’ Ned bustled away into the kitchen.

‘Tell me what happened, Aubrey,’ Duck said, as Aubrey slumped down on the couch beside him.

‘The bom-bom went inside you. What did you jump on it for?’ Aubrey said.

‘Guess that wasn’t my best plan,’ Duck mumbled. ‘Inside me, like…?’

‘Like demonic possession inside you.’

‘Jeez.’

‘I know, right? So I pulled it out of you with magic, and then Ned stabbed it, and then I set it on fire.’

‘Didn’t know your magic worked like that.’

‘I didn’t either. I just kind of went with it. Otherwise Beacon said it was going to start using your body to wreck shit.’

‘Well,’ Duck said, glancing down at himself, ‘not the most formidable one that it could have been using, but…’

‘Oh, you foolish man!’ Beacon erupted. ‘Don’t you realise that your powers combined with those of the beast would have created a monster the likes of which this town has never seen?'

Duck blinked. ‘Well, ain’t that food for thought,’ he said. ‘So, uh, if mastering a new form of magic hadn’t worked out, what was plan B?’

‘Stabbing you was Beacon’s plan A,’ Ned called from the kitchen.

Ned!’ Aubrey shouted.

‘Salt the earth and move on,’ Duck said. ‘Strong strategy.’

‘That was not plan A, that was never an option,’ Aubrey growled.

‘Warriors such as you must always be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice,’ Beacon said.

‘Warriors such as us look out for each other,’ Aubrey growled.

‘Your sentimentality is a weakness, magician,’ Beacon said.

‘Leave her alone,’ Duck said sharply.

‘What, Duck Newton, will you be held back from your destiny by these grifters and conjurers you call companions?’

‘That’s it, you’re going back with the coffee mugs,’ Duck said. He grabbed Beacon and made to get up off the couch, but his face went grey and he slumped back again.

‘I’ll get it,’ Aubrey said at once. She grabbed Beacon and hurried over to the shelf where the mugs hung.

‘You walk hand in hand with death now, magician,’ Beacon told her quietly.

‘I fucking hate you, you stupid sword,’ Aubrey yelled. She shoved him roughly to the back of the shelf and went back to the sofa.

‘You okay?’ Duck asked. Aubrey stared straight ahead, blinking rapidly. ‘Are you crying? Hey, hey, hey…’

Tears spilled down Aubrey’s cheeks, and Duck reached out to her, so quickly and instinctively that she couldn’t believe she’d ever doubted that he cared about her and Ned. She threw herself into his arms and hung on tight. He patted her awkwardly on the back like he’d never tried to hug a human person before, but he didn’t let go.

‘She’s right.’ Ned emerged from the kitchen, setting down two coffees and a glass of whiskey on the table. ‘Plan A wasn’t an option.’

‘I’m magic; if there’s no solution then I’ll magic a solution,’ Aubrey said fiercely.

‘And I’ve made my living out of making things up on the spot,’ Ned said. ‘I think we’ll manage for a little while yet.’

‘Thank you both,’ Duck said, ‘for saving me.’ Ned patted him on the knee and passed him his coffee.

‘Hey, what’s this?’ Aubrey said thickly, looking at the second mug. ‘I wanted whiskey too!’

‘You’re under twenty one,’ Ned said.

‘That is literally not true.’

‘Isn’t it?’ Ned said.

‘Let him look out for you if he wants to,’ Duck said, giving her a squeeze.

‘Insightful at all the wrong moments, Ranger Newton,’ Ned said. He took a gulp of whiskey and pulled a face. ‘God, what a morning. I might need more than one of these.’

‘Well, if you want to clean out my whiskey collection I’m in no shape to stop you,’ Duck said. Aubrey pulled back to look at him again.

‘You still look like death,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve got a ton of work to do, but I really think you should maybe rest up today.’

‘Yeah, I was coming to that conclusion,’ Duck sighed. ‘I’ll phone in sick, tell them I had a…funny turn or something.’ He flicked her a half-hearted scowl.

‘Alright,’ Aubrey said. ‘So, uh…permission to be optimistic?’

Ned laughed. Duck cracked a smile.

‘Permission granted,’ he said.

‘So we almost died,’ Aubrey said, wiping her eyes, ‘and it was very scary, but…we’re done for the month? And it’s only just gone twelve? Yay us?’

‘Yay us!’ Ned echoed enthusiastically. Duck shook his head, but he was grinning.

‘And,’ Aubrey said, ‘we’re having coffee together after all!’

‘Whiskey,’ Ned said, tilting his glass.

‘Yeah,’ Duck said. ‘That’s actually real nice.’

‘To kicking ass?’ Aubrey said, raising her mug.

‘To kicking ass,’ Ned and Duck said, and their mugs and glass met in a clinking salute.