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More Fun With Fire

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“I used to love a good witch-burning,” Mr. Crowley was saying to Pepper and Wensleydale as they came in the door of Jasmine Cottage.  “Start with a family picnic, end with terrified screaming. Bring the kids! Good entertainment.”

“That’s awful,” Newt felt compelled to point out.  He wondered if taking the horseshoe off the door had been the right thing to do.

It was bitterly cold outside, and Newt had laid a fire in the grate.  Mr. Crowley made straight for it, neglecting some of the usual swagger in his haste.  “Says the man,” he said, “who joined the Witchfinder Army for a lark.”

“It was more curiosity than a lark, and anyway, I was never going to do anything to any witches!”

“A lot of people say that,” Mr. Crowley said.  He stripped off his gloves. “Ooh, I can be a part of the organization, but I’d never do anything bad, not like the rest of them.  One guess how it usually turns out.”

Pepper was right behind him.  “Witch-burnings,” she said, “were a form of terrorism against women.  To keep them from practicing medicine or being too wealthy or anything that might improve their status.”

“Usually,” Mr. Crowley acknowledged.  “Not always.” He smiled in that unsettling way he had.  “Sometimes they were fun.”

He was a demon.  Newt knew he was a demon.  But he had been on the side of the Earth, and the side of Adam, and Anathema was cautiously in favor of him, and all in all, it was jarring and upsetting to learn that he cared so little for human life.  “Burning a harmless old woman to death,” Newt said firmly, “is not fun.”

“Who said anything about old women?”  Mr. Crowley knelt down and stuck his hands directly into the fire.

Newt almost jumped forward and grabbed him.  Wensleydale made an alarmed noise.

“Although I can be, you know,” Mr. Crowley said, visibly relaxing a little bit.  “At least, I can be a woman, and I’m definitely old.” The flames traveled up his arms, licking as if they liked him.  “That’s much better. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get warm during an English winter?”

Newt tried to readjust the prior conversation in his head.  “So you’re saying that—instead of burning an old woman—you . . .”

“The best part,” Mr. Crowley said, “was after the ropes burned through.  I would try to pick the person with the guiltiest conscience—” He flared up abruptly, fire all over, and rose, turning, to take a sudden swipe at Newt.  Newt jerked backwards and felt the heat of the flames as he did. Real fire. He staggered backwards, aware that his face was white. “And chase them!” Mr. Crowley finished, through the crackling of the flames.  “A little bit of drama— the fires of Hell will embrace you—”   That last was said in a deep, monstrous voice, entirely unlike his own.  “Screams, prayers, running, fainting—” That was in his usual voice, and he shook the flames off.  They vanished into nothing. “Like I said before. Fun.”

He sprawled into the chair nearest the fire.

Pepper was the first to find her voice.  “That would actually stop other people from being burnt.”

Mr. Crowley waved his hand.  “Side effect,” he said. “Evil actions produce good side effects now and then.  Just ask Aziraphale. He has a whole speech about it.”

What Aziraphale had said, Newt recalled, was, he’s not actually evil, you know.  I mean, he is evil, by definition, but he’s not so much cruel as he is—well—just Crowley.

Just Crowley seemed to involve a certain propensity for frightening people.  Newt’s heart was still beating hard.

On the other hand, Crowley hadn’t harmed him.

Hadn’t harmed any witches, either.

“Do any of you want cocoa?” Newt decided.

Newt wasn’t certain if Mr. Crowley realized that it was intended as something of a peace offering.  An I’m-sorry-I-misjudged-you-even-though-I-think-you-meant-me-to offering. But he did want cocoa.