Smoke and Ashes, 3
“I’m a what?” For a moment Tori didn’t think she’d heard him correctly. Had he really called her a witch? As it happened, it wasn’t the first time she’d heard that, and it wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever been called.
“A witch,” he repeated. Slower, definitely for the benefit of a child.
Irritated, Tori floundered for a response. Wit and sarcasm were called for but, for the life of her, she couldn’t think of a decent come back. “Right.”
Ash folded his arms on his knees and leaned forward, obvious impatience flickering over his face, intent. “Look, we haven’t got time for this, Tori, and you need to act quickly to make certain they haven’t got access to the flat.”
“The alarm is working,” Tori said, and then realised how bloody stupid that sounded, even to her. The scathing expression on Ash’s face also gave her a hint he’d actually meant something rather different. If she took him at his word, and it seemed ever more likely she had to, then he referred to magic, which was just… preposterous. Telling her she had witchy blood didn’t make her one, and she had never been able to talk parseltongue, or ride a broom – where did you get those things, anyway? – so any Harry Potter or Hermione Grainger bullshit went straight out the window.
“Oh yes,” he agreed, unable to leave it alone now he’d been given an open invitation for wit, “a burglar alarm always works so well against things that go bump in the night. The first line of defence against the creatures of darkness, guaranteed by police forces the length and breadth of Old Blighty.”
“Look,” Tori said, through her teeth, the need to slap the smirk right off his face back in place, “I haven’t done this sort of thing before, so how the hell am I supposed to know what you mean? What am I telpathic or -” she waved her hands about in a vague impression of using a wand – “I don’t know, can I conjure things out of thin air? I mean, give me a break; it sounds like bullshit and probably is bullshit.”
Silence reigned as they glared at each other and then Ash said, “I apologise, that was rude of me.”
“Yes, it was. So, tell me then,” Tori said, going in for the kill, “Mr. Smart-arse -” and she gave sniff of disdain – “demon, how and what I’m supposed to do?”
He examined his hands, thoughtful, and gave a little shrug. “I can’t really tell you, or show you. That’s beyond what I’m allowed.”
“Utter crap,” Tori said. “I don’t believe you for a moment, or you wouldn’t have shown yourself to me. I mean, really, why have you crawled out of the woodwork, Ash, if you aren’t able to do that one small task?”
“Ask me,” he said, and stared deep into her eyes.
“No,” Ash said, “you said I had to show you, or tell you. You need to ask.”
Tori met his gaze, intense and blue, trying to understand what he wanted. Ask? She had, hadn’t she? Asked him to help ? Oh… “Please, Ash, would you help me?”
He gave a small sigh of relief. “Get the salt, and keep that damn cat of yours somewhere safe, so he can’t disturb us.”
“I’ll shut him in the bedroom,” Tori said and headed for the kitchen. She had a large tub of cooking salt in there somewhere – not that she used it, but when dad came over it came in handy.
“It would be better if you put him in a basket,” Ash said, his attention already on the job.
In the kitchen, she rummaged at the back of her store cupboard, moving various bits and pieces out of the way. Thick blue letters described the contents of a large plastic container succinctly, and she went back to the living room to find Ash busy moving her plants out of their saucers. They sat in the middle of her living room, a heap of rejected foliage, and he took the salt from her without further explanation, tipping some into his hand. Blue smoke seeped from his fingers as he clenched his fist round the salt, and then poured it into the waiting saucer, taking care not to spill any. Fascinated, she watched for a moment, then remembered Mangos had to go down, and his basket sat on top of the wardrobe. The cat would so not be pleased to have to spend time in that, and Tori muscled up for a fight of epic proportions. Plus he would make her life hellish when he got out. Tori knew it; the cat knew it.
As predicted, Mangos wrestled every inch of the way, but eventually sat in his container, sullen, defeated, golden eyes unblinking and full of condemnation. In his attempts to break, free he’d managed to inflict thorough damage and the lacerations hurt like a bitch. Blood oozed in little drops, specks of ruby, so Tori nicked into the bathroom to clean them up. Water ran down the length of her arm diluting the blood, which disappeared in pink rivulets down the plughole. Sucking in a breath, she opened the cabinet with one hand to reach for antiseptic cream.
“Tori, can you come here?”
“In a mo,” she replied, and grabbed the tube in front of her. With her luck it would probably be toothpaste, or mouth ulcer stuff. Lucky for her, it was the right tube, and she sighed with relief as the cream worked its soothing miracle.
Back in the living room, the saucers now sat at equal distances from each other, and the discarded corpse of one of her favourite plants lay scattered across the rug. Meanwhile, Ash had placed a leaf on the salt in each saucer. Salt with a distinct purple caste. As she came into the room, he looked up, and there again, like before, the impression of slit pupils leapt at her before it disappeared. A soft growl left his throat, and he sniffed the air, wolfish and greedy, then strode over to her, taking her arm in a firm grip. Turning it, he stared at the scratches running the length of her forearm.
“This,” he growled, “will not do.”
“Are you sure you’re not a vampire?” she asked, disturbed by the hungry expression settled over his face. Stronger than before, the image washed across his features, skin the colour of teak, black hair, burning sulphur eyes.
Licking his lips, he flicked a quick glance at her before bending over her arm. Gently, the tip of his tongue played across the welts, lingering on the marks, teasing at the flesh. The burn faded, and Tori tried hard not to snatch her arm away as Ash came upright, and smiled, teeth sharp and white.
“Not a vampire, but I am a demon.” His hand was tight, proprietary, strong. “And you are my very own witch.”
Tori swallowed, trembled. Why, she couldn’t be sure. Frightened? Without a god damn doubt. A mixture of other, more confusing, emotions stamped their merry way through her system, and for the first time in what seemed like aeons and probably was, Tori felt out of control. Like a schoolgirl. Worse than a schoolgirl, if she was honest. For heaven’s sake, thirty-seven year old women did not come over weak at the knees. How fucking ridiculous could she get?
She laughed, nervous. “I thought we had things to do?”
Impassive, he gazed down at her, searching her face. “Yes, we do,” he agreed, and released her.
Tori’s, adult, more sensible side came to her rescue and kicked her hard in the back of her pathetic brain, insisted she’d had a lucky escape and should thank all that’s good for whatever reprieve came her way. She glanced down at her arm and sucked in a breath. Fresh pink skin sat where the scratches had been. Putting the tube of antiseptic on the coffee table, she rubbed her forefinger over the scars to make certain she hadn’t imagined it, the skin still raised and a little tender. Reluctant belief about all his claims lurched forward in a bid for freedom from scepticism. There didn’t seem any other option unless she admitted Phil Brown’s daughter had more screws loose than a flat pack from Ikea. And another part of her felt certain a trip to the local funny farm loomed, one with her own special jacket.
“Are you going to keep staring at your arm, Tori, or would you like to help and see what we’re about to do?”
The deep voice snapped her out of her contemplation, and she gave a nod, forcing a bright tone into her voice. “Absolutely, let’s get on that right away.”
It really didn’t ring right, not to her own ears, and Ash gave her a very shrewd glance from narrowed eyes. Thankfully, he didn’t smirk or she would have had to lock herself in the bathroom. At the moment, she flipped between intrigued and panic-stricken and some, or all, of it certainly had to do with him. And the situation. A moment of gibbering rushed at her.
“Tori!” he snapped, and her panic subsided to a bubbling froth. “Grab some leaves for yourself and bring the rest to me,” he demanded, and gave an imperative wave of his hand.
“Just do it,” he said, and glared. “Take the dishes and salt to every room – every room. And then when you’re done, place a few on each saucer, just as I have.”
“Right.” On this occasion, given that he had added a growl as a prompt, Tori decided to comply with the instructions. A coward’s way out, maybe, but after that look, she didn’t see what else he could do.
Leaves handed out, she copied his actions, going from room to room, until each was complete, and arranged the leaves in a cross pattern, each intersecting the other. From the loud, disgusted growl that left Mango’s throat, she could tell he’d gone into her room. Except, then it went very quiet, until a loud crash, and a scream of protest. It sounded harsh, guttural, painful.
Tori rushed to her bedroom door, banged, and kicked at it as hard as she could, but it wouldn’t budge even a centimetre. “What the hell are you doing to my cat?” she screamed, and pounded some more, harder.
The door clicked open. Ash looked pleased with himself, and not a peep could be heard from the bedroom.
“You killed my cat.” Fury laced her voice as she shouted in his face, and she took a step towards him, her fists clenched, ready to kill the son-of-a-bitch.
“Hardly.” Grabbing her wrists, he wrestled with her, spinning her until he crossed her arms over her midriff to hold her fast against his chest. Tori attempted a back kick to his shins, but he’d expected that, and moved his feet, leaning back a little so she couldn’t head butt him. “Listen to me, you bloody stubborn woman, and stop jumping to conclusions.”
“Let me fucking go, you… you… murdering bastard.”
Ash tightened his arms, and Tori struggled hard to break free. Breathless, she gave in, forced to listen. “We’ve come to a mutual agreement.” Ash rocked on his heels a little, and said, “Cats are difficult creatures, Tori. They can break a spell or make it, and he hadn’t realised just how much trouble you’re in.”
“You talk to cats as well?” Tori didn’t feel as surprised as she ought to; the total shitty weirdness of the day must have caught up with her. She relaxed a little, and he released her.
“I can talk, as you put it, to more than just cats.”
Slipping past her, he made for the saucer in the corner of the room, and took a small, pearlescent bottle from his jacket pocket containing colourless fluid, which had settled into distinct bands. Swirling it, the fluid began to glow softly; radiant, sparkling colours appeared, green, blue, yellow, red, every shade Tori could imagine and all those in-between. Popping the lid, Ash carefully deposited five drops of the achromatic liquid onto the contents of the saucer, a pleased noise rumbling in his chest when the whole mess began to morph. Tori tippd her head as she watched, fascinated.
At that moment, every sceptical bone in her body decided to pack a suitcase and bugger off. Now she wanted to know more. More about great-gran, more about the business of being a witch and, how she could use it.
Salt, concoction, and leaves, sparked into a fizzing ball of energy no bigger than a ping-pong ball, which rose above the surface of the saucer by maybe half an inch. It revolved slowly, and Tori drew closer so she could look it over.
A firm hand on her upper arm held her back from getting too close. “Be careful,” Ash warned. “Those things can hurt.”
Duly informed, Tori observed the spheres from a safe distance. Golden and silver arcs shivered across its surface, turning the orb into a brilliant Christmas sphere. The only things missing were multiples of a painted, fat, garish Santa round its bulging middle. The whole concoction snapped and popped, a faint sound repeated from the other rooms.
“Sage,” Ash announced, out of the blue, and looked at her in expectation. She must have looked blank, because he qualified the statement. “As in the plant… what you use to stuff chickens.”
Tori shook herself out of her stupor and spun on her heel back into the kitchen. Sage, sage, sage. There was a jar full of the stuff, neglected, behind the equally unloved tins of butter beans she kept meaning to throw out, on the bottom shelf of the wall unit. It triggered a surge of memories, some she hadn’t bothered to examine in a long while.
One of things mum told her to keep in the house had been sage, along with a number of other herbs. At the time, Tori guessed they had uses other than for recipes, but just took the comments as a criticism of her lack of cooking skills. Thinking about it though, mum always talked about herbs, spices and things before she died, usually about making certain she had enough to keep her safe. At the time, Tori paid almost no attention to what mum said, as the drugs the doctors used to blast away at the cancer eating her from the inside-out had a good many strange reactions. Now though, it seemed she’d got a devil in the front room, so maybe she could ask him what mum meant.
Marching back into the living room, she asked, “Mum always rattled on at me to keep this stuff in the house?” She brandished the jar and gave it over when he beckoned. “I got the stuff, but didn’t know why she wanted me to have it.”
“Your mother was aware of your… ah… talent, right from when you were a tiny babe, Tori, my dear.”
Desiccated sage fell into the palm of his hand when he shook the jar, tiny flakes of grey, still aromatic even after being forgotten for so long. Ash took a sniff, and grunted, though Tori couldn’t tell if he thought the stuff good enough for whatever task he had in mind.
So many things she needed to know, and buzzed with excitement, made an attempt to interject a word or two, but he waved her down so she shut up. Perhaps, if he didn’t need her she could go and take a look at that old photo album dad had given her a while ago? Filled with pictures of relatives long dead and cold, as well as notes in yellowing paper, she’d only glanced through it once or twice. It hadn’t interested her, never had, but now it might give some clues about this witch, magic thing. Amongst them, she felt certain there’d been a letter from Mother Greerson about the marriage and why she’d been so disappointed. If Ash really had trouble with the old bint, there might be a clue in the letter, or maybe something in the family bible? A cracked old thing, pages dog-eared, it had turned up in an ancient leather case in dad’s loft about a year after mum died. The flyleaf had neatly penned names, each with a tick or cross by them, some being scrubbed out altogether. Neither she or dad knew what the hell it meant, and the bible resided in his bookcase, just by the stairs.
“Are you paying any attention at all?” Ash asked, and snapped back into her consciousness, sharp as a tack.
“Sure.” Tori stepped a little closer, embarrassed she’d been caught drifting, and craned her neck. She showed a bit of willing. “What do they do?”
“This is protective, and wards the house against things that would like to… well, create a little mayhem, shall we say. They also allow us to get out of this flat without being seen by things we would rather not see us, Tori.”
“What things and are you going to teach me any of this?” she asked, wondering how they would leave without being seen. A snort made her frown, and she eyed him. “Why’s that funny?
“Bad things,” he said. “And you already know, Tori. You’re a witch, and it’s in your very bone and blood, just as it was in your mother’s.”
“But mum never said a thing about any of this,” Tori said, bewildered, and watched Ash spread his fingers like a fan, flesh glowing like a bulb on a Christmas tree. “I would have remembered.”
“Your mother refused her power, Tori. She would not use it, and so it has come down to you, accumulated in strength, but wild.” Droplets of light swirled, dusts of mote flying from his fingers, as Ash pulled a strand from each glowing orb into a single brilliant point. “When she made that choice, she didn’t realise what it would mean for you, or for me.”
“You knew mum too? This news opened up a whole new line of questioning. Very suspicious now, Tori wondered about what else he hadn’t told her. She suspected a great deal, and it would take time to get to the bottom of the whole mystery. “You still haven’t said why you need me to help you?”
“I want to be human,” Ash said, as if he hadn’t dropped another bombshell right in the middle of her home.
“Why would a demon want that?” Tori asked, incredulous.
“A demon might want that,” he said, mildly, without meeting her eyes, “if the witch he’s looking after also happens to be the one he’s waited for.”