The Thief’s Darling

by Michael Butcher

Enith ran a long, twig-like finger across the book’s spine, and her mouth curled into a well-practiced sneer that would have sent a komodo dragon reeling. She glanced to her left and right at the four other identical old women seated beside her, and licked her papery thin lips.

Cady Nine-Lives shuddered at the whole ghastly scene. She hoped Enith hadn’t noticed, or Cady might be treated with even more barely concealed loathing than usual.

“I’m not sure about this one,” Enith croaked, rubbing a page between her fingers. She always said this and she always ended up paying, but she wanted Cady to really sell it, you know? It was all very petty, truth be told.

Cady fidgeted with the old rat skull hanging from her necklace. “Oh no, this is a very good one. Very steamy with lots of kissing and… abdominals,” she finished uncertainly.

The sisters glanced at one another. “Abdominals?”

“Oh yes, heaps of them. Bloody everywhere.” Honestly, what did they want her to say? “I had flick through it,” Cady continued. “Very lewd, and very pornographic.” She pulled an a-okay hand gesture.

Enith furrowed her wispy eyebrows. “You flicked through it?”

“Oh yeah, skipped t‘good bits, of course.” She smirked and winked at the other old women, who tittered excitedly. Cady felt a piece of herself violently die.

Enith seemed satisfied, but she wouldn’t let Cady know that. She lazily flicked the pages of the book with the air of a literary agent who has long since lost the passion for their job. “You’re certain the librarian has no idea?” She said.

“You’re talking to a professional, ladies. You’re in the clear,” she grinned.

A moment of consideration. “Fine, we’ll take it, but we are not yet satisfied.”

Bet you haven’t been satisfied in a while, thought Cady. She stifled a snort.

“We will require a greater donation tomorrow morning, same time,” Enith said. “A stack at least, and be sure to include at least one concerning a forbidden affair between a devoted alchemist and a young male student who spurns the triumphant path of Boremeticism.”

The others nodded and murmured.

“Um, sure thing, boss,” said Cady, catching a velvet purse containing a small amount of money. “Tomorrow morning, sparrow’s fart, stack o’ books and the ‘chemy whatever one.”

“Now, away with you,” Enith flicked her hand with flawless disdain and then actually licked the cover.

Cady Nine-Lives gagged and dashed out of the miserable building before the smell of cheap rose perfume overwhelmed her.

* * *

“I don’t get the appeal, meself,” Cady said after downing another glass of what might have been paint thinner, but was labeled rum.

The Uptight Hog was alive with anxious, quietened muttering emanating from dark and probably sticky corners. It had its charms, as long as you didn’t.

Hobie Crum regarded Cady through his heavily lined eyes. “Lotta ones would kill for your gig, love. Don’t forget that,” he said gruffly, polishing a glass with an ancient dishrag that would probably come if you called it. “Lovey-dovey books for old dames? Easier than freelance borrowin’, from what I hear.”

Cady snorted. “Lovey-dovey, right. The books they’re after don’t even have enough depth to be sappy. The old crones wouldn’t understand a human emotion if it shat in their tea pot and humped their little… poodles or whatever.”

Hobie chuckled, or might have been coughing up something, it was hard to tell. He had a singing voice that was legendary around these parts; it was said to sound like the sweet serenading of a blender full of forks.

“Keeps the quiddins coming in though, more than most people can say these days,” he said.

Cady leaned against the bar. “Oh, yeah I’m rolling in it. Bought a nice rat pastie off ol’ raving Fergus other day, paid a little extra for one that weren’t frothin’ at the mouth before it died, cha-ching!”

Hobie poured another glass of rum. “Could eat some of the food ‘ere, y’know.”

“Not after last time, Crum.”

Cady turned and looked around the pub. A thin, seedy man was passed out in a bowl of rat parmesan and spilled beer, an elderly woman carrying an excessive number of shopping bags was arguing passionately with a mounted deer head, and another bloke could have been dead, if he wasn’t giggling in his sleep.

“I need to get out of Wadlock. There’s gotta be something better than this. Oh, did I mention what a cheap arse Enith is?”

“Yeah, a few times tonight.”

“She hardly pays anything,” Cady said. “I hate her. I think she wants to keep me as her servant, or slave.”

Cady poked through an ashtray and found a dog end with a bit of life left in it. Hobie struck a match against the bar and lit it for her.

Cady took a drag and slumped on the bar. “I don’t wanna do any work tonight,” she groaned. “Just wanna go to sleep.”

“Oh,” Hobie croaked, “’fore I forget, I need the rent.” His eyes flicked elsewhere. “All of it, very soon.”

“You what?” Cady sat up and coughed grey smoke into the perpetual smog cloud above. “Don’t all these drinks count toward that?”

“No, sorry. I have told you that before.”

There was the scuff of a boot and the air seemed to get denser behind Cady, and somehow wider. She turned her head slightly to see a hairy forearm in her peripheral vision.

“Really? You know how cold it is out there?” She mashed the smoldering butt into the ashtray. “I said I’d pay you. Just try some patience, huh? And I’m just a child! Can’t you just let me sleep on the bar?”

Hobie slapped the rag over his shoulder, which began to make a daring escape attempt onto the floor. “Wee bairn my foot, you may be a young’un but you’re no child, Nine-Lives.” He regarded her a moment. “It’s quarter rates f’ bar napping, that’s the best I can do.”

Cady sighed, stood, and sculled the rest of her motor oil before slamming the glass down. “Maybe the rent wouldn’t be so high if you weren’t feedin’ your pet gorilla.” She flicked her second to last quiddin to Hobie, which wasn’t nearly enough to cover the drinks, and sauntered to the door.

“Good luck, little child,” Hobie croaked.

Cady flipped him off. He chuckled and crossed his arms.

“Bye, Cady,” mumbled Klobb, who wasn’t an actual gorilla, but could be mistaken for one.

“Bye Klobby,” Cady said as she left, “I’ll miss you dearly.”

Sarcasm was often lost on Klobb.

* * *

The sun was falling on the dreary, dilapidated town of Wadlock, and in a shady house on the far west end, five shadowy figures moved in strange motions around softly bubbling vials and flasks. The curtains were drawn, the candles were lit, and the pungent odour of arcane chemicals and potpourri lingered menacingly. The good china had also been brought out.

“How fares the concoction?” one whispered. This shadowy figure looked mostly the same as the other shadowy figures, but was somehow more shadowy and had much more figure, thanks to its partialness to a bit of bakewell tart every so often.

The shadowy figures politely nodded and cooed affirmative noises.

“Very good. Soon we will have–”

“Ooh sorry, Enith,” a malevolent shade politely waved. “I’m having a wee trouble with the decoction of the libidonimos vitae, it doesn’t seem to be combining with the other essential elements. I’ve imbued the flame of the burner with the words covetousness, salaciousness and every synonym for sexy. I’ve added solidified blood droplets of an adolescent bullock into the mixture, I’ve–”

“Have you included powered rosestone?”

“–just a dash, of course. But the pages of this latest book just appear to be burning and not congealing like the pages of the last book we worked with.”

‘“Ooh,” said another sister, “was that The Baron’s Scandalous Habit?”

“No no, it was The Lingering Scent of the Boudoir.”

“Ooh, that congealed like no other. Very naughty.”

“Enough, ladies,” said Enith, raising her hand. “Have you included four drops of the carnal extract of a wizard?”

“Oh no, was I supposed to be collecting that from ‘im?” Someone said. The ladies burst out laughing, except Enith, of course.

“Ooh, leave the pointy hat on, y’ great big hunk o’ sorcerer,” Dolores said, wiggling her hips. The snorting continued, breaking the occult theme of the evening entirely.

Enith scowled. Levity was not something to be encouraged in the study of alchemy, it needed to be purged. The alchemical arts were a serious discipline, with serious consequences. If one found something funny about goat anuses, crystallized hamster urine, dickwort leaves, or pickled flamingo testicles, one should determine whether they have inhaled the burning vapours of a Stink’e Root, an equally unfunny ingredient.

Enith picked up a teaspoon, and dinged a small tea cup with unquestionable authority. A silence descended, save for the softly bubbling mixtures, as it should.

“Gladys, would you kindly hand me the specimen?”

Gladys approached and gave Enith the torn book with her head slightly lowered. She pinched a jam scone on the way back to her spot.

Enith looked it over. Even with the essential pages removed for the concoction it was clearly an effective specimen. The heroine was a doe-eyed noblewoman of unspecified age, there were the stifling obligations of courtly life strangling her passions for dance (and dare I say love?), a tyrannical mother, and a magical macguffin. But most importantly, the stimulant was well beyond adequate; he was a young stablehand prince who was also a chariot racer. His skills with a sword were equal only to his skills as a love maker, which in turn were equal to his skills as a competitive salsa dancer.

So why weren’t the pages congealing and coupling with the other components? Enith took off her glasses and shifted a page under the lens of a magnifihance enitheas, a device she had invented in order to observe very small things very close up. She quietly recognised it as something of a breakthrough.

She peered through the eyepiece and adjusted the knobs. Wood pulp, dyes, phlogiston, of course, and ink. But hold on, where was the sultry, oily sheen of libidonimos, the element inherent in all powerful romance novels? This book appeared to be deprived of it. It was useless. But how? Enith narrowed her eyes. Perhaps…

She only just became aware that her sisters were staring at her with rapt attention. A purple haze of chemical vapour drifted through the stuffy room like a malevolent spirit searching for a new host. Enith let the tension hang for a moment.

“Have any of you been reading this book?” She said.

Her sisters gasped, huffed, and shook their heads like indignant chickens accused of pulling up the garden cabbages.

“Certainly not!”

“No, not on my life!”

“Not on her life either!”

They settled into an awkward and tense silence. There was a nervous rattling of a teacup on a saucer followed by some loud slurping.

“This specimen appears to have been drained of libidonimos, the element that gives romance novels their… effect on the human body. I am hypothesising this is the result of extended overuse. Overuse, perhaps, by four unprofessional alchemists.” She spat the words like venom.

Their eyes darted to each other. Lips trembled and everyone appeared to be covered in a sheen of sweat. It would seem all their quick little wits only served them in uttering inappropriate jests, for now they were silent in that way only truly guilty people were silent: loudly.

Hattie’s eyes widened as if she had just seen the light at the end of a dark, cobra-infested tunnel. “Enith love, if I may, remember what our thief said this morning? About how she flicked through the book?”

Concerned nodding, tsks and vocalisations of finger wagging, along with actual finger wagging.

“Of course! It must have been her.”

“You can’t trust that common sort.”

“No, not at all.”

They waited in anticipation as Enith cast her icy glare over them. Hattie had a point. She rarely did, but she did now. Enith did remember the little thief mentioning something of a sort. A flick through wouldn’t be enough to exhaust the power of Some Dark Temptations and a Vampyre, as it was a powerfully erotic novel, but she could have been lying. Enith wouldn’t put it past her. She was a criminal; her kind breathed deceit.

“Hm,” she said after a moment, “it would seem we have been sold a faulty product.”

The four sisters let their relief out as imperceptibly as possible, like gas in a crowded elevator.

“The punishment should be harsh but fair. We will drain her blood and create our own thief. Smaller, and with improved manners.” If Enith had a gavel, it would have been banged.

The ladies shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Sometimes Enith took their little get-togethers so seriously. This was one of those moments.

“How about we just dock her next pay?” Hattie said sweetly. “No need for killing, now. And you know how unstable those little… men things can be, and what if we need more books after the next donation? I think we should just keep her on.” The other sisters nodded in polite agreement.

Hattie had made another decent point. Two in one night, which meant for the rest of the week they would be as inane as usual. “Fine, point taken. We will dock her pay and not harm her.” Enith paused, “and no more of those little men. Satisfactory?”

“Very good.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Lovely.”

“Fine. You may all retire for the evening, there’s naught we can do and I wish to be alone with him.”

The sisters quickly tidied up, and made humorous little comments about how busy they were and something about how little respite was afforded to those judged as wicked. Hilda offered to put on some tea.

After they left for the sitting room, Enith made her way through her cluttered, narrow, carpeted home to the basement door. It was padded, with a deep maroon colour, and standing beside it were softly glowing scented candles. They carried the sweet and, frankly, overwhelming odour of jasmine, rose, and a bunch of other scents that any normal person wouldn’t be able to describe in between endless sneezing.

Enith produced an ornate, gilded key and turned the lock. There was a series of heavy clunks followed by some grinding, then the door creaked open. Torches lined a narrow stone staircase that reached into darkness, from which the faintest sound of electrical buzzing emanated. Enith hummed lightly as she descended. There were setbacks tonight, to be sure, but that was to be expected in this subtle art. How you dealt with them made the difference between a successful alchemist and an old dame insisting on the use of sherry in every concoction.

Enith reached the bottom and unlocked a heavy wooden door in a dim labyrinth of heavy wooden doors. She pushed it and was met with a familiar hissing and bubbling, along with a powerful spicy odour that carried suggestions of the seaside.

“Hello, Troy,” she said as warmly as she could manage.

In a large tank full of a green, nutrient rich substance, a blue eyed man stared lifelessly. A cloud of long, blonde hair floated like mist around his chiseled head, which in turn was attached to a chiseled body that wasn’t yet attached to any chiseled legs, for they had not been completed, though the knitting of the flesh was coming along nicely.

There were tubes attached to his skin that slowly administered perfectly prepared libidonimos vitae travelling from softly bubbling balneum enitheas, apparatuses she had invented that limit the temperature of a substance within and allow it to be distributed slowly through a complex system of glass vials and pipes.

Enith approached Troy and placed a hand on his tank. His eyes flicked toward her, but were staring just beyond her left ear. His mouth opened and closed.

She gazed at him a moment, tracing his sharp jaw and narrow cheeks. Features so familiar to her, stirring up seldom acknowledged memories of brighter times, years she spent with him. A lump formed in her throat, but she swallowed it down. Now wasn’t the time to go on thinking about the past, when there was so much at stake in the here and now. Troy opened and closed his mouth, and his eyes held a hint of hidden understanding.

“Your skin is pink, you’re taking well to your four humours. Good. There has been a hindrance but it is being taken care of.”

Troy blinked out of time, a finger twitched.

“Soon you will be able to leave,” she said quietly, unable to even let herself overhear her whispers. “And soon we will stroll with the evening sun together. My perfect gentleman.”

* * *

Cady Nine-Lives approached the library, a crooked, two-storey building near the edge of town, sandwiched awkwardly between two darkened, undoubtedly disreputable apartment buildings. A lot of people came and went from this block under the cover of darkness, but it certainly wasn’t the thirst for a good book that kept them around. Still the library stood proudly and brightly, hanging on as tight as it could to the last shred of dignity the public sector in Wadlock possessed.

Cady wasn’t proud of her work. Well, she was, because she was pretty good at it, but she knew it was wrong. She had made a mental note a while ago to repay the old librarian for everything she had stolen over the previous months, just as soon as she hit the big time. A huge score with no tangible victims, the perfect payday for the guilty thief.

She crept closer, hood lowered, moving in between other hooded figures shuffling and, in some cases, muttering to themselves along the cobbled street. There was the usual dim, flickering light glowing warmly through the library’s cloudy windows. Bars had been installed there recently, which hinted to Cady that the old man had become aware of his missing books. She felt a pang of guilt. She would pay him back. She would. Eventually.

She glanced left and right and was met with the courteous acknowledgement of passing fellow ne’er-do-wells. It was a rather supportive community.

She grasped the shaky drainage pipe on the side of the building and began hoisting herself up to the second storey. As she reached the top of the pipe, she took a moment to blow a kiss to the Parchment of History that trailed brilliantly across the length of the moonlit sky, like a papery river over the sooty chimneys of her hopeless town. Some believed the future was written up there, composed in incomprehensible runes on giant paper, others believed it to be the past, and some had some real wild ideas that aren’t worth repeating, honestly.

“Hope you got somethin’ good for me,” she said quietly.

* * *

“I told you, Zelator Leo. You can’t keep doing this! It violates the guidelines, the Boremetic guidelines of High Mystic-Magister Bizilitius Beremorth! What would my father say if he were alive? He wrote several books on High Mystic-Magister Bizilitius Beremorth’s Interpretation of the Boremetic guidelines!”

Alchemical-Adeptus-Minor Clara Erelim threw herself to the floor and sobbed wildy. She sobbed because her Dad was dead, and she had liked her Dad; he was nice before he was hit by a train.

Zelator Leo lifted Alchemical-Adeptus-Minor Clara Erelim from the floor like a hessian sack full of potatoes, potatoes he was madly in love with. “Sacred guidelines be damned! I just want to feel your hot breath on my earlobes.” And then Zelator Leo Ipsissimus was without a doublet and his pecs were oiled up–

Otis sighed, removed his reading glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was an old gesture that said more than an mob of angry critics ever could.

He had decided three chapters ago, when Leo wrestled a fierce minotaur for six pages that hadn’t been mentioned before, or thereafter, that the heyday of romantic fiction had long since vanished over the horizon. It endlessly frustrated him, and he once again angrily vowed to re-read the classics that so filled his heart with gentle optimism. But, as always, the small voice hidden behind the rose tint of nostalgia warned quietly that, perhaps, what he wanted was never going to be as good as he remembered, and so his favourites sat undisturbed.

He leaned over the armchair, refilled his glass with rum and took a sip while gazing at the newly installed bars outside the windows, and then at the front door, which was mostly obscured by stacks of books. There was a heavy iron lock on it, which seemed ill-fitting for a public institution. But the problem was, the public couldn’t really be trusted anymore. Books had started vanishing mysteriously and the rats usually put them back in the right spot, so it probably wasn’t them. So the library was always open, as long as no one actually wanted to come in.

There was a creak from the ceiling above, but that wasn’t uncommon. The concentration of information building up there tended to make the floorboards expand. The books would need a read to let off some steam pretty soon.

Otis scratched his chin. He realised long ago this job was quickly becoming less and less about providing the free access of information for the purpose of cultivating a knowledgeable public, and more about the hoarding of said information from the uninformed public and their grubby fingers. It was a depressing thought once, but it became just the way things were. At least after he was dead and departed and no longer gave a toss about his earthly lot, whoever eventually broke in to find him had the chance to become a bona fide renaissance criminal. But until then, he cared too much about the ungrateful tomes.

There was another creak upstairs. Otis frowned. Might be rats too. They were always interrupting his moping time. Moping was the lens through which Otis processed the world around him. He held moping to be of great importance, and would recommend everyone give it a try. After a good mope, he found things made a little more sense. It reminded him that life most likely wasn’t going to get any better, so he might as well stop moping about it and read another book.

Meanwhile the presumed-to-be-a-rat in question was kicking herself for that last drink and was finding it difficult to remember which of the floorboards were the creaky ones. Anyone who has ever come home from a long night on the sauce and tried to not wake up anyone in the house will understand.

She looked to her right, down the book-stack-covered staircase that led to the ground floor. There was the faint glow of the fireplace from the opposite end of the room. With any luck the old man would be asleep in his sofa chair, in blissful disregard of the alarming deathtrap that was a wood burning fireplace in a labyrinth of dry paper, and not getting up to come upstairs. Which of course he was.

As Cady tiptoed through the dim light, she could feel the expectant stares of books from their dusty shelves. Images materialised in her mind without her thinking of them. Useless things, like cutaway diagrams of reptile anatomy, or blocks of text about some long forgotten squabble between two inconsequential kingdoms. She weaved between the towers, almost losing her balance. The floor creaked. It was hard to focus with paragraphs on neo-classical economics being fed into her brain.

“Shut it!” she hissed as she turned left around the cooing self development section, and nearly collided with a tower of books scraping the ceiling. She squeezed between it and a shelf, and met the familiar romance section. These books didn’t whisper anything; they were probably too stupid. They just sat in ugly silence like a neglected litter box.

Cady perused the section, as if she even knew what to look for. What was it Enith had said? She wanted something specific. Cady groped around the hazy, tipsy depths of her memories and was only rewarded with Enith dragging her gnarly tongue across the cover of Some Dark Temptations and a Vampyre. Cady gagged. Bugger it, they all have the same muscle-bound ogre on the cover and she wanted to go to bed, so she shoved The Thief’s Darling by an R.J. Emmet and three others into her bag.

There was scuffing against the staircase, followed by a dejected groan. Cady shrank into a dark corner and held her breath. This was one of the worst parts about being a thief. Shuffle, klunk, shuffle, klunk. She heard a grunt of effort from somewhere beyond the stacks followed by a ragged sigh. It was the old man.

Cady found the intrusive images in her mind growing thinner, stretched, as if the attention of the books around her was being broken by a shiny new grey matter. Perhaps the one entering the room.

“A’right, a’right,” the old man said gruffly from within the maze, “I’ll read you lot soon enough.”

The scuffing and grumbling grew louder. Of course he was heading to the romance section. What was with these old fogies and that sappy rubbish? She spun her head around, looking for an escape, and noticed an empty bottom shelf to the right of her, possibly just big enough for her to fit. She lowered herself gently to the ground and squeezed herself in, not painlessly. She could hear him hobbling passed what she guessed to be the self-help section. Shuffle, klunk.

“Daily affirmations my arse,” he said gruffly, “I’m fine, thank you very much.”

The tip of a cane klunked right near Cady’s head. She held her breath. The old man muttered to himself as he ran his hand over the shelved books, he sounded somewhat disgusted. Cady gripped her bag tightly, silently cursing the parchment of sodding history for all this. Real funny.

“E…E…Emmet, where are you?” the old man grumbled.

Cady peeked at her bag and saw R.J. Emmet’s undoubtedly awful paperback poking out from it. Oh, that’s real good, thought Cady. Fantastic. Hah shitting hah.

“Where is it? You beasties been into the books, eh?” He growled and tapped the roof with the handle of his cane. “I’ll bait you little buggers, if you’re not careful. No, I don’t need to learn how to manage my feelings!” He growled to the section behind him.

This bloke is a nutter! Cady thought.

He groaned, bent down shakily and started reaching his hand into the bottom shelf opposite to Cady. She shuffled as far into hers as possible, anticipating his hairy hand.

“Jus’ let it go? These were her books. You were her books, have some respect.” He struggled with his cane for a moment before shifting his position toward Cady. He began to stretch his arm out.

Cady clenched her teeth, her heart raced as she pushed herself as far back as possible into her shelf, a novella dug into her shoulder. I hate my life! What do I do now? Why is this happening? Why me?

Then Otis pulled his hand away. Something had moved in his peripheral, like the shadows had shifted their positions and tried not to let him see. “Hm?” He said, looking around. He blinked. The air seemed thinner, emptier, and his inner voice was silent, or perhaps the other inner voices were silent, and he could actually hear himself. It wasn’t the absence of sound, but the absence of noise.

Unknown to him was the small storm billowing right next to his foot, Cady was undergoing a full mental assault of unsought information and incomprehensible visions. Dozens of excitable voices responded with a savage eagerness to her previous despairing questions, and interpreted them in a generous number of ways. Philosophers, scientists, fiction writers, all crammed in enthusiastically, eager for their ideas to be absorbed into the cosy folds of a brain.

Her mind was flooded with a slew of patronizing platitudes from the self help section, stern rules from long-dead emperors moonlighting as philosophers, and glimpses of nonsensical worlds from the speculative fiction aisle. Shut up! She screamed over the din in her skull. No more! I hate books!

At this moment, Otis waved his fingers around his head, but he didn’t feel the usual thickness in the air around it, and the dreadful voices were silent. The images in his mind were his alone, there were no brief flashes of strange worlds, no bursts of random information, no attempts to lure his attention. For the first time in a long time, his mind was empty. The density of information was being thinned and spread somehow. It was a familiar feeling he thought he had forgotten from long ago, years ago, when people used to visit this place…

Then it hit him. Someone else was in here.

“Where are ya?” He growled, “ye’ tryin’ to take our books are ya? We’re closed!” He readied his cane for a proper smack. “If ye want books ye can bugger off! No loans!”

Cady couldn’t take any more. She’d got what she wanted and now it was time to leave. As long as he didn’t see her face, she would be fine. It would all be fine. She poked her muddled head out from her hiding spot and saw the old man trudge away. She slipped out, left the aisle, and made her way toward the window. Unfortunately, she hadn’t sobered up as much as she thought.

Otis heard a stack of books collapsing along with some heavy cursing. He hobbled toward the noise with fire in his eyes.

Shuffle, klunk, shuffle, klunk. “Get off!” Cady kicked at a book that seemed to be grasping desperately to her leg whilst, at the same time, bombarding with information on the proper construction of weatherproof chicken coops.

“Oi!” The old man yelled from down the aisle, “leave that book alone!”

She turned to see him shuffling toward her.

“I’ve seen your face now!”

Cady groaned. She really needed to invest in a bandana or something.

She kicked hard, and the needy book flew off and struck a large stack in front of Otis, which came tumbling down onto his path. He growled and stepped into the darkened aisle to his right. “I got a trick up my sleeve…” he said.

Cady placed her hands on the windowsill and was about to climb over when out of the shadows…

Whack. Something hit her like a freight train and stars sparkled in her vision as she fell back against yet another tower of tomes, some scattering down the nearby staircase. She looked up and saw Otis standing with his cane ready for another swing.

“Awh! I bit me tongue, you old bastard!” She spat out some blood.

Otis flinched, the thief was just a young lady! She couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old. She was skinny as a rake. He nearly dropped his cane and had to fight hard against his instinct to apologize profusely and offer her a cup of tea. She could still be dangerous. He had been dangerous at her age, after all…

“Give me back what y’ took and I’ll let you go, a’right?” He raised his cane.

Cady stood, slipping on a paperback. “No! I need th’ money!”

“I can’t let ye’ leave with me wife’s books!” He reached across and slammed the shutter down on the window. “I’ll arrest you! A citizen’s arrest, this is!”

Cady turned right to look down the staircase. There was the front door behind some piles of books. She could make a run for it; he would never be able to catch her. “Feh,” she spat, “just try and citi-whatever arrest me, y’ dozy twonk.”

“Beg your pardon!”

Cady darted to her right and around the corner, but this proved to be an extremely poor decision as she trod right on a small pile of philosophy hidden on the second step, and her foot flew out from underneath her. She landed on her backside and tumbled down the staircase, knocking over the stacks and sending a wave of fiction and non-fiction cascading down to the bottom floor.

“No!” yelled Otis, hobbling after her.

The tidal wave of literature began a horrific chain reaction. It collided with a couple of towers in Otis’ sitting room, which, like dominos, collapsed into another and then another until…

Cady gasped.

A tower of dusty old books collapsed right into the fireplace, sending sparks shooting in all directions, like intrepid explorers keen to seek new combustibles. The pages of the books began curling as the fire spread through them. Tendrils of flame started climbing over the collapsed tower, hungry for more.

Cady winced as the images implanted in her mind shrieked violently before being burned to pieces. “Fire!” She cried out and tried to scramble up.

Otis hobbled down and gasped. “No! No! No! What are y’ doin’?!”

Fire were spreading ferociously across the room, grasping and licking at hardbacks and trade paperbacks alike.

Cady tried to run back upstairs but was halted by a sharp jab to the stomach. “Ow!”

“Oh no y’ don’t! You gotta put this out!”

“Bugger that! We’re gon’ die!”

“I don’t care!” Otis cried, aiming his cane at her again. She scurried back away, got up and slammed into the front door.

“Seriously?!” She jostled it back and forth. “Where’s the key?!”

Thick grey smoke was starting to fill the room. Towers of flame collapsed into others, spreading the fire across the ground. Otis’s chair was consumed, and he could only watch helplessly as the old photos of him and Judy were devoured by the insatiable blaze. There was no hope now.

Cady glanced to the left of the door and saw some keys on a hook. She grabbed one at random, shoved it into the padlock and twisted. It fell to the ground and she wrenched the door open and ran into the cold night.

“Hell fire!” Someone said behind her. A small tattered and hooded crowd had gathered around to watch the crooked building burn. It was probably the most interest anyone had shown in the library for a long time.

Cady fell to the cobbles and panted, clutching her bag. She watched the front door intently, waiting for the old man to hobble out. But as yet, he wasn’t hobbling, he was just standing there watching the flames creep closer.

“’Ey, there’s some bloke in there!” Someone said, making no move to do anything about it.

Cady watched Otis fall to his knees, reach over and close the door. You could just leave, the criminal part of her thought, you just got away with it. No real witnesses, eh?

She shook her head. Now wasn’t the time to be a criminal, now was the time to be… something else. “Stupid ol’ man,” she said.

Cady ran to the front door and kicked it in. Otis was lying near the inferno, he was just going to let himself die. Cady grabbed his arm and started pulling. “Ge’ up! Come on!”

“Just leave me!” He growled from the floor.

The smoke was growing thick, billowing around like angry storm clouds.

He just wants to lie there, just let him! her mind said.

“No!” She looped her arms under his and pulled with all her strength, which wasn’t much. She strained as she dragged him over the threshold and into the street. Of course no one came to help. She dropped him onto the cobbles a good distance away and collapsed next to him, panting heavily.

The fire had begun to creep up the stairs, and seemed happy to be finally left alone to do what it knew it was always meant to do.

Cady sat herself up, grinning and buzzing. “Woah! That were mad!” The building crackled and sparked, and there was the sound of glass shattering somewhere within. Some heavyset bloke from one of the adjacent apartment buildings lazily threw and bucket of water onto the flames and lumbered off to presumably get some more.

Cady looked in her bag, the books were still there. The hags would pay extra for all these, then she could pay off Hobie and possibly have enough to finally move away. “I’ll, er, pay you back for all this,” she said.

“No, you won’t,” Otis sighed, staring into the sky. “You ruined everything, damned thief.” The smoke was rising into the starry night, obscuring the the jagged letters of the parchment. He reckoned that somewhere in the centre of the planet, History itself was probably sitting back and smiling under its beard, satisfied that the long set up of Otis’s miserable life had finally nailed its wretched punchline.

Cady went red with shame, embarrassment and a few other associated emotions. “I didn’t mean it. And I did save your life, I didn’t have to do that. And–and you shouldn’t have had all your books near a fireplace. That were daft.”

He looked at her with watery, enraged eyes. “I told ye’ to leave me behind.”

Cady frowned. Her parents had never taught her to be good, or anything at all really, before they up and died. She just thought she’d pick it up as she went along, and looking at the result of tonight, she wasn’t doing too badly. She stood up, adjusted her bag and wiped soot off her nose. “Well, y’know, I can tell when I’m not wanted.” She spun around and began walking away.

“You gonna give them back?” Otis growled from his spot.

Cady looked at the books in her bag and did some quick moral mathematics. “No, I need them. They’re just lovey-dovey books anyway, they’re terrible.”

Otis sat himself up and turned to face Cady. With the burning building behind him he looked practically hellish. There was darkness in his eyes. It was an image Cady wouldn’t soon forget.

And then he said, “I’ll get y’ for this. You’ve been marked, child.”

At that moment Cady Nine-Lives believed him. A shiver ran up her spine and she darted away into the night.

* * *

Hours later the polite, mild sun rose gradually over the twisted towers and crumbling rooftops of Wadlock, as if it wasn’t sure whether everyone was ready to deal with the day’s events. Eventually, a dim, fresh light crept through the muddy lanes, apologising profusely for its photons as it passed the boarded up shops and greasy alleyways that made up most of the town.

On the far west of Wadlock, on Viccav-shiv lane, where little ones were afraid to throw their frisbees lest they land in a front yard belonging to a witch, there stood a bleak, gloomy looking manor. It stretched tall and thin conspicuously between more regular run-down looking houses. If some terrible incident were to occur there, there would be little chance anyone could be quoted as saying ‘I am in utter shock, the house looked absolutely normal to me’.

Inside sat Enith glaring at the grandfather clock, tapping a long, red fingernail on the arm of her chair. Her sisters were chatting idly over tea, apparently unconcerned that Gladys deemed The Sacred Sage Circle being for Alchemystics and The Followers of the Triumphant Boremetic Path to be of lesser importance than her own frivolous leisures. She jabbed her fork into a lemon slice, imagining it to carry some mystic link to Glady’s meagre lifeline.

Enith looked at the clock. “We should move to the assembly room to prepare for the visit from our little thief, although it is quite irregular to assemble a group of four and not five because… Hilda?”

Hilda dabbed her lips with a serviette and cleared her throat. “Uh, it’s the number of… um, something to do with sulfur, right? No, maybe something to do with… slolification of sivinium… stibium,” she finished lamely.

“You can’t just make up alchemical sounding words, Hildy,” said Hattie. “I’m sure there’s some sort of rule against it. Do we have rules?”

“I’ll tell ya what it is,” said Dolores, “it’s the number o’ times I’ve had a decent shag over the past twenty years.”

More inappropriate cackling filled the tea room, the senseless babbling of the weak-willed child. “Enough,” said Enith. They fell silent. “You would know if you’d done the homework I gave you, Hilda, that five is the–”

There was a distant bang, followed by some hurried shuffling down a long hallway with some light cursing. Gladys burst through the doorway, whipping her shawl off and fanning herself. “Oh, it’s awful!” she groaned, “terrible!”

“Oh, what is it, love? Come sit down,” said Hattie, pouring a brew. Gladys plopped herself down on the couch, still fanning herself. Her sisters doted on her, clucking and cooing.

Enith gave a loud “Feh!” She loathed the idea that her identical sisters went around behaving so guilelessly wearing her visage.

“Such terror! Such woeful horrors!” She wailed. “I feel faint, one of you must promise to catch me if I do fall.”

“Spit it out, woman! We know you’re enjoyin’ yourself!” Squawked Dolores.

“This is serious, Dolly,” said Gladys, “Oh, I am in a dither, I can’t not rightly concentrate my thoughts!”

“Get on with it, Gladys,” said Enith, sternly.

“It’s the library!” Gladys threw up her hands. “Destroyed by fire in the night! There’s nothing left!”

Someone spilled tea onto a good doily, others gasped and whispered amongst themselves, then all eyes turned to Enith, seeking confirmation to a statement she herself had only just heard. Typical.

“By thaumaturgical forces?” said Enith. “Did you taste magic in the vicinity? Was there a sense of wizardry afoot?”

Gladys looked blank. “Er, just a normal fire I think.”

“Were there any corpses in the vicinity?”

Gladys was taken aback. “Well, I didn’t check! It were still burning a bit when I got there. It looked disastrous, I don’t think anyone might have survived.”

There was a stillness in the room. Everyone sat in grim silence. The warm tea went cold and the cucumber sandwiches, limp and soggy.

“But what of Troy?” Squeaked Hattie, “he still requires more lidi-lidimino–”

“Libidonimos Vitae, yes,” said Enith. “Worry not, we will continue undeterred. Have faith in our art.”

The sisters glanced at one another. No one was quite keen to speak up, especially when Enith used the F word.

“But, Enith”, said Dolores without her usual gusto, “what chance do we have now? There isn’t another library for miles, and Troy may not… keep that long. We’ve buggered it.”

Hattie gave a muffled sob from within a slice of cheesecake.

“It’s hopeless,” Gladys wailed. “What are we to do now?”

“What about our thief?” said Hilda. “What if the poor dear was caught in the blaze?”

“Oh, the poor bairn,” said Dolores glumly, “she were a guttersnipe an’ all, but she were a’right.”

Hattie began sobbing with a mouth full of cheesecake, but it didn’t stop her loading another mouthful in.

“This isn’t what I wanted out of our little meetups,” said Gladys, “not at all.”

Enith stood and straightened her dress. “Pull yourselves together, you are alchemists for goodness’s sake. There are no failures in this art, Dolores. No lost causes. No need for childish outbursts of woeful passion, Hattie. There are only lessons, and we must pay attention to these lessons and adapt.”

“But… ” Gladys said quietly, “I don’t see–”

“Our art is the world we live in, we derive our power from it and all it’s gifts. We cannot recoil from it’s nuances, from it’s complicated array of causes and effects, it does not owe us order, but we owe it everything.” Enith cast an eye over her sisters. “Look at yourselves, rattled by the mere mention of fire, one of our most essential elements, to which we are greatly indebted.”

“Enith,” Gladys said, “we all… appreciate how much you enjoy alchemy, but–”

“I find, Gladys, that if one takes a deep breath in challenging moments, one will find the resolution–”

Ding-Dong.

Enith glanced at the grandfather clock and pulled a satisfied smile.

“…will present itself in due time.”

Cady, in the meantime, couldn’t get the terrifying image of the old man out of her head. He seemed so serious. “Somethin’ happened, I need double- no. Bad stuff happened! Hand over the money or I’ll–”

The door opened,

“–smack ya.”

“Like to see you try, love” One of the crones said, standing in the murky darkness. Cady’s eyes adjusted to see that she actually had a smile on her face. “Wasn’t sure you were gonna show up what with what happened downtown.” Her eye fell to Cady’s satchel.

Cady wasn’t sure which one this was, but suspected it was the one who cracked wise every so often, to the displeasure of Enith. So, the best of a bad bunch, really.

“Right,” Cady mumbled.

Dolores held the door open. “Right. Gee up, they’re waitin’ for you.”

Cady made her usual way through the pungent, perpetually shadowy rooms, still formulating the best way to approach the situation. She had ruled out flattery as her imagination wasn’t that good.

She creaked open the assembly room door, which, through impressive dominion over the concept of gloom, managed to inspire even more misery than the previous hallway, which was lined with a concerning number of paintings depicting dissection. Dolores marched passed Cady and took her place amongst the others.

There was an agitated feeling in the atmosphere, with jiggling legs and twiddling thumbs, but Enith managed to radiate her usual air of solemnity and moderate disgust. At least she was reliable.

“Have you brought what was asked?” Her voice cut through the dusty air.

“Yes, I have. But I–”

“Present them for inspection.”

Cady walked forward obediently and left her assertive claim to a greater sum of money drifting in the air behind her. She lined out three hunky paperbacks on the bench grasping the last one behind her.

“Four makes a stack of books, you are aware? There are only three here.”

Cady gripped The Thief’s Darling behind her. “I have the fourth with me, but you can’t have it.” She swallowed, it was now or never, “I want double for all this, no, double and a bit.”

Enith placed her hands on the table, with her hood on she looked like a raven with a preference for a deep red talon polish. “You will be paid what you are owed, and we, meaning I, decide what you are owed.”

“Yeah, well, that’s all you’re gettin’ isn’t it? The library burned up last night. I barely got outta there alive.”

The sisters glanced at one another.

“You were there?” One said sweetly. “That must have been terrible, dear.”

Cady cursed her big mouth. “Well, yeah, it were awful an’ all, I mean, it wasn’t me who did it or anything. The old bloke was smoking in bed, probably.”

The crone nodded. “Of course, dear. Did you happen to see where this old fellow–”

“Irrelevant gossip,” Enith glared at the others. “There will be no further questions about the library. It is done.”

Cady gave a sigh of relief, “Yes, bygones and all that. Now–”

“Now,” Edith raised a hand, “considering the circumstances, a greater sum of payment would be appropriate, but preceding events must be taken into consideration…” She leaned further forward. “You provided us with a useless specimen.” She held up Some Dark Temptations and a Vampyre and threw it to the ground disdainfully. “A specimen deprived of it’s essence through your own fervent usage.”

The other sisters nodded meekly, some looked away, apparently concerned with the functions of the wall-mounted gas lamps.

“Fervent what? I didn’t even look at the sodding–”

“We have decided,” she interrupted, tapping a talon on the bench, “that you will be paid nothing. Consider this a helpful donation to repent for your dishonesty.”

Cady’s mouth fell open.

The sisters shifted in their seats, some glanced apologetic looks at Cady, others ignored her entirely and fiddled with doilies.

“Oh give over, Enith,” said Dolores quietly, “nothin’ is a little much, don’t you–” She was silenced with a glare that could halt a continental drift.

“You–I–I need money to get out of this town; I don’t have a normal job. And didn’t even read that disgustin’ book!” She pointed at the paperback sprawled sadly on the carpet.

“Liar,” rasped Enith. “You should be grateful you’re being punished this lightly.” She sneered, “am I right in supposing that’s not a novel concerning an alchemist with intense sexual desires falling for a handsome rebel spurning the essential teachings of High Mystic-Magister Bizilitius Beremorth you’re holding?” She held out her hand. “Come. We’ll take it anyway.”

Cady went bright red. She never asked for much out of life, just what was owed her for a job done. Sure, she wasn’t always honest, but she felt like the world could get by with a bit of dishonesty here and there, as long as decency to one’s fellow person outweighed it. “I didn’t do anything,” she growled, “I was lying when I said I flicked through that daft book.”

“Yes, I am well aware you are a liar,” Enith said.

Cady frowned. She also held, dear to her heart, the idea that one should always allocate a small fraction of their lot toward screwing anyone trying to take all of it. So she shuffled forward sadly, and with a convincing mucusy sniff, a wipe of the nose, a spit in the hand and the flick of a wrist, she smeared a loogie that would make the saltiest stevedore proud down the middle of page seventy-six and squeezed the book shut. It was all she had, but she felt better for it.

“Here,” she grumbled petulantly and placed the book in Edith’s hand, which curled around it like a flytrap.

“We have everything we require of you. Consider this the termination of your employment. Now get out.”

A few moments later Cady was thrust into a heavy, grey deluge of rain. Such was the weather in Wadlock, always ready at the worst possible time.

Gladys had escorted her the way out to be sure she wouldn’t steal anything, but Cady managed to nick a dumb little music box.

She turned to face Gladys, standing in the doorway. She looked somewhat remorseful, but the look didn’t suit her face. “This is unfair, it is!” Cady yelled through the torrent. “I never did nothin’ to you lot, and what was all that about essence?”

Gladys shifted uncomfortably and seemed to be having difficulty maintaining eye contact. “Chin up, now,” she said loudly. “You’re a resourceful young woman, I am sure you will have no trouble finding legitimate employment.”

Cady spun around in the rain, arms outstretched, “Oh, yeah, a posh place like this, I can be anythin’ I want! I could be the bloke what eats raw pigeons down Blushing street, I could be a murder victim, or maybe an ugly old witch, like you!”

“It’s not witchcraft.”

“What?” Cady yelled.

Gladys looked panicked. “I didn’t say anything!”

“You said, it’s not witchcraft.”

Gladys turned her nose up, as if it somehow made the following lie more convincing, “No,” she said, flicking her eyes around, “I said you’ll need a life raft…”

There was a pause.

“Some weather,” muttered Gladys.

Cady narrowed her eyes. “What are you lot doing in there?”

“Reading! Now chivvy along, guttersnipe!” She slammed the old door shut and Cady heard a complex system of locks click, slide and fall into place.

“Fine!” Cady yelled at the house, “I can make it on my own. I’m going to… hit the road and make it big! You’ll see!”

The house didn’t respond.

“Get an interior designer!” She flipped the house off and stomped away.

“Still got nine lives.” She pulled her hood up and held her old rat skull, dangling around her neck, or, she would have, if it was there. A string of swears echoed off the buildings and Cady aimed a kick at a nearby bin. A large, living rat scurried away indignantly.

Dull thunder rolled through the bleak clouds above, it sounded a lot like her stomach.

“I hate this place.”

* * *

Someone did have Cady’s ghastly trinket, and was mourning the breakdown of societal values while gazing at it, at an arm’s length. Back in the old days, if you stomped a rat you would do the proper thing and throw it into a gutter or perhaps cook it up if times were tough, not fashion some macabre curio out of it and then burn down someone’s home and business. In the old days miscreants had virtues.

But it did provide Otis with a clue, a means to track her down. The rusty gears of a former life were shifting into motion, the hazy days before the library, when he was young. He tightened his fingers around the necklace.

He had been taking cover from the sudden downpour under the stoop of a boarded up apartment building. The pocked face of a haggard man peered up at him from some shifting blankets in the corner, and wheezing derelicts passed by in the rain, shielding themselves with their tattered coats.

Otis remembered when Wadlock used to be alive. Crooked yet mysterious, respectable but devious, romantically villainous. Class distinctions were clear, the thieves knew who was right to rob, and the assassin’s targeted only those who deserved it. He looked up at the once beautiful buildings and remembered bounding across the moonlit sky, reading poetry with Judy on the rooftops in those carefree days. Days of death, love and literature.

Eventually Otis came across an old pub that would have been nice back in the days in question, when people told people that they were about to smack them in the jaw before they did it. Back then, pubs were always where you went for more practical knowledge, so he took a deep breath, put on his old scowl, and entered The Uptight Hog.

He hobbled through the door, the bell rang, and he was met with some unpleasant glances from within dusty hoods. He noted the distinct lack of fighting. When did everyone get so lazy?

“Feh,” he said.

He nonchalantly approached the bar, but he found it hard nowadays with his hip the way it was.

The manager examined him with heavily lined eyes. “What can I get ya?”

Otis tried to match the intensity of the bartender’s squint and said: “information.”

“Hmm,” Hobie said, “don’t usually do cocktails.”

“What?” Otis said. “No, information as in facts, not a bloody… cocktail?”

“I got beer.”

“Are you daft? Facts, as in information on concepts, circumstances. A place, perhaps. Things or people…”

Hobie stared.

“…could also mean knowledge gained through extensive study,” Otis grumbled, at a loss.

Hobie shrugged and grabbed an unlabeled bottle. “Fine, one information comin’ up. Stirred?”

This barman was a joke. Any publican worth his salt knew how to properly address “information”, you looked to the left and right and then quietly said something along the lines of “s’not cheap.”

Otis scowled and held up the thief’s grotesque necklace. “I wanna know who owns this.”

Hobie put the bottle down and leaned back, arms crossed. He regarded the object for a moment. “Right. And what you be wanting this particular person for?”

“Better,” said Otis. “She burned down my library.”

The barman raised an eyebrow, “Sorry to hear that.” But there was no hint of pity in his gravelly voice. “This person you’re after, I’m guessing’ you aren’t wanting to give them a hug, right?”

“Right.”

“And how much did your library mean to ya?”

“It was all I had left,” Otis growled.

Hobie scratched his chin and smiled. “Then I suppose you got nowt you can offer me.”

Old memories surfaced. Otis had been in this situation before, many times, in his penniless younger days. In his former profession there was always something that could be worked out, all you had to do was offer the sign, so everyone was on the same page. It took a few tries, but Otis’ knobbly hand managed to recreate the complicated gesture. He looked at Hobie knowingly.

There was a pause.

“What was that all about?”

Otis reeled. “That was the sign.”

“What sign?”

The sign!”

Hobie sighed and picked the bottle up. “Look, y’ old coffin dodger, do you want your information stirred or not? I don’t wanna know about you, and ye’ problems, just–”

Otis slammed his fist on the table. “I’m an assassin, you fool! I jus’ offered t’ kill someone for you in exchange for information. How useless can you be?! Do you even know how to pour a schooner? You absolute pillock.”

Hobie leaned forward. “Alright, you senile ol’ goat, get out before I hurt you.” He clicked his fingers and gestured to someone.

There was heavy trudging behind Otis and the scraping chairs of onlookers getting out of the way.

“No courtesy,” growled Otis, “no bloody idea.”

The air thickened behind him, there was a low growl and what sounded like a lot of air being pushed out of a gorilla’s flared nostrils.

“Take ‘im out the back, Klobb.”

A giant hand fell on Otis’ shoulder, and all of a sudden time seemed to slow down.

There was a movement, the flash of a cane, the sound of someone beating a bag of wet clay, some pained grunts, and what looked like a great ape stumbling backwards before slowly toppling over and flattening a small table.

Hobie, for once, was speechless, but still managed some confused gibbering.

“Cheers then, Hobie,” someone said as they hurried out.

Otis’s heart and head were racing; luckily his body took over for him. He placed his hand of the handle of his cane and twisted, it gave a click, and he produced a fine looking thin blade. He had almost forgotten it was in there. It was currently pointed at Hobie’s neck.

“Now, ye’ gonna tell me what I want t’ know.”

“A’right, a’right! Just put down the shank!”

Otis didn’t.

“Fine, fine,” Hobie grumbled. “I suppose you’ll want to know where y’ arsonist was taking the books, right?”

* * *

Meanwhile, the arsonist in question was poking feverishly around the ashes of the library, which had completely caved in on itself. The rain had reduced to some light drizzling, and here and there wisps of steam rose from the wreckage.

There were faint whispers from below her boots, little pockets of information like trapped survivors calling out. Her scavenging was being softly criticized from somewhere under some collapsed beams for not being mindful enough.

There was nothing. She couldn’t find her necklace, nor any money. Either it was buried somewhere underneath all this wreckage, or the old man had it. But did that matter? It’s not like he could track her down with her old rat skull. Could he? The memory of his darkened eyes and murderous voice resurfaced. She shuddered. There was certainly something off about him.

“Found anything good?” Said an old woman up to her ankles in scorched books.

“No,” said Cady. “Oi, you seen an old necklace in here? It’s got a, uh rat head attached to it.”

The old woman wiped her forehead, leaving a grey streak across it. “Noooo,” she said innocently, “is it, uh, worth anything?”

“Noooo,” mocked Cady. The old woman gave her a suspicious look and went back to scrounging amongst the detritus.

Cady kicked a piece of burned wood across what was once the sitting room and a bit of an upstairs area. This was pointless, so what if she found her necklace? She didn’t have any money, she didn’t have any food. Nothing.

And it’s not as if she was scared of the old man, just… whatever was a step down from scared. Frightened sounded worse.

She looked at the old woman trying to break open a melted tin box by smashing it with a lamp. That wasn’t going to be her, she decided. She was going to get out of Wadlock for good, she just needed to steal some money. Luckily, she happened to know a creepy old house probably stuffed with all the money in town, and it had a good looking drainpipe.

Tonight, she decided.

* * *

The sisters stood together gazing at Troy floating weightlessly in his tank. Luscious, golden hair swirled around his head giving him the appearance of a bodybuilding angel. The knitting of the flesh had completed, and the result was… noticeable.

There had been a round of compliments and comments of admiration as to how it all turned out, mostly in regards to areas above the belt, with everyone, apart from Dolores, barely managing to overlook the elephant in the room.

“Is he going be able to… sit down with that?” Hilda said, after an arduous few moments of averted eyes and throat clearing. Everyone had said as much as possible about his nice ears.

“Maybe we should reduce it just a little, for practicality’s sake,” suggested Gladys, who was still woozy from the momentary lapse of consciousness she had experienced upon witnessing so much of Troy.

“I can think of a few practical reasons for ‘im as he is,” said Dolores. She began hooting loudly and pressed herself against the vat, sending the other sisters into fits of laughter.

Enith slapped Dolores off the glass and pushed her away. “Off! Off! If you’re not going to be helpful, then get out. There’s still much to be done and I don’t need your obscene antics breaking my concentration, or my equipment.”

She went back to inspecting the balneum enitheas, one of which was slowly administering concerntrated libidonimus vita extracted from the pages of The Thief’s Darling, which was, unbeknownst to them, congealing with a considerable amount of throat phlegm from a certain disgruntled, teenage thief.

“Oh, come now, Enith,” said Gladys, “the decoction of these texts went oh-so well, I think a little brevity is in order.”

The sisters nodded. Troy flicked his unfocused eyes over each one of them and mouthed something no one could hear.

“You’re damned right,” huffed Dolores, her face reddened. “You’ve been a right cow of late, Enith. But you can make it up to me by lettin’ me have a roll with ‘im.”

A black cape swooped across the room and descended on Dolores like a raven on a mouse. The women scurried back into the corner.

“You,” Enith hissed, pointing a gnarled finger in Dolores’s face, “will never touch him.” Enith swept away and resumed working in silence.

Troy’s eyes were looking toward the sisters, still huddled in the corner.

Enith rarely snapped like that. Her annoyance was usually expressed in a stern yet cutting word, a careful allocation of disapproval aimed at nudging the world back to how she needed it. This was something new. And although there was no way of the sisters knowing this, the exact same realisation materialised in their heads at precisely the same time: Enith wasn’t coping well, that’s what all this Troy stuff was about.

“Enith, love,” said Hattie, “are you–”

“Why don’t you put on some tea?” Said Enith from somewhere behind Troy, who was still gazing at the sisters.

“Yep, good idea.”

“Lovely.”

“Do we want some sandwiches? I’ll do up some sandwiches.”

Shuffle, shuffle, bang. The door closed. Enith straightened her robe and took a deep breath. She shouldn’t have gone off like that, it wasn’t fitting to the standards of her art.

She walked slowly around the vat. Regardless, everything was perfect. Tonight Troy would awaken and perhaps, if he felt up to it, they could take that moonlight stroll Enith had been planning for months. Troy’s fingers twitched and he began to sway his legs back and forth. Signs of life.

* * *

This was it. 34 Viccav-shiv lane, a miserable place even by Wadlock standards. There seemed to be a misty haze of darkness permeating from the fallen homes, and the only pedestrians Otis had seen so far were rather bigger-than-usual rats with glowing red eyes and greenish cockroaches, probably morphed and mutated by the crusted dregs of mystical sludge pooling in the gutters.

It wasn’t surprising. Viccav-shiv lane was where all the arcanists, witches, alchemists and general ne’er-do-wells of the enchanting sort used to conspire together. But they had all either moved away, vanished inexplicably, or been murdered in creative ways by concerned townsfolk, or each other. Although apparently there was a few hold outs. Remnants from the old days. What could they possibly want with Judy’s books?

It took him a moment, but Otis had managed to crouch behind a barrel discarded on the side of the road. The dusty purple curtains of the house were drawn and there were no signs of life, but there was the feeling of life emanating from it, just not life in the good, wholesome sense.

He waited. He was good at waiting. The sun was setting over the spired houses, casting murky shadows across the lane. Behind him he heard an agonised shriek, a crunch, and then the pitter patter of rat feet. Soon Wadlock would belong to the rats. Or maybe it already does, he thought grimly.

Now there was a different sort of pitter patter.

From a different sort of rat.

Otis tightened his grip on the handle of his cane. He couldn’t believe she actually showed up. Perhaps he hadn’t reached the punchline of his life just let.

The thief was glancing around suspiciously, keeping well away from the windows of the house. She crept over to the old drainage pipe running down the side of it and gave it a tug.

It was now or never. But Otis found himself unable to move. Was he really going to take out this young lady? It seemed a little extreme. And perhaps he was too old for youthful fancies like getting into bar fights, crouching behind barrels, and murdering. Maybe his midlife crisis was getting a second wind…

The thief starting hoisting herself up the drain pipe. He shook himself out of it. No! This was how things had always worked here, you maliciously ruin someone’s life, you pay in blood. The rules still mattered!

He tried to stand, but old age, who always had impeccable timing, struck him with a claw hammer. He grasped his lower back and collapsed into his barrel. A startled rat leapt out from it and crawled over him to escape.

Old age is a humiliating and punishing experience, and Otis would recommend everyone stay away from it as long as possible.

Meanwhile Cady swore she saw the barrel on the other side of the street rock back and forth and hiss some swear words that might have been offensive thirty years ago. None of which was an unusual occurrence in this part of town, but she still didn’t like the idea of a witness, even if they were made of wood. She hurried up the drain pipe and climbed toward a second storey window. She pulled it up. It was open.

Otis got up in time to see the thief climbing through the window. He stood himself up slowly, anticipating another whack with the hammer of time. It seemed he would have little chance breaking in via acrobatics. He grumbled and looked at the front door.

Otis would have to charm his way in.

* * *

Three pairs of eyes peeked through a small crack in a doorway.

“What’s happenin’? I can’t see!” said someone in the corridor.

“Shut it,” hissed Dolores, staring at Troy.

He was mouthing something at Enith, who was walking around his vat, checking and re-checking the equipment.

He raised his hand and pushed against the glass. Something was forming in the soft, gooey folds of his brain, a sort of white, hot thing. It was indescribable, mostly because he was yet to describe anything in his short life. It felt like burning, it felt awful, but proper and justified. The more he looked at this woman, fiddling and adjusting things, the more he felt this acid rising. She had hurt… something. Someone…

“He looks a little upset,” said Gladys.

“A dish like that isn’t supposed to be stuck down in these dingy cellars; that’s why I don’t come down,” said Dolores.

“I can’t see!”

Enith started striding toward them, her jaw clenched tight.

“Oi, back up, she’s comin’!”

The heavy door swung open and the sisters fell back against the wall. Cucumber sandwiches fell to the floor. Enith looked at them all for a moment.

“It’s nearly time. I will gather his clothing.”

Dolores held back a cheeky comment on how he wouldn’t be needing it anytime soon.

Enith seemed to be expecting it. “Hm. Do not touch anything in there, even if he asks you to.”

Dolores was practically biting her tongue off.

Enith’s eyes pierced into Dolores’s. “Don’t ruin this for us,” she said sternly.

She then swept past them and headed up the stairs, her robe billowing behind her. The sisters watched her leave through the door and immediately crammed their way into the chamber.

“Move! Get out–”

“Me first! He likes me the most–ow!”

“Shut it, old bag. I’m the eldest!”

Troy’s eyes widened. There was more of them! He pushed on the glass again as they piled into his chamber.

“Did you hear that?” Dolores said, dusting herself off. “She don’t trust me with him. What’s her problem?”

“Well,” said Gladys, “perhaps if you took this all a little more…”

The sisters glanced at one another and then averted their eyes. Gladys was definitely on her own with this line of dialogue.

“…seriously?”

Dolores rounded on Gladys and puffed up her significant bosom. “Seriously?!” She bellowed, “I’ve put that many hours into this project, it’s no one’s business! I was burnin’ holes in the floor with universal solvents while our Enith was still studyin’ the Solar Splendorific at mum’s tits!”

Gladys shrunk into her robes and gave a series of squeaks.

“We owe her a lot,” said Hattie meekly from the corner.

“What, all the money? Oh, she just loves rulin’ that over us, she does. I could have transmuted lead eventually, I was busy trying to have a life!”

Dolores huffed and puffed, glaring at her simpering sisters. “If only there was a panacea for your weak spines.”

They continued to stand there in silence, heads down.

“Bugger this for a lark.” She strode over to the door and threw the locking bolt.

“What are you doing, Dolores?” Said Hilda.

Dolores ignored her and marched to Troy’s vat. He stared at her with with his mouth open. “He’s just as much mine as hers.”

“Don’t do anything,” said Gladys. “Enith said not to touch!”

Dolores twisted the drainage lever on Troy’s vat. There was a hiss and a heavy glugging as the nutrient rich substance started draining through the opened grating at the bottom of the vat. Troy gasped and coughed as his head surfaced. He started twisting and pulling the tubes from his glistening skin.

Meanwhile, the other sisters were panicking.

“Dolores! No!”

“Badbadbadbadbad!”

“Oh, no! Oh my, no!”

Troy fell to his knees as strange liquids of different colours, including red, oozed from the holes in his skin where the tubes had been.

“Dolores! His humours are leakin’! His humours are leakin’!” Hattie cried, bouncing up and down.

“He’ll be fine, he’s got enough,” Dolores growled over her shoulder. “Enith is the one who could do with some bloody humours, I reckon.”

She moved closer.

Troy raised his head, his wet blonde hair hanging limp over his elegant face. Blue didn’t do the colour justice, blue was too common. His eyes were most certainly azure.

“Where is my love?” He said in a silky, deep voice that could make a great romantic epic out of a dish washer manual.

“I’m right here, me lover boy,” said Dolores, winking and hastily applying red lipstick.

“You,” Troy said, placing his hand on the glass.

Dolores leaned closer and quickly adjusted her bust.

Troy’s face twisted with a handsome rage.

“–are not my thief.”

* * *

Just a few moments earlier the thief in question was peeking under a dusty four poster bed for hidden treasures.

She had opened several empty jewelry boxes and rummaged through an oversized walk-in wardrobe. Most of the clothes looked like they hadn’t been worn in decades. There were ball gowns, dresses for every day of the week, and even what looked like a huge, hideous wedding monstrosity. Frilly didn’t do it justice. Actually, it was hard to believe in justice when a small village’s worth of decent material can go into the construction of such woeful abominations.

But where was all the stealable stuff? The money in little boxes. Old people always hid money away, from governments and the like. Not that Wadlock had any of those.

Her eyes fell on a mannequin standing in a corner next to a velvet chair. It was wearing a sort of gilded, puffy doublet with a purple velvet undershirt. It had some very tight pants, and some shiny black shoes on. It also carried a small pointy sword, with a wildly ostentatious hilt.

That might be worth something to some idiot, Cady thought. She began to unhook the sword when her ears pricked up.

Someone was coming. It must be her.

Cady dashed into the walk in wardrobe and nestled herself in the dusty jungle of chiffon and satin.

Enith entered her bedroom, the door squeaked loudly.

“Perfect,” Cady heard her say.

She could hear Enith unbuttoning and unstrapping the clothing from the mannequin, and was even humming to herself. Cady couldn’t believe her ears.

But then…

Bang-bang-bang-bang.

“Hm,” Enith said. She finished gathering the clothes and sword and walked back out into the hall.

Cady crept from her hiding spot and followed behind. She poked her head out of the door and peered from the second storey landing. Enith descended the staircase, approached the front door, and opened it slightly. Cady couldn’t quite see who the visitor was.

“Yes?” Said Enith.

There was a muffled voice.

“Ah, I see.”

More muffled voice. Cady swore she could recognise it from somewhere. It had a sort of low continuous sound to it, like the speaker didn’t quite close their mouth between words.

“Quite concerning indeed. However, I am busy at the moment, you’ll have to come back another time.” Enith began to close the door.

More muffled voice, with an edge of slyness to it.

“Yes, I am sure, thank you. And even if I wasn’t busy, I still would have no time to speak to you, now good–”

There was a thunderous crash deep below the house.

Enith turned her head toward the noise and glowered. “–day”, she finished. She swung the door hard behind her and strode off towards the basement stairs. Only Cady noticed a somewhat familiar stick had wedged itself the bottom of the doorframe.

The librarian pushed the door open and stood silhouetted in the hazy light. Cady gasped and pulled her head back. What was he doing here?

She peeked out again, and noticed the gleam of rodent skull hanging from his clenched fist. “Shit,” she hissed.

The old man twisted the key left in the front door with a click, a series of locks and slides shifted into place. He then took the key and glanced up at the landing.

Cady pulled the door. Squeak. She froze, surely he hadn’t heard that. There was an agonizing moment of silence. And then…

Shuffle, clunk. Shuffle, clunk. Cady wished she had nicked that stupid looking sword. Or at least carried some sort of dagger. Maybe she wasn’t a very good criminal.

Shuffle, clunk.

It was getting closer.

Cady was frozen, crouched against the door. She couldn’t seem to make her legs move, she couldn’t seem to breathe.

Shuffle, clunk. Shuffle, clunk. Silence.

“I know you’re there, thief.”

The door flew open, and Cady tumbled forward. She looked up at the man. He twisted his cane, and Cady saw the unmistakable flash of a dagger.

“This is for Judy!” He yelled as he brought it down.

Cady rolled to the side and scrambled up, backing into the bedroom. “What’s your problem?!”

Otis’ eyes blazed with fury, his wrinkled face twisted in that same expression Cady saw that horrible night.

He was no longer Otis the librarian.

He was Otis the Knife.

“You,” he answered.

* * *

“Get ‘im off me!” Someone cried from beyond the heavy door. Enith shoved against it.

“Dolores!” She yelled. “Open this door right now!”

The door rattled on its hinges as something heavy slammed into it.

“Hattie, hit ‘im on the ‘ead!”

“Don’t you dare!” Cried Enith.

“Witches! Foul hags!”

“It’s not–” thud, “witch–” smack, “craft!”

Crash, smash. And then there was the sound of things toppling off the shelves. Expensive things.

“Hilda!” Dolores shrieked, “hand me that!”

Enith glanced down to see some mixture of solutions pooling from underneath the door. The smell suggested libidonimos vitae mixed with… black bile. His humours were leaking.

Enith stepped back and put her hand into the deep recesses of her robe, she produced a small bottle, pulled off the stopper and flicked the contents onto the wood. There was a loud angry hissing as the door bubbled and melted. Putrid smoke started bursting forth, filling the corridor, but Enith’s lungs were impervious. There was coughing and spluttering from within.

“What in blazes is–ow!”

“Unhand me! Vile sorceress!”

Enith stuck her hand through the remains of the door and unhooked the latch. She wrenched it open and stepped through the thick haze.

“Stop this madness at once!” Her sharp voice rang out through the chaos. Everyone froze, and all eyes were on Enith, standing menacingly in the smoky doorway. She had a look on her face that could make an earthquake apologize.

Dolores stood with one hand around Troy’s throat and the other raised in a fist. Hattie, Hilda, and Gladys were plastered to the walls, hitching their robes up out of the various liquids. Hilda was holding a pestle, ready to pitch it at anyone. She then saw the look on Enith’s face and settled it nicely back onto a table.

Enith strode over the massive shards of the broken vat and pushed Dolores aside. She stood the bewildered and furious Troy up and inspected the damage. He winced and turned away from her in disgust, but found himself unable to resist.

Enith took his bleeding hand. He had obviously used it to punch through the vat. Strong indeed. It would need to be bandaged.

“Unhand my–my hand,” he said weakly, avoiding her gaze, “you wicked, vile–”

“Quiet now,” said Enith, inspecting the leaking wounds on his body. He would need to have his humours re-balanced.

“Somethin’s wrong with him, Enith,” puffed Dolores. “He keeps talkin’ about the thief–”

Troys head flicked up.

“–saying he’s in love with her, an’ all. And he just attacked me!”

Enith took Troy’s head in her hands and inspected his bloodied, bruised eyes, he tried to pull away. “Look at me,” Enith commanded. He looked at her. “What’s all this about a thief, hm?”

“I love the thief; she is my Darling beloved.”

“And what would be this thief’s name?” She said clearly.

Troy’s face slackened as he searched his mind for the answer. “She…she is my… thief. You wronged her,” he stuttered. “She was owed… something. You hideous monster.” He stood still with his arms at his side, glistening, bruised, confused and more pathetic than valiant.

Enith sighed and rubbed her eyes. Monster. Her perfect gentlemen thought she was a hideous monster. She searched her knowledge for a possible reason this could be happening. Why had that particular R.J. Emmett novel imprinted it’s specific aspects onto him, when all others had only imprinted their general nature? And how did he know about the meeting with the thief this morning? Had Enith missed something?

“I was being fair,” she whispered to him. He didn’t respond and just gazed at her blankly.

“Enith?” Hattie said.

No, but it wasn’t her idea, was it? What was it Enith had suggested first? Oh yes, draining her blood for the purpose of an arcane project. It seemed like the right kind of punishment at the time, the normal kind for a follower of the path, but now it just sounded ridiculous, eager, like the extravagant fancy of some crude amatuer.

She turned her back and walked over to a broken balneum enitheas and began fiddling with it absentmindedly. What was this all about? Really?

The other sisters glanced at one another. “What’s wrong with him, Enith?” Said Gladys. “Can we… fix him?”

Enith continued fidget with something or other with her head down. Eventually she said, “I don’t know.”

Hilda stepped forward, but Dolores got to Enith first. She placed a hand on her shoulder. Enith didn’t react, didn’t say anything, just continued looking down.

“You alright, lil’ one?” She said quietly.

Enith shrugged and stared at the floor. “It didn’t work,” she said through a creaky voice.

“It’s alright, we’ll just try again. What’s that thing you said? There are no losers, or something of the sort.”

Enith buried her face in her hands, “I don’t know, Dolly. I don’t know…”

There was a thumping sound from the floor above. Everyone looked up. “What now?” Groaned Gladys.

* * *

Cady ran down the stairs as fast as possible. Otis hurried across the landing and started running down after her.

He felt alive, he felt limber. His hip and back didn’t hurt and every muscle had reawakened. This is what Judy would have wanted, she wouldn’t have let this go. She would see it through to the end.

Cady reached the bottom of the staircase and made for the front door. She pulled at it and remembered the old man had the key.

“Dammit!” She cried.

“Hah!” he said from the staircase. He reached into his coat.

Thunk! A knife appeared in the door just beside Cady’s head. She ducked and spun around, he was lining up another throw. Cady dived and made for another room.

“Get away from me!” She yelled.

* * *

Troy raised his head, his mouth fell open. That voice! That was the voice! He knew it from deep within his very being. It woke something up inside him. The confusion subsided; he felt something else, an urge to run and to kill and to hold his darling in his hands. Yes, his darling!

Troy ran across the room, over broken glass, and through the doorway. “I will save you, my darling!” He bellowed wildly. Outside the door he saw some clothing with a rapier lying across them. He swept the sword up and dashed upstairs, leaking bile and trailing blood all over the place.

“What’s gotten into him?!” Said Hilda. “Was that the thief we just heard?”

“What’s going on?! Oh, this is all too much!” Wailed Hattie.

“Oh, I feel light headed, oh someone catch me!” Said Gladys, hand to forehead.

Dolores stepped in front of Enith and adjusted her robe. “Your sisters are losin’ it. They need you.” Dolores lifted Enith’s chin and looked her in the eye, “get this mess under control, a’right? Listen to your big sister.”

Enith took a breath and nodded. She turned to her family and clapped loudly. “Calm down, you lot. You’re alchemists, now act like it.”

They all stood in rapt attention.

“Good. Now here’s what I need you to do…” said Enith.

* * *

Cady backed into a table. Beakers and equipment rattled behind her. The old assassin was striding toward her with murder written all over him.

“Calm down, old man,” she said. “They was just books!”

‘They were my Judy’s books!’ he bellowed, spittle flying.

Cady reached behind her. “Bugger your Judy!” She hurled a beaker at him.

“Argh!”

Cady climbed onto the table and kicked and hurled objects at him. He lurched toward her with his arms raised and tried to jab at her. She danced back and aimed a boot at his head. It glanced off him and he stumbled back unsteadily.

Cady leapt down the other side of the table and began picking up and throwing alchemical tools and glasses at Otis. “I felt sorry for you,” clunk, “but you’re just a murdering–,” shatter, “–mean old sod,” crash, “you’re a rotten person–”

“Stop it!” Yelled Otis with his hands raised.

“–and I’m better than you!”

A large shadow moved behind Otis, Cady’s eyes widened. “Who is–”

“Argh!” Otis screamed. Something sharp had burst through his shoulder. He clasped at the blade, before it slid back out of him. He fell to his knees. There was a large, naked, muscle bound man standing behind him with flowing blonde hair. He had nasty holes all over his skin and was leaking vile looking fluids from them.

“Hah! Take that, you fiend!”

“Wh–what the hell?!” Said Cady backing away. “Who are you?”

Troy dropped his bloodied sword and began dramatically striding toward Cady with his giant hands in front of him. “My love, my thief in the night. Finally, the ogre is defeated and we are together at last!”

“Uh, noooo.” Cady backed away as Troy approached the table. “Hell, put some pants on!” She said with her hand raised.

Troy stopped and a look of dark anger was cast across his face. “Yes, you’re right. The witches still live. They must be destroyed. The ones who did you wrong.”

“What are you on about?!”

Troy turned around to pick up his sword and grunted in confusion. There was a quick movement and an enraged scream. Otis the Knife leapt up from his kneeling position and plunged the stolen rapier straight through Troy’s midsection. Watery blood and yellowish goo began spilling from him, but he didn’t react. He seized Otis by the neck and began lifting him effortlessly.

Cady watched with wide eyes as the towering giant held the struggling old man high towards the ceiling. Otis scratched at Troy’s hands as his legs flailed desperately. Troy wrenched the rapier out from his own belly. Cady gagged.

“It would seem this demon never learns. Very well then.” Troy drew the sword back. “This will be the end of you!”

“Sisters, now!” Someone yelled.

Five silver balls rolled to Troy’s feet and began hissing and spitting an acrid smoke. Troy looked down and kicked one away. It bounced off a table leg and rolled toward Cady, crouched in the corner.

“Witchcraft!” Troy bellowed.

“It’s not witchcraft!” Someone shrilled.

Cady choked and covered her mouth. She backed as far into the corner as possible. Otis fell to the ground with a thud and Cady heard him gasping for air; the billowing mist quickly overcame him. Soon only the dark shape of Troy was visible in the grey smog that quickly filled every inch of the room. Cady began to feel woozy, her vision darkened and her eyes stung. The sharp, rotten aroma filled her head, and she felt like she was falling through the floor into an endless dark. This was it.

“Get her out!” A familiar voice said somewhere in the haze. A black shadow swooped toward Cady through the smoke.

“No, no!” She raised her hands weakly, “don’t hurt…”

“You’re alright, love,” the shadow said. It smelled of rose perfume. Something slipped over her head, something heavy, it was stuffy but she could breathe. She felt herself being lifted and carried away by strong arms, she looked up into a gas masked face. She felt weak, tired. Her head lolled back and she saw, through a break in the smoke, the hideous behemoth fall to his knees and then to the ground with a crash. Other gas-masked, robed figures moved nearby along with Enith, who stood over the monster’s body.

She wasn’t wearing a mask.

She didn’t need it.

* * *

Something moved in the darkness, something called out her name in a voice that chilled her blood. She was alone here, and unable to run. The giant man strode toward her from the blackness, bleeding and oozing, he reached his giant hands out and gripped her head.

Cady sat up with a start, a sharp pain shot through her sinuses. Her chest was on fire.

She was in a bed, in a room she didn’t recognise. It was certainly nicer than anything she was used to. She also realised she was wearing pyjamas, again, nicer than anything she was used to. What happened last… night? When did it happen? It was morning now. But which morning?

She looked around, noticed someone sitting in a sofa chair next to her, and jumped.

“Oh! Uh, hi,” she croaked.

“Hello, love. Sorry to give you a start, I haven’t been sitting here long or anything,” she laughed.

Cady chuckled nervously. “Are you… um, Enith?”

“Hah! No, I’m Hilda, dear. Enith has a lot to deal with this morning. How’re you feeling?”

Cady felt awful. But, being born and ‘raised’ in Wadlock, she had a deep instinct not to admit to anything that could be construed as weakness.

“Fine,” she hacked unconvincingly.

“Sorry?”

“Fine,” Cady choked louder.

“I doubt it. That was stybius sulfurmus, a pretty hastily put together batch I must admit. There wasn’t much to work with in the cellar.”

“Right,” said Cady, at a loss.

“Pity about you getting a face full of it. We probably should have got Dolly to carry you out before we threw the blasted things in!” She chuckled. “Silly old ducks, we are.”

“That’s okay,” Cady mumbled, inspecting her pyjamas. “What, um, who was that? That huge bloke?”

“Oh, that was my husband.”

Cady stared.

“I’m joking, love. That was–” she sighed, “something you shouldn’t have had to deal with. I know it’s hard, but put it out of your mind, it’s gone now.” She smiled. “We’re just glad you’re okay.”

Cady doubted she would ever get what she saw out of her mind. Wadlock was a strange place, but that was something else. The way he smelt, the way he looked. It was like he wasn’t a real person. She shuddered, but didn’t ask any more.

“Thanks,” she said, “for saving me.”

There was a quiet moment, not unpleasant. Sort of like sitting with a grandparent you don’t talk to much. It made Cady feel slightly uncomfortable, though. It was hard to radiate her usual toughness wearing pyjamas with poodles on them.

“Well,” said Hilda, standing up slowly, “I’ll let you have a lie in. I know you young people like a good nap. There’s a crumpet and jam on the bedside table.”

“Okay,” Cady said quietly. She felt like a good person would be able to say something else. She had broken into their house, smashed their things. And now there was a crumpet.

“Sorry,” Cady said just before Hilda left. “Sorry about breaking in, and all that…”

Hilda flicked her hand. “Don’t worry about it. Believe it or not, we remember what it was like to be young and to have no money. Ho! You do some crazy things.” She paused and her smile faded. “We wanted to apologise to you, actually. We talked about it; it wasn’t right what we did, ripping you off. We didn’t live up to the standards of our art, and we’re all sorry, especially Enith. Oh! That reminds me…” She bent down to the sofa chair and picked up a bag. “This might put a smile on your face.” She dropped it on the bed.

Cady stared at it.

“It’s inside the bag, love.”

“Oh, yeah,” Cady loosened the straps and pulled it open. She couldn’t quite understand what she was looking at for a moment. Her brain told her what it was, but the rest of her was having a hard time believing it. They were shiny, and there were a lot of them.

“This is…”

“Just a bit of dosh to see you through. And a whole heap more,” she laughed.

“There’s so much. I’ve never seen so much. Thank you, thank you. I don’t really know what t’ say.”

Hilda sat on the end of the bed. “It’s from Enith, she’s the one who knows how to make it. Old alchemist trick, and she isn’t sharing it, even with other alchemists.”

Cady continued staring at her small fortune. ‘Thank you’ didn’t seem like enough. Other people would know what to say, but not her. Gratitude wasn’t a skill you picked up around here.

“Hey, love,” Hilda said.

Cady looked up at her. She used to think the old women were so ugly, but they actually looked sort of nice in the daylight.

“Get out of Wadlock,” Hilda said. “There’s no hope here,

it’s not a place for someone as young as you. Just us leftovers.” She stood and opened the door.

“That old man is trying to kill me,” Cady blurted out.

Hilda turned to her. “We know. Otis the knife? I remember him from years ago. Honestly, I didn’t realise it was him running the library, thought he would have been bitten it in some gutter years ago. Piece of work, he was. He won’t be coming near you, don’t worry.”

Cady radiated relief.

“You can leave whenever you like,” Hilda said, “but you might want to rest before you begin your grand adventures, hm?” She smiled and left the room.

Cady looked at her treasure. She could leave whenever she liked. She could pay her way, find a home, do anything.

Out the window, the weather was clear and the parchment trailed brightly over gloomy buildings, like a road in the sky leading elsewhere. Somewhere better.

It was time to follow it.

* * *

A couple of hours later, Enith stood on the landing, partially obscured behind a corner. She watched Hattie, Hilda, and Gladys bid the child farewell at the front door. She was thanking them over and over again, and even gave each of them a hug. Cady stepped out onto the street and waved as she left, smiling brightly. Hilda closed the door, turned to look up at Enith and gave her a thumbs up. Enith nodded.

She entered Otis’s room. Dolores was sitting in the corner, arms folded. Making sure their guest didn’t try any funny business. Otis appeared to be unconscious, with bandages binding his shoulder, his neck had some nasty bruises on it too.

“How’d she get on?” Dolores said.

“Fine,” said Enith, “she seemed pleased.”

“Heh, I would be too. You didn’t want to see her off?”

“No,” said Enith. “I’ll admit I lack a certain aptitude for sentimentality.”

“You don’t say,” said Dolores. “Still, I think you did the right thing. Being good and doin’ decent things isn’t a requisite for being a good alchemist.”

“Agreed,” said Enith. “It’s easy to lose sight of common decency on the path of the triumphant theory.”

“Hm,” said Dolores, picking at a loose thread on the arm of her chair. “I am er, sorry for what I did, in the cellar–”

“Dolly, please,” Enith raised her hand, “I just admitted to my lack of prowess in these situations, the best way you can make it up to me is by not mentioning it.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” Dolores sighed with relief.

“It wouldn’t have worked anyway, whether I woke him up properly, or not.”

Dolores furrowed her brow. “The business with the thief, with Troy fancying her, which by the way was bloody inappropriate, you don’t think she had anything to do with it, do you?”

Enith nodded. “Oh, I most certainly do. I am not sure when or how, but I am sure it was completely unintentional. She had no idea what we were doing here.”

“And you’re not… angry about that?”

Enith paused and gave the hint of a smile. “The world offers us lessons, this was one of mine.”

They sat in silence for a moment, until Otis began to open his eyes and stir. He gazed around, bewildered at his surroundings, like he hadn’t expected to wake up ever again.

“Oh, look who it is,” said Dolores. “Finally decided to join us?”

“Where am I?” He croaked. He winced and grabbed at his shoulder.

“Dolores, leave us for a moment, if you would,” said Enith.

“You sure? He’s a dangerous one, this one. Reckons he’s good with a knife or two.”

“He isn’t a threat,” said Enith flatly, staring at Otis with thick levels of disdain.

“A’right, as you say,” said Dolores, standing and heading to the door. “Gimme a yell if he needs his jaw broken.”

“Thank you, Dolly,” said Enith as the door closed.

She stood at the end of the bed, her black robe pulled across her. The way she was considering him with those thin, piercing eyes put Otis on edge, but he resolved to maintain eye contact, after all he was Otis the–

“Your target has gotten away,” Enith said sharply. “You will not find her.”

Otis sat up in the bed and scratched his stubbly chin. “Target? I don’t know what you mean. I just wanted me books back, I told you, that’s the only reason I came here.”

“That’s not going to work. There’s only one idiot in this room and it certainly isn’t me.” Enith gestured to the pile of clothing on the floor beside the bed. A scruffy black leather coat, with numerous pockets for knives, poisons and all manner of nastiness. Lying on top of all of that was the rat skull belonging to the child.

“As soon as I saw you in the doorway, wearing that ludicrous outfit, I recognised you,” she continued. “Otis the Knife. A killer for hire, active decades ago, who afforded an unwarranted amount of romance to his profession. You’ve got a lot of lives under your belt.”

“I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.”

“Considering what I’ve seen recently, I find that hard to believe.”

Otis flared up, “I always maintained me standards. There was a code, we all had a code, all criminals and the like. Wadlock was different–”

“What tripe,” scoffed Enith.

“–not like now, now there’s no rules,” Otis said. “Now thugs are runnin’ around thieving from the elderly and burnin’ down their homes. Someone needs to do somethin’ about it!” He jabbed himself in the chest with his thumb, “That’s me! I’m doin’ something about it!”

“You are an old man who doesn’t know when to quit, who attempted to murder a child, you have no standards.”

Otis banged his fist against the headboard. “She burned down my library!” He barked. “My Judy’s library! That place was our dream! Her dream for our twilight years!”

Enith swooped to the side of the bed. “I lost someone I loved too,” she hissed, poking a finger at him. “And that child ruined my chance of having something like that again. That’s what children do, they ruin things, deal with it, man!”

Otis stared up at her, the fight draining from his face.

“You are owed nothing,” Enith spat.

They were silent. Otis sagged back into the bed and began coughing and beating his chest.

Enith stood with her arms folded, staring out the window, thinking about her sisters downstairs, probably having some tea and biscuits, making inappropriate jokes. She found herself wanting nothing more than to join them. Nothing more.

The old man opened and closed his mouth, trying to find the right way to word something.

“It don’t have to be lonely for you,” he mumbled. Enith looked down at him. He wasn’t making eye contact with her, his eyes just flicked all over the room. “You and I, we could… see each other. We’re old, we haven’t got much time left. When you opened that door, and I saw you, I saw someone sad, sad and as lost as me–”

“Oh, give over,” Enith said and walked away back to the foot of the bed.

“What?”

“I said, give over. Who do you think I am? I’m not sad, and I’m not lost. I don’t define myself by what I’ve been through, I define myself by what I create despite it.”

Otis stuttered and spat. “What you create?” He said angrily. “Do you plan on making more of those hideous abominations to go around strangling people?”

“No,” Enith said thoughtfully. “No, I think I’m done with all of that.”

“Well, what about me?”

“What about you? Dolores will see that you leave when you are able, and I would advise against ever stepping foot on Viccav-shiv lane again.” Enith went over to Otis’s belongings and gathered all the weapons, leaving his clothing. “After that I would advise you seriously consider what you want to do for the rest of your years, and how you would like to be remembered.”

Enith walked to the door and opened it. “You will be given a small amount of money, if only to ensure you don’t attempt to murder for it.” Enith produced a key and prepared to lock the door.

“But what are you going to do?” Otis said.

Enith heard her sisters laugh from the sitting room downstairs. Dolores’s hooting was clearly audible above the rest, as usual.

“I believe I’ll have some bakewell tart with my family,” she said. “And after that,” she shrugged and smiled to herself, “alchemy as usual.”

Enith closed the door.

Michael Butcher writes fantasy stories somewhere in the blasted wastelands of Western Australia. He has avoided four roaming packs of raiders just today.