“Do you know what this is?” asked Emerald Wren’s grandfather, fixing her with a piercing stare, his pale blue eyes unblinking.
Emerald looked at the bronze object in his hands and raised an eyebrow. “A jug?”
“Foolish child!” he said.
“I am not a child!” Emerald retorted. She was terrified of her grandfather even though she’d never admit it.
“But you are foolish?” he asked, a slight twinkle of amusement creeping into his expression for just a moment.
“Well, no,” she said crossly. “I’m not that either.”
“This is a lamp,” he said, his face returning to the set of stern authority.
Emerald peered at it, glanced at the Morecroft lamp her mother had on the chest of drawers in the corner, then looked back at the object her grandfather was holding. “A lamp… like Aladdin?”
“Says the girl who proclaims herself not to be a child,” he said.
“I’m eight. It’s a legitimate frame of reference.”
The hint of amusement seemed to creep across his face again for just a moment. “Fine. Now, listen to me closely, young lady,” he said. “This lamp is yours. It is an object of great power and great significance, and it is to be respected. You must not use it until you are absolutely ready, and absolutely certain it is the right time. Do you understand?”
“How will I know?” asked Emerald, too curious now to smart talk him and not taking her eyes off the lamp.
“You’ll know,” he said firmly. “Do not take it for granted. And when the right moment presents itself, you will hold in your hands the power to change the world.”
“What if the world doesn’t need changing?” asked Emerald.
“The world always needs changing,” he said. “And this time it is you who is tasked with the job of doing it.”
“Abi?” Emerald said into her phone, yawning as she spoke. “Are you alright?”
“I’m sorry I woke you,” came Abigail Stone’s quiet voice. “I got a vision, I needed to share.”
“It’s fine,” Emerald sat up and looked at the time. It was half past two in the morning. Abigail usually waited until the coven got together before talking about her latest vision for them to work on, she wondered what was so urgent. “What did you see?”
“I’ve never had anything like this before,” said Abi. “It wasn’t like normal. It was words, just over and over and over.”
Abigail hesitated then said carefully, “She walks amongst us but all alone, her life is real but not her own.”
“Weird,” said Emerald, rubbing her eyes and trying to stifle a yawn. “Is she the one we’re saving, or the one we’re saving from?”
“I don’t know,” said Abigail. Emerald heard a hasty whispered discussion on the other end of the phone then, “And it was hot.”
“Hot?” asked Emerald. “Abs… I don’t know if that’s something I need to know about.”
“Be serious, Emerald!” came Carla’s voice from the other end of the phone.
“Sorry, go on Abi.”
“It was like the words were hot,” said Abigail. “Or the person saying them… I’m not sure. It’s hard to describe. But I felt really hot.”
“Her skin was burning,” said Carla. “She was roasting hot and thrashing around before she woke up.”
“Is that normal?” Emerald asked.
“No,” said Abigail. “Not at all.”
Emerald pulled a pen off her bedside table. “Say those words again for me?”
“She walks amongst us but all alone, her life is real but not her own,” said Abi again.
Emerald balanced her phone between her shoulder and ear, and scribbled the words on her hand. She rubbed her eyes, her whole body ached. She needed these few hours of sleep badly. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll have a think. We can talk about it when we’re all together later. Try and get some rest now.”
“You too,” said Abigail.
“Goodnight, Em,” said Carla.
“Goodnight,” said Emerald.
Setting the phone back on her bedside table Emerald lay down and stared at the ceiling, wondering if she should wake Maram but deciding against it. Her latest bonehead boyfriend was probably in there with her and she wasn’t in the mood to face him. It could wait and she had to be up in three hours. Tiredness won out and she closed her eyes.
“FADIUS KALM,” boomed a deep and hollow voice, shoving Fadius into consciousness.
Fadius blinked and looked around then gasped in horror at the bloody corpse at his feet, dizzily shoving himself away from it, scraping his
elbows across the brick work and putting his hands in the filth of the street below.
“What’s going on?” he whispered, staring around the alley he was sitting in. His head hurt, his feet hurt. Blood was congealed on his hands and legs and he had no idea why he was there.
“FADIUS,” came the voice again, so loud it felt like his head was collapsing in on itself. “YOU HAVE SINNED.”
“What?” he said again, fear making his voice quiver. “Who is this? Where are you?”
“YOU QUESTION WHO I AM, FADIUS KALM?”
Fadius trembled and looked around in the darkness. “God?” he finally whispered, crossing himself for the first time since childhood. For the first time since he had escaped his parents’ home. For the first time since he had walked away from his faith, never intending to look back.
“I AM GIVING YOU THE CHANCE TO REDEEM YOURSELF, FADIUS,” the voice ricocheted around his brain, and he clutched at his head in agony. “YOU HAVE SHAMED ME. YOU HAVE SHAMED YOURSELF.”
“Did I… Did I kill him?” Fadius asked, looking at the body and feeling vomit rising in his gut. He turned and threw up on the ground.
“WEAKLING!” roared the voice.
“Who is he?” asked Fadius, tentatively holding out a hand, wanting to turn his face, but stopping.
“HE IS IRRELEVANT. HE FAILED.” Fadius wished the voice would stop, it was agonising. “YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO REDEEM YOURSELF WHERE HE COULD NOT. YOU HAVE THE CHANCE TO WASH AWAY YOUR SIN WHERE HE DIED IN FILTH.”
Tears crept from Fadius’ eyes. Filth. He remembered his father calling him filth as he beat him with a leather belt or ripped out tufts of Fadius’ hair with his huge, red hands. He remembered the venomous look in his eyes, the furious curl to his lip. Filth in the eyes of the Lord. Had his parents been right for all these years?
“YES,” said the voice. “YOUR PARENTS WERE RIGHT TO BEAT YOU. AND NOW YOU WILL MAKE AMENDS.”
“Yes, Lord,” Fadius sobbed, his body shaking and his stomach churning, threatening to explode once more. “Anything you say, Lord.”
“HANNAH MONROE,” the voice said. “BURN HER.”
Emerald slipped on her shoes and examined herself in the mirror. She looked as tired as she felt. She always looked as tired as she felt. The late night phone conversation with Abi and Carla had set her back, for sure, but not so much that you’d notice. She picked up her concealer and covered the shadows under her eyes. Waitressing all day was her livelihood and working with her coven all night was her life, but it was taking its toll.
She tied her short brown hair back into a ponytail and stepped out of her bedroom, heading for the kitchen and the coffee machine that had been working away on a timer since 6am, just half an hour earlier.
“Good morning, Guinevere,” said Emerald, nodding to the large tabby cat sitting on the coffee table. The cat watched her through narrowed eyes, her tail flicking. “What?”
“Something happened,” replied the cat. “You’re not telling me something.”
“I’m not telling you many things,” replied Emerald, taking the coffee pot out of the machine and pouring the contents gratefully into a Bugs Bunny mug. “Such as that I’m considering getting a dog. A large one. Or one of those small yappy ones. A Chihuahua maybe. Or a Great Dane.”
“Emerald Wren,” Guinevere started to say, but she was interrupted.
“We’re getting a dog?” asked Maram appearing in the little kitchenette, her thick dark hair swept up elegantly on top of her head with a clip in a way Emerald knew she’d never be able to accomplish, even if she had enough hair with which to do it. “Awesome. That’ll put the kibosh up old fuzzy butt here.”
“Abi phoned me last night,” said Emerald, pouring coffee for Maram and handing it to her.
“I knew it!” declared the cat proudly.
“Well we always did say you are the wisest of us all, Guinevere,” said Emerald, toasting the irritated cat with her drink.
“I never had to put up with this nonsense before you two,” said the cat crossly. “My last charge is quite the respected educator now thanks to me. Teaches potion making to young witches, and I bet none of them give him the attitude you two show either!”
“A teacher?” asked Emerald, making a face. “Glad you didn’t try and do that to me.”
“It wouldn’t suit you,” said Guienvere, sticking her nose in the air and flicking her tail. “Though I admit I had higher aspirations than waitress.”
“You sound like my mother,” said Emerald, giving her the finger.
“So, Abi called?” asked Maram, pouring herself a cup of coffee then sniffing it as if it were the elixir of life.
“Vision,” said Emerald, getting back on track and checking her watch. They had a couple of minutes before they had to leave. “A weird one. Just words.”
“What words?” asked Maram between sips of the coffee.
“She walks among us but all alone, her life is real but not her own."
Maram frowned. “Weird.”
“Ladies,” said Guinevere. “Perhaps…”
“We’re going to be late,” said Maram, interrupting her and putting her empty mug in the sink. “We can figure it out later.”
Emerald nodded and they grabbed their bags and coats from the back of the sofa where they had landed the night before.
“Maram!” called out Guinevere in a sing song voice as they headed for the door. “Have you forgotten something?”
“No?” said Maram, patting the pockets on her uniform and coat then checking she had her bag. “Oh crap! Yes!” She pushed open her bedroom door and shouted, “Hey! Steve! Get out!”
“Now?” asked the bonehead, appearing in the doorway in nothing but jeans. “It’s the middle of the night!”
Maram bustled into her room, knocking him out of the way and hastily picked up his shoes and clothes then shoved them into his arms and pushed him towards the front door. “I’ll call you later,” she said.
Below his messy brown hair, Steve peered at her out of bleary green eyes. “Yeah?”
“Sure I will. Right after I’ve seen a man about a dog,” insisted Maram, opening the front door and pushing him out as he tried to a stutter a
question, then slamming it shut with a sigh of relief.
“Sure you will?” said Emerald, raising her eyebrows.
“We can just hang out here a moment until I’m sure he’s gone,” said Maram, peering through the peephole for a moment then looking back at Emerald apologetically.
“As you wish,” said Emerald with a sigh and glancing at her watch. When she caught Maram’s slapped expression she immediately hated herself.
“I still think this is illogical,” complained Stuart Wren, as he stared out across Lewisham, the view afforded from the eighth floor of the Whitewing Annex of The Commission building masked by looming clouds and drizzling rain. “Emerald is a child.”
“The Vision all saw the same thing,” said Nahla.
“My involvement should have ceased once we established that the necromancy was not the work of the Virilicae,” said Stuart turning from the window. “Bringing my granddaughter into this is completely unacceptable.”
“And yet you did it,” Nahla observed with a smile before sipping at something that smelled of roses from a crystal tumbler. “I hadn’t pinned you as one for being overprotective.”
“She is eight years old and I wasn’t even permitted to give her what little knowledge we have,” said Stuart. “It’s not overprotective, it’s objecting to illogical decision making. I always win. With illogical decision making I will not win.”
“Yet, as I said, you did it,” said Nahla again, setting the glass down on the coffee table that sat by the fireplace.
“Yes, well,” Stuart said, standing up and heading for the door. “As you say, I did it.”
“Stuart?” said Nahla, as he turned the handle.
Her face softened ever so slightly. “She has time. She won’t be eight forever.”
“No,” he said. “You’re right. She has twelve years to prepare for a challenge she has no idea is coming against an enemy she has no idea exists.”
“Then hope is not lost,” said Nahla.
“So, why did Steve get the boot?” asked Emerald as they took off their aprons at the end of their twelve hour shift. “Picks his teeth? Bleaches his butt hole?”
“Bleaches his butt hole?” asked Maram, pulling a face as she stuffed her apron in her bag.
“What? It’s a thing!”
“People are so weird,” Maram muttered, then said, “He thought Alaska was a continent and only watches anime.”
“Damn, so close,” said Emerald, pushing the door open and pulling her coat up around her face as they headed out into the drizzle of the miserable October evening. Emerald tried to catch Maram’s eye but she was hiding inside her scarf. It was okay. Maram didn’t need the burden of Emerald’s constant concern. Emerald shoved her hands in her pockets and kept pace at her side.
They walked home in amicable silence. Emerald’s feet ached and her body felt sore. She longed for a hot bath and a good book followed by a deep sleep, but instead was bracing herself for the night shift. They got back to their building and climbed the stairs to their flat. Emerald winced with every step, her muscles begging her to stop.
“Drink?” offered Maram as she walked into the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of cheap Tesco own brand merlot from the counter.
“Always,” said Emerald, dropping onto the sofa with a sigh.
As Maram poured the wine into plastic goblets a thunderous knocking sound came from the front door.
“Bloody hell Tig,” called Emerald as she heaved herself to her feet and walked to the front door.
“What?” asked the girl on the other side as Emerald pulled it open, her dark eyes glinting mischievously beneath her bright purple pixie cut hair.
“You know what,” grumbled Emerald, stepping back and allowing her in. “You’ll get us reported for noise pollution again.”
“In my defence,” said Tig as she pulled her Five Finger Death Punch hoody off her painfully thin body. “I’m pretty sure it was Ben last time.”
Guinevere slunk out of Emerald’s bedroom and nodded. “She’s correct. Two months ago Ben was making fireballs for Celeste to move. He
went too big and it blew up.”
“I remember now!” said Maram, handing Emerald a glass of wine. “I wasn’t there, I was out with with Leo… or Teo… or Rob… anyway. That,” she pointed at the black circle on the white ceiling above her head, “was Ben. Two months ago. And Mrs Rogers upstairs reported it.”
Tig pointed her finger at Guinevere and winked theatrically. “I knew you’d have my back!”
Guinevere examined her paw intensely. “Yes, well. I take my duties seriously. And it doesn’t mean I support your frantic banging at our front door when a sensible knock would do.”
Tig winked at the cat again then pulled a half empty bottle of Jim Beam out of her ripped up satchel bag. “Be generous,” she said, handing it to Maram. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Ben’s picking them up so they’ll be here any minute,” said Emerald, sipping on her wine. It was pretty grim, vinegary and pungent, but it did the job and it only cost a few quid. She’d take it.
A gentle knock sounded at the door as Maram returned with a half filled tumbler of whisky. She handed it to a grateful Tig then went to the door. Emerald sipped her wine, forcing her brain to focus on having enough energy to get through the evening’s work before she would finally
be allowed to sleep.
Carla hurried into the room, supporting a wobbling Abigail in strong her arms, closely followed by Ben and Celeste, their faces plastered with worry. Emerald could tell Carla was afraid. Whilst always incredibly protective of the fragile Abigail, the pain she was in now had sent her into overdrive. The love between them was palpable. Emerald wondered if she would ever find anyone who cared for and loved her like that. If she’d ever be as safe in anybody’s arms as Abi was in Carla’s.
“Is she okay?” asked Tig, moving off the sofa and onto the floor to allow Abi the space.
“No,” said Carla, her jaw set, as she gently lowered Abi onto the vacated sofa. “She had another fucking vision.”
“She was shaking,” said Ben, his eyes wide. He looked at Emerald, probably for reassurance that everything would be alright as they so often looked to her, but she had nothing to give him.
“What did you see?” asked Maram.
“Give her a bloody minute,” said Carla, batting her away.
Emerald beckoned Maram over to her, knowing Maram’s desire to get down to business was sometimes at the expense of the comfort of those around her and that Carla was not to be messed with when it came to Abi.
Celeste smiled wanly at Emerald, fingering at the gold cross that hung around her neck. Emerald nodded silently. At least Celeste’s comfort primarily came from her God.
“So much fire!” Abigail cried suddenly, sitting bolt upright and staring at Carla. “Oh God, so much fire!”
“Okay baby,” whispered Carla, gently stroking Abi’s long dark hair. “We’re here. You don’t have to talk about it.”
“I do,” said Abi, clutching at Carla’s arm with her thin fingers. “I do. He’s coming. He’s coming.”
“Who’s coming?” asked Maram from Emerald’s side.
“The fire,” said Abi, staring at nothing with a ferocious and desperate intensity. “He’s coming for her.”
“For who?” asked Maram, leaning forwards.
“I... I…” Abi screwed up her face, contorting the delicate features, and balled her hands into tiny fists. “I can’t see!”
“It’s okay,” said Carla gently. “You don’t need to worry about it.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t,” muttered Maram, folding her arms. Emerald shot her a look.
“My head,” Abigail whispered, putting her hands to her face. “I can’t think…”
“Close your eyes, darling,” said Carla, gently stroking Abi’s hair. “Just rest. You’ll be fine soon. Just rest.”
Celeste caught Emerald’s eye. She was twisting at her cross and looked troubled. Emerald understood. Abigail was struggling to cope with the visions that were growing stronger and more agonising each week and they were starting to break her. Celeste worked with some of the most vulnerable and damaged women in society, saw how their experiences and traumas weighed on them and the look it gave them, and how Abi seemed to be morphing into one of them. Her eyes held that haunted look of the souls fractured by trauma. Emerald recognised it too. She had seen it twice before. And now she was working her ass off to try and make sure she never saw it again.