Nazlı hates this kind of banter, Almere’s remark sparking her like flint. The moment crystallizes around her, Julian’s deep frown, the nervous looks registering at different angles on the faces of the Lubbocks. She manages to hold her tongue. Somehow.
“Well?” Almere’s voice has taken on a purr of irritation.
“Are we going to go or would you rather stay?”
Chelle fairly shoots up from the table. Julian goes tense.
“What, right now? Like leave right now?”
“While the iron is hot, I believe is your phrase. It will be easier if we can slip back in before your absence is noticed, if we haven’t missed our window of opportunity already.”
It’s a good point, but Nazlı nonetheless feels a whir of panic stir up in her gut. She barely feels prepared to be down here, let alone turn around and oust a demon — or two demons? — from that yet-unfamiliar house. And surely, someone must have heard their altercation with the thing downstairs.
She stands, too, stretching out a hand to Julian. “Yeah. Let’s do this.”
“What?” Julian catches her fingers but doesn’t get up. “Shouldn’t we get supplies? Or at least… I don’t know, shoes?”
“Magic doesn’t require shoes, J.”
He skewers her with a look and rises. She leans close.
“She sent it for us. She knew what I was, that we’d figure it out, at least about the brat. I’m gonna count on her not expecting you to be able to see the breach.”
Almere’s voice cuts in. “Let’s go.”
Julian is still registering all of that as the Tanmar leads the charge back into the cellar. They motion Julian onward while staying Nazlı with a gesture.
“Why don’t you go to the opening and show those two how this is is going to work,” they say, smiling sweetly.
Julian capitulates and Almere watches with a hawkish, silent stare as he indicates the silk-fine fissure in the world that the five of them are going to slip through, neat as shiny coins.
“You can’t see it,” she says, as it dawns on her. “Shit, for a minute there I thought you just had a thirst for my hot friend, but you can’t see the breach on your own.”
Almere looks back to her with a nasty smile. “I consider it a fair exchange, that I shall help you dispatch the unwelcome guests, now that you’ve lead me to them.”
She nods, steeling herself for the bargaining part of this she knew was coming. “Alright, then. Nothing owed.”
“Well, not for that… this doesn’t address the small matter of Chelle and Peter’s… minor debts. Of course, I’m quite keen to return them to their home.”
“Of course you are.”
“But I thought, perhaps, someone topside with your skills…”
“Might be able to settle the account?”
“If… you’re willing,” they say, feigning coyness.
Nazlı counts a beat, then another, a rehearsed hesitation. “My friend and I need to get these people home, Almere.”
“I understand.” They drip sympathy. “But I know you realize, in my world, business is business.”
“Alright,” she says, watching their smile tick up a notch.
“Very good. To avoid complication at the moment, as our time is meaningful, why don’t we just say I call on you for a favor some—”
Their eyes fall to the flourish of her hand, and the coin flashing into and out of her palm. “No, I think I’d rather just pay up front. Then we can settle up with the Lubbocks when this is all done. J and I, I mean.”
Almere actually laughs, almost chagrined, but they do not decline the coin. “Well met, rahibe. You are more prepared than I realized.”
“Keep that in mind.” She turns to walk into Julian’s curious gaze, relishing the feeling of being recognized as an equal, however momentarily.
“You two arranging some kind of date?” Julian says.
The darkness of the basement swallows them, and Nazlı remembers the broken bulb. She and Almere have taken point, and Julian is behind them chaperoning the Lubbocks. The basement is incredibly cold.
Nothing moves. The euphoria drains quickly into vertigo, and then stillness. It’s so much easier when she’s ready to go through; nonetheless, despite Julian’s explanation, she can here Peter and Chelle’s short, shallow breathing. How long must it have taken for them to recover from that first, unexpected crossing?
A glow fills up the space, describing and shrinking the cavern into this unremarkably, unfinished cellar. Almere stands at the root of it, an arm lifted under a star-white sphere of witch light, majestic. Their breath clouds in the frigid air, expanding in sluggish, bright masses.
“Jesus. The pipes,” Chelle hisses.
Nazlı knows its not the thermostat, but the ikili’s pet seems to have retreated in their absence, however long that’s been, which is extra impossible to tell in this windowless space.
In front of her, still with their arm raised and the otherworldly light writhing above their dark palm, Almere scents the air and sweeps their eyes over the shattered wood littering the stair and the floor below. A few seconds later, the newly-returned couple take in that scene as well, and she hears Peter’s breath go out of him.
“We should get above the ground,” Almere says. “Does one of you have a proper light?”
Nazlı fumbles with her phone and Almere extinguishes the witch lamp. As a cluster, they move toward the stairs, climbing by the harsh light of the LED torch and all holding their breath.
The sound hits them like a wave, pushing them back as Almere’s arm shoots out and almost clotheslines Nazlı.
Above them — for Almere is standing two steps from the top landing of the wooden stair and Nazlı is one step behind them — something has moved in the kitchen. A step, weight shifting on the creaky floor which barks to them like thunder in their silence. Approaching. Nazlı’s weight sinks back to the stair behind, and she sways into Julian, who catches her shoulder. Another shuffling step comes from just out of her view through the doorway.
Noise breaks in. Almere flinches. A reedy, tremulous voice is shouting in a language Nazlı doesn’t recognize. Counter to every instinct that has been boiling up inside her, she springs forward, pushing past the Tanmar’s much taller frame and bounding into the kitchen, brandishing the single point of light from the back of her cellphone.
Hands fly up, defensive, along with a thin swipe of white. There’s a cry, too, and as that huge flash of adrenaline begins to settle as quickly as it arrived, Nazlı stares into the terrified face of Sybille Lubbock. She’s clutching a sickle-shaped piece of tusk or bone in one trembling hand, held out in front of her as though it might protect her from whatever awful thing she expected to find around that corner.
To be fair, what was around that corner was Almere, who, in any other circumstances, would be a pretty awful thing to discover in your basement. And, Nazlı realizes a quicksilver second later, she might not be altogether wrong about the wand. There’s a carving along edge, and it smells like something real.
“Mama??” Peter is charging up from the middle of the basement stair, now, not evidently heeding whatever admonition Julian muttered at him on the way by. “Mama, are you alright?”
Sybille lets out another wordless cry of alarm, relief, of the breaking of terror, and falls into her son’s arms with a babble that eventually resolves itself into my boy, my boy, my boy. Chelle bumps past Nazlı’s shoulder a moment later, reaching for the pair. Sybille tearily reaches up to cup her face in one liver-spotted hand.
“Some reunion,” Nazlı mutters, glancing back at her other two companions, who are both scowling picturesquely in the shadows.
After a beat, the old woman hisses something that could have been words or could have been asthma.
“What?” Chelle says, a high twist of fear coming into her voice.
“It’s still upstairs!”
“What is?” Peter draws back, holding Sybille’s shoulders.
“The thing that looks like you.” Her eyes dart up to Chelle. “And you.”
Nazlı looks at Julian, who is watching the trio closely. So, the old witch does know something’s going on.
Suddenly, Sybille Lubbock is right there grasping Nazlı’s shoulders with her bony hands, looking up at her with wild, rheumy eyes. “You have to do something! That’s why I brought you here!”
Nazlı plucks the arthritic claws off of her, blinding herself with her cellphone light in the meantime. “Why didn’t you tell us your beef was with the adults?”
“It doesn’t know I know. It can’t know I know.” Fear bleeds from her voice. She’s practically unhinged in a way that touches a deep anxiety inside Nazlı. This woman isn’t stable, and she knows a little something about magic, but it’s hard to tell how much, and that could be very dangerous for the kind of task that they need to undertake now. Even with Almere here. Nazlı really wishes she knew something about that particular demon’s background.
“What’s this?” she says instead, catching Sybille’s wrist as the old lady winds her hands around aimlessly. In the sharp white glow of the LED, a black inscription stands out across the curved length of ivory clutched in her fingers.
“My mother gave it to me. Her mother before. It’s very old,” Sybille snaps. “It wouldn’t let me bring it when the child was born. It told me to take it out of the house, to bury it, they don’t know I still have it. I keep it hidden. It keeps it from sneaking into my room at night, and murdering me.”
Shying a little from her wild-eyed gaze, Nazlı falls back to Julian’s shoulder. She couldn’t read the inscription, but suspects it’s the same language that Sybille shouted at Almere when they were coming up the stairs. A ward. Some ancient charm, half-remembered, shared in a an aging matriarch’s senility. More’s the pity. It’s better, much as she wouldn’t admit this in front of her own parents, when a family remains committed to keeping a tradition like this alive. Nonetheless, the artifact is still potent, even if the incantation fell to the floor.
“What are you talking about, mama?” Peter says gently, reaching out to his mother. “I’ve never seen that—”
“It’s not for you!” Sybille hisses, recoiling, and sways closer to Chelle, who puts a sheltering arm around her with a confused look at her husband. “Please, please,” Sybille says, her voice shaky and keening. “I just want it out of this house. Out of our home.”
“Jesus,” Nazlı breathes, bending her head toward Julian’s. “How long has this bitch lived with that thing? Through a pregnancy, that kid’s gotta be, what, like three? That’s a minimum of four years, probably.”
“I’d be at my wits end, too.”
“Any word from Bishop?”
He shakes his head.
“Welp. Here goes nothing.”
Peter and Chelle, looking almost as bewildered and overwhelmed as Peter’s terrified mother, manage to get Sybille calmed down enough to explain, albeit in limited terms, something of what’s going on. They don’t really talk about the “portal” in the basement, though it’s mentioned, and the word “god” doesn’t enter in. It’s a “spirit”, evidently. And Almere is another “spirit” who has come to help them take care of it, so that things can finally go back to normal. Nazlı has to suppress a simultaneous laugh and shudder at the idea that Almere is there to do anything like help. They put it best, and most exactly, when they said it was a fortunate coincidence that their priorities aligned. Mutual convenience.
All the while, Nazlı is doing her best to surreptitiously observe the sickle-shaped wand that Sybille still clutches close to her heart, as though it’s the only thing carrying her through all of this. She won’t let anyone touch it, though Nazlı does notice that she is very careful to keep it on the same side of her body as Chelle, and has switched which hand she’s holding it in on the couple of occasions that the couple has crossed positions in their fussing over her. A powerful matrilineal artifact indeed, and maybe this woman’s last hope that there’s going to be a solution to the disappearance of her family.
“So, Almere,” Chelle says finally, looking up from Sybille. “What do we need to know?”
“The ikili is most powerful when both halves are close together. It will be prudent to separate them as much as possible, although…” They’re eyes sweep over the four topsiders. “I doubt any of you will be able to do it much harm, even in a single aspect. You are going to have to be extremely careful, and I am not here to guarantee your safety.”
Nazlı thinks she detects a very slight roll of Almere’s dark, shining eyes in that last statement, as though it should go without saying. As though they don’t really expect their more-delicate companions to come through this unscathed. As much as she hates to admit it, however, she does like the subtle way in which Almere has recognized her heritage and adopted some of the language she grew up with. It’s almost flattering, welling out of the Tanmar’s dangerous charisma. That’s how they get you.
“What about the other thing?” Nazlı says. “The one that chased us down there to begin with? That wasn’t part of the ikili.”
“No,” Almere muses, running their hand along the doorjamb and fingering the splintered wood jutting from the hinges. “It’s not a demon, either. Not anymore. A familiar, or a servant, of some kind. Something that followed the ikili up from below, likely indentured upon its death, or killed, maybe as part of its ascension.” They shake their head. “Too long.”
“That’s nice. What do we do about it?” She taps her foot, fanning her irritation to avoid liking Almere, even a little.
Almere, helping her, turns a wide, feral smile in her direction. “You can manage to fend off the tethered spirit of a devil for a little while. I’m sure it was a small one, in its life. Once the ikili is dispatched, it will have no binding to this place and can return to its journey.”
“Great. Dog duty,” she mutters, casting a glance toward Julian.
Julian has been almost completely silent throughout this process, which is usually the opposite of how this works. Or, rather, is the opposite of how he’d prefer it worked. Nazlı runs her mouth too much, and Julian is the one who does the good talking, and they both know that he wishes she would shut the fuck up. But tonight, he’s taken the backseat, hanging in the shadows. He seems almost preoccupied, though by what, she has no idea.
At the very base of her spine, Nazlı realizes, this frightens her more than the ikili and its familiar, more than Almere’s silver tongue. She hates not knowing what’s going on in Julian’s head. It makes her feel like she doesn’t know what’s going on in her own.
“It’s a good job, that wand,” Julian says after he notices her staring, shifting the whole group’s focus to Sybille. “It has concealed us very well while we’ve regrouped. Do you think you can lead the way back to the second floor? I have some things in my kit upstairs that might help us, if they haven’t been interfered with.”
Sybille’s eyes go momentarily wide, then she straightens, squares her stooped shoulders, and nods her head.