"Can't you, like, track whoever did this or something?" I asked, bordering on panic, as we descended the stairs at a brisk walk. It turned into a jog through the living room, through the messy dining room, and I struggled to keep up while half holding my breath against the smell. "You're a magician. You can do anything."
"It was too long ago," Van said with a jerky shake of his head. He nearly sprinted out the back door and around the house to the car, leaving me to lag behind. I wanted to breathe normally, but the smell still reached me even out here. "Any remnants of that person's presence is long gone by now."
"Do you think it was only one person?" I asked, sliding into the passenger's seat as he started the car. I looked at him, his features tight and his eyes distractedly focused on whatever thoughts were emerging in his mind, and I couldn't help worrying just a little bit more.
"It looked that way, but there's no way to know for sure." He slammed on the gas, the back tires pelting the wretched little house with gravel and chunks of broken asphalt. We were headed down the street, opposite of the way we'd come, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
"Where are we going now?" I asked, buckling my seatbelt while I watched the little needle on the speedometer move well past 50. The speed limit was only 25.
"We're going to another house," he answered simply. I waited for him to elaborate, but he never did.
"Another house with a spell book in it?" I supplied, gripping the door handle as he blew threw an intersection at a red light.
"Yes, another house with a spell book in it," he confirmed, his visage and his voice returning to their usual calm. He glanced at me, his eyes olive-green serenity, and said, "I'm sorry if I alarmed you. There's really nothing to worry about."
I cocked an eyebrow at him, unbelieving. "You yelled, 'Oh, shit,' ten times. There's obviously something to worry about."
He chuckled and turned his attention to the road ahead. We were flying by stores now, Walmarts and Krogers and fast food joints, weaving through traffic with that little needle on the speedometer growing ever-closer to the 100 mark. I would have been worried, either that we were going to crash and die or that we were going to get pulled over and taken to jail, but the cool smile that played across his pale lips let me know that we were going to be all right. We always were. "It's bad, yes, but it's not as bad as I made it seem."
"How is it not?" I asked, resting my elbow on the door's arm rest and leaning against my hand. "Someone killed a house full of people and stole a book filled with powerful black magic. I'd say that ten 'Oh, shit's are too few for our current situation." But I couldn't even get worked up now, watching the man smile as he was. He'd probably just gotten his fear under control and out of sight and wanted to calm me down before I had a freak-out, but if it was working, why fight it?
He chuckled again. "Whoever took the book probably has a limited, tenuous knowledge of magic. They used it to kill that family, and it was done incredibly sloppily. They probably won't make it very far with the spells in the book. Most of them are highly advanced – spells that I could barely do. I don't think a beginner is going to be resurrecting the dead or summoning demons any time soon."
"Couldn't they just have been in a hurry when they..." I swallowed, not wanting to say the word. "When they...you know?"
"Killed the family?" he asked, and I nodded. "They probably were, but that's not the kind of sloppy I'm talking about. Even a half-formed spell executed cleanly would have been more precise than that. This was a spell done completely incorrectly all the way through."
I frowned, and even his pleasant smile couldn't console me now. "What did they...do to them?"
His eyes flicked to my face, the smile falling from his lips, and he answered bluntly, "They tried to tear them in half, but the spell didn't cut deep enough." His gaze returned to the road. "I suppose their intention could've been to only cut into the bodies halfway, but the ragged, unclean cuts make me think they tried to go deeper and failed." We were passing peaceful fields and farms now, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, but I didn't want to look at the pretty landscapes.
"How do you know it was magic?" I asked, looking down at my hands on my lap. They twisted and writhed around one another, shimmery purple nail polish occasionally glinting in the gray, autumn light. "Maybe they just walked in with an ax or something and went at it."
"There was no blood spatter," he answered, and I felt his eyes fall on me for just a moment, "only the pools that formed around the bodies. Physical weapons can't do that."
"So it was magic. Performed by someone who doesn't have a firm grasp of magic. For the sake of magic that they probably won't even be able to understand." I looked up at him, and he nodded once. "How stupid is that?"
We lapsed into silence, then, visions of murder flitting through my mind as I gazed out at empty fields and grassy hills and quaint country houses. I wondered what went through Van's mind as he stared at the road ahead, but I knew that I didn't really want to know.
"Ember," I heard Van murmur softly, and I felt a warm hand on my arm. It gave me a gentle shake as the voice said again, "Ember."
I opened my eyes slowly, unsticking my face from the window to give the man a groggy glare. "What? I was enjoying my nap."
He smiled down at me. "We're here."
This time, "here" was a two-story country home covered in clean white siding and sitting on acres upon acres of sprawling country land. A windmill towered over the house in a field to the left, its blades turning sluggishly in the chilly fall breeze, and a few horses meandered around it. Cows stood lazily in the field to the right of the house, chewing on cud and grunting occasionally but mostly making no noise. Geese swam in a small pond on the front lawn, and I cocked my head at them, wondering why they hadn't gone south yet. I sure as hell would have.
"Do people actually live in this one, then?" I asked as I slid out of the car and rubbed at my sleepy eyes.
"As far as I know," Van said with a gesture to a blue sedan parked ahead of us on the cement drive.
"How are we supposed to get in if they're home?" I shut the car door, and the menagerie of animals turned toward the noise. "Won't we have to tell them what we're doing here?"
"So, we'll tell them," he said as if it were the simplest thing in the world, already starting up the driveway.
"Wait, wait," I said, once again hurrying to keep up with his long-legged stride. I wasn't much shorter than him, only four or five inches, but he was always in such a rush to get places. Why couldn't we just mosey sometimes? Or walk like normal people? "You want to tell these people that we're here for a magic book that's hidden in their attic?"
"Well, I won't tell them that it's a magic book, but I'll tell them that it's a book that my family left here." He stepped onto the small porch, just a small slab of cement with a festive pumpkin sitting to one side, and raised his hand to ring the doorbell.
I grabbed his wrist. "There's no way that they're just going to let us in," I hissed, afraid that they would hear us. "You're a total stranger to them, aren't you? They're not just going to let you walk into their attic!" He arched an eyebrow challengingly down at me, pulled his arm from my grip, and poked the doorbell.
For the first minute, no one came. I stared at the door, fidgeting with anticipation, but there was nothing, not a sound, not even the smallest scuffle from inside. Van pressed the button again. I listened for the ringing, just to make sure that the bell was working, and it sounded loudly throughout the house. Even if the home's tenants had been sleeping, they would have noticed the noise, as loud and pervasive as it seemed to be. But again, nothing stirred beyond the door. Van rang the bell one more time and peeked through the set of small windows in the top half of the door. There was stillness within, not a movement nor a sound. He tried the handle, and a light shove had the door drifting open with a faint, eerie creak.
"How odd," he mumbled to himself, leaning over the threshold to get a better look at the inside. "Hello?" he called, and his voice echoed down the hallway before him and up the flight of stairs that ran along it. "Hello? Is anyone here?" He eased himself through the doorway, the lightest pressure of his black dress shoe on the pale wooden flooring creating a jarring creak in the peculiar stillness of the home.
"You don't think..." I didn't want to finish the thought, but the grim curve of his mouth when he looked back at me told me that he knew where I was going – and, to my dismay, that he'd been thinking the same thing. "Maybe they're just out or something," I suggested, not wanting to believe that what had happened in that slum was about to happen in this beautiful country home. "Most families have more than one car these days. They could have taken the other one and left that blue one behind."
"Why would they leave the front door unlocked, then?" Van asked, his voice a combination of dark and calm that had me confused as to what to believe. He took another step into the house, this one more bold than the first, then promptly started up the stairs.
"We're in the country. There's no one around here to break into their house," I called after him in answer, unwilling to step through the doorway. "Oh, jeez," I muttered to myself. Panic was beginning to set in, and I hopped from one foot to the other. "Oh, jeez!" I continued this spastic dance on the front porch for what felt like an eternity but was really only about a minute, then I stilled and yelled over the threshold, "Van? Is everything okay up there?" I received no response, and I began another spastic dance, this one of standing on my toes and dropping to my heels over and over again. "Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez."
"Calm down," Van ordered as he appeared at the top of the stairs, beginning a quick descent to the hallway below. He had a book in his hand, one of worn black leather with a binding tattered by years of use and abuse. Silver words flashed on the cover, but they were in a print too small to read from this distance. "I didn't see any corpses, and I don't smell anything odd like what we found in the last house. I don't think anyone is home."
I let out a light sigh of relief. "Thank God! And you even found the book you were looking for," I said with a pleasant smile. "Nice." Only then did I realize that his face hadn't lost its previous ominous expression and, in fact, had darkened even further. My smile fell. "What's wrong?"
"This isn't the book I left here," he said tightly, holding it in front of my face. Those silvery words read, Merlin and Morganna: Spells for the Good or Bad Wizard. "It's a beginner's guide to magic," he snapped, throwing the book at the wall. "It's a load of bull with a few real spells in it!"
"Why was it here, then?" I asked, watching as he began to pace up and down the hallway in front of the open door. I knew I should have been afraid of him or afraid with him or angry with him or something, but seeing him aggravated like this actually calmed me down a bit. I got to be the calm, rational one for once, and I was going to take full advantage of the situation.
"Someone swapped it out," he growled, his pacing picking up speed. "My book is gone, and this piece of trash was left in its place."
"I see," I murmured, peeking my head through the door to take one more cautious look around the place before I finally crossed the threshold. "It looks like it's been used quite a bit," I remarked as I picked the book up from where it had fallen open on the floor. It was faux-leather, I discovered, not the real thing as I'd originally expected. "Do you think this is where the person from the last house got their magic?"
"I don't know," Van answered, stopping to lean against the post at the end of the stairs, "but it's certainly likely."
"How do you think they knew about all of these books?" I asked, beginning to flip through the pages of the book with a furrowed brow. "And do you think there may be others missing?" A spell for shrinking things, circled several times; a spell for creating earthquakes, crossed out; a spell for skinning people alive with several stars drawn around the title; a spell for tearing a body in half... "Well, it's definitely the same guy," I mumbled to myself, even as Van began to answer my questions.
"I don't know," he said, aggravation darkening his tone, "and I don't know. Only my mother, my father, and my sister know about these books. No one else would know that they even existed anymore if my family didn't tell them."
I stared at the illustration on the page across from the body-rending incantation for a moment longer, then snapped the book shut with a huff. "So one of them told someone, and that someone is now stealing them and killing the people who live where they're kept."
"But there's no one dead here," Van pointed out, forcing his voice back to its normal calm. His glare, on the other hand, seemed to be set in stone. "He probably just panicked at the last house when the family noticed him."
I shrugged. "That doesn't change the fact that he's stealing your books and killing people," I said matter-of-factly, placing my hands on my hips with the book still in my grasp. "Now, do you have any idea what we're going to do about it?"
"Well, I was going to use a locating spell from the book I came here for," he said with a sigh, his face finally shifting from a hard glare into a perplexed frown. "I'm not entirely sure what course of action we should take now."
"You have other books, dozens of them, in fact," I said casually, as if the disappearance of his more powerful spell books wasn't too serious of a matter. "I'm sure you can find another useful spell in one of them." And with that piece of wisdom, I walked out the front door, head held high as if I'd just achieved some great end. Really, though, all I'd done was remain calmer than Van for two minutes – but who's to say that wasn't a great end?
I heard the man sigh as I stepped off of the porch and started toward the car. "I doubt it's going to be that easy," he muttered to himself, but he said nothing else. He followed me down the driveway to the car, and with a whispered word of Latin, he closed the front door gently behind us.