It had been too fucking long. Richard Airbright had lost patience and decided that it was now time for him to assess matters directly.
The whole point of binding such a foul and spiteful creature to his service was that he could hang back and keep a low profile, focusing on the protection of his daughter.
The RAS could hang for all he cared. Thall had sent his “femme fatale” to provoke Richard, and the latter believed he had been clever in sending his familiar in response. It had been reckless and foolish and it was time for him abort the mission.
The townhouse was a cobweb of protective wards. He had even consented to instruct Isabelle in the basics of their workings so that she would know if something were amiss.
Meanwhile, the killings had slowed, but not stopped. Most prominently, Sir Roderick Candel had been slain in something that looked like a botched job – forensics had had a difficult time piecing together the sequence of events from the mangled wreckage of the cab and the two corpses. Only after about a week of investigation did they seem to discover that half the driver’s head had been sheered off by what any halfway decent arcanist could easily identify as a frostfire bolt. There were no runes surrounding the body. Presumably the ritual that Candel would fuel would have been performed post-mortem and the old bastard had attempted self-defense (pity he had been on such a high road at the time.)
There was an article about some foreign spy being discovered at the Rookery the same day – just another sign of how chaotic things had been lately (he had even seen something about a string of violent incidents in Arizradna, of all places.) He had spent enough time reading newspapers and so he began tweaking his summoning spell.
Whispering Jim was bound to him: bound to obey, but also bound in the sense that they shared a connection – one that Richard knew would be difficult for even him to break. And so the fact that Jim had not come when called after Richard had tired of what he was beginning to feel would be a fruitless task gave the old warlock pause. Now, days later, Richard had begun toying with the nature of his spells, not yet willing to imagine the nightmare scenario: that Jim had somehow escaped his binding and gone on to sow murder and mayhem across Ravenfort, as was his wont.
He had invested months in securing Jim as an asset. He imagined this Clara woman had been Thall’s in one night. Despite himself, he had almost enjoyed their verbal sparring session, at least until she saw Isabelle. He was amused at the time that Thall thought a pretty face would set him off balance, and yet that was exactly what she had done, though not with her looks. There was a part of Richard that looked forward to performing violent acts on the young woman for shaking his sense of paternal security. The thought disturbed him, though. She was, after all, not that much older than Isabelle. And violence toward women had always left an especially bitter taste in his mouth - call it sexist if you cared to. After seeing what Thall had done to Chloe after he transformed, the specific and pointed cruelty toward the person who had been kindest and warmest to him, Richard could not help but feel that in even the direst circumstances, a man should reserve some degree of practical mercy for his female enemies.
He would kill her if he had to. But he would make it quick and easy. Indeed, whenever violence was called for, that was his general policy. But for Clara, he would not allow Whispering Jim to tear her apart like those people at the law office in Wolfsmouth.
“Dad, do you need help?” Isabelle had come downstairs. She was getting another cup of chamomile, dressed in her pajamas.
“No, thank you, dear,” he said. The less she was involved in demonic summoning the better. He also doubted that she could understand the complexity of the spells he was performing, given that he barely understood them, so customized and twisted they were.
“Is it Jim? Is there something wrong?”
“Nothing, dear. I just need to concentrate.”
Isabelle watched him as his hands went through the motions. Richard’s beard began to itch. Isabelle took a step forward. “Dad?”
“Isabelle, give me a moment, please!” he said, catching himself before he could raise his voice.
“I only think… You’ve got some tangled arc-lines, between your left ring finger and your right thumb.”
He looked down. Indeed, the configuration of his hands had been in error. He had lowered his right thumb in order to push the range of the spell outward, but that had interrupted a gesture that searched for altered demonic frequencies in the right hand. He corrected his gesture and not only did the magical energy feel more solid, his hands also felt less cramped.
“Bell, when did you learn about that?”
“Just watching you for the past few days.”
Damn, he thought. The child has talent. Now, of course she did. She was an Airbright. But his nonmagical ambitions for her seemed to be gradually disappearing off in the distance.
And then he felt a tug. It was not that much unlike fishing (or so he imagined, having never gone fishing himself,) and it seemed he had caught a big one. He continued to make the gestures, whispering an incantation to draw on latent energies nearby to boost the signal, as it were.
“What the hell was that?” Isabelle exclaimed. It had come from upstairs.
Certainly not Jim. Whispering Jim was, after all, a being made of magical smoke, and did not tend to thump.
Shit! thought Richard. In all of his experimentation to summon Jim had he inadvertently summoned some other demon? He was not prepared for a binding, and he was not eager to slug it out with some infernal monstrosity in his own living room.
This time it had come from the neighbor’s house. That did not bode well. Just what in the hell had he summoned? Richard began to think back through the, in retrospect, insane number of rituals he had performed in the last three days, desperately hoping that there was no careless mention of Sadafeth, who had given him nightmares when he was a small child (he had not repeated his father’s mistake of training children in demonology before they had stopped wetting the bed.)
This one was very close. In fact, it seemed to have come from the front walk.
“Isabelle, did you lock the door when you came home from school?”
He glanced back to catch a slow, guilty shrug from his daughter.
Before he could perform a quick telekinetic snap on the door lock, the door was opening.
And standing before them was Sweet Clara.
Before he even knew what he was doing, balls of dark purple flame were forming in his hands. His mind began rattling off which wards would protect against this woman, a woman he had been so sure was a simple, mundane human being, but now…
“Uh…” said Sweet Clara. “Sorry, this isn’t what it looks like.”
Richard’s heart was pounding and he could feel his entire body grow hot (not from the nightfire in his hands, which consumed but did not generate heat.) “Tell me one good reason I should not burn you alive right this moment,” he said, immediately wishing that he had told Isabelle to avert her eyes.
And then Sweet Clara opened her mouth, but it wasn’t her voice that came out. “Because it’s me, master,” said Whispering Jim. And then Sweet Clara (or was it Whispering Jim?) smiled widely and held out both hands as if she had just performed a magic trick. “You rang?”
Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2018