As Pen shook off the excess liquid from the suede tips of her ankle boots, she thought back with some longing to her original plan for that night. Answering late night emails from her boss while catching up on the most recent installment of Ghost Invaders. Regret came in many forms. In this case it tickled the back of Pen’s mind with hyper aware feelings of self conscious physical discomfort and the hollow pit of not belonging. High heels hurt and night clubs were just not her scene.
She finally escaped the lesser quality house music to get some “fresh” air in the back alley of one of Manhattan’s newest clubs, hoping the puddle she sank in to was an accumulation of trash juice and not something bodily. Her presence at this event wasn’t necessary, though her cousin had insisited she come at the last minute. Her moral support was needed, Angel said.
“What if no one comes? At least I’ll have you to make me feel better. Please, please Penny.”
So she’d left her corner of the couch, wore the outfit Angel laid out for her and oozed as much moral support as she could in the line to get in, the line for the bar, the line for the bathroom and the line to get out. The opening of the space was a success across all boards of merit, with celebrities, star athletes and random influensers bottle necking every stairwell and hallway in the building as they stopped and selfied out in front of the still freshly painted murals. It seemed everyone who was anyone showed up. Except for Angel.
[Where are you?] Pen texted, stepping over an overweight rat struggling to drag a half eaten bagel across the alley.
[Sorry!!!! Got caught up at home. Be there in 20]
[You said that 20min ago]
It felt like the ellipses in the text bubble were mocking her choice of family loyalty over the comfort of her own home. She sighed and turned around, ready to find a corner of the club to sit and wait it out when she spotted the rat. It had stopped the strenous effort to cross the cobblestones and instead plopped its ample bottom in to a crevice, allowing it to stay upright while enthusiastically pawing clumps of cream cheese laden bread into its mouth. She could hear the sounds of more small animals rustling underneath the base of the dumpster against the building. That’s where the crowd is, she thought, that’s where this rat is supposed to be, hiding with the others. But the simple joy the rat seemed to take in eating, alone and exposed to the night, briefly transfixed her. Some people need a white stag, apparantly all she needed was a rat.
The UBR ride was uneventful, thank goodness. No traffic jams caused by cars or rowdy folks taking the party to the street. Technically, in club kid time, the night was still young. A small consolation Pen latched on to. It meant that when her grandmother asked her later that same day, she could, truthfully say she went to bed at a reasonable hour.
She desperately wanted to take her shoes off, but fought the urge to do so in the car because the steps leading to her apartment building were not the smoothest or most sterile of surfaces. Protection against the elements of construction and suspicious wet spots meant shoes, no matter how uncomfortable, were a requirement. Sadly, the same could be said for the stairwells inside her building. And since the elevator was out of service, again, the climb to the top floor meant her feet needed to remain armored.
Every press of her big toes against the interior of the pleather stilettos reminded her that bunions did not just appear in her family and there was a reason she tried to stick with flats. She rolled her eyes thinking about the call she would placing to the building’s super. Yannick was a retired Auger, who frankly, creeped her out. Before moving in with Angel, Pen’s understanding of the Artem Society and magic had been limited, and that had been just fine with her. Pen was a layperson - human, non-magic and pleasantly ordinary. So was Angel, but she wasn’t satisfied with that status like Pen was.
Angel went out of her way to corner the elusive Yannick whenever she could, asking invasive questions about his life before he became a super and demanding he show her what he could do with his magic. He never did. If Pen had her cousin’s moxy, she would ask him to show them what he could do as a super. Six months in the building and she had yet to witness him actually fixing anything. That didn’t stop her from placing a weekly call requesting he make an attempt to do his job. His heavy breathing on the other line let her know he heard her, and that was about it.
Bending over to catch her breath at the top of the ninth and final flight of stairs, she caught sight of a row of carefully placed sugar cubes, stacked in threes and lined up against the short length of the hallway. The sharp smell of incense wafted through the air and a dim light flickered behind the seams of the only door on the floor. It was odd, but not odd enough to stop Pen from kicking off her four inch heels. She grabbed them and relished the feel of her feet on the mostly flat surface of the hallway.
Pen was taking her time unlocking the front door, mentally going over some of the more judgemental things she wanted to say to her cousin but knew she shouldn’t when she heard the low tones of a man’s voice echo through the hall.
“You really don’t want to do that.”
A sudden snap of glass cracking had Pen holding her breath while maintaining complete stillness at her position at the apartment’s entrance. A mess of common place noises stuttered in the air, the quick movement of bare feet and heavy shoes on the kitchen linoleum, more items breaking and finally the “mmph” of a man muffling a surprised shock of pain.
“I’ve been telling you for weeks that this is exactly what I want to do. Not my fault you don’t know how to listen.” Angel responded, sounding slightly out of breath.
Quietly shutting the door behind her, Pen cautiously moved forward, grabbing one of the heavier umbrellas in the wicker stand and holding it awkwardly by her side. Angel didn’t sound threatened, just annoyed. But just in case, Pen placed her clutch on a side table and slid her phone out, ready to dial for help while remaining prepared to wield her “weapon” if necessary. She peeked around the corner, taking in the small shabby chic living room first and then the rows of short and tall candles, lit and melting all over the narrow white counter separating the kitchenette from the common area.
Angel stood, facing Pen, her amber eyes seeming to flicker in time with the numerous tiny flames dancing around her. Angel’s attention was focused on the slightly hunched figure steadying himself against one of the red vinyl barstools.
“I was listening. I thought -“ he grimaced, “or rather hoped that you were joking.”
Angel rolled her eyes, shaking her head slightly, allowing a tight ebony curl to escape her loose top knot. She looked relaxed albiet slightly flustered.
“I am sorry that I had to –
“Stab me? Right. I may have believed after the first time, but three times? I’m not a fool.”
Stab? Pen knelt down, stuffed her phone into her bra and started to scoot and slide forward on her knees, using one hand to move forward and the other to hold the umbrella off the floor.
“I wasn’t apologizing for defending myself.”
The man snorted loudly, causing Angel to pause. Pen peeked over the console table behind the couch.
“Fine.” Angel said, pushing the stray lock of hair behind her ear before placing a large carving knife on the counter, moving a few candles over to make room for it. Pen just caught her gasp, trapping the small pocket of air in the back of her throat. There was blood on the knife. Maybe. Pen squinted, wishing she’d thought to grab her glasses from her bag.
“Well,” her cousin continued, “you’re here now. Might as well watch. I’ll even let you take some of the credit.”
“You know,” came the crisp cultured tones of the shadowed stranger, “I’ve always admired your confidence Angel. But I think this time you have overestimated your abilities.”
“Against you Dyse? Or in general?”
The man, Dyse, pushed himself to stand, staggering slightly before finding his balance. His full height wasn’t imposing, his build was too lean, but the stance he took was meant to intimidate. Pen couldn’t see his face, but the set of his shoulders let her know that whatever his expression, it was definitely not happy. Angel looked like she was watching a round of golf on t.v, something she only did when she was desperate for sleep and didn’t want to take a LunaAid. Dyse took a halting step forward. Angel raised her hands, palms out. “Wait,” he rushed out, “just think about the consequences. This ritual was hidden for a reason. Not even the most skilled Dominus would be willing to take this on, to take Cecrops on.”
Dominus? Pen thought as she shifed her body in to a low squat position. What was this guy talking about? Angel wasn’t in the Artem Society. She was an event planner for crying out loud.
Both she and Dyse flinched at the sharp bark of laughter Angel spat out.
“I don’t need to be a Dominus. All I need is the blood of an Augur.”
The air seemed to shimmer around Dyse, “You wouldn’t.” he growled at her. Pen watched her cousin smile in a way that turned the soft curves of her face in to sharp hollows. “Videtur” Angel whispered, turning her raised palms towards each other.
Pen stood up quickly, caught in the feeling that she needed to do something. Right. Now.
“Angel stop!” she yelled, climbing over the couch and stumbling back to the floor when her ankle rolled under her.
Shouting, “Dammit Angel, I thought you said you were alone!” Dyse turned, grabbed Pen by the armpits and hauled her against his chest. Hot sticky moisture pressed against her cheek, smelling of copper and detergent. “You’re bleeding.”
Dyse pulled back and looked down at her. “Yes,” he said, “unfortunately I think that’s the idea.”
“Vocatis me ad vos” Angel sang out, calling attention back to her place behind the kitchenette. The small flames on the candles winked out out one by one and reappearred in between Angel’s hands, molding and forming a melon sized ball of blue fire. She circled her hands over the bloody knife, “Sisterent ego ad te –“
“Your Latin is a disaster.” Dyse snapped, “you’re going to get us killed.”
Angel pushed her hands down, shoving the controlled flames against the steel of the knife, the ball splitting and creating a frame of orange heat around the blade. Pen watched the recently congealed rivulets of blood warm and re-liquefy, collecting in a small pool that bubbled on the white formica. Steam rose from the center, spiraling and forming wispy letters that spelled out MAGIS. Pen wracked her mind’s rudimentary Latin library.
Angel lurched towards Pen, the flames snuffing out behind her, and shoved her out of the way. Dyse jumped back “I don’t want to have to kill you Acosta,” he said as he pivoted around Angel’s reaching arms.
That’s it. Pen grabbed the knife and raised it in the air, “Nobody is killing anybody, okay!”
External forces didn’t penetrate and Dyse and Angel continued to circle each other, ignoring Pen until she shouted “I have the knife!”
“Put it down!” They yelled back, identical looks of horror on their faces as they turned to her.
Pen barely had a moment to think before the knife began to shake, causing her hand to tremble in reaction to the heat against her palm. She screamed when she felt her skin blister underneath the polished wood of the handle.
“Penny drop the knife!” Angel shouted. Pen groaned in agony, the pain of melting skin causing her body to fall backwards. Strong arms caught her. “She can’t Angel, you idiot! It’s the Clausa, she –“
Pen’s vision blurred and the details of the room faded in and out. Dyse’s face came in to focus for one brief moment, his eyes seeking answers from her while his mouth moved animatedly albiet silently. For the first time in her life Pen found the value in her cleithrophobia. Acute fear of being trapped outweighed her physical suffering as all images dissolved to black. Her center heavied under the pressure of a heart rapidly pumping too much blood to unnervingly weightless limbs.
“Anatina, yesssss” a voice slithered across the back of her neck.
She heard Angel calling for her and she wanted to respond, but her breath could no longer support her voice. Strong hands soothed and then squeezed painfully, growing large and circling around her body, wrapping her in tight bands from neck to ankle and settling into the grooves of her joints. The darkness started to speckle, stippling in impossibly different shades of black, granting the illusion of color and form. Pen looked down, her bonds becoming visible and to her horror, coalescing into the tail of a large snake. A pathetic moan was crushed out of her before the green and red scales began to shift and glide, spiraling around her until the tip of the tail flicked away from her feet, effectivly dropping her hard on top of a very unforgiving surface. But there was no ground or sky, no recognition of spatial planes. There was -
“No where to go little duck.”