Siren’s Song – Karen Chance

John woke up to a jumbled kaleidoscope of images, none of which made sense. There were strange shapes, jutting and angular, as if they’d been lifted from a cubist painting. There was a skewed perspective, as if said painting had been hung considerably of center. And then there was . well his malfunctioning brain couldn’t even try to guess at that last one. A gnome? he thought blearily. A mad elf? Someone, at least, with a shock of wild, pale hair and huge round eyes, peering at him intermittently from behind aspects of the painting. He thought about going back to sleep or whatever he’d been doing before he woke up wherever the hell this was, but the gnome wouldn’t let him. It was a persistent gnome. And now it was tugging and jerking and dragging him out from beneath what he finally recognized as his kitchen table. The angular pieces crowding his vision slowly resolved themselves into chair legs, seats, and the underside of the slab of wood that he used for kitchen prep. Where he’d passed out, John presumed. In a puddle of sick that was currently being smeared across the floor, along with bottles and needles and old take out containers, the latter from whenever he’d last remembered to eat.

That had been a while ago, judging by the way he felt. And by the length of beard that met his palm when he dragged it over his face. And by the hoarse, incoherent snarl he let out when the damned gnome bounced his head of a table leg for the fifth damned time! “Gah!” John managed. The dragging paused. “Ah, you’re awake!” “Gah.” “Good, let’s get you up.” The cheerful comment was accompanied by more dragging, although not by the gnome. He was using some kind of spell in an attempt to wrest John and the table legs apart, which wasn’t working thanks to the trash heap the kitchen had become. The spell kept grabbing things that weren’t John—a waste bin, one of the kitchen stools, a broom—along with things that were, or that were attached to him—a slipper, the belt from his robe, his left hand —and tugging on them equally. Which soon left him slipperless, beltless, and jammed between cabinets and table with the stool smacking him enthusiastically in the side of the head. “Gah! Gah! Gah!” “You’ve said that, dear boy, and really, all that flapping about isn’t helping.” The gnome resolved itself into an image of Jonas Marsden, his one-time boss and current burglar, since John had obviously not gotten up to let him in.

“Oh, my pleasure, think nothing of it,” Jonas said, after John slurred out an accusation. And before John could respond to that, he found himself levitated of the floor and into the air, along with random bottles and paper bags and used napkins, which started following him out the door and up the main staircase of his house. All while he writhed and cursed and tried to hold on to the clothes that were being stripped from his body by that same infernal spell, one he was too damned hungover to counter. “Now, now. Language,” Jonas admonished, right before John plunged head first into a bath of hot, soapy water that he knew hadn’t been there five minutes ago. That was followed by a lot of scrubbing from a suddenly animated and very determined bath brush and a flurry of washcloths. Cursing at them did nothing, an attempted counter spell did nothing, and slashing at them with his arms only summoned more to the fray. Until it looked like he was encased in a pink whirlwind, because his wife had loved pink and she’d bought the damned towels, like she’d bought almost everything in the house because it had been hers. Her house, one he’d purchased with decades of future wedded bliss in mind, and far enough out in the country that there’d be no neighbors to notice if the two of them didn’t age normally, if those decades stretched into something more. Of course, that also meant there was no one to notice when he was dunked again, and came up yelling invective.

No one to help when he was scrubbed almost to the damned bone, and then scrubbed some more. And finally dried of by a fierce, warm wind that blew up out of nowhere, whilst simultaneously being attacked by a comb and a truly vicious set of scissors. By the time Jonas’s animated minions had finished torturing him, John was hoarse, clean, and bleeding from a dozen cuts from the straight razor that had determinedly attacked the fuzz on his cheeks. “Y’ could have killed me,” he snarled, eyeing the shiny blade. And wrestling with a still flirty scrap of pink, which was too busy cleaning his left ear to allow him even to wipe away the blood. “You seem to be doing that well enough on your own,” Jonas replied from the doorway. “I’ll make us some tea, shall I?” John cursed some more and threw a spell that turned the damned towels to ash. ~ ~ ~ “Son of a bitch!” John awoke for the second time, which was disorientating, although not as much as looking at the world through a field of fire—a very different world. The English cottage with the determined bath accessories was decades in the past, and he didn’t live there anymore. He lived here, in the Vegas hotel room that was currently burning down around his ears, whilst someone yelled: “Get him out!” “I can’t get him out,” another, strangely calm voice said, although it sounded a little strained.

“Why the hell not?” “Because I’m busy! Unless you’d like the deal with this yourself?” “This” apparently referred to the gargantuan fireball that was boiling about the air above John’s bed. It wasn’t ascending; it wasn’t descending; it wasn’t dissipating. It was just there, a yellow white ball of flame hot enough to singe the skin of his outstretched hand, despite being several yards away, as if he’d been throwing it at something. Or at someone, he realized, catching sight of a slim, dark figure on the other side of the flames. Someone who had caught it. That would have made him come off the bed, had the spell not glared like a miniature sun, sending tendrils of fire feet out from its core. He stared up at it for a moment in confusion; fireball spells were smaller, cooler, better contained. They didn’t burn like a fallen star. But this one did, and kept on doing so as John edged out from underneath, rolled off the bed and dropped to the floor. He hit hard, a disorienting smack that left his limbs jumbled up and his head spinning.

And searing light, so hot, so bright, so close, all but cooking his eyeballs. He finally realized that the room wasn’t on fire, as he’d first thought. He’d just been looking at it through the spell, along with the two people glimpsed amid jumping afterimages: a hulking shadow near the door and a smaller one closer up. A smaller one who was eating the flames. John blinked and tried to get a hand up to shield his eyes, only to have the gesture misinterpreted. “Don’t try to fix it now!” The smaller figure—a woman—snapped. “I’m already dealing with it. You’ll just make things worse!” John didn’t reply, since his tongue didn’t seem to work anyway. He lay there like some stricken maiden with a hand on his head, watching as the vast field of fire was slowly drunk by a small woman with a neat up do, a fierce expression and skin a few shades darker than the chocolate mocha of the man behind her. Caleb, he thought blearily, finally recognizing the shadow of the large war mage, and relaxing a bit.

At least, he did until he caught his friend’s expression. John sighed. Yes, he’d thrown the fireball; it was his magic boiling around up there. And yes, he must have done it in his sleep, something that hadn’t happened for . well, ever. And yes, that was the sort of thing that rookies did, young mages in training with too much power and too little discipline, which was why they were usually housed well away from everybody else, to avoid having them burn down whatever training facility they were attending. So, what the hell was wrong with him? His memory took that moment to kick back in, and he threw an arm over his eyes, staying flat on the floor whilst the vast ocean of his past beat at him and the fire seared him and the woman—the null witch, he supposed—did what nulls do and drank his magic, slowly returning the room to something like normality. Well, a normality of singed walls and burning curtains and an overhead light fixture that was now a smoking nub in the middle of a charred ceiling, but John didn’t feel like complaining. It could have been worse. It should have been worse.

Then somebody grabbed him. It wasn’t Caleb, who was still glaring at him from across the room. It wasn’t even the null, who had collapsed onto a chair, her eyes bright and her face all but glowing with the power she’d absorbed. No, the panicked woman slapping at his smoking clothes and running soft little hands over his torso, checking for burns, was somebody else. “Where are they?” The blonde in his arms turned on Caleb, frantic and furious. “How did they get past you?” “They didn’t.” “You killed them?” She stared around, as if expecting to find a pile of smoking bodies in the corner. Which wouldn’t be that strange around here, John thought grimly, and tried to get up. That was obviously not the right move. “Stay put!” she snarled, and jumped to her feet.

John stayed put, mainly because his brain was still trying to remember how his legs worked, but also because memories of the woman above him, what felt like a lifetime of them, were suddenly pouring through him, a cascade that included a great many things, but not her standing protectively over him, blue lightning shielding her hands, and her eyes pale fire. Okay, John thought dizzily. I’ve missed a few things. And then the ceiling caved in.

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