Chapter 331: And The Lamp Goes OnAlexandra Erin on September 20, 2016 in Volume 2 Book 10: Lucky Thing, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Dreams Of An Answer
“Close your eyes,” Amaranth said.
I’d found my way back into the bed like I was finding my way through a dream, floating languidly, anchored in my body only by the throbbing in my backside. Time stretched on forever… moments streamed by out of my reach in the blink of an eye. My head felt very big and the world around it very small, very cozy.
“No, that’s not right,” Amaranth said, her voice a low, sultry purr. She had posed me with equal parts words and actions, exactly as she remembered my position in bed just before I’d drifted off. Her words washed over me like a sea of liquid silk crashing against the intangible shores of a very strange metaphorical country. “Your eyes weren’t closed, were they? They were closing… getting heavy as the potion took hold. You weren’t fighting it, exactly, not at first, just letting it take its course. You remember that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I did. I remembered how it felt… I felt a bit that way now, like I could drift off forever, rocked to sleep by the firm yet gentle sound of Amaranth’s voice and the reassuring solidity of her presence.
“Then something happened… you thought of something, remembered something or realized something, and then you wanted to fight it, wanted to wake up, but it was too late to throw it off. Can you feel that?”
I found that I could. I did. The same desperate frustration I’d felt racking my brain for any trace of a shred of a figment of the lost idea welled up in me again, but now there was a context to it.
“Yes… yes… this is how it happened,” Amaranth said. “I was talking about… what was I talking about, baby?”
“Shiel,” I murmured. “Shiel…”
“Oh, right! That Shiel,” Amaranth said. “I still need to give her a talking-to about her conduct. I know Hazel’s been known to put a nose out of joint when things don’t go her way, but even she doesn’t usually do it over a lost game.”
“Out of character…” I said, fragments of sentences and sounds wafting to me out of the ether.
“Very out of character,” Amaranth agreed. “That’s just what I was saying! Wasn’t I? So out of character. I wonder what could have…”
…possessed her, Amaranth’s voice finished in my head, from a very far away.
“Oh,” Amaranth said in a smaller voice than both the one that had echoed in my head and the one she’d been speaking in, in the present. “Oh! That’s it. That was it, wasn’t it? I said she was possessed… I mean, not that she was possessed, but that something had possessed her, as the figure of speech. But you knew… that was it, wasn’t it, baby? Say something.”
“Yes, you’re saying something, or yes, that’s it.”
“That’s it,” I said. I pulled myself upright, out of the covers and at least partly out of the fog into which I had happily descended. “That’s exactly it. You’re right. That’s how it happened. That’s what I was thinking. We’ve been trying to figure out how this thing influences people, how it yanks on their strings. We’ve been talking about it as a curse. My pitchfork was cursed, too, remember? That’s all anyone knew about it, was that it was cursed. But the curse was a fragment of something bigger and older…”
“And because it was a fragment, it wouldn’t supersede your awareness or personality completely,” Amaranth said. “But just sort of supplement it with its own, or fill in its missing blanks from you. Dee said when she fought it in her mind, it didn’t even know it wasn’t the real, actual Delia Daella. Oh! But does this mean that Shiel is possessed, or Hazel? And we were just talking about how it probably influenced both Coach Callahan and me. I don’t think anything demonic could possess me. I don’t know if it would dare to possess her.”
“It’s a lot more questions than answers, I’ll admit that,” I said. “But the good news is that I don’t think it’s necessarily demonic, per se? I mean, you’re right. If it were infernal, and its influence was as direct as possession, it should have very little ability to influence you.”
“But it’s going from person to person,” Amaranth said. “I know that there are possessing spirits that can do that, but they’re very powerful, and very rare, and have mostly been barred from this plane of existence, or at least the parts that the people with the power to do that care about. In my readings on the subject, it seems like most free-floating entities that can pull that kind of thing off are a big enough deal that they’re obvious, when they’re not hidden away in a back corner of somebody’s soul. Visible manifestations, strange magical phenomena in their wake, localized emotional effects, that kind of thing.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “And while we’ve seen a much weaker possessing entity pass from person to person, that was with physical contact and the actual physical talisman that held it changing hands.”
“Transferal on contact is much more common,” Amaranth agreed. “But then we’re stuck with trying to find a chain of contact that covers all the incidents we know of.”
“I don’t think we’re going to find one.”
“Oh, baby,” Amaranth said. “I know you were excited by this theory, but I’m not sure we can make it work.”
“I know,” I said. “I know that just because something seems really important when I’m falling asleep, that doesn’t mean it’s actually true. But I really think I’m onto something. It wasn’t… it wasn’t just the idea of the possession. The whole thing. Cursed. Lucky. Unlucky. Some kind of… confluence of it all.”
“It’s just we went from thinking it’s cursed, to thinking it’s some kind of limited wishing ring, to the possession theory… and we still don’t know for sure what it actually has to do with the smudge of magic you found on Hazel’s apparently mundane promise ring from Andreas.”
“I think it’s kind of all of the above?” I said. “It’s not that we keep changing tacks because we’re on the wrong one. We’re figuring it out. We’re dealing with something that acts like a fragmentary possessing entity, that’s not technically demonic, that’s maybe trying to grant Hazel’s wishes, and that can apparently go forth into the world as an invisible spirit to do so. It’s a vague picture, but we’re putting it together.”
“And it doesn’t want to be known,” Amaranth said.
“Yeah. That seems important, but damned if I know where it fits in,” I said. “It doesn’t seem to have any other goals of its own, except for escaping detection and sidelining me…”
“Oh!” Amaranth said. “What if they’re the not two goals? What if they’re the same one?”
“Remember? The first thing it did that we were aware of was call attention to Hazel in a way that raised our suspicions,” Amaranth said. “And then everything since then has seemed like one really bad over-correction for that. The best we could come up with was that it wasn’t really capable of long-term planning or seeing the repercussions of its acts, but it’s hard to reconcile that idea with the kind of intricate machinations that we’ve been talking about.”
“Punching me in the kneecap is intricate?”
“Setting up Shiel to lose in a way that gave Hazel her wished-for victory and also put her in a position where she could inflict such hurt to you and reasonably believe it was her own action is fairly intricate, yes,” Amaranth said. “But what if the panic wasn’t that it was noticed, but who noticed it? I mean, we talked about it trying to convince us we were on the wrong track, but it sent Hazel to you, it sent the ring to you. And then it came after you.”
“So we’re back to I’m a threat to it,” I said. “I’d feel better about that if I had any idea how. As it is, I get all the danger of being its enemy and none of the advantage of knowing its secret weakness or whatever.”
“Well, if an infernal spirit would be afraid of me… no, now that I’m saying it out loud, I can’t believe that it’s divine,” Amaranth said. “The material realm isn’t an equal playing field. The gods have more direct access.”
“Hence why I’m weak against you, but you’re not weak against me,” I said.
“The thought of a fragmentary angelic being trying desperately to make someone’s life better while only being able to affect the mortal world through inhabiting people and burying suggestions in their psyches is a fascinating one, though,” Amaranth said. “I’m not sure what the correct course of action would be in a case like that. We couldn’t destroy it, obviously. I don’t know if anyone has devised a rite of exorcism that could apply.”
“I’m pretty sure there are wizards who can, will, and have treated divine spirits the same as elemental or infernal ones, at least with regards to the summoning and trapping and banishing,” I said. “Um… I am the closest thing to an actual wizard in our immediate circle of friends, but I have a hard time believing on a college campus with seniors and grad students and professors who have actual degrees and spell books as big as my head that I’d actually ping as a threat because I know how to read and write spells.”
“No, but maybe it is your knowledge?” Amaranth said. “Maybe it’s a mistake, as usual, to get too hung up on your infernal heritage. Maybe it’s not what you are but what you know?”
“What do I know?” I asked.
“Well… when you were describing your vague picture, it sounded like you thought it was adding up to something, or leaning in a direction,” Amaranth said. “To me? It really just sounded like re-stating all the things we know or suspect. I couldn’t make any sense of it, except for the shot in the dark of a wayward angel, and that’s more of an interesting idea than an actual theory.”
“Well, I don’t know that I actually have more than you do,” I said. “I mean, what I’m thinking of is stories, and I don’t even think they’re true stories. I mean, you talk about something going forth and arranging someone’s wishes… an invisible spirit, maybe associated with jewelry… maybe it’s just because we went over the wishing stuff so recently that it’s all fresh in my mind, but it honestly made me think of genies. You know. Djinn.”
“But djinn aren’t like that,” Amaranth said. “I mean, they’re people. Elementally-attuned people, but baby, so are you.”
“They have mortal descendants, but they are extraplanar beings,” I said. “My understanding is that they’re a bit like the fey, in that some of them are very close to mortal and live very close to the mortal world, if not in it, but others are greater and farther removed.”
“But then we’re back to the great ones being too great to pass unnoticed,” Amaranth said.
“Unless we’re talking about something fragmentary,” I said. “Remember, it was probably a pretty intensely powerful demon whose partial remains wound up in my pitchfork. A small part of something great, acting out its nature…”
“But granting wishes isn’t actually part of djinn nature,” Amaranth said. “It’s something that’s imposed on them, by people like those wizards you were talking about who think that just because you can boss someone around with magic means you have the right to, and that just because someone’s permanent residence is on another plane of existence they’re not a person…”
“You’re not wrong,” I said. “And that’s why I didn’t just spit it out earlier. You were right, my vague picture did sound like something to me, but the something it sounded like was based on stories and stereotypes.”
“Well, I mean, djinn who are associated with items have been bound into a condition of servitude, irrespective of the fact that it’s not their natural state,” Amaranth said. “So if Hazel does have something that’s possessed of a fragmentary intelligence of some power, it could be a djinn, or something similar. I mean, you thought ‘wishing ring’ for a reason, baby.”
“Yeah, but mainly because I thought it was a ring,” I said.
“Well, maybe there’s another ring involved,” Amaranth said. “Or… well, I mean, wishes and ‘genie’ lore and all that are strongly tied up with rings, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a ring. Something else Hazel has, something that she’s been in contact with…”
“Or something her ring’s been in contact with,” I said. “Remember the smudge? Best physical clue we had, for all the good it’s done us.”
“Something the ring’s been in contact with,” Amaranth repeated.
“Heh. Maybe we should check Andreas for signs of possession,” I said.
“Baby,” Amaranth said. “I think I know what it is… or at least, where it lives.”