Killing rites, p.10
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       Killing Rites, p.10
 

         Part #4 of The Black Suns Daughter series by M. L. N. Hanover
Page 10

 

  I knew Ex had a thing about me. Crush, call it. Or attraction or unrequited love. Pick a card. I’d even felt it once when we were doing a ritual that meant blending my mind and his. And my just-barely-ex-boyfriend Aubrey, and his ex-wife and still-significant Kim. We’d been in a lot of trouble at the time, and so all our attention had really been on the battle at hand. Looking back on it from here, it had been intimate in a way that almost nothing else in my life had been. I’d been able to feel Aubrey’s confusion from the inside, like it was mine. Kim’s desperation and hope. I’d been able to feel them become aware of me. But there hadn’t been words. I’d felt Ex’s desire and guilt and determination, roaring like a furnace, but not the facts and details of the life that created them.

  He sighed. His eyes closed. He didn’t look like the passions I’d felt were in him. Even his usual almost-disapproving intelligence was gone right now. I wanted to take his hand, but I wasn’t sure what I’d want after that, so I didn’t.

  “It didn’t want to come out this time, did it,” Ex said. When I didn’t answer, he opened his eyes again, pinning me with them. “When the wind demon attacked you, the rider didn’t want to come out, did it?”

  “No,” I said. “I guess not. ”

  Ex nodded, his cheek brushing against the cushion.

  “It’s aware, then,” he said. “Intelligent. It knew that manifesting would give the game away. More evidence that it’s not just spells and cants that Eric put on you. They wouldn’t have any reason to keep hidden. Or the intelligence to know when they should. ”

  I hugged my knees to my chest. Something in my belly felt cold.

  “Did you and Chapin talk about that too?” I asked.

  “Yes. ”

  “Great. ”

  “It’s what we came here for. To talk about it. He agrees that whatever it is, it’s powerful. We’d knocked the edge off the wind demon, but the way you took it out was …” He shook his head without lifting it off his arms. “That wasn’t small stuff. ”

  “Did he have any idea why we couldn’t find anything before?”

  “A few thoughts,” Ex said. “There are some kinds of riders that survive by stealth. They can live in someone for years and never show any sign, even when you know that you’re looking for something. This could be a particularly effective one of those. ”

  “Or?”

  “Or the rider may be digging in deeper. Trying to get far enough inside you that we can’t see it to pull it out. Or it may be young. Or it may be that the thing where you’re hard to see with magic extends to the rider. Or comes from it. ”

  “And no way to guess which one we’re looking at. ”

  “Well, there are some other things that point toward it being young. ”

  “Really?” I said, wanting to know and not wanting to know.

  “The fact that we’re here at all,” Ex said. “The rider can take complete control of you. We know that. But it wasn’t able to keep us from coming here. That means your will still trumps it most of the time. With a mature rider, you’ll usually see it running things all the time. That yours is … I don’t know. Intermittent? That makes it seem like it’s not full-grown. ”

  The warm feelings I’d had before were fading fast, and the hiss of the gas flame started to bother me. Anxiety and impatience nibbled at my skin, and I shifted to sit farther from the fireplace. Ex didn’t notice, or if he did, he didn’t care.

  “Chapin’s working hypothesis is that it can’t take over for a very long time. A few minutes here and there. And usually in extremis. If you’re not threatened somehow, it can’t take the reins. Influence you, maybe. Steer you. But not the all-out control like we saw today. ”

  “So as it gets older, it gets more powerful and I get … what? Slowly eaten?”

  “Maybe. Or maybe it’s more like a cocoon. The control dynamic stays right about where it is until the rider’s fully formed. Then it breaks out of the chrysalis, and the rules change all at once. ”

  The cold feeling in my gut got worse. I’d had the sense of rider and magic before, and this wasn’t it. It was old-school, please-Jesus-get-it-off-of-me fear. I had to change the subject, and I had to do it now.

  “So, Che?” I said, forcing a grin. “What’s that?”

  Ex chuckled. When he sat up, he winced, but he didn’t lie back down.

  “Father Ignatius. He was my unofficial mentor when I was a novice. He had this long beard, and when I started my regency with Father Chapin, I tried to grow one too. It didn’t go well. One morning, Carsey said it made me look like a Wookiee. I was clean-shaven by afternoon, but it stuck. ”

  His smile was gentle—chagrined and embarrassed, but gentle.

  “What did Father Ignatius think of it?” I asked.

  “Oh, he never saw it. There are a couple of years of study between your novitiate and regency. The last time I saw him was when I took first vows. I’d have been … what? Nineteen years old?”

  “What kinds of vows do they make you take at nineteen?”

  “The usual ones,” Ex said, his voice exhausted and melancholy. “Poverty, chastity, obedience. At the time I thought it was better that way. Disassociate myself from sin before I’d ever experienced it. It’s hard to miss a place you’ve never been. Worked great in theory. ”

  “But in practice, not so much,” I said.

  “Well, I made it through my first studies and regency,” Ex said.

  “You keep saying regency. Do you have to dress up in a double-breasted tailcoat and an ascot or something?”

  “Sorry. It’s a Jesuit thing where we were supposed to really commit to apostolic work. Lasts three years. ”

  “You went three years with Chapin?”

  “And Tamblen and Carsey. Miguel came in my second year. Tomás finished his regency the year before I came in, and then went on mission. He took his final vows in Japan and came back just before I left, so he was sort of before and after. The new kid. Alexander? I didn’t meet him until today. ”

  “Wonder what Carsey calls him,” I said. “I mean, I didn’t see your attempt, but when it comes to un-dignified facial hair, Alexander pretty much takes it walking. ”

  “It did look kind of … pubic, didn’t it?”

  “Yeah, that’s exactly it,” I said. “So why’d you do it?”

  “Leave them, you mean?”

  “That too, I guess. But I meant why did you go in the first place? When I was nineteen, I was about trying to get out from under the church. Anything secular was cool. Why take vows?”

  Ex breathed in deeply, held the air inside himself, and then let it seep back out, but it wasn’t exactly a sigh. It seemed more like he was steeling himself for something more painful than the wounds on his back.

  “I was wondering when you were going to ask me that,” Ex said. “God called me. ”

  “Really?”

  “Yes. Really. ”

  I tried not to smile or roll my eyes.

  “He stopped by the bedroom one night after prayers? I mean, how does that happen?”

  Ex shrugged.

  “It’s different for everyone. When I was ten years old, I wanted to be a soccer star. Didn’t have the build for football. That was my brother’s thing, anyway. He was on the varsity team at the high school, and he’d have ground me into the turf if I’d tried to horn in on his territory. I went to youth soccer, I watched all the games I could find. I had an old poster of Pelé in my room. And then one morning I got up, and I knew I was supposed to be a priest. I took down the poster, and that was that. ”

  “You just knew?”

  “I did. I didn’t tell my father about it for a few years, but by the time I did, he’d already figured out what I was up to. He didn’t like it. Always suspected I was playing some kind of angle. The idea that I’d actually been called just didn’t seem plausible to him. But I finished high school a little early, I had good grad
es, and I’d gotten to know all the priests at church. When I applied to become a novice, it was easy. I taught catechism. I worked with the poor and the homeless. I studied. It was more like being home than being home ever was. When the time came for vows, I didn’t hesitate. I was … certain. God called me. I answered. Everything was just the way it was supposed to be. I felt blessed. ”

  “Never looked back, then?”

  “Not then. During first studies, I found myself drawn to the rites of exorcism. I read about possession, the way the soul can be corrupted. There’s a special program for people with a talent for that kind of ministry, and I fought to get into it. I was good. Had a talent for it like no one had seen in a generation. When Father Chapin agreed to take me on, I knew that this had been the plan all along. God had made me to fight the devil and save the innocent, and He’d put me in place so that I could do it.

  “I was a weapon in His hand. Tamblen and Miguel and Carsey. Father Chapin. I was going to spend my life with them. They were more than family. They were the other guys in my foxhole. And we saved people. We really did. ”

  Ex shifted his weight and winced. A dark spot was blooming on the towel draping his shoulder where he was bleeding through the bandage. The blanket pooled in his lap, and one bare leg shifted out toward the fire. His pale skin, the angle of his thigh, the distant expression, all conspired to make him seem like a sculpture worked out of marble. Something hard and beautiful and cold.

  “And then?” I said.

  “And then,” he echoed, like he was agreeing with me. “And then we lost one. Badly. ”

  “Isabel?”

  His eyes went a little wider, but he nodded.

  “The first guy … Um. Miguel? He mentioned the name when we got here,” I said. “That’s all. ”

  “Yes, Isabel. ”

 
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