Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Harrow saw her for the first time when she was five.
She was her first summoning she did entirely by herself. She had been learning the theorems and the languages from when she was three, slowly and carefully shaping them in her mouth from almost the moment she’d started to talk at all. Mother and Father had had her observing summonings from about the same time - she still remembered the flat terror of the first, of seeing Mother’s study thrown into disarray by the creature, trembling in her circle of safety and crying; she remembered Mother making her recite the Rules, afterwards, until her throat was hoarse (and Father giving her water with a drop of lemon in for her throat, and telling her that the fear was the point, and would help her remember the Rules). She had been summoning with supervision since she was four and had bound one in heavy ties of Sumerian and silver last week, blood leaking from the pores of her face as she looked upon its leopard-like shape.
But this was the first one she would do entirely by herself. She scrubbed the slate within the study entirely clean, took a fresh length of chalk - it’s always better to use new and whole chalk than to risk making a mistake when switching to another - and carefully etched out the geometric lines of the summoned’s circle, the layers of protection and naming and binding, and the summoner’s around herself. She didn’t need to, but she took her little ruler out of her pocket and used it to check the circles were correct, that none of the chalk had smudged, that she had room to lift her arms without breaking the circle. She lifted the heavy weight of the bell, holding its tongue so it didn’t ring before she wanted it to, and set it between her feet. The matchbox was too big for her hands, and she almost fumbled it - it is vital you maintain composure, always, for a moment of unbridled emotion can be your undoing - but managed to barely catch it in her tiny hands and light the candles and incense burners before the match burned the tips of her fingers and she hurled it well away from her and the circles, sticking her hands in her mouth for a moment.
Then, her hands clenched tight against the sting of the burn, eyes watering from the pungent scent of the incense, she chanted through the cant that would summon a minor mote from outside reality and give it a bridge into the human world. For a moment, she feared she’d lost her place, but the soft curls of Latin fell steadily from her as she raised her arms -
- and there was a girl in the circle opposite her.
She fell into it with a yelp and flailing of arms - she looked to be no older than Harrowhark herself, not that she had any experience with other children. Her clothes were strange and pearlescent, hair a shockingly unreal splash of red over brown and freckled skin.
She was most certainly not a minor mote.
Harrowhark wouldn’t admit this at the time, but she panicked. It was in direct violation of one of the Rules - do not show Them weakness - but she did. She knew her summoning had worked, she had felt it, felt the universe lean in to listen to her, but it had gone wrong somehow and something - anything - could have ended up in the circle opposite her.
She formed a diamond window with her fingers and slipped them through the shapes necessary to form a connection blocking net while she began a generic banishment - she stumbled the syllables and had to start again, the thing in the other circle was groaning but it was feigning, it would get her because -
The most important Rule. Demons are very bad, Harrowhark, and they will hurt you if they can.
(She remembered learning that one; would always remember learning it even if time would shift the emotions she viewed it through. Demons are very bad, and they will hurt you if they can. They’re not of our reality; they are anathema to us. You must never give them the opportunity.)
“Ow, hey, wait - !” said the unknown demon in the other circle, its elbows apparently rubbed raw. “What are you - ”
Finally, heart pounding and with that upset, hurting feeling in her throat of having failed, Harrowhark managed to spit out the binding net. Its lace-black draperies settled over the demon, and the thing hissed out another exclamation of pain. Clumsily, she fumbled the bell off the ground - she didn’t hold it right at first - and there was a flat gong as it rang once. Oh nine hells and their attendant lords, she was ruining everything -
“What is this? Hey - who - who am I?”
That. That made Harrowhark pause. Had she - somehow done so poorly she’d not only failed to summon the correct demon, but also summon some form of failed, incorrect being - no, it was a trick. “Silence.”
“My name’s not silence. That’s a dumb name.” The demon hissed as it made contact with the net again. “Ow - ow! ”
“Shut up!” Banishment - general banishment. She needed to stop engaging with it - “You irritating, wretched being.” She couldn’t stop the words spilling out of her like water from a cracked vessel. No, no, I need control - “You’re not what I wanted! I hate you!”
The circles should keep her safe, even if she had somehow ruined everything. She controlled her shaking, began to chant the banishment, using her fingers to keep the net around the demon tight.
The demon scowled at her. Its eyes - she hadn’t noticed before, but they were golden, impossibly golden and bright, shimmering and shining like someone had plucked stars from the sky and set them in the thing’s head. Inhuman, wrong. Demons will hurt you if they can. “Well, I hate you too.” It grinned. “Also, you set the carpet behind you on fire.”
Harrowhark’s head whipped round and, as she finished the banishment and the thing went, she said one of the words Crux had said after dropping the athame case on his foot that she wasn’t meant to say.
She did put the fire out eventually. But Mother and Father were furious. And it had all been the demon’s fault.
Harrow heaved the huge steamer trunk into the room she’d be staying in for the next week. She hauled it with the grim determination of a prisoner on a chain gang, her shirt tight against her with sweat pooling uncomfortably on her lower back, arms and fingers burning and screaming. Her hair, already a little too long, had clumped and clung into tendrils curled across her face and neck, her makeup running and smeared against them.
“Do you… need help?” asked the idiot who had been assigned to show her to her room.
“No. I’m fine.” She would glare, but she’s not sure she has the energy even for that. She settles for fixing her dead black eyes somewhere on the idiot’s face and waiting for the natural unnaturalness of being a diabolist - that creeping sense of dread people should get when she’s in the room from having spent too much time in the presence of things that literally erode reality - to drive them away.
“And you have your schedule? I’m pretty sure Classics candidates are meant to be meeting in about an hour - ”
Harrow did manage a glare at the un-driven idiot at that. “Thank you. I am aware of the schedule.” She bit the words off like the sharp lines of the gestural symbols of a banishment. She hauled the steamer further into the room’s dim orange light and considered trying to fuck with the thin lines of minor magic that represented his attention.
No. Too much energy. Not what she was good at, either. And for tonight she needed to conserve energy, fall into a particular role.
“You do know you’re only staying for a few days - ”
The steamer shifted itself against her foot sharply, digging into her aching shin, and she kicked it firmly. Retrieved her other two suitcases and closed the door in the babbling idiot’s face. She heard them mutter an insult, and leave, their footsteps echoing on the steep narrow staircase that had been such arduous work to climb.
She took a moment to look at the room. So this is Oxford. The building from the outside had been almost as imposing as Drearburh Hall, if much more ornate - curlicues of glistening sandstone and carved grey gargoyles, weathered by age - but the inside was, apart from the nightmare staircase, far more modern, albeit a cheap form of modernity. The beige wallpaper sagged in the dim overhead light, the desk sad and topped like a kitchen bench. Mold grew on the corner of the ceiling.
The steamer shook again, more insistently, thumping off the floor.
Harrow opened the first of the two smaller suitcases. Retrieved the two rolls of prepared masking tape, measured a rough rectangle around the hideous bed with at least three feet of space between its edge and the edge of the bed. Laid the tape down, making sure she cut at a particular phrase, even if that left her rectangle a little lopsided, the silver wire she’d pressed into it gleaming up at her. As the steamer trunk began shaking in earnest, she laid the second roll of masking tape around the edge of the room, feeling the magic snap into effect as she finished. No connections from outside this room. As good as soundproofing.
Then, finally, she undid the two latches on the steamer trunk, and undid the other sealings on it with a few sharp, cracking twists of her fingers.
It took several moments for the thing in the suitcase to unfold itself from the position it had been in, and several obscene cracking and squishing noises that were likely entirely unnecessary. Eventually Harrow looked back, and there was Gideon.
“You,” said Gideon. “Hit every single step of that staircase right against my knee.”
Passing over the ridiculousness of this accusation, of Gideon remaining in a human body during transportation, especially one with vulnerable joints, and of - “What are you wearing?”
Most humans could only perceive a single ‘plane’ of reality. In truth, reality was split into many but, like wavelengths of light, there were seven ‘primary’ planes that most beings that intersected and interacted with the physical world made use of. On the first plane - and on the other six, most likely, another of Gideon’s oddities - Gideon was clad in a sober black suit - good, if far too tight against entirely unnecessary muscles - and a pair of mirrored aviator shades through which the faint glow of her eyes could be seen.
“Nothing at all~” Gideon’s smile grew incredibly wide.
Harrow did not blush at this, because that would be ludicrous. “That’s not - the sunglasses.”
“I had fuckall to do in there, so I came up with a backstory. Also, I saw it in a comic.”
Harrow reached up - damn Gideon’s height, damn the fact that she was unmistakably feminine despite being a demon - and pulled the sunglasses off. When she looked up, a new pair had already pushed out of Gideon’s face, and the one in her hands was gone. “No. You are not dressing as anything inspired by your comics.”
“It was a demon wearing the outfit in the comic. Be glad I’ve still got my shirt on at least.” The glow from the eyes grew brighter, and the demon’s bizarrely human bones lit up too, like the starfire that lit her eyes had spread down her whole body. “I haven’t had any other inspiration, and it does seem a shame to deprive the stuck up academics here a view of my sweet abs...”
Harrow did not blush. She scowled, lips pursing together into a thin line.
“Is that a yes please?”
“Keep the suit and sunglasses then.” Harrow hissed. She had tried, for a while, to think of Gideon in the appropriate objective terms that normally applied to demons. But there was no denying that she was distractingly female. And at least this way her ridiculousness makes her less so.
“Kinda pokey, isn’t it?” Gideon toed the edge of the marker around Harrow’s bed, sparks pinging where her foot met the barrier. Already her presence was distorting the room, a stack of magazines and comics scattered haphazard across the desk. “From the way you were going on about it I was expecting Oxford to be fancy. Like a castle on a cliff by the ocean or something.”
Harrow ignored that stupidity, and the other sprawled pile of comics piling itself up by the window, and instead sat down on the bed. “Do you remember the rules we discussed, Griddle?”
Gideon wrinkled her nose. “Yes, because you made me repeat them twenty fucking times before you shoved me in that trunk.”
“Repeat them to me.”
“For fuck’s sake - ”
Harrow formed the first two gestural syllables of the Everlasting Frost. “Repeat them.”
“Fine.” Gideon lounged into the moth-eaten armchair. “You’re here in not-bonewitch mode for your Classics and Oriental Studies interviews - which’ll be hilarious because like you can ever stop being a freaky bonewitch. Which is why you’re actually here for, uh… magic studies - ”
“Yeah, that word. You’re here for that. When you’re doing the classics stuff, I’m meant to stay here and do sweet fuck-all unless you say otherwise. When it comes to the Thaumaturgy things, that’s where I help you out. I’m meant to be your familiar, but I’m not a demon because demons are spooky or some shit.”
Harrow ignored the complete minimalist nature of that statement that ignored that most practitioners’ response to discovering diabolists was to murder them as quickly as possible before their summonings inevitably went wrong. “Continue.”
“I’m not allowed to talk to anyone, which’ll make selling the whole thing tough because you can’t lie because of magic shit. I’m not to allow harm to come to you by either my action or inaction, physically, mentally, karmically or spiritually, which feels excessive. I am to be, for all intents and purposes, your bound partner and ally and whatever actually is involved in the familiar bond. And once this is done…” Gideon sat forward, and Harrow was reminded that she was a demon, one she had made a contract with, one she had allowed a foothold into reality - “Once this is done, you’ll let me go, and erase my name from your family books.” She leant back again. “So are you finally done bothering me about this?”
“This is important, Griddle.” Harrow’s hands fisted in her skirt. “This may be the most important thing I ever do, ever have to do, ever. You cannot set a single foot wrong, or I am in ruins.” Demons will hurt you if they can and she had placed everything on the back of Gideon not betraying her, of Gideon not destroying her down to bone and leaving her a barren, empty soul.
“Then why pick me for it? You never answered me when I asked before. Why not that toad thing, Ortus, or Aiglamene, or just say you never got a damn familiar. Why me?”
“I - ” Harrow shut her mouth with a click of teeth. No, too close to falsehood. “I do not want to answer that.”
“Consider it part of us trying to work together on this. If I’m going to be helping you, I want to know.” And she looked so infuriatingly serious as she said it, sunglasses and all.
“Because…” Harrow licked her dry and cracked lips. Resigned herself to the loss of power from the lie. “Because your loss is the one easiest to bear. Be it to finished contract or mishap.”
Something in Gideon’s face hardened at that, and the too hot fire of her eyes shone brighter. “Fine. Fuck me for asking. We going to get started, or what?”
The lie had hit her like a blow to the stomach, dragging power from her body. But better than saying the truth. Anything was better than that.
So, instead, she managed to force out from her quivering lungs, “Yes. Let’s get started.”
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
In which Harrow and Gideon meet several times more, culminating in Harrow granting Gideon an objectionable name; in the present, Harrow and Gideon clash while Harrow sets off to find the Thaumaturgy interviews.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The third (and several times after) that Harrow saw Gideon were much the same sort of incident, between the ages of six and eight.
Harrowhark would follow instructions for what she was summoning to the letter, the angle, the tiniest detail. And instead the demon with the red hair would show up, usually kicking and screaming - but bound, thankfully. It would ask its name, be rude, and Harrowhark would banish it. There was normally an incident with fire as well - though she got very good at hiding knocked over candles, burning incense coals, and embers settling on thick rugs. Regardless of how irritating the demon’s comments on this were.
It would happen at random. It did not matter if she summoned in Urdu, in Latin, or in Greek. It did not matter if she quadruple checked every syllable, gesture and mark. It did not matter if she made burnt offerings, raw offerings, or no offerings. There was no pattern to its interference.
Finally, when she was eight and had been attempting to summon a form of lamia (the demon had announced its interruption of an arrival by saying, “You suck at playing that lute, it sounds like you’re torturing a goat.”), Harrowhark had had enough. She threw down the lute, carefully enough to avoid the candles or the grill of meats she’d prepared as an offering - which had, in fact, involved slaughtering a goat, an incredibly arduous and messy task that was now entirely pointless - and asked, for the first time since she had first seen it, twelve times ago, “Why are you here?”
The demon had the gall to shrug. At some point in the last two years, its white robes had been replaced with a plain black sleeveless top showing its arms and some form of loose trousers. “You called for me.”
“I most clearly did not.”
The demon shrugged again, its smile bright and wide. “Then it was because it sounded like someone was torturing a goat. Thought I’d check it out.”
Harrowhark did not growl, but she did begin the first gesture of a punitive measure her Mother had taught her the previous week - she could still remember the cold feeling of space compressing, the odd heat of it -
“Stop that.” The demon had made its way to the offerings grill. “Ugh, what the fuck is this shit? It smells and looks gross.”
“Language,” Harrowhark said instead of explaining the myth of Prometheus and the importance of fatty offal as an offering to spirits whose natures had been codified and tamed in the wild lands of Arcadia.
The demon made a confusing gesture with two of its fingers. “Bahll eis korakas, lekriteh ehdonothekair.”
Its pronunciation was appalling, and Harrowhark’s vocabulary wasn’t large enough to know all the words it had said, but the intent was clear. She squashed the part of her that had tried to be impressed by its knowledge of Greek, the apropos of using it in this situation. Instead she hissed out the incantation and finished the last few gestures.
The demon cried out in agony as the air around it visibly distorted and clamped down on it. Demons will hurt you if they can, and Harrowhark had added her own addition to the end of that. So hurt them first.
“You keep asking me for your name.” She let herself smile as the demon thrashed against the ties that bound it, all pretense of agony gone in favour of snarling rage, its eyes and bones glowing that brilliant, shimmering gold. “Well, how about - ” Her eyes fell on the offering grill and she smiled wider. “How about I name you Griddle?”
“Fuck off you - that’s not my name, I know it’s not - ”
“Griddle!” Harrowhark repeated, tying the name to the demon by repetition. “You are Griddle, I name you Griddle - !”
That was the moment her parents had burst in.
Things had devolved, from there.
The Classics meeting was at six-thirty. She had checked the details in the JCR, hunching under the presence of people talking to each other, and had checked the interview times as well. Her first one wasn’t until the following morning. So, as it was five-forty now, she had some time before the meeting, and the whole night after to find the Thaumaturgy interview and begin that process, whatever it would involve.
The weight of the lie she’d had to say made her slow however, as did Gideon’s harsh glare on her back, the twin spotlights of her eyes piercing through her skin to her frantic, weak heart. Compared to that, the JCR was almost a blessing, even with its too-loud conversations between private school boys playing pool and laughing. There were other people too but they seemed - lesser, in the face of that wall of noise.
She retreated to the comfortable, awful familiarity of Gideon’s hatred. “Come on, Griddle. We must hurry.”
“Want me to pick you up and carry you there, umbral shorty?”
Harrow did her best to convey how little she wanted that with her eyes alone. Her legs still were shaky from her lie, but she wasn’t that pathetic. And besides, she had no idea what it would look like to passers by - Gideon was nearly invisible on the first and second planes, and Harrowhark floating down the street hitting her invisible steed would almost certainly flout whatever masquerade the Faculty here preferred. In fact, on the fifth plane up -
“Why,” she asked, teeth clenched and shaking as she began to stride towards the reception and the streets outside, “do you have horns, Griddle.”
“See, I’m glad you asked - ”
“What part of do not give away your nature is too hard for the peanut you use as a brain to comprehend?!”
“Harrow, we both know demons do not actually look like buff girls with horns. Other than me, I guess.” Gideon paused, drawing herself up with the dignity they both knew she possessed not a crumb of. “And, they’re ram horns.”
Infuriating. Hideous. And Gideon was keeping pace with her, despite her walking fast enough that her heart and lungs burned. She couldn’t even insult the idiot properly while moving at this speed. She huffed out into the orange-lit streets of Oxford, ignoring the way the student greeters looked at her - it was like they had never seen anyone wearing proper formal wear before, honestly - and set off in the appointed direction.
When the letter had arrived, announcing the nine-year cycle of Thaumaturgic Studies degrees was open, it had come with a riddle. A riddle she had solved within three minutes, which had been a good thing since the letter had turned itself into a small iron key the next day. She wouldn’t deny that it had been partly due to the two years of careful research that she had put into the degree beforehand, but she had solved the riddle. The history of the degree -
A giggling distracted her. Gideon only started laughing harder at her glare. “They’re more concerned about your power walking than your mega gothness.” Her laughter turned into deranged cackling.
Harrow sneered, an expression she was very very good at. “I must hurry,” she managed to say. “I only have a limited amount of time - ”
“About that. Why are we going to the Thaumaturgy thing now when the Classics thing is right around the corner? You’re exhausted and sweaty, and I’m pretty sure that’s not the impression you want to make. Unless you want people to say ‘Oh no, a wreck of an awful gremlin,’ instead of just ‘Oh no, an awful gremlin.’”
“Speed is of the essence, Griddle. Not that I expect you to understand, given your nature.” She focused on walking for another few seconds then - “I mean that you’re lazy, not some obscure comment otherwise.”
“Oh good, I was worried that comment might’ve been the dehydration. What with you sweating buckets and not having eaten since we left Drearburh. Even then, I’m pretty sure you had Crux’s toast, which might as well just be starvation. Seriously, how about instead of storming off to this library, you sit down in a cafe and have some sort of pastry. Maybe we’ll both get lucky and you’ll accidentally choke on it and die.”
“Speed is of the essence. I must present myself as the best possible candidate. I am aware that several candidates may have arrived in the city earlier, maybe even live here. I must be among the first to arrive. You have no comprehension of what this will mean for my house - ”
Gideon rolled her head back, exposing the length of her neck, and made a noise somewhere between a yawn and a sigh. Harrow’s eyes didn’t trace along the length of the muscle there, because it was fake, it was an image Gideon was projecting, and thinking about it was entirely fruitless. Instead she put her head down and walked faster.
The Thaumaturgy Faculty was, obviously, based in Duke Humphrey’s Library. The department had been officially established during Henry VIII’s reign, as part of the codifying of studies of magic separate to Theology, and despite the problems it had faced under subsequent rulers, had begun its steady nine year cycle. Of course, teaching of magic in Oxford vastly predated this, but if there was a building that would be the heart of the Thaumaturgy Faculty, it would be the Old Bodleian in Duke Humphrey’s.
Canaan College was some distance from it, however - a full thirteen minutes walk, Harrow had calculated, what with its placement in the section of the city confusingly, though semi-appositely, named Jericho. Walking from there to the library and back would eat almost a whole half-hour of time, giving her just over twenty minutes to enter the library, find whoever was giving the interviews, and determine what the process was.
She could manage it, of course. But it was still time pressure.
And the worst of it was that Gideon was right and she probably did look awful. Her makeup was streaked with sweat, her face felt blotchy and hot underneath it, and one of her gloves was sliding off her hand. But she had no damn time to freshen up - if only Gideon’s stupid suitcase hadn’t been so heavy, and Canaan hadn’t decided to place her up three flights of narrow stone stairs -
But it wasn’t that. It was the fucking lie. And it wasn’t just physically that it had weakened her - she could feel how the bone studs in her ears had grown with ambient magical life, pricking at her skin, the teeth on her necklace tucked under her dress half-mouthing at the top of her sternum hungrily. Breaking your word as a practitioner left you open, and there was no telling what might be allowed in.
“Seriously. Harrow. You need to eat.”
Harrow shot Gideon another glare.
“You made me swear to protect you physically. Watching you collapse of hunger doesn’t fall under that category, I’m pretty sure.” Damn Gideon and her longer legs. Damn her and her ability to walk backwards giving Harrow a critical eye over her stupid sunglasses that for some reason wasn’t filled with hate. Damn her for her ability to pretend that she cared.
“I will be fine. I can have some sustenance later.”
“Are you even planning on sleeping?”
Harrow wasn’t, but she wasn’t going to tell Gideon that. It was clear she’d left a loophole in the compact, and a stupidly obvious one in hindsight. The demon was going to interpret ‘protect’ as widely as possible, hindering her efforts. Demons will hurt you if they can. Stupid to leave that up to chance.
“You can’t pass this stupid interview if you’re literally dead, you utter bone-brained moron witch. At least tell me to grab you a burger or something. I can get one from a terrible fast food place, and then it’ll only taste of salt.” Gideon looked horrendously disconcerted, which put paid to the lie. Like she would ever care if I did collapse and die. It would free her faster. “See, this bookshop we’re walking past has a cafe. It would take like, five minutes to buy a shit sandwich - ”
“No. That is a command.”
Gideon scowled. “Fine.”
They tromped on for another half-minute and then they were finally there. The library was a squat and broad structure of beige stone, sloped steps shining wetly in the orange light. The front was an ugly mess of glass behind fat square pillars leading to rough shield-like rosettes topping each one.
It was also very closed. The library she needed to get to was on the first floor, and for a moment she had the delirious and foolish image of Gideon picking her up and throwing her through one of the upper windows. But no - she’d need to find a subtler way to enter. She began stalking around the rounded corner. Maybe if she -
“You haven’t got the price of a cuppa tea, have you?”
Harrow startled, quite badly, and almost tripped over her own boots. Only Gideon’s broad frame kept her upright, and she tried not to burn from the heat of the demon’s body - demon, have to always remember she’s a demon - behind her.
Somehow, as she’d turned the corner, a hunched figure had ambushed her from beside the bicycle racks. They’d half stood up from a mess of blankets and coats and sleeping bags - old, and shorter than Harrow with their age.
And they were -
They were not right. Not just because homelessness wasn’t good or just or fair, but also they didn’t look -
Harrow had limited experience with the world. Drearburh was cold and isolated, and she had only ventured outside its walls recently, briefly. She had homeschooled herself through the standardised tests she’d need to apply here, only exiting her home for the awful events of the exams themselves. But this man was not homeless.
It was the subtleties. His clothes were all white - a loose and puffy white jacket and hooded sweatshirt, white loose sporting pants of some description, and were spotless. He had a golden beanie. His lined faced was smiling, beard perfectly trimmed, and he had some sort of multicoloured sash wrapped around his waist.
The last indicator that this man was not what he seemed was the very subtle way he’d reacted to Gideon looming up behind Harrow and hissing in her ear, “For fuck’s sake give the poor bastard some money.”
Non-practitioners shouldn’t be able to see her. Unless he was particularly genetically lucky, or possessed one of the forms of madness that came from true understanding. So he was a practitioner, or something like it, and the coincidence of him being outside her goal -
She examined the battered paper cup he held out to her. Empty.
The obvious response was to deposit the key that had been the letter. ‘Unlock’ her entrance to the interviews. But. The key was - it represented her chance to rebuild, to renew her family away from her parents’ shadow. It represented her path to a life without fear of reprisal and death for the horror of her existence.
It represented knowledge. And every practitioner should know that knowledge was not something sacrificed willingly.
Harrowhark kept her gaze fixed on the little old man as she carefully reached into her purse, pulled out one of her crisp, vibrant purple twenty-pound notes, and folded it into his cup.
The old man straightened, beaming. “Well, how generous!” His words had shifted, rounded, firm. Harrow did her best not to order Gideon to start shaking him because had she passed, had she been right, had she passed, had she been right. “Hail, then!”
A surge of relief she almost collapsed completely against Gideon. “Hail, and well met.”
“Hail!” His smile was as beaming white and wide as his clothes. “Hail to - ah, the Lady Harrowhark of no last name - ” and here he gave the broadest and most rheumy wink Harrow had ever seen - “and hail, hail to her familiar.”
“‘Sup, that’s me,” said Gideon, ruining any weight the moment might have had.
Harrow didn’t stop to consider if her elbow was boney enough before jamming it very subtly back into the demon’s stomach, just above where the hip-bone would be if she were human.
The old man fluttered his hands excitedly. Now he’d dropped the act, everything he did seemed terribly excited, as though he might burst out of his own skin at any moment, and do something truly horrifying like try to hug her. “Oh - it’s always so thrilling to meet the practitioners coming to our humble university. Follow me, follow me!”
“What drugs do you think he’s on?” Gideon was bent nearly double to whisper in her ear, and out of the corner of her eye, Harrow could see her grin stretch shark-wide. “Hey, imagine if he’s a member of the faculty. I might get to actually see you go insane.”
Please, no. Harrow swallowed, then walked in the footsteps of the sprightly old man, Gideon an omnipresent shadow at her shoulder.
This is the first half of what was originally chapter two, but I wanted to publish it because a) it was getting long and b) we need distractions, tonight of all nights. Many thanks to my talented staff of beta-readers, Anna, Elldritch, and Freezed, and to my beautiful fiancee (Taylor, who helped with some dialogue) and my beautiful girlfriend (Jess).
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
In which Harrowhark struggles with Gideon’s existence and emotion; in the present, Harrow meets each of her new rivals and (potential) colleagues, while struggling with feelings, both positive and negative.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Nine was an important number. The third of a given conflict or clash would either have a different resolution or a reinforcement of the existing power structure; beat someone thrice by thrice, nine times, and their life was almost certainly in the palm of your hand.
The next nine times Griddle appeared to her, both she and Harrowhark were silent. Harrowhark would quickly prepare the banishment ritual her parents had shown her after that last time, and Griddle would just sit there and stare at her with its inhuman, too-golden eyes.
Her parents had made her promise to tell them when and if Griddle appeared instead of a given summoning. She did, mostly. Twice, she suffered through the loss of power and openness of a lie, and they knew anyway. She didn’t know if they tried to summon Griddle again themselves, or if they’d tried to classify her further.
She knew they were afraid of it. And to see her parents afraid…
The tenth time - the twenty-third overall, a whole prime of no particular significance - Griddle finally spoke again.
“I worked out how to do the sword thing again.”
Harrow did her best not to twitch, to focus on the ninefold array she was constructing. A general purpose demonic shield, targeted and specific in each layer. But the memory of Griddle screaming at the thing her parents had called up, its presence in the air like a tangible nothing, the porcelain of its face smiling and the cracks that made spreading through the air -
The chalk fumbled in her grasp and she almost dropped it. She kept going.
“I dunno how I did it the first time. Or how I did it not here, given - well, given that when I’m not here, I’m sorta nowhere.”
Harrowhark paused. Worked her throat. Eventually, she found her dry lips parting as she said, “Why do you come when I do not call?”
“I don’t know. Because it’s better than being nowhere?”
The next line of chalk Harrow made was too wide and harsh from the pressure of her fingers. “That isn’t a satisfactory answer.”
Griddle gave a little laugh. “It’s the only one I’ve got.”
Harrow - Harrow paused and risked a glance at the demon. It was - she was sitting crosslegged. Something in the line of her face was so horribly sad and worn, its golden eyes glimmering, and Harrowhark felt inexplicable, unstoppable anger swelling in her. What right did this monster have to feel sadness? It was what it was, made for its purpose. It was a nightmare beast born of blood, and she dared to look sad?
Harrowhark finished the banishment array in swelling rage, her eyes blinking back - back the thick dust in the room, obviously. She sealed it with a flourish, glared at Griddle.
Who risked a smile, the utter bitch. “I remembered my real name, by the way. I dunno why I didn’t know it before. I think the sword helped.”
Harrowhark ignored the demon and its blandishments and lies. She had bound its name to Griddle, and Griddle it would be.
“My name’s Gideon.”
She found the door the next day.
The old man led them around the back of the building and down a flight of stone stairs worn smooth and concave in the middle. He paused to unlock an iron gate soaked in peeling black paint and Harrow and Gideon followed him into a low ceilinged room in the same dusty beige stone as the building above.
The room was full of people. Harrow wasn’t first.
She didn’t think it, but the word failure reverberated behind her ribs like a drum as the little white-clad not-beggar trotted deeper into the room. She’d solved the riddle before she even arrived, but somehow these people had arrived first, would get credit for arriving first, even if they’d had earlier interviews that let them arrive weeks before.
Nine in the room, two clad like the beggar from outside. Another one was on the second plane up in a thick red uniform coat - so not a candidate then, praise Baal. Even so, three to six candidates arriving before her? The gall and shame of it was near-crippling. Her cold sweat clinging to her, dragging her down into the cold stone floor.
Perhaps they weren’t all candidates though. Her eyes slid to the nearest pair, both of whom were clad almost as casually as the student greeters had been. They existed somewhere in the span between youth and middle age - the woman was short, with nearly curly brown hair, and both had soft and friendly faces. Harrow was faced with the horrifying prospect that these two might be faculty, until the woman said in a warm, crisp voice, “How many more are we waiting for then? I do still have to pick up the kids from their after-school clubs and give my own interviews.”
She wore a heavy aran sweater, and looked just like the sort of kind, awful person a Harrowhark of age thirteen had dreaded the mortal government might send from social services. A closer look was, in its own fashion, even more terrifying; the sweater’s woven patterns weren’t simple knit but ogham, and the geometric shapes of spirit protection circles, hidden in the thick knit. An exorcist, then.
The man beside her was even less assuming - he wore actual jeans and had the air of a jolly stuffed toy, his t-shirt proclaiming that one should not ‘wake him from his boo-ty sleep’ with a small cartoon ghost on the front. He had to be her familiar, despite that - she couldn’t see what he was on the other planes, but his connection to her was thick, braided like rope.
“Oh, Dr. Pent, just three more candidates.” The old man bounced excitedly. “Oh! This is Harrowhark, and her familiar - Harrowhark, this is Dr. Abigail Pent, English Literature faculty at Wadham. We were so glad to receive her application at last.”
Harrow ignored the outstretched hand, and gestured for Gideon to do the same - her other rivals, there. A stretched boy, sitting against one of the walls, his nose in a book. The majority of him was hidden under scarf, grey coat, and glasses, but he looked up briefly. Behind him was a thing that looked like a woman of indeterminate height, more inhuman features being added to it as she cycled through the planes until on the seventh it became something with long limbs folded into human proportions. Two of its arms were wrapped protectively around the pulsating tome embedded in its torso, two rested on the shoulders of its master, and the last two sat on the hilts of two vicious looking short swords. Harrow didn’t recognise the creature at all, and slid its master onto her list as the most notable threat.
Or - or he would have been, if not for the humiliatingly young-looking man in white, whose very presence reeked of antiseptic and rosemary. His glaring eyes hadn’t left her and Gideon since they’d entered the room. She didn’t even need to look at the knight clad in rusting armour behind him to know what the boy was - knight of St. Lazarus, if he suspects what I am -
Dr. Pent gave a little cough - she’d turned her discarded handshake into a wave. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. And your familiar. Are you here for undergraduate interviews as well? That must be quite the challenge.”
Harrow was fine with many things being assumed of her, but that she was a simpering fool was not one. “I believe I am capable of handling it, thank you.”
Fuck, she wanted Gideon’s assessment of the candidates too, but she couldn’t ask her now. Not with everyone around who might hear her speak. If Gideon was really her familiar she could call on that bond to communicate instead but - no. She wasn’t fool enough to invite a demon into herself.
“You look like you’ve had quite the journey,” said the familiar, unhelpfully. Its smile was friendly, hair in loose curls. “I’m Magnus, Abigail’s husband.”
Harrow’s brain completely short-circuited at that statement, trying to work out - and Dr. Pent, the name was familiar, she’d written some works in the Drearburh library - and she’d been stupid enough to marry a - ?
Something of this must have shown on her face, because Pent swatted at her familiar - her husband?! - and sighed. “Magnus! Don’t - it’s rather more complicated than that, and rather personal, I’m afraid. He’s a ghost.”
She didn’t know much about ghosts. The undead weren’t part of her generalist research after - well, after. She had instead looked at the nature of Others in general, common kinds of practitioner, animism in practice and many things in light theory. Certainly nothing as specific as ghosts, keeping one as a familiar, or marrying one. Or raising a ghost one had been married to. The marriage thing was - Harrow swore she could feel Gideon’s devious smile behind her.
Perhaps that was what made her straighten her spine as best she could and fix the pair with the studied calm of a diabolic nun. “I understand your words.” Which was, in practitioner terms, the politest possible way of saying fuck off that Harrow knew.
The ghost-husband made a little face at that, but Pent, clearly having some intelligence, simply bobbed her head and backed off, leaving Harrow and Gideon alone, admonishing her - husband - for making ‘the girl’ uncomfortable.
Alone relatively speaking, of course. The skinny boy and the servant of St. Lazarus were still watching her, the presence of Gideon at her shoulder. For once, she was thankful that Gideon had such an intimidating physique, though the sunglasses and stupid red hair probably didn’t help.
A clatter from the stairs, and one of the non-beggars - they must have gone upstairs while Harrow was dealing with the curiosity of the other candidates - trotted down followed by three figures. They were talking amongst each other, loudly enough that their voices echoed in the low room, but quietly enough that their words couldn’t be quite heard.
And all three were hideously awful in a variety of different ways, a trinity of terror.
The first looked, at an initial glance, like the sort of private school boy who had been blathering loudly in the JCR of Canaan College. A second look resolved his hair into shimmering, impossibly coiffed locks, lengthened his face and ears, and turned his suit into bronzed, engraved armour, a pleased with itself little jacket slung around his shoulders. A high fae - a real one, not a fake like Gideon. His gaze had already slid to her with sneering imperiousness, hand folded over the ornate rapier at his waist. Half turning his head to make a comment.
The other two were a pair. Young women - both dressed hideously inappropriately for such an event. The taller of the two had puffy, brilliant curls that seemed to have trapped the sun and brought it with them, waving around her head like a lion’s mane. She was all bronzed skin, and curve, and muscle. She was clad in a white shirt, unbuttoned and frilled to a dangerous extent, then tied into a knot well above the awful planes of her stomach. Her long legs were barely concealed under an obscenely tight pair of shorts and ankle boots.
The shorter one - no, they were the same height, it was the hair that was throwing her off - was like a faded copy of the other woman. The same features, the same face, the same body - presumably, it was considerably less exposed. But faded. Drained. Like the vivacity had been drained into her twin (they had to be twins, the only reasonable explanation was twins). Her lank, butter-like hair hung straight down past her equally frilled shirt - this one in dark purple and much more buttoned, though still not to any proper degree - and stopped above her dark, tight trousers.
Gideon’s stupid self-satisified smile had become something more fixed and - she elbowed Gideon in the hip before she could think any more about it.
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry we’re behind schedule,” said the brilliantly curled woman. Her whole motion was vibrant, almost springy. “Dr. Pent! It’s so good to see you again. Oh and there are Sextus and Cam, and - ” That dread gaze fell inexorably upon Harrow and she resisted the stupid urge to hide behind Gideon. “I’m afraid I don’t know you two.”
She got closer - she was taller than the high fae lord and his sneer, taller than Gideon, which meant she was a towering presence over Harrow, and her whole energy was infectious and irritating. It was almost a relief to feel the glare of the pale twin by comparison. Her presence simply felt oily, slimy. Like cooking with too much fat and feeling it on your face.
Harrow was spared having to answer those purple stares by the beggar she’d first spoken to outside clearing his throat and clapping his hands together. “Well, we’re almost all here! Welcome, welcome!”
Most of the others had turned to look at him - the golden twin most distractingly, given her attire - but the boy in the corner was still reading his book, his familiar wrapped around him. The pale twin was still looking at her and Gideon, her washed out gaze still, and flat.
“Welcome to our Thaumaturgic Studies interview process - we are a graduate degree, but the faculty do accept undergraduates and school age students who show sufficient aptitude!” The old man was beaming. “Which does cover some of you, I do believe. I am not part of the faculty myself, not quite; you can think of me as a sort of teaching assistant, haha.” He actually said the laugh, then smiled as if expecting everyone to join in. Even Pent’s ghost had enough dignity not to.
Unperturbed, the old man continued. “You all know this already, but just in case any of you have forgotten - here at Oxford the faculty only allows applicants every nine years to enter this course of study, and does require applicants to have access to a familiar and familiar bond. There is no theoretical limit to places and it is my fond hope that in a week’s time I will be able to look at seven scholars, ready to join our community.” He beamed again. “Captain Deuteros is here as a representative of the Monarchy to observe our proceedings - though as an eligible candidate she’s welcome to make an application herself if she wants!”
The red uniformed woman shook her head - her clothing gave away her position, though only now did Harrow notice that there was a fox curled around her neck, its head lifting up from her shoulder to look across the room. Both Deuteros and the old man opened their mouths as if to speak, gestured for the other to go first - then their gazes snapped to the stairwell.
“Oh!” came a fragile voice. “I’m so sorry I’m late. We had a bit of trouble getting down here.”
At the base of the stairs, half-curled on the stone floor, sat a thin young woman and a dog. The woman was pale, but not in the manner of the pale twin - her skin seemed sickly, hair diaphanous and clinging to her face with sweat, huge eyes far too large for her skull. Harrow was struck with a moment of disgust before realising that given the exercise of walking here and her own, stupid lie, she probably looked much the same.
The dog was long - tall at the shoulder, enough for the girl to be leaning on its flank. White and fur coated, slim, with a long snout. It was also, obviously, not actually a dog. Its whole presence was - the white from it seemed to reach into Harrow, beneath her sternum, and sear her. Being in a room with that thing hurt, a deep grief she couldn’t put a name to, a grief that sung of salt and water, that sung of a door, that sung of looking down from the roof of Drearburh and thinking yes, this is the valid solution to the problem of my life.
“Lady Septimus!” cheered the old man - Harrow could barely concentrate on anything but trying not to react to the thing. “I was concerned - ”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” said the Lady Septimus. Then, somewhat undercutting her words, her face purpled and she coughed out a bubbling mass of blood and phlegm. She was barely aware enough to stop Gideon from moving to help the woman - “I’m so sorry, we just had a few problems with the stairs and the gate. Didn’t we Cyth?”
The dog-thing’s mouth opened and - and it spoke. This shouldn’t have been shocking. Harrow had seen far more bizarre shapes and beings communicate. But somehow this was shocking - an awful sense of wrong from how right it felt, the words shaking enough that Harrow couldn’t even hear them, tell what language they had been spoken in.
That thing is far too powerful to be genuinely tied to such an unwell sack of flesh.
“Yes, yes, of course.” The old man rubbed his hands together. “Well, I suppose you’ll all be wanting to know how the interview process works - it’d be more accurate to say it is a series of little quizzes. They’ll all be taking place in the libraries, either here in the Weston or in the more traditional Bodleian site. Those of you without access have been granted it for the duration! There’s no particular schedule, so feel free to take your time.”
Harrow tried to focus through her exhaustion, through the presence of the dog-thing, through the warmth of Gideon at her back. No schedule… so first come first served. She’d need not to fail again, then.
“Now here is the faculty’s first rule.”
The whole room seemed to bend in closer to listen to the old man. Or maybe that was just her tired body.
“Don’t open any locked doors without asking for permission.”
There was a silence.
The old man smiled again. “That’s it!”
“What do you mean that’s it?” someone was saying, but Harrow - oh, hope was a poisonous and deadly thing but it was blossoming in her mind now. If all they’d been given was that cryptic clue - if this wasn’t some trial of strength -
Then Harrow had a chance against the monsters in this room. Tests of ingenuity, endurance, cunning? There were no practitioners who could stand against Harrowhark Nonagesimus in such matters - she could feel it in the hollow, ruddy spaces inside her bones. I have a chance. I have a chance.
She couldn’t stop her smile.
Excited to see what people think of this one, and our introduction to the AU Canaan House Crew! Thanks once again to my talented beta readers Anna and freezed, and to my beautiful fiancee (Taylor) and our beautiful girlfriend. More coming soon!
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
In the past, Harrow celebrates a hundred Gideon appearances in the only way that truly fits Harrow and Gideon; in the present, Harrow struggles to handle two dangerous threats.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She stumbled into the indicated meeting room for the Classics’ interview briefing with, according to her watch, thirty seconds to spare before she was late. The walk back to Canaan College had been dizzying, her mind whirling and relit even as Gideon complained at her that she should eat, that she was hurting herself.
The Bodleian - the strange teaching assistant had said that they would need Bodleian access, and not to open locked doors without ‘permission’, whatever that meant. But I already have at least one key, and isn’t a key in and of itself permission? The hubbub of the children around her was a grating thicket, but she forced her mind through it - the Bodleian would be closed by the time the meeting here finished, and she’d need to gain access with magic if she wanted to get started there tonight. Map out what I can of the place, see if I can find any of these locked doors, or indicators as to whether the Bodleian is the only location to look in - a professor was starting to speak, greeting them, but she couldn’t hear him - what are they looking for from us, what can I show I know.
Her mind was still so focused on what she would do that evening that it took her a few seconds to notice someone had slumped into the chair next to her. Not Gideon - Gideon had been sent back to their room to await her -
She looked over to glare at them and after a moment’s pause recognised the oily sensation on her skin and vibrant purple of the pale twin.
“Oh don’t look so alarmed.” She spoke quietly, but her voice was still thin, sneering, piercing. “I do actually have a reason to be here beyond you.”
Harrow blinked, sluggishly, trying to turn the ringing in her head into coherent thought. The rush of mental energy now seemed like a rut, the wheels of her mind spinning on thoughts and plans of the library and not the threat next to her.
“I’m one of the graduates meant to supervise the interviews, make notes for the proffs. Student helper and all that. Show you poor bastards around before you get kicked out.” Those bloodless lips stretched into something that might have been a smile. “Gods and kings but you look awful, don’t you? How big a lie did you tell to get into that state, hmm?”
Danger. One of the other professors was talking now, a woman with odd pinkish-yellow hair, coloured like the fuzz of a peach. The adrenaline of what the twin had said hit a second later, clarifying her, and Harrow’s eyes settled on that smirk.
Lowly, slowly, she said, “You are walking down a dangerous path.”
Her shrug was a wide, sweeping motion of thin shoulders and arms, one long hand coming uncomfortably into Harrow’s space accompanied by a fatty prickle of sensation on her upper lip. “Maybe. I’m Ianthe, by the by. Will you give me your name?”
Harrow could have laughed at how simple a ploy that was. ‘Give’ your name to a practitioner associating with a high court fae? “I could tell it to you.”
Another thin smirk. “It was worth a shot, you have to admit.”
Harrow tried to focus back in on the professors and ignore the woman beside her. Which was hard, given the oleaginous aura she produced and the sheer stretched volume of space she seemed to occupy in the right of Harrow’s vision, all butter-white skin and purple.
“So what is your name? I’m going to guess something distressingly gothic. Not that Ianthe is much better. Then again, it is quite apropos for a student of Classics.”
“Why are you - ” Harrow struggled to find a word to sum up the sheer, mind halting irritation that this person gave her. Like Gideon. “Why are you bothering me?”
“Because - if you’ll forgive the pop culture references - I think you and I are the only ones who realise that this isn’t Harry Potter; it’s the Hunger Games.” Harrow had no idea what the fuck that meant, and it must have showed on her expression because Ianthe - if that was her name - rolled her pale eyes dramatically. “Oh you sheltered little nitwit. I’m offering an alliance against the others.”
Something in Harrow’s mind screeched to a halt, the cogs grinding against each other and clattering off their spokes in sparking wheels of outrage. She wanted to call Gideon to her - have her devour this woman - she dared -
“Do you think I am so weak,” she managed to say through gritted teeth before one of those long, hideous hands waved her to silence.
“The opposite. You’re one of the few with any sense, and obviously we’d be trying to backstab each other. I mean, I know you left early to get here on time, but I could see your… interest, your plans forming around you while the others sat and chatted.” Her smile showed a hint of pale teeth behind the soft bruise of her lips. “Come on. Don’t you want to play Katniss to my… whatever that large violent idiot was called? If you’re really lucky, maybe I’ll die and become a hideous mutant hound.”
Well you’re already a bitch, spat a part of Harrow’s mind that sounded alarmingly like Gideon. “No.”
Ianthe clicked her tongue. “How rude of you. And without even giving me your name - sorry, telling me your name - first. You’re like a tiny victorian puppy, aren’t you?”
“I know things you may not even begin to comprehend, you margarine-haired simpleton.” Harrow’s hands clawed at her skirt, her voice a low hiss. “I could set such terrors on you that others would weep at the sight of your corpse if they could even remember you existed long enough to witness it. I could cause you such dreams - ”
“Yes, yes, you’re very spooky, I’m sure. You haven’t heard what happens if you don’t agree to my deal, however.”
She couldn’t even come up with a coherent response to that that didn’t involve fire and fury and magic that didn’t work on humans. She settled for a snarl so wide it was almost a smile, teeth and gums exposed. “Threatening me is a poor idea.”
“I’m not threatening you! Well, only a little. Blackmail is just being polite, really.” The look the hideous beast gave Harrow was indecipherable. “God you’re young, aren’t you? Anyway, you’ll know when I actually threaten you. This is me politely suggesting working together until one of us stabs the other in the back, or…” The smile tilted into a smirk as she leant distractingly forward, close to Harrow - she wanted to back away but she was frozen in her chair - “Or I tell everyone that that carrot-topped whatever-it-is you’re lugging around isn’t your familiar.”
Blank. That’s what she felt, blank. Only a few hours in, and already the worst case scenario, her deception discovered. From there - how to dispose of this one, she didn’t know about the diablerie but sharing her suspicions with others - especially if the fucking knight of St Lazarus was in earshot, fuck! - she could agree and then backstab her - Gideon had all sorts of methods of disposing of the body, or rendering a practitioner such that they were - and if she had noticed, had anyone else -
“Oh do stop panicking. Honestly, I don’t really care why the damn thing isn’t your familiar. You’ve certainly got a strong enough foundational bond.” Ianthe twisted her fingers like she was pulling thread, and Harrow felt her attention snap back to the woman beside her, like something yanked on a fish-hook buried under her navel. “It’s one of my specialities, spotting things like that. You couldn’t have known, though I have no idea what you think you’re doing applying for a course entirely based on work with familiars without an actual familiar.” She splayed her fingers and Harrow looked closer, seeing the threads she spun and spooled. Bonds, relationships, ties that link people - the kind of thing I made the ward around my room to prevent forming while I was inside it.
But then Harrow had lied in that space. And the forces within had - oh, this was her fuckup. That made it. More familiar.
The spider loosed its grip on the thread and smiled at Harrow politely. “Don’t give me an answer yet. You’re completely wrecked at the moment, barely human at all. And I don’t just mean spiritually.” One long hand patted at Harrow’s cheek. “Oh, and the meeting’s over, by the by.” She unfolded herself from the chair, smiled as Harrow looked around to find the room empty. How long - ?
She stumbled to her feet herself, ran from the room. Over her shoulder she heard, “We’ll speak tomorrow, Harrowhark,” and it wasn’t until she got halfway to her assigned room that she realised she had no idea how Ianthe knew her name.
One hundred wasn’t an inherently magical number. It had some level of symbolic significance, but only due to its cultural status. A representative of extreme liminality. You have passed from two digits into three. It contained two zeroes in its common written form, a broken infinity. But it wasn’t really magically important.
Perhaps that was why the hundredth time Harrowhark met Gideon, her Griddle, was so… mundane. She’d recently passed her own digit-increasing liminality, and was now ten.
Ten years. She’d existed for ten years. More, counting her time inside her mother. And what was it worth, in the end? The price that had been paid for her? Her existence was crushing, screaming debt against the world. A debt she increased with every bite of food, every sip of water, every thread of cloth. And that was before considering the weight of being a diabolist. Of knowing, each time you called forth a true demon, that you were carving scars on the flesh of existence itself.
Griddle found her in the study, with her knees curled to her chest in one of the armchairs.
It wasn’t even a day where the hollowness inside her chest made sense. She hadn’t failed at anything recently. She had reread The Black Sheep and quelled the part of her heart that hated diablerie. But it was a day that from the moment of waking had been heavy, a weight pressing down and splintering her bones. A greyness that prevented working, that left her staring at mathematics and languages and thinking I wish I could just sleep until there is no more left in me.
So looking up from the book she couldn’t focus on to read to see Gideon frowning at her was - her mind chorused, of course, and, the day is now complete as for ill, and, this malaise now has cause.
“You,” she sneered.
“Sup,” said Gideon. “Wow, that book looks incredibly boring. But also somehow stupendously evil. So a good fit.”
Gideon being here was dangerous - she hadn’t been called at all, or bound. Just showed up. Harrowhark knew the correct response would be to begin a banishment, or a binding. She’d even started carrying around appropriate materials to bind a being from the Choir of Madness (because honestly, what other kind of demon could Gideon be?) in case she needed them. An unbound demon could cause tremendous damage, and Gideon was strong - already Harrow could feel the universe breaking around her, in little ways, as the environment shifted to accommodate a being it couldn’t possibly contain.
Instead, Harrow snapped the book shut. “Griddle. How your voice fills me with apoplexy.”
“You’re too tiny and boney to be full of anything. And don’t call me that.”
The rage was a trembling, exhilarating rush that brought sensation back into her limbs. The tips of her fingers shook as they brushed the thick, white leather cover of the book as Harrowhark carefully sat it aside, and looked up at her demon. “Is there a reason for you to be bothering me on an otherwise pleasant afternoon? Or are you simply here to derange the study.”
A stack of books behind Griddle had turned to comics and manuscripts about swordplay between cartoonishly improbable looking women. “I mean, that’s reason enough to show up. Pissing you off is always a lark.” Cold flagstone was spreading from the demon’s feet through the carpet like ink. “... hey, Nonagesimus, are you sure you’re alright? You look a bit - ”
“Well, I was fine until you arrived, of course. Why wouldn’t I be? When you’re here, you’re irritating.” Her heart was thudding with the danger of it. I am baiting a demon with no protection. It could end here. It could all end here. It could be over and done. She tilted her head and tried to look playful. “When you’re not - well, I barely remember you at all.”
Gideon’s face set, and she came at Harrow, fast and unstoppable and glorious. And Harrowhark answered in kind.
“Wow, Nonagesimus, you look fucking awful,” were the words that greeted her as she slid into the room, still lit in dim hues of yellow and orange. Some sort of bag-chair had manifested from Gideon and she was perched on it, a stack of comics on her lap that she tossed over her shoulder to evaporate into nothingness. “Was the meeting about prepositions or whatever that bad?”
“Be silent.” Harrow definitely knelt down on the floor at that point not because her feet and legs were trembling and screaming, but to check the integrity of the special masking tape circle she’d laid around the room. If her lie had breached it she needed to know.
“Seriously, Harrow. I’m going to re-iterate that I’m meant to look after your physical health. You have only eaten dry toast today. And you’re… fiddling with your suitcase like you’re not planning on staying here.”
“I have work to do Gideon.” Work that was even more vital after the threats from the Ianthe woman. Did she have a last name? Could Harrow find an efficient way to block her that wouldn’t involve obvious diablerie? Or get ahead of the news somehow, imply Gideon was a decoy and she had a different familiar somewhere - she needed to do research, and she needed to map the Bodleian, and never had two goals been so serendipitously tied together. Her body’s screams were just weakness. It’s not like I’m a real person anyway. “Not that it’s likely you’d understand the concept of work. Given your laziness and demonic nature.”
“Fuck you, I work very hard to make sure this muscle’s 100% natural.”
“Nothing about you is natural.” Harrow hissed. Thumb to the ridge of her lacrimal bone, pressing against the building something inside. She just needed to get her books and get out of there. Without Gideon trying anything to get her to eat, and maybe without Gideon at all given how easily her stupid deception had been uncovered.
“Well it’s not like I have anything else to do around here when you’re gone.” Gideon’s foot shifted into view. “Is this about the magic people meeting thing? Cause I got some weird vibes from it, and - I dunno, maybe you were looking forward to giving a thirty minute lecture to Dr. DemonFace about the importance of proper bone magic or something.”
“Griddle.” She was overemphasising her words, she could feel it on her tongue, dry and heavy. Her body felt light and weighty all at once, shivers sliding down the sweat on her spine.
“Or if like - the other candidates were scary magic people. There was that thing with the arms, and douchebag whiteclean in the corner, and you really lost it about that dog for some reason - ”
Harrow almost laughed. “That thing was not a dog, Gideon.”
“Yeah, somehow I figured that out when it spoke.” Gideon’s horrible face, frowning, smile something so soft it felt like sandpaper on Harrow’s skin, as she knelt beside her. “Seriously. You’re going to kick their ass at this weird treasure hunt or whatever it is. But only if you get some damn food and - were you even planning on sleeping?”
“And some sleep, for fuck’s sake.”
“No, you - ” Words swelled in her throat and she couldn’t force them out. “No, you.”
“No, no me. I don’t need to sleep, you doofus.” Gideon’s face set and then - a surge of motion, Harrow trying to get her hands in position before they were pinned, trying to yelp -
“Put me down!”
“No.” Gideon approached the bed and hissed as the barrier stopped her. Surely she’d put her down now - wait, what was -
Harrow gave an entirely reasonable and dignified noise that was not a yelp as Gideon - the idiot, the utter, brainless, over-muscled simpleton - hurled her the two foot distance to the bed. It screeched and creaked under her as she rolled upright and glared. “Griddle.”
Gideon folded her arms on the other side of the barrier. “I can throw you back onto that bed all night.”
Harrow ignored the rush of something she felt at that and stood up off the bed, frowning as Gideon moved to match her. “I’m not going to be able to sleep if you’re looming over me.”
“Harrow, in this room I’m always going to be - ” She blinked, paused. “Harrow. Were you planning on sleeping at all while you were up in Oxford?”
“I - ” Harrow frowned. She couldn’t afford a half truth. “I hadn’t made specific plans for sleeping, no.”
“What the fuck.”
“It’s a waste of time.”
“It’s literally necessary for humans to survive, you utter - you mad, pruned up - ” Gideon took a deep, unnecessary breath through her nose. “Fine. You don’t want to go to sleep. Okay.”
“Finally you understand.” Harrow shifted sideways to move past Gideon, and was blocked again. “Get out of my way, Griddle.”
“I’m not going to say make me, because you absolutely will, you evil ghoul. How about a deal, then?”
“I’m not making another - ”
“This is part of my previous deal with you because physical safety. You stay in bed and rest. I’ll get some food for you. As soon as I’ve got you the food, you can fuck off and get us both severely injured in that library you desperately want to get to. Alright?”
There were still options. She could move Gideon aside with force. But then she would respond in kind, and what little reserves of energy she had left would be wasted on this - oh, she wanted to fight Gideon so badly, it would be so good for her soul, but she didn’t have the time right now. Acquiescing would likely lead to Gideon insisting on accompanying her to the Bodleian, which could prove useful, but would also likely be a distraction and slow her down immensely while she explained obvious things to the idiot demon.
Harrow gritted her teeth. “I need remain in bed only while you get me food?”
“That’s the offer I’m making. I won’t be more than half an hour.”
She resisted the urge to cast a nasty punishment evocation right into that smirking face. Griddle probably thinks I’m so exhausted I’ll be asleep by then and she can either let me slumber or rouse me loudly and rudely. She wasn’t sure which option was worse. “Then. When you return with food to this room, I will be within the bed.”
“Too narrow, even I can see the holes in it.”
Harrow made a face like she’d been caught. Which she technically had been - if Gideon had accepted this iteration things would be easier. “While you retrieve me sustenance, my hair shall not leave the bed nor shall my head cleave from the pillowcase.” She hurled herself a little dramatically onto the bed, pressed her ear against the pillow. “Is that suitable?”
Gideon frowned. “I’d better not come back and find you bald.”
“I have no appropriate incinerator to dispose of that much hair. I won’t shave my head until I have such a thing.”
Her eyes gleamed gold behind the stupid sunglasses. “... fine. Okay. I’m setting off now. Don’t do anything stupid, Nonagesimus.”
Harrow waited thirty long seconds until after Gideon’s footsteps had clattered away down the stairs, then sprung into action. Removing a pillow from a pillowcase without taking your head off it proved to be challenging, but doable - she plucked a single hair from her head and placed it under the pillow, then tied the case tightly around her neck and the back of her skull. She likely looked an utter buffoon, but it was necessary.
As long as there were threats like Ianthe, or anything the others might be capable of - the hound and its fisher queen mistress - she needed to get to work.
Thanks once again to Anna, my beta reader, and to Taylor (my beautiful fiancee) and Jess (my beautiful girlfriend). I hope you all enjoyed this chapter - we've got more coming soon (hopefully!).
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
Harrow is informed of her duty regarding Griddle by her parents in the past; in the present, Harrow runs into trouble.
Trigger warning for: Extreme violence and injury, unpleasant language.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Just before the thirty-first time Harrowhark would encounter Griddle, her parents spoke to her over the breakfast table, and gave her an important task to do concerning the enigmatic, awful demon.
(“Why does it matter?” she had asked, and then, after a look from her mother she had clarified with, “I know we do not know the thing’s origins, or which of the Nine Choirs it may owe allegiance to. Determining these is part of our duty. But why is it my duty?”
Pelleamana had carefully folded her knife and fork over each other and, straight-backed, looked to her father.
He had sighed. “Harrowhark. When you did what you did, those months ago - you gave it a name. You remember the importance of names?”
She had been tempted to snap that she was not an infant, but had instead folded her shaking hands under her napkin. “Of course.”
“Names are definitions. They are what magic itself listens to. By granting it a name, you have granted it a piece of yourself, and vice versa. It is of you now.”
“And as you have granted it a foothold into reality, it is your duty to ensure it gains no more,” Pelleamana had said, and then made her recite the Rules backwards in Latin, which Harrowhark had done with ill grace because - )
Because the whole task was futile. Griddle had been showing up since before Harrow had given her a name. But her parents did not, would not know that. And if she did this quickly, perhaps she could return to studying the intricate, delicate patterned wards on the door to the Tomb.
Gideon had come quickly at her call, folding into the summoning circle with its usual percussive impact and ill grace. Harrowhark would ignore her until it was time to begin the test in earnest.
“You’re not banishing me,” the demon said. “You’re doing different weird shit. Did you - did you mean to call me?”
“Shut up, Griddle.”
“That’s not my name.”
“It is. Part of it, at least. Or one of your names now.” Harrowhark carefully lifted the hamper of rotten meat into the second summoning circle, opening it and keeping her face steady at the stink.
Gideon did not. “Gross. I hope that’s not for me.”
“If I forced it into your mouth, would you be quiet?”
“Nah. Watch this.” Griddle grinned and then it - its mouth seemed to not be -
Harrowhark made a disgusted, exasperated noise, and placed the marked rocks at the corners of the circle, trying not to think about the odd feeling of betrayal at the reminder that the demon was a demon. Of course it could manipulate its physiology into a form that suited its behaviour.
She straightened up, locked her fingers together and stretched them, then looked over at Griddle. “You are not to draw your blade.”
“Why the fuck not?”
Because I am testing you, not whatever it is that sword you wield is. “You are not to draw your blade. This is a command, Griddle. Disobey and there will be dire consequences.”
“That’s still not my name, and you know that’s more likely to make me do it, right?”
“It is name enough that I can do what I will with you.” She let a smile crawl onto her face, slow and spiderlike. “I could seal you in lead and silver for a thousand years. You would make a good decoration for the house, I think.”
Gideon tapped its fingers on its thigh and sneered. “Fine. No sword. Though what would I want to draw it for - ”
Harrowhark ignored it and clapped her hands in an irregular clap clap-clap clap-clap clap clap, and whistled four notes through dry lips.
The other demon entered the circle with the sound of cracking bones and the charnel-smell of slaughter. Feathers and featherlike fur pushed between the emaciated bones of its wheezing, caved-in torso, its clawed wing-arms scratching boils from the sparred rafters of its hip-bones, stretched beak mouth diving into the hamper and guzzling with roiling, echoing slurps as its body shook and disgorged maggots and flies from the feathers and open wounds along its back.
It was from the Choir of the Feral, chosen specifically because such a demon would have little to work with in the indoor environment of the study - Crux kept the place clean with great diligence. Little chance of it gaining influence over her, then, and a good starting point for getting rid of Griddle, or determining her abilities.
Gideon was shouting something, but Harrowhark paid it no mind as the demon finished its offering - she tilted her head to avoid eye contact and whistled again - two notes and another clap, hands coming down to both point at Gideon as she finished.
“You’d best defend yourself, Griddle,” she said.
And then the demon attacked.
About one flight down the stairs, when Harrow stumbled for the first time, she didn’t decide she’d made a mistake - all her reasoning as to why it was necessary to start now was still true - but she did wonder whether she had the mental fortitude to force her body into behaving as it should. She tugged and worried at one of the studs of yellow bone in her ear, feeling its rough surface turn, sucking her fingers clean of the blood and pus. No. She could do this.
She pulled the pillowcase up as a hood against the cold that seemed to be trying to creep down her neck, and continued.
Her body made its weakness known in a multitude of little niggling distractions. Her eyes felt pitted and rough, the skin around them puffed and swelling. Some steps felt like her head was imbalanced, like the entirety of her brain had slid forward in her skull to press itself against the back of her frontal arch, leaving the space under the parietal bone empty and sloshing in its hollowness. Her feet stung.
She was stronger than that, though. Stronger than her thin, unlovely flesh. So she continued. The streets were dark and cold and orange. There were still people, but without the shadow of Gideon behind her (and with the lounging purple shadow of Ianthe inside her mind) they became both irritant and potential threat. Too loud. Were they looking at her? A skilled manipulator of the threads and connections between people could turn an entire city against an individual in an instant, make every interaction they had with inhabitants hostile. Had that been done to her?
No, she could see if that was the case. There were lines of attention on her that she could barely see - distant ones - and the complex writhing mess that was her and Gideon. But nothing more than that.
There. That attention was closer. She traced the thread back with her eyes - three youths following her. Except - not youths. The disguise was a poor one, even on the first plane, and on every other -
She blinked in a moment of blind confusion, and almost fell over again because the idea of goblins coming after her was - who would have sent them? The obvious suspect was Ianthe, but goblins were, from Harrow’s limited understanding, utterly obscene and disgusting. Certainly these three were - near-naked toadlike bodies wrapped in pieces of scrap metal and wire that barely concealed their sexual organs. Possibly just part of the natural magical community of Oxford, but she didn’t believe in coincidences. And they were following her.
She fiddled with her pillowcase hood as she continued down the orange-lit street. Restaurants and cafes on the other side of the road, so they shouldn’t try anything just yet. Not where they could be seen. Not Pent, definitely not Lady Septimus - was that title part of her practitionerhood, or was she mundane aristocracy? The boy with the glasses then? But it didn’t seem like him either. And definitely not like St. Lazarus. Was this one of the trials then? Seeing how she would react to being followed and, potentially, attacked by some of the most thuggish and unpleasant Others in existence?
Irritating. Especially irritating without Gideon there. This was what summoned assistants were generally for - most of the practice wasn’t good at dealing with hostile physical threats in a swift fashion. Oh, she knew some magic that would help, and she knew any number of spells that could hurt Others considerably, but the majority were meant to be used as goads on captured targets rather than weapons to be used in the street.
I could… I could always…
No. Calling down one of the things whose names she knew would end very poorly. For both her, and possibly the whole city. Her skin felt hot and cold and she risked a glance backward at the trio of goblins. The central one wore a bandolier of wire and hair, apparently attached to its body with a number of piercings made from washers. It caught her looking and gave a hyena-smile.
Oh to any of the hells with this. She was Harrowhark Nonagesimus. She was born of salt and ash and bone. She was the most powerful practitioner of her generation and she wasn’t going to be scared away from proving it by three idiot creatures with oversized, overpierced genitals.
Under the cover of adjusting her hood again, she ripped out one of the bone studs from her ears, held it in a tight clenched fist. Where could she - there, a turn just past this set of brutalist concrete pillars and bicycles. No dirt, which she’d need if she wanted to use the necklace of teeth around her neck, but it would do. Quick, even steps across the pavement, round the corner into a less well lit area, the few bits of orange glow infested with fast-flying specks of midges that she swatted aside with her free hand.
The first goblin that rounded the corner after her inhaled a mouthful of bone dust, blown straight from her palm. And then she called to that bone, reminded it of being surrounded by flesh like it was now, of growing and expanding and -
The goblin had about a second during which it managed to croak, “You fucking bitchwhore,” before bones pierced through its pores like the spines of a sea-urchin, displacing dirt and flesh with equal vigor. Organs spilled from the branches of her practice in a slopping foul mess of offal and stinking skin, the anemone mess of bone she’d sprouted tangled with the creature’s twitching skeleton.
The second goblin, the one with the bandolier, pulled a tube from somewhere - Harrow did not want to think about where - and face still covered in the filth of his comrade pointed it in her direction. She stumbled back, fumbling another pair of bonestuds into her hands as the thing cracked with a deafening blast and brackish blast of rolling smoke that hurled the thing backwards even as the wall Harrow was next to was peppered with rusty nails, springs, and wet matter.
“Come here, you fucker!” shrieked the next one. The pipe it wielded was so studded with nails that some cut into its hands, and the bone stud she threw simply bounced off its head as she backpedalled from its wild swipes - couldn’t see it without the light, shit - the bone glinting in the orange light as it spun and she called its edge back to her, the spinning nugget becoming a spinning shank of bone that stabbed into the thing’s ankles as it shrieked spittle and phlegm from rotten teeth.
Even that was draining though - not the narrative the bone wanted told - and her next step backwards turned into a fall, the ground cold and rough beneath her, scrambling back and upright to scatter the other stud in front of her as a palisade of criss-crossed bone. Her breath was fast, the pillowcase wrapped taut and constricted around the back of her head, stained with sweat - the goblins climbed over the palisade, wide sneers on their faces as she palmed her next lump of bone. They were looking behind her -
Oh. That’s why they followed me.
There were dozens, slinking out of the shadows of this side-street and square. Filth-encrusted, iron and wood weapons clutched in their grips. They were laughing, clambering over each other to circle her round. One of them pressed even further forward, its lower arm merged with a block of badly sharpened metal into something like a cleaver, twin chains leading from its loins to wrap round the necks of another two goblins, who sat panting at its feet like dogs.
“Basically, cunt,” it spat. “You’re well fucked.”
Two studs of prepared bone left. Her necklace of teeth, which was useless without soft soil to plant them in. Her tired, aching hands and body. Various minor protective trinkets and bands. Harrow had a brief, terrible moment where the darkness and cackling Others around her felt very much like the view from the roof of Drearburh, the slow thought that there was really only one way her debt could ever truly be repaid.
No. She clenched her hand tight enough around the bone-stud that its spurs bit into her thin skin, trickling blood giving it more power. She was not going to die here, in the dark and at the hands of fucking goblins.
As the cleaver-armed monster advanced, she brought her other hand up into the first gesture of the Spear of Girra.
The goblin lunged.
Gideon caught its arm mid swing in one broad, dark hand - that unexpected joy at her appearance (not unexpected, never unexpected, Harrow would always feel relief upon seeing her Griddle, hers, but that was buried deep within her behind locked doors beside a vaulted sarcophagus of crystal) - her other coming up with a tightly rolled magazine clenched in its fist and shoving the whole thing into the goblin’s open mouth. It choked, made a muffled shriek, and Gideon’s palm hit the back end of the magazine in a short blow like a thunderclap.
The magazine burst through the back of the creature’s head in a spray of grey matter and bone chips.
Gideon threw the body aside into the silent ring of goblins.
“This,” she said. “Doesn’t look like your fucking bed to me, Harrow. Also, what have you got tied round your head?”
Harrow took a shaking breath, and straightened her spine. “Rules of engagement.” The bloodlust swelled in her, fierce and fast. They had tried to kill her. She would watch them die, then find who sent them and watch them wish for death. And she would get to watch Gideon fight - always a bonus. “Griddle?”
Her eyes flashed golden and glowing behind her stupid sunglasses. “Yeah, boss?”
“Fifth Choir only. Blade sheathed.” She ignored the groan of complaint at that one. “No survivors.”
“As you command, my midnight hagette.”
And Gideon got to work.
Thanks again to my beta readers, Freezed and Anna, and to my beautiful fiancee (Taylor) and beautiful girlfriend (Jess). This might be the last chapter for a little while as I'm going to be pretty busy in the coming weeks with work on my dissertation projects, and also with the holiday season, so get your feedback in now!