Chapter 14 continues. The usual warnings apply. Thanks for reading!
“So, where have you been for the last week?” asked Sam, addressing Dimitri. “People were beginning to worry.”
Stirling turned and began to walk toward the bar. “Back in a sec,” he called over his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Dimitri asked.
Stirling pointed at the bar. “Free drink.” He didn’t stop to hear what else Dimitri might have tried to say. A drink sounded like just the thing after the night he’d had, and a free one was even better.
On the bar, there was a cat sitting with it’s back to the room. It was large for a house cat, with a glossy coal-black coat. There didn't seem to be anyone tending the bar.
“What’s new, pussycat?” Stirling asked, arriving at the bar.
“You are,” replied the cat in a deep, cultured voice, turning to face him. It wasn’t what Stirling had been expecting. Its face mixed human and cat features into something much more unsettling than either one could have managed on its own. It had yellow cat’s eyes but instead of an elongated black pupil, the centres were pale crescent moons rimmed in black.
Stirling flinched back, and the cat’s eyes focused avidly on his shoulder where Magnon perched. “Have you brought me a present?” it asked.
“What?” He put a hand up to shield Magnon. “No kitty! That’s a bad kitty!”
“My name is Minnaloushe, not kitty.”
“And you are?”
The cat-creature gazed at him for a moment and then seemed to lose interest. He tunred away and began to bathe a paw with a tongue too thick and red to be completely feline. Stirling tried not to stare but failed.
Minnaloushe looking up from doing his laundry. “What are you drinking tonight?”
“Strawberry Daiquiri,” Stirling replied. "I just need to find the barkeep."
The cat jumped down behind the bar and stood on its hind legs. It reached out a paw for a bottle and Stirling saw what he had at first taken as regular old cat’s paws, were most definitely not. The creature’s bent knuckles unfolded like spider legs to reveal slender black fingers curled in on themselves. Each of his fingers had long, sharp claws at their tips.
From the side of the bar, another cat, this one a creamy Calico, joined the first and the two worked seamlessly together to make his drink. One put a bar coaster down as the other set the drink on the bar.
“Welcome to Strangefellows,” said the second cat, in a smooth feminine voice.
“Cheers,” said Stirling, tipping a toonie into a cup on the bar and holding up his drink. He retreated back toward Dimitri and Sam, the two sets of cat’s eyes following him unerringly as he went.
“Fucking creepy,” he muttered taking a sip from his straw.
“Kellas Cats can be like that,” said Magnon’s voice in his head.
“They make a fine daiquiri though.”
“What’s with the robe?” Dimitri was asking as Stirling arrived back to where Dimitri and Sam stood.
“Oh,” said Sam, looking a bit sheepish. “I didn’t think anyone else new would be by tonight, and I’ve got the early shift tomorrow. I was getting ready for bed. Darren’s not returning his calls, and Leslie’s at her sister’s wedding. I’m sleeping here tonight instead of going home.” He checked his watch. “I’m the char witch for the next ten minutes until Sue takes over.” He yawned and absently scratched his backside.
“Char what?” Stirling asked, looking to Dimitri for clarification.
Dimitri rolled his eyes. “Stirling here just got sponsored, he’s the reason you had to come to the door.”
Sam looked at Stirling’s face more closely. “Aren’t you a bit old?” he asked.
“Nah, I’m actually eleven, my pituitary gland is an overachiever,” said Stirling, taking another sip from his drink.
Sam raised an eyebrow and nodded faintly.
“What are you drinking?!” asked Dimitri, taking notice of the glass in Stirling’s hand for the first time. The drink was garnished with a slice of lime and a strawberry impaled by a red plastic skewer. “Dude! That has to be the girliest drink I’ve ever seen!”
“I don’t need to conform to your cocktail stereotypes,” said Stirling. “If I want to taste alcohol I’ll go gargle some mouthwash. All I can taste right now are sweet, sweet strawberries.”
“Not even the crow will help you score if you go around drinking those,” said Dimitri.
Stirling shrugged, “Wouldn’t be the first night I need to give myself a hand, won't be the last. What’s a char witch?” he asked, getting back on topic.
“Remember how I said the straights had a hard time finding this place?”
“Yeah, I just though that you meant it wasn’t on Google Maps or something.”
“No, there’s a trick that keeps this place invisible to anyone who isn’t suppose to be here,” said Dimitri.
“Well,” Sam broke in, “not really invisible, so much as not there anymore.
“Shut up, Sam,” said Dimitri, glaring. “I’m his sponsor, it’s my job to explain this.”
“This isn’t a small building,” Dimitri continued gesturing around, “it needs a lot of energy to keep the idiot shields up. There are different ways to get that energy, but one of the easiest is by using a char witch,” he said gesturing at Sam.
“It’s probably just easier to show him,” said Sam.
“I thought you had an early morning?”
“I’ve a couple more minutes, and it’s our duty to educate eleven-year-olds,” he said with a grin directed at Stirling. “There’s a lollipop in it for you if you pass the exam at the end,” he said over his shoulder as he led them through the room.
“Aren’t witches supposed to be girls, Sam?” Stirling asked. “Girls dressed like Stevie Nicks and wearing high-heeled boots? That’s how I imagine you dressing now, Sam. Just like Stevie Nicks.”
“Says the guy drinking a Strawberry Daiquiri.”
“It’s like a fruity explosion in my mouth,” Stirling said. In front of him, Dimitri’s shoulders tightened slightly.
“Besides, witches just being girls is a modern idea, there are lots of male witches in the historical record,” Sam continued, “and char witches are part of a tradition that goes way back.”
Sam unlocked a heavy fire door marked “employees only,” and led them down a dim hallway and into a room with bare cement floors. There was a leather couch like the ones in the main room being supported by a stack of old phone books under a missing leg. Against the wall in front of it was a chipped coffee table and flat screen television with an older gaming console. A furnace and its attendant ductwork tentacles took up one wall next to a secondhand fridge.
In the centre of the room next to a folding aluminium lawn chair, was a large clay vessel glowing a fierce orange. It was shaped like a squat amphora and sat on a blackened cast iron tripod. Below it, a large blower fan pumped air into the base of the contraption. Yellow and blue flames flared up from under the rim of its ceramic lid from time to time.
Piled against the far wall there were bags and bags of charcoal barbeque briquettes stacked on a wooden forklift pallet held secure by a clear plastic film. Magnon bounced off his arm and flapped to the top of the stack.
The fire in the amphora produced only the slightest hint of smoke which was sucked up by an exhaust hood above. While it was warm, the room didn’t feel hot enough for the obvious heat the clay vessel was pumping out, and Stirling said as much.
“Ah ha!” Said Sam. “You’re absolutely right. And if I wasn’t such a kickass char witch, this place would be hotter than Kate Beckinsale’s ass in Underworld.”
“That’s pretty fucking hot,” said Stirling.
“It is. Now, most tricks are small enough to be powered by the regular background magic, or by the one throwing the trick,” Sam went on, “but the enchantment on this building is a pig, and it takes an ass-load of magical energy to power up. I convert the heat being produced by the crucible, here, to something the enchantment on this place can use.”
Stirling looked at the glowing vessel. “That’s a lot of thermal energy. What are you doing with it all?”
Sam smiled, “I just convert it into thaums, that’s the unit of measurement we use for magical energy.
Stirling choked on his drink, then recited, "A thaum is the amount of energy it takes to pull a rabbit from a hat, yeah, I know. Seriously? You guys ripped off Pratchett?"
Sam's face fell for a second. "No, Sir Terry was always one of us."
"Why does that not surprise me?"
"It’s actually the enchantment on the building that does all the work," Sam went on. "I feed the enchantment magic from the heat, and the enchantment jacks up the energy state of the whole building. That gives the old place just a slightly higher energy state than the norm for our part of the Aether. Technically, once you pass through the front door we’re not even in our universe anymore.”
He glanced at Dimitri, “So, yes, we are invisible, but in the way a car that has driven out of its driveway is invisible.”
“Still invisible,” Dimitri insisted.
“The Aether?” asked Stirling.
“Oh, fuck me,” groaned Dimitri, putting his face in his hands. “Can’t you stop asking questions for one little minute?”
“You’re the sponsor,” said Sam, grinning maliciously.
Dimitri took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the Cliff Notes version of the Aether. Imagine different worlds all stacked one on top of the other, but occupying the same physical space.”
“That makes no sense at all. If they’re stacked on top of each other, then they’re not in the same place,” said Stirling. “What you’re describing right now is pancakes.”
Dimitri glared at him. “Forget the stacking part then. Try and think of them as different radio frequencies. They’re all around us, all the time, but there are different stations.”
“Ok, this analogy seems to be working better, please continue.” Dimitri glared at him and Sam snickered.
“Some of the stations on the dial are far apart,” he went on, “but there are a few that are close together, so close, that every once in a while if you aren’t tuned in quite right, you’ll hear music from that other station. It used to be called bleed-over before digital tuning made it a non-issue. Instead of just music though, the places themselves bleed into each other. Our world, Erde and Fey world are really close on the metaphysical dial, that’s why we have so many fairy tales. If you’re in the right place at the right time, the two can touch and you can cross over.”
“It’s like Viking-speak for Earth or something.”
“Old Norse,” Sam corrected.
“That’s what I said,” said Dimitri glaring at Sam.
“See, there are a lot of similarities between the worlds of the Aether,” Dimitri went on. “They’re all connected.”
“How does that work?”
“I don’t know,” Dimitri answered. “It’s got something to do with spooky entangled Hermetic quantum magic or something. I know it works, just don’t ask me how.”
Sam took in a breath and looked like he was about to explain.
“Shut up, Sam,” said Dimitri preemptively. “The main worlds and the easiest ones to get to are the ones that are the most likely,” Dimitri continued to explain.
“Okay, let me think how I can make this easy for you to understand.” Dimitri took a moment to think.
“Alright, imagine a world just like ours. But in this world, all golf players are secretly vampires.”
“There are vampires!?”
“Yes there are vampires, but you’re missing the point. What are the chances of nobody noticing that all the caddies are bug-eaters and golf is only played at night?”
Stirling thought about it. “Not good,” he replied.
“Right. But it’s still technically possible. There are vampires, and people do play golf. A world like that does exist somewhere since it’s within the realms of possibility, but it would be really hard to get to that world since it’s really not even remotely likely.”
“So what are some of the worlds that are easy to get to?”
“There’s Asphodel,” Sam said.
“Probably the best example,” agreed Dimitri, nodding.
“Asphodel is as close as we can get to the other side without being actually dead,” said Sam. “Everybody in the Aether has one thing in common, we’ll all eventually die, so it makes sense we can get there. Asphodel is where the souls cross over.”