Alice traced the words with her slender finger: chalk / cailc. The yellowing paper label felt smooth and frail beneath her touch, but worn and weakened, it still served its purpose. Poised levelly, lettered neatly above the tiny bin of friable coloured sticks, it still proclaimed truth. That was more than could be said for “coal / gual” on the wall over where the basket of freshly folded bedding now lived, or “cups / cupáin” plastered to the front edge of a shelf now holding assorted jars of spices, a few bits of mail, and several crinkled paperbacks. Most of the nooks and crannies contained books of some description, along with other bits and pieces of a well-settled life.
Alice picked up one of the books, a solid leather-bound volume which had found a home atop a canister Alice suspected no longer contained “coffee / caife” and thumbed through it, words passing before her eyes without penetrating her mind. She placed it back on the shelf and sighed, the small puff of dust adding a musty tinge to the subtle herbal fragrance of the room. Alice cast a glance over the bundles of drying plants hanging from the rafters and at their living counterparts that were beginning to reclaim the old kitchen for the forest. She fought her way through a miniature jungle to reach the closet of a room that may have been mistaken for a conservatory if not for the few square feet kept clear for the porcelain bathroom fixtures. Using this room had felt oddly like campling, something she was much more used to in the three years since she’d run from her uncle.
Alice turned on the hot water and revled as it ran over her hands, a simple luxury, but one that she was unlikely to enjoy over the next several days. Turning off the tap, she dried her hands and reentered the kitchen. It had been a lovely place to stay, but it made leaving that much harder.
She started at the soft pressure on her left shin, but relaxed at the sound of Shipton’s purr. The old white cat seemed to have taken a liking to her during her short stay, and now gazed up at her with, offering what comfort it could for an inhuman soul. Alice reached down to stroke her ears for a moment as the cat closed its red eyes and gave a contented shake before she padded off, leaping gracefully up onto the forbidden end of the table and casting Alice another glance before settling in her box on the far end. Alice smiled to herself at the tiny defiance of the house rules, and the cat’s implicit understanding that she shared her views on the matter and wouldn’t tell.
She hadn’t expected the rules when she’d accepted Morgan and Agatha’s hospitality. She didn’t mind helping to clean up after meals – their preparation was Agatha’s exclusive domain- it seemed only fair to contribute to the household they had invited her to share. Nor did she feel any need to snoop in the rooms they had cautioned her not to enter; they had been more than generous enough to allow her to stay, and she had no intention to push the boundaries they had set. The curfew was a bit odd, though. Morgan had firmly insisted that she be indoors by sunset, unless she was out in his company. Alice had balked at first, but had acquiesced; after all, it was a small price to pay for a soft, warm bed. Even after a week here, she could not fathom what had possessed Morgan and Agatha to open their home to her.
She had been more than grateful for the handful of coins Morgan had tossed into her hat when they first met, and had gladly continued her singing as he settled against the wall on the opposite side of the alley. A quick glance down and she knew she’d been given enough for a proper meal that evening, perhaps even enough for a bunk for the night in one of the mouldier hostels. It was the most she had hoped for. When her voice began to tire, she gave him a small curtsey before scooping up her hat to move along, but had been stopped by a hand on her shoulder.
His first offer was simple, just a hot chocolate in the shop on the corner. Alice was tempted by the treat, the promise of a rich beverage of which she had only the vaguest memories before her flight, not to mention an hour or so in a comfortable chair, indoors, in an establishment that would otherwise be closed to someone of her appearance and odour. Her better sense warned her to refuse, to make excuses, to forgo the offered treat, to not get too close. Her uncle had a vast network, not to mention. . .
But Morgan’s eyes held her in place, sharp, icy blue surrounded by wrinkles from years of smiles, and she found herself easily agreeing, swept along in his wake into the coffee shop. The girl behind the counter cast her a disaproving look, but Morgan called her attention away, ordering steaming mugs for the both of them in a voice that was not to be denied.
Morgan took their mugs and settled into a table in the corner, gazing across at Alice with a piercing yet contented stare. She felt her defenses begin to fall in his company, and offered a small smile which he took as all the invitation he needed to begin conversation. She had dodged his questions into her background as deftly as she could, but couldn’t hide the fact that she had no home here. It was then that he had offered her his home as a refuge, an offer that had shocked Alice into acceptance before any of her worries could catch up with her.
Her lack of understanding did nothing to decrease her gratitude. He and Agatha had been ever so kind to her, and yet they had no idea what they had invited into their home. Alice sighed; she had always known she would need to leave before they found out, she owed them that much.
Morgan would doubtless be upset that she had left tonight, but that couldn’t be helped. She had left a note, explaining not much, as not much could be explained without bringing danger to this sanctuary. Instead, she had simply thanked them for their hospitality and stated that it was time for her to move on. In truth, it was far past time to move on, the peace of this home lulling her into a dangerous complacency. In the whistle of the wind through the trees, she could hear the distinct timber of her demon’s approach, a sound she’d not heard in years, but one that sent shivers of terror through her core. There was still time to escape, but not much.
With one last, longing, glance around the kitchen, Alice shut off the light and felt her way to the froyer. Hefting her small pack, she crept toward the front door and was reaching for the handle when a light came on at the top of the stairs, causing Alice a start.
“Step away from the door,” she heard Morgan’s voice behind her, a quiet command, issued without a hint of surprise and with an expectation of obediance.
Alice turned to face him, but kept her gaze lowered. The same she had felt at running off on her hosts had been bad enough without a direct confrontation, but now it bubbled up inside her, colouring her cheeks and stammering her words.
“I- I’m sorry. I h-have to leave. Thank you, but-but.”
“Step away from the door,” Morgan repeated, stronger and sterner than she’d ever heard him, all traces of his usual good humor vanishing.
Alice was tempted to obey, compelled by the power of his words, but the subtle shriek of her demon’s approach broke the spell. It was now or never.
“I have to leave,” Alice said with hurried finality, turning to the door and frantically fumbling with the latch, panicked equally by the demon’s approach and Morgan’s footsteps behind her. She flung open the door with such force that it bounced off the opposite wall, but an abrupt gale kept it from shutting itself again.
“Stand back!” Morgan yelled his voice thundering down the stairs, but Alice could barely hear him and was too committed to her escape to obey.
Alice moved to step through the door, but before she could step across the threshold, a dark figure appeared in the doorframe, a figure she’d only once glimpsed before, and from a much greater distance. Alice froze as the demon reared up, glowing red eyes hinting at a dark intelligence and an alien sense of victory. The demon flung its furred, fanged form forward as Alice futilely backpedaled. As the demon reached the door before a shower of purple sparks enveloped its frame with a sizzling snap that was quickly drowned out by its howl of anguish. Alice turned to shield her eyes from the sudden light, and by the time she glanced back the demon had vanished, leaving only a pile of splinters, a hint of smoke, and a slightly wider opening where the door used to be.
“I told you to back away,” Morgan grumbled as he approached her, surveying her quickly to assure himself she was safe before turning his attention to the obliterated doorframe. He gathered his long white hair, tying it out of the way at the base of his neck before bending to examine the carnage on his doorstep. “I told you not to leave after dark. I do not set rules without reason, and even then, someone of your standing should know better.”
Alice stared, gaping as Morgan swept a hand across the doorframe, muttering under his breath as the splinters of door rose and rearranged themselves back into their original formation. When the last sliver slid into place with a soft pop, Morgan stepped back, muttering a final incantation to fuse the pieces together before turning back to Alice.
“You didn’t think we knew, did you?” Morgan asked, a touch of humour piercing the seriousness of the previous moment.
Alice opened her mouth to reply, but her voice caught, still not recovered from the shock of the attack or the dawning realisation that she hadn’t hidden as well as she’d needed to.
Alice jumped at the new voice behind her, and turned to find Agatha descending the stairs, stifling a yawn and wrapping a deep green dressing gown around her small frame, her face serene as if she’d somehow missed the violent confrontation on her own doorstep. “I think we could all do with a pot of tea. Morgan, dear, could you see to the threshold before you join us? Come along, Alice.” As she turned, Agnes’s long grey hair fanned out behind her, perfect and smooth, disturbed by neither sleep nor shock.
Alice followed her into the kitchen, taking her usual seat near Shipton’s box as she watched Agatha gather the necessaries. Alice struggled to reconcile the stark contrast of the simple, domestic task of preparing tea with the brief battle they’d just survived, but that was nothing compared to the strangeness of sitting in amicable silence with Morgan and Agnes as they sipped their mugs on the other side of the kitchen table, Shipton snoozing away in her box, appearing oblivious to both the demon’s arrival and the subsequent midnight tea party.
Morgan reached across the table to give the cat a brief stroke, which Shipton received with a luxurious purr, opening one eye half way in acknowledgement before stretching her paws out and rolling over into a deeper slumber.
Agnes focused her attention on her teacup, silver spoon clattering against the saucer, lending a soft melody to the usual quake of her hands. She gave the cup a gentle swirl, as of to examine the secrets it held from another angle. Alice had marveled at the steady, deliberate nature of the motion, the tea neatly licking at the rim of the cup without a drop spilling over. It never ceased to amaze her how sure Agnes’s actions were, despite her ever-present tremble. Far from being hampered by the constant motion, Agnes seemed to merely be in tune with one of the deeper rhythms of the universe.
Alice’s hands trembled as well, but for more mundane reasons. Once her terror at the encounter began to abate, the feeling of unease was replaced just as quickly with the awkwardness of having to explain herself.
Alice opened her mouth to begin, but each time shut it again as the words deserted her. “Sorry,” she finally offered, blushing and glancing down again at the utter insufficiency of the appology.
“Our threshold has survived worse, though admittedly not by much,” Morgan offered, fixing her with a small but steady, encouraging smile.
“It is our duty to assist our own.” Agatha added in her characteristic flat voice that brokered no debate.
“Indeed,” Morgan agreed. “The bigger question is how you came to be wandering about on our own. Who is your sponsor?”
Alice blinked. “My what?”
Morgan and Agatha traded looks. “Who managed your training?” Agatha asked.
Alice paused, confused. “I did,” she replied, then continued when Morgan and Agatha didn’t appear satisfied with her response. “I started noticing things, did a bit of research, messed about. . . “
Morgan and Agatha glanced at each other again, and Morgan took another sip from his mug before responding. “This is highly irregular, and something that bears contemplation, but not tonight. We have bigger concerns. The demon that haunts you, which is it?”
Alice hesitated, it seemed so odd to speak of her demon aloud. “It started when I was fifteen or so, shortly after I started experimenting. I thought it was just nightmares, just my imagination. Then I saw him. Three years ago, and knew I had to run. He has never gotten this close before. I need to g-.”
“What is it called?” Agatha asked, perhaps more sharply than she intended for she reached out to fold Alice’s hand in her gently shaking grasp before asking again, “What is its name, dear?”
Alice blanched, casting Agatha a frightened, pleading look, gripping tightly onto Agnes’s hand as a lifeline back from the pace of terror.
“You have no need to fear speaking its name,” Morgan assured her. “That is an old superstition and one you would do well to forget as soon as possible. Fear of the name only feeds ambiguity, hampering our understanding and defense.” When Alice still did not reply, he continued, “Even were that not the case, you have nothing to fear here. Our threshold is strong, as you should well know by now.”
Several beats of silence passed. “Balhain,” Alice replied, speaking as quietly as she could and gripping her mug so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She fixed her gaze on the steam rising from her tea, missing the third glance that passed between Morgan and Agatha.
“That warrants contemplation as well, but not tonight,” Morgan announced. “We’ve had enough excitement for tonight, and it is far past time for sleep. As it stands, there are only a few formalities that we must endure before resting.”
He drained his mug before facing Alice with a firm but not unfriendly expression. “Given tonight’s events, a shift of affairs seems to be in order. Will you consent to our formal protection?”
Alice cocked her head, confused as ever. “Your what?”
“Our protection,” Agatha attempted to clarify, “and our training of course. You may stay with us, learn from us, and remain under our protection until such time as you are fit to protect yourself.”
“I’ve been protecting myself for the last three years. . .” Alice began in an indignant, if somewhat feeble defense, fully realising how utterly her defenses had failed moments before.
“You have,” Morgan replied supportively. “You are skilled, you must be to have survived this long. You have also been incredibly lucky, but luck will not protect you forever.”
Alice bowed her head but did not reply, the truth of his words sinking in and filling her with something akin to despair.
“This is a difficult path, and not one that anyone is meant to travel alone,” Agatha added, in the closest Alice had ever heard her come to a verbal expression of kindness.
“You could stay here. You could learn. I trust that tonight has shown you that we have much we could teach you,” Morgan continued. “We are willing to train you, but you must learn to obey. If you agree to this bargain, you are no longer independent. You must submit yourself fully to our guidance. You must obey, and there will be consequences for failure to do so.”
“What sort of consequences?” Alice asked, panicked visions of her demon flicking through her mind.
Morgan fixed her with a steadying gaze before rising from his chair and retrieving an item from the highest shelf behind him. He turned back to her, laying a thick brown leather strap on the table between them. “This is the traditional implement of discipline in our circle. It is an efficient instrument, capable of imparting lessons which are not soon forgotten but which will not interfere with your work.” Alice shuddered as she regarded the strap.
“It is unpleasant, it is meant to be, but it is the quickest way to deal with such matters,” Agatha said.
Alice could not tear her eyes from the strap, a conflicting desire/dread adding fuel to her already tumultuous emotions.
“There is no need to enter into anything binding tonight,” Morgan assured her, his tone comforting. “However, if you wish to remain the night, we do need to do something about your disobedience earlier.”
Alice nodded, not perceiving his implicit offer to let her escape unchastised. She knew already that she would remain.
“Very well,” Morgan stated as he rose again, lifting the strap. “We will get this out of the way, then off to bed. Rise.” Alice and Agatha both stood, Agatha to clear away the tea things as Alice fidgeted under Morgan’s stern glare.
“We do not set rules without reason. We expect them to be obeyed. No real harm has been done tonight, but these are dangerous things we work with. You must learn to trust us.”
Alice nodded, a single tear falling as her shame at her earlier ignorant disregard for her hosts’ protection threatened to overtake her.
“Usually direct disobedience warrants no less than fifty lashes.” Alice balked; even with her lack of experience with such things, the number seemed enormous. “However, given the late hour, your naivete, and as you are merely a guest for now, I am willing to decrease the sentence to ten. Do you submit?” he asked, holding her in place with his eyes.
“Yes, Sir,” Alice replied.
Morgan gave her a sad smile and laid a supportive hand on her shoulder. “If we continue, the correct title in such circumstances is ‘’Master,’ but that will do for now. Bare yourself below the waist and bend over the table.”
Alice blushed as she complied. She had suspected some sort of prurient interest when Morgan had first invited her to stay, but such notions had been quickly dismissed. Baring herself before him, her suspicions returned, but a quick glance at both he and Agatha revealed nothing more than detached professionalism, coupled with a hint of tiredness and determination. To them, this was nothing more than one last chore to be completed before sleep.
Perhaps Alice should have been comforted by this realisation, but the impending threat of the strapping kept her pulse racing and her breathing shallow as she lowered herself over the table, shivering slightly as she waited.
Morgan didn’t prolong her anxiety, tapping the strap across her bottom a few times before quickly delivering the first sharp stroke with surprising vigour given his aged appearance. Alice sucked in her breath, riding the waves of pain. Before she could process the sensation, Morgan delivered the second stroke. Alice gasped as the pain redoubled, and squealed as the third stroke brought a new level of hell.
Alice sobbed, clawing at the table as the strapping continued, part of her wondering how anyone could possibly survive fifty of these.
When her mere ten had been delivered, Morgan gently helped her rise, folding her in a hug. She buried her head in Morgan’s shoulder, allowing his hug to squeeze out her fear, her anxiety, her shame and her loneliness. When her crying abated, she opened her eyes, blinking away the last tears. Before she pulled away from Morgan, she saw Shipton open one lazy eye, regarding her in what seemed to be a new acceptance. It was this, more than anything else, that gave her the courage to look Morgan in the eye again.
“You took that very well, very brave of you” he affirmed with a smile. “Now, off to bed. We’ll talk more in the morning.” He walked her to the room she’d been using, seeing her inside before climbing the stairs with Agatha.
Alice slipped between the sheets, carefully shifting onto her stomach to protect her smarting bottom. Despite the deep ache, she quickly fell into her first deep sleep since coming into her powers.