Mark sat on the sofa next to his wife Pat. The magic was already an insistent tugging at his fingertips, pooling around him like a heavy cloud of potential. It was the half term break. No work for a week. And no exorcisms, no magic. Could he do it?
Pat put down the Macclesfield Advertiser. ‘It’s not supposed to rain today. Let’s go out.’
Mark stood up. ‘Hold on, I’ll get the Ouija board and see.’
Pat shook her head. ‘No, we’re on holiday, remember? There might be something here.’ She picked the paper up and ran her finger down a page. ‘D’you fancy the Pensioners’ tea at St Saviour’s Church?’
Mark shuddered. ‘I don’t think so. Anyway, we’ve got tea here.’
Pat scanned the page. ‘OK, what about this? A new contemporary art exhibition, in the grounds of Little Moreton Hall. It’s called,’ she looked up, ‘The Ice is Still Asleep.’
Mark rolled his eyes.
‘Thought the title would appeal to you. I wouldn’t mind having a look. Although, apparently there’s a problem with part of it: “World-renowned installation artist Caitlin Stillingfleet’s ice sculpture ‘Easter Body-centred Cubic’ showed a love of art taken too far, when the Fire Service had to be called after an over-zealous attempt to melt the ice.”’
Mark leaned across and read further. ‘“Visitors can expect a sonic experience of blurry dreamfulness, where voices, music, footsteps and the sound of cracking ice merge with a musical ambience to create a literally atmospheric and cinematic experience.” Do they know what literally actually means?’
Pat kissed his cheek. ‘Ever the English teacher.’
He sighed. ‘We may as well give it a go. It’ll be something to take our minds off magic.’
‘Oh, come on,’ Pat said, ‘we’re meant to be having a rest. We can do it.’ She sneezed. ‘Think I’m getting a cold. Typical, when we’re on holiday, although I don’t know why I expected any different in November. I’ll have to wrap up.’
She went into the hall and returned with a fur stole draped over her shoulder. Spindly legs and a pathetic bit of fluff for a tail dangled from one end of the dark brown body. At the other end hung a cream-coloured animal head. Stone marten, or dyed ermine? Or nutria, whatever that was? Did it have a clip for a lower jaw, like the ones Mark’s mother wore in the days when fewer people spoke of animal rights and veganism?
He shuddered. ‘You can’t wear that. People might think it’s a real…whatever…’ Surely, it couldn’t be. He reached out a finger. The head lifted and the eyes, set in a strip of darker fur, that made it look like it wore a Lone Ranger mask, opened. Mark gasped. ‘Is that your familiar? Do I have to get one?’
“I’m not a whatever,’ it said, curling around Pat’s neck, ‘I’m a ferret. Think of me as a magical life coach. Or a fairy godferret, if you really must, but I am no one’s “familiar”.’
‘I got him in the Cat’s Protection League shop,’ Pat said. ‘I’m calling him Mustard. Of course, all the other customers could see was a fur stole. Vintage mink, the assistant told me.’
‘Boy, were you swindled,’ said Mustard.
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ Pat said. ‘I think you’ve got potential.’
The freezing weather seemed to have kept everyone away but them, and two old ladies. Mark picked up a leaflet from a table at the entrance to Little Morton Hall. ‘It’s described as a sound, aromatic and solid installation that explores the transcendent state between the crystal and the amorphous. Come on, Pat, I’ve seen enough.’
‘No, we’re here now. We may as well see what all the fuss is about.’ She took his arm and they walked outside through French doors at the back of the hall, the old ladies following a few yards behind.
The leafless branches of the trees lining the path had woven together to form a bony canopy. The path wound past greenhouses, with missing panes, and an overgrown tennis court. From time to time one of the last few leaves fluttered down to join the others that the wind had scattered across the path.
Every seventh stepping stone was made of obsidian.
‘Don’t tell me, I read about that,’ Mark said. ‘Keeps the fairies off the garden?’
Pat nodded. ‘Glad you’re working your way through the book list. Old Lord Moreton knew a thing or two. But, I think something’s coming. Not fairies. I don’t know – it feels like the air’s gone all wobbly round the edges. Like there’s some sort of presence.’
‘Well, I can’t feel anything. We haven’t brought the detector so we’ll just have to hope you’re wrong.’
The path led uphill, past recordings of crunching frozen footsteps, and an aerosol of liquid smelling of strawberry ice cream. Mustard sniffed, coughed, and went back to sleep. As they reached the top of the hill, a shaft of sunlight forced its way through the grey clouds, casting a weak light on six cubes of ice, about two feet high, arranged in a circle. Next to them stood a woman wearing a white boiler suit, holding a fire extinguisher.
A girl, aged about eighteen, dressed in a dark blue boiler suit with matching baker boy cap, lay on the ground. She stood up and strutted down the path towards them. ‘It’s body centred cubic – two lattice points per cell,’ she sang, to the tune of The Red Flag. Mark walked round her. She jumped in front of him and sang it again. After singing it twice more, she dropped to the ground and lay on her back, arms and legs spread out.
‘She’s enough to make anyone feel wobbly round the edges,’ Mustard hissed. ‘What’s she on about?’
Pat looked round. The old ladies had followed them up the hill. ‘Shh!’ She clamped a hand round Mustard’s jaws. ‘One more word and back to the shop you go.’
‘It’s an atmospheric and cinematic experience. They call it edgy,’ Mark said.
‘Or pretentious,’ Pat said.
They moved closer, the wind blasting over the top of the hill. The cubes of ice showed no sign of melting. Each contained a glowing oval object in the centre. Mustard’s fur stood on end.
The woman in the white boiler suit approached them. ‘I’m Caitlin Stillingfleet. Interested in art, Grandad?’
Mark stiffened. Artistic, but ageist. ‘A curious effect. Did you use an electric saw?’
‘That’d be telling.’ She stared at Mustard. ‘Yuk – that’s revolting. And it’s not the sort of body I had in mind.’
Pat looked at Mark and raised her eyebrows. ‘OK, don’t say it, you told me so.’
The old ladies reached the top of the hill. The girl jumped to her feet and started the welcome/Red Flag song again. Mark had never seen people of that age run so fast.
‘Never mind, Jan,’ Caitlin said. ‘Pearls before swine. Silly old biddies. Get the original out of the van.’
The girl walked away towards the car park.
Caitlin turned to Mark. ‘I got the idea when a big lump of ice fell out of the sky, with some sort of rock in the middle. It nearly brained me. Just like a giant hailstone. Jan – she’s my daughter – says they’re called megacryometeors. Something to do with water and planes. Hope it didn’t come out of the toilet.’
Pat frowned. ‘And you expect us to believe it happened six times?’
‘No, these are copies,’ Caitlin said. ‘Jan’s gone to get the real one. I haven’t displayed it with the others so far. Don’t want it to thaw. Just wait till you see it.’
‘Come on, Pat,’ Mark said. ‘We may as well. But, have you got a moment?’ He took her arm and walked her a few feet away. ‘You’re right, here’s definitely something weird about this. We can’t just leave this, it could be something serious.’
Pat grinned. ‘You’re finding it as hard to give up as I am, aren’t you?’
‘No! Well, yes…but this is only for observation. We needn’t do anything about it.’
Pat shivered. ‘OK, it’s probably nothing. Let’s not stay too long. I want to get out of this wind.’
They walked back to where Caitlin stood, peering into the distance.
‘I don’t know where that girl’s got to.’ She blew on her hands. ‘I’m freezing even without the extra ice. Anyway, since you asked, I didn’t use a saw. It’s a special technique I developed myself, and those things in the middle are Easter eggs. I’ve made them glow. And I haven’t bothered patenting the process, because it won’t work for anyone else. Nobody’ll be able to figure out how I did it.’
Mark’s scalp tingled. His heart sank. ‘Don’t tell me. Magic.’
Caitlin frowned. ‘But how-’
‘I felt a high level of magical activity,’ Pat said. ‘But you’re not giving off enough power to account for it.’
The extinguisher fell to the ground with a clang. Caitlin’s jaw fell open.
Mustard opened his eyes. ‘Shut your mouth, there’s a bus coming. You called him Grandad? Listen, the wise old mage idea is more than just a cliché. They don’t wear robes and wave staves about with knobs on any more.’
‘Quiet, this isn’t the time for banter.’ Mark turned to Caitlin. ‘I’m Mark Anderson. This is my wife, Pat Court.’ He handed Caitlin their business card.
‘Architectural exorcists? What’s that – like ghostbusters?’
Mustard tutted. ‘Our specialty is ancient gods, eldritch horror, cosmic nightmares, that type of thing.’
‘A bit sophisticated for me,’ Caitlin said. ‘This is the first thing I’ve tried, since I realised I could do it. I’d like to claim that the thing melting the ice was down to me, but it just happened. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To see the ice melt.’
Pat shook her head. ‘We read about the Fire Brigade coming, in the paper. What happened?’
Caitlin shrugged. ‘This flame throwing thing appeared out of nowhere one day. It blasted the ice, then vanished. Ever since, it’s appeared at every show I’ve done. Ordinary folk can’t see it, just the fire. But you’ll be able to. If it comes. Hope it does.’
Pat pursed her lips. ‘And I hope it doesn’t. This has all the signs of some sort of entity. If you’re not worried, you should be.’
‘Why?’ Caitlin said. ‘It’s done me a favour, pulling all the punters in. Now I’ve got the extinguisher, it shouldn’t be a problem.’
A gap appeared between the clouds. A growl echoed from above. Caitlin picked up the extinguisher. Pat gripped Mark’s hand. Mustard slipped from her shoulders onto the ground and stood in front of Pat’s feet. His mouth opened in a glistening, pointed snarl.
The creature that materialised in front of them looked as though it might have stepped off a Ming vase. Blue and the size of a double decker bus, it had four legs, a snake-like body with spines down its back, and a tail ending with a furry tuft. Two horns like deer antlers stuck out of a crocodile’s head.
The gap in the clouds closed as the air glowed blue above the creature. Mark felt a buzzing in his head and an image of clear sky flashed across his mind. ‘I read about this in that book you told me not to bother with, Pat. It’s a lóng, isn’t it? A rain deity?’
‘Yes,’ Pat said. ‘Caitlin, you’ve managed to summon a Chinese dragon.’
The lóng sniffed the air and swung its head left and right. Pat spoke in a low tone. ‘Now, everyone, keep still and quiet. These things usually live in the ocean of the sky, in the cloud and the mist. They bring rain. They’re associated with prosperity and good luck, they don’t attack. Not usually.’
The lóng lumbered towards the ice sculptures and opened its jaws. A sheet of blue flame shot out of its mouth. Pat grabbed Caitlin round the waist and yanked her out of the way. The flame enveloped the sculptures, melting them and the Easter eggs inside.
Mark took his ash wand from his pocket and unfolded it. ‘This isn’t a gadget to add edginess to your installation. It doesn’t belong here. Something is drawing it to these ice cubes. Maybe because they’re made of water. But it can destroy, just as water can. It can’t stay. Lóng, look at me.’
The creature swung its head round. Mark began the standard banishing incantation.
The lóng groaned, a low rumbling bellow that echoed in Mark’s bones. It turned away and poked a claw the length of Mark’s leg at the remains of the first sculpture. It sniffed at the melting chocolate and turned away, snuffling around the remaining cubes, one by one.
‘Pat – it’s not working. If you and I do it together, maybe our combined power-’
Pat gasped and grabbed Mark’s arm. ‘No, stop. It’s looking for something. What could possibly be here that it would want? Could it be…an egg?’
‘Yes,’ Mark said. ‘It must’ve got caught up with the rainwater as it froze into the megacryometeor. Where’s the real ice cube, Caitlin?’
‘I sent Jan to get it.’ The lóng’s head snapped up. It sniffed again. Caitlin looked in the direction of its stare, towards Jan, panting her way up the hill. Behind her, she dragged a trolley carrying the megacryometeor, wrapped in a bit of sacking.
‘Here you go, Mum – oh, I wasn’t sure if it’d show today.’ She stood in front of the trolley.
The lóng opened its mouth. Mark felt the air thicken. His legs refused to move. ‘Run, Jan!’
‘Grab her, Caitlin! I can’t walk!’ Pat shouted.
Jan stood, rigid, staring into the eyes of the lóng.
‘I’m stuck too!’ Caitlin shouted.
The lóng roared again, the pitch getting lower and lower until it could no longer be heard. The ground beneath Mark’s feet vibrated. The lóng took a step closer to Jan. Mark lurched into the space between Jan and the long. It raised a foreleg and extended a claw.
Mustard leapt onto Mark’s shoulder and shouted at the lóng. ‘Look into the nice man’s eyes, mate.’ He pushed his snout into Mark’s ear ‘Time to forget the holiday. Any incantation you want. Try that voice that keeps the schoolkids toeing the line. Soon as you like.’
Mark inhaled. ‘Stop! Quite still. Sit!’
The lóng halted.
‘Thank you,’ Mark said. ‘People took your egg, and for that I am sorry. But, this girl – she’s like one of our eggs. A young one. Don’t destroy her. Please.’
The sky grew lighter as the clouds parted. The air thinned. Mark took a step forward, holding the lóng’s gaze. ‘Step away from the cart, Jan. No sudden movements, but not too slow. I might not be able to hold it for more than a moment.’ Her footsteps crackled against fallen leaves as she ran.
‘OK,’ Mustard whispered. ‘She’s safe. Now you.’
Mark stepped sideways. The lóng shook itself and blinked. The gap between its jaws narrowed. A yellow flame puffed out from the space. The sacking ignited. The megacryometeor melted and vaporised. The steam cleared, revealing a silver egg, emitting a glowing blue aura.
The lóng picked the egg up between its jaws. With a crack that made Marks ears ring, it disappeared in a flash of light. Rain cascaded from a cloudless sky, bombarding them with the intensity of a water cannon.
Within moments, the ground was awash with eddying rainwater. ‘Go and sit in the van, Jan, you’ll get soaked. I’ll be there in a minute,’ Caitlin said. As Jan squelched her way back down the hill, Caitlin sighed. ‘I suppose that’s the end of my megacryometeor.’
‘I don’t think you should keep saying that word,’ Pat said. ‘If someone like us does, it can have magical effects.’
Caitlin frowned. ‘Like us? I suppose I’ll have to give up magic, now. Shame, it made me come alive, sort of like everything’s glowing, like sunshine dancing on glass.’
Mark remembered how it had been when he first began, the feeling like a silver band round his brain, squeezing magic out, yet at the same time holding it back so that it didn’t all erupt at once. ‘You won’t be able to give it up. It won’t let you. But ability is meaningless without control. And respect. Magic can let you defy the laws of physics, but all you could think of was to make big lumps of ice. You need to know how to harness it, before it harnesses you. You have to learn how not to use it.’
‘It looks like Jan has power too,’ Mark said. ‘You’ve got our card. Call us.’
Pat and Mark trudged back to the car and got in. ‘So much for being on holiday,’ Pat said. ‘And now you’re lining up more work for us, training rookie magicians. Ever the teacher.’
‘Leave him alone,’ Mustard said, giving a dog-like shudder that showered rainwater over the seats. ‘Could be a nice little earner. I’ll help. Just don’t expect me to let them use me for target practice.’ They drove home.
Mark came downstairs, drying his hair. Pat sat by the fire wearing her fluffy pink bath robe, with Mustard curled at her feet. She sneezed. ‘My cold’s coming out now, but there’s a potion on the table that’ll stop you catching it.’
The glass was half full of glowing, golden liquid. ‘Echinacea in cider vinegar?’
She shook her head. ‘Glenmorangie.’
‘There’s just one thing missing.’ He looked at her, and raised his eyebrows. Magic nipped at his fingertips, like an excitable Yorkshire terrier.
‘Oh, go on,’ she said. ‘Back on the wagon tomorrow, though.’
He snapped his fingers. ‘Megacryometeor!’ A cube of ice plopped into the glass. He picked it up. ‘Here’s to tomorrow. Here’s to magic.’ He drank.
Judith lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. In 2009, she made a New Year resolution to start writing fiction and get published within the year. Pretty soon she realised how unrealistic that was but, in fact, it sort of worked: she got a slot to write a weekly column in a local paper shortly before Christmas 2009. It ran for a several years. She still writes occasional feature articles for the paper.
Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications, in the USA, UK and Australia. She speaks five languages and can say, “Please publish this story” in all of them. She’s a pharmacist but when not writing she works at the day job, studies for a Masters in English, sings and swims, not always all at the same time. She was Science Fiction Editor at Red Sun Magazine and is Assistant Editor at Gathering Storm Magazine. Find some of her work, including a collection of short stories (some about Pat and Mark from Megacryometeor), “The Book of Judith”, at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Judith-Field/e/B00BFS8MFQ/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1505547346&sr=1-2-ent