Chapter 1: The Spell
N E W C R E S T
A N N E X E D S P A N I S H T E R R I T O R Y
A M E R I K A 1 8 7 6
There had never been a more perfect occasion to die.
Maybe they were just being dramatic (okay, they definitely were), but Kash would bet all the money they didn’t own that no snobby historian in their right mind would dare argue with the statement.
Kash knew enough to pray everything would still be for once, but nothing had been still for a long, long time, so instead Kash prayed for Real Things.
Because Kash ached.
It was a familiar bone deep, body wide, just-knock-me-out-Doc ache.
Even the palms of their hands. Even their knees. Even the tiny bones in Kash’s ears vibrated discomfort.
Kash’s plump lips dribbled spit and blood onto their crisp white shirt, gravity working its mysterious magic. Kash was delighted to discover they were sitting upright. Probably above ground. Certainly breathing.
Sure, alive works.
The only other emotion Kash could manage was blank irritation. Laundry day was yesterday and it’d only taken them four hours to completely ruin the tunic they’d spent half the morning cleaning.
I hope no one’s stolen my sheets, Kash thought. That was my last set for the winter.
Kash tried to scratch a bleeding itch on their cheek but their hand collided with smooth leather. A muzzle was stubbornly tied in place, clasped behind their head.
Kash had forgotten they were even wearing it. And why.
Seems like something that would be incredibly hard to forget, that muzzle.
“Don’t even try it, girly.” A large man suddenly appeared (or had he always been there?) tugging on Kash’s shackles, testing the hold. “Got this gear special made for creatures like you. There isn’t any escaping this.”
The cursive inscriptions glowing on the metal chains confirmed as much. Kash couldn’t move a muscle without earning a reproving pinch.
The man rubbed his beard before he reached for a knife. “I can’t believe it was this easy. Honestly. I thought I was gonna lose a limb or two but you just… collapsed. You didn’t even hear me comin’ didja? No one even saw us leave.”
The man sliced the back of Kash’s blouse with surgical precision, pulling the cotton away just enough to preserve their modesty. Kash made an indignant noise, trying to remember words and how to make them.
Arthur gave me that shirt as a gift! I rubbed my wrists raw keeping that damn tunic clean.
The man noticed Kash’s anger and snorted.
“It’s justa shirt, beastie. A dirty one, at that. T’won’t be missed. We can get ya another if you really want.”
Once finished with his cutting job, the bearded man paused. He studied the mottled ink coloring Kash’s back. “You musta done something really awful to earn a brand like that. Something unforgivable. It’s not like D’Jinn to turn out one of their own. Guess they didn’t want you staining the family name, huh?”
Kash breathed through their embarrassment, eyes trained on the ground. He could only mean the scarred round of flesh erupting from Kash’s neck. It crested over their shoulder blades down to the base of their spine. Kash only caught glimpses of it in foggy windows, shattered mirrors, and the curious gazes of villagers who stumbled across Kash bathing in the river. Whenever Kash reached a hand around and touched the rippled tissue they could only guess it looked as wretched as it felt.
What the hell is a D’Jinn?
“But don’t you worry, dear. Imma take good care of you. We’re kindred spirits, you and I.” He slathered some balm on the scar tissue, humming along to a tune only he could hear.
Satisfied with his handiwork, the bearded man picked through a table crowded with various ingredients. Some Kash recognized and others they couldn’t even begin to name. He mixed them together with a bit of uncertainty, squinting into a book that looked like it was bound by human flesh and contained knowledge even more unsettling.
“Please,” Kash coughed into their muzzle and swallowed for spit. “Please let me go.”
The man chuckled and spun the pestle around the edges of the mortar. “You won’t be leaving my side for a long while, girly. I got plans for us. Big plans. No more wishin’ and waiting and hoping. This time Billy’s going to be on top. Billy’s going to laugh last for once. They told me where to find you, and if they gave me permission then it can’t be wrong.”
Billy stalked over to the dingy fireplace. With a few strikes of an obsidian shard and a finger bone he lit a smokeless flame under a cauldron.
Kash wasn’t sure what it meant but it could only mean misfortune. “Who’s they?”
He ignored the question, stirring the pot.
“I don’t know what you want with me, but I promise you this is a simple misunderstanding. I’m not a witch. I don’t deal in witchcraft or devilry. I don’t attend church or Sunday school as often as I should but I live good and honest. I promise you.” Kash watched Billy pull a beautiful oil lamp from his rucksack. The sparkling treasure was awfully out of place in such a disheveled hut. The golden lamp glowed from within, emitting its own light despite the darkness.
Kash’s normally level tenor rose to a fitful soprano, filled with a terror they couldn’t name. “I’m a decent person. I keep to myself. I don’t bother nobody and I don’t make trouble. I’m a matchmaker. That’s all I am. I set up young couples in the village and arrange marriages. That’s all I do. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s no money in keeping me for ransom. No one’s going to pay up. No one’s looking for me. No one’s gonna notice I’m gone.”
“Exactly.” Billy grinned boyishly. He cradled the lamp almost delicately, only touching it with his fingertips. “Take a good look, girly. This’ll be your home for the next little while. It ain’t Mount Vernon but it’ll do.”
“What’re you doing? What is that?” Kash yanked against their restraints, the chains tearing into their ankles like a million synchronized wasps.
Billy carried on as if he couldn’t hear Kash’s pleas. He stirred a coyote skull, dried herbs, sand, salt, feathers, and other odds and ends into his cauldron.
“Please.” Kash tried again. “Please, I don’t know what you think I am but please don’t do this. Have a heart. Hav-have a heart.”
Billy lowered the lamp into the bubbling vat, spout first, and eased the handle in last. After a few minutes he fished the steaming lamp out of his concoction with a pleased sigh.
“That was supposed to be the hardest part, they said. Cook the damn thing too long and the whole spell is ruined. Gotta start from the top, get a new lamp and all that. Good for us, though.”
Kash edged against the brick wall as far away from Billy as possible. There was nothing outwardly threatening about him or his funny looking lamp but an inner voice reminded Kash of all the times they’d underestimated fire and been justly burned for it.
“Deep down you know this is wrong. Whatever you’re doing or planning on doing- don’t. Just let me go and we’ll be square. I’ll forget I even saw you. I don’t even know your name. Strangers, you and me. That’s what we’ll be if you let me walk.”
Billy hummed, stepping closer. “Bit too late for that, girly.”
“What’d I ever do to you?” The chains squeal against Kash’s thrashing. “I don’t even know you!”
“No… but you will.”
Following the book’s instructions to the letter, Billy forced himself to stare into Kash’s eternally black pupils as he recited a short incantation.
Lil D’Jinn, lil D’Jinn,
inside this lamp you’ll keep.
Precious tears o life
will you forever weep.
Whether it be fame, wealth, longevity,
or dutiful wife
Thou must obey your Master
till the ends o your life.
Never shall thou ask for more than thou deserve
You, deamon-angel-child, were birthed from smokeless fire
Only to sing and serve.
He finished his rhyme with a majestic flourish. Kash winced and shielded themselves, prepared for the worst.
But nothing happened.
No thunder. No lighting. No magic.
“Oh, thank God.” Kash sagged against their shackles, boneless with relief. “Thank God you’re just an absolute idiot.”
Billy scowled at the smoldering lamp, wondering what went wrong. “Maybe I skipped a step?”
He consulted his spell book, thumbing through the waxy pages, before letting out a hearty laugh Kash knew could only mean doom.
“Silly me. Forgot one last thing! Udkhul!” Billy shouted the last word in poor Arabic and uncapped the lamp.
The effect was immediate.
Kash would never be able to describe it, the pain of their soul splitting down the middle, vaporizing, and rushing down the lamp’s spout. The loss was unbearable. The spell’s force threw Kash across the room as far as the chains would allow, bringing them to their knees. Billy wavered before them, fire casting odd shadows on his face, but Kash could also see the lamp’s ashen inner walls, smell the dirt and oil caked on Billy’s hands, feel the magic coursing through the lamp preventing any sort of escape.
Kash’s very being cried out for its missing half trapped only a few feet away. Their vision doubled. A reddish essence peered fearfully through the lamp hole at the man who suddenly owned them. Across the room Kash’s body crumpled from shock.
Billy watched the process play out in wonder before he broke out into a gleeful dance.
“I did it. I did it! My very own D’Jinn! Oh, glory, I can’t believe my luck.”
He gave the lamp an affectionate kiss, as if the ornate relic solved all of his problems past, present, and future.
Perhaps it had.
Billy knelt next to Kash’s quivering, half dressed frame and pat their shoulder like they were old friends.
“My name’s William Craven. If I had friends they’d call me Billy. Or at least I think they would.”
Kash couldn hardly hear him over their screams.
“But you can call me Master. Or Sir, if you want. Nice to meet ya.”