Ravens in the Kitchen
THE PIPE UNDER THE SINK WAS LEAKING AGAIN. IT WOULDN’T have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.
He rescued it, wiped the steel, and absently tested the edge with his thumb while water flowed out onto the kitchen floor. Once he’d laid it aside, he realized the knees of his jeans were already soaked through.
Alan brought Nick his toolbox.
“Care to lend a hand?” Nick inquired without much hope.
“No, I’m too busy cooking,” Alan said. “You do the heavy lifting around here. I’m more the sensitive intellectual type.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Oh, get in the kitchen and bake me a pie, woman.”
He peered into the cupboard again. The pipes made an ominous gurgling sound, and the bottom of the cupboard became the site of the world’s tiniest waterfall.
“I can be a sensitive intellectual type as well,” he said at length. “If the other option is drowning under our sink.”
“Save us all from a watery grave or cook your own dinner. It’s entirely up to you.”
It was a compelling point. Nick could cook his own dinner, but Alan actually worked at being a good cook. He made everything from scratch, and the sizzling sound of food hitting the pan and the sudden rich smell of frying vegetables made his argument for him.
Nick glared, which was effective when dealing with everyone but his brother. Then he took the knife out of his wrist sheath, laying it carefully alongside his sword, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work.
Aside from the sink, this house was pretty good. It was small, the color of cardboard that had been left out in the rain, and exactly like every other house standing in the military lines of the housing estate. Still, each house was separated from its neighbors by a decent distance. There was nobody complaining about strange noises in the night. That was worth any amount of leaks.
On the whole, Nick liked Exeter. There was a statue on the high street that reminded him of a knife, and he was learning to map the city out from that point. It was rare for them to stay in one place long enough for the landmarks to become familiar, but they had been here two months with no danger signs yet. They both had jobs, he was just about getting by at school, and Alan had even had time to find a new crush.
He would be sorry when they had to leave.
The pipe gave a long metallic groan, like an ancient robot about to fall to pieces, and Nick gritted his teeth and twisted the wrench hard. It was too old to be properly fixed; all he could do was try and hold it together until it could become the next tenant’s problem.
“Someday we’re going to live in St. Leonard’s and get away from all this.”
“Oh, sure,” said Alan easily. The chili was simmering and he was leaning beside the sink, arms crossed over his thin chest, watching Nick work. “When I win the lottery. Or when we start selling your body to rich old ladies.”
“If we start selling my body to rich old ladies now,” Nick said, “can I quit school?”
“No,” Alan answered with a sidelong smile, warm as a whispered secret. “You’ll be glad you finished school one day. Aristotle said education is bitter, but its fruits are sweet.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Aristotle can bite me.”
Over their heads the floorboards creaked in a sudden, sharp sound, like boughs breaking. Nick looked up on reflex, but he knew what it was: It was Mum, pacing the floor in one of her bad spells. By the sound of it she was just getting started, and Alan would spend all his time up there with her.
Alan must have noticed Nick’s glance at the ceiling, because for some idiotic Alan reason he reached out with the obvious intention of ruffling Nick’s hair. Nick shied away.
Alan sighed, then Nick heard him reach for the radio instead, the small click as it went on, and the music that poured out and drowned the sound of Mum restlessly moving in the rooms above. Alan limped over to a cupboard and began to ru&rdd beganmmage around for something, singing softly under his breath. Nick ducked back in under the sink and let the sweet sound rush over him, let his mind relax while his hands were busy with practical work. Dinner smelled almost ready. Maybe his stupid brother would sit down and eat his own food before he saw to Mum, and maybe this would be an okay Thursday after all.
There was only an instant’s warning.
The talisman Nick wore always hurt him. It was a constant irritation, an anchor hung around his neck that hummed and stung, but now pain flooded through him like an electric shock with the talisman as its source. The bird bones built around the talisman, woven into a web of crystal and net, shifted to form a new pattern. It felt as if the new pattern were being slowly burned into his skin.
“Alan,” he ground out between his teeth.
Then the window exploded inward, a sharp burst of glittering shards caught in the fluorescent lights. Nick dropped the wrench and shielded his face with his arm, turning and glancing under his sodden sleeve to check that Alan had already hit the floor.
In through the window came an unkindness of ravens.
Their enormous iridescent wings were crammed against each other, the kitchen suddenly packed with feathers and the birds’ deep, hoarse cries. The air of the room seemed to be nothing but the wind caused by their wing beats, and they sounded hungry.
Nick crawled along the floor until he could grab his sword. The hilt was slick against his wet palms, and he hefted it in one hand and reached out with the other to grab Alan by the scruff of his neck and drag his brother behind him.
Alan lifted his shirt and took his gun out of its holster.
“Don’t pick me up. You’re my little brother, and it’s shameful.”
“You’re a beanpole, and it’s too easy,” Nick returned, watching the birds carefully. They were starting to settle on the kitchen surfaces, the curves of their folded wings hunched forward like shoulders, apparently watching him back. “I can’t believe you’re still using that stupid gun.”
“I like my gun,” Alan protested.
“They don’t always work!”
“Well,” Alan conceded, “that’s why I’ve got three knives on me.”
There were ravens between them and the door. Nick hefted his sword and swung, feeling a rush of fierce joy when the blow connected and cut deep. One raven fell to the ground with its chest bleeding, and the rest screamed and wheeled on them. Nick hit the floor again, rolling toward the wall with one arm over his head. Alan was beside him, and Nick figured that he could be more or less shielded between the wall and Nick’s body.
They stayed down, panting, and Nick tried to think through the blood pounding in his temples. These birds were obviously under the control of a demon, and there would be a magician watching to make sure the demon did its job.
Demons almost never possessed animals. They hated being trapped in bodies with such limited brains. Nick wondered how many human bodies the magicians had offered this one in return for the favor.
“You get the magician,” Alan whispered. “I’ll take the demon.”
“I’ll get them both,” Nick said roughly, and shoved Alan for emphasis. “You stay down.”
Nick rose and for a moment felt like he was out in the night and in a storm, except that the storm was made of feathers. He had to throw up his left arm to beat away two ravens that went for his eyes. The talons of one bird scored burning lines down his cheek, and Nick knocked it away, forgot all about strategy, and brought the sword around in a brutal circle through feathers and flesh.
This time none of the ravens screamed. Four more descended on Nick, their talons sinking into his sword arm, and cloth and skin came away in strips. When Nick tried to shake them off, more skin tore away, and when he lifted his face so he could see what he was swinging at, a bird hurtled down toward him. Its curved beak was aimed directly at his eyes.
He got a sharp elbow in the back from his idiot brother, pushing him to one side. He recovered his balance, then spun and cut two birds down, sending the other three in mad, croaking flight to the ceiling.
By the time Nick turned back to his brother, Alan was already advancing, and Nick saw he had the leader in his sights. He went to Alan’s side with his sword at the ready, in case the gun didn’t work. Alan’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. He took aim and fired.
He didn’t miss. At this range, the demon didn’t have a chance.
The body of the raven went down, and the demon that had been possessing it went up through the ceiling, its body an insubstantial black plume, rising like glittering smoke.
Now that birds were not trying to claw Nick’s eyes out, it was easy enough to spot the illusion. He was good at spotting magic. He’d tried to explain to Alan once that illusions were sharper, more real than the real world, more real than they had to be, but Alan had never been able to see it.
There was one bird now that was not milling about frantically like the others, but making directly for the broken window.
Nick pointed. “There!”
Alan fired again, and where a bird had been was a man falling.
As the body fell to the ground, the door leading to the hall opened and Mum stood in the doorway, her magicians’ charms shining with power, her hair falling like shadows over her face.
Alan was checking the man’s pulse, so Nick was the one who looked over at her and said, “It’s dealt with. We don’t need you.”
Mum stood in the darkened hallway, watching him with pale eyes, and said at last, “I didn’t come for you.”
She closed the door, and Nick heard her slowly climbing back up the stairs.
They both looked around, panting a little, in case there were any more surprises to follow. But after five minutes nothing else happened. Nick let his sword point drop and touch the floor.
It was over. They were left with about fifteen confused ravens, a dead magician on their kitchen floor, and the sound of their mother’s footsteps fading away.
While Alan salvaged dinner, Nick leaned against the kitchen counter and tried to keep out of the birds’ way. They might no longer be under the sway of a demon, but they were still animals with great big go-to-hell beaks and claws, and Nick had never really been much of an animal person. Animals could tell, too. Alan’d had a cat once, and he’d had to give it away after it bit Nick a few times.
They didn’t have to discuss it: This meant moving. Great. Nick had only just got Alan’s bookshelves up the way he liked them.
The cuts along his cheek and arm stung. Nick fingered the gash on his cheek and tried to judge how deep it might be.
“Don’t touch that,” Alan said, slapping his hand away without looking at him. “It’ll get infected. Dinner’s done, I think — let me patch you up and then we can eat. We’ll clean up afterward.”
Nick saw Alan shiver. The night air was blowing in cold. At least some of the birds were noticing the enormous space where the window used to be. A few had already left.
His cheek hurt, and he was starving. Nick fingered his talisman and scowled.
“Jump up,” Alan said, sweeping broken glass out of the way with his sleeve pulled down over his hand. Thank God the saucepan lid had been on their dinner.
Nick rolled his eyes and slid into a sitting position on the counter. Alan got down the first-aid kit, tilted Nick’s chin up, and started to pour the disinfectant carefully into the wounds. Alan always tried too hard to be gentle, which made everything worse. Nick set his teeth.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No,” Nick said. “That was the stupid birds.”
“They’re very intelligent, actually,” Alan told him as if he was under the impression Nick cared at all. He squinted and pinched the lips of the wound, taping them together. Then he set to work on Nick’s arm. “If you catch them young, you can teach them to talk.”
“I don’t see what the big deal about that is,” Nick said. “I can talk.”