A Walk among the Ivy
The Umaie was a man once, long ago when magic was young and the thirst for immortality still parched the throat of young magicians. Jillian Sandoval knew her histories from her childhood lessons, and the past never changed. Now she couldn't tell a magical coin from a common dime, and that was the way she liked it. The gift had never blossomed in her as it had in her mother, father, and two brothers, so she wanted nothing to do with it. She was a commoner in a family of magicians, and that was akin to leprosy.
So why am I the one managing the estate?
Doctor Humphry gave her the week off without a second thought. Residents at Georgetown were granted time in special circumstances, and when Reginald Humphry heard of the devastating events in Jillian's personal life, he had offered his immediate condolences and told her to take what time she needed.
She thought about him as she pulled up to the manor's front door. It was an antebellum masterpiece in North Carolina, surrounded on all sides by tobacco, cotton, soy, and corn fields stretching as far as she could see. It sported an expansive porch - her mother's treasure - complete with rocking chairs and tables for afternoon iced tea the consistency of syrup, a garage for her father's antiques, a tennis court and baseball diamond, a grand fountain out front. The grounds were over two acres of sprawling gardens lined with dirt paths, flower patches, a charming arboretum, and a winding ivy path which terminated at the entrance to a greenhouse.
Thinking about that path, and the Umaie at the end of it, sent a chill crawling along Jillian's skin.
The first thing that hit Jillian, once her hands had stopped shaking enough to work the keys, was the smell in the foyer: old hardwood varnish on the armchairs, her dad's pipe smoke which saturated those cushions years ago, potpourri in a silver bowl on the table where she dropped her keys out of habit, a half-inch of dust on everything.
She drifted like a ghost through her childhood home. Her boots echoed throughout the splendid house. Two doorways on either side of a grand staircase led to the dining room and sitting areas. She climbed the carpeted stairway and proceeded down a central hallway, past her old bedroom and those of her brothers, Thomas and Wilson. There will be time for memories later. First, take care of business. You can face this.
She repeated this last line again and again: You can face this. You can face this. It had been her mantra since realizing she would have to try to win her father's approval through mundane acts of greatness.
Above a mahogany credenza hung an ornate mirror. Like most items in this house, the mirror had a long and distinguished history of magic. As a toddler she had sat in her father's arms and stared at her reflection, confused as her dad held conversations with people she couldn't see or hear. She asked him about it, but her lack of understanding frustrated and scared him. She tried to pretend she saw, but her acting never stood up to questioning and only succeeded in furrowing her father's brow. It was the first inkling she didn't enjoy the magical propensity shared by everyone else in her family.
Jillian never saw more than herself in the mirror, but somehow even that had grown to possess its own breed of magic. She examined herself now - black skirt suit and jacket, maroon shirt, all pristine, but red eyes and a deep sadness she rarely expressed. Jillian reached behind her and pulled her hair up out of the way.
She had lived an uphill life since infancy. Behind her ear, a bald spot reflected the overhead light: an amorphous ring of shiny scar, a souvenir from her time in the neonatal intensive care unit on a ventilator, waiting to finish incubating. She had never understood it growing up, had hated it, considered it a deformity. Now, as a practicing physician, she understood how her immobility had caused an ulcer to form on the back of her skull. As she often found, her understanding diminished her hate. Instead, she decided to draw courage from the sight. It had disfigured her, but it became a symbol of an inner strength that at least somewhat mitigated the vacuum magic had left behind, and had ultimately driven her toward her life's metier.
You can face this.
She lifted a small blade the size of a letter opener off a silver saucer atop the credenza. The ivory handle bore runic inscriptions she couldn't read and ended in an ornate horse's head. She had seen her father activate the mirror so many times she could do it in her sleep. She just hoped it was the blade that was magic, and not its wielder.
Jillian traced a pattern across the glass, a series of lines and crosses and curves that she supposed must spell something. She knew she'd done it right when a fuzzy feeling bloomed in the pit of her stomach, right behind her navel, like a swarm of bees. Despite never being able to perform magic, she had always been able to sense its presence.
Suddenly she felt another kind of presence, one completely unfamiliar and close and that turned the warm buzzing in her stomach to an icy gale. Despite the silence of the huge empty house, Jillian felt the danger here. She shook it off and locked eyes with her reflection: You can face this.
"My name is Doctor Jillian Sandoval," she said into the mirror. "My parents were Margaret and Gabriel Sandoval, and my great-grandfather was Colonel Julio Sandoval who captured and imprisoned the Umaie. My parents were killed in a boating accident last week, and with my brothers overseas, no one here is capable of maintaining the Umaie. Please send help. Send a magician strong enough to control the confinement. Send someone like my father. I don't have the requisite powers, but I have enough to know that our time is limited. I fear the monster senses a weakness in its prison walls. I fear it is hungry and will try to escape."
At the end of the hallway, a pair of heavy doors opened into her father's study. She pushed them open and stepped inside. That whirring buzzing returned, mercifully warm again. A lot of magic had been born in this room.
A magnificent desk occupied most of the space, along with a regal chair, a pair of lamps in the shape of lighthouses, an assortment of books in varying states of decay, a looming hutch, an expansive filing cabinet. To the side, a sofa and two chairs circled a glossy table laden with tea cups and saucers, where her father had so often received visitors and discussed happenings of the magical world. Gabriel Sandoval had been a well-respected gentleman, the grandson of one of the greatest wizards to ever live, Colonel Julio Sandoval, hero of World War One.
A portrait of Julio hung above the table as if looking down on proceedings. Her great-grandfather in army fatigues looked more imposing than any of his progeny, though at the same time a gentle family man with his arm around his wife Matilda. The painter had chosen the garden for a backdrop, much more modest in those times. The greenhouse, though, was unchanged, and Jillian felt that chill return - this portrait had been done just after Colonel Sandoval had captured the Umaie and incarcerated it there. Only someone who knew the whole story could fully understand the analogy to a big game hunter posing with his elephant gun on the carcass of some beast.
Jillian walked to the window and peered down at the garden. The greenhouse looked innocuous in the afternoon sun, concealing the danger that only magic could contain. Every now and then, when the Umaie stirred, Jillian's father had to act to put it back to sleep. What would happen to it now?
The screech of car brakes interrupted her thoughts. She wouldn't have expected a wizard to drive. As the engine shut down she hurried to the front of the house, reaching the grand staircase in time to hear a knock at the front door.
But when she moved a curtain aside and peeked, the face on the stoop was one she recognized. Startled, she paused. What is he doing here?
She opened the door and greeted Doctor Charles Horne, another resident under Dr. Humphry at Georgetown.
"Chuck?" she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Hi, Jillian. Dr. Humphry told me what you're going through . . . I'm so sorry. He mentioned you had to spend the weekend here, and he thought maybe if you had some company it might be more bearable. I hope it's not intruding - I told him I thought it would be, but he seemed to think you'd appreciate it."
"I do," Jillian said. "It's been . . . hard, to say the least."
"I don't know how much you can help with, though," Jillian said. "Mostly I'm just going through paperwork before meeting the lawyers tomorrow."
"Moral support?" he said, and he held up a grocery bag. "I brought a six-pack and some cards."
The smile he brought to her face was unexpected but very welcome. "Perfect. Come in."
Jillian did a quick scan in her mind - she had been hiding her family's secret since she was old enough to understand it, and the habit returned easily. I'll keep him out of the basement and bedrooms.
"Beautiful place," he said. "What did your parents do? Were they both physicians, too?"
"No, they came from old plantation money." How many times had she told that lie? "They ran the family business for a while and then mostly did philanthropy for some nonprofits abroad. That's where my brothers are now, so it's just me around to manage the estate."
"Can't they come home and help?"
"The work they do . . . they're a little off the grid. It could be months before they can come back. They might not even know Mom and Dad are dead yet."
She stopped short. The echo of her words bounced around the walls and tied her guts into knots.
Chuck put a hand on her shoulder. "You'll get through it," he said. "You aren't planning on killing yourself, are you?"
"Well, okay, then. Let's get to work." He twisted the top off a Blue Moon and passed it to her. The orange scents were refreshing.
They sipped while she gave the abbreviated tour, motioning to sensitive rooms rather than taking him through them. It was strange that Chuck had come without calling; they weren't any closer than colleagues, certainly not friends. In fact, on several occasions she had gotten the impression that Chuck didn't like her very much. Still, the company was welcome.
Eventually they arrived back at the study, and Chuck was drawn to her father's gun cabinet. He examined the barrels of old muskets and hunting rifles, and a shelf of polished revolvers.
"These are beautiful," Chuck said. "I'd like to have a collection like that one day."
"My father was very proud of it."
Together they sat beneath her great-grandfather's gaze. "I haven't had a beer in the afternoon in . . . I don't know how long," she said.
"Me neither," Chuck said. "Work doesn't really allow for it."
"It won't get any easier. Soon we'll have to work those thirty-hour shifts."
"You will," he said.
"Humphry held me back."
"What? Why? You've worked as hard as any of the rest of us. Why would Reggie do that?"
"Reggie?" He smirked. "You two are close, aren't you?"
"Are you seeing each other?"
"Come on," he said, placing his empty bottle on a coaster. "What's the gossip?"
"Nothing. We . . . I saw him once or twice outside of work, that's all. For a drink and dinner."
"Did he tell you why he's making you repeat?"
Chuck nodded. "The MICU rotation. Remember? You were on nights our second week there. I took over for Mrs. Steward. Remember her?"
Jillian did not, but there was something about Chuck's tone she didn't like. I can't blame him for being bitter, though.
"She was that seventy-nine year old lady who looked about a hundred and twenty." Chuck twisted the top off another beer. "She developed left-sided weakness and you called a stroke code. CT showed ischemic so you wrote for lytics. Remember now?"
"Yes," she said. "Except I didn't write for the lytics. You did after I signed out."
"You did the calculations. You looked at the tests. You filled out the paperwork. The only thing you didn't do is sign the bottom of the page and fax it down to pharmacy. I did that part."
Jillian remembered how tired and stressed she was from a long night of trying to save Mrs. Steward's life. She knew the answer before she asked, but she had brought the subject up. "Did I write for a wrong dose?"
"She was sixty-seven kilograms," Chuck said. "You wrote the order based on her being one hundred and sixty-seven kilograms."
Jillian paled. Why didn't anyone tell me about this? But she had been off the next night, and when she came back the following morning on day shift Mrs. Steward's bed was occupied by someone just as sick. "What happened?"
"She bled into her brain and herniated."
"Jesus. Did you double-check my calculations?"
"You're the best in our cohort. She was crumping. The nurse was pestering me for orders. I signed them and sent them. Once she died Humphry looked back and saw the error with my name attached. I didn't tell him you did the calculations."
"I'll talk to him," Jillian said. "That isn't right."
Chuck got up and walked to the desk, stopped, walked to the window. "He wants to sleep with you, you know."
"Every day he and a few of the fellows go on PICU rounds," he said. He paced over to the filing cabinet, examining an ebony elephant carving atop it. "You know why he'd be over in pediatrics? Because the hottest nurses work there."
"He's already slept with four of them. The second one caused his divorce. He's not a good person."
"Humphry is a pig!" Chuck's cheeks reddened, his face twisting in anger. "He's always on the quest for another trophy. That's all you'd be to him. He would never treat you right!"
"Chuck!" She stood.
"I could have treated you right, Jillian."
That froze her, though her heart raced ahead. She stared at him, unwilling to believe what she'd just heard.
Chuck sighed, took a long swig from his beer, and walked toward the gun cabinet. "Yours will be a sad story, Jill," he said. "I'll tell them how I told you about Reggie and his lecherous ways, and with the death of your parents it was just too much for you to handle. You really could have been a great doctor, under the right circumstances. So sad."
Jillian listened to all this without moving, without breathing, until Chuck slammed the beer bottle against the front of the gun cabinet. Beer foam and glass went flying. Jillian's brain seemed to escape the gravity of the situation and zoom at full speed. He's psychotic. He's had a mental breakdown, and everything today has been an act. He's grabbing a pistol. He's going to kill you if you don't do something. Run. Run! She turned and bolted out of the study.
Chuck's heavy footfalls were right behind her.
Jillian was five years old when the Umaie almost fed on her soul. Her father had already started to suspect her lack of magic, and as such she had devolved to little more than an irritation, a horsefly around his head or a sandspur in his sock. Perhaps that was why she snuck away to the garden that day. It was all she could think of to steal back his attention.
She had never deliberately broken her father's rules before; her young heart was ready to flee from her chest like it wanted no part of the trouble ahead. But Jillian dove deeper. The immense and enveloping garden could have been a jungle. Her heightened senses recorded everything - the smell of the dirt after a recent rain, how green the ivy seemed from drinking the fresh water, how the arboretum made the whole garden as dark as evening and ten degrees colder, the trees obstructing the comforting facade of the manor house.
She almost turned back three times, but suddenly the ivy path had ended and the greenhouse loomed ahead. All she knew of what lay inside consisted of what she'd overheard her father telling Thomas and Wilson:
"Hundreds of years ago it was a man," he had said, "a wizard afraid to die in an imminent battle. He sacrificed others and used their souls to shield his body from death. He survived the battle but became ill, and thus sacrificed another soul, and another, until the armor he wore against death poisoned his own soul and transfigured him, made him hungry for more and powerful in ways that made it easy to lure others into his traps. He has fed so much that he can't be killed, only imprisoned by magic, and now that he's in our care we must never, ever let him out."
The greenhouse door handle felt cool and unthreatening. This isn't so bad. Everything will be okay. She applied pressure but it didn't budge. She tried both hands. Grunted and pushed. Hung her whole body weight from it.
It's magically sealed.
This voice in her head wasn't her own, but it didn't frighten her; on the contrary, she felt calmer than she had since sneaking away.
But I can't do magic, she thought.
I can give you magic, the voice said. I am powerful and wise. I can give you more magic than your brothers, more even than your father. You will be remembered forever the way your great-grandfather is. You will never be the least of them again.
Jillian was excited now. Eager. She had to get inside the greenhouse, just had to. She retreated a few steps and stole a brick from the walkway. A slug clung to its rough surface until she raised it high; it fell with a wet plop and curled into a ball. She grunted with the weight and threw the brick as hard as she could. It hit a low glass window and fell. The glass shook in its frame and reverberated in her ears, a sound like the organ made when her mother played a loud chord and kept her foot on the pedal.
She picked the brick up and threw it again, both hands this time. It clanked louder, shook the glass more, but it didn't break. She tried again, and again, each time louder, each time stronger, until-
The brick froze in midair, hung there against the white glass background like a painting. All of Jillian's excitement had frozen with the brick, and she felt like a fog had evaporated. That was a magically sealed window, and she was an ordinary girl.
Then the glass shook again, the hardest crash yet, this time from the inside. The white glass turned black as some roiling shape like a storm cloud collided with it; Jillian saw shapes through the glass, heavy masses of smoke like tentacles beating against the prison walls, reaching for her.
Now the voice in her head screamed in frustration. The power of it knocked her off her feet. Her face paled; her vision dimmed from the outside, caving in and burying her - she felt herself descending, losing grip on the surface world and descending into another realm, dark and empty . . . no, not empty. Something was there, something that felt like many somethings, writhing on top of one another, struggling to get out like creatures in a deep well with sides so slick they can't help but fall back down, away from the light.
Her father knelt beside her and shielded her from the smoke. He raised an arm and cast spells at the Umaie-she knew because she felt it, a warm buzzing behind her navel that embraced her, hauled her up out of the void where those poor creatures struggled and thrashed and beckoned. Tears came now, and fear, but seconds later her father had beaten the cloud back and lifted her over her shoulder, carrying her away along the ivy path.
Jillian thanked her mother for being a creature of habit. The big chef's knife still hung from a peg in the kitchen by the back door. But as soon as she held it she knew it to be far too feeble. She couldn't bring a knife to this gunfight; the gun, she knew, had formidable powers. She would have to run.
She dashed out the back door and a few feet into the arboretum before she heard the door crash open again. She ducked and darted behind a large willow, catching her breath as silently as possible.
Chuck was laughing. "You left your phone in your purse," he cooed. She saw him holding it through the leaves, taunting her as he descended the rear stoop. "Come out and make this quick and clean. It will be harder for you otherwise."
"You can't shoot me," she called, slinking away through the trees. "You have to make it look like a suicide. Humphrey knows you're here."
"Maybe you aren't as smart as I thought, Jill," Chuck said, and he pulled the trigger. The thunderous boom made her flinch, but the bullet cut through the foliage well to her left. She hurried right.
"This gun!" Chuck exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like it. What is it, Jillian? Come out and tell me. It feels so . . . powerful!"
It has magic to it. She had no idea if the magic could harm him, but she was sure its bullet would harm her. She hurried on.
The gun thundered twice more, and she heard Chuck shout something in frustration. "Stop!" he yelled at her, but she sprinted through an overgrown tomato patch and onto the ivy path. Like a hound tracking a scent, she followed the feeling in her stomach as it got colder, wilder. My only hope is a greater danger.
But something was wrong. The furious buzzing was far too powerful. She slid into the dirt at the foot of a bronze Pegasus and peeked around the statue toward the greenhouse.
With a feeling of glacial ice trickling down her spine, she saw that one of Chuck's errant bullets had hit the greenhouse, and unlike that brick all those years ago, these bullets had enough magic in them to blow a hole through the glass prison. How much weaker is the prison with Father gone? Through the hole, Jillian glimpsed not green vegetation but gray smoke. A miniscule tendril snaked out of the hole, felt around as if curious, unsure, then got a grip on the pane and pulled it inward, shattering it into a thousand daggers.
"There you are!" Chuck burst from a flower patch, gun raised, attracted to the noise. He faltered when he saw the smoke through the broken window, rising and falling, swelling and receding like the chest of a great beast. It's waking up. From her vantage point twenty yards away, Jillian watched and did not breathe.
The smoke poured out and slid along the ground, heavy, slithering and solidifying. Particulate matter coagulated into tentacles. Deep inside the greenhouse, a pair of blue lights burst into hot existence - the eyes of the Umaie.
Chuck screamed and turned on his heel. One tentacle cracked like a whip and snagged his ankle; he fell hard, gasping. It started to drag him back, not interested in trickery, not caring to set a trap or lure Chuck in. It had been confined over a century, and it now it would rampage. Chuck twisted and fired into the smoke, but the Umaie couldn't be killed, not even by magic bullets.
It dragged him back inside the greenhouse. Chuck grabbed the broken pane; blood from his hands trickled down the side. But then the Umaie had him, and he disappeared into a curtain of smoke.
A sound came from the greenhouse - a guttural roar - a throaty, gravelly rumble like the growl of a gargantuan tiger. More smoke tumbled out now, spreading across the dirt path with vigor, sure of itself again. It caressed the ivy lining the path, and before Jillian's eyes the ivy withered and became brown.
I know you're there, Jillian. Come. Let me grant you the powers I promised you.
Before she could turn to run she heard concerned shouting and calls of alarm. Something sparked in her gut, a candle of warm magic among the cold evil. Jillian found her feet and sprinted back toward the house.
Half a dozen magicians ran out the back door. The mirror! My message! Spells flew through the air around her, made her dizzy with their warm caresses. The Umaie fought back, roaring, shaking the tallest trees with its fury. The air crackled and shimmered with spell work. Light bended as if she were underwater. Jillian's guts were fighting snakes, hot and cold, power beyond any she'd ever felt. It traveled up to her head, lifted her feet off the ground, made her fall from the clouds, weighed down on her like a mountain.
But the six magicians were winning. She felt the candle flame catch into a campfire, spread into an inferno, a conflagration. The Umaie roared again, one last spike of furious ice into her gut, and then it melted away.
Jillian opened her eyes. Clouds overhead danced in a circle, descending in a dive and then rising heavenward again. She clenched her eyelids and peeked again. This time six faces peered down at her. She recognized one: a Middle Eastern wizard who used to bring her Turkish delight as a child. She would have to deal with them and all their questions. But for now she closed her eyes and enjoyed the warm sun on her skin and the soft grass underneath her.
What she was most grateful for, though, was the silence in her gut.