I paced. The Demesnes text in hand, I walked from one end of the living room to the other, then walked back.
Another trip back and forth, and I stopped by the window, using the edge of the book to push the curtain back. It was dusk outside, just past sunset, day two, and some of the locals had emerged.
If I didn’t know better, I might have thought the locals were trying to put pressure on me. Men and women, some children, simply staking out the perimeter of the fence. Some of them paced like I was doing, like tigers in their cell, while others were patient, smoking or holding phones to their ears. A number of the ‘children’ were standing on the short stone wall, hands wrapped around the metal curls and spikes of the railing, eyes on the house. Some talked, others were silent.
Most were normal enough I wouldn’t have looked twice. A handful weren’t. One little boy, separate from the others, kept scratching at his head, face, neck and arms, his fingers coming away black with his own blood, or so it appeared in the gloom. I could see the gouge marks, dark lines cut into his skin, he would turn away, and they would be gone the next time I got a chance to see. There was a woman with hair, hat and coat covering much of her face, but when I did get a glimpse, I saw only vague, black smudges where her eyes and mouth should be. She held a cigarette up near her face, but never inhaled from it. The others seemed rather intent on avoiding her, giving her a wide berth as she paced.
A car passed down the length of the road. I tried to use the headlights to get a better look at the things, but the headlights revealed a mostly empty sidewalk, no Others but a small group of the ‘children’ that had hopped down from the fence and were simply walking as a group, heads covered by hats and hoods, hardly worthy of a glance.
My eyes had to adjust from focusing on the headlights. The Others appeared from dark spots, and stepped out from behind the pillars that framed the gate.
I let the curtain drop, then resumed the pacing. I’d read the same page five or six times.
“You’re making me nervous,” Rose said, startling me. “You’ve been pacing the entire time I’ve been gone?”
Her hair was wet. She’d left to go shower, but she still wore the same clothes as before. Apparently she had running water, on her side. That was interesting, considering there wasn’t necessarily anything for the pipes to connect to.
“I’m nervous,” I said. “I ordered pizza, but I didn’t think they’d come crawling out of the woodwork like this. There’s a good ten or so out there.”
“Why did you order pizza?” she asked.
“Because I’m hungry?” I responded. “There’s nothing more than the most basic stuff in the kitchen, I’m going to go crazy or get sick living off flour tortillas, canned beans and tuna, and since I’ve got to figure out a way to keep myself supplied, I might as well start sooner than later.”
“Pizza isn’t supplies.”
“Pizza is a way of testing the waters,” I said. “Will anyone in this town do business with me? If I can’t order a pizza, I might have trouble getting groceries delivered. If I can’t get groceries delivered, then I need to find a reliable, safe way of going outside.”
“So you put a pizza guy in the line of fire?”
“There wasn’t a line of fire when I called,” I said. I looked outside again. “It’s hard to keep track of time. My sleep schedule’s all over the place, my eating schedule’s off track, and the days are short. It’s dangerous, and it’s going to fuck me up. Need to get back in the habit of sleeping at night and eating on time. As is, I didn’t figure it would get dark so soon, and I didn’t figure they’d appear like this.”
“I know,” she said. “Except I don’t even have the physical needs to gauge by, and it’s awfully dark in here.”
I peeked outside.
Two Others had joined the group. One was very talkative, engaging with the eyeless, mouthless woman who had the cigarette, even venturing into the four or five foot bubble of personal space around her that the rest seemed to be respecting.
I reached for the phone. Mind changed.
“Bell Pizza. What can I do you for?”
“I’d like to cancel my order,” I said.
“You’ve already paid for your order. The food is made and is on its way. We can’t provide a refund.”
“It’s fine. Keep the money. Just call back the delivery guy so he doesn’t waste his time.”
There was a pause.
“I’m sorry. We can’t refund your pizza, because we already prepared it. It should be there in ten minutes or less.”
He was feigning ignorance, with a touch of a bad accent, but he couldn’t hide the smugness.
“You’re being intentionally dense,” I said.
The guy on the other end hung up.
“Fuck,” I said.
“So… now what?” Rose asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I doubt he’ll give me a fair hearing if I call back. I don’t really know what to expect, here. Even reading up on the basics, it doesn’t get into much depth about this.”
Rose nodded, “Essentials and Famulus were more focused on Other-practitioner relationships than general Other-human relationships.”
I could see her fidgeting. I leaned forward. “Earlier, you said you were nervous. How does that work? You don’t breathe any harder, since you don’t breathe. Does your heartbeat pick up? Does your body flood with the stress hormones, making you fidget?”
“That’s a no on every count,” she said. I turned away from the window to look at her. She elaborated, “My body’s always the same. Stable, steady, there, but not doing anything except… I dunno. Maintaining appearances?”
“But you get nervous.”
“My brain gets nervous,” she said.
“I’m not sure that makes sense, but okay,” I replied. I looked down at the page I’d been rereading for the past twenty minutes, then tossed the book down onto the coffee table.
“You’re onto Demesnes,” she observed, craning her head to peer down. “Me too.”
“It’s a fitting thing to read up on, here,” I said. “Making your own sanctuary, while we have enemies gathering at the gates. It seems like a pretty simple ritual.”
“Deceptively simple,” Rose said.
“Yeah, deceptively simple,” I agreed. “You stake out the area, the magical equivalent of drawing out your borders and planting a flag, you say a few words, and you invite anyone, everyone and everything that objects to come and challenge you. Trial by combat, riddles, placating them with deals, whatever you agree on. The bigger the area you try to claim, the bigger the invitation you broadcast. They each get to confront you the once, and the ritual ends when there are no challengers left, or when a set amount of time passes. Claim a space the size of a closet, maybe get five to ten objections. Claim a house, get fifty.”
“I’m thinking that’s one of the last things we want to do,” Rose said. “When we have a familiar, and when we have an implement, so we have some ability to fight.”
“Except,” I said, “It’s a bit of a catch-22, isn’t it? The demesne gives us a steady supply of power, with bigger spaces giving us more power. It’s a sanctuary, and a place where we can bend the rules in our favor. Right? So we need a tool or a familiar to lay claim to as big a space as we can pull off.”
“But we can’t infuse our tool until we have some power to infuse it with,” I said. “Except…”
“That power would ideally come from the demesne,” Rose said.
I nodded, “Or the familiar, in terms of strength and shaping how the tool functions. And we can’t start talking with Others about bringing them on board as a familiar until we have some established power already.”
“Necessitating a tool and a claim to some land,” Rose finished for me. “Each of the three things requires the two others.”
I nodded. “Or it necessitates a compromise. We pick one front, we make it easy, like you suggested, go with the bare minimum. Do one thing badly, use the leverage we gain to do the next thing in a mediocre way, and then use the two things to do really well with the last ritual.”
My pacing resumed, though I had my hands free, and I could stick them in the pockets of my wool hoodie.
“How do the others do it?” Rose asked. “The Behaims and the Duchamps?”
“They have backup, I imagine,” I said. “A mom and dad who are willing to sit in on a meeting with a familiar and vouch for them, or maybe even have a familiar arranged from early on or before the kid is born, things ready-made, a space set aside.”
“Magical trust fund kids,” Rose said.
“Basically,” I said.
“What about the North End Sorcerer?”
“What about him?”
“I take it you didn’t read the little black book from cover to cover? Look him up.”
I shuffled through the tomes to find where I’d put the book. “I was going to read it later, after the major four were done, before the council meeting.”
“You don’t need to make excuses to me,” Rose said. She had her own copy. “Um. Page thirty-two.”
I opened the tiny book.
Johannes Lillegard, believed to be an adopted name. Practitioner. The newest arrival in Jacob’s Bell as of August thirteenth, ‘ought-nine, he arrived at the council meeting of said date. Johannes appears no older than twenty-five, but all facts suggest he claimed his demesne six or more years ago, a region spanning all of Jacob’s Bell, west and north of the hospital as well as the entire expansion north of the bridge.
I paused in my reading there, to ask, “The bridge?”
“The highway,” Rose said. “It becomes a bridge where it passes over the marshland here.”
I pictured it, then stopped short. “Wait, the commercial area north of the highway? With the train station, the shops-”
“-The condos, the mall, the prefab houses, yes.”
“As his demesne? The book talks about it in the context of rooms, of houses at the most.”
Rose didn’t reply. When I glanced her way, she was nodding, a serious look joining the general exhaustion on her face.
“There’s a catch there,” I said. “A drawback.”
“Oh, right, you’re only partway through,” Rose said. “Demesnes are like trademarks. Periodically, people are going to test them. You need to respond, but you have the home court advantage. The law’s on your side. But if you claim something that broad, and if you can’t or don’t defend it when someone else puts one foot over the line, that weakens your stance. But he’s defending it.”
She pointed back at the little black book.
In conversation with Aimon Behaim and Sandra Duchamp, we mutually agreed that Johannes must have claimed the territory prior to the expansion appearing, though we’re unsure of when this might have been, for none of us to hear the claim or be able to respond to it, nor how he was able to do this at what might have been the age of thirteen or fourteen. Mara has declined to answer any questions, being more taciturn than her usual,
Johannes seems to bear harsh wounds, no doubt tying back to his ambitious claim, with no use of one eye, one hand and one leg, though the tissues appear undamaged. He bears a set of antique pipes as his implement, and has a Gatekeeper of the Seventh Ring (ref Astral Bodies: vol 3, and Prime Movers) as his familiar, named Faysal Anwar, which takes the form of a rather large Afghan Hound.
Johannes has made his second appearance at council meetings, February sixth, year two thousand and ten. Occasion to expand my notes. Arrogant, and justified in it. Enigmatic. He spends almost all of his time within his demesne, stepping outside only to defend his claim and attend occasional meetings. This makes gathering information hard. Favors manipulation of space.
Touching up all of my notes, for my soon-to-be heiress. He is a manipulator, content to bait people and lure them to their doom. Fitting, given the implement of choice. He safeguards his demesne by making it a fiefdom, with neighborhoods held by Others and a handful of lesser practitioners. Stay clear, this is a threat you do not need to face down.
I looked up at Rose. “He’s powerful, then.”
She said, “He doesn’t have a family. He had nothing given to him in advance, as far as we know. But he managed something.”
“Okay,” I said. “So there are obviously other options. Approached directly, the situation is filled with contradictions and obstacles, but maybe there’s an oblique answer, like Johannes found?”
“Like what I was talking about with the witch hunters,” Rose said.
That again. I shook my head.
“You’re refusing my ideas too fast,” she said, and the emotion in her voice caught me off guard. She was irritated, upset. “Have you even read up on witch hunting, Blake?”
“No,” I said. “Have you?”
“I can’t. I need you to rotate the mirror in the study. Damn it, listen, there are things we can learn to do that don’t rely on familiar, implement or demesne. Like Laird’s shamanism.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m very on board with that.”
“But you aren’t on board with getting the protections witch hunters have? If anything’s going to get us killed, it’s a knee-jerk reactions and making stupid assumptions.”
“It’s not that I don’t like the idea of protection,” I said. “But when someone says ‘witch hunter’, it makes me think of hunting things. Fighting, instead of defense. And I think that any of those protections we might use as practitioners are going to be found in books for practitioners. It’s hard enough without overcomplicating it, sifting through all the stuff we can’t use for some tidbits we could find elsewhere. Can we compromise? Maybe focus on getting this wizardry crap down, and we’ll look at the witch huntery stuff later, as the side project it is?”
When I looked at Rose, she was frowning, eyebrows knit. tapping her hand on some surface in front of her.
We were similar in other ways. Prone to anger. But something told me that Rose wasn’t one to actually show or exercise that anger.
Something to watch for, if she was bottling up her stress. What outlets did she have to vent it, and how would she react if she couldn’t?
“Fine,” she said, in that way that girls were so very good at. She took a deep breath, then sighed. Purely for effect, I imagined. Calmer, she said, “We shelve that idea. We can use trickery, deception, manipulation, to get our foot in the door, get one of the three major things we need.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Harder than it sounds, because Others are naturally deceptive and are probably looking out for those tricks.”
“What else? We could try marshaling forces, like he is. We need a good rapport with Others to figure out who we might pick for a familiar, right?”
“There’s a problem with that,” I said. I reached for the mirror, then stopped. “May I?”
I lifted the mirror from where I’d hooked it onto the bookcase, then carried it to the window, pushing the curtains apart. I set the bottom end of the mirror on the windowsill.
There were five more Others than before. All clustered around the fence. The rest were still there. Waiting.
Rose was turned away from me, so I couldn’t see her, and she was silent, leaving me to stand there, presenting our situation.
“That’s the issue, right now. That’s the biggest complication we’re facing with the rituals, with life in general. Someone’s done the equivalent of putting a price out on our head, or they said that the usual rules for going after someone in an inhabited area are on hold, for me, or for us,” I said, my voice low. “We can’t conduct any rituals, because those guys are waiting to fuck us up.”
“That-” Rose started.
She stopped short as a car appeared, parking at the far end of the street, a sign perched on top.
This time, seeing the vehicle approach, I could see how the Others moved out of the way of the headlights. Stepping literally into shadows, or stepping to a position where they were out of sight. In the latter case, it looked like they were stepping out of my field of view, to where the fence or columns on either side of the gate were blocking my view, but I felt like they were doing it for everyone that might be looking. Finding a universal blind spot.
A guy stepped out of the car, holding the insulated bag with the pizza inside. He crossed the street, and approached the gate.
“Stop him, Blake,” Rose said.
“I want to, but how?”
“I don’t know. Shout?”
I strode to the front door, hauled it open, and bellowed, “Hey!”
Others appeared from the shadows by the gate, a ‘child’ with his back to the stone column, glancing my way. Further down the street, I could see the faceless woman with the cigarette appear behind the delivery guy.
He didn’t stop walking. When he shouted back, I couldn’t make out the words.
“Stop! I don’t want it! Go back to the car!” I hollered.
Again, I couldn’t make out his reply.
I watched as the Others closed in.
The ‘little boy’ who’d been scratching himself walked down the street, so short I could barely make him out over the stone wall which bordered the property.
He approached the delivery man head on, not moving out of the way. When it looked like they might collide, the ‘boy’ hopped up onto the short stone wall. His hand around the man’s wrist.
A moment later, so fast I couldn’t see it, the boy slammed the delivery guy’s hand down on the railing. The man screamed, dropping the pizza, hand impaled on the spiked railing that ran along the top of the short wall. He tried to pull it free, but the ‘boy’ still had a grip on his wrist.
“Hey!” I shouted. I stepped out onto the porch.
A girl hopped up, using the man’s knee as a foothold, grabbing the delivery man by the jaw. She was more monkey than child as she swung up onto the wall. The momentum of the swing brought his head down and forward, driving it into the top of the railing.
I could hear the sound it made on impact, which said a lot, considering how I hadn’t been able to hear his words. There was no saying how much was the upper row of teeth breaking on impact with the railing, or the sound of the jaw breaking as it was wrenched down with a sudden weight of the not-little-girl.
The girl let go, walking along the top of the railing, her arms extended to either side, pigtails swinging, the grin the only part of her I could make out beneath the winter clothes, too wide, filled with very white teeth that didn’t match each other.
I could hear his continued screams, now more strangled than they’d been.
I felt cold, paralyzed. Had I just killed a man, simply by inviting him here?
The faceless woman caught up to him. Her free hand reached into the back of his head, and I could make out the fingers reaching out the front, moving just beneath the skin, closing together into a fist over one of his eyes. She moved her hand, leaving the skin bound shut in a knot of flesh, and she closed the other eye in the same manner.
Another movement, nearer the mouth and throat, and the screams were cut off.
Knitting, molding his flesh, almost casually.
My concern was no longer that I’d killed the man. My concern was that he might live.
“Blake!” Rose’s voice, from the living room. “You have to help him!”
I took a step forward, then stopped as the faceless woman continued her work. Her fingers wriggled and crawled across the man’s scalp, just beneath his skin, burying his hair, reaching down to cover his ears. Trapping him in his own skin, so his own flesh was a hood over his face.
I thought back to one idle thought I’d had in the past hours.
The house was a sanctuary against Other and practitioner both.
I glanced around me, then very carefully took a step back through the door, past the threshold and into the house.
Laird had come to the front door.
There were rules. I couldn’t know which ones still held, here, which ones the locals had called off, while I was a problem. But there were rules.
I remained where I was, watching.
She held the cigarette aloft, poised as if she might take a puff at any moment, while her other hand pulled free, then plunged into his chest cavity.
The muffled grunts and violent jerks he made in response were worse than the screams.
The talkative one kept chattering, nonstop, the ‘children’ making little sounds of amusement, laughing and cooing. The others who’d joined in seemed content to watch, standing silently on the fringes.
I watched a car appear, traveling down the street from the opposite direction the delivery guy had come. The talkative one practically leaped, taking hold of the faceless woman. His momentum turned her around, and he leaned forward, simultaneously leaning her back, so they were pressed together, their bodies covering their victim. I could see the talkative one’s face stop an inch from the smudged blur of hers.
The car passed, the headlights illuminating what the people in the car would see as two embraced lovers, kissing at the side of the street. The remainder were hidden. I watched as the car reached the end of the road, stopping at a stop sign.
“Blake, salt is a purifying material, cleansing. It can work against certain Others,” Rose said. “There’s a ton in the study, if you can’t find any in the kitchen. Go and throw it at them!”
I didn’t move.
“Blake! Please!” She sounded desperate, now.
The car turned and disappeared out of sight. The two Others broke apart, and the faceless woman clawed at the talkative one. Vicious, angry, almost feral. He gave her only laughs in response, as he ducked out of the way.
The faceless woman gave up and turned back to her victim. I could see where she’d reached through his chest to grip the railing, fixing him to the metal.
Rose was screaming, now. “Damn you, Blake! Damn you! God! Fuck!”
She hit the mirror.
The noise Rose was making seemed to get attention. The talkative one looked up at me.
I slowly shook my head. I felt physically ill, all expression and utterances choked from me by the feeling of my heart in my throat.
But there was no fucking way I was going out there.
The talkative one said something to the others.
I saw the delivery guy lurch, tearing free in a mess of blood and ripped skin. His dislocated jaw hung down his teeth a bloody ruin.
He laughed, and it wasn’t a human sound.
When he joined the ‘children’ in cavorting about, I allowed myself to believe it. He wasn’t human. He had never been.
An Other, joining the faceless woman in some psychological warfare.
I could hear them laughing, in the two or so seconds it took me to slam the door.
“It was a trick?” Rose asked, as I crossed the room to where I’d left the mirror in the window. “They-”
I saw a movement immediately before Rose shrieked. I grabbed the mirror, pulling it away from the window.
The little ‘girl’ with the toothy mouth and the pigtails peeking out from a hat that hid her eyes, hair and ears had appeared just outside the window. She now scratched at the glass with long fingernails.
“They wanted me outside,” I said. “The house is a sanctuary, the property isn’t. Staying behind the railing like they were, it was meant to mislead us. I might have fallen for it, if Laird hadn’t come all the way to the front door.”
“The book warned us they were.”
“How sure were you?” she asked. “That he wasn’t human?”
I didn’t answer. Rose was staring at me, and I avoided her gaze.
Others were scratching and tapping on windows, now. I heard a scrabbling, as if something was on the porch overhang.
“God,” Rose said.
“This is what Molly was dealing with,” I said, quiet. My heart was still pounding, my mouth so dry I needed to try three times before I could speak again, but the fear and helplessness were disappearing. I clenched my fist. “All on her lonesome. Hearing things just outside the house, all night. Nowhere good to go for help.”
“We’re not in a great place either,” Rose said.
“No. But we have each other,” I said. “You had my back last night, with Padraic. I might not have made it home in one piece without that. Thank you, by the way, if I haven’t already said.”
“You have, twice, but it’s okay. We’re figuring this out.”
I nodded. My thoughts were going a mile a minute, but I had trouble saying just what the destinations were.
“What are you thinking?” Rose asked.
“I’m thinking…” I said, trying to sum it up. “I think we’re almost ready.”
“We’ve seen what kind of games the practitioners will play. We’ve seen how the Others function, in part. We have a sense of what we need to accomplish, and an abstract sense of how. And maybe it helps a little that I’m a bit scared and a lot angry.”
“You want to awaken,” she said.
I nodded. “Before the council meeting tomorrow. Getting a familiar, the tool, and the demesne is something that can wait.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I think we should. You want to do it now, or do you need to eat first?”
“Two things, first,” I said. “Eating isn’t one of them.”
I dialed the pizza place again.
“Bell Pizza, what can I do you for?”
“No,” he said. “Not doing business with you.”
“It’s about the pizza guy.”
“We never sent anyone. I asked a driver if he wanted to go, he said he wasn’t delivering to a haunted house.”
The irony being this house was maybe the least haunted locale in Jacob’s Bell.
“I say it isn’t haunted, but it’s owned by you fucks, isn’t it?”
“One of us,” I replied.
“You’re Assholes, all of you, holding all the rest of us back. You know my brother bought a place here, because this place was supposed to grow? Except you’re not selling, and it’s losing value every year, needing more repairs. You-”
“I just wanted to check the pizza guy wasn’t going to show,” I said, but he was talking over me.
“-off on the power, I think, bullies. Knowing you’re driving the rest of us into ruin. You want a fucking pizza?”
“I changed my mind a while ago, remember?”
“Fuck you. Fuck yourself! I already talked to the other pizza place. Don’t expect a thing, until you’ve sold that place. Fuck you.”
“Fine,” I said. “It’s just pizza.”
But he’d already hung up.
It’s just pizza, I told myself.
“Fuck,” I said, as my annoyance bubbled to the surface.
“You can’t be surprised. I mean, you knew people hated you here.”
“The woman at the coffee place was surprisingly respectful of the idea that I might be in mourning,” I said.
“Being a decent person and hating our guts isn’t mutually exclusive,” Rose said.
“Fuck,” I said again, still annoyed.
“It can’t be that big a deal, compared to what just happened outside.”
“You took a shower just a bit ago,” I said.
“Sorry to ask, but do you even get dirty, on that side?”
“No,” she said. “Pretty sure I don’t. Some dust, but I don’t sweat.”
“I’m guessing you needed to shower to enjoy a mundane comfort,” I said. “Feel a bit more human.”
“Alright,” Rose said. “Point taken. Sorry about your pizza.”
“I could do with more human comforts myself,” she said.
I nodded, “Something to figure out. I’ll help any way I can. But first-”
“Awakening,” Rose said.
I nodded. “Meet you in the study.”
I took the stairs two at a time.
I’d opened the second secret door on the second floor, which made for a quicker arrival at the lower floor. The room was far darker without the sunlight from above.
I twisted the knobs of the two lamps that sat on and beside the desk, respectively. When the room was still too dark around the edges, I lit the oil lamps at the edges. Each lamp illuminated a slice of the bookcases, cabinets or shelves to either side of them. Where the lettering on books had been done in foil or a reflective material, the lamplight caught it, highlighting the scripts in a soft orange-yellow, while the books themselves remained dark.
By the time I’d finished, Rose had lit up the room on her side. The light from behind her made the edges of her clothes and hair glow.
She held a wrought-iron compass, with a spike in one end and chalk embedded in the other. I watched as she stabbed the floor, then walked in a circle, using the other arm to draw the wide circle in chalk.
She had the curved ruler that she used to measure the distance, then erased a spot. She was reaching for the compass again when she looked at me.
“You’re doing the ritual too?”
“If I can,” she said. “Aren’t you starting?”
“I said there were two things I needed to do first,” I said.
“Phoning the pizza place and…”
I crossed the room, lifting a book free of a shelf, then walked back into Rose’s field of view.
I hefted the book. Diabolatry, R.D.T. The black cover was surprisingly flexible and soft, the lettering on the spine and cover were done in gold, catching the lamplight.
“No,” she said again, as if saying it over and over again with increasing intensity might drive it into my head.
“What was it you said?” I asked. “Stupid knee-jerk assumptions are going to get us killed?”
“I’m all for stupid knee-jerk assumptions when we’re dealing with that. Laird said they were the mystical equivalent of nuclear missiles.”
“I’m not proposing we use them. But I want to know what we’re dealing with.”
“Blake. You know that moment in the horror movies, where you’re screaming at the actors? ‘Don’t go up the stairs’, ‘don’t touch the glowing skull’? Don’t read the book.”
“What are you even thinking?”
“That the things outside were horrifying, the faceless woman, the pseudo-faerie we ran into. So… why are these things so much worse? What makes them ‘nuclear’? We’re walking into that meeting, and I can’t help but think that everyone there is going to know exactly what’s going on here, and we’re going to be in the dark. We can’t afford to look weak or stupid.”
“We are weak and stupid,” Rose said. “We’re untrained, ignorant, out of the loop, and we don’t have any of the good stuff that practitioners bring to the table. No tools, no familiars, no demesnes, no tricks or any of that.
“We can’t afford to let on how badly off we are. Having one tidbit of info we can allude to, to scare the pants off them if we need it-”
“-Is liable to get us killed,” Rose finished for me. “I get it, wanting to know just what we’re sitting on, but handling the dangerous goods is not the way to find out.”
I hefted the book, feeling its weight.
“Come on,” she said, lowering her voice to be gentler, “I compromised earlier. Can you do the same?”
“Damn it,” I said.
“Is that a ‘yes’ damn it or a ‘no’ damn it?”
“Yes,” I said.
I moved to put the book on the bookshelf. A flap of paper caught on the shelf, keeping me from sliding it into place.
When I pulled the book back, the paper dropped. Fragments of dry wax and a small key danced across the floor.
Folded into thirds, it had been sealed into an envelope of sorts by wax. The key had apparently been melted into the wax, only to be freed by the impact.
“Leave it,” Rose said. “Nothing good comes of that. Sweep it under the desk, ignore it. Please?”
“I would,” I said, “But wax makes a seal, and that seal just broke.”
“That’s reaching,” Rose said.
“Okay, maybe,” I said. “But tell me you can’t imagine a drawing of something coming to life and crawling free of that page.”
“Now you’re being manipulative,” Rose said, “Playing to my paranoia.”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“Yes, I can imagine it. Yes, are you happy?”
I wasn’t. I picked up the page. On the backside, there were only two words.
I turned it around.
If you’ve come this far, there must be a pressing need. You’ve been driven into a corner, or the situation is otherwise dire. I imagine time may well be paramount. Remember that haste makes waste, and you must step with utmost care from this point on.
I’ve left you something, or perhaps it is more correct to say I’ve left you someone. I refer to him as Barbatorem, making a small joke, as I tend to do, but he is an older one, bearing some status and a few stories from years past, with no name of any meaning that has survived the passage of time. You should be able to find those stories and notes on that status in Dark Names, p. 38.
You’ll find him waiting in the tower room, which you will need the key to enter. Staying outside the circle is first in your list of things to keep in mind, which I list here because there are no better places to put the warning. I should hope such obvious things don’t need to be stated.
Cast aside all notion of manners. Do not greet him, do not ever say please or thank him. Do not ask him if he would or could do something. Give him no food or succor. There are older meanings in these things and they will either free him or give him power over you. Sometimes it is very little power, and sometimes it is all the power he needs to achieve his ends.
Put aside all metal and reflective things before entering the tower room, and ensure the space remains dark. He exists in a more abstract capacity, whatever physical forms he takes, and if his image is cast in a surface, he will exist in that surface, allowing him to step free of that surface and the confines of the circle. For these same reasons, do not ever look directly at him, even for a moment, lest he be reflected in your eyes. Rest assured, he will not ever step free once he dwells there.
He perceives the passage of time differently than we do. He’ll be content to sit in the circle I drew out until the sun grows cold. For him, the conversation is ongoing, and you’ll need to see the notes on his page in Dark Names so you can continue from where I, and each member of our line, left off. Failure to do so may confuse or irritate him. In any case, you can come and go, and he’ll see no difference in it. He does not speak, which led me to use the shorthand for gestures you’ll find on the final page of his entry. Please maintain those notes consistently, for those who come after you.
If you intend to deal with him, use one of the templates outlined in Dark Contracts, which I left to the right of the desk. Page 15, 17, 29 and 77 are good places to look, if you find yourself in a hurry. Do not improvise, for words must be chosen with utmost care. The final third of the book has recommended terminology with examples, which you can insert into the templates as needed. Do not trust Mr. Beasley or his firm for assistance. They are, quite naturally, unreliable on this front.
Failing all else, keep your eyes on the painted circle, stay silent, and keep to the contracts found in my books. You can consult my texts if you have any further questions. I regret that I am unable to assist you here,
“What is it?” Rose asked. “The look on your face scares me.”
The look on my face? I touched my face.
“You look like someone just died.”
“No,” I said. “No.”
I moved to put the letter down on the desk, and it slid off. I picked it up again, tried to put it on the desk, and the corner of the paper caught, bouncing it out of my hand and back onto the floor.
On the third attempt, I turned it over, examining it under the light. Sky blue ink on white, barely visible, outlining a script that was reminiscent of the rune that Laird had drawn in sugar.
Holding it firmly in both hands, I set it down on the table, pressing it down in place. It stayed.
A moment later, as I turned to make sure I’d put the book away properly, I generated a brush of air that sent the letter to the floor again.
Once disturbed, apparently, it was insistent on staying disturbed.
Experimentally, I tore it, a little tear to cross the sky blue symbols. When I put it down this time, it stayed down.
“You’re scaring me, Blake.”
“She left something behind,” I said.
“Something Other. Fitting to her particular specialty. It’s upstairs.”
“No.” Seeing Rose, I had a sense of how I probably looked.
“I need to check,” I said.
There was no argument this time. Chances were good she was too stunned to say anything.
The black-painted key in hand, I made my way up the ladder, out the door to the top floor, and then up the staircase to the tower room.
I checked everything, then pulled off my sweatshirt, in case the tab on the zipper counted as reflective. I swept my hands over my entire body to double-check.
The key clicked in the lock. I let the door swing open. When I moved my eyes, I did so with care, keeping to the periphery of the room, then inching closer.
The round window jutted out to my right, with a cushioned bench beneath for sitting on. Once upon a time, it would have been a good spot for reading. Now, it was shuttered and locked, with old books stacked on the bench like bricks. A table sat to my left, stacked with papers that were securely weighed down.
The floor… I saw the circle, painted in white. ‘Circle’ was perhaps an understatement, given the concentric circles and lines that sprawled across the floor, burdened with embellishment, scripts and geometric shapes, as well as other smaller circles hosting more of the same.
It didn’t take long for my eyes to see it.
A pair of shears, no doubt fallen from the table, impaled a line in the innermost circle of the diagram on the floor.
Nothing stood within.