Very slowly, with exaggerated care, I closed the door. My eyes were fixed on the outermost edge of the circle, my peripheral vision covering the shears and the interior, up until the closing door blocked my field of view.
I couldn’t say why the closed door made me feel more secure. Whatever was supposed to be in that circle probably wouldn’t be stopped by a door. But the fear I’d felt before opening the door had broken up into a general sense of disquiet. My heart wasn’t racing, but was pounding, with very slow, heavy beats. Absently, I grabbed my sweatshirt on the way down the stairs.
Rose was waiting for me on the third floor. “Blake! You idiot!”
I didn’t want to hear it. “I can barely hear you. Meet you in the study.”
I passed into the secret room, circled around to the far end and climbed down the ladder to reach the area with the mirror.
“What the hell were you doing?”
“I take it you read the letter,” I said. I was almost relieved to have the distraction of a conversation with Rose. I wanted to think on the circle, the possibilities there, but what the hell was I even supposed to do? I couldn’t even think straight, let alone read.
“Upside-down, but yes. You don’t go talking to demons or whatever elses without preparation.”
“It was prepared,” I said. I turned the letter around, then tapped it. “This was an emergency measure. A ‘you’re-fucked-and-you-need-the-big-guns-now’ measure. Grandmother outlined the key instructions.”
“You don’t go running off to check if you haven’t read about it in depth. There’s material on this guy.” Her voice was rising as she talked.
“I had to check,” I said, feeling more grounded. Feeling a little more sure of myself, I said, “I was thinking it might have killed Molly.”
“What Laird said… I had the impression this thing might have killed Molly, and that Laird was misleading us when he said he knew what killed her. By saying that, he leads us to think the threat is from out there, and that way we have our backs turned when the threat from within comes after us.”
“So? You read up on it, so you know what to say to it-”
“I wasn’t going to say a thing, if it was there. No need to track the conversation if we don’t interact. I only needed a glance, and that glance showed me that there wasn’t anything in the circle.”
“I- huh? What do you mean?”
“A pair of scissors apparently penetrated a circle drawn on the floor.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The door was locked, Molly didn’t use that key, unless the lawyer resealed it in wax when they reshelved the books. It doesn’t fit. Maybe grandmother betrayed her own rules and brought something reflective into that room and then positioned it to where it might interfere with the circle, before locking everything up, but it’d be crazy to do that. If the thing can jump into our eyes, it can jump into the metal on scissors.”
“You’re right. That doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t,” I said. “Which puts me in the funny spot of feeling more sure that it’s in that room, than I was before.”
“I don’t know how you can jump to that conclusion,” Rose said. “It’s better, now that it looks like it’s gone?”
“I don’t know. Which is why we’re going to do a little bit of reading, now,” I said. I felt more centered. Somewhere between ‘explaining is the best way to learn’ and ‘misery loves company’, explaining to Rose had helped me to find my mental and emotional footing, clarifying my thoughts so I could argue them. “Let’s meet Barba-whatsit.”
I found and picked up Dark Names.
“This is the sort of thing we need to read before you go to places like that.”
“Rose,” I said. So much for that bit on emotional and mental footing.
“I don’t want to let this opportunity go by, because it needs saying. First you go off with Laird, and I have to pull your ass out of the fire, and now you go-”
“Rose!” I said, louder.
She shut up.
“We can’t do this,” I said. “You second guessing me at every turn. This arguing. I’ve been through some shit-”
“So have I, in case you haven’t noticed,” she said, bitter.
“Nearly getting killed?” I asked.
“I was there! We’re connected, Blake. You die, I probably die.”
“Before,” I said. “Before any of this. I’m talking about when I was seventeen and newly homeless and picking the wrong spot to settle down for the night, only to find out that a local gang thinks you’re staking out their stash or drop point or something, and you get beat down by a group of six or seven people? Or having a group of teenagers with BB guns come after you because they want a live target and you’re pretty much subhuman to them? The pellets don’t go very far beneath the skin, but one of them hit something, because my arm bruised purple from the bicep to my hand.”
“You never said anything about that,” Rose said.
“There were worse days. Days I’m probably never going to talk to you about. Or tell anyone about, even if some people close to me maybe put some of the puzzle pieces together. I’m not aiming for pity here, I don’t want it. I don’t want to use this for leverage to win an argument. What I was going to say was that I’ve been through stuff, before any of this, and I made it this far with my instincts. I can’t and won’t abandon them.”
“I’m going to be a bit of a bitch here,” Rose said. “I don’t think your instincts are that good.”
“They weren’t good when I was first on the streets, either. But I honed them, I stayed alive and mostly whole, I refined those instincts, found people I could trust, and with their help I got to a point where I was surviving on my own. Which is something I’m proud of. I can do the same here, but I need time to get a handle on it all.”
“We don’t have time,” she said. “At this rate, you’re going to make a mistake, and we can’t afford mistakes.”
“Then help. Continue helping, please. We’re the same, the only difference being that I walked a different path.”
“And you’re still walking it,” Rose said. “It’s a lot to ask, for me to trust you as an extension of me, when I’m not sure I trust myself.”
“I’m going to ask it anyways,” I said. “That you trust me, and that you trust yourself. I’ll talk to you about this stuff more, but I need it to be a talk. Don’t second guess everything I do, or it’s just going to become noise, and the doubts are going to fuck me up as much as anything. I need cooperation, collaboration.”
“You want me to cater to your unique needs, but is there any consideration to mine? I’ve been dealing… I’ve got the memories of dealing with our family for years. It doesn’t exactly build up a team player mentality.”
“My experiences didn’t either,” I said. Barring the last year or two. “But I’ll try if you do. Please.”
She was glaring at me, practically bristling with frustration. I probably didn’t look happy either, now that I thought on it.
Without saying anything more, I turned my attention to the book, until I found the page.
No image. Only text.
I looked up at Rose, and she was gone from the frame. She reappeared, holding her own copy. I could hear the thud as it hit the desk on her side.
“Page thirty-eight,” I said.
“Thank you,” she responded.
The being I have named Barbatorem is an entity falling under the classification Insolitus Nex. This author does not believe in stricter classifications, and leaves it to others to label him a devil or goblin as they see fit. It is difficult to impossible to guess as to his origins, but one can speculate that it came about after the dawn of human civilization, given the common elements and the trend in appearances.
The entity was first bound by this author on April 23rd, 1953. The binding was a difficult one to tackle, with a little more than a share of guesswork going into the execution. In the end, this author used an Ut Vires approach pointing to Contrarium methodology. An abstract entity bound in a rule-defining diagram of geometric lines and Byzantine notation. Twenty years after the fact, this author stands by her reasoning at the time.
Should another practitioner need to bait him again, know that this author used: a pile of festering boar carcasses, six feet high, each carved with his name when well into their state of decay, the decay timed using refrigeration to be roughly parallel; seven jars of burning hair, resupplied keep the flames perpetually alight; and the crest of this offering was an innocent and a virgin in the form of a one year old innocent, placed at the height of the pile. For more on the reasoning behind this methodology, please see my other work, Dark Contracts, chapter four.
This author cannot say whether he was attracted to the virgin aspect or the innocent, but this author was nonetheless happy to have an option at hand to serve both purposes. The child was unharmed and largely unaware of what occurred.
Given Barbatorem’s nature, this author would recommend another means of baiting him in the future, as he will remember, anticipate and adapt with each means used. He agreed to be bound by the seal of Suleiman bin Daoud four months after the initial capture. See the Others volumes, book one, chapter one, if unfamiliar with the seal. The diagram this author used for entrapment, necessitating only one line to open or close, can be found on page five of this entry, followed by the means of summoning and the recommended diagram for imprisonment.
Signing Barbatorem to the Standard remains the proudest accomplishment for this author, at that particular date and time, marking her first feat in this particular field.
Those looking to interact with Barbatorem at any length should see about precautions against abstract entities in Classifying Others: Fiends and Darker Beings, chapter four, and the texts on means of attack and defense against Others, in Infernal Wrath, chapter two.
Rose was already looking up at me when I finished. A bit faster than me when it came to reading.
“A baby?” she asked.
“Option at hand,” I said, as I turned the page to get a look at what came next, “I guess Uncle Charles or Aunt Irene get offhand mentions in the books.”
“I still hate them, but I’m maybe getting a sense of why they’re a little fucked up,” Rose said.
“This is the second mention of the Suleiman dude I’ve seen.”
“Suleiman bin Daoud,” she said.
“Want to do some side research while I get caught up on Barbatorem, here? Look up the chapters in those other books, and maybe get some info on the seal?”
“Okay,” Rose said. “Working together?”
I nodded, then I looked up at the second floor, where the bookshelves line the walls. I tried to remember, voicing my thoughts aloud as I pointed to each in turn. “Types of magic, shelf one, shelf two. I think it then focuses on Others, two or three shelves. Can I turn the mirror?”
I turned the mirror, so Rose had access to the ladder and the bookshelves in question.
I resumed reading.
Barbers were once surgeons, in addition to their other roles. The red on a barber’s pole is a reference to bloodletting. Barbatorem is both, a warrior of sorts, acting with surgical precision on whatever target he is directed at. A recurring theme in earlier stories suggests that he was sent against the summoner’s enemies, almost always powerful figures, and he brought them to ruin in the worst ways. He does not seek out mischief with those who summon him, but he takes advantage if one is offered. For this reason, he is a reasonably safe entity to summon if one takes care to follow instructions. He serves as a better deleterious sending against an enemy than he does as a boon-giver. This author and three acquaintances have summoned and used him without issue.
Barbatorem, before being sealed, tended to visit small settlements and sites of war, either during or after the altercation. Given his nature, it is hard to get eyewitness reports that corroborate his involvement in events. The unawakened tend to note a stench of rot, blood or burning hair, or a crude but exceptionally sharp and sturdy cutting instrument found in the aftermath of a grisly event, invariably lost a day or two later.
Physically, he rends his victims, and the surgeon aspect becomes evident in how he inflicts the maximum damage possible without ever killing them, though the methods change as his form does. He will mend the damage with an expert level of care that exceeds typical modern standards, if it means keeping the victim alive. Despite the blood shed in this process, his victims typically die by other means like starvation or dehydration, unable to move under their own power or communicate a request for aid, due to a lack of limbs, missing tongue and teeth or a lack of working sensory organs, and the isolation that follows an attack.
On a more abstract level, Barbatorem deals a deeper form of damage that is hard to encapsulate in this text. Rather than state the myriad ways he might harm his victims, this author would suggest a few key points to note, suggesting the wider variety of feats he can accomplish: It is believed that he can sever his target’s ability to access any higher plane, forever and irrevocably denying them whatever good things might await them after death, and he can remove any ability a practitioner has. He can pass into a demesne without needing permission, though he cannot enter an ordinary home owned by a non-practitioner (see Classifying Others, chapter four). He can evade barriers and typical practitioner’s defenses. This in mind, he obviously serves as a suitable weapon if directed at a practitioner.
Barbatorem takes no one shape, but tends to favor a particular form for several years at a time before unknown events prompt a change. Previous forms include: a bipedal sheep, largely bald but for sparse patches; a bloated man disfigured to a monstrous point by lash-wounds; a pair of children hand-in-hand; and a legless man on a horse. In every form, however, he carries a bladed instrument of some kind. He has been known to carry scissors, clippers or shears in more than half of the recorded cases. Death, mutilation and a lack of hair figure into each form in one way or another (see descriptions in individual entries for notes on these fronts). Ergo, the barber reference.
“The shears are a part of him,” I said, more to myself. A glance in the mirror showed me that Rose was on the floor above, a book resting on the railing as she turned a page. Did he leave them behind? Would he?
Barbatorem is mute, making dealings hard. He will see a contract up to seven times before refusing all further contracts. In this event, one can dismiss him and summon him again, but it must be to offer something else. In a dealing, he will offer expert skill in medicine, in exchange for enough blood to make the practitioner pass out – take care to avoid spilling any on the circle. He will offer to extend a practitioner’s natural lifespan by half-again or by twenty-five years, whichever is less, at the cost of the practitioner forever smelling blood, rot, and/or burning hair. He can offer to ensure that one’s blades never dull, in exchange for enough of the practitioner’s flayed skin to fill two cupped hands.
There were two diagrams drawn out in black, with measurements along each face, and a ritual for summoning him. The rest of the pages had stories. Mutilated men driven to madness, without a thing left. Limbless, suckling fruitlessly on the teats of livestock. Blind men frantically scratching out endless letters to loved ones lost to this ‘barber’, using stones on cobblestone, using their fingernails when no tool was at reach, then their blood, and then the uncovered bones of their fingers. That last one was a practitioner that tried to bind him and failed.
I reached the last page. Lines were drawn out, with words, followed by a shorthand cipher. ‘I have changed the contract.’ ctuvag ‘I have changed the contract.’ cvtuaa.
“So?” Rose asked, behind me.
“He has to be in the circle, still,” I said. “Or I wouldn’t still be here. Apparently we can’t sense him until we’re awakened, which might explain why I couldn’t see him. This guy’s spooky.”
Rose nodded, solemn. “The bit on abstract entities is basically elaboration on what’s in the note. The bit on attack and defense only matters if he’s loose. There are a lot of charts. Describing what aspects to pay attention to, what elements and objects are most effective.”
“Blood, burning hair, rot,” I said.
“Not like that. Like in Essentials, malignant Others are going to react to purifying substances and patterns, like salt and running water. Fresh wood against dead things.”
“Iron against things that are born from nature,” I said.
“Right. But he’s not entirely physical, so you need something prepared in advance, meeting a few prerequisites at once. Like, this isn’t the right answer, but drawing out a pattern on a baseball bat and hitting him with it.”
“So you’re working past the abstract bit,” I said. “No, I get it.”
She lifted another book, turning it around so I could see a painting of a brown-skinned man with a funny little golden hat and a magnificent beard.
Rose explained, “Suleiman. Sorcerer king. He was the first practitioner who really worked for the betterment of mankind and actually made headway. He established rules and contracts, and he systematically worked to challenge the biggest, baddest Others out there that he could, then used them to help get others. It brought about an age where humans could stop being the playthings of Others and start developing as a civilization.”
“Okay,” I said. “And the seal?”
“A formal acknowledgement on the part of an Other, that they won’t interfere with mankind without excuse, they’ll obey certain rules, and the practitioners will leave them be. Typically an Other bears some symbol or token of this bargain. Over time it’s gained a power of its own. Being sealed physically alters the Other, but it also affords them certain protections against us.”
“Essentials alluded to that same deal,” I said. “It was pretty vague.”
“It was because it is,” Rose said.
I glanced at her, waiting for elaboration, but she only shrugged.
“We know what Grandma was dealing with now,” I said. I didn’t add ‘which I wanted to do in the first place, before you stopped me from reading that book.’
Instead, I said, “We can’t know if he’s inside that circle or not without awakening. Which we need to do anyways.”
“On to the next part of the game plan?”
“My circle is drawn out,” she said. “Want help?”
I didn’t, but I was happier if she was on my side. “Please.”
Together, we walked through the steps of drawing out the chalk circle. Circle first, then measuring it out so that there were five circles at set distances around that circle, the line running through the middle of each before I carefully erased each with a damp cloth. One symbol in each little circle.
Another circle, larger than the last, around the entire thing, with six circles at set intervals. I carefully set out each one.
And then a third, bounding the others. Seven circles.
“You’re a lot quicker at this than I was,” Rose said.
I shrugged. “You’re faster at reading. Next?”
“Cabinet,” Rose said. “Bottom shelf, far left.”
I opened the cabinet. Bottom shelf, far left… the space as empty.
I looked back at the mirror, shaking my head.
“They were on my end.” Rose lifted a bowl with crystals in it.
Once she showed me, I was able to find it. Bowl, crystals… ah, and a bag with other components, middle shelf, off to one side. It was all clustered together.
Each circle on the innermost and outermost ring got a little gold-rimmed bowl. I spoke aloud as I got each set up. “Crystal… myrrh… oil… spice…”
“Holly and holly berries,” Rose said, at the same time I said, “raw iron.”
We exchanged glances. I stood up and checked my book.
“Why?” Rose asked. “Mine says holly.”
I approached the mirror, book held out. We each held our books out so her book was almost a reflection of mine. Sure enough, the text, the symbol for the inside of the little circle in question and the art for the token were all different.
“Grandmother?” Rose asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I get that Molly would have moved the components, but… I don’t think Molly altered the book.”
“The question is, what do we do about it?” Rose asked. “Do we each do a different ritual? Do I do your ritual, assuming it’s right? Or vice versa?”
“If it’s sabotage,” I said, thinking aloud, “Which of us was sabotaged?”
We sat there for a good minute, thinking. Rose flipped through her book as I flipped through mine, as we searched for more discrepancies.
It was the only one we could find.
I hated doing nothing, being stalled like this. It was in the quiet moments that I felt like trouble would start breathing down my neck.
I turned to the bags, searching them. Not the contents, but the bags themselves. Holly… Iron…
The Holly bag had a different knot. Tied tighter, more neatly. Full.
“Let me see your ingredients?” I asked. “Show me the ones you haven’t touched?”
Her iron ore nuggets were tied the same way my holly was.
“Molly used the iron,” I said. “I think I will too.”
“Blind faith?” Rose asked me.
“Grandmother…” I said, trailing off as I struggled to find a way of putting it, “I didn’t get the feeling she’s actively trying to fuck us over. It’s more… collateral fuckery.”
“Collateral fuckery,” Rose echoed me.
“She’s not going to sabotage us, and I can’t think of anyone else who could or would.”
“You want to trust the woman who summoned a demon that’ll jump into our eyes, and left it in the attic for us to use if we needed?”
“I don’t want to. I think I have to. I won’t force you to do anything,” I said. I got the lamps around the edges of the room and brought them closer to the circle, before using them to light tall candles.
“I’ll do the holly, then,” Rose said.
I could hear the faint sounds as she dropped individual berries in her bowl. My nuggets made a clatter.
“More abstract things for the middle ring,” I said. Rose gave me directions to find each object she’d already set up on her side.
A dagger. An hourglass. A dreamcatcher. A small silver skull. A coin.
“Which catches you up to where I was,” Rose said. “I got stumped. A rose, and something personal.”
“Kitchen for the former,” I said. “I can’t help with the latter.”
“We need the token offerings for the Others. I’ll need a mirror in the kitchen to get that stuff, with the rose.”
It wasn’t a fast process. Molasses, milk, vegetable matter burned into a clean ash, honey, meat, and alcohol. I plucked a rose from where it sat in water. A touch limp, but it didn’t matter too much.
“My food is looking pretty sad,” she said. “Am I going to offend them if this milk isn’t any good?”
“Did it go bad?” I asked.
“No, but I’m not even sure it’s milk. It could be an illusion.”
“It’s the thought that counts, right?” I asked.
“I’m not so sure,” she said. “Not here, with something like this.”
I put the wine aside for later before going upstairs, my arms full. Everything went into a bowl, except the rose.
The basic stuff in the inner ring. The dagger, hourglass and all the rest in the middle ring… leaving me with one empty circle. The personal touch.
I hadn’t brought much with me. I could probably dig a paintbrush or something out of a cabinet, but… it didn’t feel like that was exactly it.
I checked my pockets, and I retrieved my keys. Joel’s keys were still on them.
I felt the weight of them in my hand. They weren’t my motorcycle keys, which would have been my first choice, but… they sort of fit. Keys opened doors. There was a freedom. They represented ownership, protecting things, and the fact that my friend’s keys were on there…
I didn’t like to owe people things. It was why I tended to insist on some reciprocation, paying back the woman who’d given me a drive here. Giving Joel my bike keys for his. I felt it was important to acknowledge those debts.
It would do. The keys found their place in the empty circle.
I set out the food as well. One offering to each bowl, for the outer ring.
“Oh, this next part is fun,” Rose said.
I checked the book to see.
“One at a time, or both of us at once?” Rose asked.
I didn’t know. But when I opened my mouth to say so, I felt myself leaning one way, and pushed myself the rest of the way. “Both.”
We stripped down, then sat in the center of the circles, backs turned to each other, with the mirror between us. I had to get up again a moment later, to get the book and lay it across my crossed legs.
Then the ritual itself. Looking around, I was aware of how dark the room was, with the oil lamps closer. I’d heated the wax on the bottom of each candle before fixing it to the floor around the circle, and reached for one now, along with a pair of tongs.
Incense, lit. Metal ore, heated.
Metal ore, heated some more.
Okay, it took a while to get to the point where I could see the heat in it. I quickly set it down, quiet, and moved the candle out of the circle.
This was it. I glanced over my shoulder, and I saw Rose, the edges of her shoulder, hair and face lit by the candles and lamps. Our positioning made it hard to see anything else, which was sort of the point.
I nodded a little.
We began in unison, reading the text. There were three translations for each line, one in a foreign language I couldn’t place, one spelled out phonetically, and another with the English translation.
Our voices faltered some as we stumbled here and there. For the first four or five lines, one of us would reach the end before the other, pausing a fraction to let the other catch up.
We finished one line, almost chanting now as we sounded out the syllables with a kind of rhythm.
The circle moved, the bowls sliding across the floor, the diagram moving beneath them. Putting another bowl in front of me.
Again, the circle moved before me. I didn’t even dare look back at Rose. We’d found a stride, now, and the words were flowing more easily. The space outside the circle seemed to darken, as my focus on the inside of the circle deepened.
I was in the ‘zone’, so to speak. My eyes passed over the phonetic guide, but my peripheral vision caught the English words transcribed below, and the meaning became clearer. Not the entire meaning, but the big words, the emphasis.
These were the little things, the fundamental things.
The bowl of incense slid from its position in front of me, but it slid down and to the right, as if it were sinking into the floor. I didn’t look, convinced that I’d lose my stride and break the illusion if I did.
The dagger slid into place.
There were no words in the book to recite. I could have sworn they’d been there before. The silence rang, heavy.
“War,” I said, if only to keep the momentum going.
I could hear Rose behind me, taking my cue. “War.”
The circle moved, giving me a sense of relief, and a view of the hourglass.
“Time,” I said, in unison with Rose. Something we didn’t have enough of, something dangerous, foremost in our thoughts, with its association to Laird.
The dreamcatcher, a hoop with a network of threads within.
“Dream,” I said.
But Rose was speaking at the same time, and she said, “Fate.”
The circle moved. The little silver skull. Deceptively small, no doubt valuable. It glittered in the light.
“Doom,” I said.
“Death,” Rose said.
The coin, an old one, from an era before coins had been pressed with exact images.
“Fortune,” I said.
“Ruin,” Rose said.
The lifeless rose.
“Family,” I said.
“Myself,” Rose said.
Then the personal token.
Somehow, this seemed more meaningful. Weightier.
I wasn’t being presented with a surprise, something to associate an idea to. This was something else entirely.
“To everyone and everything that’s listening,” I said. I heard Rose start speaking behind me, but my words drowned hers out. “To me, and to nobody in particular, I’ve gotta say, I didn’t choose this. I’m doing this for family, to respect them as they were in the past, when my cousins were also my friends, so the others don’t face what Molly did. I’m doing it to respect stuff in the present, because even if I dislike my cousins, I don’t want them to have to face this situation and get killed off. I’m doing this for the family that comes in the future, so my kids and all our descendants don’t have this debt hanging over our heads. Above all, I think I’m doing this for my real family. For the friends I made who gave me support when I needed it most, so I can demonstrate what they taught me. Past, present, future, and… more abstract.”
I thought for a second, and then I said, “And I’m doing it for me and Rose. Because I won’t be trapped like this, and she shouldn’t be either.”
The circle passed on, carrying the keys forward, more like it was going down a spiral staircase I sat in the middle of, than around in a loop. I couldn’t even see the floorboards, now. Only the lines and bowls.
I could hear Rose behind me, still talking, as if she were very distant. “-than a vestige.”
The circle stood before me. Honey.
I looked down at the book, and I started into the phonetic pronunciations again.
Each of the dishes passed by me as I recited the lines. More than ritual, I was getting the sense that this was a means of breaking bread. Leaving gift baskets for the neighbors to let them know you were in town.
The circle carried the dish onward. There was only the line.
I kept reading. More words. I could pick up the English more easily, now.
My word is bound and binding. I ask you respect it as such.
My actions are my own, but have an equal amount of weight.
So I pledge.
The line shifted, until the white line was no longer encircling me, but crept towards me, like the divider in the middle of the highway, with my bike veering off course.
The ‘divider’ hit me, passing under my knee, then my legs. It was a matter of seconds before it was passing directly beneath me. A quick glance behind me showed me that it wasn’t carrying on.
Darkness, one straight white line, and me.
More lines appeared. From the other circles that had disappeared, from other directions.
My legs shaky, I stood.
I nearly fell as a line coursed forth from high above and caught me in the shoulder.
I was glad I hadn’t fallen. I wasn’t sure if there was a ground beneath me to catch me. My feet weren’t on solid earth.
The lines were larger, more meaningful, and I could see further. I could see the circles attached to each line, like planets in orbit around things I couldn’t make out. A system all around me, that I was now a part of.
I felt like Rose must feel all the time. Being there, but not quite alive. My body was only there because my sense of self required it.
I opened my eyes, and I came back into my body.
Chalk lines crossed the floor, the circles still evenly spaced around them, but they had expanded, decentralized from around me. The lines now intersected at points, and the spaces between bowls were five to ten times as far as they had been before.
The bowls, as a result, were scattered around the room, each upright. The incense still smoked, but the bowls that had held food were empty.
I was standing, the book on the floor in front of me. I reached down to see if there were any other instructions, and stopped.
I could see birds, flapping their wings, against my skin. They moved, and the branches they were on bobbed lightly. The watercolor background shifted.
“You okay?” Rose asked.
I started to speak, and then stopped myself. I had to be careful.
“I… may be seeing things,” I said. I glanced her way, and saw her sitting in front of the mirror. Her legs were bent, knees almost up to her chin, arms around them, protecting her modesty. I turned and stepped around the desk, where the furniture would protect mine. I grabbed my boxers and jeans and pulled them on.
I heard a page turn.
“The book says you need to learn to manage your extra senses. If you don’t, they can swallow you up, and you won’t find your way back to reality.”
“I think I remember.”
“It suggests techniques, but you have to find what works for you. Closing your eyes, but not moving your eyelids. Or try refocusing them, and find that point you reach to where you’re trying to refocus your eyes but you’re doing something else. It becomes as natural as anything else about your body. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy.”
The bowls were still moving, I noted. The lines still drifting. One bowl made a ‘clink’ as it reached the wall, tapping the foot of one cabinet.
“How did you do it?” I asked, as I buttoned my jeans.
But Rose wasn’t in the mirror.
I looked around me. There were other things that were catching my eye, now. The lettering on books glittered a bit too much here and there, where the light caught it. The script on the letter I’d torn stood out in bright blue where I’d torn it, while the other half remained nearly invisible.
I closed my eyes, exhaling, and then opened them.
But for the chalk lines and bowls in strange places, the room was normal.
I reversed the process. Eyes closed, inhaling, eyes open.
Again, there were the hints of life. I could see something faint, like dust motes, spraying lightly where the room ended and the hallway began. As though the space warping effect was creating a kind of friction between spaces.
When I focused on the motes, they stood out in my vision, and I could see more of them in the room.
I cupped my hand to catch one.
It turned, doing a small somersault before darting between the fingers that tried to close around it.
I did what I’d done before, but I didn’t close my eyes.
The effect faded.
I turned it on again, but without doing anything with my breath or eyes.
I checked to see if Rose had appeared, verified she hadn’t, and picked up the book. I finished the chapter, rereading the bit on being awakened and the sight. Now, as agreed on by men and Others, long ago, I’d see what was normally hidden from people.
Practitioners fell into categories, depending on their focus. Some carried on this route, learning ways to influence the world that were naturally in tune with their bodies and will. Some practitioners manipulated spirits, getting them to obey or infusing them into objects. There were some who dealt with Others. Many cultures, a long, long history of arts being invented and refined, it made for a wealth of possibilities.
I felt more equipped, now. I couldn’t do anything but see, but I felt calmer, without as great a weight on my shoulders.
That would inevitably end when I got to the council meeting.
“Rose?” I asked. “Are you getting changed?”
I approached the mirror.
Her diagram was still on the floor. It hadn’t scattered like mine had. It was still in place.
I realized I hadn’t checked what her personal object was.
I searched the outer rim. Coin, skull, dreamcatcher…
“I don’t think it worked right,” Rose said, stepping into my field of view before I could spot it. She was dressed, now.
“What?” I asked. “You didn’t? Why not?”
“It did something. I…”
“What?” I asked.
She looked upset, met my eyes briefly, and then looked down. “I… felt something, when I pledged my word. I can see things. But I don’t think it worked for me like it worked for you. I may have fucked up. Pledging something in exchange for nothing. Losing the ability to lie, and getting nothing in exchange.”
“How can you be sure?” I asked.
“I’m not. But… nothing ate my offerings like they did yours. Nothing moved, as far as I can tell. I… don’t think I can see anything on this side, because there’s nothing really to see.”
“Let’s check,” I said. I walked over to the desk to put the book down, stepping over the dagger. I flipped through it. One page with an image dominating half of it. A symbol was outlined, with arrows suggesting directions for drawing it. A spiral, drawn from the outside in, then a triangle, with one point at the center, all as one motion.
I heard her flipping through pages as well. “Yeah.”
“Shamanism, movement,” I said.
“You have to spill blood,” she said.
I bent down to get the dagger, hesitated, and then cut the tip of my middle finger.
I drew out the sign on a cup that was being used to hold pens and pencils.
When I looked, I could see the motes floating around and through it.
I gestured, a flick of my hand, and they reacted. The cup jerked about two inches and crashed to the floor.
When I walked back to the mirror, I saw Rose there.
She gestured, and the book she’d chosen didn’t budge.
“Try something smaller?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, quiet, “because it’s not blood. I’m not offering anything worth taking, and there aren’t any spirits here to listen and obey, are there?”
“There are other options, maybe?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, again. “I don’t care anymore.”
“Careful what you say,” I said. “Our word is binding.”
Her voice sounded like it was on the brink of breaking with emotion. “Good night if I don’t run into you before you go to bed. I’m going to take a bit to myself.”
I wanted to say something to console her, but I wasn’t sure what.
“Rose,” I said, but she was already gone. I turned the mirror, following her, and she startled a little, almost stumbling as she nearly walked into a wall.
“What?” She asked, clearly annoyed.
“I’m going to check on the barber again, if that’s okay? I won’t say or do anything. I just think it’s good to check.”
She nodded, mute.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I know you are,” she responded. She smiled back, a tight, joyless expression. “You can’t exactly lie now, can you?”
With that, she stepped out of my field of view.
I shucked off everything, as I’d done before, and opened the door to the tower. This time, I looked, using the sight, keeping my eyes trained on the floor, using only peripheral vision to take in the circle.
It was still empty.
I felt a quavering in my stomach, a kind of fear. He’d seemed so vague, in the books, but now that vague thing, capable of inflicting unspecified horrors on me, it was free?
I stood there, eyes on the floor, thinking.
When he appeared, it was so sudden I very nearly looked out of instinct.
He was crawling out of the shears. Out of the reflective surface, and into the middle of the circle.
A brown-skinned man, his pale hair scraggly and long, inconsistent here and there, more baldness than hair. He was old, wizened, with a potbelly, and spots all over his skin.
I couldn’t get more specific details without looking at him, and I wasn’t about to look.
An old Middle-Eastern or Indian man, malnourished to the point that his stomach was swelling.
He bent down, hauling the shears out of the ground. I could see the painted circle the shears had penetrated disappear, as if it were only a coincidental light effect the shears had cast.
He sat down, his back to me, bony rear end on the hard floor, and then plunged the shears into his leg, like a gardener might stick a shovel in the dirt so it would stay upright for when he needed it.
Barbatorem leaned over, resting one narrow arm in the space between the two arms of the shears, forcing them open and gouging his leg open wider. A foul stench filled the room.
He wasn’t acknowledging me.
Which I was fine with. I eased the door shut, eyes still fixed on the floor.
There was a council meeting to prepare for.