I took my time changing clothes, then stepped into the washroom. No time to shower, but I wiped down with a wet washcloth, got my hair damp and got it as tidy as I could manage. When I made my way to the living room, they’d already settled in, Alexis looking impatient, Joel typing.
I sat on my futon, elbows on my knees, hands sticking out. Evan hopped from one finger to the next.
“This waiting is killing me,” Alexis said. She leaned on the back of the armchair that Joel sat in. She was short enough that the back of the chair covered her from the chest down. “Give us a tidbit? Something to assure us you haven’t gone completely around the bend?”
“Easier if we wait for the others,” I said. “Once I get started, there’ll be questions, and it’ll be too easy to get caught up in explaining myself. Better if I explain the once, give you an out, and then give proof to anyone who stays.”
“I know you’re not a murderer, Blake,” Alexis said, “But this is harder to buy.”
“I know,” I said. “But if it was easy, I might have done it already. There are costs here.”
Joel was still focused on his phone, texting, looking up only to check on me, to gaze at the small bird.
“They’re your friends?” Evan asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I consider those two family. Joel’s my landlord, and he’s one of the nicest guys I know. Alexis saved my life.”
“I’m not sure if I should interrupt your conversation, if you can call it that,” Alexis said, “But I really didn’t.”
She looked so worried. I hated worrying her.
“You did,” I said. “I don’t think I would have lasted any longer out there.”
“You don’t give yourself credit. You’re tough.”
“She’s the person you were talking about when you talked about your tattoos.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But let’s maybe not get into something that intimate.”
“Non-sequitur much?” Alexis asked.
I smiled a little. “I’m sorry.”
There was a knock on the door.
Alexis answered it.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
How bad did I look?
“I’ll explain when everyone’s here,” I said, once again. I was surprised they’d called her, but couldn’t ask why while she was here.
The others arrived. Goosh, Tyler, Joseph. No Amanda.
Two hours until midnight.
“Okay,” Alexis said. “No more stalling. Explain.”
“When my grandmother passed, she made my cousin Molly Walker her heir. Molly inherited a trove of magical knowledge. The other locals arranged to have her killed, because they thought that knowledge was too dangerous.”
“Magic?” Tyler asked.
“Magic. Spirits, ghosts, goblins, monsters… all real,” I said.
“Is this a game, or an A.R.G., or-”
“No,” I said. “It’s real. In the past few days, I’ve almost been killed maybe a half dozen times. In two hours, maybe more, maybe less, everything starts going to pieces. Disaster. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but it’s bound to be pretty ugly.”
“What, specifically, is going to happen?” Joel asked.
“The less I say, the better. One of the reasons this stuff isn’t common knowledge is that there’s a possibility for collateral damage. If I provide all the info, you’re a part of it, and you might be in danger because of your relationship to me, or I might be in trouble if you slip up, when I have responsibility over you.”
“It’s… kind of hard to buy,” Tyler said.
“I know,” I said. “But I’ve only got two hours to get ready. If this is going to be two hours of me convincing you, or two hours of explanation while I hold your hands, then it’s not going to be enough. I guess I’m asking for a leap of faith here. A willingness to leave your old life behind, if it comes down to it, and lend me backup.”
“Leave our old lives behind?” Alexis asked.
“If this gets messy enough, might be I and everyone associated with me need to leave Toronto. There might be danger.”
“Do you know how you sound?” Joel asked.
“Crazy,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It would sound even crazier if I told you everything. But I guess I need you guys to trust your instincts. Decide if it’s possible for you to believe me, and decide if you’d want to make this sacrifice.”
“Without you telling us what that sacrifice is?”
“It’s dealing with the kind of horror you usually only read about in fairy tales. The sort of thing you were afraid of when you were little.”
Evan nodded. I saw eyes turn his way.
I added, “It’s being in danger. Though I don’t necessarily want you guys in the thick of it.”
“Assuming this is for real, making this leap of faith?” Alexis asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’d try to back you up.”
I nodded. I hadn’t expected any different from Alexis.
“Turning the tables,” Joel said, “Can you do us the favor of maybe accepting that you’ve gone around the bend? You’re in bad shape, and there are treatable things like thyroid problems or manageable stuff like mental problems that could explain a lot.”
“If you’re willing to entertain the idea that I’m not completely off my rocker, just for tonight, I can return the favor later,” I said. “I can do what I can to accept that I’ve maybe lost it. Tomorrow.”
“If it involves leaving life behind, or the possibility that something could happen to me,” Joel said, “I don’t know if I can.”
I wasn’t surprised. “Your mom?”
“My mom, yeah. A couple years ago? Maybe. Another few years? She won’t last that long. But right now?”
I nodded. I understood, and I didn’t want him to lose ties to his ailing mother for my sake. It still stung, just a little.
“I can give you help in other ways,” he said. “Lend you my car again…”
I shook my head a little. “No need, not really.”
“Okay,” he said. “The offer’s open.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I dunno if you want to leave, but-”
“No way,” he said. “I’ll hear you out. Never let it be said I wouldn’t, baby.”
Four more people remained almost silent. Goosh, Joseph, Tyler and Tiffany.
“I’m thinking of Natty,” Goosh said, when I met her gaze.
“I know,” I said. “Joel brought her up not long after I showed back up in Toronto.”
“I was close to her. We’re still in touch. The bad days from that… it wasn’t all fun. The bad days sucked, more than I can say.”
“You don’t want to get involved if I’ve lost it?” I asked.
“That is not what I’m saying,” she said, stabbing a finger my way. Goosh could probably beat me in a fight, on a good day, so it was a little intimidating. “You know that if you’re in trouble, you can come to me, just like I came to you back then for help with Nat.”
“That said, I’m having trouble believing you’re coming from the same place as her. I don’t know if that’s Natty being so fresh in my memory, coloring my expectations, or if you aren’t crazy…”
“But?” I asked.
“I’ll hear you out,” she said, as she stuck her hands in her pockets. “Even if you’re not for real, I’d really like to know more about where you stand and what’s going on.”
It kept coming back to mental illness. I wasn’t sure how much resistance there was when introducing the unawakened to this world, but I could worry that, no matter how hard I tried, they might keep going back to that.
At the same time, it was rooted in them caring about me, and nobody had said or done anything to suggest they wouldn’t have my back if I had lost my mind. It wasn’t just lip service, either. It was being offered with full knowledge of how much that stuff could suck.
That was gratifying.
Tyler was black, skinny, his hair cut short, with a toothy smile. He wore thrift store clothing that was badly out of date, but put together with an eye to color and style. The thrift store aspect of it wasn’t so much that he was poor – he was, kind of, but even so – he just preferred to buy more, cheaper clothes to mix and match over having a few top notch outfits. Sort of a metaphor for Ty as a whole.
Ty was one of the artists I worked for, a challenge of sorts. He had a hard time sticking with things, meaning I had to constantly adapt to whatever new thing he’d picked up. Thing was, Ty had a way of taking on something totally new and foreign and then abandoning it not long after he’d started to make money off of it.
There had been a time when I would have lopped off a foot for his talent at any one thing. It was painful, sometimes, watching him struggling to get by. A part of me wondered if he loved the process of learning something more than he loved being good at that something. Another part of me thought that he might be addicted to the rush that came with uncertainty. Anxiety wore on some people, but it very possibly drove people like Tyler to flourish.
The same part of me that worried about his addiction to anxiety wondered if asking him to help me out here was the right thing to do.
“I’m in,” Tyler said. “A part of me wants these monsters to be real.”
Case in point.
“You wouldn’t really want to, if you knew the full story,” I said.
“Wanna bet?” he asked.
“Not on that one point,” I said.
“Well I’m in. There’s no way I don’t want to hear more about this.”
“Okay,” I said.
“How are you going to prove it?” Joseph asked.
“Do you believe me?” I asked. I was a little surprised. Joseph’s critical eye was easily the sharpest in the room. He had a way of swinging between what looked like unfailing good cheer and deep, dark moods. Sometimes it was little things that set him off. The inability to get one detail right on a project. Other times, he could toss a project aside without a care. Though he wasn’t as talented as Tyler or Alexis, his ability to fit what he did make to the ‘scene’, making it applicable and different enough to get noticed, made him perhaps the most successful of us here.
“I don’t not believe you,” he decided.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
He shrugged, smiling a bit. “It means only that. Like Goosh says, you don’t give off the right vibe. I’ll listen.”
Tiffany’s expression was worry more than anything. Not directed at me so much as herself. “I’m not sure why Joel invited me. There were others the other night that have known you longer.”
I’m kind of wondering that myself.
“Because I trust you,” Alexis said.
Going with her gut?
“Okay,” Tiff said. “I don’t feel like it’s my place, but I’ll listen.”
It would have to do.
“Evan,” I said, addressing my familiar. “Maybe you want to write a letter?”
“I need paper,” he said.
“End of the hall. On top of the short bookcase,” I said.
He took off.
“You want a trained bird to write a letter?” Goosh asked.
“Evan there is the ghost of the boy I was accused of killing. Last fall, he was lured into the woods. A monster called the Hyena stalked him. He survived until he died of exposure. Yesterday, I ran into his ghost. Earlier today, I bound that ghost into familiar form. He retains his wits, and as far as I can tell, a few minor powers.”
I heard a thump.
A moment later, Evan returned, flying very close to the ground. He was having trouble flying, with the way the paper caught the air.
I reached out to catch the paper the moment he was close enough.
“I bumped into the wall,” he said. “The paper got in my way.”
“I heard. Sorry,” I said.
I made my way to my feet. “I’m this feeble because I drew too much from my personal reserves. I bled myself out to power effects.”
“Self harm?” Joel asked.
I crossed to the cabinet by my dining table. One shelf had wine glasses. The shelf below was crammed with all the minor crap that tended to accumulate on the table, with nowhere specific to go.
I grabbed a bottle of ink for filling fountain pens.
I unscrewed the cap. I placed it by Evan, then held it down. There was a trace of ink on the underside.
He hopped up, stuck his foot down, then hopped onto the paper, resting on one leg, fluttering briefly to catch his balance.
He began drawing out letters with one toe.
“No way,” Tyler said. He grinned.
Joel was a little less amused. I saw a frown cross his forehead. The other seemed to fall into a middle ground. Confused. Staring at Evan, or just plain silent.
“Thoughts?” I asked.
“That’s pretty impressive for something with a brain the size of a corn kernel,” Joel said.
“Can I peck him?” Evan asked. He’d stopped mid-letter.
“No pecking Joel,” I said.
I waited for him to finish I held up the paper. The words were a bit of a scrawl, disjointed, but he’d done a pretty damn good job.
‘Its all true.’
“You forgot the apostrophe,” Joseph said.
“I’m a bird,” Evan said. “I’m a kid. I’m dead.”
“The mistake is excusable, given the circumstances,” I said, as I put the paper down.
Still, Evan seemed somewhat offended, and he made his way to the cap from the small bottle of ink, stuck his toe in the ink, then flutter-hopped over to stick his foot down, depositing a dot of ink.
“Okay, that’s a little uncanny,” Joseph admitted.
“That’s not proof enough?” I asked.
“It’s easier to accept that a bird might be exceptionally well trained, and that you or whoever trained it might have expected the apostrophe thing to come up,” Joseph said.
Nobody was arguing that point.
Fuck me. If cool, intelligent people who trusted me were going to be this fucking dense, I could probably get away with using magic in public.
Not that I hadn’t used it in public, but I’d at least been discreet. Maybe there wasn’t even a need.
Was this the natural resistance to the unknown?
Why hadn’t I run into it when Rose first showed up?
I reached into my sleeve and retrieved the locket. I had to twist and unknot it a bit to get it free from where it uncomfortably encircled my wrist.
There wasn’t much here. The hair was gone, but the dark crust on the interior wasn’t.
I got my finger thoroughly smudged, then drew a diagram on the top of the coffee table.
“By doing this,” I said, as I drew, “I’m introducing you to this world. Your mistakes from here on out are mine, in part. The consequences can be heavy, and I’m not in a position to be able to afford mistakes.”
I wasn’t sure how well this would work. Glamour fed on belief, and there were a number of disbelievers here.
But I might kill myself if I used blood, and I had no idea how to use the Stonehenge charm that Evan had taken from Duncan.
I moved my hands back.
The coffee table slid a solid two feet, and the diagram disappeared.
“You kicked it,” Joseph said.
“He didn’t,” Goosh said.
“Nope,” Alexis confirmed. “I watched.”
“Magnets, then,” Joseph said. “Strings.”
“That would only make sense if he wanted us to think he’s crazy,” Alexis said. “And he’s not that kind of guy.”
“Thank you,” I said. Joseph seemed flustered as he tried to reconcile very conflicting ideas.
“This is for real,” Joel said. “There’s no way you set something like this up when you’ve been gone.”
“And because he wouldn’t,” Alexis said.
“You’ve known him longer than the rest of us have,” Joseph said. “Forgive us if we’re a little slower to buy something this insane.”
I nodded. A fair argument. I’d been running into Alexis since almost day one on the streets. I’d only really gotten to know her a few months in. The rest of these guys, I’d known for a year, year and a half. Tiffany? For a week.
“You’re forgiven,” I said.
“This shit is real?” Alexis asked.
“The people you thought were trying to kill you are part of this?”
“Among them, the Lord of Toronto, a circle of time-manipulators that include one cop in the police station, very possibly a group of enchantresses. In the past three days, I dealt with an imp that made the local wildlife go violent, the goblin-thing that caused Evan’s death, the aforementioned cop, and I tried and failed to deal with an honest-to-god demon. Each of which tried to kill me, or managed to take a piece out of me.”
“Is that the way it always is?” Goosh asked.
“No,” I said. I hesitated. “It’s because of who my grandmother was.”
“Who was she?”
“An eminent diabolist,” I said. “Someone who trafficks in the really bad stuff.”
I saw some eyes go wide.
Not wide enough. They didn’t get it. Not yet.
“Basically,” I said, “I’m spent. This is why I need some backup.”
“What could we even do?” Joel asked.
“You should do nothing,” I said. “You have your mom to look after.”
“What you’re dealing with sounds important.”
“It is important. If the Lord of Toronto gets what he wants, the world is liable to become a less pleasant place to live, putting it lightly. But if you don’t look after your mother, Joel, the world still becomes a less pleasant place, get it?”
“It’s a question of scale,” he said.
“I was just dealing with a group of people who have someone in their group that isn’t a part of any of this. She’s part of the group because being able and allowed to perform magic means you aren’t able or allowed to lie. Oaths become binding. She’s the group’s liar, for when they have to interact with other parties.”
“Joel couldn’t lie to save his life,” Goosh said.
“I’ll take what I can get,” I said. “You in, Joel?”
I contemplated for a moment. “None of you guys have run away screaming, which might mean I’m not doing my job at explaining this.”
“It’s not that we’re not a little freaked out by what you’re throwing at us. It’s more that we’re on board,” Alexis said.
There were nods from everyone but Joseph.
He seemed to be having a harder time getting into this.
“Joseph?” I asked.
It seemed to be all the cue he needed. “I’m gonna head out.”
“Hold on,” I said.
“I’m not saying I don’t believe it,” he said. “I’m… it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of how it all fits together.”
“I can’t say it’ll make more sense after I explain, but it won’t magically start making sense on its own.”
“Give me a bit to wrap my head around it,” he said.
“How long is that ‘bit’?” I asked. “The next two hours are pretty vitally important.”
“I’m not so good with stuff that I don’t get,” he said. “I’d be more liability than help. Check in with me in a day or two.”
“You’re running?” Tyler asked.
“No. I’m not scared. I’m unprepared.”
“I’ve been unprepared since day one,” I said. “I know remarkably little, and I’ve had to face down some big problems.”
“That’s you. I get it, I respect it, and I don’t envy you at all. But you gave us a choice about whether we’d get into this, and I’m exercising that choice now.”
“You’re running,” Tyler repeated himself. A statement this time.
“Don’t stop him,” I said.
“Maybe I am running, I don’t know,” Joseph said. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m abandoning you, Blake. Is there anything you need?”
“Sure. Supplies,” I said. “Tools. Stuff I can use to draw. Possible weapons?”
He fumbled with his keychain, then got his key. He tossed it my way. My reactions were too slow to catch it. I picked it up from my lap.
He explained, “My place is yours. Raid it for whatever you want. But I’m going to stay out of this for now.”
“Where are you going?” Joel asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. No hard feelings?”
“I’m sorry to see you go,” I said. “But I’m glad you’re going, if you feel the need.”
“I’m sorry to be going, too, but…”
He trailed off, leaving the sentence for someone else to pick up. Nobody did.
“Raid my place,” he said.
He made his exit.
It was bewildering and it hurt. It was all the worse because I could see why it was happening. Joseph wasn’t someone I was overly close to, but I’d considered myself closer to him than I was to my own parents. I’d worked for him and with him, we’d confided in one another. I respected him. No shenanigans seemed apparent with a glance, no connections or other meddling. He was doing this of his own volition, as far as I could tell.
Joseph was the most successful of us in the broad sense. Yes, Alexis had steady work, but Joseph had garnered attention as an avant-garde artist, and was making it at a job that very few people did well at. He succeeded because he was keenly aware of what his broader audience wanted. He kept his finger on the pulse of the community, identified what would work, and made it happen, with a somewhat perfectionist manner.
I’d really wanted him on my side, in the midst of this. To have his observant eye reading the situation would have made a world of difference. I felt like he would have been an exemplary practitioner, given the opportunity.
I looked at the others.
“I’m in,” Ty said.
I could read her expression.
“No?” I asked.
“If it was mental illness, I could get that. But… you’re talking about something I’d have to keep secret from Amanda.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Or, admitting that she’s only a new relationship… that we probably aren’t in it for the long haul, it’d mean cutting myself off from future relationships.”
“I’ve found,” I said, “That that’s maybe the hardest part. And that’s what I’m trying to fix here, reaching out to you guys.”
“That’s a no, then?” I asked.
“For now?” she asked.
Now was the most important time… but the thing that was going on with Conquest was just words to them. The meaning and gravity of it wasn’t clear, and it wouldn’t be.
“I’ve got your back,” Goosh said. “If that counts for anything.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
I saw eyes turn to Tiff.
“Don’t feel pressured to say yes because others are saying yes,” I told her. “I asked you how you handle stress, a few days ago. You said you don’t generally manage it well.”
“It’s okay if you’re not into this.”
“Is there any part of this that isn’t horribly stressful?” she asked.
She frowned. “But this is major.”
She was trying to convince herself to move forward.
Why had Alexis invited her? Tiffany liked me, and I liked her too, but I didn’t trust her on the same level I trusted the others.
“This is major,” I agreed.
“Then I’ll try to help, and I’ll do that very little that I think I can do.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I had arguments with a companion, not long ago, and I don’t think this is the sort of thing where half measures will do. It might be better to back off.”
“I’m sure,” she said. She sounded more confident, and left no room for argument.
Well, I wasn’t going to turn down help.
“Okay. Three people. There are things we need,” I said.
“What things?” Alexis asked.
“A dagger,” I said. “An hourglass. A skull. A coin…”
By the time the Knights arrived, half an hour later, I’d given the others a brief idea of everything that had happened to date. I had stayed out of the way while they moved furniture in my living room, and we had a set of circles drawn. My visual memory was strong, and it was stronger still when it came to stuff I’d worked on with my hands.
I already had the bowls set out along the diagram. We had stuff for most.
Ty was at work using a hacksaw to take a chunk off an iron poker from Joel’s place. Joel, for his part, was going from apartment to apartment, trying to find Myrrh and an old coin.
“Hey,” Nick said.
“Hi,” Evan replied.
“Hi,” I said.
“You’re up to something,” Nick said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Nick, meet Alexis, Tyler, Tiffany, and Goosh.”
“You’re awakening these guys?” Nick asked.
“You’re aware that it’s typically very important to ask the local Lord for permission for this sort of thing?”
“Failing to do so gets you in hot water.”
“Are they in hot water, or am I?”
“You, I’d think.”
“Then I can deal,” I said. “He’s probably going to be ticked at me later tonight, whatever happens.”
Nick nodded. “Here. I brought the books.”
I looked over the texts. Basic Protections. Possibly useful. Runes: Natural. Very useful. One text that had apparently been torn in half. Only the latter half of the book remained, and…
Perfect. It wouldn’t have made sense if they didn’t have a copy, short of the demon eating it. This was the book a practitioner needed to have in their library. The farmer’s almanac. This one was an older version, at a glance, compared to my grandmother’s, and the spine was tattered, held together with clear tape. I took a minute to double check I had the circles right.
Joel returned. He had what looked like an American silver dollar, rather tarnished, and he had myrrh.
I flipped through the book, reading up on the symbolism. Our coin wasn’t gold. Did it matter? The book was vague.
“We’re… fudging a few things,” I said, speaking my thoughts aloud.
“Iron isn’t raw ore,” Nick’s son said.
It wasn’t until he mentioned it that I thought to check. This text, like the one I’d read from, had iron as one essential component. Rose’s text had had holly.
“Does it matter if we bend the rules some?” I asked. “I’m… my perspective is that the magic stuff is bullshitting. Symbolism. That the spirits really want to hear the right words and see the right steps being taken.”
“We fudged it too,” Nick said.
“Did you fudge it this much?”
“Right,” I said. I sighed. Addressing my group, I asked, “Everyone has their personal items? Something of significance to them?”
They each nodded, with the exception of Joel.
Alexis’ hands were empty, though. I had to wonder what she’d picked.
“Who’s first?” I asked.
“I’m gonna step out, then,” Priss said. “Keep my eyes virgin and innocent.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Goosh? Joel? Go with her. She’s your model. Get advice from her on being the designated liar, what you can do, what you can’t, what to stay away from, and when to step in.”
“Okay,” Joel said.
“Can I stay?” Goosh asked. “Maybe I don’t want my eyes to be virgin or whatever.”
I shook my head a little, but I said, “Sure. Go with your gut. That’s what I’m doing here.”
Joel paused. “Are you doing the right thing?”
“No idea,” I said. “But I need help, and… it means a lot to me that you guys are following through with this.”
I took the chunk of sawed-off poker iron from Tyler. I gave him the book, open to the right page.
The remaining Knights stepped into the kitchen. Around the corner. Giving Tyler and the rest of us some privacy.
While he began reading, I held the iron with pliers and heated it up with the small acetylene torch I kept under my sink.
I dropped the iron in a bowl.
Tyler’s ritual. The rest of us stepped back to the edges of the room. I leaned on the dining table for support, the various food items behind me, the demon arm still wrapped in my jacket on the table.
“You need to strip,” I said.
“No way,” he replied.
“Open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable, show you have nothing to hide.”
“Really? Or do you want the girls naked?”
“I offered before,” Alexis commented. “He said no. He wouldn’t go this far now.”
“Fuck,” Ty said. “No peeking.”
He began chanting. I closed my eyes, thinking and listening.
“Oh my god. This is really for real,” Tiffany murmured.
“Shh,” someone else said.
She was seeing things change, the bowls and lines move, the light change.
Somewhere along the line, the pink of light shining through my eyelids became black.
I opened my eyes, my hand raised to block my view of Tyler’s bits, and I could see Tyler in the midst of an oasis. Light streamed in through the balcony window in thin rays, making it seem like we were in deep space. Said light faded as the diagram and Tyler grew more pronounced.
I hadn’t clued him into this part of the ritual. I would let him figure it out much as I had.
The knife appeared, sliding around until it was in front of him. Something Ty had made himself when he’d been into metalworking. Our ‘dagger’.
“Severing ties to the old Tyler,” he said.
Not quite a one-word response like I’d given.
The ‘hourglass’. We’d found an hourglass, but it was cheap, chintzy, something small from a board game. On impulse, I’d included the Stonehenge charm I’d liberated from Duncan.
“Makes me think of phases of the moon. I like being out and about at times when I’m by myself more than I like places where I’m by myself.”
It was an odd fit. Was it too far off?
The dreamcatcher, one of the things we’d found that actually wasn’t fudging it.
“I don’t want to be a salaryman. The idea terrifies me. I want to be on the other side. Be an artist, be a wizard, be inspired.”
The skull moved into place. A cat’s, bleached. A paperweight from my bedroom. It had sat on my stacked copies of tax returns before the police scattered everything. A kind of personal joke. Death and taxes.
“Until death, I suppose,” Ty said.
“I get this is serious,” he said. He was rambling as much as anything. “There’s a weight to it. Price to everything.”
I nodded. He’d caught that in my broad-strokes explanation of what had happened thus far.
The rose. It was more lively than the one Rose and I had used.
“It’s all interconnected, I guess?” Ty suggested. “Life, death, time… yeah. Saying I’m buying into this until the day I die is meaningless if I’m not in it when I’m alive. I’m devoting my life to this.”
I winced. I harbored concerns about Ty’s ability to devote himself to anything. But, as I allowed myself to think it, maybe he could be something else. One could devote themselves to music without devoting themselves to a singular instrument and style. Ty was the type who, if they were a musician, they’d try every instrument and get the sense of every style they could find out about. That took a devotion unto itself.
The personal item.
A USB stick.
Like I had, he seemed to feel this needed more explanation.
“My sister is twenty years older than me. I saw life wear her down. Debt, a marriage that became loveless, kids. She did everything right and it did her wrong in return. That stick is my journey. The poetry I wrote when I was twelve, photos of the stuff I made last week. It has my email archive, and I’m pretty sure my emails to and from my sister are there. It’s… it’s me trying to find my way to where I need to be. Blake’s done right by me, and maybe I don’t need to be there long term, but I think I should be at his back in the short. But this stuff seems too interesting to not investigate. That’s who I am… and maybe with this, there’s no way I can fuck up and wind up like my sister did.”
The bowl carried the USB stick away.
There were only the lines to be recited over the food. Offerings to the various major types of Other.
Then the pledge.
Tyler looked happy.
Fuck me, I hoped that happiness wouldn’t give way to something else entirely.
The ritual finished. The bowls were scattered around the apartment.
I threw Ty’s sweatshirt and boxers to him.
“Holy shit,” Ty said.
“No kidding,” Alexis said.
“No, I mean… wow, holy shit.”
“He can see,” I said.
“Like you explained,” Alexis said.
“Holy shit,” Ty said. He looked at Evan with eyes that were too bright. A lingering, very personal effect, like my tattoos had been.
“Hi,” Evan said.
“Shit on me. Hi, bird.”
“Evan,” Evan said.
“Be careful,” I said. “Hyperbole is bad. You can’t lie now. Might want to cut back on the swearing.”
Ty nodded. “Did I do that right? The bit where the objects came up?”
“I used one word answers most of the way through. I think it’s flexible. You’re… I dunno, making yourself known, on a fundamental level. The ideas are more important than the words. It worked, so it probably wasn’t wrong.”
Eye on the clock. There wasn’t a lot of time. I glanced at Nick. “Can you take Ty out? Give him a rundown, or take him where you know there’s something he could bind?”
“Not really our thing, binding on the fly,” Nick said. “But I could teach him the basic runes.”
“Please,” I said.
“Rest of us clean up, set things up anew, and then the next person takes their turn,” I said.
I watched as the knife came up for Alexis. I leaned against the wall, so the corner by the kitchen meant I couldn’t see her, but I could see the area in front of her.
The Stonehenge charm.
“Stonehenge was for keeping track of phases of the moon, right? Female, I guess?”
The cat skull.
The tarnished coin.
Her personal item.
I hadn’t seen when she put it in the bowl. I saw now. Three molars, attached to a plate.
“This one feels important. If I’m supposed to clue the supernatural world into who I am, make my signature as I step through the door, then… this is pretty fitting. We’re flawed, people are. We’re damaged. We come into the world nearly perfect, naked, and happy and then life delivers the beatdown. It kicks our asses and makes us feel like shit. It does permanent damage. Bad luck, people, our own mistakes. I want to work hard at things I love, find the good, be one of the people who fix instead of break. Who loves instead of hates, in my twisted manner of loving, I guess. I want to make as few mistakes as possible… and I say that as a smoker. So maybe stick a small ‘hypocrite’ label on me too, while you’re at it.”
The bowl rotated out of view.
“Yeah,” she said, as the next bowl rotated into view. “That’s about right.”
Words said to greet and pay respect to the Others.
Then the pledge.
The room brightened.
Alexis took her time before she gave the ok.
I looked. She was mostly dressed.
She took more time to find the bowl with the teeth. She picked them up, then opened her mouth wide to set them in place.
Her coarse hair shifted as if in a gentle breeze. A juxtaposition of the supernatural and very natural.
“Hi,” Evan greeted her, as she approached me.
She smiled and raised a hand in a wave, then came to my side, leaning her head back against the wall, eyes closed. Taking it all in.
Tentatively, I took her hand and squeezed it. I saw her smile, her eyes still closed.
Only Tiffany remained. I had more reservations about her than anyone.
I was growing more and more aware of the time limit. I felt anxious as she went through her paces, for several reasons.
I was glad to see the items find their place. The knife.
“Dangerous if not handled with care.”
“Deceptively simple, has history.”
“Need to think outside the box, sometimes, to find your dreams, or to find the right ones.”
The cat skull.
“Frightening when laid bare… or beautiful? I can’t decide. Both.”
“Symbolic, pretty, almost useless.”
The personal item.
An AA chip.
“Not mine. But my entire life, I’ve been defined by other people. I’m hoping this is when I can define myself. Get a little power, when I’ve always felt so powerless. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with my new friends, find some courage. This is… it’s a reminder of broken promises. That reminder shaped me into who I am now. Flawed and broken, like Alexis said. But there’s a certain strength in rules, and I can feel good about myself when I swear to myself that I won’t drink, that I won’t do drugs, that I won’t betray my family. I like that I’m sticking to these rules now. If you… if whoever is listening now was listening before, maybe I didn’t sound certain. But now that the rules are setting in place, I’m feeling more sure. I want to become reliable, and I will, with your help.”
The bowl moved on.
I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.
She paid homage to the Others, then said the words that sealed the deal.
The indicators of power were short lived, explosive. A rush of light as the circle spent itself, then illumination for the entire room.
By the time she was dressed, which didn’t take long, the effect was long gone.
“Hi!” Evan called out.
“Hi,” Tiffany said.
It was done.
I had a circle now.
And I had no more time.
“There’s no time to teach you guys,” I said. “Which means strict, simple tasks.”
“Strict and simple sounds good to start with,” Ty said.
Forty five minutes. Discounting the time it took to drive…
“Nick, want to help me out? My friends need a fifteen minute crash course in magic.”
“I’m not that knowledgeable.”
“Me either,” I said. “But it’s going to have to do. We gotta deal with Conquest.”