The knock at the door makes me jump. I was lost in thoughts of the past. A short reverie about the moon over the deep woods, myself and Janice out there in the trees celebrating and performing rituals. It is a good memory. One that I like to keep close when I am between assignments. The knock sounds a second time and I sigh through a grumbled, “I’m coming!”
The stacks of books between my couch and the door rise from floor to ceiling causing more than hazards; they make my small apartment feel claustrophobic. I get up from the pile of overstuffed cushions on my end of the sofa and dodge through the nearby stacks before opening the door to see who my unexpected visitor is.
A woman in a white trench coat stands there, smiling behind sun glasses large enough to obscure most of her face. She is tall, standing in front of me with her hands holding her little red purse by its top in front of her. Her overcoat is cinched tight around her waist and the wide brim of her hat droops around its edges, barely containing the blond curls of hair. She is the very picture of civilized charm and etiquette.
As opposed to me. My cornrowed dreads reach well past my waist, I probably smell like I could have used a shower two weeks ago, the gauge on my ears is more than enough for them flop when I don’t have anything in, and my current wardrobe consists of a t-shirt sans bra (the girls need to be freed every once in a while) and sweatpants sans underwear.
“Oh, it’s you,” I say.
“Indeed, honey child,” she replies with her sweet southern accent. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“Not until you tell me what you want,” I say.
“Ever the lady,” she says, taking off a glove. Her pale skin almost glows in the twilight shadows of the hallway.
“Fine. Ruin the surprise,” her arms flop over one another as a few strands of hair stray over her glasses. She blows them away as she says, “I have a little gift for you.”
Remaining in the doorway, I watch the corners of her mouth. They’re not moving. Neither are the tips of her fingers.
“You found the book?” I ask in a whisper.
Her nod is almost imperceptible. I swallow hard, sucking on my teeth.
“Come in then,” I say, stepping aside.
Once inside she takes off the glasses and looks around. The tiny beads of light, in the place of her pupils causes me pause when she turns around.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. You’ve seen it all before,” she says.
“Yes, Janice, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy,” I say.
“You should be one to talk, Mary. Awake at all hours, chanting, this place of yours absolutely reeking of charnel. Really now, what do your neighbors think of you?” she asks.
I gesture to the sofa and make for my corner. I don’t sit so much as throw myself into the dent waiting there. If this is the book I think it is, I’m going to need some help getting into the pages. My pipe floats out from the end table drawer as does my lighter. Lighting the bowl and taking a deep draw, I smile and send a cloud towards Janice’s face. She just smiles and sits down at the other end, her bright red lips pulled tight to the point of almost bursting.
“Not a whole lot,” I say with a slight cough. “Considering I keep them under illusions when they’re here. As far as they know, I’m just another poor college student.”
Janice shakes her head and leans forward, her hand waving the smoke away as she does so.
“And your guests, like me?” she asks.
“That’s up to you people,” I say.
I take another deep gulp from the pipe and let it float back to its tray. A few seconds later, I let it go, slowly blowing it in a ring around me. It lights up pink and blue with a few green sparks here and there.
“Looks like I’m ready to go,” I say. “Let’s see it.”
My hand extends toward Janice and waits there. She smiles again and shakes her head.
“Not until we make a deal,” she says, wagging a finger at me.
“But I’ve already lit myself up. I don’t have the money for another batch of Granny’s Goodness,” I say with a whine.
Janice leans back, clucking her tongue at me. Around her springs up the aura she’s had since I’ve known her. Black swirls of reddish light centered around her eyes and teeth and chest. Classic vampire.
“You should have waited. I’m not giving you this without a deal in place.”
“Okay. What do you want?” I ask. My impatience bleeds through the words as the magical world starts to play before my eyes. The walls of my apartment begin to sway, wobbling with wood-sprites and house spirits playing everywhere.
“Two things,” she says, holding up her fingers.
“First, I want a promise that you’re not going to something stupid with this,” she says, peeling back a finger. “The last time, well, let’s not talk about the last time. The thing is, I don’t want it coming back to me.”
I try to keep from watching her words form in the air and bounce around the room but I can’t help it. Easily distracted. But as soon as she’s stopped talking and staring at me for a response, I snap back around.
“It won’t. I promise. All of this, if anything, is going to be totally on me,” I say.
Janice nods and holds the remaining finger right between my eyes, causing me to cross them. She laughs a bit before continuing on.
“Two…I want another night with you.”
I blink and shake my head.
“Wait. You want that now?” I ask.
Janice nods again.
“It’s been so long, Mary honey. Some might say too long,” she says and reaches out to hold my hand. Her room temperature flesh sends goosebumps up my arm, my mind screams how wrong that is, but that memory replays overriding everything else.
I should refuse her. Letting a vamp get a hold of a caster like me is always bad news. But Janice has behaved herself. Never taking and never giving too much, we have been able to remain professional. Even if I didn’t want anyone or anything else for the following six months. It would be nice to know, one of these days, if she felt the same way and if that’s why she brings me these little trinkets from time to time.
Swallowing hard, I say a single word.
Her face lights up, smile revealing the two sharp points that might be my downfall one of these days.
“But,” I say, holding up a hand. “It can’t be tonight. I have plans.”
She starts pouting and stands, her back to me. I follow and pull her back down to the couch with a kiss on her lips. She sinks back down with me, holding my head between her hands and pressing her lips against mine with just enough force. I have to will myself to stop and push her shoulders back far enough to get a breath. Janice looks like she is about to cry.
“However, I am free tomorrow night. And should be the rest of the week. What do you have to say to that?”
“I say we have a deal,” she says with her pout turning to a smile. She leans in for another kiss.
I can feel the hooks she left in me stir and how tight my very loose sweatpants and t-shirt feel. Pushing her back again, I shake my head at her.
“Tomorrow,” I say. “Tomorrow night. I promise. Now, where is the book?”
She stands and fishes it out of some hidden pocket of the coat. For a second he holds it high above and like teasing a cat, waves it back and forth, waiting for me to reach for it. As I give her an unhappy look, she tosses it to me and with a grin, she zips out the door, slamming it shut as she leaves. I get up from my couch to make sure the hallway is cleared and sigh on my way back.
“My life has too many complications,” I say to the empty room.
One quick invocation later (to keep Janice from coming back too early) I return to the couch and grab the pipe for one more drag, the earlier puffs wearing off quicker than I want. The book sits on a pile next to my cushions and calls for me to open it before I’m ready. There are boundaries to put up, wards to ensure before I start playing.
And with those preparations in place, I open the book just as someone knocks at the door.
“Damn it,” I say, looking up.
They knock again.
“Go away! I’m busy,” I shout at the door.
It is answered with another knock.
“Damn it! Did you not hear me the first time? I’m busy! GO AWAY!”
Despite the wards. Despite the enchanting. Despite everything I am capable of, the door blows in, splintering in the process and sending a thousand pieces at me.
I throw a blanket in front of me to catch the worst of it.
As it falls back down, peppered with a hundred new holes in it, I see the perpetrators. Two people in robes dragging a figure between them and a third robed person following. They step inside without a word and throw Janice to the ground. The third comes up behind them and stands over her unmoving body.
“Who are you?” I shout.
The one standing over Janice takes off the hood and looks around the room before turning back to me. He has large, glassy eyes. Eyes too big for his head and a too wide mouth to go with them. His skin looks like he’s trying to shed it like a lizard, all scaly and dry. There isn’t a stitch of hair to be found on his face, none on his pate nor above his eyes or fish-like lips. His hands look mostly normal, but I can see a hint of webbing between them before they’re hidden in the sleeves.
Then the stench hits me. I don’t know how, given how clean I keep my place, but their odor overpowers it and makes my stomach twist.
“We are the previous owners of that tome,” he croaks, pointing at the book that I’m holding against my chest.
“What of it?”
The confidence of my words sends a shiver down my spine. I am not this aggressive most days. The words seems to have put the two followers off as they appear to be surprised by the challenge. Although the leader is less impressed. He steps forward and sticks out a hand.
“I believe that we would like it back. And don’t think of that as a request or question. Your friend here was mistaken in thinking she could get away with her little theft.”
I look at the other two who’ve laid Janice out on the floor in front of my door and have rejoined the talker behind his elbows. A smile comes to my lips.
“You know, the three of you must be grunts,” I say.
The lead raises a fleshy eyebrow just before the ward hits them.
“Because real magic users know to ask for permission before entering a home. They tend to have nasty traps like that waiting for idiots.”
They fly up to the ceiling and smack it going something like seventy or eighty miles an hour. Their spines snap, the echo of the event sounding sweet to my ears. They fall back to the ground, feather like and are bundled by my spell into the broom closet to start rotting.
I get up from my sofa and take a quick peak out the shattered remains of my door. No one else seems to be waiting for the three idiots, so I dig an extra rug from behind my sofa and hang it across the empty space. Casting a quick illusion to make it look like a door, it should keep the curious out for the next couple of days.
“And now for you, Janice,” I say.
I jump over her unmoving body and into the kitchen, where my ceremonial knife is tucked away in the silverware drawer. Seems like the best place for it. Grabbing it and a few other necessities, I walk back to the entrance and kneel over Janice and bring her head up to lay against my knees. Using the knife to make a small cut on the side of my finger, I wait for a small drop of blood well up. Just enough to give her a taste and hopefully wake her back up.
I smear the drop across her lips and wait a minute. At first, I don’t think anything is happening but then her tongue flits out snake like, tasting the air and the fresh blood. I lean back and smile a little.
“So you’re not completely gone, are you?” I ask.
She smiles, “Sometimes you have to know when to play ‘possum.”
Taking my wrist she looks at me with pleading eyes. I nod, and bring it closer to her mouth. She doesn’t bite very hard, just enough to break my skin and then her tongue does the rest. Closing my eyes in the pleasure of the moment, I stifle the moans trying to escape my throat.
Damn you Janice. Why does this have to feel so good?
I let her continue for a few minutes before I start pulling my wrist away. She doesn’t resist my movements, just clings and then relents, releasing my wrist back to me. The bites have already started healing, only small nicks that have the crusts of scabs growing.
“Couldn’t stay out of trouble for five minutes could you?” I ask.
“What are you talking about? It’s been a day since I left here,” Janice says.
I frown at her.
“No, I just got back to the sofa when those guys came crashing in.”
Janice sits up and takes a long look into my eyes.
“Mary, I don’t know what happened to you, but I left here, had a night on the town before going home for some rest in the morning,” she says. “That’s how those idiots got me. Waiting until I was asleep before barging into my home and assaulting me.”
I get up and help her do the same. I open the broom closet to look at the still twitching bodies.
“If you want a quick snack, you could have those,” I say.
She recoils and sneers, her face growing ugly at the suggestion.
“I’d rather drain an actual fish,” Janice says.
“Fair enough,” I say and close the closet door with a shrug.
I walk over to the sofa and pick the book up from where it landed. Turning it over in my hands, I finally get a chance to look it over. There’s a dustcover I hadn’t noticed before, which belongs to the book I mentioned to Janice, but after peeling it off, I can now see that it doesn’t match what’s underneath. I feel the blood drain from my face as I read its cover.
“What is it?” Janice asks.
I shake my head at her.
“Then what is it? Why did you go pale?” she asks.
I show her the actual cover of the book, the one that was hidden by the dust cover.
The Abridged Necronomicon
“I don’t get it,” Janice says. “What’s this book?”
I sigh and sit down on the sofa.
“I thought it was only a rumor, something people writing fiction made up. Seeing this, having felt this,” I pause and shake my head again. Janice sits down and puts her arms around me, nuzzling my neck with her face without making any attempt to bite me. I lean into her and give her forehead a quick kiss.
“It’s a translation of a very old book. A very powerful book. Something I never thought I’d have a copy of it in my hands,” I say.
I turn to Janice, a frown on my face and take her hands in mine.
“How did you get this? I mean, I know it had the dustcover on it, but still. Why this book?” I ask.
She shrugs at me, and looks down to our joined hands.
“I don’t know. The book, it just was there in their room. One minute I was scanning the shelves and the next I had it in my hand,” she said.
I nod, picturing her actions. She’s fast, she’s also very accurate. Usually. The book did something. It did something to get into her hands and then it did something to me last night.
“So what are you going to do?” she asks.
“The only thing we can do. Run,” I say.
She pulls back and turns my face to hers. She smiles at me and pulls us together until we’re touching by the forehead.
“You never run. That’s not who you are,” she says.
I smile back at her.
“You’re right,” I say.
“Good. We need to find out exactly what happened to you,” Janice says.
I nod, thinking. This is where I lost a day. If it was the book’s doing, then it knows my home. It knows how my home is set up and operates. Not that I want to give it up and all of the power here, but I think I have to get away. I need somewhere which will give me the space to really examine the book.
“What are you thinking, hon?” Janice asks.
“I’m thinking we may need to go to the lake.”
The cabin is cold, the lights are not working thanks to no gas in the generator’s tank, and it smells like something died here.
In other words, it’s perfect.
Janice has found a place up in the rafters to wait out the day and I’ve been buzzing since those five coffees I got from the coffee house down the block.
The drive here wasn’t all that bad once we got off the interstate. The single lanes and back roads make me happy. Their curves and blind corners are far more interesting than miles of plain blacktop. Much easier to make myself to pay attention. Mom was the same way back when this was her place. I took it over when she decided it was time to move on, cosmically speaking. She always wanted me to have a safe place to disappear to, if needed.
And I think this counts.
I grab some candles from the small kitchen and roll back the rug on the floor. Mom’s old circles are still there, cut into the stone under the cabin. I take a few minutes to arrange things, grabbing a few more trinkets from the cabinets before settling myself in the center with the book.
Closing my eyes, I find that place inside where my power comes from and open it to the book sitting in my hands. The world swims away and I find myself sitting in the pages of the book. From this perspective, the words are buildings, tall skyscrapers filled with the meanings and powers of the book’s words.
Somewhere in between the word towers I see it. A figure walking through the words, stopping every once in a while and doing something to them. It takes me a few times watching it happen to realize this is the shadow. The thing behind the words, the thing that gives them power.
There’s no physical form, this is just an echo, the shadow of the real beast that’s made up of a thousand impressions. I feel it reaching out through the pages, the countless tentacles miles in length, the hands flabby with cosmic age, the acre great wings that blot out skies, and a mouth large enough to consume the greatest whales of the sea.
And as that thought crosses my mind, it turns and sees me. There’s no escaping, no running away. I’m in it’s world and it is on top of me.
It doesn’t stand over me, it overwhelms, or it tries. Mom’s circles do their job and keep it from consuming me soul first. After a few moments of trying, it backs off and tries a different approach.
For a change, I meet someone who seems to know how to handle themselves. It is good to see you once again.
“I know enough to keep myself safe, and what do you mean once again?” I ask.
If a book or word could smile, this would be it. A tentacled word reaches up like an dismissive hand and it proceeds to walk and lead away. No matter what my guts are telling me, I choose to follow.
So to what do I owe this rare pleasure?
“Your friends are after this book. I was hoping to find some way to get them to back off. I happen to like living.”
Ah. Many have the same wish and the same problem. Interesting that you have brought it to me, its source.
“So you can do something about it?”
I might. But it depends on what you have to offer in return. I have not been running a charity all these millennium.
If there was some way to pause and think about what was going on, I would. But this isn’t something I have much control over. Yeah, I can leave any time but it doesn’t mean I can return and pick back up where we left off. There’s no guarantee that the shadow will have me or respect the circles or even be here.
“What did you have in mind?” I ask.
These followers of mine. They need some…correction. One might even suggest that they require a redirection in their worship.
There’s a moment, a pause in the book’s thoughts. It’s enough for me to think about something that’s been bothering me the entire time.
“So they’re not doing it right?”
Do you really think they kept it right through all of these years? These beings of flesh? It is hard enough to contact them in dreams. And few of them have your abilities to get closer to the source material, as it were, who are not blinded by the desire for power. It is all very frustrating for me.
I gave them their instructions millions of your years ago. Even with the longest of lives, memories fade, words and meanings change, drifting away from their original forms.
But here you are and here I am, both with problems that could be resolved with a little cooperation.
Again it pauses, allowing me a thought for myself. There’s a lot going on here, a lot more than it’s letting on but I feel like it’s telling the truth. I can’t see a reason for it to lie. It comes down to one thing.
“How do you know that I can trust you? Trust you to not do with me as you will after I’ve passed your message on?”
The way I see it, we both stand to lose if there isn’t any trust between us.
I nod as I would if I were sitting across a real table from someone. It has a point. There’s not much else between us besides trust.
“Fine. How is this going to go down?” I ask.
First, you’re going to open your eyes and see that they’ve already found you in the cabin. You might break a few of their spines while you’re at it, since you’ll see that they’ve…well…I will let you have a small surprise there. But you will have to surrender, let them capture you. They aren’t going to be nice about it.
Then again, you won’t be either.
And with that the shadow lets me go.
True to its word, there are another half dozen of them in my cabin, just as stupid as they were before. Two are holding a smoldering skeleton and the third in their group has a oak stake in hand.
Their heads whip around as I shout her name. The three of them standing over her body lose theirs as a ward sends loose beams jumping into their faces. The other three rush me from behind, grabbing and hitting me with something on the back of my head.
And into darkness I fall.
When I wake up, I’m in the lake, about ten meters from the shore and tied to a post. My arms are stretched out and my legs spread eagle. The pole feels solid, like it’s anchored deep in the mud somewhere below me. There’s a group of what looks like fifty or so fish-headed people on the shore watching. One of them, with some sort of weird crown steps forward and starts chanting. Around me the water churns and writhes.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I say.
A door opens inside my mind and I can feel the words and what they mean go spilling out. My tongue aches to try a few of them out. So I do.
Tentacles burst through the surface the water.
The fish-headed folks on the shore give a shout and immediately fall to their knees. I think they’re praying in a language that not even the stars remember properly. But I do. I know what they’re supposed to be saying.
“You’re doing it wrong. And have been for a while,” I shout to the shore. “Just so you know, you’ve gone and pissed it off once too many times.”
Their priest in the weird headdress stops and looks up. I smile at him, close my eyes and start intoning.
Below, the tentacles stop moving. With a very sudden shift they’re circling around me and reaching up out of the water. Several of them caress my body slowly, healing my wounds. One even snakes it way between my legs, the tip of it glowing. Other ones reach up and untie the ropes holding me up against the wood. I reach down and drag the one between my legs up, holding it between my thighs making it look like something I wasn’t born with. It stiffens and the glow pulses with my heartbeat.
For a second its very much like how Janice made me feel and I smile, remembering that these idiots are going to pay for killing her. I take a step forward and the other tentacles lay themselves out providing a path for me to walk back to shore.
I look up at the fish-headed idiots standing at the edge of the water, their mouths hanging open in shock.
“Today…today I think you’re the sacrifice.”
They scream as the water explodes with a thousand more tentacles reaching out for them. I don’t know what is happening to the others, but the priest is held in place for me. As I approach and he is stripped of his robes and made prostrate on the ground.
“I have some knowledge a mutual friend would like for me to impart,” I say and reach between my legs to the new appendage. It thrums as I stroke it, growing and stiffening even more. I like the sensation it sends down my spine.
“How do you wish for me to continue?” I ask.
It struggles against the tentacles, screaming obscenities at me. They stretch him against the ground and with a snap, immobilize him.
I shrug and get on with my half of the deal.
I don’t remember much of the next couple of days. Sometimes when I dream, I catch a few fragments. They’re not very pleasant and some of what I did twists my stomach. But when I wake up, I remind myself of two things. First, that they were prepared to do worse to me and second, they murdered a sleeping Janice.
It’s not much, but it does slow my heart down and lets me feel some measure of justice.
I kept the book and every once in a while I go for a walk between the words, but the shadow is gone. It’s just a silly thing now, a storybook for those in the know. I’m not sure why I keep it, maybe it’s a reminder or maybe I hope to see the shadow again.