Archive for the ‘ Chapter 03 – Closer ’ Category

Hi.  I’m Ed.  I squish things man was not meant to know.

Seriously, though, I’m just one of many footsoldiers against the forces of darkness.  In my case, I’m usually up against the squiggly things.  The astounding deviancy of  multilegged beings so unnatural to humanity they have chitin rather than backbones, as if they were the sticky spawn from a place far, far from the rocks from under which they crawl… um, end of Lovecraft moment.

So, I met E while working a low profile case at a condo west of Denver proper.  I was dressed in my working gear, which includes the little *fwt-phwt* machine you generally see guys like me carting around.  Mine blows a little air more than anything else.  I use it to disturb things.   Don’t get me wrong – I’m still probably played by John Goodman in the film of my life, but I don’t use poison unless I have to, and I certainly don’t spray the kind of xenomorph-blood acid Delbert did in _Arachnophobia_.  (Yeah, it was a dumb little fun movie.)

You see a lot of crazy in my line of work.  No, I wasn’t leaving out a word, although a few might fit there.  See, I’m a utility kind of guy.  Most of the time I’m not invisible, like water or power to the privileged suburbanite, but you want me to be.  If you have to call me, you’re in trouble.   You’ve already got a problem.

Most people don’t stop to count the legs.  That makes sense – if it skitters, it’s not likely a pet.  (Disclaimer: my boss has told me I cannot advertise small, untrained, yappy dogs as “pests” that can be “controlled.”  Nor their ignorant caretakers.  And contrary to the story Maggie tells, I did not leave a small child at the pound.)

These things didn’t just have too many legs; they crawled in and out of places that didn’t exist.

It helps that dad ran a small handyman business while I was in school.  I know what to look for in a well-joined cove base.  (It’s that area between the floor and the wall that collects dust that drives your wife crazy to stare at while she’s sitting on the throne.   Or, at least it did mine.)  That’s why I know these critters were not going through into the wall or floors.  They were doing some kind of crazy dance that didn’t have anything to do with cracks, spackle, or euclidean geometry.

“Canaries,” E called them.  I know he was referring to the coal mines, not pretty little golden birds upon which cats snack.

“They have a better name?”

“That’s their job description.  I’ve heard them called flitters, twinklings, umbrats, glints, and my favourite, shadow puppets.  Let’s just call them glints.  They’re attracted to certain kinds of magic use, especially quincunxial types.”

I did ask him if he was speaking English, even though I knew he was speaking Technical of a type I wasn’t a techie.

Then he did his magic.

I’m a sane, rational, reasonable man.  I’ve seen swarms, I’ve seen natural states of decay, and solifugids that have turned other men pale.  What I saw when bent down and did…whatever it is he does… to the glints wasn’t right.  It wasn’t a part of the world I knew.

Look, I’m a dude.  I have two and a half ways of handling that situation.  I can fight it, I can f… I can make friends with it.

I wasn’t fighting anything that can bend space and time like the engineering deck on an old Starfleet vessel.

And I don’t swing that way, anyway.

So, I became a convert.  I always recommended my customers learn how to close jars and windows anyway, so it wasn’t like I had to do too much changing of my spiel.  Now I look for the things that are, well, things, and not just members of entymological interest.  I call E in when I know it’s something on which bait, sprays, and the methods of this world won’t work.  He calls me in when he needs a cover to go looking someplace unpleasant.

It’s a working relationship.

Unlike what he has with Maggie, of course.

Yeah, yeah, I’ll keep out of it.  But if he’s smart, he’ll find someone who doesn’t drive him crazy.

I love E, man, like a brother, and he’s the best there is at what he does, but he’s not smart.

(32) A Taste of Chicken

I was having the best dream ever.  Magdalena had rolled onto her back, smiling her “come-hither” smile, and I felt her hand pulling at the back of my neck.  She whispered something I wouldn’t repeat for the world, but that’s fine because it was meant for me, not the aforementioned planet.  I think it had something to do with the blissful sweetness of glazed doughnuts.

And then, of course, I woke.  Huh.  I had set the alarm afterall.

“What is your obsession with pastries?” Doloise asked.

It hadn’t moved all night, so as I could tell.  The community that called itself Doloise (I resolved to look up the meaning of the name later) still sat on the edge of the chair that delineated my bedroom from what lay beyond.  The edge because there was a stack of graphic novels piled up where one’s rump might normally rest.

I rolled off the bed and headed into the small pit of chaos referred to as the place where I drained my lizard.  Choose your euphemism wisely, padawan.  I took my time and brushed my teeth.  I decided not to shave.  I hesitated on the shower for a minute, but then decided I could use the sprayer as a club if I needed, and took the chance.

“My guide and my guardian.”  I spent what was normally my personal time considering methods and means to ditch her.  They weren’t as fun as my normal fantasies, I can tell you.

She was still there as I came out of the bathroom.  I stared back at her while I rubbed the towel over my chest.  She still wore those amber shades.

“I guess you’re welcome to stay,” I decided.  “I have to go to work.”  Because, you know, the phones won’t answer themselves, and, um, the e-mail won’t print itself out.  Oh wait, I know!  Someone needs to listen to the water cooler.

I’m not dissatisfied with my jobs.  I like having them.  The ability to maintain the variety of food, water, warmth, and shelter that makes my life worth living kind of requires them, or at least, the results I get from completing them.

I pulled some blinds down to check in the parking lot.   I’d given it even odds that my simulacrum could drive.  Looks like I’d have to pay myself, ’cause I won and lost the bet.  Um.    At least my car wasn’t in the normal parking place.   I had remembered that briefly from last night, now that the memory was triggered – we’d parked the stolen bike there.

“Are you still contractually obligated to the simulacrum’s position?” Doloise asked.

“Yeah, you could call it that,” I said, sighing.  That was pretty low, actually.  I had to have a day job – I didn’t like ramen.  I thought for a moment of asking my mom for money.  The conversation played out in my head.

“Mom, I have to escort this creature that looks like a girl but really is a whole bunch of different people’s identities and magic stuffed into a woman-shaped suit back to her homeland to get her to stop bothering me.  Could I borrow some rent money?”

No, no, what my mother would have to say would be either on the, “Does she have a real job?” leading to the grandchildren discussion of doom, the, “What happened to Magda?  I liked her,” discussion of doom, or the, “My son should not need to consort with prostitutes,” conversation of, well, doom.

Doom, doom, and doom.

“I’ll buy you a doughnut if you get me back to my car,” I told Doloise.

“Do you not have something more…” she hesitated on the word.

I couldn’t think of one, either.  Really, what’s better than a six-pack of convenience-store powdered doughnuts for a quick breakfast?  “This ain’t the Ritz, babe.  I think I’ve got a couple cans of chili in the cupboard, maybe some microwave dinners.  I am twenty minutes late if I want the bus, so do we move or do you want to stay here after waving your magic wand at the bike so I can get to where I need to go?”

Doloise stood.  I would say she seemed kind of flustered.  “We have not given you your payment,” she said.

“You got me home.  Let’s call it even.”

Her sunshades slipped down and I caught a flash of green.  “That is unacceptable.  A debt of gratitude may exist between us.  I remain your guide and guardian.  If we must partake of these…doughnuts, it shall be sufficient.”

I slipped on some shoes, having dressed in what was still basically clean resting on my bathroom hamper.  “Fine.  I know just the place.”

I glanced at my wall calendar on the way out, and swore.  Tonight was the Russian poetry meet.  I could tell it was going to be a long, long day.

(33) Black and White

I considered trying to point out landmarks or something that might be of interest to a fey to distract Doloise along her way.  In truth, I was dreading the conversation that began, “Um, no, you actually can’t stay here all day.”  Guide and guardian.  I know she had some talent, sure, and was definitely in the heavyweight league, but I was more concerned about the creatures tied up in her.  I mean, was this a timeshare operation that was costing something outrageous? 

All magic costs.  Nothing’s for free.  I want to say there are exceptions to every rule, and sure, there’s fairytale magic that you don’t see the immediate costs of, but it’s a fairly strict equation.  If you’re in the big leagues, maybe the costs are tied to the rules, but even what I practice has its own co-pay, so to speak.  That’s one of the arguments between the shades of magic I’ve heard over and over again; “good” magic is sourced in the self or willing sacrifice, and “bad” magic is sourced in someone else or unwilling sacrifice.

Magda calls baloney on it and I’m generally in agreement (if not thoroughly convinced by her arguments, either.)  She points out that some of the strongest magic comes from repetition, the kind of will that is reinforced by the act occurring identically a multiple number of times.  While on a physics level (dirty rats, physicians…erm… that’s not the term) it certainly costs energy, once you start labelling sacrifice “willing” and “unwilling” you’re ignoring that will can be oriented somewhere else entirely and still have magical consequence.  The person opening a door to get somewhere is, most of the time, not caring that that opens the door for a thousand other things, from the cool wind or a gnat or a multitentacled being from beyond the grave.  (If the lattermost could be subtle.  They really can’t.  They’re not psychic neutral – they give off dread and despair like a real man sweats.  I, on the other hand, use a good antiperspirant.  Hmmm.  “Cool-thulhu.  Keep your cool in the direst situations.”  Advertising wasn’t really my medium.)   

So, to continue with the door metaphor, if it’s a hot day, the cool wind is going to have a small effect, and so is the energy required to open the door.  But the consequences stop being “willing” very soon on, so unless every opening of a door is an act of “evil” then we have to start to consider intent, and I don’t think anyone with a brain wants thought police.  (I’ve enough trouble keeping my mouth shut.  Imagine trying not to think the things I think!  Which is different than not being punished for them anyway.  Somehow, women always know…)

You also run into the problem (and here is where Maggie’s convinced) that unless you really are under the rules of “my strength is the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” while your “white mage” is exhausted, using her own energy (and maybe some given to her by her friends), the “black mage” is still going strong, her energizer battery being fuelled by everything she can possibly steal, kill, or otherwise grab.  If it’s a battle won by pure power, guess who wins?

There are those, however, who do try to think ahead that much, and I hope their talents are similarly untainted.  I also know practitioners who only do magic with their left hands and interact with the daily world with their right.  I don’t know that they drive that well, and tennis is just out of the question.

So when I was considering those behind Doloise and their interaction, I was concerned because someone had to pay for her.  Somewhere my name got involved in the contract, and since I didn’t get to read it, I was hoping it wasn’t one of those like from the hospital that says, “And if your insurance doesn’t cover it, you agree to foot the bill.” 

I know, I’m such an optimist.

Guide and guardian.  I guess I could test it – get myself in trouble, or something and make her get me out.   I was already worried as to how much having a simulacrum in my position set me back.  There hadn’t been any nasty messages, or, well, messages at all on my voicemail when I checked it last night, so I was guessing I was still employed.

That reminded me, then, that I had the ultimate fey distraction tool.  An iPhone.  (Well, an off-brand equivalent I’ve patched to be pretty awesome.)  I wonder if the fey like Ninja Ropes.

(34) If The Branch Breaks

The Eloise May is the newest addition to the Arapahoe County library system.  It’s the government project that provides me with the sweet satisfaction of all those books I can’t afford on my patchwork salary.  It’s a nice place, with terrible parking.  (I only say that because I can rarely find a spot.)  They have a large selection of works in Russian, notable only because people have said a criminal element helped support its building.

I know differently.  Well, sort of.   I don’t actually _know_ if the Red Poets Society (as I’ve dubbed them) contains too many people with connections to the aforementioned brotherhood, but it wouldn’t surprise me.  Old sorcerors have interesting stories.  Alas, stories like that generally cost something to learn, and I was on a lean budget when it came to secrets.  I happened to stumble onto this one while in line waiting for the library to open one morning.

(In case you were wondering, ignorance can truly be bliss.  While I know knowledge only implies responsibility, it does it to the responsible types.  And with great power, well, you know the rest.  Ask Peter Parker for more details.  With practitioners, there are truly things that, to know them, causes unrest in that hurly-burly thing we tend to refer to as the soul.   For some people it’s just the minor discomfort like knowing your parents (and their parents before them – yep, grandma and grandpa) had sex.  For others, it’s like knowing someone in your family listens to conservative talk radio and takes its morass of ridiculous supposition on limited policy seriously.  Those are like, I don’t know, soul indigestion.  Beans.  You know, good for your heart.  Those things are, well, peanuts, at least, to what kinds of things you can learn when you’re in the business.  Imagine a soul kidney stone…and imagine it’s all that you have in order to save the world?  Knowledge is dangerous business.)

(If you’re wondering what happened at work, “It’s so easy a simulacrum can do it,” kind of handled it.  I did have one of the older ladies who works in finance ask me if I’m normally so quiet, but I just smiled and didn’t say anything.  That’s knowledge I can give you for free, but imagine what it would have cost the accountants if I explained in further!)

I used Wikipedia to catch me up on the three important periods of Russian poetry, so if the conversation actually wandered that way I could feel like I knew something.  I did not get very far in my study of the free Russian courses, but I admired that the language has fewer tenses than English, even if it does make you sound a bit like a badly scripted robot.  (I considered learning the word “exterminate” in Russian, but tossing in a bad Doctor Who reference amongst people who could level cities (with a half-day’s preparation) didn’t sound like a good idea.)

I do know a few words in a scattering of languages that relate to my practice.  I could maybe make a good attempt at “Where’s the water closet?” in a handful of tongues.  I wish I knew the trick that Maggie uses to do a magical translation, but I know when someone is being furtive.  There’s something about the esoteric arts that put them in a different tone of voice than ordering a sandwich, or gossiping on someone’s dress.

The Magster talks a lot about how words for “witch” generally split into two designs – that of danger such as poisoners and oathbreakers or the way of the wise and those who “know.”  To me that sounds a little too Illuminati.  Honestly, everyone wants to be one of those “in the know,” usually with all the power and none of the responsibility.  I take it with a grain of salt; similar to the one I take with a lot of her witchy subculture.

But… and yes, there’s almost always a “but,” enough that we could probably coin a magical rule on it… like calls to like, and magic is there for those who look for it.  So when I was accosted while trying to pick up some of my reserves with, “You are one of us,” I figured it out pretty fast.

(Actually, my brain kind of ran down a decision tree like, “One of us.  Um.  Male.  Yep.  White.  Yep.  Library-goer.  Yep.  Let’s skip to the part where we’re likely to make a point of it.  Oh.  One of US…”)

“Come to poetry night,” I was told.

“OK,” I replied.

Yep, I’m a master of snappy come-backs.   Of course, I didn’t expect to have a realm guardian, the mark of a shadow god, and the acquaintance of the Questor all in the few days before the meeting.  It might have changed things.

Doloise had been sitting quietly under a charm she called a “veil,” but really was just a misdirection.  It’s that terminology issue again, I think.  When I think of a veil, I think of a physical manipulation of the visual field, but she merely made people look different places, like any magician worth his (kosher sea) salt.  (I think prestidigitation should be a required course of study for practitioners, because there are so many important lessons in it.  Of course, I have been trying to learn to juggle for years.  I know, I know, I can create a doorway from here to the Nymphic Pleasuregrounds (well, in theory, anyway) but I am concerned about throwing a few balls in the air and catching them in order?  You’re smart.  I’ll just let you sort out the obvious corollaries…)

There was one awkward moment when my boss du jour, chatting with me about flummery and ephemera nearly decided to sit in the seat across from me, where the Realm perched, happily ensconced in trying to figure out how to make the little electronic ninjas fly.  I was able to dodge the sports questions (thank you, talk radio!) and he was called back to his office by the clock.

(The clock is a harsh mistress.  Time seems inevitable, and, I’ve been told by some, it is one of the hardest elements to manipulate even though it is one of the most basic and mathematically simple.  We are slaves to our perceptions, even at the finest levels.  I have considered the idea of being able to make a portal that crosses through, but I find myself hesitant at best.  I don’t want to be on the wrong side of time.  Time has me (and probably you) by various short hairs, and it’s a knuckly, sweaty grip.  Time to laugh, time to cry, time to get to work in the morning, time to check and make sure Doloise is still entertained and not about to make immortal trouble…)

I like to be active.  When it’s busy, I feel like I’m getting things accomplished.  I don’t have time to think.  The whole “Idle Hands” proverb is true on many levels – if you’re thinking too much, you’re not just being self-indulgent, you’re on the precipice of mental disaster.  Chances are you’re not self-affirming, you’re instead worrying about what other people think, what needs to be done, how you’ve failed in some fashion.

Which is all nonsense.  Downtime should not be a chance to slide straight into a depressive spiral of things you _ought_ to be doing; it should be a chance to recoup, to heal, to improve.  You should be levelling up, darnit.  The problem is the entropy.  When I’m sleepy that lack of focus can turn everything soft and fuzzy, maybe even nicer, that blanket of arousal that leads into pleasant dreams, but when you’re awake there’s more anxiety.  The clock breathes down your neck, showing you that lovely door straight into Guilt.

I have been known to unplug my clock on weekends.  I stay up too late on weeknights as it is – regular sleep would make a heck of a difference, but I don’t want to be ruled by Queen Clock.  (Hey, would it be a King, or only if it missed a letter?  Don’t answer.) So I’ll bumble around tired now and then.

Not so tired not to make a disapproving click as Doloise suddenly sat up, a flash against her amber lenses alerting me.  Adrenaline flooded my system.  What was she going to destroy?  Where was the danger?  Did she download some killer app and I was going to have to spend another half hour with more of the electronic equivalent of duct tape and baling wire?  Did she need another doughnut from the break room?

“Your wrist is beeping.”

Oh, so it was.  Well, not the wrist, but my watch.  The Red Poets.  Yeah.

I stared at Doloise.  I only knew faintly of rusalka, the firebirds, and Old Man Winter.  I recognize that I have a blindness when it comes to fey, thinking of them as mostly Celtic in origin.  Tatiana.  Hmmm.  Well, maybe they’ll recognize her, or even better yet, have some kind of cure.

(36) Shelves of DANGER!

Doloise stopped me before I came close to the automatic doors.  “This is a place of danger,” she said.

I blinked.  “It’s a library.”

She stared at me, hard, through those amber sunglasses.  “Does that mitigate its dread in any fashion?  Does that lower your alarms so that you cannot see its true nature?”

I thought for a moment.  “Knowledge is power, fear the librarians,” was more of a bumpersticker than any kind of truism to me.  A librarian wasn’t necessarily a practitioner, although they had access to knowledge, access which indicated a door of some sort.  Perhaps I was in the wrong business altogether.

(Truthfully, I believe that the Internet has the potential to make libraries redundant.  I’m not quite gung-ho on self-publishing because I think that the effort to find someone to take your work and publish it actually does weed out some of the utter tripe, but I’m a firm believer of Sturgeon’s Most Well-Known Law.  (And several of his lesser laws, but that’s neither here nor there.)  In my heart, though, information and whimsy both need to be free.  Which doesn’t mean they don’t have to be sensical in some part.  Glittering vampires?  Give me a break.)

Of course, she could just be referring to the sorcerors.  I found a handful of words that indicated a brotherhood of the knowing people (the “znaiushchie liudi”) that these might hail from, but my accent would be atrocious, and this was one of those places where looking dumb would not be a bad thing.

What’s with having a “guardian and guide” if you don’t listen?

“Be on alert, then,” I told her.  “I’m going in.”

That sounds a lot tougher when you’re armed and you make that kind of practiced swoop through the door that minimizes your profile and puts your back right to the wall.  For me, I simply stepped through the threshold.  I dropped a couple of books I had meant to return last week into the small access panels for that purpose, and then went into the main part of the library.

The room we were meeting in was off to the right, and I gave a friendly (if still solemn – I was on “alert”) nod to the librarian manning the station off to my left.  I see her all the time because the reserved section is over there, but I don’t remember her name.   I resolved to keep it in memory.  After all, she could be some kind of fiendish danger.

Doloise followed me carefully.  I considered it for a moment – weren’t bodyguards supposed to go in front of you to make sure you weren’t walking into an ambush?  Of course, she might be bewildered by the grey shelves filled with those diabolical tomes.  I crossed through the fiction section indiscriminate of the potential hazards that well organized (alphabetical, even!) novels might offer me.

I would totally have been well pwned if I turned a corner and a demon tried to eat my face.  I would have deserved it, petard and all.

I tried to be a little more serious as I went through the doorway.

There were a few people sitting, one standing, and another leaning against the wall in that brooding posture that says their mom or dad brought them and they wanted to be doing something else.  Teenager.  Check.  One woman, and two elderly men, all who could entirely be from initial visual contact from an Eastern European or, dare I say it, Northern Asian background.

The teenager brooded at me, probably because I was the next target walking through the door.  He did, however, drop his jaw a little bit when Doloise came in behind me.  I hadn’t realized she had that effect on other people, or maybe he saw things I just didn’t see anymore, through familiarity, talent, or even a lack of both.

His reaction goaded the woman to look up at us.  She said something in a language I guessed was Russian to the elderly man she was speaking with, and stood up.

“Can we help you?” she asked.  Slight accent.  She was also a blonde, and she wasn’t really looking at me.

I couldn’t honestly confess a sudden interest in poetry, but I didn’t really need to as that’s when she drew out an amulet from around her neck and Doloise pushed me to the ground.

(37) Red Poets Aren’t Much Fun

I laid under Doloise for what seemed like hours, but was probably less than a minute.  It’s amazing how time slows down when you’re being scrutinized.  The funny thing, of a whole list of things I would find hilarious if they hadn’t been happening to me, was that I was far, far more scared of Doloise and what she might do than any magical amulet.

Doloise was saying something about snakes when I struggled enough under her for her to determine that indeed, it was time to let me up.  Snakes?  I listened a little bit more closely.  The amulet was a beautiful silver circle with a medusae-like image.  Ah.  Coil Serpentine.   Thomas slept with an old woman named Adelinda who was obsessed with snake and dragon magics, and I learned a tiny bit.  She was constantly harassed by Ophite cultists, which is why Thomas had gotten involved with her…but maybe I had been knocked on the head which is why I was thinking more about how to work in the classic Indiana Jones line rather than why Doloise tried to “protect me.”

“We are not,” Doloise continued, “what you think.”

Melusine.  “Silence, Zmei.”

One of the elderly fellows stood up.   “And the flames of infinity are so transparent, And the entire abyss of ether is so close, That I gaze direct from time into eternity…And recognize your flame, universal sun.” I recognized it from one of the poems I had memorized for this meeting, “By life tormented, and by cunning hope,” by… Afanasii Fet?  Something like that.

“I am not that one,” Doloise said, but her gaze was pointed down.

“I was thinking something more `Thomas the Rhymer,’ myself,” I said aloud, as if to prove I was really here.  “But she’s not that, either.  She’s here because she owes me.”

“Servant?” The woman asked.

“Guardian and guide,” Doloise said.  You could almost guess her mood from the angry tone she put into the words, but I couldn’t tell where the anger was really directed.  Maybe I had a guilty conscience.  I moved closer to her, anyway, and Sullen Boy moved away from the wall.

“Am I in danger?”

“I could not take the risk,” she said.  “These people are?”

“Simple poets,” the other elderly man, who had been working at the computer, spoke up, scooting away and looking at me.  It was the fellow who had told me to come, and he had the same hint of an accent the woman did.  “Thank you for…” he chose the word, “attending.  The excitement is…” another choice, “it is a good change.  But you should have come alone,” he said, shaking his finger at me.

I shrugged in the eternal, “Well, it wasn’t my idea,” expression.  The teenager got it.

“What are you?” the woman asked.

“My name is,” well, it’s Eastern European anyway, so I dropped it.  “But most folks call me ‘E.'”

“You are the Closer,” Sullen Boy finally spoke up.  He didn’t have a hint of an accent.  “Not like the chick on TV,” he amended.

I nodded.  Hey, sometimes it’s good to have a reputation.

“He’s the one,” the young man continued.  “He showed the kikimora–”

I interrupted. “I didn’t know,” I started to explain.  This could be awkward.

“The way home,” the older gentleman who had welcomed me concluded SB’s sentence with a Look.  That didn’t need any translation.  “It is not a bad thing,” he said to me.   “You brought peace.”

That’s me, an agent of magical perestroika.  Glasnost for ghosts.  Having exhausted a vocabulary I was sure I hadn’t gotten completely right, I brushed some imaginary carpet lint off my clothes and chose a chair.   Something made me think he hadn’t chosen me just to share stories around an electronic campfire.  He needed something.

Their eyes watched me, but Doloise was a concern, too.  I patted the seat next to me.  Good doggy.  Good dangerous, dangerous otherworldly thing.  Behave.

“We come to the library,” the man began, “to share wisdom.”

Doloise nodded, sharply, as if she had heard something important.  I watched the guy who had spoken the translation I remembered.  He sat down again, but his eyes were on the woman.

“This is Nellie,” the fellow who invited me pointed to the woman.  “Andrei,” he referred to the poetry-speaking gentleman, “Artur,” the young man (SB), and “I am Viktor.  We have others, not all who make it each week.  There are always…”

“Forces at work?” I offered the cliche.

“Yes, that would be it.   The library has knowledge in it, which makes it a safer place to meet than a home.”

I understood all he wasn’t saying, too.  Thresholds and that magical feel to things.  Something between public and private, in a strange way.  There were, well, the library was like an onion.

Or an ogre.

(38) Crawling Inside

I waited.

So did Viktor.  We sat in a strange silence, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.  It was a pending silence, one that wasn’t pressing, but definitely expecting an answer.   Nellie simply sat down, as did Andrei.  Artur went back to brood against the wall, no doubt afraid that it might waver if he didn’t hold it up.

Wait.  Artur was a practitioner?  I tried to lay down my initial doubts because of his age.  I didn’t know what I was, what I could do, then.  Heck, my mom still thinks I dropped out of college to deal drugs simply because of my nickname.  I wondered if he was related to anyone there.  I looked away from Viktor and to Artur’s face for a moment.  I don’t know why – unless it’s blindingly obvious, I could never see family resemblences.

(You know, when people are cooing over a new baby trying to identify its features as if that would determine future traits, I always get it wrong. “No, no, those couldn’t be his father’s eyes.  His father was a madman who died in a fire in the penitentiary.”  So I just go with the, “Cute baby,” unless it’s a complete and total lie, at which point it’s better to just say nothing at all about the current looks, and maybe go with that she’ll be great as an astronaut…or famous chef… or whatever parents hope for their kids’ futures.)

(Don’t get me wrong, I like kids, but I don’t understand a lot of the way people behave around kids.  I don’t think you should treat them like little adults, but I think you should understand that they have feelings and goals and the only way they’re going to make it is to learn to communicate with them.  It’s about keeping the connection open for strength.  To express feelings and experiences.   And that starts from day one, to me, not dressing them up like little dolls and making them into any parts of their parents.)

Of couse, I have my own prejudices to get through.

He was looking at Doloise, again.  I was amused.  I couldn’t tell if I wanted to encourage him or to warn him away.  I was sure Doloise could take care of itself, but that was half the problem.

So I sat in silence.

I wondered about their use names.  They had taken the American version of first names, rather than surnames, but when I gave them mine, they didn’t blink an eye.   Of course, it might be common where they were from, but my parents didn’t have their accents.  I don’t know what gave me the impression that they were recent immigrants, probably prejudice I hadn’t predicted.  Then again, who decides ahead of time that they’re going to be a bigoted jerk?

I looked at their clothing.  Viktor was dressed in what could have been a suit jacket if it hadn’t been over a t-shirt and jeans. Perfectly good for dealing with uncertain Colorado weather.  Nellie had on a smart business suit, cut well with the skirt.  Andrei wore slacks and a long sleeved button-up.  Artur wore a black shirt with what I suspected was some kind of band logo, and black jeans.

“Will he do?” Nellie asked.

I was about to complain that I didn’t know the job, when Viktor shook his head.  “America has made you impatient,” he said to her. He didn’t seem entirely annoyed, but there was a bit of an edge to it.

“Viktor was still negotiating,” Andrei said, with a wheezy sort of chuckle.

“We do not have time to do it the old way,” Nellie said.  “Something walks–”

Artur moved from his perch on the wall, uncomfortable.

I started making guesses.  It was something with legs.  “Evil is afoot, because evil does not have wings.”

“It is night,” Nellie said.  “We are surrounded by books.  They will have to read all the words before they can listen.”

Oh, an obsessive-compulsive spirit.  Great.  Like the vampires that have to count all the rice spilled before them before they can move.  I’ve read about them, but never really encountered it.  Of course, for what I did, I didn’t have to know anything about it, as long as I knew what had brought it over and where it needed to go back to… because that’s all I do.

“No exorcisms,” the words got out of my mouth.

“I told you,” Artur said to Nellie.  She looked too young to be his mom.

“It is not like that,” she said.

Viktor hushed her.  “No, we know you by your hands, not your voice.  You are a tailor, not a singer.”

“A doctor, not a performer,” Andrei offered.  It amused but annoyed Viktor – he had a very open face.

Just trot out my failings.  Of course, Andrei could have been offering me a Star Trek reference.  That would have been pretty cool, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up.

“There is no word for you in the tongue of the wise, but if there was, it would be a good one,” Andrei said, as if he had been reading something of my concern.  “We have been talking to others about you.  You will be able to do something for us we cannot do for ourselves.”

Viktor nodded.  “And we will pay.  We have collected a sum from the afflicted.  It is yours if you try.”

Not, if I’m successful.  And money?  It was the best thing I’d heard in days.

I was doomed, wasn’t I?

(39) Do Or Do Not

I was tempted to quote Yoda on the “try” part, but while I think of Star Wars as a universal kind of thing, I had to realize it was another bigoted mindset.  Not everyone on the planet knows Han shot first.

“I am interested,” I said.  I looked at Viktor.  “Do you need some references?”

He waved at Doloise. “That will not be necessary.  Come, listen to our stories, and we will be in contact, yes?”

They pulled the chairs closer, and even Artur sat down.  I understood when Viktor gestured to him.

“Have you seen such a boy?  I am very proud.  Ours is a learned art.  It takes much dedication.”  Viktor glanced at Doloise.  I wouldn’t want to say too much in front of her, also, but he couldn’t well ignore her.  “We do much in the way of the folklore, the words, `And sometimes it happens so.'”

Andrei smiled.  “Do you know our poetry?” he asked.

I gave a kind of gesture I hoped show that I’d at least heard something of it.  “I looked some up,” I admitted.

“It is not so different,” he said.  “Hard work, hard life, and then we make tales of riches gained and lost with ease.  We do not spend so much time on love, because love is like everything else, something that requires a great deal of work.”

Nellie tried to hide a smile at that, which I knew because she suddenly looked down.  Artur, on the other hand, snorted.

“Andrei is a romantic,” Viktor said, taking back the reins of the conversation.  “Artur has a girlfriend, but she is not so knowledgeable about his,” he waved his hand, “responsibilities.”

I sympathised again with Sullen Boy.  Maybe I should call him something else if I was going to feel for him a bit.  Of course, that would mean he’d have to lose a little bit of the glower.

“That is the same all over, I think,” I said.  Hey, I was being diplomatic, not insular with that.  Well, so much as the practitioner’s enclave was pretty insular.  While some talents are only a matter of teaching, others are in-born, and others require sacrifices, and, well, it was kind of the wizardry conundrum.  Do you spend your time learning the spells or getting girls?  When it was put that way, I was glad I wasn’t the spellslinging type.

Of course, I wasn’t spending much time getting girls, either, but at least right now I could blame that on Doloise.

“I do not understand,” she said.  “You speak of responsibility and time, and mortality is such a fleeting breath, why not use what small powers you have to indulge in the best of your short lives?”

Fey were not known for their open minds.

Nellie opened her mouth, then closed it again.  I smiled.

“It is not just a matter of breathing,” I said.

Andrei nodded at me.  “We do not count the breaths, because we know they are numbered.”

I tried again.  “We have to work at things.  Your kind has crafters, right?  Beings that take time to further the beauty and design of their craft?”

The Realm nodded, slowly.  “You suggest that you are all crafters.”  Another nod.  “I see.  It is a clumsy description of a clumsy skill, but it will make sense to some of my family.”

I turned back.  “And sometimes it happens so.  Most of the stories I’d read had multiple parts, like having to find the three special ingredients, and often, one was raised from the dead.”

Artur flinched.  “Not necromancy,” he said.

Nellie put out a hand.  “No, but there are those who speak with ghosts.”  She looked at Andrei.  “Let me tell the tale.”

Andrei nodded.  Viktor scooted back in his chair, as Nellie looked up at me.  “It is about my husband, who is not here.”

“But he would be?” I asked.

“Yes, if it were not, well.”  She smiled.  “Ivan the son of the merchant spent three days with the King of the Birds, learning the speech of those who had feathers.  In that listening he had his fortune told, and his parents, jealous of the consequences unknowingly set him on the path to his destiny.”

“The King of the Birds,” Doloise muttered.  I wondered momentarily if it was someone her ‘family’ knew.

“My husband, Ivan, spent three days in the place of the dead, learning the speech of those who would still speak to the living.  He has spent another ten times that recovering, but something of that place will not leave him.”  She looked at me, and I was drawn in to her eyes for a moment, to the sorrow.  “We believe you may be able to close that door.”

Dirty words.  Well, that *is* what I do.

(40) My Old Home, These Bones

Jumping into the generalizations again, there is another good way to split types of practitioners: ritualists and eclectics.

I’m perverting some of Maggie’s wordage here, admittedly, so what I mean might be different than what she does by the terms.  For me, a ritualist is someone who really does the practice.  They have stability because they do the spells the way they learned them, step by step in the ritual, maybe as their grandfather taught them, maybe as per the book, and there really isn’t a lot of innovation because unless you’re very learned you do not know exactly which part of the process you can adjust without serious issues arising.  I know that if I’m dealing with hostile outsiders I’m going to find more confidence in reading the same words and making the same bargain that worked in the past.  You can find more scientific method in this, and ritualists do sometimes learn they can skip inert portions or adapt new materials and orientations, but it’s a long, slow process.  When you wrap this with belief, it’s sometimes hard to get change – a lot of times the belief itself prevents it.  It is the blessing that is said for the wine, and I can say it in Hebrew simply from repetition, not because of any l33t skillz in the language arena.

Then you have your eclectics.  They can be split into a great deal of subgroups, of course, just as ritualists can, but generally they’re like me – they’ll grab what’s magically significant and meld it into hodgepodge that gets the point across.  Which isn’t to say every eclectic is lazy and/or willing to accept shoddy results, only that they’re more likely to hear the blessing for the wine and think, “Because wine is often more flammable than water, why not used blessed wine in killing vampires?  Holy wine grenades!”  It’s not just a mindset, though, because it’s a part of the practice.  Eclectics generally never specialize because they’re too busy learning a thousand things that can be “magically significant” and in what situation that’s true.  (Is moonstone useful in the sunlight?  When folding a protective hat against the martian mind-control rays, is it more effective to use the shiny side of the aluminium foil?)

I bring this up for a moment because I generally consider myself to be one of the eclectics.   I mean, I’m a specialist, but if there was such a thing, I’d major in magical theory.  I don’t bind myself to any of the particular style of closing, just as I haven’t chosen a religion – I’ll use whatever seems to work for me.  This gives me flexibility, but I think that when it comes down to it I might be weaker than if I focused and really worked at building the ultimate doorstop.   I am too intuitive and my seals may suffer for it, although I think sometimes I’m right on the money.  I couldn’t have closed the disharmonics of the Shadow King – convincing him to leave was the right thing to do.

In this case, I knew from general theory that what the Russians were asking me to do was both completely possible and impossible at the same time.  They wanted me to close an open portal that existed within someone.

Possession is a weird subject, and again, I am going to scrape and skimp and maybe cancel my Justice League subscription (I know – harsh!) until I get those exorcism lessons.    As I understand it, there is usually a gate involved.  Sometimes it’s an item, sometimes it’s an agreement, sometimes it’s a disease, heck, sometimes it’s all three.  Sometimes it’s voluntary, or as much as it ever can be – something about allowing in those from beyond is never a consensual act for me because they’re not human and humanity only can have so much of a glimpse into their motivations.  However human those motivations (curiosity? greed? lust?) the truth is that they do not belong here, and the rules of the universe have a way of making it more and more uncomfortable for what does not belong.  Horror movies are just an easy example of this.

So’s Doloise, which is why I needed to get rid of it soon.

So, he had a gateway within him to the halls of the dead?  Or whatever place they have designed with belief and vision over the centuries.  What would you like to bet I was going to learn firsthand what they looked like?