by Xenophon Hendrix
As we rode home, I explained to Mary what I had seen during my inadvertent scrying session. I didn't mention Ursus's speculation about the chain and collar.
"So he's really another magician, then?" Mary asked.
"It looks all but certain. I want to get home and try scrying his place some more."
"Why are you so concerned about this man?"
"I don't know, but I keep seeing visions of him and his house even when I'm not trying to. Something about him is important."
When Mary and I got home, I left my pack in the garage and we went in. Mom said, "Where have you two been all this time?"
"Just around," I said. "We never went far."
"I'm surprised you haven't frozen your asses off." I looked behind myself as if checking for the presence of my buttocks. Mom continued: "The phone has been ringing off the hook."
"Why is that?"
"People calling to see if band practice is at one."
Oh. I hadn't known anything about a band practice at one. "What have you been telling them?"
"I've been saying that you never told me anything, but to show up then if they don't hear from you."
"I didn't really have band practice in mind. I just figured Mike, Terry, and I, and maybe Mary, would be practicing today after supper."
"If you're going to be a bandleader," said Mom, "you need to communicate with your troops better."
"Who elected me leader?"
"You're the one they all seem to listen to."
Shit. "All right, I'll straighten things out."
"Don't tie up the phone for very long."
It looked like my plans were about to change. I called Danny's place first, because I knew there was a good chance that Mike and Terry would be there. They were, and so was Sean. Since they already expected a practice, I told them to show up at one. Then I called Kirsten's house.
Kirsten answered. "What have you and Mary been up to all morning?"
"We were on a top secret mission involving espionage and black arts. Mom said you were concerned about band practice."
"Is it at one, as usual?"
"I guess. I hadn't really thought about it, but that's when everyone is going to show up."
"I don't want to be mean, so please don't take this the wrong way, but if you're going to be band leader, you need to make sure everyone knows the schedule."
"Mom already said much the same thing. I didn't know that I was leader until a few minutes ago."
"Who else would it be?"
"Well, Danny's usually the leader in most stuff our little group does together."
"He seems to be deferring to you during practice."
"I guess. Anyway, I've been forbidden to tie up the phone. I'll see you in a few minutes. I have just enough time to grab a sandwich."
Mary handed me a plate with a salami sandwich and some chips on it. I had seen her working at the kitchen counter, but I hadn't really been paying attention to what she had been doing. "Thank you," I said. "You're a good sister." She smiled at me.
After we ate, I fetched my backpack from the garage and went downstairs to put my magic equipment away. That done, Mary and I moved the old kitchen chairs over to the chord organ and got out some folding chairs, in case Pam and Sean showed up with the others.
Sean, Mike, Terry and Danny arrived first. Danny had brought the pedal car, so Mary and I slipped on our coats to give it a quick look. Until Danny got his hands on some windshield material, the car was basically finished. It had red bicycle lights in the back and on each side and a bicycle headlamp centered in the front. A pair of six-volt batteries, wired in parallel, powered the lights. It also had two reflectors in back and three down each side. "It looks really good," I said.
"Thanks," said Danny. "Think it'll get me an 'A' in shop?"
"Is that why you made the battery holder so fancy?"
"Yeah, I wanted to show some woodworking skills along with metal and welding."
"If I were a shop teacher, I'd give it an 'A,'" I said.
"Are you going to decorate it any?" asked Mary.
"I was thinking about a narrow orange pinstripe down the side."
"No flames or anything?" said Terry, who had come out of his house with the guitar while his brother Mike carried the amp.
"Nah, those are tacky on anything that isn't a race car. Even a pinstripe has to be narrow so that it doesn't look like I built the car for Halloween."
We went inside. Kirsten and Pam arrived while we were setting up. I heard Mrs. Kennedy talking to Mom upstairs. Pam lent Sean her claves, and we were soon down to work. Sean was pretty good at keeping time, and he was a musician himself. The summer before the previous, he, his older brother, and his father had all taken up the Scottish bagpipes. They didn't have full sets of pipes yet, but they had practice chanters that they blew into directly. Even without the drones, they sounded plenty scary.
We went through the three folk songs we had been practicing and then got ambitious and added a fourth. Why not? Mike, Terry, and I had all become good at switching between open chords, and Kirsten and Danny could pretty much instantly play all of the easy stuff that we were working on. We chose an upbeat song in four-four time, "The Paragon's Parade." The chord changes were faster than anything we had tried so far, so it would stretch the skill of the beginners.
I kept passing Mary manna, and occasionally Kirsten. I planned to test all of the band members, eventually, to see who could accept magical energy, but not just yet. I was willing to begin training Mary just as soon as she could maintain her grip on manna, and I hadn't decided when or if I was going to start confiding in Kirsten about true magic, but I flatly doubted the maturity of Danny, Mike, and Terry.
On the other hand, I might be able to use their hypothetical manna collecting and transmitting abilities without their knowledge. I had no ethical problem with this, for manna itself was good for one's disposition and was neither dangerous nor addictive. The use of manna to work magic, however, could be both.
We practiced as a group until about 2:30, when Danny had to go home and take over Jenny-watching duty, because his brother Tommy had to go to work. Sean decided to go with him. Before they left, I announced to everyone, "There will be no practice Christmas day." I saw Danny and Sean to the door, and Mom handed them each a wrapped gift, plus one for Jenny.
"I take it you knitted them something." I said to Mom. I recognized what her creations looked like when they were wrapped.
"Of course. Haven't you noticed all the stuff I've been making?"
"Sure I have."
The rest of us split into two groups when I went back downstairs. Mike, Terry, and I went to the other side of the basement to work on guitar scales while Kirsten and Pam taught Mary how to play the melody of "The Paragon's Parade" on the chord organ.
My dad got home about three and soon headed into the basement with Mom, Mrs. Kennedy, and the rest of the kids. He mixed the adults drinks at the bar. "Play some Christmas music," said Mom. So we did. When Mrs. Kennedy started to sing along, Mom decided to sing, too. She couldn't really sing in tune, but who cares? Being in tune isn't always the point.
At about 3:30, Mrs. Kennedy said to Kirsten, "Dad should be home by now, and I have to start supper. We need to go." Pam, of course, went with them. Mom handed them each a handmade creation, plus one for Mr. Kennedy. We saw them to the door, and I collected my parting hug and kiss from Kirsten.
"Merry Christmas," she said, and gave me another.
Mary remained upstairs to help Mom. Mike said, once I was back, "Kirsten's mother is pretty hot, you know, for an old lady."
"I try not to think about it," I said.
"I wonder if Kirsten is going to end up as well built as she is."
"It looks like she's heading that way," Terry said.
I changed the subject. "You know what you guys should do?"
"What?" Mike said.
"You both should sign up for choir."
"Why in hell would we want to do something like that?"
"You both want a band. Choir will teach you how to sing better."
"Wouldn't signing up for band be even more helpful?" Terry asked.
"Guitar isn't exactly a school band instrument, is it?" I asked. I really wasn't sure.
"They use it in jazz band," Mike said.
"I didn't know they taught jazz in school," I said.
"In your school?"
"Not little Saint Dionysius, but most high schools."
"Can anyone just sign up?" Terry asked.
"I'm pretty sure you have to pass an audition," Mike replied. "Do you think I'll be good enough next year?" he asked me.
"I have no idea at all," I said. "It must have a lot to do with the level of competition. If you keep practicing like you've been doing, though, and your mother gets you lessons like she said, who knows?"
"Well, I'm not going to join choir if I can join jazz band," Mike said.
"That's fine," I said. "Let me rephrase: you two should sign up for music training in school, whatever it may be."
"I can sign up for choir next year," said Terry. "I don't want to play any of the instruments they use in St. Dio's band."
"What about percussion?" Mike asked.
"I want to play either guitar or bass, or both. Besides, Danny has his heart set on being the drummer for our group, and he can always hang his harmonica from one of those neck things to play it, too."
"Fine, don't get your shorts twisted," said Mike. "I was just pointing out options. What about you, Art? You going to sign up for band or choir next year?"
"Choir, maybe. I don't think Lager Junior High has a jazz band. Remind me to ask Danny."
We practiced scales for another half hour before they went home. Mom gave them each a gift. I'm really glad my friends are falling so in love with music, I thought as I walked back downstairs, but is it ever time consuming.
It is, Ursus thought, but it's something the Arthur part of us badly wants, and he deserves to have as normal a life as we can manage.
Now that I've started, Arthur thought, I want to play the guitar as much as I've ever wanted anything.
I promise I'll do everything I can to get you that opportunity, Ursus said.
Fine, I thought. I like it, too. How could I not, considering I'm the combination of you two? Do you think we have time to scry the goat killer?
It won't hurt to try, but your little brothers are playing pool.
Well, I haven't been hiding that I've been working magic down here, but I haven't been advertising it, either, I thought. Do you think they'll freak out if I start setting up to cast a circle?
Bog knows, but it isn't wise. They're sure to talk about it if you do. Right now, your parents are writing our magic work off as kid's stuff. If we do things to draw attention to it, they might start looking at it more closely.
Damn it all.
Calm down. We'll probably get a chance to try sometime after supper, and there are many more things in life besides magic. It's a lesson I often forget myself, but we need to grow-up this body and brain. It simply will not do to become obsessed right now. Let's read a book.
So we read more of the Norse mythology book. It was good stuff, full of heroes and giants and monsters. It had a gravity to it that most of the Greek myths lacked. The Norse gods knew they were going to lose in the end, but they were going to put off the day as long as they could and try to take their enemies with them when the inevitable happened. The attitude appealed to me.
Mom held off dinner until Kate and Andy arrived, so we ate somewhat later than normal. After dinner, Aunt Kate distributed chocolate bars to the kids, several each. She usually brought us something like that. Mom said, "I don't want any of you eating more than one bar tonight, especially on top of all that Christmas cake you just crammed down your gullets."
"I'll go get our bags from the car," Andy said. In warmer weather, they drove their camper over (or caravan, as they say in the Mother Country) and slept in it. In cold weather, they slept in the house, and we needed to find places for them.
"Andy can sleep in my bed," I said. "I've been falling asleep on the basement couch half the time lately, anyway." I called Andy "Andy" rather than "Uncle Andy" because he hadn't been married to my aunt when I had first met him. In fact, they had been engaged for several years and had married the summer before.
"Aunt Kate is sleeping in my room," Susan said.
Aunt Kate looked amused. "Don't you think your sister should have some say in that?" she asked Susan.
"It's OK," said Mary, as easygoing as ever. "I sleep just fine on the family-room couch."
"Do you want help with your bags?" I asked Andy.
"I can use some. We brought a great pile of stuff this time."
I put on my shoes and coat, as did Mary. The three of us trooped out to the car, and I saw what he'd meant. They had brought gifts. Andy loaded up Mary and me, "Go ahead and put those under the tree."
Mom was never sure where the best place in the house for the Christmas tree was, so its location tended to move around from year to year. That year it was in the living room, which we never used for much. I kicked off my shoes after coming in the door. Dad saw Mary's burden and relieved her of most of the packages. Mom took a bunch of mine, and Aunt Kate took the rest. I shrugged.
"You shouldn't have bought these kids all this stuff," Mom said.
"It's my money, and I'll do what I want with it," Aunt Kate said.
"You're going to spoil the little shits."
"That's my privilege as an aunt, and you need to watch your language." Aunt Kate didn't look it, but she was eight years older than Mom and still sometimes played big sister.
"Oh, horse shit," said Mom. Dad and Andy started to laugh.
"You're just encouraging her," Aunt Kate said.
After everyone settled down, Dad said, "Who wants a Christmas belt?" Neither of my parents drank much alcohol, just a few times per year. Christmas was one of those times. The adults agreed that it was a fine idea, so Dad and Andy went downstairs to fetch them. They came back with bottles of vodka and rum and some mixers.
"Did you know that Art has been learning the guitar and Mary the organ?" Mom asked.
"Just the chord organ," Mary said.
"Are you taking lessons?" Aunt Kate asked.
"No," I said.
"They've been teaching themselves," Mom said. I could hear the pride in her voice.
"You two will have to play for me," Aunt Kate said.
"We could do it now," Mary said. Aunt Kate's wish was pretty much any of Mom's kid's command.
"They had a long drive," Mom said. "Let Kate rest for the night."
"I'm not a doddering old lady, Agnes. Lead on, Mary."
So Mary and I took Aunt Kate downstairs. Of course, the rest of the kids had to follow, along with three cats and a dog. Once Mary had seated herself in front of the chord organ, I said, "Play the chords to 'The Shepherds Lament,' Mary, and I'll play the melody."
At Aunt Kate's urging, we went through all four songs we'd been practicing. "That's wonderful," she said, "especially if you've been teaching yourselves."
"They sing, too," said the ever helpful Rich.
"Do you?" asked Aunt Kate. "Why don't you sing something, then, please?" Aunt Kate's wish, etc. I played the chords to "Up in the Air," and Mary and I sang it together. I didn't think we were half bad.
"I'm impressed," Aunt Kate said. "It looks like the talent in the family skipped a generation. Papa could play the fiddle, you know." She was referring to her father.
"I've heard that," said Mary. "But I never heard him play when he was alive."
"It's a shame. Mama got angry one day and broke his fiddle. He never played much after that, just sometimes when someone lent him one."
We went back upstairs, and the rest of the evening was spent listening to the adults talk, mostly. The younger kids competed for Aunt Kate's attention.
By about nine, Susan and Charlie were nodding, and Rich wasn't much better. Mary put them to bed without being asked. That was my opportunity to head for the basement. I got my pajamas on, brushed my teeth, said my goodnights, and went downstairs. I was happy to see Kate and Andy, but I'd had a long day myself.
I dug an old wind-up alarm clock out of the storage room and set it to ring at midnight. I didn't have any trouble falling asleep.
Alarm clocks are one of the evilest inventions of the human mind. They rank near poison gas, lawn darts, and dribble cups. Nevertheless, they are effective. The clock went off like a hound from hell, and I knocked it over when I reached for it. I found the clock again in the dark and silenced it, restraining myself from throwing it. Then I lay still, listening. I didn't hear anything, and there was no light coming down the stairs.
I pulled my feet from underneath Harvey and carefully made my way to the old kitchen table. I turned on the small lamp upon it but left the rest of the basement lights off. Then I set up my ritual area. Softly using my guitar as necessary, I cast the circle and did the other preliminaries. I settled down to gaze into the water, trying to picture the basement of the other magician's house. Ursus had primary control.
Falling into trance kept getting easier, and it didn't take that long for an image to form in the water. Instead of seeing his basement, I again found myself looking from the magician's viewpoint. He was standing up, looking down. A young brunette was kneeling at his feet. She couldn't have been any older than Mike and Terry's sister Colleen, if that, and she was pleasuring him with her mouth. She had huge brown eyes that were gazing up at him. I saw that he had a trim and muscular torso, but there was gray amongst his pubic hairs.
"I told you to stay the fuck out of my head!" he yelled. "Lord Amorlax! Lord Amorlax! Your loyal servant begs assistance."
Ursus broke the vision, and I felt him feed our entire supply of manna into the protective circle. Ursus was scared, which meant that everyone in our head was scared. "Shit," he said aloud.
Less than five seconds later, I felt something slam into the protective circle and break it. Whatever it was, it let out a yelp of pain that echoed in my head. It felt evil, but it also felt as if it was moving rapidly away and fading into the distance. It was so foul that I felt like throwing up, and I almost did.
At the same time, the entire house shook, Audrey began barking, and the lamp burned out with a pop. It destroyed our circle, Ursus thought, but the circle was strong enough to drive it away before shattering. We hurt it.
What was it? I asked.
I believe it was a demon.