by Xenophon Hendrix
At about 6:30 am, I heard Mom-type noises in the kitchen. A few minutes later, she came downstairs. I put down the book, made the quiet sign, and then pointed to Mary still asleep on the couch. Mom whispered to me, "Having trouble sleeping?"
"Something like that."
She smiled. "Excited over Christmas?"
"Something like that." I forced a smile of my own.
"I just wanted to see where Mary was. I need to get the turkey ready."
"Do you want help?"
"No, thanks, it's mostly a one-person job right now."
Mom went back upstairs, and I returned to reading. By seven, I heard other adult noises, and by 7:15, the rest of the kids were up. Shortly thereafter, I heard Mom yell, "You can goddamn well wait until I get the goddamn turkey in the goddamn oven." About fifteen minutes later, Rich was fetching Mary and me to come open presents.
I tried to act excited and happy, but I couldn't pull it off, so I aimed for neutral. All three minds in my head were concerned about the demon and his pet magician, and an orgy of materialism was no match for a living symbol of condensed evil. At least the coming of daylight should weaken the demon somewhat, as should the symbolism of the solstice and Christmas.
I snagged a kitchen chair as I passed--Mary followed my example--and we all gathered in the living room. The kids, including me, were still in their pajamas. I found a place mostly out of the way to put my chair down. Mom and Aunt Kate appointed themselves head present passers. In the chaos of tearing paper and excited children, it was hard to track what everyone else was doing.
Despite my Christmas letter, Mom and Dad gave me only one piece of clothing, a new coat to replace the one that had been torn when Donbo caused me to wipe out. The new parka was inoffensive beige, long enough to cover my butt, had a hood, and had lots of pockets. Whoever had picked it out, probably Mom, had taken into account my preference for functionality over appearance.
Aunt Kate gave me a hand-knitted tuque--she had made one for everyone in the family--and she and Andy gave me an electronic calculator with a memory key and a square-root function. I was touched that they had spent so much on me. Mom and Dad also got me all of the books, in paperback, that I had listed at the end of my Christmas letter. Mary gave me a heavy-duty rack, with spring clip, for the back of my bike.
I thought I had received a pretty good haul and was helping bag up the dead wrapping paper when Mom handed me another gift. It was a long package and weighed a few pounds. All eyes were upon me as I unwrapped it. It was a rectangular, hard-shell guitar case. It felt solid, had strong-looking hardware, and probably could take a beating. I opened it up. It was well padded and covered with a fuzzy material that would be gentle on a guitar's finish. It most likely was worth more than my guitar.
"Thank you. This is a really nice case." Unfortunately it was meant for an electric guitar and too thin to hold my acoustic. I didn't say anything about that, though. I could either tell Mom and Dad later in private, or say nothing and just hang on to it for when I eventually bought an electric.
"Look in the cubbyhole," Mom said.
I opened up the accessory compartment. Inside were a set of replacement strings, some finger picks, and some papers. "Thank you, I've been wanting to try finger picks, and a spare set of strings is always handy."
"Read the note." Oh. I had figured it was just something declaring the wonderfulness of the case and explaining its care and feeding. I opened up the note--it was in Mom's writing--and began to read it to myself.
"Read it out loud."
Pushy, pushy. "Dear Arthur, Mary told us that Hank of Hank's Music Emporium treated you right when you bought your guitar from him, so we've put some money on account there for you to pick out an electric guitar to go with your acoustic. Love, Dad and Mom." Attached to the note was a due bill for forty pounds.
The Arthur part of my brain was somewhat excited, but I was mostly too worried to feel much happiness, and part of me felt guilty that they had spent so much. I hoped they took my somberness as me being stunned by their gift. "Wow," I said. "You guys shouldn't have gone to such expense."
"Bullshit," said Mom. "You've impressed the hell out of us with the amount of work you've been doing."
"If you keep practicing like you have been," added Dad, "we'll pay for two half-hour lessons per week, too--either at Hank's or wherever you think is better."
"Thank you so much," I said. Given Ursus's vast knowledge, I didn't need lessons, but I wasn't going to argue about it, then.
Fortunately, I was soon out of the spotlight. Mom handed Mary a package. It was a book, Easy Piano Songs, with a note attached to it. Mary didn't need prompting to read the note aloud. "Dear Mary, your actions have proved to us that you really want to learn how to play the piano, so a leased piano will be arriving Thursday. We'll pay for two piano lessons per week, and if you practice faithfully for a year, we'll buy a piano. Love, Dad and Mom." Mary started to bawl and gave them both hugs.
Trying not to let my worry show, I went back to picking up garbage. When the living room was just about as straightened up as it was going to get, at least until we all found places to store our new stuff, Mom said, "You can have the room in the basement, too, you little shit."
Thank Bog. I would finally have someplace private to do magic, and other things. Often. Maybe every day. Maybe twice per day. Rich heard and said, "That's not fair! Why should Artie have his own room when the rest of us can't?"
"He's the oldest, and life's not fair."
Rich complained some more. I ignored him and took my presents downstairs, except for my new winter hat and coat, which I hung in the coat closet after making sure it fit. I then took a shower and got dressed. With all the people wandering around the house, there wasn't any point in renewing the circle I had cast from the basement, but I could renew the one outside and put another one between it and the house.
I went back to the basement and played guitar long enough to fill myself with manna. Arthur and Ursus kept a hold on it while I went upstairs to pull on my winter gear. "Where the hell are you off to?" Mom asked when she noticed what I was doing.
"I'm just going to walk around the yard a bit. It'll test this coat for winter worthiness."
"I want you to keep your new coat nice and use your old one for play."
"Fine, but I'm not going to be playing." I went out and renewed the first circle with some manna and cast a second one inside it. I had spread the manna too thin, so I went downstairs and gathered some more.
When Mom again noticed me getting ready to go outside, she said, "In out, in out--what are you, a lunatic yo-yo?"
"It's true that living in this place has pretty nearly driven me insane," I said.
"Smarta--" she caught herself. "You're right. This joint is an asylum."
I put on my old coat, went out, and poured the manna into the second circle. After that, I went back inside and retreated to the basement. I considered the information I had gathered from the old grimoire. The book described complex rituals employing several variations of the name of the Christian God and his assorted titles. Supposedly, they could force a demon to yield to a magician's will. In truth, much of the book seemed to be made-up nonsense.
To the extent that it wasn't, Ursus doubted that its techniques would work for us. I'm not a Christian, he said, and you two don't seem that religious.
I've never received much religious training, said Arthur. But how religious can someone who summons a demon be?
Being religious and being righteous are two different things, replied Ursus. A man who summons a demon to fetch him nubile girls can do so while at the same time believing his actions are a sin.
Why would God help him do something like that?
Religious fervor, the kind that becomes a type of trance, can attract and manipulate manna directly. No gods have to be involved, necessarily. Of course, in some cases they are involved, but they don't have to be.
I put aside The Demon Prince and took up The Book of Hermes, the library book that had been written by a ceremonial magician, one Theodoros Raven. Ursus assumed control of our body and looked through the book until about ten o'clock, when we were called to come get something to eat. At least this Raven joker understands the importance of visualization and concentration, Ursus thought, but he is overly fond of obscurity. I don't believe his book will be of any practical use.
I went upstairs. "How do you want your eggs, Artie?" Aunt Kate asked. She was in charge of the eggs, and Mom was making pancakes.
Don't say "poached," thought Ursus.
Why not? thought Arthur.
They're already busy as hell. Why make them dirty another pot?
Sunny side up, then, thought Arthur.
Over easy, thought Ursus.
I like soft yolk.
So do I. You get more soft yolk with over easy.
"Over easy, please," I said.
You'll see, thought Ursus to Arthur.
What can we do about the magician, then? I thought.
Unless we have more time than I think we do, Ursus replied, we're going to have to use techniques that we already know work on this node. For instance, perhaps we can trap the magician in a restrictive, rather than protective, circle.
What's to stop him from just walking out of it, like people can walk through our ceremonial circles? Arthur asked.
Well, with our current strength, it's true that we can't physically contain anyone, but we could make a circle strong enough to neutralize, for a time, his magical power if he crosses it.
Will a restrictive circle control a demon? I asked.
Circles work better on metaphorical entities than they do on physical ones, and our ceremonial circle drove off a demon last night, so a restrictive circle should work on this node. Of course, we can't be sure without actual testing.
What did you just say about using techniques that we know work?
Point taken, but we at least know that cast circles have been useful in some circumstances. Believe me, I like acting without careful research and testing even less than you do.
It's a shame we don't have a friendly demon to experiment on, I said.
We need to cope with the situation as it is, and right now, we have no choice other than to take considered risks.
So what do we do?
Today, we build up our defenses. Tomorrow, we need to find out exactly where the magician lives. If we have the opportunity, we also should find out if the girl is a willing participant or a victim.
We pondered the problem as I ate. When I was finished, I quietly told Mary that I needed her downstairs. She followed me to the basement. "The literal solstice will be at 12:34 local time. It's an excellent opportunity to cast a more powerful than usual spell." I handed her the wooden disk with the new glyph carved upon it. "Once I charge it, that will be an amulet to help protect me and the people physically close to me from demons and hostile magic."
"You want me to run interference again," Mary said.
"You got it. It's especially important that no one interrupts me this time. I've got an angry demon on my trail."
"What should I tell someone who gets pushy?"
"Try just emphasizing how I told you that I really didn't want to be interrupted. If that doesn't work, tell them that I'm casting a magic spell and will likely be more cantankerous than I've ever been in my entire life if it gets messed up. As a last resort, tell them I'm trying to stop a demon from getting me. Don't use that option unless you have to, because it's liable to backfire and land me in the care of a psychiatrist."
"OK, I'll do my best."
"Thank you. I'll be starting the ritual at about 11:30. I hope I can get at least one of the amulet's sides charged as close to 12:34 as I can."
"How about moving the table into your new bedroom?" Mary asked. "I'll be able to protect your circle a lot easier if all I have to guard is the door."
"That's an outstanding idea." Ursus, why didn't you think of that?
Hell, I don't know. Maybe I assumed you weren't allowed to abscond with the table.
Mary and I cleared off the table, moved the chairs out of the way, and carefully maneuvered it sideways through my bedroom door. Getting the legs around the doorframe proved to be tricky, but we managed. We then rearranged some of the accumulated junk in the room so that I could set up my ritual area, which I did.
"Thanks for the help," I told Mary. "Until I need to start the spell, do you want to practice holding manna?"
"That would be great," she said with a smile. Whether she managed to hold on to it or not, manna passing through one's body felt good--a natural high, as certain warriors against recreational pharmaceuticals were wont to extol.
We relocated to the couch. Mary sat to my right, where she would be out of the way of the guitar's neck. I put my left foot up on a stack of old magazines and touched Mary's left foot with my right. "You know the drill; just keep experimenting until you figure out how to grab on."
I played the guitar and sometimes sang along. As I collected manna, I passed it to Mary. When 11:30 approached, I was just about to call time when I felt a surge of magical energy come to me through my connection to my sister. Could it be?
I think so, thought Ursus.
At the same time, I glanced at Mary. Her brow was wrinkled and her lips pursed. She looked as if she were concentrating powerfully. I played for another five minutes and felt several more pulses of manna come from Mary as I did so.
When I stopped passing her manna, Mary said, "I did it!" She stood up and started bouncing on her toes in excitement.
"You sure did," I said. "I'm proud of you." I got up and gave her a quick hug. "Now, though, I have to start my spell."
I did the usual preliminaries but took extra care casting the ritual circle. I then collected more manna, deepened my trance, pricked my finger, anointed the glyph with blood, deepened my trance some more, and began imagining demons bouncing off the protective circle created by the amulet. By "I," I mean all three of my minds working together for our common goal.
What had the demon felt like when he had collided with the ceremonial circle the night before? What did it sound like? How had he smelled? What was the sensation when he went away? Will myself to feel, over and over again, a generic demon colliding with the amulet's circle and then fleeing. Picture a representative demon bouncing off the circle. Imagine a different demon being foiled. Again, with a different demon. Again. Now do it for smell, and for sound. Can I manage it for taste? Finally, try to experience all the senses at once, including the magic sense. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat
Now, imagine a spell being stopped cold and dispersed. Picture it as air, then earth, fire, water. Think of it as lightning, rocks, confetti, little stars, lines of force, rain, hail, bullets, sparkles, glitter, light, laser beams, lava, winds, tornados. Don't just see them. Feel them. Hear them. Smell them. Taste them. Keep in mind that they represent spells, not the actual things. Heck, imagine a spell as mental telepathy. Repeat. Repeat some more.
I felt a sense of completion for the first side. Although I stayed in a light trance, I let my concentration ease somewhat. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was about 12:34. Don't decide something is a coincidence when magic is at work, thought Ursus. We picked up the guitar, collected more manna, flipped the amulet over, deepened our trance, and repeated the entire charging process for the other side.
We finished at about quarter after one. I threaded the same kind of braided string through the eyehook of the new amulet as I had used on the star amulet, then I hung the protective talisman around my neck with the other. I hauled myself to my feet, cut the circle, thanked the powers, and asked them to reinforce the circles outside the house. I had no idea if my request would work, but it was worth a try. As usual after a major spell, I felt exhausted. I went out the door of my new bedroom with every intention of shuffling over to the couch and collapsing until I was called to eat Christmas dinner.
Mike, Terry, and Mary were all in the sitting area. New amplifiers and guitar cases were on the floor around them. Mike was holding a new electric guitar. Terry had a bass. "When they came over," Mary said, "Mom just sent them down. I kept them out of your room, at least."
"What in hell were you doing?" asked Mike from the armchair.
"They looked through the doorway," Mary said.
"It's like you were hypnotized or something," Terry said. "You didn't hear us at all."
Shit. I staggered toward the couch. Mary scooted over to give me a place to sit near the arm. Terry immediately scooted closer to her from the other side and theatrically batted his eyelashes. Mary showed him her fist.
Once I had more-or-less fallen into my spot, I said, "I was casting a magic spell."