Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reflections on New Arrangements, Part I

We had dinner with more of my family last Saturday - Grandpa D, in fact, though I introduced him as my uncle. It's far too difficult to explain how he could possibly be my grandfather when he looks, at most, twenty years older than I do. That went well, at least as well as the dinner with my father and his wife last weekend. Grandpa D told a couple of embarrassing stories about my childhood, carefully tailored to omit any unusual elements, and charmed Claire out of some of her own childhood tales. I tried to pick up the tab, but Grandpa insisted that it was his pleasure, and I finally gave up.

We've found an apartment we like, but we can't move into it yet. Neither of our leases is ready to expire. Mine is set to run out before Claire's, so I'll probably put most of my stuff in storage and move in with her for about six weeks; then we'll move all our stuff into the new apartment in my current complex. Fortunately, neither of us has any pets; as far as I can tell from the manager, that adds several pages of extra paperwork and quite a bit of extra fees. (The actual phrase was "non-refundable deposit", but let's face it: if it isn't refundable, it's not a deposit. It's a fee.)

The Elders contacted me shortly after my last post. (You know, if they ever found out that I was putting this stuff online, even a fictionalized version under someone else's name, they'd be very unhappy... and they'd express their unhappiness in a variety of unpleasant and - eventually - fatal ways. So if I suddenly quit posting, that's probably what happened.) They didn't have any new information, as I'd hoped. Instead, they wanted me to kill someone... and they wanted me to do it using a specific ritual.

I was afraid this would happen. The things I've been forced to learn how to do in order to deal with the dreams... have become things that the Elders expect me to do regularly, at their bidding. And, really, if they keep in mind that I'm trying to hold down a mundane job and only call me in for emergencies, that's workable. Troublesome and dangerous, but workable. But if this becomes a regular thing, well... I can't do this and be a pharmacist at the same time. There are only so many hours in the day.

There are rituals, and then there are rituals. Most of the ones I've done so far - not counting the illness I set on Toby - have been aimed at gathering information. This one was purely an attack: a targeted summoning with no other purpose than to kill. Except, as I thought about it, that wasn't entirely true. There were other, more subtle ways to kill. They'd told me to use this one for reasons that weren't related to its effectiveness - at least not entirely.

So on Monday I completed the ritual, and watched a ball of smoky blackness flicker off into the night. Another presence went with it, even more ephemeral, and that presence passed its vision back to me. It had taken me three days to find that presence, and another day to invoke it... and its addition was a calculated risk.

If the Elders asked, I could claim - honestly - that I had added the second ritual to make sure that the first did its job. I really did want to know that. On the other hand, if the intended victim somehow failed to die, and if he noticed the spy I had sent along, he might be able to use its presence to trace the attack back to me. What made the risk worthwhile was not learning whether the attack was successful, but seeing exactly what it did and who its victim actually was.

I was not disappointed. The victim was male and about my age, and he was on his way home when the ball of shadow latched onto his face, sucking the air from his lungs and refusing to allow any more in. My spy hovered nearby, and I saw through its... sight. In particular, I saw when the victim focused, briefly, on the spy itself. A moment later, I saw him bare his fangs: long, narrow, backward-curving things, their extension made possible by a lower jaw that had suddenly unhinged itself. Fortunately - for me, if not for him - there was nothing substantial enough to bite, and certainly nothing with the sort of physiology which might be poisoned.

Suffocation is a slow, nasty death. He ran off the road before it ended, but he wasn't going fast enough to finish himself. He thrashed desperately against his seatbelt and an attacker he couldn't touch for a full two minutes after the crash. Finally, his movements slowed; angry desperation gave way to hopeless desperation. The flickering lights of emergency vehicles were visible when he finally succumbed. The tentacular shadow remained a full minute longer, obeying my will, ensuring that there would be no unexpected revivification for him. But it was my spy that let me see.

So now I know some things that the Elders probably don't want me to know. The victim they assigned to me was a member of... well, of the snake cult, the same one that owned the fellow who had been following us on Sixth Street. So this assignment probably served two purposes: a shot across their bow, to tell them to keep their distance, and a test of my loyalty, to see if I would kill one of them. Do they think I might have some loyalties to the snake cult?

I don't know. I don't know why they might think that. And I don't know how to find out.

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