A Student of Magic

Clarence Sproultocket lifted the heavy tome from the coarse dusty wood of the desk and opened it in his palms. The book was old and the spine weak, the pages brown and wrinkled and smelling of age. He found the one he was looking for and brushed centuries-old dust from it.

It had cost him a fortune. But it would be worth it, to show that other bastard, that right ribblegostler, who was going to be the star pupil. Who was going to impress The Master and become the greatest of the greatest wizards of arcane magic to ever come out of the academy.

He was going to kill him. Summon a demon to drag him to hell and the swirling black mists of the netherworld in the night.

The young magician turned up the flame on the burner and set the flask of green liquid atop the desk to boiling. He crushed the powdered gecko bones and owl’s feathers in the mortar with the stone pestle and hummed a happy tune to himself. As steam escaped from the top of flask and began to whistle, he dropped the powder in with the other ingredients and dumped the hot vile-smelling fluid from the glass vessel over it all.

He picked up his wand from the desk and raised his arms in the air, chanting:

“Al-shagoth, sep-subbarah, with this detritus before me I summon you from the depths of the netherworld! Al-sagoth, seb-supparah, take my sacrifice and enter this realm, to strike down my hated enemy and mortal nemesis, Aruito Trate! Traze, traze-kel-kay! Kel-kay as-duruath al-nost el zabique! Come onto me, bringer of hatred and suffering!”

The air in the young sorcerer’s cottage grew cold. The fire in the hearth seemed to burn lower and dimmer. And then there was a sensation in the body of Clarence Sproultocket, a horrible itching, a terrible burning. Like a thousand termites were writhing beneath his skin and burrowing in his flesh, turning him into a porous mass of bloody sand. He felt his skin stretching and his bones expanding and his viscera rising up into his throat.

He screamed and vomited blood in red geysers of pain. His porous flesh fell away and revealed something beneath, something giant and black and covered in scales. The skin of his childish visage fell away from a spiny face too large for it, one with a giant grinning mouth full of pointed teeth. The thing screamed and laughed and the sound echoed out of the windows of the tiny cottage into the darkness of the surrounding forest.

Far away, up in his tower, The Master sat reading a book by candlelight, and felt a chill.

Mother

It was dark all around me and smelled of death.

I stumbled through the blackness, clumsy, lost, disoriented, reaching out in front of me for something, anything, to support me in my fumbling through the void. The cold of the stone walls around me greeted my reaching hands, and I continued forward, feeling my way along them.

My eyes adjusted to the dimness, and I saw the lumpy gray rock sheets enclosing me, and between them ahead, a black hole leading into the nothingness, beckoning me. From the hole a figure emerged, a small silhouette. As it came closer I saw it was that of an old woman in a dress.

As she drew nearer I saw that there was something wrong – just wrong – with her. Even in the blackness I could see her face was discolored and bloated. Red blood showed through in places where the skin was torn away, and her eyes were gone: there were only vacant black pits staring out at me.

It was my mother.

“You left me son,” she said in her feeble voice. I smelled the cigarette smoke on her breath, just like I had when I was child. “You left me to die in that home. Why didn’t you take care of me? Why didn’t you tell me you loved me before I turned into this? Before it was too late?”

“I’m sorry!” I called out to her, but my words were broken somehow, muffled like I was underwater, like I was smothered beneath a thick blanket. I called out again and again, but I knew she could not hear me.

“Why son? Why…?” Her voice grew more and more feeble. She began to fade into the blackness just as she’d emerged from it. “Now I’m doomed to wander here forever. Forever. Just as you are.”

“No! No!” I screamed, but my words were even more distorted than before. And then I felt myself falling, and the blackness closing in, heavy and thick and full of malice, and mother was gone.

I awoke covered in sweat, and rose from bed and put on my black suit. I gathered the crumpled pages I’d written the night before from the bedside table, from their place next to the empty glass.

The funeral was at 11. I couldn’t be late. Mother would have disapproved.

Spooktown

It was a simple job. But then again when they come through the door, it always is.

I lean back in my chair and light my cigarette. It hangs from the end of my mouth and smoke meanders toward the ceiling in a long trail, until it’s caught up in the currents of the rotating fan above.

Spooktown. Only once did I ever go into Spooktown, and that was enough. Lots of folks disappeared into Spooktown. Some on purpose. Some by mistake. But once you went in and that place got a hold of you, decided it wanted you, there was no coming out. No matter how hard you tried. No matter how much your loved ones missed you. No matter how many gumshoes like me crying wives with handfuls of hundred dollars bills – cashed-in life insurance policies, hocked jewelry, money saved for what would have been their first children – sent in.

Best just to stay as far away as you could. A hundred miles. A thousand. Why I hadn’t moved to the other side of the country? Put as much distance between myself and that godforsaken place as possible. Even it being the half-hour boat ride across the channel was too close.

Now there was another crying wife in front of me. Only this time it wasn’t about her husband. Because I knew her husband was dead.

“Please,” the dame wept, tears pouring down her red cheeks. “Sam, you’ve got to do this for me. You’ve got to. That’s where she went. I know it is.”

I blew smoke and gloomy lines of light coming in through the blinds and conspiring shadows in the corners watched.

“No way,” I said. “There’s not enough money in this world, Lila.”

“Please Sam, please. We’ve got to do something.”

I sat up. Took my shoes off the desk and leaned forward, crossed my arms and put them on the wood in front of me and the brass chain on the lamp danced back and forth.

“I don’t have to do anything, especially not for you, Lila. It’s hard to say no to money, but in the case of you and Spooktown I’m willing to make an exception. What could possibly convince me to go in there, of my right mind? What would make you think I’d be willing to do that, for you of all people?”

Lila sniffed. She took something out of her purse. A photo. Glossy 8×10. A pretty girl, young. Very young. Looked just like Lila when I’d last seen her so many years ago – same beautiful black hair, same high cheekbones, same alabaster skin.

“It’s our daughter,” she cried. “Sam, it’s got our daughter.”