An Exorcism

This was a stupid job. Rebecca tried to focus on the money, which she needed, but it was hard not think about how ridiculous it was. This kid’s doll was almost certainly not possessed, yet the parents insisted she exorcise it. They had seen too many horror movies.

Part of her thought she should feel grateful that supernatural horror was popular, but it led to so many bizarre ideas and even paranoia in the public. She knew she didn’t really have to take these jobs, but having some money of her own made her feel a bit more secure. It was something that was hers, that no one could take from her, as well as giving her a sort of independence. She didn’t have to rely on anyone else if it came to that.

However, it sometimes meant searching through a child’s messy room looking for a doll that had moved on its own, or so the family claimed. None of them wanted to be near it, so they had left her to find it. She spent some time digging through piles, looking under the bed and in the closet, and checking other, less obvious, nooks before finally finding it under the dresser.

There was little doubt that this was the doll in question: porcelain, blue dress, and a creepy, realistic face. If you’re going to watch scary movies with possessed dolls, why would you buy something like this? Rebecca had no idea, but she could see why they might believe the doll was possessed. If demonic dolls exist, this what they looked like.

Her intention was to take the doll, tell the owners the spirit possessing it wouldn’t bother them anymore, and go home. Out of curiosity, though, she cast a simple spell to check for spirits or related activity and discovered, to her surprise, that a spirit did indeed inhabit the doll.

The spirit was rather weak and could manage only to animate the doll in minor ways, moving one arm or blinking the eyes. There was no malevolence in it, and no real danger. Of course, seeing a doll move would probably terrify most normal people. Rebecca felt slightly embarrassed, but only in her mind, since she hadn’t confided her skepticism to anyone else. At least she didn’t have to admit her mistake out loud.

Another spell, this one a bit more complicated, allowed the spirit to communicate.

“Can you hear me?” Rebecca asked tentatively.

“Uh.” The response was quiet.

“Do you have to stay in this doll?”

“Nuh.”

“How about this house? Are you tied to it?”

“Nuh.”

“Are you willing to come with me?”

There was a pause before the doll answered, but it did finally reply. “Uh.”

“Alright. Let’s get out of here. Easier than fighting about it.”

She opened the bag she had brought with her. It mostly held props that clients expected someone like her to use. They were all for show. She picked up the doll.

“Is it okay to put you in this bag? Just until i can get you back to my lab?”

“Uh.”

She carefully placed the doll inside and latched the bag closed. Before leaving the room, she checked the house for other spirits. There was nothing else unusual that she could detect.

Downstairs, she reassured the family that she had secured the doll and the spirit would no longer trouble them. They arranged payment, and she told them, as part of her guarantee, to call her again if anything else weird happened.

On the way back to the house, she decided she had to move the spirit out of the doll. There had to be something less creepy she could use. Maybe Sarah had a teddy bear or something. More importantly, Rebecca wanted to figure out how the spirit got into the doll in the first place. That sort of thing was not common. It might be worth keeping it around for awhile. 

Late Night Snacks

Jason was sitting alone in the kitchen, a carton of vanilla ice cream on the island in front of him. He would have gotten a bowl, but then he would have had to wash it, so he decided to just eat right out of the container. No one else was around to object.

A door appeared in the middle of the room. It opened, and Julia walked through. After she closed it behind her, the door vanished. Julia was a head shorter than he was and looked younger, though Jason knew that might be a deception. Her long hair was tied back in the usual ponytail. He couldn’t make out the color of her hair and wished he could remember what it was.

“Jason? Why are you sitting in the dark?”

“Don’t need light to eat.”

Julia sighed and turned a light on.

Black! Her hair was black!

Grabbing a box of crackers from a cupboard, Julia sat down on a stool on the other side of the island. “You didn’t want a bowl?”

He just shook his head.

“So why are you up so late?”

Jason looked at his wrist, but there was no watch there. “Is it late?”

Julia sighed again before changing the subject. “So someone new has moved into the house?”

“Did they?”

“Jason! You’re the one who told me about him.”

“Oh right. An elementalist, I believe. I haven’t met him yet.”

“Why did Thomas bring in someone new? This place is already too crowded.”

“I don’t know. Thomas doesn’t tell me why he does things.”

“Yes, he does. You just never remember.”

“That’s probably true,” Jason said with a laugh.

“This place is too crowded.”

“You already said. But how would you know? You almost always stay in your room.”

Julia frowned. “You forget that I helped create all this space. I know when it’s occupied.”

“Yeah. Still, you should get out more.”

“No, thank you.”

Cocking her head a bit as though listening to something Jason couldn’t hear, she hopped down from her stool and summoned a door. “I’ll talk to you later, Jason.”

After the door disappeared, Sarah rounded the corner into the kitchen. “Jason? I thought I heard Julia.”

Jason waved his hand at nothing. “She just left.”

“Dammit. Why does she always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Leave. She really doesn’t like me, does she?”

“Don’t take it personally. She doesn’t like anyone.”

“She seems to like you just fine.”

“I’m her brother; she has to like me.”

“But you’re not her brother! You two aren’t related.”

“Really?” Jason appeared genuinely puzzled.

“Really. You both say that, but you aren’t.”

“Huh. Well, maybe I remind her of her brother.”

“Honestly, Jason, I don’t know how you make through the day sometimes.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a trick to it.”

“Uh huh.” Sarah slumped down onto the same stool Julia had recently occupied.

Jason looked down at his ice cream, which had become rather soft, and decided he’d had enough. He threw the spoon into the sink and put the carton back in the freezer.

“So have you met David yet?”

“Who’s David?” Jason asked, absently.

“The new kid. He arrived yesterday.”

“Oh. No, I haven’t seen him. Is he nice?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“Don’t worry about Julia. She’ll come around eventually.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

“Seriously, how do you get through the day?”

“With a smile.” Jason pulled a pretzel rod from… somewhere and put it in his mouth like a cigar. “Have a good night, Sarah.”

“You too, Jason.”

Welcome to the Cabal

Nearly three feet long, the creatures looked like giant roaches. When they first attacked, David had tried to disappear into the crowds on the street. However, they had ignored everyone else, and no one seemed to see them. On the other hand, people did see David throw a couple of fire spells and started to point and take pictures. So David headed down an alley to give himself more room. The bugs were still following.

At the end of the alley was a woman waving at him. Even if she hadn’t been trying to get his attention, it would have been impossible not to notice her. Her clothing consisted of many different layers of bright color, and in the light, her hair seemed to shift hues.

“David?” she shouted.

Conserving his breath, he just nodded.

“Thomas sent me to collect you.”

David nodded again and stopped. Turning around, he lobbed a large ball of fire back at the bugs that had just rounded the corner.

“What the. . .? Don’t use fire!”

The woman grabbed his wrist and dragged him behind a building.

“Astral beetles,” she said, as though it was an explanation. “They feed on heat. Do you have any ice spells?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Wait until they go past you. Their backs are more vulnerable.”

Before he could ask her any questions, she stepped back into the alley, surrounded herself in flame, and started running away. The beetles followed her with renewed vigor. Horrified by the risk she had taken, it took him a moment to collect himself and begin casting.

Ice spells were not his specialty, but he was competent enough to create several projectiles and send them hurtling towards the creatures. One fell immediately under the barrage, but the other leapt at its prey and avoided most of the attack. It landed on the woman, knocking her to the ground, and began trying to bite her as she attempted to ward it off.

As quickly as he could manage, he summoned another set of ice darts and sent them into the beetle, piercing it numerous times and causing it to stop moving. David rushed over to check on his would-be rescuer, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“Back here.”

He turned around to find her still crouched behind the building. She must have noticed the confusion on his face.

“Illusion. My particular expertise. You did quite well; they didn’t even have a chance to realize they’d been fooled.” She paused long enough to let him process the information. “I’m Sarah, by the way.”

She held out her hand; he took it and gave it a quick shake. “David.”

“Yeah. Got that already.” Her smile was friendly enough.

“Right.” He felt self-conscious. “So what were those things?”

“Astral beetles. You haven’t dealt with them before?”

“No.”

“Huh. Well, they’re not really beetles, and they don’t come from the astral plane. Useless name. But they do like magic. Especially fire magic.”

“Are they common?”

“Not that common, but not unique, either. I’m a little surprised that an elementalist like yourself doesn’t know about them.”

“I suppose my knowledge has some holes in it.”

Sarah gave him a long look. Now that the threat was gone, he realized her hair and clothes really were changing colors. She wore her hair short, and she nearly matched his own six-foot height. Her gaze made him increasingly uncomfortable, and he looked away.

“Well, Thomas invited you,” she said eventually, “so let’s get you back to the house.”

She turned and led him away from the alley. After several minutes they stood in front of a brownstone. It looked pleasant enough, but it was hard to imagine that more than three or four people could live inside comfortably.

“How many members do you have?”

Sarah smiled. “Come on. You’ll see.”

Through the front door was a spacious living room that appeared wider than the whole front of the house.

“Some spatial trickery, thanks to one of our other members, Julia. We don’t have unlimited room, but we have enough. Your room is on the second floor. There is space for a lab, if you require one. I am afraid you’ll be next to Jason.”

“Jason?”

“Yes, one of the oldest members of the house. He’s basically harmless, but he can sometimes . . . roam. Your room is yours. No one but Thomas can enter without your permission. Except for Jason, because no one has determined a way to keep him out. But again, he won’t mess with your things. I’m in the room next to yours on the other side. The rest of the members you’ll meet when they choose. Any questions?”

“This Jason…”

“Jason studies raw power, the patterns under everything. It makes him a bit absent-minded. He does provide energy for the whole house. It’s why he’s here. That and he and Thomas go back… well, further than any of us. Jason’s strange, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. I almost forgot. Here’s your badge.” She handed him a small cloth patch with a blue infinity symbol on it.

“Badge?”

“Marks you as a member of the house. Keep it with you. Only those who have one, or who are with someone else who has one, can enter the brownstone.”

He took it and studied it. There didn’t appear to be anything remarkable about it.

“Where’s Thomas?”

“He’s busy in his room on the fourth floor. He told me he would talk to you later. For now, settle in. You’ve had quite a day.”

Without waiting for a response she showed him upstairs and down a hall, stopping outside a plain wooden door.

“Your room.”

“Thanks.”

Sarah nodded and walked away. David turned the door knob and entered his new home.

Introducing The Cabal

Staring straight ahead, his eyes were pitch black. Rather than the table and chairs in the room, he only saw the patterns of power criss-crossing the room. The lines were the color of magik and extended beyond the walls. In several spots nearby, the lines clumped together, smelling of fate and fortune. With effort, he could divert power to or from someone, changing the shape of fortune surrounding him or her.

One of the bundles near him, on the same floor of the house they all shared, caught his attention. Fate suggested a great success was close. To get a better view, he drew power from the pattern to strengthen his own sight. There was nothing malicious in his actions; curiosity was simply stronger than anything even remotely resembling common sense. Fate tipped from almost certain success to failure.

After, he continued to study the patterns. Most of his time was spent this way. It was possible to learn, to uncover secrets by careful observation of the various patterns. Mostly, however, he just enjoyed watching them. A knock at the door interrupted him.

“Jason! Get out here!”

He blinked twice to return his vision to normal. Even then it took a few more seconds to adjust to seeing the mundane world. Meanwhile, the pounding on the door continued.

“Jason! Dammit! Open this door!”

He couldn’t remember why they called him ‘Jason.’ It wasn’t his name. On the other hand, he couldn’t remember his actual name, so he didn’t object. The man outside his door looked familiar. And angry.

“David?” He thought that was correct.

“You were doing that thing again, weren’t you? Remote viewing, or some such?”

“Of course. What else would I be doing?”

“Normal research, perhaps?”

“Why?”

“You messed up my incantation again. It had been proceeding just fine until you showed up.”

Another member of their cabal arrived. Sarah? That sounded right.

“What is going on? You guys are making quite a racket out here.”

“Jason messed up one of my projects. Again. I need to move rooms.”

Sarah shook her head. “Can’t. The reconstruction work has put a premium on space. And you’re the newest resident of the house.”

“This is intolerable.”

“Well, if you don’t like it, you can leave.”

He wasn’t really listening to the two of them. Instead, his eyes had blinked black again, and he was studying the bundle of power that was David. It was fluctuating wildly.

“Don’t go, David. Your fortuned doesn’t look good if you leave.”

“What are you talking . . .”

Sarah placed a hand on David’s arm to stop him. “Jason’s warnings should always be taken seriously. He may be difficult, but he isn’t often wrong.”

David fumed silently for a moment before capitulating. “Fine. But quit watching my lab!”

“Oh. Of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was bothering you.” With that, he closed the door and went back to his chair.

In the hall, David’s anger deflated. “Will he really stop? It can’t be that easy.”

Sarah laughed. “He’ll stop. Until he forgets. You might have a day or two. Use it wisely.” She turned and walked back to her own room, leaving David to mutter curses under his breath.

One Answer

A person called my name, and I stepped out of the line. How long had I been waiting? I could not say. On one hand, I had been there for all eternity, patiently listening for my turn. On the other hand, I had just arrived, and now I was being summoned ahead of all the others standing there. None of them objected.

No matter how hard I might try, I could not describe the person whose voice had pulled me from the line. I could see them as clearly as I could see my own hand, but I have no idea what they looked like. When they spoke, the words were the sound of crystal.

“You have been granted an audience. Inside, please.”

He gestured towards a door I hadn’t remembered seeing before that moment. Without hesitating, I approached, and the door swung wide. Inside was a clean, well-lit hallway. No one else was present, but I knew exactly where to go. After walking for only a moment, and forever, I found myself before another door and again walked through.

I was now in the presence of Everything. Before, I thought I knew what doubt was, but in that moment, there was no such thing anymore.

Speak. There was no voice, only the word.

“Others have been here longer, waiting.”

They, too, are being seen.

“So there’s more than one of you?”

No.

The words were not angry or impatient. They just were. Perhaps there was kindness, but I suspect that is simply what I wanted to hear.

“I don’t want to take up too much time . . .”

Impossible.

“Okay… Can I ask… Why?”

For your own sake, be clearer.

“Why? Why put us through all of that. The pain and suffering. The fear and anger? The hatred and misery? It is overwhelming. Is there really some plan? Is it actually malice? Do you just not know? Or not care? Why . . .” At that moment, my voice gave out. All the horror of the world came pouring out in my tears, in a scream, in a shudder. There was no response until most of it had worked through my system and I recovered some measure of composure.

Would any answer satisfy you?

“Don’t you already know?”

Yes, but do you?

And I considered it, perhaps for the first time. I had heard so many answers and none of them had ever seemed even remotely plausible, let alone satisfactory.

Except one, which I thought precluded the Reality before me now.

“We did it to ourselves.”

Once more, perhaps it was simply what I wanted to hear, but there seemed to be compassion in the words.

Yes.

“We chose it. All of it. And you let us.”

It is not my place to choose for you. Perhaps you would prefer to be eliminated from reality . . .

“Sometimes I wonder.”

I know. But it is not possible. You are sentient. You are a locus of reality. Where you are, so is everything. You can no more be eliminated than I can, than reality can.

It wasn’t what I had come looking for, but despite myself, I did feel a sort of comfort in those words, in that truth.

“So what now?”

There was an atmosphere of a smile. 

Whatever you choose.

Some Help

“Can you see that?”

My friend turned around in his chair. “See what?”

We were sitting in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. I was looking at a woman who was dressed like she was on her way to a medieval festival: long grey robe, leaves placed strategically in her hair, and holding a staff. Even before I had asked, I knew my friend couldn’t see her.

“What am I looking for?”

“Nothing. Never mind.”

“Are you seeing things again?”

“No!”

“That sounded pretty defensive. If you are, we can get you some help. Better to catch it early.”

“I”m not hallucinating. Just forget it.”

The woman walked over to our table and sat in an empty chair without moving it. She wore a sad, wistful smile but said nothing, though she continued to stare at me. Making an effort to ignore her, I focused on my friend.

“Look, no judgment. I just want to support you. If you’re having problems again, I will help, but you have to trust me.”

“I thought I saw something on that table. I realized it was the way the light reflected off of it. There is nothing to worry about; I’m fine. Can we drop it now?” I could still see the woman out of the corner of my eye.

“Okay, okay.” My friend threw up his hands defensively. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. Just don’t need everyone always thinking of me in terms of the lowest point in my life. I had a breakdown; it’s not the whole of who I am.”

“You’re right. I am sorry. I will try to do better.”

The woman reached out and touched my arm. “You know I’m real, right?”

I ignored her and continued to give my friend all of my attention. “Should we get going?”

He checked his watch. “Soon. Wait here, will you? I’m going to run to the restroom.”

I tried to think of some reason to stop him, but nothing came to mind. As soon as he was out of sight, the woman spoke again.

“Now we can talk.”

Looking in any direction but hers, I said nothing.

“I need your help. No one else can see or hear me. There’s nowhere else I can turn. Please.”

I desperately did not want to sink back into madness, and I knew that if I acknowledged her at all, I would be starting down a dangerous path. I had to ignore her, even as her pleas grew more urgent.

“I need you to do something for me. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important, or if there was any other way. I need to get a message to someone. You’re the only person who I can reach.”

Tuning out this new “voice” in my head was getting increasingly difficult. I found myself tapping my fingers impatiently on the table.

“I don’t think I have anything of value to give you, but I’m begging you to help me. My friend… She doesn’t know the danger she is in. I know it’s cliché, but this really is a life or death situation.”

“Finally,” I muttered when I saw my friend returning.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Definitely.” Relieved to finally get away from this woman only I could see, I stood up and followed him to the door. Before walking out, I stole a glance back and saw the woman still sitting at the table. That was my only mistake, but it was plenty.

“Hey,” I said to my friend. “I just remembered something I have to take care of. I’ll catch up to you later?”

“Are you sure?” Suspicion was evident in his voice.

“Yeah. I’ll talk to you later.”

I made sure he walked away before going back inside and sitting down at the table.

“Okay. What’s the message? Who is it for?”

The Taste of Garlic

Many years ago, a woman, the daughter of a long line of garlic farmers, married a man who hated the taste of garlic. Out of her love for him, she refrained from using garlic when cooking even though she missed it. However, he became very ill, and the apothecary told her that garlic was the only thing that might cure him. 

Despite the severity of his sickness, he refused. So she came up with a plan. The woman, knowing of her husband’s fear of ghosts, told him that garlic was effective in warding off demons and evil spirits. The village elder, out of respect for the woman and her family, supported her claims. The husband reluctantly agreed to eat some garlic. Even after he was better, she worried he might relapse and convinced him to continue to eat the root.

One night, on her way back home from a trip to the village, she was cornered by a vampire. She grew fearful that, if the beast fed on her, her husband would realize that the garlic she ate had not warded off the attack and discover her deception. He would then stop eating garlic and fall back into his illness. She explained all of this to the creature and begged that, even if he were to kill her, he not drink her blood so that her husband would continue to eat his garlic.

The vampire was moved by the woman’s concern for her husband rather than herself, and he agreed, going so far as to spare her life altogether. Further, he spread word of the woman’s story and her love for her husband amongst the others of his kind. That is why, to this day, vampires shy away from garlic.