The last time Sean Wyndham dabbled in dark magic, he accidentally summoned a havoc-wreaking blood familiar. After this catastrophe attracted the attention of the Elder Gods, Sean was offered the chance to study magic with a proper teacher. However, he soon becomes attracted to the dark, magical secret hidden deep within his new tutor’s vaulted library.
Sean and Eddy had hoisted their kayaks onto the roof of the Civic. They’d stuffed suitcases into the trunk, strapped bikes to the trunk rack, crammed the backseat with paddles and life vests, bike helmets and beach umbrellas. Now Eddy had gone home to pack books. She’d promised to limit herself to a single backpack, but even that was like shipping Coke to the Coke factory. She’d be working in the Miskatonic University Library, plus the Arkwright House had its own library, plus Horrocke’s Bookstore was five minutes from campus. Good thing the Civic could handle her fear of getting stranded on a bookless desert island between Providence and Arkham—Dad had made sure the car was in top shape before he handed Sean the keys.
Sean had expected to drive the Civic more after Dad got his new Accord, but for Dad to give it to him? That was the (forest green) cherry on top of a whole summer studying magic, another gift he hadn’t dared take for granted, even with Helen Arkwright and Professor Marvell arguing for it. The Servitor incident was a year behind them. Things had returned to normal, pretty much. So why would Dad risk Sean plunging them in another magical shit-storm?
Reason One: Dad would be in England all summer on a big restoration job, while Aunt Cel and Uncle Gus would be in Italy from mid-July on. Better Sean go to Arkham than poke around home alone. And Reason Two: Whether Sean pursued magic or not, the shit-storm that was Redemption Orne still rumbled over Sean’s head.
At Marvell’s request, an Order magician had come to Rhode Island to determine whether Orne still watched Sean. Right off, Afua Benetutti had felt brushes of too-sentient air, fluctuations in ambient energy, and with a puff of the dust that gloved her brown hands in sparkling silver, she’d revealed an invisible spy: a sinuous wisp of legs and feelers that cavorted around Sean, flicking its longest tail as if to chuck them an ethereal bird. Though the aether-newt had shaken off the dust and vanished from sight, Benetutti had continued to sense its energetic signature. Dad had exploded: Orne promised he’d leave Sean alone! Zap the thing! But Benetutti had said dispelling the newt would be wasted effort; Orne could simply resummon it. Better to ward the places where Sean spent the most time, his own house and his aunt’s. The newt couldn’t pass through the wards, so inside their perimeter, Sean would be safe from Orne’s observation.
Not the scorched-aether solution Dad had wanted, but he let Benetutti weave the defensive webs. Every month a paramagician—someone who couldn’t do spells himself but who could energize spells already in place—needed to reinforce the wards. Marvell and Helen had done the job. They’d have come anyway, because their other job was counseling Sean and Dad and Eddy, even Gus and Celeste, through their transitions from blissfully ignorant to people who could face the reality of magic without going nuts.
Far as Sean could tell, Gus and Celeste had needed the least counseling, Dad the most. Eddy, hard to say. She liked hanging with Helen—they talked about everything, not just the scary truth of the worlds. Obviously Helen thought Eddy was cool, or she wouldn’t have offered her a summer internship at the MU Library. But pre-Servitor, Eddy had never had trouble sleeping. Now, when Sean was staying at Cel and Gus’s, he’d look next door and see her “office” lights burning long after midnight. A couple times the blinds had been up, and he’d seen Eddy tilted back in her desk chair, clutching a book like a shield.
Sean dropped his tennis racquet through the Civic’s rear window, afraid if he opened the door, he’d unleash a junk avalanche. Eddy had better stick to the one-backpack deal, but he wouldn’t grouse if she didn’t. He got why she’d want to bring comfort books to Arkham; in fact, he’d stuck comfort books of his own under the driver’s seat. One was his duct-taped Lord of the Rings. The other was Marvell’s Infinity Unimaginable—the matter-of-fact way it treated magic had helped him chill whenever he started thinking too much about the Servitor or, worse, the god who’d sent it.
Sean backed the Civic out of the driveway. After that he had nothing to do but sit on the porch steps until it was time to drive Dad to the airport. Maybe he’d stowed Infinity too soon, because he lapsed into thinking about how, Servitor-possessed and mentally delivered to its creator, he’d come that close to teaming up with Nyarlathotep, the Master of Magic himself. If Dad hadn’t called him back. If Helen hadn’t broken the Servitor’s psychic grip by ramming a pitchfork, and herself, into its gut. Even now Sean could close his eyes and see the poison-green sky with its three black suns, the obsidian shore lapped by a protoplasmic ocean of shoggoths, the crystal-shard palace of a pseudo-Pharaoh who smiled because he understood the freaky hollowness inside a speck like Sean, a speck that longed to suck in the universe, to own the magic. He couldn’t do that unless, to earn the Outer Gods’ favor, he became their servant—
Servant or slave, like Orne. For the everything Nyarlathotep promised, he wanted everything in return.
Everything was too big. Better to break magic down into speck-sized nibbles Sean could handle without divine intervention. Since dismissing the Servitor, he hadn’t done any magic. He’d been afraid to try, and besides, Infinity’s descriptions of spell-casting didn’t amount to much more than Obi-Wan telling Luke to use the Force. Marvell had explained that since Infinity was written for the general public, its vagueness was a deliberate precaution. Besides, Sean shouldn’t attempt further magic until he’d been properly trained. In Arkham, Marvell would handle theory, and the Order would assign Sean a magician mentor to handle practice.
This time tomorrow, Sean would know his mentor’s name. Maybe it would be Geldman—Helen had mentioned he sometimes took Order students. Geldman would be amazing, but Sean would be happy with any legit magician other than Orne. And maybe he wouldn’t have to wait until tomorrow, because Dad came onto the porch with his cell phone ringing, and when he dropped his suitcases to answer it, he said, “Oh, hello, Helen.”
Good old Helen. She must’ve gotten the advance scoop on Sean’s mentor and was calling with the news. He jumped up and walked over to Dad, to be ready to take the phone. But Dad didn’t offer it. In fact, he turned away, frowning. “Yes, my flight’s not for a couple hours, I can talk.”
Talk about what? “Hey, Dad.”
Dad shook his head, phone to ear.
“Let me say hi to her.”
Dad walked into the house and shut himself in his study.
It was either squash his ear to the study door or wait for bad news in the comfort of a porch rocker, and, yeah, Helen’s news had to be bad to drive Dad into seclusion. Sean opted for the rocker and speculation. His summer in Arkham was off because no Order magician would mentor him, and that was because the Servitor had been a fluke—Sean wasn’t magician material, after all. Or else he was, but in so hazardous a form that the black helicopters were coming to take him to Area 52, Magical Miscreants.
Half an hour later, the helicopters hadn’t arrived. Dad had left the study, though, and gone to the carriage house. Following, Sean watched lights come on in Mom’s old studio while Dad’s stayed dark. Not an encouraging sign. He dithered in the garden for a few minutes, then sucked it up and finished the pursuit.
Dad stood under the window he’d made while Mom was sick, eyes fixed on the Madonna who sat painting in a walled garden. Sean climbed the stairs as if he were sneaking into church after the funeral had started, but Dad heard him, and he said, “I was talking to Helen.”
“I know. I was there when she called, remember?”
Dad sat on a worktable and nodded at the stretch of unoccupied tabletop beside him. His hair was a pawed-through mess, and the jaw muscle that twitched when he was pissed off looked like it was jumping rope. Sean stayed put at the top of the stairs. “Something’s wrong about Arkham, right?”
“No, if you mean something to keep you from going. Helen’s still expecting you and Eddy tomorrow.”
“So everything’s okay.”
Dad looked him in the eye. “As long as you can study magic, all’s right with the world?”
“I didn’t say that!”
“But that’s how you feel?”
“No, because there’s still wars and climate change.”
“I’m glad you take a global view.”
“What did Helen say, Dad?”
The jaw muscle got tired of jumping. In fact, Dad half smiled. “Sean, you haven’t done anything wrong, and nobody’s mad at you.”
That was a first.
“What’s come up, it’s something Helen thought I should know before I went to England, but we agreed she and Professor Marvell should be the ones to tell you about it.”
“Well, because magic’s about the same to me as quantum mechanics. I know it exists, but hell if I can explain it. Helen, Marvell, they’ll explain things the right way.”
“So, whatever made you come up here, it’s about magic in general?”
Dad heaved off the tabletop. “Why do I come up here sometimes, Sean?”
“To hang with Mom, when you’re worried.”
“And you do the same thing, except you can actually feel the part of her that’s still around. I’m glad we know that’s real now.”
He meant the buzz of her energy, in the cabinets. Sean looked up at the Madonna. In the halo that circled not her head but the tip of her paintbrush, Dad had tried to paint Mom’s magic onto the glass, and he’d made the window years before learning magic was real. “I always knew she was different. You did, too, Dad.”
“Yeah, I did.” Dad walked over and gripped his shoulder. “Look, Sean, you’re all right. That’s all you need to know before Helen and Marvell explain the rest.” He stood. “I’ve got some last things to pack. Ready for the airport run?”
“Whenever you are.”
“Okay. Hit the lights when you’re done here.”
And Dad knew what it would take for Sean to be done, which was why he ran downstairs and closed the carriage house door with thump enough to signal his exit. It was a shy and private thing to approach the cabinets where Mom’s unfinished canvases lived. Lived was the right word, too, because without opening the cabinet doors, just by resting fingertips on the cheerfully paint-freckled wood, Sean felt the low hum of magic. As magic had vibrated in her skin and breath, not pulse, not respiration, steadier than either, so it hummed in all her paintings, her, like no other sensation in the world. Yet the hum was strongest in the work she’d had to abandon, as if the residual magic knew there was more for it to do—it had to persist until she came back and directed it. No other artist, even Dad, could reproduce her brushstrokes or her sense of color and light. No other magician, even Sean, could match her hum—according to Infinity, each magician’s energy was genetic code unique, an absolute signature.
Sean sagged forward until his forehead pressed a door and absorbed its vibration. These days he rarely did more—he certainly didn’t throw the cabinet doors wide, as he’d done at age six or seven, weirdly unafraid, actually hoping to catch her ghost curled up in the linseed-scented dark.
It wasn’t that now, at seventeen, he was afraid to open the doors. He was cautious, that was all, because what if her energy were to burst out, to disperse, the last of her gone right when he was about study magic? At the end of summer, he wanted to come back and demonstrate the legacy she’d given him. However unconscious her witness might be, he wanted it.
Dad yelled from the garden, time to go.
Going up to the studio hadn’t cured Dad’s unease over Helen’s call. Preflight, he’d tried to transmute it into standard Dad warnings, don’t drive like a nutcase, don’t spend your whole summer allowance the first week, but a deeper anxiety had kept his jaw muscle hopping. Plus he’d told Sean to call England anytime, not just when it was normal-human hours over there. After Dad’s plane had cruised, Sean considered calling Helen and teasing out the magical secret. He’d held off until he drove to Cel and Gus’s for the night, and then he’d had to wedge Eddy’s books—a backpack and three bags full—into the Civic, and then Eddy’s parents had taken them out to dinner. By the time they got back, it was too late to bug Helen.
Eddy doused her lights by eleven thirty. They stayed doused—Sean knew because he was too wired to sleep. The dark windows next door gave him a postapocalyptic chill: Sean Wyndham, last human on earth. Around one, he wandered down to the kitchen. Warm milk was supposed to be a natural sedative, but to avoid gagging, Sean took his cold, flopped on the living room couch. No dice. The mantel clock chimed two, and he remained wide awake, thinking of Mom’s energy in the cabinets, and how she hadn’t even known she had magic, it had just poured out of her, while he didn’t know his mentor yet, and now there was this other thing Dad wouldn’t tell him. Also, why didn’t brains come with an OFF switch?
He stared into his empty glass. Lattes were mostly warm milk, right? Maybe it wouldn’t kill him. But when he sat up, pursuing sleep became irrelevant. Something moved outside the living room windows. Flash back a year, to his own house and to Sean glimpsing enough of the Servitor to make him run, animal-intent on escape. He almost ran now, but before his shock-frozen legs could thaw, he realized this creature was no Servitor. For one thing, it was much smaller. For another, no one’s blood had solidified it into flesh—it was only a hint of a being, an elongated wisp that floated from window to window, then took a lazy U-turn and shimmied back as if swimming through air.
It was the spy Benetutti’s dust had revealed, an aether-newt. It wouldn’t eat him. It couldn’t even get into the house, thanks to her wards. Sean set down his glass, then sidestepped slowly into the window bay. The Necronomicon said that aether-newts rendered visible appeared to have glass or soap bubble skin. This one was more glassy, but with swift chromatic slicks that washed over it like the rainbows on bubbles.
As he reached the windows, the newt executed a tight figure eight, passing through itself at the juncture of the two loops to settle on the screen inches from Sean’s nose. No, not on the screen. The suction cups at the end of its stumpy caterpillar legs rested on an invisible surface farther out, the ward-barrier. In spite of its many-jointed skeleton, glass within glass, the newt’s body was also more caterpillar-plump than newt-sleek. Caterpillars didn’t have obvious necks, though. The newt had one it could stretch longer or corkscrew shorter; on it bobbled an egg-shaped head without mouth or nostrils, just two fan-shaped appendages like fleshy feathers. Ears? Organs of an obscurer sense? The eyes were more obvious: two bulging hemispheres with diamond pupils, and maybe those glossy winking spheroids on its sides and underbelly were eyes, too. The back sported more fleshy fans, the butt five tails, long one in the middle. The shorter tails had tiny waving hairs—what had they called those in Bio Lab? Cilia. The long tail ended in a wicked barb. If the newt weren’t ethereal, it could put a person’s eyes out with that.
What it did right now was flick the barbed tail at Sean. Again, like it was chucking him the bird.
He chucked it one back.
Impressed? Probably not—it kept flicking.
Sean pushed up the screen and leaned out past the ward-barrier—as always, he felt its mild sting as he broke through. “How come I can see you now?” he demanded.
The newt retreated a couple feet. Flick.
“Your boss Orne must want me to see you, right?”
“Like, you must’ve heard me and Eddy outside the wards, how we’re going to study with the Order. So he knows I don’t need him to study magic.”
Double flick, plus a wave of the feathery head fans.
Yes? No? “Not that I care if he knows. It’ll be the last thing he finds out, because I bet the Order has kick-ass wards you’ll never get through. So yeah. He can fuck off. All right?”
The flicks stopped.
The newt retreated. Shimmying from head to tail-tip barb, it began to fade.
Sean watched until it was gone, or at least invisible again. He was breathing too fast, but it was because he was as pissed off as Dad had been when they first glimpsed the newt. Orne had promised to leave Sean alone, but instead he’d been spying, and now he was rubbing the spy in Sean’s face.
He ducked inside, pulled down the screen, slumped onto the arm of Gus’s favorite chair. His hand brushed his backpack, ready to go in the morning. In it was his wallet, and in his wallet was a much-folded printout, Orne’s last e-mail. Sean didn’t need to get it out. The text was stuck as deep in his head as the first poem he’d memorized for school. Sean, I can’t apologize enough for what’s happened. Got that right. I meant you and yours no harm. Bullshit. In time we’ll meet face-to-face, and you’ll know me better. That was so not happening, and time Orne knew it.
He carried his pack to the back porch. Night was all he could see beyond the screens, but the newt had to be out there. He fished Orne’s message from his wallet, unfolded it, and pressed it to a screen, so the newt could take a good look. Then he tore the thing in two, four, eight, easy enough along the worn creases. Cel kept candles on the porch table, protected from wind inside jars. He thumbnail-struck a match, lit the largest candle, and fed its flame the scraps of e-mail. Brief stink of paper mixed with vanilla, then there was just the vanilla, and Orne was officially gone. Maybe Sean was crazy to give orders to the night, but he knew for sure now that it had ears, or close enough. “Tell your boss what I did,” he said.
And maybe burnt paper and vanilla were better sedatives than milk, because when he flopped again on the couch, his eyelids finally slid closed and stayed that way.
Copyright © 2015 by Anne M. PillsworthFathomless goes on sale October 27th. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell's Books | Walmart