By Tim Pratt
1. Exterminator’s Helper
I was eleven when a little man with watery eyes who blinked and sniffed all the time shuffled into my classroom, moving carefully, not brushing up against any desks or people. My teacher stood frozen with her hand pointed at a map of Africa, and the kids all around me were unnaturally still, too, stuck in whatever moment they’d been caught in when time stopped: note-passing, nose-picking, empty-space-gazing.
I held my breath at first, hoping this strange person in the gray suit looking at a scrap of paper in his hand wouldn’t realize I was still conscious, still capable of movement. I didn’t know what he was, or what was happening, but I’d read a lot of books and seen a lot of shows about fairies and monsters and magic, and being in the middle of a story like that was so scary I was afraid I’d wet myself.
He squinted around, peered in my direction, and bustled over. “You’re . . .” A glance at the paper. “Makayla?”
“Kayla,” I whispered.
A brisk nod. “Never saw the point of nicknames, but whatever makes you happy. I’m Sigmund. I need your help. Actually, all your friends and . . . so on . . . here at school need your help.” He rubbed at his nose and sniffled more. I wondered if he had a cold. “It’s not quite a save-the-world thing, but you can save this little part of your world. Won’t that be, um, fun?”
Some adults love kids, and some don’t like them, but some just seem confused by us and don’t know how to talk to us at all: Sigmund was the last kind. I shrank away from him and shook my head, but I didn’t cry. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“That’s okay. I haven’t told you yet. Maybe you won’t have to do anything. First I have to give you a little test.”
Even back then, I really liked tests. I was one of the only kids who got excited about pop quizzes. I perked right up.
He reached into his jacket and drew out a clear glass jar, like a baby food container, and held it up six inches from my face. Something inside the jar buzzed and writhed and made terrible muffled squealing noises: it seemed sort of like a wasp crossed with a spider, except it was endlessly turning itself inside out, wetly gleaming, and I retched and turned my head away.
“I take it from your pukey noises that you see something in here?”
“Ah ha. The jar looks empty to me. I had to take it on as associate’s word that there was anything inside here at all. What you’re looking at is, hmm, a sort of parasite . . . do you know what a parasite is?”
“Like . . . a worm that lives inside you and eats the food you eat?”
“Very like!” He beamed, and I was (then and always) enough of a good student to feel a flush of pride. “This parasite likes to cling to people, but it doesn’t eat food, it eats . . . bad thoughts. Except it also creates bad thoughts — it makes the people it clings to think hateful things, and sometimes they do hateful things, and, well.” He put the jar away. “That one I showed you is just a baby. Come on. We’re after a bigger one.”
“I don’t — ”
He shook his head. “It’s okay, you don’t have to do anything except look, and see, and point, okay? I can’t see the little monsters, but you can. I know there’s one somewhere in the school, but I can’t narrow down my search any more than that. This time-lock won’t last long, it’s big magic, sucking up a lot of resources, but it’s too late for a real-time operation. We didn’t have time to bring in a seer, either, and if we hadn’t sensed your psychic spark, you’d all be doomed, really. So come on. I guess you don’t see anything in here? This parasite would be big, maybe the size of a housecat, probably clinging to the back of someone’s neck.”
I looked around, but there was nothing like that . . . thing in the jar. Sigmund held out his hand, and I took it, and he dragged me at almost a run out of the room. We barged into all the other classrooms, the bathrooms, the teacher’s lounge, the principal’s office, the cafeteria, and the library, and he got more and more exasperated as I failed to find anything. “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I’m doing my best.”
“Shit, oh, sorry, swearing, um, it’s okay.” He paused outside the principal’s office, took a tiny vial out of his jacket, tipped a little bit of something white like baking soda onto the edge of his hand, and then snorted it up one nostril. He shivered all over and made a sound of
I frowned. “I think that’s drugs.”
“That’s what I said. Damn it, kid, this school isn’t that big, haven’t we looked everywhere? Who haven’t we seen?”
“Well, there’s the janitor, he’s got a shed out back by the playground where he keeps all his tools and stuff — ”
Sigmund grabbed my hand again and we ran through halls and then outside, onto the playground. The bubble of frozen time extended out here, too: there was a bird stuck in the gray sky like a piece of art pinned to a bulletin board. As I watched, though, the bird twitched, spurting forward one wingbeat’s worth before going still again. Sigmund moaned and dragged me even faster.
We reached the little wooden shed, and Sigmund hauled the door open. The janitor, who looked just a little bit older than a teenager, stood frozen amid sacks and tools and jugs and junk.
I whimpered, because the thing stuck to the janitor’s back was bigger than a housecat. It was as big as my little brother, and he was five years old and already weighed fifty pounds. The parasite wasn’t frozen in time: it turned itself inside out, too, all red and green and purple, and an open eye with a yellow iris drifted across the surface of its body, like a leaf floating along on a stream, and I swear it looked at me.
“You guys have a garden here?” Sigmund asked?
I looked at him, grateful to stop looking at the monster for a moment. “No.”
“I was afraid of that. That’s a lot of fertilizer piled up here. And cotton rags, and diesel fuel . . . yeah. This guy was gonna make a bomb. Or bombs.” Sigmund clucked his tongue. “He’s got a thing, right? Parasite? The noise you made, it sounded like a yes.”
I pointed at his back.
“Okee doke.” Sigmund reached into his jacket again — how did he have so many things in there? — and drew out a squat green plastic spray bottle, the kind you could fill with window cleaner or whatever. “This might stink. For you. Not me. I can’t smell it any more than I can see it.” He sprayed the contents of the bottle all over the man’s back, and wherever the droplets hit, the parasite writhed and turned black and shriveled up. It tried to get away, but it was stuck to the janitor’s neck, somehow, hooked in, and it couldn’t disentangle itself fast enough. The smell was like onions made of farts, and my eyes watered and I gagged. Sigmund glanced at me. “You have to let me know when it’s done, Kayla.”
“It — it’s all black. Just like black shreds. Black confetti.”
“Excellent.” He put the bottle away, and beamed at me again. He was only about a foot taller than me, it seemed like, because of how he hunched over. “Here you go. Payment for a job well done.” He reached into the jacket’s outer pocket and took out a few thick golden coins, dropping them one by one into my open hand. “Hide those good, you might need them someday.”
“Are they . . . magic?”
“Well, you can turn money into just about anything, so in that sense, sure, they’re practically alchemy, but no, they’re just metal. Really old metal, though, with interesting markings on them.” He hooked his arms under the janitor’s armpits and began dragging the boy backwards, like he was moving a mannequin out of a store.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
Sigmund sniffed again. “Oh, his blood is poisoned, so we’re going to give him . . . sort of a transfusion, sort of like dialysis. You know what that is?”
My aunt was diabetic, so I nodded.
“Right. We’ll fix him up, he’ll be back at work in a day or two, good as new. We’ll fake that he got hit by a car and was laid up in the hospital or something, don’t worry about him.” He disappeared out of the shed, but when I followed him, he was already gone. I could see a long way in every direction and couldn’t figure out how he’d vanished so fast, unless maybe he’d time-locked me, too. I looked at the coins in my hand. There were four of them, dark gold, old and worn, all the same, with a picture of a guy’s face in profile with leaves in his hair, and letters that I could almost but not quite read, except for an R and a V and maybe an F. (When I was in high school, I remembered about the coins, and found them in a shoebox with some ribbons and pretty rocks. I did some research, and found out they were Roman coins from around 30 AD. Selling them didn’t pay for my entire college experience, but I was careful, and they covered everything the scholarships didn’t.)
I pocketed the coins, and the birds were moving in the sky again, and I gasped, because I was out of class, and I would get in trouble.
I did get in trouble, but only for going to the bathroom without a hall pass, which wasn’t so bad. If anyone noticed me disappearing from my seat, poof, they had the good sense not to mention it. People are good at ignoring the impossible.
The janitor never came back. People said he’d probably run off with some girl.
That was my first job.
I was sixteen, and it was summer, and my parents had made noises about me getting a job, but I was studying a ton in a bid to graduate high school a year early, and they decided to let me do that instead. I was in the reading room at the local college library (where I wasn’t really supposed to be, as a high school townie, but they’d given up on trying to keep me out), where I was working on Latin translations as a treat, because they were so much easier than Greek.
A woman sat down across from me, and she wasn’t the kind of person you saw much in Pomegranate Grove, Georgia, even on campus. Bright red lipstick, model-pretty face, head shaved on one side, long braids in black and blue and green dangling down the other. She had these filigreed silver claw things on the ends of her fingers, and she tapped them on the table in front of me. They were surprisingly loud, and I thought someone would shush her, but no one seemed to notice. “Can you see and hear me?” she said.
I frowned. “Yes?”
Someone shushed me, and she smirked. “Good, then you are a seer. Kayla, right? You met one of my colleagues, what, three, four years ago?”
I’d half convinced myself that whole experience with Sigmund had been a bizarre daydream . . . except I did still see things, sometimes, that no one else seemed to. Never more parasites, but once a thing like a great bird made of dark smoke flapping through the sky, and once a woman who walked through the back wall of the grocery store like it was a beaded curtain, and once a luminous winged thing sleeping in the high branches of an oak tree. By then everyone had figured out I wasn’t just smart, but really smart — no one liked to say “genius” but I could see them thinking it — and I told myself that sometimes geniuses saw strange things. We couldn’t contain our creativity, that was all, so I shouldn’t worry about it.
Except of course I worried about it. I often wondered if I was schizophrenic . . . and now I was talking to a woman who no one else could seem to see or hear.
I scribbled the name “Sigmund” on a piece of paper and pushed it over to her.
She looked amused. She looked, frankly, like the sort of bitchy mean girl who was amused by everything. “Yeah, that’s him. He said you were helpful. I’m hoping you still are.”
I looked down at my book and whispered, “Whatever happened to that janitor?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about, and also I don’t care. Here, look at this thing.” She dropped what looked like a section of a human jawbone, complete with four teeth, on the table, and I must have jumped a little, because one of the other people studying glared at me. “Really look at it.”
I did as she said, and after a moment, the jawbone sort of shimmered, and I saw. . . . “There’s a thread,” I whispered, as quiet as I could. “Like, a silver thread, stretching from the jaw, and . . .” I followed its length. “Disappearing through the wall.”
“Hot damn. Sigmund said you were good even as a kid, and the gift usually gets stronger after puberty. I couldn’t even kill somebody with my thoughts until after I got my first period — back then I had to make do with a little maiming. None of the seers in our organization could do a thing with this. Our fugitive has too many obscuring spells clinging to him. Come on. I need you to follow this thread.”
“I can’t — I have . . . I can’t just go with you.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll make it worth your while. We’re not asking you to give to charity here.”
That’s when I remembered about the coins. “More spare change?” I said.
“Ha. A brick of cash, if you want, sure, but I was thinking you might want to learn a magic trick. Real magic.”
“I . . . what kind?”
“Depends how helpful you are.”
“Will this take long?”
“Nah. I have a ticket to the express line. You’ll see.” She beckoned. I was glad she didn’t take my hand, the way Sigmund had — those claws of hers looked vicious. When she stood up I saw she was dressed in bits of lace and spandex and not much else, and she was all bony hard angles. I usually coped with my body-image issues by studying so much I forgot I even had a body, but you couldn’t look at her without feeling fat . . . while also getting the sense she was thinking about how fat you were.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know? Mostly people call me Carlotta.”
Probably a made-up name, I thought, more nastily than usual for me. Probably her real name was Jane or Mildred or something.
“Stay close to me, we’re going to make some jumps.”
“What do you — ” I began, but when I took two steps after her, everything around us blurred, and we were standing in the college football field, which was hundreds of yards from the library. A practice was going on around us, but no one took notice of two women appearing on the field. “Which way?” She sounded bored and held up the jawbone for me to see.
The thread extended into the distance to the west. I pointed, she nodded, took a step, and everything blurred again. Now we were on the side of the highway, on the outskirts of town, easily five miles. “I — that’s amazing. The way we’re traveling. Can you teach me that?”
“What, the long walk? Nah, it’s an enchantment thing. I’ve got a charm for it. I’ll teach you something better. Where do you need to go anyway? You’re in the same spot you were five years ago.” She made a face. “You couldn’t pay me enough to live in this hick town, and I’m not even black. I don’t know how you stand it down here in cotton country.”
I stared at her. “I’m only sixteen. I live at home. This is where my parents live, where my family is from — ”
“I’m so glad I orphaned myself. Which way?”
We continued blurring, and it seemed like, with each step we took, the distances traveled got larger. We were moving mostly west, slightly north, and the sun began to visibly move in the sky. We mainly landed in empty spaces — fields, parking lots, woods — but once we stood on top of a skyscraper in the middle of some city, right on the edge of the roof, and I gasped with vertiginous shock. I whimpered — Carlotta snorted laughter at me — and I had to shut my eyes for the next step.
We finally ended up in a dusty place, with small scrubby plants all around us, and the silver thread extended from the jawbone and disappeared into the ground. I pointed, and Carlotta knelt, dug around in the sand, and found the edge of a wooden cover. She levered up the square of wood, sand cascading down, and revealed a concrete hole the size of a coffin underneath. Inside were rags and bones.
“Good job,” she said. “You’d make a good skiptracer. Give you a rag and a scrap and you could track down any fugitive. So. What do you want to learn?”
“I don’t know what the options are.” I tried not to think about what the rags in the hole had once been, or about whey Carlotta had needed to find them. Instead, I thought of magic. “Sigmund did a thing where he stopped time.” I was thinking that, if I could pause time, I could do more studying. I was that kind of teenager.
“Ha, no. Sigmund didn’t do that. He’s good with time, but not that way. We had this thing, like a clock if a clock were a flower, and… anyway, it wilted, it’s done, I can’t teach you that trick. Hmm. I could teach you to fly.”
I got dizzy climbing ladders, and being on that rooftop was horrific. “I don’t really want to fly.”
She sighed. “I can show you what I did, then, when I went to your library. How to be invisible, at least to most people. Yeah?”
“I… sure.” I’d had enough beer cans thrown at me from passing pickup trucks by rednecks for a lifetime, and once an old man had sicced his dogs on my brother and me because he didn’t like black kids on his street. Not to mention the stuff I had to deal with just because I was a girl — men shouting what they’d like to do with me, demanding I smile, calling me a stuck-up bitch if I tried to ignore them. I could see uses to being invisible.
I thought Carlotta would teach me an incantation or something, but instead she put those silver claw-fingernails to my temples, stared into my eyes, and exhaled a breath that smelled of peaches and burnt metal into my face.
It worked, though. I knew how to go unseen. It seemed so obvious, in retrospect.
“Okay, go home.” Carlotta made a shooing motion, and I felt something yank me backwards, every spot we’d passed flickering past me in reverse, at great speed, until I was back at the library, where I landed back in my chair with a thump and someone shushed me.
“You shush,” I said back loudly.
I was starting to get a taste for the work.
3. Recovery Specialist
I went to college young, in a city as far away from my parents as I could get without leaving the state, and my social life was pretty terrible. Sometimes guys would flirt with me, then find out I was only seventeen, and back away slowly or joke about how I should call them on my birthday. I was also woefully straightedge, not into drinking or drugs, because I’d discovered they did weird things to whatever “sight” I had: weed and booze intensified the visions, and if I got so much as tipsy I started to see these little flickers everywhere, like reality was a video stream over a spotty connection. I had already gathered there was more to life than what I could see, but I wasn’t ready to find out just what, or how much. It was enough to no the veil was there: I was too cautious to go around trying to pierce it unsupervised.
Between my reluctance to party and my basic introversion, I didn’t get out much, but that was okay: I was still a grade grind, and I lived in the library and the language lab. I did have a roommate, a pretty white girl who tried to include me in her social life (she never called me her “black friend,” at least, though I suspected her of thinking it), and she did indirectly lead me to my next job.
I didn’t need to work, because I had good academic scholarships and the proceeds from selling the coins in my bank account for living expenses, but when my roommate was freaked out about losing her phone (“It’s like I lost my brain somewhere, why didn’t I ever set up that tracking app?”) I decided to use the trick I’d used with Carlotta. I wasn’t sure it would work, as I didn’t have a piece of the phone, but my roommate was so attached to it, the thing might as well have been an extra appendage, so I gave it a shot. I concentrated, and focused my intention. There it was: a silver thread leading from her hand out through the wall.
I couldn’t blur through space on my own, but I also didn’t think I’d have to go thousands of miles, and indeed, I found her phone under a bush in one of the little gardens that made our campus so pleasant to walk through. That night I casually put it on her desk. She was astonished, and asked how I’d found it, and I said, “Oh, I have a knack for finding lost things.” She pressed me — I wanted to turn invisible then — until I blurted out, “I don’t know, sometimes I just get a sense, I can’t explain it — I’ve just always been able to find lost things.”
She must have mentioned my gift, because one of her friends made a point of loudly lamenting that she’d lost her favorite earrings, and I obligingly squinted at her ears and found a thread to follow, recovering the jewelry from behind the toilet in a bathroom stall. (I opted not to ask how she’d lost them in there. Probably better not to know.) I refused her offer of a reward, but she sent me a cheese and fruit basket anyway. (I know. Random. It was pretty good cheese though.)
From then on, I was a cottage industry. My gift didn’t always work — sometimes there was just no connection, no thread to follow, and I gradually came to understand that things people used or wore or touched a lot, or deeply cared about, created a connection I could use. I also just failed at a few searches deliberately, because I didn’t want a reputation for infallibility.
The whole thing started to get out of control, though, and I got a reputation as a spooky weird girl. Some people started snidely saying I probably stole things and then “found” them to get attention. I was enraged and humiliated at the suggestion, and though my roommate defended me, I could tell she wondered if I’d done exactly that. Now when people lost things, they’d accuse me of stealing them. I’d stupidly thought that leaving high school would mean leaving behind that kind of nastiness and gossip, as if surrounding yourself with twenty-year-olds instead of sixteen-year-olds would really make that much difference.
So I went invisible. I made myself unseen almost all the time, except when I was in class or needed to be seen at the language lab or had to talk to a librarian. I heard my roommate on her phone, talking to people about me when she didn’t realize I was in the room, speculating that I’d finally found a guy to “de-virginize” me and that’s why I was almost never in our dorm room anymore.
I started to hate everything.
Then, one day while I was sitting invisibly on a bench in a garden, a man who looked vaguely professorial — round-rimmed glasses, messy gray hair, a suit that had seen better days — sat down beside me. “I hear you’re good at finding things.”
I checked my spell, and it was active. He shouldn’t have been able to see me… but he did. Did that mean he was like me? A seer?
“I am,” he said. Then a pause. “Sorry. Shouldn’t snoop, wasn’t trying to, but the thought was right on top of your mind.”
I scooted away from him on the bench. “You can read minds?”
He seesawed his hand. “Eh, it’s more like looking into a pond. Sometimes you see fish moving around, sometimes you don’t. But, yes, that’s the main direction of my gift. I’m more interested in your specialty — finding things.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“I understand, but I think I can make you a good offer. You learned invisibility from someone — ah. Her? Really. She’s… a nasty piece of work.”
I gritted my teeth, then stood up. “Stay out of my head. I’m leaving.”
“All right, sorry, you’re right.” He made a placating gesture. My level of tolerance for old men taking liberties was pretty low, but he seemed genuinely contrite. I didn’t sit back down, but I didn’t leave, either. He seemed to know something of the twilight world I’d glimpsed, and I was always curious. It’s what made me such a good student, and so interested in languages — I hated the thought that there were texts out there I couldn’t read, knowledge I couldn’t access.
He said, “I want you to help me find a particular book. The problem is, the book is disguised. It probably looks like something boring, a forgotten monograph on soil acidity, something like that. The illusion is so good even you and I couldn’t penetrate it to read the true text. But you have this other power, to find things, yes? If you can lead me to the book, I can take it to people who can dispel the illusion.”
“Why should I help you?”
“Because I’ll tell you things.” He shrugged. “Give you answers. Like, that woman you did a job for? Carlotta? She belongs to a secret organization, called the Table. They used to be knights, sort of, but their mission has changed over the centuries. Nowadays they’re… magical mercenaries, more or less, doing dirty jobs for the highest bidder. Nothing is beneath them — murder, theft, regime change. I’m so sorry that you got dragged into their world . . . that they used you. Oh, my, from the time you were a girl. Monstrous.”
I’d gotten the sense that Carlotta and Sigmund were part of some kind of organized group, and it was easy to believe the woman was evil, but Sigmund? “No, Sigmund helped me, he saved my school from a bomber — ”
“Did he really? Or did he tell you there was going to be a bombing, and then kidnap a sick young man?”
He had a point. The janitor had never returned.
“The blood of those who’ve been parasitized has potent magical properties — very valuable to the unscrupulous.” He clucked his tongue. “Such an ugly business. Of course, extracting the tainted blood kills the host, but why would the Table care? They’ve slaughtered thousands over the centuries.”
I shivered. “Who are you?”
He smiled. “Call me Agapius.”
I snorted. “Greek philosopher, Neoplatonist, disciple of Proculus. You’ve aged well.”
He grinned at me. “You are learned.”
“I do old languages. It’s my thing.”
“How wonderful.” He patted the bench, and after a moment’s thought, I sat down. “I work for an organization called the Black Earth. Sounds a bit sinister, I know, but the name is more about the idea of fertile soil, you see? Bringing forth bounty.”
It did sound sinister. I remembered seeing, in history class, photos from a sunset town in Texas somewhere, with a banner hanging over main street that proclaimed proudly “The blackest earth, the whitest folk.”
Agapius went on. “We seek to collect and catalogue knowledge of the secret world. The text I’m looking for was the grimoire of a great natural philosopher-slash-alchemist, and if it contains the secrets we think it does, we could use it to make desert soil arable and feed millions of hungry people. Would you like to help?”
“I can’t just find things. There has to be some connection, either physical or from long contact — ”
He moved his left hand in a magician-ly flourish and suddenly held a plastic sleeve with a torn bit of paper maybe three inches wide and two inches high tucked inside. I saw spidery brown handwriting in a language I didn’t immediately recognize. . . . which was surprising. I would have bet good money there wasn’t a single written system of language I couldn’t identify at that point. (I had a lot to learn about the secret tongues back then.) I squinted, and there was a silver thread, stretching to the north.
“Shall we?” he said.
I’d been proud of helping Simgund that first time because I thought I’d been doing something good. Maybe I’d been wrong about him, but that desire to help was still present in me. “Can you teleport or whatever Carlotta did with me?”
“Not exactly that way, but something like. Where are we going?”
I pointed. He took a small notebook from his breast pocket, affixed reading glasses to his face, squinted, and read off a few harsh, guttural lines.
Everything went black, like we were birds in a cage that had been abruptly covered, but then light returned, and we were somewhere else, but still seated on the same bench. I looked around at the ancient gravestones on all sides. “Where are we?”
“Cemetery. The spell I used, it’s a bit of grave magic. There are connections among the dead that the living may follow. Fortunately, there are graves all over.”
Weird. I thumped the bench. “You had to bring this?”
He shrugged. “It helps to have a conveyance. Which way now?”
We hopped through half a dozen more graveyards, always heading north, until we reached a small town and the angle of the silver thread abruptly shifted east. “Let’s walk a bit,” Agapius suggested.
We strolled down sleepy country lanes for a while, past rock walls and apple trees. “Where is this?”
“New England somewhere.”
I shook my head. “I’ve never been out of the south. Well, except for helping Carlotta.”
“Stick with me, and you’ll see the world. More than that. You’ll save the world.”
The idea thrilled me as much at eighteen as it had at eleven.
We found a small town library in a stone building, and followed the thread inside. The librarian looked at me funny — not a lot of people of color in New Vermontshire or wherever we were, maybe, or just not in the company of white dudes two decades older? — but then shrugged and went back to her reading behind the desk. Our target was in the children’s section, and it looked like a beaten-up picture book from the ‘50s or something, a “Tour of the World” full of amazingly racist illustrations. Agapius took the little notebook from his pocket, read from another page, and the illusion flickered, for just an instant: the picture book became a thick volume bound in what looked like mottled, diseased skin. He breathed out, and his hands trembled. “Oh, well done, Kayla. This . . . yes. This is wonderful.”
He tucked the book away inside his jacket and we left without setting off any alarms, returning to the graveyard. He chattered about how delighted his colleagues would be by this acquisition, and what a valuable asset I’d proven myself to be. We sat on the bench and grave-leaped back to campus, where he bid me adieu.
I was so dizzy from the teleporting and the idea of helping the world that I didn’t even think to ask about payment. When I got back to my dorm, absentmindedly forgetting to make myself invisible, all my possessions were gone. My roommate looked at me, wounded. “You could have told me you were moving out, or at least warned me the movers were coming. I was in my underwear when they got here!”
An envelope on my desk held two sets of keys — one for a decent used car parked outside the dorm, with the title made out in my name tucked into the glove box. The other set of keys went with an address scrawled on a sheet of paper: a tiny but adorable cottage just north of campus. The Black Earth was taking care of me.
I helped Agapius off and on through the rest of my undergrad career, tracking down rare books, mostly, but sometimes strange magical components: urns and globes and orbs and salvers. After I graduated — I had to graduate, my parents would have never forgiven me — I decided against grad school and went to work for the Black Earth full time. They had a more interesting set of libraries than Columbia did anyway.
4. Food Truck Cashier
The summer after my junior year, when Agapius was off on an extended research trip, I was momentarily unemployed. A friend of mine in Atlanta ran a cupcake truck, and she needed someone to help her operate it one summer when there were about a million street fairs and festivals going on. She paid me in cupcakes, as per my request. The red velvet remains the best thing I have ever tasted, and I’ve tasted a lot of things.
Sure it was magical. There are all different kinds of magical.
5. Double Agent
“We’d like to give you a promotion.” Agapius smiled at me across my kitchen table. I’d been working for the Black Earth full-time for three years, though Agapius was still the only one I’d ever met. Occasionally, on my infrequent visits to the Archive — their headquarters — I caught glimpses of figures in dark robes, but they were obscured by deep magics that not even my psychic abilities could see through. There were soaring shelves of books there, cavernous cathedral rooms full of ancient volumes, and every once in a while Agapius let me peruse a few books (I’d learned angelic, demonic, and nephilimic scripts that way, and gained a passing familiarity with the mysterious mystic language known as Aklo), but most of the books were locked away behind transparent cages of force, and I wasn’t permitted to touch them.
I leaned forward. “Will I get access to the stacks?”
“Better. You’ll get access to the Table’s library. There’s a book there we desperately need. It’s crucial for the great work.”
I nodded. The “Great Work” was making the world Eden again, basically. Conjuring up enough food, enough water, enough fuel, enough everything, for everyone, to ensure there would never again be war or strife, because why would anyone need to fight, when everyone had everything? The Black Earth wanted to make the world a paradise. At first Agapius had promised incremental progress, gardens in the desert in such, but later he said the interlocking systems were so complex that in order to make paradise eternal and self-sustaining they’d have to do all the magic at once . . . and we were very close to pulling it off.
“This is literally the final piece, an ancient spell some say was written by God’s half-sister herself. I didn’t realize the Table had stolen the scroll, but all my researches point that way. None of our other agents can get into their library . . . but you have a relationship with them, you see?” He explained his plan, and it was scary, but also exciting: like being a spy, a secret agent, and a cat burglar all at once.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
Five months later, dressed in ragged traveling clothes with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I pounded a precise rhythmic tattoo on a brass door in a city underneath another city, neither of them on any map anyone in the mundane world had ever heard of.
The door swung open, and Sigmund was there, looking a bit older, and a lot smaller, than last time I’d seen him. I grinned at him, said, “I found you,” and then collapsed face-forward in a faint I didn’t even have to fake. He caught me. Somehow, I’d known he would.
I woke up in a small stone room that might have been a cell but was more like a monk’s quarters. Sigmund sat in a chair at the edge of the bed, his knee bouncing up and down in an endless jitter, and I wondered if he still did cocaine. “Kayla. What are you doing here? Oh, here.” He handed me a stone cup of water, and I sipped: it was cold and tasted like the deep Earth.
I gave him a wobbly smile. “I’m good at finding things. You — you and Carlotta — you showed me magic. Did you think I could just live without it?”
He stuck his finger in his ear and twiddled it unselfconsciously. “Well, no. We thought we’d wait to recruit you until you finished grad school, when you had a good grounding in languages, but then we lost track of you, and . . .” He shrugged. “It’s been busy here. Our, ah, leader, I guess you’d say, the head of our order, he passed away suddenly, and the new boss has been running us ragged. Recruitment has been low on our list of priorities.” He smiled, all toothy goofiness, and I tried to think of him as a murderous mercenary who’d drained the blood from my school janitor for profit. It was hard. “You found us, though, huh? You are good.”
I laid out the trail I’d followed — a totally plausible one concocted with Agapius’s help — tracing the Table through various rare texts, darknet websites, and inhuman sources of intel. I’d legitimately spent almost half a year hiking, hitchhiking, and teleporting around the magical underworld, following clues I knew would be just where I looked for them. The result was that I looked like a simply amazing tracker, and I could tell Sigmund was impressed.
“I’d like to introduce you to my boss,” he said. “Let me make that happen.”
An hour later I sat in a much larger stone room, looking across a rickety card table very much at odds with the chamber’s grandeur, at a young woman with ferocious eyes. She was called the New Doctor (I opted not to make a Doctor Who joke), and was the leader of the Table. “I’m told you can find things,” she said. “It’s fairly impressive that you found us, so I believe it. You want to join the Table?”
“The only time my life felt real and important was when I helped Sigmund and Carlotta.” I shrugged. “I want to feel real and important all the time.”
It was hard to focus on her face, because I could see a silver thread stretching through the air behind her, connected to the tome that Agapius wanted me to steal. He’d shown me a withered, severed hand — the hand that had written the book, apparently — and the connection was strong, the trail clear. Sigmund was lounging against the wall and the thread disappeared right into his chest.
The New Doctor was talking about quests, and grails, and relics, and how I might be able to help them find something that could lead to something else that could lead to something else, and so on, until they found the ultimate object of their quest, but I wasn’t really listening. I kept looking toward the thread, and every time, I caught Sigmund looking at me.
“Would you like a little tour?” the New Doctor said. “Sigmund tells me you’re interested in books and old texts.”
“I’d love that.” Would this be that easy? I’d been prepared for deep cover, to live and work here for months if necessary. I felt a stab of guilt. Sigmund had initiated me into the world of magic, his colleague had taught me to become invisible, and now his boss was going to let me see their secrets. I was going to betray them, and work against them. Was this a job I wanted to do?
I hardened my resolve, and reminded myself that Sigmund had lied: the janitor hadn’t come back.
Sigmund beckoned and led me through doorways, following the path of the thread, though he didn’t know it. We passed row after row of bookshelves, and there were people working in the stacks, young and old, not sparkling in and out of existence like the researched at the Black Earth’s archive did.
“Our librarians,” Sigmund said. “I was supposed to be a researcher like them — that’s really where my talents lie — but I wanted to be a field agent instead. I don’t regret it, but it’s not for everybody. I wonder if you’d like it? All that secret agent junk?”
“I just want to learn,” I said. “And fix the broken world.”
He nodded like I’d said something profound. “Come on, I’ll show you the rare book room. I mean, they’re all rare, but these are really rare.” He took a heavy keyring and opened an iron door, ushering me into a small room that held three shelves, one of gold, one of brass, and one of silver. Each held a handful of books and scrolls. . . . and the silver thread ran straight to a wooden scroll case halfway up the golden shelf.
I had tiny stones in my pocket, enchanted with destructive magics and obscuring magics to hide their destructive powers, and I started to reach for them . . . when a man came around one of the shelves, pushing a broom.
“Oh, look, an old friend of yours,” Sigmund said. “Well, an acquaintance, anyway.”
“Hey.” He was older, but I recognized him, because I’d seen him on the most memorable day of my life: it was the janitor from my school. “Kayla, right? Sigmund said I might bump into you. Thanks for saving my life. For saving my soul. The things I was thinking about doing . . .” He shuddered. “You changed everything.” He smiled, then pushed his broom past me and on out of the room.
I closed my eyes. I felt like everything was spinning.
“So Kayla,” Sigmund said gently. “Remember when I said my power was suited to being a researcher? The thing about me is, I can look into the past. When you showed up at the door, I looked into your past, and I saw someone I recognized. Someone . . . well.” He reached out and touched the scroll connected to the silver thread. “Did he send you for this?”
I nodded. “He said we needed it to make the world perfect.”
“Oh, honey,” he said. “Oh, Kayla, you sweet kid.”
“He calls himself Agapius? Ha.” Carlotta snorted. “A gaping asshole, more like.”
“There is no organization called ‘the Black Earth.’” Sigmund said. We were sitting on overstuffed couches in some kind of lounge, far less austere and grand than everything else I’d seen at the Table’s headquarters.
“But I saw other people . . . well, or flickers of them.”
“Shades,” Sigmund said. “Enslaved spirits of the dead. The man you know as Agapius is a . . . well, not to sound ridiculous, but he’s a necromancer. He wants to rule the world, but not the living world. There are more dead people than living, even using a pretty strict definition of ‘people,’ and Agapius wants to . . . flip the poles of reality. Send the living into a shadowy underworld, and transform the Earth into a world of the dead.”
“Because he’s crazy as fuck and everyone he ever cared about has been dead for centuries, mainly,” Carlotta said. “That thing you came to steal is the last bit of magic he needs to make his nuthouse dreams come true.”
“Look.” Sigmund unrolled the scroll I’d been sent to retrieve on the table. “Can you read this?”
It was a jumble of languages, including a few non-human ones, but I was good at those, and I could make out most of it. A shadow empire . . . the graves pour forth . . . the dead usurp the living . . . I moaned. I thought of the magic Agapius had shown me: traveling through graveyards, speaking to ghosts, draining energy from the living around me to give myself strength. “Oh, no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I didn’t . . . he told me . . . I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Carlotta said. “Fix it.”
Sigmund glared at her. “You don’t have to, Kayla. You don’t have to do anything. But if you wanted to. . . . You could help.”
Agapius had lied to me, and almost made me ruin the world. I gritted my teeth. “As long as helping hurts him.”
I stumbled into the Archive with soot smeared on my face, and held out the scroll with trembling hands. “Here. I . . . it nearly . . . here.”
Agapius smiled, and it wasn’t a nice smile. He snatched the scroll case out of my hands and removed the contents reverently. He gestured, and suddenly the room changed, illusions even my perception hadn’t penetrated falling away to reveal a great round chamber festooned with bones, candles, orbs, urns, dying vines, and unidentifiable objects that made my eyes water when I tried to look at them. “Oh, yes,” he cooed. “Oh, yes, this will do.”
I stared around. “Agapius? What is this place?”
“The throne room of my new kingdom.”
“What — what are you talking about?”
Some part of me, deep down, had held out hope that the Table was lying, and that Agapius was what he’d claimed to be. When he looked at me now, his face was changed: the flesh rotting and greenish, his teeth yellow and black. He was dead, or so connected to the dead he’d taken on their features. “You stupid girl. You were so easy to lead. Soon you’ll be in Hell with the rest of the living.”
I started toward him, but two hooded figures materialized from the air. They grabbed me with hands that felt like icy wind, but were firm enough to hold me in place. Agapius stepped to the center of the chamber, held up the scroll, and began to intone the words written there.
The words the New Doctor, herself a dab hand with strange languages, had written on an otherwise exact copy of the real scroll.
Power gathered. Dark clouds swirled around Agapius, flickering with red lightnings. His voice rose as he neared the end of the incantation —
And cut off abruptly when a magical cage, just large enough to contain him, appeared, its bars shimmering and opalescent. He screamed and shook the bars, then hissed, drawing his smoking hands back.
The incantation had transported Sigmund and Carlotta here, too, and they sauntered in from the shadows. Carlotta pricked the spirits holding me with her talons and they vanished in puffs of smoke. Sigmund, limping a little, stood in front of Agapius’s cage and squinted at him. “Wow,” he said. “You have had a very long and very horrible life. I almost feel sorry for you.”
“What happens now?” I said.
Carlotta looked me up and down. “If it were up to me, we’d drop your ass back in Georgia and leave you to a life of boring mediocrity.” She shrugged. “But Sigmund convinced the New Doctor you were worth some trouble, so what happens next is . . . a job interview.”
6. Junior Assistant Librarian
I sat curled up in one corner of the bed in the monastic cell at the Table’s headquarters, staring at nothing, thinking of the lies that had defined the last few years of my life. “I only wanted to make the world perfect.”
“We . . . can’t do that.” Sigmund sat on a chair beside me. He sucked air in through his teeth. “Perfect? The idea sounds kind of terrible to me. In a perfect world, where do I fit in? I’m a total mess. But, Kayla . . . we can make the world better.”
“How? What are you trying to do, really? Agapius told me you were mercenaries, but . . .”
“Ah.” He looked past me for a moment. “The best lie has some truth at the heart. We do hire ourselves out, sometimes, but only to raise funds for our real purpose. The Table began as a religious order, but not a religion you’ve ever heard of. Our goal . . . we’re trying to track down God. Not Allah, or Zeus, or Jehovah — the forgotten God who made the world, and then turned and walked away from Its creation. We have some relics, though, and if you can follow the trail of those relics to some other relics, they might, eventually, lead us to something God touched Itself.”
To touch something touched by someone who’d touched something touched by God? What a thing even that would be. “And what then?”
“We believe, if we can find God, we can ask It questions . . . and compel Its answers.”
I stared at him. “But . . . then we could know . . . we could understand . . .”
Sigmund shrugged. “Everything.” He unleashed that toothy grin at me again. “Want to help?”
I’ve worked here ever since, and hope to remain until the end of my life or the end of the world, whichever comes first.
About the Author
Tim Pratt is the author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera trilogy. His multiverse adventure novel Doors of Sleep, beginning a new series, is out in January 2021. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.