A high school student finds a grimoire that shows how to make magical disguises.
|Previously: "The Book of Masks: Archives"
As you approach, Ted Arnholm glances up from the stack of books he's marking. "I can't find the price," you say as you set the strange book in front of him. "How much?"
He regards you with a mildly skeptical expression before turning his attention to the book, and with his thick wooden pencil circles a faint number in the upper right-hand corner of the title page: $225. You face falls. "A little out of your price range?" he asks with gentle sarcasm.
You start to take the book up again, but he stops you. With a white, bony finger he points to a spot on the inside of the front cover. "Water damage. I can take a bit off for that." He slashes the pencil through the original price and scribbles "$200" in its place. You make a face. "Did you get this out of the special collections case?" he asks.
"The cabinet door was unlocked," you protest.
He grimaces through his white beard. "Lemme check for other damage." Arnholm, you've found, isn't a very nice man, but he's a fair one: He won't let the book go for as little as you can afford, but he might try driving the price as low as he thinks he can bear. You wilt and glance absent-mindedly at the rows of used D&D manuals that line the top shelf of the store's "Games" section.
"Tom," he suddenly barks, and his brother pokes his head out from behind a shelf. "Who's the joker that glued this book's pages shut?"
You look over as Tom Arnholm hurries up. Ted is shaking the book and vainly trying to flip its pages, but even his thick, yellowed thumbnail cannot pry the pages apart.
Tom takes the book from his brother and also gives it a go without success. He tries peeling pages back one at a time, but only the title page will yield. The others are so tightly bound together that the book itself might be a clever fake carved from wood.
"Was it like this when you cataloged it?" Tom asks.
"No, it wasn't like this when I cataloged it," Ted retorts peevishly. "I wouldn't have cataloged it if I'd seen it was in this state." Tom looks over at you, suspiciously, but Ted continues. "I don't even remember cataloging it. I assumed you did."
"I don't remember it. Maybe it came from the Blackwell acquisition. Mitch did the work on those."
Ted Arnholm looks relieved: a victim has been found and will be summarily executed. He gives you a po-faced glance and then inserts a decimal point between the "2" and the "0" in the price. "Might make a nice bookend," he says bitterly.
You part with a single dollar and some coins, and almost dance out of the store.
* * * * *
You don't live on the outskirts of Saratoga Falls, exactly, but it's still a good twenty-minute drive back to your house. Actually, you don't even live in Saratoga Falls, but in the township of Acheson. A hundred and thirty years ago, the two villages were separated by many miles, but the former mushroomed in size after the railroad went through. It has since grown to nearly engulf Acheson, and the latter now exists mostly as a bedroom community for the well-to-do who want the amenities of a town while still living on the edge of the countryside.
You give the engine of your truck a hard gunning as you pull into the driveway, startling your thirteen-year-old brother, who's fixing his bike. He gives you the finger as you hop out of the cab. "You know, they got satellites sharp enough to spot that kind of shit," you say as you slap at his hand with the book. "One of these days, they'll snap a picture and pop it up on a big screen at NASA, and Dad will freakwhen he sees you." Your father is an aerospace engineer.
Robert ignores you and snatches at the book. "Whatcha get?"
"Something for school. When's supper?"
"I dunno. Lemme see that." You hold the book out of his reach and saunter over to the front door. "Is it porn?" he asks eagerly. "I bet it's porn."
"If so, it's your kind of porn." You drop the book and he catches it, and frowns as he tries to flip the pages.
"It isn't even a real book," he exclaims.
"Like I said, it's the kind of porn you deserve." You try to snatch it back, but he yanks the book away. So you grab him around the waist and thrown him into the yard. The book bounces off, forgotten for the moment, as you wrestle.
* * * * *
Up in your room, you flop on the bed and flip on the TV to waste a little time before dinner; your mother had chased you out of the kitchen when you tried getting an early sample of the spaghetti sauce. The strange book is by your elbow, so you pick it up and glance at it casually as commercials play. To your surprise, you see that a page has turned loose: the blank page behind the title page now flips easily, revealing a hitherto hidden page of text. You examine the sheets carefully, but can find no trace of glue residue. The other pages, though, remain tightly sealed together.
Losing interest in the TV, you sit up and stare carefully at your discovery. By tracing your fingers over the elaborate decorations on the title page, you are able make out individual letters. You can only discern one word, but to your excitement it is the word "Magus." You turn to the newly uncovered page and find it covered in an intricate but readable Gothic script. It is, however, written in Latin. You've a smattering of knowledge of the tongue from a high school class in the subject, and you quickly pull up a Latin-English translator on your laptop. Then, with a notebook by your side, you start to copy down a translation.
To your surprise and dismay you find that the words you scribble disappear almost as soon as you set them down. Pens and pencils leave no trace—not even a crease or indentation—on the page. You open a word processor, but it freezes and crashes when you try typing into it. Even the browser you're using to make the translations becomes glitchy when you try putting large blocks of type into it. The hairs on the back of your neck are soon standing on end.
Your dad will not be coming home for supper, so you beg off joining your mother and brother at the dining room table and take your plate upstairs, where between mouthfuls of pasta you doggedly set about deciphering the page. It's laborious work, because you have to memorize the translations as you go. The hands on the clock are pointed to eleven before you feel you've gained a rudimentary grasp of what it says.
It's a book about masks and disguises. You can make out only a little of its meaning, but from what you can tell, it's a handbook for the creation of tools that will give their possessors the ability to change their forms and appearances beyond recognition. There are also copious warnings and cautions about the penalties of deceit and the risks of using the book without full understanding. And it closes with the exhortation not to "sign" the book in a light-hearted spirit.
Sign the book? You frown.
As you turn back to the title page, you see that the inside cover is no longer blank: a brief sentence has mysteriously appeared, along with a strange and vaguely disquieting symbol. The translation is easy enough, though:
Claim me with money [denarii]; possess me with blood.
Your eye drifts down to the odd sigil. Your blood chills when you suddenly recognized it as the stylized form of a thumbprint.
You gulp. Well, if anything is going to drain the lightness from your spirit ...
* To keep exploring the book: "Making a Mask"
* To return the book to the bookstore: "The Desperate Collector"
* To get rid of the book another way: "In Which You Try to Wash Your Hands of It All"
* To show it to your dad: "Opinions Sought, and Opinions Unwelcome"
* To bury the book in your room and forget about it: "A Day That Starts Like Any Other"