A high school student finds a grimoire that shows how to make magical disguises.
|Previously: "The Fake Book"
With a deep breath you draw your pocketknife along your thumb. It hurts like hell, but to no effect. You grit your teeth and cut deeper, until blood wells out. You spread it over your thumbprint and press it onto the sigil.
You hear a faint, almost imperceptible snapping sound.
You hold your breath, and try turning the "warnings" page. It sticks to your bloody thumb and comes away easily, revealing a new page, also covered in Latin script, showing a diagram of what appears to be an old-fashioned tragedian mask. This new page, however, resolutely refuses to pull away from the rest of the book.
Hmm. You've begun to see a pattern: the book will yield a new page only after some action has been performed. Purchasing the book apparently opened the "warning" page; "signing" it unlocked the first spell. This means you can safely stop delving into at any point, just by not performing the action that will unlock a new page.
You stay up past midnight, and wake early, studying this first spell. It opens with a list of ingredients, which the magic doesn't prevent you from jotting down. Most of them seem very obscure. What does it mean, for instance, when it asks you to procure "celeriter"? That you should purchase the ingredients quickly?
With a groan you put the book aside and get ready for school.
* * * * *
"You talk to your dad about that job at his company?"
It's just before first period, and Caleb Johansson, your best friend since third grade, has materialized at your locker. He peers at you with that jutting-chin stare he uses when he thinks someone is screwing him over.
"I'll ask him this weekend."
"How about you ask him tonight, then give me a call?"
"You can't wait till this weekend?"
"You sure you're not angling for the job yourself?"
So that's why he's got his chin out. "I told you I don't want it, and I don't know why you do either. It'll just be file work."
"But it's a foot in the door, and I wanna make some contacts. A job at Salopek is, like, a major in."
You grunt. You've never paid much attention to your dad's company, which is some kind of aerospace contractor. But Caleb is deeply into science and engineering; he's the kind of kid who had motorized Lego sets when he was only nine.
"Make you a deal," you reply. "I'll talk to him tonight if you talk to Lisa today."
"Oh, so you haven't talked to her yet. Jesus, I asked you Monday to pump her for me."
"Well, it's hard," he mutters. "She's not dumb. She'll know you're the one who wants to know why she broke up with you."
"And that's why she'll talk to you," you retort. "The way I figure, girls only think they want to spare a guy's feelings. Actually, they just don't wanna be the ones to tell you themselves." You shove one set of books into your locker and yank out another. "So she'll talk to you, because she knows it'll get back to me."
You glance at Caleb: his eyes are wide, and for a moment you think that he must find your observation deeply perceptive. Then you see he's looking over your shoulder. "Molester at three o'clock," he mumbles, and turns around. Smoothly, you drop to the floor and pretend to fiddle with the locker under yours.
As you'd hoped, Lester Pozniak, soccer goalie and bully, passes without stopping.
* * * * *
You go to the college library after school to look for books on Latin and magic. Most are useless, but you find one that relieves your puzzlement about "celeriter": it tells you that certain writers whose grasp of Latin was flimsy would append it to "calx" to make clear they were referring to "quicklime." Ah, so the spell wasn't asking for a pebble when it used the latter word. Still, it's no relief to discover the book's author was no better at Latin than you are. You're playing with something dangerous, possibly under the direction of an incompetent.
You spend the evening—in those moments when Caleb isn't texting you reminders about talking to your dad—puzzling through the rest of the spell. Fortunately, it doesn't look like the first item will be hard to craft. Basically, you just have to buy some stuff, mix it together, pour it over a convex mirror, then put a match to it.
Still, you have to wonder where you're going to find some of the ingredients. You're pondering the kinds of stores you'll need to visit when you hear a sudden rushing of feet and slamming of doors. You idly wonder what Robert is up to as water runs through pipes. The toilet? No. The shower? No. The water shuts off; a door is nearly yanked off its hinges; feet are bounding down the stairs.
Oh my God, it must be—
You run for your own door, pausing just long enough to run your fingers through your coarse blonde hair. You briefly consider changing shirts, but you don't want Robert down there alone for too long. You yourself hit the turn on the landing in only six steps, crashing against Robert as leans over the balustrade.
Your cousin Umeko is talking to your mother. She glances up and smiles at you.
You straighten back on your heels. "Hey," you say in a voice pitched half an octave lower than normal.
Her eye glints. "Hey yourself," she replies in a voice deeper than usual. "Caught a bullfrog, huh?"
"Oh." You fake a little cough. "Just a touch of something." Robert looks up at you incredulously; you surreptitiously kick him in the shin.
"Honey, are you coming down with a cold?" you mother asks.
"No, it's— it's nothing," you say, clearing your throat. "Just some dust." But she's already bustled into the kitchen.
Robert bounds down into the living room; you follow at a more grown-up pace. "You doing anything this weekend," he asks Umeko eagerly.
"I wanted to see that new CGI movie. But you're probably a little old to be watching cartoons," she replies.
You snort in a very adult manner—of course you're too grown up for that. But Robert nods eagerly. "I'd love to go if you are!"
"Great," she says, and you freeze. "How about we hit the early showing?" She looks at you mischievously. "I'm sorry you're not interested."
You're still trying to figure a way out of this self-sprung trap when your mother returns and presses a lot of pills into your hand. Then you can only mumble and listen as she and Umeko discuss a piano-flute duet they're to perform in church next Sunday. You'd love an excuse to practice anything with Umeko: She's a year older than you but has a poise beyond that; and taboos about cousins—whether adopted (as Umeko was) or not—can't relieve the crush you've had on her since she taught you how to kiss at age thirteen.
Before leaving she flirts a little more with Robert, who glows, then turns back at you. "I hope you feel better," she says.
"I'll be fine." You glance at the pills, which are now slightly sticky in your palm. "Do you know any natural remedies?"
The light in her eyes cools slightly at you accidental, oblique reference to a heritage that isn't really hers. "I'm not a shaman," she says. "Maybe you'd better spend the weekend in bed."
* * * * *
Instead, you spend Saturday hitting art supply stores, greenhouses, and other places you don't usually haunt; and unless you've misunderstood things, you get everything you need. Early that evening you move your desk in front of an open window, turn on an electric fan, draw the requisite sigil on a sheet of paper, and start mixing. As you drop the ice cubes into the dry ingredients you wryly wonder how old-timey magicians performed the spell back when most houses lacked freezers. The thought vanishes as the mix starts to smoke and pop and bang loudly.
Crap, you think as you dive away. What if you blow up the house? Or, worse, just your own room? The bowl quivers and shudders as clouds of smoke billow out. An acrid odor pours into the room.
Footsteps sound on the stairs; without knocking, your father bursts in. "What the hell? Oh, God!" He covers his nose; Robert peeks over his shoulder.
"Science project?" you say through a ghastly grin.
"Since when are you taking Chemistry?"
"I'm helping out Caleb?"
Your father's lips whiten. "Do you know what he's doing? Oh, never mind that. Does Caleb know what he's doing?"
"I think so."
Your dad lets out a long, weary exhale of the sort you know so well. He glowers, then with a shake of his head leaves you to it.
There's still another step. You set the mirror on the sigil and pour the bubbling mixture over it. It hardens almost instantly, and you put a match to it.
For fifteen minutes ghostly blue flames dance over the still-forming mask. When they wink out, the hardened mixture is a dull grey color and cool to the touch. Gingerly, you pull it off the mirror.
It has a feel like alabaster. You are running your fingers lightly over it when it twists from your hand and bounces harmlessly off the carpeted floor; when you pick it up, it has changed shape, from a smooth and regular half-globe into something like the mold of a face. Carefully, you set it against your own face. Nothing happens, but you are surprised to find how neatly it fits against your chin, cheekbones, and forehead.
The last step is to "polish" it, so you clean up the mess and flop onto your bed with the mask and a cloth. The spell is vague about how much polishing is needed, and after a few minutes work, you put a movie into your laptop so you have something to watch while your fingers mindlessly rub the mask.
Two hours later, the mask doesn't look any different, and still nothing happens when you put it to your own face. Maybe you should bring in a confidante, someone who knows something about chemistry.
* To keep the book a secret: "The Solo Magician"
* To show the book to your best friend: "A Conspiracy of Two"
* To show the book to someone else: "The Search for Support"