I am returning to a character that I know I’m going to come back to in the future, even after this project is done. My favorite urban wizard… sorry… “ritual practitioner,” Dominic. Who would probably be offended by the implication of the phrase “urban” wizard, since he’s African American (and also, not a wizard. Though now I absolutely have to work that line into a future story. Odd how, so far, my favorite characters are the spirit of a Pakistani woman from a strict Muslim culture, a black ritualist, and an Asian lesbian homicide detective (she’s coming back, too, and I think all three are going to meet, eventually). And me with all my straight, cis-hetero, white, male privilege. I’m sure nothing can ever go wrong with that.
Anyway, enjoy Dom’s continuing adventures!
A Diner in OZ, 3 am
It was at the point that the kid said, “you’re a wizard, Harry,” to Dominic that he had decided he’d had enough of this conversation. He pressed his fingers to his sinuses in the universal sign of fed-uppedness while his late-night (early morning?) breakfast cooled. The diner was sparsely populated, mostly by drunks realizing that their evening was over and that the hangover was coming.
“I am not,” he said, “a wizard.”
“But you, you know.” He mimed flicking a wand around in the air. “Poof, magic, right?”
“I saw you in that alley. When you made that scary dude vanish in the fire circle?”
“That was a ritual that I’d spent a better part of the day preparing and you almost fucked it up.”
“That guy was a demon or something, right?” The kid was far too excited and speaking far too loudly for Dom’s taste.
“Okay,” he said, “three things. One, keep your voice down, because the drunks think we’re the weird ones. Two, demons aren’t real. Three, and this is critical, I am not a wizard—there are no wizards.”
“Then what are you?”
“I am a practitioner of ritual magic.” Dom said.
“So, you do do magic.”
“Yes, I guess.”
“And how does that not make you a wizard?”
“Because magic isn’t something that you do with faux-Latin words and a stick. Magic takes rituals, and rituals take practice. Hence, ‘ritual practitioner.’”
“I don’t know, seems like you may as well be a called a wizard.”
Dominic clenched his fists. If only I were a wizard, I’d set you on fire right now, you little piece of sh-
“But, anyway, you still made that demon thing vanish with magic.”
“It was a spirit. And what’s your point?”
“I,” the kid said, “am producing a podcast, and it would be awesome to have an interview with a real wiz.. uh… ‘practitioner.’”
“Can you at least use ‘ritualist?’ ‘Practitioner’ is sort of offensive.”
“Is that like the n-word?” The kid, to his credit, cringed immediately. “Sorry, brother… I mean, sorry my man. Or, just man.”
“Get on with it.”
“Uh… right, the podcast. I’m covering local lore, and, well, I kind of saw the real deal.”
“That monster in the alley was something called ‘the Long Man.’ He’s supposed to be, like, a demon who was summoned during a botched sacrifice by some kids in the fifties when—”
“He,” Dominic said, “was the spirit of a homeless man who died in that alley ten years ago.”
“Cancer. And a bunch of other issues. That alley was the only home he ever knew, and he was having a hard time leaving it.”
Dom shrugged. “We could all only be so lucky.”
“Why’d you banish him?”
“He asked. Politely.”
“Kind of kills the Long Man story.”
“Eh, I’ll just make some shit up. Oh!” He snapped his fingers.
“You can be the focus of my podcast!”
“No goddamn way.”
“I could shadow you and learn all about the magic arts. Maybe you could even teach me some.”
“That’s isn’t how any of this works.”
“Meeting you was fate!”
“Okay, fine. I see where this is going.” Dom unscrewed the top of the table’s salt shaker.
“I might even be the next, I dunno, chosen one or something.” The kid pulled a recorder from his bag and fiddled with it. “I could at least play that angle for the story. Blend of reality and fiction.” Dom carefully poured the salt around the kid’s untouched coffee mug, then shaped the salt circle into an octagon with his finger.
“What’re you doing?” the kid asked.
“You want to learn some basic magic?”
“Great. Lesson one of one: every ritual involves at least two components.”
“Wait, wait!” The kid grabbed a notepad and pen from his backpack. Dom paused dutifully until the kid was ready.
“There’s a sympathetic component,” at this, he produced a flask and poured its contents into the coffee, “and the symbolic component.” Dominic adjusted the salt octagon around the mug.
“Sympathetic… symbolic” the kid muttered, writing.
“Drink this coffee,” Dom said.
“What, with the booze in it?”
“Booze is also called a ‘spirit,’ a common linguistic designation that forms a sympathetic bond between the drinker and the spirit world. Plus, drunk people tend to experience the world differently.”
“Do I have to get drunk.”
Dom sighed. “Sympathetic doesn’t mean literal.”
“Is this going to make me see ghosts?” Without waiting for confirmation, he chugged the coffee.
“Yes. LSD or peyote would be better, but that’s hardly diner fare.”
“And the salt octagon?”
“That’s the symbolic part.”
“Like, uh… are there eight planes of the dead or something?”
“No. People expect mystical circles of salt. It actually doesn’t do shit, you just think it does.”
“When will it work?”
“Soon enough. I mean, it works right away, just, there might not be any spirits nearby. Oh, and,” he said off-handedly, “since people tend to drink to forget, you won’t remember any of this conversation later.”
“But I’m recording it.”
“Yeah,” Dom said, “about that. Magic came before technology. That will ‘forget,’ too, because it’s yours and the spell works on you.”
“That’s not coo—” The kid looked past Dom to the front door. “Oh shit.”
“It’s working, but… what kind of ghost is that?”
Dom turned. Any amusement at the kid’s situation fled as he saw the entity at the front of the diner. None of the other patrons reacted; only he and the kid could see it. Rippled in the air, as if they were looking at in an aquarium.
“That’s not a ghost.”
“Is it real?”
The thing turned what could generously be called its face to their table, and Dominic swore under his breath. It looked like a cross between a jellyfish and the rotted remains of the upper torso of a murder victim, left underwater for at least a decade. The human-ish skull’s jaw hinged open, and a raspy voice scratched and burbled.
“Did the Snake send you?”
“You haaaaave stolen knowledge that doesssssn’t belong to youuuuu.”
“Right, definitely the Snake.”
“Kid,” Dom said with forced calm, “now would be a very good time for you to clear out of here.”
Dom stood, grabbed the kid by his collar, and yanked him out of the booth. “Move. Back exit. Now.” The kid moved. The waitress behind the diner managed a quick “hey” as he ran past her, through the kitchen.
“What’s his problem,” she asked Dom. Dom shrugged, not taking his eyes off the Snake’s hired muscle. A bloated purple tongue, or a close enough approximation to one, wormed out of its mouth and lapped at its nonexistent lips.
“This’ll cover me and the kid,” Dom said to her, not taking his eyes off the monster and placing an old shopping receipt on the table.
“I’ll be right back with your change,” she said, scooping up the receipt, unable to pierce the veil of the magic that made her think it was money.
“Keep it.” She smiled at him.
He hated wasting the enchantment it on cheap diner food, but there were more pressing issues. “I’m just leaving,” he said, more to the entity than the waitress, “and heading outside.”
“Well, you have a good night, darlin’,” she responded.
“Uh-huh,” Dom replied, and edged his way around the other side of the tables, past the creature, and to the front door.
“I will have you, practitionerrrrrrrr,” it purred.
“Outside,” he replied, knowing that not seeing the entity wouldn’t save the people in the diner if it came to violence. Thankfully, things like this had just as much of a desire to stay off the radar as he did. He’d only make it as far as the nearly deserted streets, Dom knew, before it attacked, but that gave him time to at least contemplate how to get out of this. If he could get out of this. He hadn’t counted on a retaliation from the Snake this soon.
He felt the thing slide out onto the sidewalk behind him, and abomination of a presence behind him.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t see the harm in a little knowledge. I mean, isn’t that the Snake’s thing, anyway?”
“You tricked ittttttt.”
“Is it mad about the trick? Is that it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s kind of hypocritical on its part.”
“You sssssshould not knowwwwwwww what you knowwwwwwww.”
“That’s fair.” Dom put a hand into his hoodie’s pocket, fumbling around for anything that would work. “That said, given Snake’s place in the cosmos, I think that knowing things I shouldn’t know would be, like, its jam, right? Doesn’t it hate gods who hoard knowledge?” The thing across from him laughed, grating and slick laughter, like oil on water. Oil that was on fire.
“Do no try to appeal to its hatred of pathetic human religions.”
“So why did it send you, then? I didn’t know that the Akatharton were thugs for hi—” The thing lashed out with a blast of power that hit Dom with a mix of physical, psychological, and emotional pain. It cored his soul like an apple and drove him to his knees, gasping against the pain and a thousand images of his failure throughout life smashing into his memories at once. He had known that the savagery of the attack would be coming, but he’d hoped for at least a few more seconds to put together whatever weak defense he could. He’d had an idea of what he needed, but since it didn’t look like he’d get the courtesy of an evil villain monologue, his options were limited to dying or suffering whatever his attacker had in mind for him. And that attack was it going easy on me.
“Stop!” The podcast kid stepped out from the shadows, his hands raised, placing himself between Dom and the monster.
“Damn it, kid,” Dom muttered.
“You leave this man alone.”
“Who arrrrrrrre you?” it asked.
“Don’t.” Dom gripped at the trinket he’d finally found. Jacket pockets enhanced with mini-worm holes were, in retrospect, not very helpful when you needed something specific, fast.
“I’m the protector of this ritualist. I’m the chosen o—” With little fanfare, the kid evaporated into a fine red mist in the street.
“Insssssssect.” It turned to Dom, who now stood.
“Yeah,” Dom said, “but to give him some credit, he did give me time to do this.” Dom withdrew his hand. He held a narrow, wand-like object in his hand. He waved it with a flourish, threw in a quick “abracadabra” for good measure, and tossed it to the creature. It caught it with a misshapen appendage and was mesmerized.
The pen, bought at a truck stop somewhere in the Midwest, showed a pin-up girl in a plastic window along the barrel. Water held a plastic bikini top in suspension across her chest. The thing turned the pen straight up and down, and the swimsuit covering her breasts slowly drifted down. The creature howled in frustration as it found itself unwillingly frozen by the cheap titillation. The magic of the minor ritual that Dom had flung at it was enough to give Dom a fraction of a second of a window. To gather all of his will and respond to this manifestation of pure evil that had erased another human from existence without a second thought.
* * * *
Dominic knew that he was outclassed. An Akatharton had been sent after him, and would have massacred him, even if he’d had time to prepare. He might, in fact, have only bought himself a few days with the pen trick. Which made it that much more important that he get to Austin sooner rather than later.
He took out the folded piece of paper he’d picked up in Atlanta; a flyer advertising an underground film festival. For most people who received the flyer, it was an opportunity to be a part of a schlocky, independent horror movie fest. He, on the other hand, had read the flow of magic in the printed words. It presented him an opportunity, and one he was now even more hard-pressed to take. What the Snake had shown him in Upstate New York was dangerous knowledge, and if he wanted to do anything but die with it (or worse), he had a lot of work to do, and decreasingly less time.
Against his better judgement, Dominic would have to open a byway.
It was far safer than risking an Akatharton.