When the Elder Gods extend an invitation, be wary of the strings attached
While browsing in a rare book store in Arkham, Sean finds an occult book with an ad seeking an apprentice sorcerer, from a newspaper dated March 21, 1895. Even more intriguing, the ad specifically requests applicants reply by email.
Sean’s always been interested in magic, particularly the Lovecraftian dark mythology. Against his best friend Edna’s (“call-me-Eddy-or-else”) advice, he decides to answer the ad, figuring it’s a clever hoax, but hoping that it won’t be. The advertiser, Reverend Redemption Orne, claims to be a master of the occult born more than 300 years ago. To prove his legitimacy, Orne gives Sean instructions to summon a harmless but useful familiar—but Sean’s ceremony takes a dark turn, and he instead accidentally beckons a bloodthirsty servant to the Cthulhu Mythos god Nyarlathotep. The ritual is preemptively broken, and now Sean must find and bind the servitor, before it grows too strong to contain. But strange things are already happening in the town of Arkham….
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I was born in Troy, New York, but I currently live just outside Providence, Rhode Island, at the head of beautiful Narragansett Bay. New England has long been my spiritual home, and the region informs much of my fiction. One day I hope to find Lovecraft’s portals to his mythical towns of witch-haunted Arkham and Kingsport, shadowed Innsmouth and accursed Dunwich. Until then, I’ll just have to write about them..
I am a member of SFWA and HWA and a rabid Austenite. Don’t those three always go together?
Apart from writing, I like gardening, swimming, king cobras, jumping spiders, and cats. No cobras or cats at the moment, but the jumping spiders are always with us. In spite of maintaining a mental age of between twelve and sixteen, I have just married my partner of more than thirty years. Thanks to the RI Legislature for finally living up to Roger Williams’ philosophy of crabbing at people he disagreed with but never denying the primacy of the personal conscience.
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Every occult Web site agreed: For weird-ass books, Arkham was the center of the New England universe, and Horrocke’s Bookstore was the black hole at the center’s heart. Dad said that Sean had enough crazy stuff to read, since Uncle Gus had given him his Lovecraft collection. But Uncle Gus had also spilled that Cthulhu (aka Old Squid-Head) wasn’t just a monster Lovecraft had invented, he was a god in a totally legitimate mythology way older than the Egyptian and Greek ones. Since then, Sean had been nuts to go to Horrocke’s and get the real dope on Cthulhu, and so when Dad drove to Arkham to price a window restoration Sean and Eddy hitched a ride. Eddy insisted on sightseeing first, but once they hit the bookstore and found the weird-ass section even she had to admit the place lived up to its reputation. “Little Shoppe of Mysteries” was what TrueTomes.com called it. Hokey but accurate, because as Sean pulled a thick volume off the Cthulhu Mythos shelf a mystery ambushed him.
Like its neighbors, the book he pulled (Infinity Unimaginable) was glossy new. The book that dropped, that he just managed to catch, was old as hell; even at arm’s length, it exuded the smell of an open tomb. Not a nasty mildewy rotting-flesh kind of tomb. More like a tomb in the desert, a Pharaoh’s crib, all cloves and ginger and—what was that other spice thing, the bitter one?— yeah, myrrh.
Sean shifted Infinity Unimaginable under his arm so he could inspect the mummy-book. It was in decent shape, the black leather spine intact and the stamped gold title only a little rubbed out. The Witch Panic in Arkham by Ezekiel Greene Phillips. Sean and Eddy had probably seen the guy’s grave in the Lich Street Burial Ground, where everyone was an Ezekiel or a Hepzibah or a Zacharias or some other Puritan name with a z in it.
He got a better armpit grip on Infinity and opened The Witch Panic. Paper fluttered to the floor, but thank you, Jesus, it wasn’t a page from the book. The fallen bit was a newspaper clipping someone had used as a bookmark a hundred years ago, from the look of its brown and brittle edges. Sean parked both books and picked up the clipping. He’d been close on the hundred years. In fact, the clipping was older: At its top, he could make out ham Advertiser, March 21, 1895. “Ham” had to be Arkham. The city’s newspaper was still the Advertiser; dumb name, made you think the paper was one big classified section. Speaking of which, a couple columns of classified ads was what he lifted closer to his face, squinting at the minuscule type. One ad was circled in faded red:
Wanted, an apprentice in magic and in the service of its Masters. For particulars, apply to the Reverend Orne,redemption@RevOrne.com.
That “apprentice in magic” part was freaky enough. It took Sean a second reading before he got the true freakiness of the ad. You were supposed to apply to the Reverend Orne by e-mail? In 1895?
“Eddy!” he said. Okay, he kind of yelled.
Her voice came from the back of the store. “What? God, tell the world.”
Sean grabbed his finds and threaded through stacks of new and used books to the locked cases that housed the really old stuff, the tomes. Eddy had been drooling over them since they’d arrived. She hadn’t run out of saliva yet, judging from the way she crouched in front of the current case, fingertips to carpet, a sprinter ready to explode out of the starting blocks and right through the protective glass.
“Look,” she said without turning to him. “This is like a wizard’s library.”
The case guarded books in Latin and German and French, in Greek and Arabic, in English rendered undecipherable by some kind of curly-swirly Gothic type, and the whole bunch of them were beat up with age. Sean would have been dripping spit, too, except what he had in his hands was even more exciting. “Eddy, check it—”
“Keep it down, will you?”
What, were they in church? He lowered his voice. “Check it out. I found this book.”
“One we can afford?” Eddy tapped a discreet price list posted on the glass, and there was nothing under a thousand dollars. She stood up, sighing.
“This one about the Cthulhu Mythos.” He glanced inside Infinity Unimaginable. “It’s only twenty bucks.”
“Wait, here’s something cooler.” He had put the newspaper clipping back in The Witch Panic for safekeeping. He eased it out. “Read that ad.”
“This is crazy old.” Eddy handled the clipping gingerly. “‘Gentleman recently graduated from Miskatonic University seeks position as tutor.’ ”
“No, the circled one.”
“‘Wanted, an apprentice in magic—’” Eddy shut up. Sean watched her eyes dart over the rest of the ad, then dart to the top of the clipping. Back to the ad. Then she turned the clipping over, but all it showed was a woman in a dress with sleeves a mile wide and waist about an inch around. Finally Eddy looked up, her forehead corrugated. “Where’d you get this?”
“When I got down the Mythos book, another book fell off the shelf. The ad was inside.”
Eddy relinquished the clipping and took The Witch Panic in Arkham. “This old book was with the new stuff?”
“Yeah. Only I didn’t see it until it fell. I guess it was stuck behind the other one.”
“Like someone hid it there?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
She leafed through the pages. “This was published the same year as the newspaper. Except the clipping’s got to be fake. Like a hoax. Or not even a hoax, because who’d believe in an e-mail address from 1895? Somebody made it for a joke.”
“It’s a damn good fake. It even smells old.”
“That’s because it’s been sitting in this smelly book.”
Leave it to Eddy to come up with a reasonable explanation. She had to be right, but Sean teased her a little. “I bet a time traveler went back to 1895 and put the ad in the newspaper, except he forgot how there wasn’t any Internet yet.”
Eddy kept leafing. “We better give Witch Panic to Mr. Horrocke. It probably belongs with the rare books.”
“And then the time traveler was all, ‘How come nobody’s answering my ad?’ ”
“And so he sends the ad into the future in Witch Panic, and it lands on the shelf behind Infinity just as I’m taking it down.”
“No, because if that happened, the book and the ad would be new.” Eddy had reached the index and was trailing her finger down the page. “There,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”
“The guy in the ad, redemption@RevOrne? Redemption Orne’s mentioned in this book. He was married to Patience.”
And Patience Orne was a total rock-star witch. Sean had been reading her name on historical markers all day. Here’s where Patience Orne lived. Here’s the courthouse where Patience Orne was tried. Here’s the gallows on which Patience Orne swung. He shook his head. “But if Redemption’s from Puritan times, how come he’s advertising in 1895?”
Sean had walked into it, and Eddy pounced without mercy. “Because he’s a time traveler?” she said.
“Got another explanation?”
“No, but you do.”
“Because some crazy Redemption Orne fan boy stuck a fake clipping in the book?” Eddy handed Sean The Witch Panic. “It’s almost five. We’ve got to meet your dad. Are you buying Infinity?”
“I’m buying them both.”
“You won’t have enough money for the old one.”
Probably not, but he was going to try. When a book jumped at you from a shelf, what else could you do?
In the front room at Horrocke’s, where a college girl stood behind the counter and the smell of hazelnut coffee filled the air, books wouldn’t have the nerve to jump at customers. The back room was a whole different world. First off, you came in through a door with a brass plaque that read: QUISCUNQUE QUERAT, INTRA. According to Eddy, who’d just aced her sophomore year of Latin, that meant “Whoever seeks, enter” or, in plain English, “Looking for something? Get your butt in here.”
They had gotten their butts in, and they had been rewarded with row after row of enticingly labeled shelves. No self-help, general fiction, or cookbooks here. It was alchemy, astrology, cabalism, necromancy, voodoo, wicca, and more. Lots more, including the cases of tomes beyond which Mr. Horrocke sat, dwarfed by his mahogany desk, sipping espresso from a tiny white cup.
Horrocke had been sipping from the cup when they’d first ventured into the back room. For someone who put away so much caffeine, he looked amazingly sleepy. He was a skinny old guy to begin with, in a navy suit with a red silk handkerchief in the breast pocket. The handkerchief looked like the tongue of a smart-ass who’d been sucking a cherry Popsicle. Even creepier, Horrocke’s own tongue was Popsicle red. As Sean and Eddy approached, he touched it to his lower lip and set the tiny cup on a tiny saucer. Under the desk, his jittering feet clicked on the floorboards as if he wore tap shoes. Maybe after they had gone, he would dance it up around the stacks.
The idea of Horrocke getting down almost made Sean lose it. Good thing Eddy started the talking. It sounded like she’d already made friends with the old guy, probably while he was mopping up her drool with the red handkerchief. “Hey, Mr. Horrocke. I think Sean’s found a book he wants.”
On cue, Sean put down Infinity Unimaginable.
“Ah,” Horrocke said. “An excellent choice, Edna. I always recommend Professor Marvell’s books. He’s chief archivist at the Miskatonic University Library, you know. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the Cthulhu cult. Indeed.”
Would Eddy explode at Horrocke’s use of her real name? Though, duh, if Horrocke knew her real name, she must’ve given it to him. Sean stopped holding his breath and said, “That’s great, Mr. Horrocke. There’s this other book, though. I found it behind Infinity. It kind of fell on me.”
“Indeed? I hope it didn’t hurt you.”
“Ah, no,” Sean managed. “I caught it all right. I don’t think it got hurt, either.” He put The Witch Panic down next to Infinity.
Horrocke drew the old book toward himself using a pencil hooked over its top. Before he opened it, he put on white cotton gloves. Oh man, and here Sean and Eddy had been pawing it with their grubby hands. Delicately, Horrocke turned pages. “The Greene Phillips, 1895, first edition,” he murmured.
First edition. Bad. Read: expensive.
“In good condition. Minimal foxing, sound text block.”
Better. At least Horrocke couldn’t accuse them of having foxed the crap out of the book, whatever that meant.
Horrocke had come upon the newspaper clipping and balanced it on his gloved fingertips. While he read, Sean again caught himself holding his breath. If anybody could explain the circled ad and how the clipping had been faked, it had to be Horrocke. You didn’t throw around words like foxing and text block if you didn’t know all about books and documents and forgeries.
Horrocke studied the clipping even longer than Eddy had. A couple times his Popsicle-red tongue touched his lower lip. A couple times he glanced toward the cases and the stacks, as if he expected to see someone there. Once he stared straight up at the ceiling, as if he followed the progress of something across it. Sean looked for a fly or spider. He saw nothing. Maybe the old guy had overdosed on espresso after all.
At last Horrocke gave up on the invisible bug. He tucked the clipping back into the book, closed it, and pushed it toward Sean. “Indeed,” he said.
Indeed what? Sean and Eddy waited, but Horrocke seemed lost in contemplation of his gloved hands.
“So is that newspaper ad a crazy joke or what?” Eddy asked.
Horrocke started taking off the gloves, finger by finger. “I have no opinion of the advertisement, miss. However, I can tell you that I don’t have a first edition of The Witch Panic in Arkham in stock at the moment, only modern reprints. I don’t know how the book came to be on the shelf.” He looked at Sean. “Since I don’t own it, I believe the book is yours.”
His? That easy? “That doesn’t seem right, Mr. Horrocke.”
“On the contrary, it’s exactly right. The book came to you of its own accord.” Horrocke’s laugh sounded like somebody playing a botched scale on a flute. “I imagine it’s your destiny.”
The Witch Panic in Arkham? As destinies went, that didn’t sound too hot. But who could argue with free? “Well, thanks, Mr. Horrocke, if you’re sure.”
“I’m quite sure.” Horrocke had folded his gloves. He put them back in his desk and took out a notepad and pen. On the top sheet, he wrote: “NO CHARGE FOR THE GREENE PHILLIPS, N. Horrocke.” He handed the sheet to Sean. “Give that to Miss Anglesea at the cash register when you pay for the other.”
Sean grabbed both books off the desk. “Okay, thanks. I guess we better go now. We’re supposed to meet somebody.”
Horrocke’s lips stretched in what he probably meant as a smile. “I imagine you are, Sean. Indeed. I hope you enjoy your books.”
Sean couldn’t get out of the bookstore fast enough. As soon as he and Eddy were through the door, he started laughing. It was part victory laughter—he’d scored a free first edition! Uncle Gus would flip when he heard about that.
It was also part freaked laughter. “That was insane,” Sean said.
“What, Mr. Horrocke?”
“Him and getting this book for nothing. Got the fake ad for nothing, too!”
Eddy’s cell phone rang. “Text from your dad. We’re late.”
She took off up High Lane, toward the old railroad station that had been converted into a boutiquey mall. The college-girl cashier had tucked Sean’s books into a navy-blue plastic bag, and he shot a quick look inside to make sureThe Witch Panic hadn’t bailed now that it had seen him in the light of day.
Dad was parked outside the station Starbucks when Sean and Eddy ran up. “I was about to call you again, Sean,” he said. “No, wait. I was about to call Eddy, since you forgot your phone.”
Dad had griped about the AWOL phone the whole ride from Providence to Arkham. “We were at the bookstore,” Sean said. He showed him the bag.
“Say no more. I know how Eddy is around books. You guys want anything here, or do we go to the pizza place in Kingsport?”
“I vote pizza,” Eddy said. She and Sean piled into the backseat of the Civic. “How’d your consultation go, Mr. Wyndham? What was Ms. Arkwright like? Scary?”
The consultation must have gone well, because Dad only snorted at Eddy. “Why should Ms. Arkwright be scary?”
“Because her house is. We walked by it when we were doing the witch tour. How about that big old plaque? The Arkwright House. Anything that’s the Blankety-Blank House has to be haunted.”
“I didn’t see any ghosts,” Dad said. He had pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto Garrison Street. As they rattled over the bridge, Sean saw the tops of the ailanthus trees that choked Witch Island. “No ghosts, just plaster dust and rippedout wiring. As for Helen Arkwright, she looks like she’s about twenty years old and too nervous to say ‘boo.’ ”
“Maybe she’s nervous because of the ghosts,” Sean said.
“More likely because she’s trying to renovate that whole monster at once. She said the uncle who left her the house lived in the library and let the rest go.” Dad shook his head. He didn’t believe in letting stuff go. “That’s where the stained-glass windows are, in the library. They’re in rough shape, but they’re spectacular. You’d like them, Sean. One of the panels has the Devil in it.”
“What, like Satan?”
“Ms. Arkwright called him the Black Man. I guess that’s what the Puritans called him. He didn’t look like a devil to me, though. He was in this Egyptian getup, no horns, no hooves, no tail.”
Sean leaned in between the front seats. “So, are you going to restore the windows?”
“I think so. Big job. I’ll have to take them out and do a full refabrication, new support system, the works.”
“So you’ll have to come back to Arkham?”
Dad grinned; Sean saw it in the rearview mirror. “Which would mean you can come back to Arkham. You have that good a time?”
“It was awesome. This place owns Salem for witches. We went to the Witch Museum, and the Witch House, and the courthouse where they had the witch trials, and Witch Island—”
“We only saw the Island off the bridge,” Eddy cut in. “Sean wanted to swim out to it, but I wouldn’t let him.”
“No, I didn’t. I wanted to rent a kayak and paddle out to it.”
“Only there’s like three waterfalls between the Island and the kayak rentals. Then we hung out on the University Green for a while. I so want to apply to Miskatonic now.”
“I’m applying for sure,” Sean said. “Then we went to the bookstore.”
“I see you bought something.”
“This book about mythology, that’s all.” And it was all that he’d bought. No need to mention the Witch Panic book and the newspaper clipping. It was too complicated, and Dad had just inched into the jam of cars on Main Street. Dad hated traffic. The only way he could deal with it was by turning on the classic rock station from Boston, which he did now. “Jumping Jack Flash” blared. Dad joined in without missing a snarl.
End of the interrogation, excellent. Eddy had already snagged Infinity Unimaginable and was slumped comfortably, reading. Sean pulled out The Witch Panic and let it fall open to the clipping. “Wanted, an apprentice in magic and in the service of its Masters.” If it only said “an apprentice in magic,” that could mean it was hocus-pocus, saw-the-lady-in-half magic. Stage stuff. But it also said “and in the service of its Masters.” With a capital M. That made the whole business sound more serious. Who were the Masters of magic, anyhow? And why did the guy who’d faked the ad call himself Reverend Orne? Sean checked the index. He found a listing for “ORNE, Redemption, husband of Patience, minister at the Third Congregational Church.” The Reverend was a big enough deal to appear on a dozen pages.
She kept reading. “This book is wicked. Can I borrow it?”
“Sure. But listen. Maybe I’ll write to this Reverend dude.”
That made Eddy look at him over the top of Infinity. “Why?”
“I don’t know. He must be pretty cool, coming up with this ad and getting it to look so real. And I can ask him what the hell he’s talking about, apprentices and Masters of magic and all.”
“Yeah,” Eddy said. She bugged her eyes out and got sarcasticbreathless. “You better do that right away. You know what Mr. Horrocke said. He said, ‘It’s your destiny, Luke.’ ”
Of course she did the Darth Vader imitation just as the Stones segued into a discount furniture ad and Dad dumped the radio volume. “What’s whose destiny?” he asked.
Eddy knew better, but she was on a roll. “It’s Sean’s destiny to be an e-mail wizard’s apprentice. See, he found this ad at the bookstore—”
She’d propped her feet up on the back of the passenger seat, so Sean couldn’t kick her. Shut up shut up shut up, he willed in her direction.
Either his telepathy worked or Eddy came back to her senses. She knew how paranoid Dad was, especially about Internet freaks. Like they were after geek-boys, not the girls hanging their boobs out on Facebook.
“What ad?” Dad prompted. The traffic was so tight, the Civic might as well have been parked; Dad was able to turn around and look at them. Sean hustled the clipping into the book, the book into the map pocket on his door.
“This dumb joke ad,” Eddy said. She’d switched voices from breathless to bored. “Apply to be a magic apprentice. Nothing much.”
Dad’s eyebrows vanished into the shock of hair that fell over his forehead. “You didn’t really think about answering an ad like that, Sean.”
“God, Dad. I was just kidding Eddy. I can’t believe she took it seriously.”
Eddy put her feet down and gave Sean a kick to the ankle, as if he were the one who deserved kicking. He stifled a yell.
“Because that would be stupid,” Dad said. “You know how many scammers and predators there are on the Internet. I don’t have to tell you.”
Not more than ten times a day. “I know, Dad.”
The cars ahead started moving. The cars behind started honking. Even so, Dad gazed at Sean for what felt like a whole minute before he faced forward and drove. “I would hope you know by now.”
Sean had signed up for an online ghost-hunting course (with Dad’s Visa) four years back, when he was twelve, a kid. Dad might forgive, but he never forgot. “I do know,” Sean said. “Besides, I don’t even have the ad. It’s back at the bookstore.”
He got his feet up before Eddy could kick him again. He kept them up until she glared, shrugged, and went back to reading her book.
Once off Main, the Civic cruised unimpeded toward Orange Point. Tour buses at the Hanging Ground Memorial slowed them down again. They’d checked out the Memorial that morning, or Sean would have asked to stop. The sun had dropped low enough to spill pale gold over the ocean and the cliff-top grasses and the tombstones of hanged witches. It looked like a movie scene the special-effects crew had colorized to make everything pop. Sean craned around to see the path that led to Patience Orne’s grave. She’d been such a bad-ass witch that they’d planted her away from everyone else, in a little clearing surrounded by scrub blueberries and dune roses. The edge of the cliff was a few steps from her splintered stone. Sean pictured the stone new, and Redemption standing over it. Maybe he’d gotten so worked up mourning, he’d thrown himself over that convenient edge. Except he couldn’t have. He’d lived long enough to put an ad in the 1895 Advertiser.
“What’s up?” Dad asked.
“Nothing. Except I was thinking we should get double anchovies on the pizza. And pineapple.”
Dad and Eddy went into bouts of bogus retching. As they began the descent into Kingsport, Sean slipped The Witch Panic from the map pocket and hid it under Dad’s seat, where it and the newspaper clipping could stay safe until he got a chance to do something about them.