I don’t lose sleep over climate change, pandemics, or the threat of nuclear war. We won’t last long enough for anything so quaint to finish us off.

I’m convinced that when the Earth is reduced to a plume of vapor, it’ll be after some tourist stumbles across the wrong spell, and mumbles a few words of Medieval Latin."

 

– a passage no one has ever read in the Auckland Grimoire

THE RELENTLESS ELECTRONIC thumping of dubstep music was good for exactly two things: blocking out background noise, and focusing a Scrivener’s mind during spell crafting. If it had any other uses, Jackson Carter had yet to find them.

    It was a balmy October evening in North Valley, Virginia, which wasn’t a location synonymous with magick. Luckily, medieval castles weren’t a prerequisite for invoking the mystical; a two-story colonial in the suburbs worked just as well. And Jackson—a square-jawed high school quarterback with biceps carved from granite—wasn’t the prototypical magician, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. But that’s the way he liked it.

    Crouched over a drawing table with his ears encased in noise-canceling headphones, he sketched out the final details of his ritual. From the placement of the candles to the runes facing Magnetic North, everything had to be precise. Magick was a delicate latticework of art and science; the more advanced the spell, the more precision was required. One mispronounced syllable or carelessly-drawn sigil could turn a simple pillow levitation into a cottony fireball rocketing across your bedroom.

    Magick was designed that way for a reason, he’d always assumed. If it were easy, every assclown who stumbled across a spell on the internet would be casting and enchanting, reducing the world to a lawless mystical war zone. Not to mention that public displays of occultism would be especially shocking to the billions who had no clue that magick even existed.

    Thankfully, the barrier for entry was a lot more than Wi-Fi and a Sharpie. Magick required study, and focus, and endless hours of meditation … or at least it did, up until The Incident.

The number of magickal adepts had skyrocketed in the year and a half since The Incident. Sparsely-trafficked dark web forums (the only places where Scriveners dared to converse online) were swamped with newcomers. Most were brooding teens, dipping their toes into the occult out of boredom, oblivious to the potential for real-life spellcasting they’d stumbled across. They were irritating, but harmless.

    Worse were the morons who knew just enough to get themselves into trouble, but lacked the competence to become anything more than dangerous amateurs. Some posted videos of low-level enchantments that were laughed off as hoaxes, but threatened to expose serious practitioners who were less-than-enthusiastic about the population at large getting a glimpse behind the curtain.

    Noobs relentlessly spammed the regulars, offering cryptocurrency in exchange for amulets, and begging for the formulas of exotic hexes. The ones with a sliver of potential actually knew what to ask for, but the tragically clueless could be spotted from space. Anyone using Dungeons & Dragons jargon was a dead giveaway, especially if they mentioned a wand; little wooden sticks were Hollywood props, no more necessary than a bubbling cauldron or a midnight-black cat (Jackson did happen to own a midnight-black cat, but that was purely coincidental).

    As tourists crowded the boards, regulars disappeared. Jackson guessed they’d deleted their profiles for fear of being discovered, which was always a concern for legitimate practitioners. He tried to keep in touch with a handful of contacts, but his messages were met with radio silence.

    That was the hardest part of being a Scrivener: isolation. Having no one to share magick with made it less tangible, somehow. Less real. When Jackson wasn’t cloistered away behind his padlocked bedroom door he’d scan crowds of people, wondering who else might be secretly practicing the arts. He’d noticed a growing trend towards long-sleeved clothing during the sweltering summer months—a possible indication. Carrying around a Sharpie was another red flag, although that might’ve been his paranoia; a marker in the hand of a Scrivener was like a broadsword to a knight, or a rifle to a sharpshooter.

    Or, when brute force wasn’t the objective, a baton to an orchestra conductor.

 

He stole a quick glance at his phone. It was nearly six, and it was a Thursday, which meant a large Hawaiian pizza would be arriving at his doorstep momentarily. He drew a pair of interlocking stars at the bottom of his page and encompassed them with a circle. When the loop closed his page shuddered, in danger of being carried off by a spectral wind. It clung to his drawing board by a few lengths of masking tape.

    A smile crept across his face. This is it, he thought, or at least as close to ‘it’ as he’d come so far. The mechanics were solid and the architecture checked out, but his ingredient list needed some fine-tuning. He knew the universe wasn’t going to let him pull off a ritual of this magnitude without some major bartering, but he couldn’t find a replacement for one thing: blood. His ritual demanded a lot of it, and from very specific people.

    There were spells even Magnus level Scriveners shied away from: physics-warping whammies that picked at the fabric of reality like a stubborn scab, threatening to open a wound too deep to mend. Going back to the earliest texts, blood was always the key, but calling on that type of power came with penalties. Things didn’t have to be that way. With a little more time, he could make the ritual work without archaic shortcuts.

    Jackson ripped the page from his drawing board and fed it through the shredder by his feet. It chewed the ritual into confetti with a satisfying hum. He’d been so distracted by his work that a backlog of notes and photos had accumulated on the corkboard above his desk. After dinner there was a lot more shredding to do. He tore a fresh sheet from his pad and was in the process of taping it in place when a blast rang out.

    The hardwood quaked beneath his feet. His window rattled against the sill.

    Another blast followed.

    Jackson spun in his chair and ripped off his earphones, letting them clatter to the floor. It sounded like thunder—but did it come from inside the house?

    He raced to his window and threw open the curtains, peering down the darkened boulevard. Not a drop of rain; crisp white stars dappled a cloudless sky.

    Something caught his eye below. His cat blitzed across the lawn, disappearing into the shadows beneath a pine. A rectangle of light cut across the porch, spilling onto the walkway.

    The front door was open.

    “Mom?” he called nervously through his locked bedroom door. “Dad …?”

    Then a scream rang out. It sounded vaguely like his father, but Jackson couldn’t be certain. He’d never heard his father scream like that. He’d never heard anyone scream like that—shattering and raw, like it was the last noise they’d ever make.

    Something crashed up the staircase.

    Jackson’s door spiraled off its hinges, and the thing that smashed it down slid through the splintered frame. It was a disembodied mass of tentacles, shuddering and convulsing, polluting the room with an acrid stench. It moved like death.

    Without thinking he lunged for his desk, snatched up a pen, scribbled a message, and finished it off with a sigil—two interlocking stars encompassed by a circle. He had barely enough time to intersect the lines.

    Tendrils darted from everywhere and nowhere, lashing out from the shadows, consuming his field of vision.

Trying to steady his trembling hands, he drew a different sigil on his palm. If he’d been faster—just a heartbeat, just a fraction of a second—he might have blasted this nightmare with a column of flame, incinerating it on the spot. A tendril snared his wrist.

    Another circled his throat, choking off the word he was about to incant.

    As darkness swarmed in and his breathing slowed, Jackson’s fear gave way to regret.

    All his research, everything he’d learned … he was so close.

    He just hoped he’d left her enough to work with.