I play D&D regularly – Saturday nights, seven to eleven, and I’m always home by midnight. The last is easy because we always play at Ronnie’s, which is only two blocks from my place. We’ve been doing this since we were sixteen and all of us lived at home and had adults setting curfews. Ronnie still lives with his Mom, mainly because of his mobility and other issues, but the rest of us have moved into our own places over the years. Eight years is a long time and life changes.
One of the changes times brings is significant others. Most of us have brought them along at some time or another: David’s are always male; Ronnie meets more girls who want to spend time with him than I ever expect of someone who hardly seems to leave the house; Brom has a definite thing for redheads; I like dark haired guys who are taller than me; Frank, our DM, seems to attract androgynous blondes; and Clara either has an emotionally retrained boyfriend or a girl friend who’s as mad as a cut snake. When Teresa turned up with Clara we all suspected it would be bad news but we were prepared to see how things turned out. After all, mad as a cut snake doesn’t necessarily mean bad company, a bad person or trouble.
She was fine the first week. Played sensibly, passed the snacks when asked, helped with the clean-up and thanked both Ronnie and Frank for the evening. The second week started fine. She played her mage sensibly again, passed the snacks when asked but then, when we’d finished the second scenario, she reached down into her bag and said, “Why don’t we break this up and do something different?” She laid a black, leather bound book in the middle of the table. “Something like real magic?” Teresa looked around the table and I swear she looked like she was licking her lips in anticipation. On the spine and the front cover of the book, in gold lettering, was one word. Dominari.
Ronnie went pale, but then he had history.
David said, sensibly, “But we came here to play D&D.” Brom made an agreeing noise.
Clara weakly went, “Terese!” Teresa seemed to ignore her.
Frank turned to me and said, “Mala, you’ve got this, haven’t you? You’d better take her and that thing outside before Ronnie has some sort of fit.” Given the extent of Ronnie’s health problems, this wasn’t an idle comment.
“Yeah,” Ronnie added. “Get it out of the house and off the property, now!”
“But you guys like magic,” Teresa protested. “I mean, you play this game every week-“
“Enough.” I stood up. I’m short but I was looming and I knew it. It’s a talent. “Grab the book, grab your bag and come outside. You’re done here until the book is gone and never coming back.”
“Clara,” Teresa appealed to her girlfriend.
“Ronnie wants it out of his home,” Clara said quietly, “and I don’t know what you were thinking, bringing it here and springing it on us. I’ll take you home when Mala’s finished talking to you.” She started packing her bag. “Sorry about this guys. Frank, I trust you not to get my character into too much trouble without me.” She handed him her character sheet. “Come on Teresa, we need to go outside.”
We all watched as Teresa sullenly packed her bag, putting the book on top of everything else. When she was done, Clara led the way out of the house and I brought up the rear. I was only halfway down the front steps when I heard the lock of the deadbolt behind me. In front of me Clara was holding the front gate open, waiting for the two of us.
“Why can’t we talk here?” Teresa’s question was petulant.
“Because Ronnie wants the book off their property,” Clara replied quietly, her disappointment increasing to my eye.
Teresa followed her onto the footpath and I closed the gate behind us. “Right, let’s get started.” Teresa’s head whipped around because I was using the voice that went with the looming. “Real magic isn’t a game or fun, it’s a dangerous and serious business. Real magic in the hands of someone who knew nothing about it is why Ronnie’s in that wheelchair that he controls with his chin and why he doesn’t have an older brother anymore. Real magic is, all too often, about gathering power of some kind. That book you have is about gathering power,” Teresa tried to say something but I continued over the top of her, “because every copy of it is a trap. It seems to offer the reader power but that’s not who winds up on top, trust me.”
“Why should I?” She spat that out.
“Think about it logically,” I thought there was no harm in telling it like it was,” a millennia old, intelligent being, controlling great magical powers and powerful minions. Do you really think you’re going to enslave it with an hour long spell?”
“So what does the book do?” Teresa still didn’t like me. I didn’t expect that she ever would.
“It helps you self-select to be made an offer by showing that you don’t care about little things like enslaving another intelligent being and that there’s probably something you want.” I smiled. “The usual deal is part of what you want for a little time with your soul, souls being non-divisible.”
“Part of what you want?” Teresa sounded uncertain. Clara stayed silent, but then she’d heard all of this before.
“Just as a taster so you can be talked in trading off your soul full time for the full package.” I shrugged. “Of course, they never tell you about the strings attached if you never ask. That most people never know how important a soul is to them until they lose it for ever. That you only get to say what happens to your soul while you’re alive and after that the usual rules apply and if you’ve traded off then, in the end, both your actions and what’s been done with your soul count for what happens next. Some of them can keep you alive for a very long time, whether you want to be alive or not, to extend their time with your soul.”
“Immortality?” Teresa looked at me sharply.
“Is definitely not all its cranked up to be, particularly without a soul.” I shrugged. “But what do you expect of a demon-bargain?”
“But there are other things in the book-”
“The Fallen? You really don’t want to go there.” I looked Teresa directly in the eye. “The Fallen are mostly insane. I don’t know the reasons for or the ins and outs of the Fall and neither do I want to, but angels are made to operate in the presence of God and exclusion from His presence for so long has sent them mad. Individually and specifically mad. Just don’t go there.” I took a deep breath. “Burn the book. Really, that’s my best advice. If what you paid for it is an issue, I’ll give you the cash back myself. Don’t use it and don’t put it back into circulation.”
“But…real magic.” Teresa was clutching the book to her chest now, like someone clutching on to a dream.
“Two sorts of people do well at magic,” I told her. “The sort who study hard and are prepared to take the time to layer up their power and skills one tiny increment at a time and the ones who are dripping with so much power that they have to devote themselves to learning how to control it so they don’t kill themselves or others by accident. Dipping your toes in the water every so often is just playing with fire in the presence of petrol. You could do it, but I’d recommend against it.”
“Which sort are you?” Teresa wasn’t stupid, I’ll give her that.
“None of the above.” I smiled. “Just been on the side lines of disaster once too often.” That wasn’t the whole truth of course but I didn’t need too many people knowing the whole truth.
“I’ll think about the book.” Teresa still had the black volume clutched to her chest but I nodded. It was better than some of the things she could have done at that point. Clara took her home then and I watched the car till it was out of sight. After that I went back to the house and Frank let me back inside. We played some more but the shine had gone off the evening and we finished up early.
When I got home the shadows from the streetlights were thicker on my front verandah than usual and a man-shaped person, although he was not a man, was occupying a man-sized space on the corner seat. My father had dropped by for a visit.
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