Fictober, Prompt 23 – “You can’t give more than yourself.”
Warnings: implied violent deaths? Nothing onscreen. Fantasy, rural fantasy if that’s a thing. Not quite midwest gothic, but leaning that direction.
Abby paced, agitated and upset, and I could only watch, sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of hot cider to warm my hands. Hers sat abandoned across from me.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said again, stopping only to stare out the window at the rapidly darkening corn fields. “And I’ve got to decide soon, the ritual is in three hours.”
I frowned down at my mug, lips pressed together. I didn’t like the group she was part of, especially the man leading it, but just because she was my sister didn’t mean I could interfere. She had to make her own decisions.
“I’ve learned so much already,” she said, back to pacing. I nodded, still frowning at my mug. That much was true; Abby had been able to harness her strange powers much better, with better control, than she had before, and that was certainly a boon for all of us. It wasn’t that I thought the group was all bad, but something about this ‘ritual’ of theirs made me uneasy. It was supposed to be some cross between a final exam and a party, the leader had told her several weeks ago, a chance to use their new skills and boost their power, and then celebrate.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” I told her, my first words in quite some time. She stopped pacing, sighed, and came back to the table at last, reaching out a tentative hand to cover mine where they still clutched at my mug.
“I know you don’t like any of it,” she said.
I shrugged. “You’ve learned a lot, like you said. I don’t like the sound of this ritual, but what I don’t like even more is that you’re not sure about it. That’s the thing you should pay attention to, not what I think.”
Abby blew out a breath and sat back. “I guess you’re right. It’s probably all your fault that I’m feeling weird about it anyway.”
I shrugged again.
“But…I don’t know. Something about it, about the way Master Barrett talks about it sounds a little, well, strange,” she admitted. “Like the sequence of events sounds fine, and it’s fine when the rest of us talk about it, but when he does, it’s just…”
“Which words he uses?” I guessed.
“Yeah,” she said, frowning at me now. Not angry, more thoughtful. “Yeah, something like that.”
I grimaced again, but held my tongue. That was one of the things that had sparked my intense dislike of ‘Master Barrett’ shortly after he’d wandered into town several months ago. He’d soon set up camp in the Dirksen’s pole barn and offered to teach those who needed teaching in magical things, and soon enough everyone was chattering about him as though he were the best thing since sliced bread. But whenever I listened to him speak, I couldn’t help but hear double-meanings in his words, and I didn’t like it.
We both sat in silence for long moments, listening to the clock ticking on the wall. I forced myself to drink some of my cider, gone lukewarm but still richly flavored.
“What is it you’re supposed to be doing?” I asked at last, when she seemed too lost in thought.
“He said it’s a ritual to call up powers from the earth,” she told me. “He wants to do something that’s big enough for us to all participate in.”
“What kind of powers are you calling up?”
“I… Well, just the usual earth power we’ve all been learning to use, I guess. He’ll be taking care of the advanced parts, the special runes and circles and things. We’ll all make another circle around the outside. He told us a circle of ‘blood and flesh’ was powerful and important. I guess it symbolizes that we’re all working together and pooling our strength.”
“Sounds an awful lot like a summoning,” I said.
She frowned again, then shrugged. “We’re summoning power, I guess?”
“What is going to happen with all of this power? Are you going to cast a big spell together?”
“Yeah, we—” She stopped, and then slowly raised her eyes to mine. “We’ve all talked about casting a spell with it, working together to give all our fields a good boost for the next year or two. But I guess I haven’t heard Master Barrett say anything about it.”
I was trying to keep my growing unease off my face. “Did you ask him anything else about it?”
“I did tell him I was nervous the other day,” she admitted, looking back down at her own mug. “He said that was normal and to not feel badly about it. I told him I wasn’t sure I’d be strong enough, since I’m not as good as some of the others. He told me ‘You can’t give more than yourself,’ and that my being there would be enough, whatever I could or couldn’t do.”
I sat bolt upright in my chair, eyes wide. “He said that?”
Abby jolted back too, alarmed. “Said what?”
“That bit about giving yourself.”
“‘You can’t give more than yourself’?”
“Is there meant to be any danger to this ritual?” I demanded.
“I- I don’t think so. I mean, he said there was some risk, there always is with any big magical undertaking, and we should come ready to give it our all so that it would succeed.”
“Abby,” I told my sister, eyes still wide. “I don’t want to you to go. I don’t think this ritual is going to be what you think it is.”
She looked troubled, but did not say anything.
“The only people who ask you to ‘give yourself,’ your whole self,” I continued sharply, “are those who want more than they can get by themselves and mean to use other people to do it.”
“I don’t— I don’t think Master Barrett is like that,” she protested, though her face was still troubled. “He’s been so kind to us, so generous with his time…”
“And he’s barely asked any payment at all, isn’t that right? Just out of the goodness of his heart, taking only room and board?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“If everything else lined up, then no, but something about him has smelled rotten from the get-go.”
“You’ve just never liked him,” she said, grimacing. “You don’t believe he’s kind anyway, so what do you know?”
“I know that it’s an awful lot like the time that preacher came through when we were little and tried to—”
“That’s a wicked thing to compare him to!” She said, aghast. “That man was no preacher, he was pretending in order to—”
A pounding on our door cut off my next words, which would undoubtedly have been a shout.
Abby’s eyes flew to the clock, but it was still an hour and a half until the time of the ritual. Still, she shoved her mug aside and rose to go answer the door. I pushed my own mug away and followed.
A young black man was leaning in the doorway, gasping for breath. He looked haggard and thin, and his dark eyes were haunted.
“I was told,” he said, trying to straighten, “that there was a student of the man calling himself Barrett who lives here?”
“That’s me,” my sister said. “Won’t you come in? You look worn out!”
A brief smile flickered over his dark features and then was gone. “I appreciate the offer, but there’s no time. Is there a ritual planned, for yourself and the other students?”
“There is,” I confirmed when it seemed Abby might hesitate. “Tonight, in just a bit over an hour.”
Shock and fear and relief mixed strangely on his face, and he swayed where he stood, even with one hand on the doorframe.
“Here,” I said, reaching out a hand, “you really need to come sit down.”
“Just for a moment,” he said, but then something in him seemed to strengthen, and he followed us in, joining us at the table and accepting my offer of cider.
“I’m very sorry you’ve got mixed up in this,” he told my sister. “I know this will be a blow to hear, but please, please do not go to the ritual tonight. In fact, I would ask your aid in stopping it altogether, if you would. Barrett is not who he claims, and he has done this before. I’ve been tracking him for years, ever since I lost my sister, and this is the first time I’ve made it before—” his voice quavered and gave out, and he covered his eyes with one hand.
My sister was staring at him with eyes as wide as saucers, palm over her mouth.
Tentatively, I rested my hand on his shoulder as I set his mug of cider down, and he nodded in acceptance and thanks. After a moment, he pulled in a deep breath and let his hand fall. There were tears in his eyes still, but he was in control.
“I can tell you more as we go, but please believe me that his true intent is to summon something that should not be summoned, and that it will be hungry.”
I met my sister’s eyes, which were still as wide as I had ever seen them. Slowly, she nodded, and I felt part of the fear gripping my stomach loosen.
“Sounds like there’s not much time then,” I told him. “Drink that cider quick, I didn’t make it too hot. You have a coat?” He shook his head. “It’s a chilly night and getting colder. I’ll go find you something, then we’ll get going.”
“We?” he echoed, looking up at me in surprise and hope.
“We,” I repeated firmly, and smiled, patting his shoulder one more time. “You tell my sister, Abby, a little bit more of what she needs to know until I get back.”
They both seemed steadier when I returned, an old coat of our dad’s in hand. What I was going to do at a magical battle, I wasn’t sure, but I grabbed the pistol and a shotgun out of the closet, strapped them on, and made sure I had extra ammunition in my own coat pocket.
Because the one thing I was sure of was that I wasn’t going to let my sister, or our timely informant, do this alone.