Monthly Archives: November 2019

NaNoWriMo – Chapter 14 – Black Magic Bullets

I think it’s been about five days since my last post. The writing has been progressing, albeit slowly. 

In the last chapter, I imposed a device known as a ticking clock. I did this to add tension to the narrative and drive the plot. I also had Kenzi and Harris chased by an unknown group. They are even unknown to me, as in, they haven’t revealed themselves through the narration. 

I added the bit about how Dedra needing to self attach to the location as foreshadowing for later.  

Dedra came about because my research shows I need a mystery element in an Urban Fantasy. I should be able to craft one, my wife has been binging episodes of Criminal Minds on ION and WE. Haha! They’re always on in the background. Even while I write. 

Originally, I had envisioned Kenzi driving a black Mustang. I took inspiration from my wife who owned a fox-body Mustang when we met. As I began to get to know Kenzi better, I realized she’d be more at home driving a BMW.

 Also, I liked that some Bimmers have All-Wheel-Drive. Oh, and my research shows that a BMW car or SUV is not a Beamer (the Beamer nickname goes to the BMW motorbike) it is actually referred to as a Bimmer. I’m not sure how many people know that. I certainly didn’t, and my wife thought the real nickname was a typo. Maybe I’ll change it back to Beamer just for clarity. It’s not correct, but it’s the name most people use. 

I’m also trying to stay away from politics. I don’t like politics in my fiction, but sometimes, to ground the story in reality, I have no choice. 

Massachusetts gun laws are very restrictive and convoluted for law-abiding citizens, and I’m a stickler for characters following those laws, at least until they’re able to break them safely. 

Once Harris learns how to manipulate the Collective, they will have more leeway in what weapons they carry. My plan had been to have Kenzi carry a Glock 19, but civilians can’t buy those in Massachusetts. They’re not on the approved roster, and so I decided she’d carry an M&P. 

In this way, I hope the story will be grounded enough in reality that the reader can suspend disbelief as I ratchet up the fantasy elements. 

I should probably mention that I’m also trying to ground those, in reality, using real magical practices, exaggerated and enhanced for drama, with which I’m thoroughly familiar from research and experience gained in what feels like another lifetime. That’s a story for another day. 

While I’ve been waiting for my subconscious mind to catch up with the story, I haven’t been idle. I’ve been working on the third draft of a horror thriller called The Tower of Abandon. As of this writing, I only have one more scene to edit and then, after a short break, I’ll be polishing the manuscript with the help of ProWritingAid before handing it off to my wife for a proofread. 

I also prepared and sent out a short story to an anthology open call. Unfortunately, I somehow missed the word count guidelines. After I had sent it out, I realized my submission was 1,000 words under the required word count. At least I didn’t forget to attach the Word file! That’s probably the most common mistake committed by writers sending out submission. I hate when mistakes like that happen, but we are only human. I’ll just wait and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll get lucky. You never know.

 

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

Chapter 14

“Hold on, again!” Kenzi said, accelerating. 

The torque knocked me back into my seat. Then we were turning right on red with no regard for oncoming traffic. 

Tires squealed. 

Horns blared. 

“They’re still after us?” I asked wishing I knew who “they” were. 

“I need you to enter the Collective,” Kenzi said her voice tight, her fingers on the steering wheel even tighter. 

I hesitated.  

“Now would be a good time!”

Against my better judgment, I unbuckled my seatbelt and scrambled between the seats stretching to reach my bag. 

Another breakneck turn. Releasing my hold on the bag, I grabbed the back of both seats to keep from slamming into Kenzi. 

She turned again, in the opposite direction, and I gritted my teeth and held on for what some people like to call dear-life. Once the vehicle straightened, I snatched the duffle and dragged it through the opening between the seats. 

Not bothering to buckle up, I unzipped the duffle bag and struggled to get out my equipment. Once I had retrieved the concentrator, I plugged in a bottle of ethylene gas. 

I tossed the bag back between the seats and let it flop to the floor.  Now I bucked in and then turned the valve. Too little ethylene and I wouldn’t enter the Collective, too much and I’d end up dead. I only hoped my memory wouldn’t fail me. The events in the ritual room felt like they’d happened a lifetime ago. 

Seating the mask to my face, I pressed firmly, creating a tight seal, and then breathed in deeply. 

The car and the world flipped and then righted itself. Had I taken a little too much? It didn’t matter. I’d have to deal with the aftereffects and hope I could do whatever Kenzi wanted while still under the influence. 

In front of me, through the windshield and the driver’s side window, I saw all that had been hidden from humanity. Creatures and phantom buildings projected where they had been torn down but their physicality still resonated enough to make them psychically viable, at least within the Collective. 

What am I looking for, I wondered? 

Overwhelmed by the influx of new sensory input. A protective circle would have been a nice buffer. Now I really understood its importance. 

“What am I looking for?” I asked Keni as she continued her escape and evasion routine. 

“Look for a masked entrance. Something that only you can see.”

That was easier said than done. I didn’t have the experience to interpret what I was seeing. Masking a location was difficult and I had to believe that Dreadstone’s security measures were well above the feeble abilities of the sorcerers who worked at The Chasm. In that, the people who were chasing us would have a harder time finding said entrance than I had when I used to frequent the occult shop. It wouldn’t be a matter of just relaxing and thinking good thoughts. This was high-level wizardry. 

Then I saw it, an iridescent archway, unmistakable from the normal environment. Situated between two buildings, I could just make out the narrow opening. The question was: could Kenzi, even with my help, navigate through the gap?  

“There!’ I Said pointing to show her the location. 

“You’re my eyes,” Kenzi said through gritted teeth, turning the vehicle and then gunning it in the direction I had pointed. 

“A little to the left.”

“A little to the right.” 

I did my best to direct her and I was impressed at how easily Kenzi took my directions on faith. 

We entered the tunnel too close to the right, sparks flying on the passenger side as Kenzi sheared off paint. I hoped we were really being followed and this wasn’t just some sort of paranoia on Kenzi’s part. 

We slowed to a stop. 

Kenzi shut off the vehicle allowing the silence along with the darkness within the manmade cavern to blanked us. My own breathing sounded too loud in my head. Kenzi’s breathing was no more than a whisper. In the background somewhere in the dark water dripped, most likely the result of condensation. 

“Why don’t they just have a GPS point marked off on the system?” I asked, in frustration.  I kept myself from cursing, but I wanted to say every swear in the book. Professionalism won out. 

Yet you had to admit It seemed crazy that to find this place you had to either be a psychic or be jacked up on ethylene gas. 

“It’s harder to hack a human brain than it is a computer system,” Kenzi said.  “I only know the general whereabouts of the masked entrances. 

“I’ll have Cyber hack the traffic cameras in the area and find who was following us. That will take some time. In the meantime, we have some locations to assess.”

Kenzi set a text. 

Kenzi showed me her phone, its bluish-white glow the only light in the cavern. Cyber had sent over a complete list of abandoned buildings in the waterfront area. 

“Let’s hope we’ve lost our tail,” Kenzi said. “Time to take another hit of the gas. I need your eyes on each building. Look for anomalies.” 

“We haven’t even been to the first one yet!” I said.

“That’s right,” Kenzi said. “We better get cracking.” 

The BMW purred to life, lighting up what now really looked like a cave. Kenzi put her foot down on the accelerator performed a reverse 180 (J-Turn) and then rocketed us out of the hiding place and back into the busy street, my heart beating out of me. 

 To be continued…

NaNoWrimo – Chapter 13 – Black Magic Bullets

I’ve had some great feedback on this story, and it’s made me think about how I categorize my writing. Looking at some of my unpublished work, and even some of my published, I didn’t realize how close I had wandered into the urban, dark, and contemporary Fantasy subgenres. Even my first novel, WOLVES OF VENGEANCE, is closer to dark and urban fantasy than it is to horror. Also, a little while back, I let you know I received an Honorable Mention for my novelette, Blade of the Vagabond, which is a traditional high fantasy story. It’s all very interesting, and I’ll be discussing what I’ve learned shortly.

On this NaNo project, I’ve reach about 10,000 words. I’m still very behind, but I’d rather have a fairly clean first draft than a pile of words I have to shovel out to get to the story. Understand, what I’m printing here is not everything I’ve written. Before I post here, I do a quick edit and remove as much as I can to tighten the final published product. Also, I count notes that I make to myself in with the word count, and I do my best not to include that information here on my blog.

The next time I post, I’ll try to break down some of what I was trying to do and why I added some potential complications to the plot. Again, this is a very rough first draft written organically (by the seat of my pants) and is not what it will look like in its final published form. Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. Really! I have a think skin.

 

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLET

Chapter 13

We stopped outside a women’s locker. Kenzi entered and a few minutes later returned with a duffle-bag stuffed with equipment she’d curated for me, along with a go-bag of her own. 

Mine included a concentrator with three canisters of ethylene gas. I wouldn’t want to run out in an emergency, I guess. The time wouldn’t arrive soon enough when I could traverse the Collective naturally and on command. 

“This will get you started,” she said before leading me back to the armory. 

There, she removed a Smith & Wesson M&P .40 caliber from a gun safe, seated a magazine, racked the slide to put a round in the chamber, and then engaged the safety before holstering the weapon in an inside the waistband (IWB) holster. Two spare magazines slid into a carrier on the opposite side of her belt. 

“Okay, let’s get out of here.” 

“I’m not carrying?” I asked. Not that I cared. I was very happy to leave sans-firearm. I had never conceal-carried a pistol in my life. 

“No. You’ll buy one and Dreadstone will reimburse you,” Kenzi said. “Until you’re able to manipulate within the Collective, we have to do everything above board. If a cop stops us, in Mass, you’ll need to have a firearm that’s on the Attorney General’s list of approved firearms and have the transaction recorded by the Firearms Records Bureau.”

“Things can get real messy legally if you don’t.” 

Shlepping our bags down the hall, we headed to our next destination.

“We can take your car or we can take mine,” Kenzi said. “Your choice.”

“I came here by ’T’,” I said feeling wholly unprepared. The “T” is the colloquial name in Boston for the subway system and is short for MBTA, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and stands in contrast to the Commuter Rail, run by the same authority, which provides train service to surrounding communities and goes as far as Rhode Island. 

“Mine it is then,” Kenzi said matter-of-factly. I didn’t notice even a hint of annoyance or sarcasm in her voice. “Do you have one?”

“A car?” I asked, without thinking. 

“No, a time machine,” Kenzi said. “Of course, a car.” 

“Not yet,” I said and steeled myself against an onslaught that never came.

“Dreadstone will help you buy one,” she said. “You just accepted a job where you’ll be on the road a lot. You’ll need something that fits your station and your style. You’ll be living out of the thing. I also suggest all-wheel drive. This is New England, after all.”

We entered the ground floor garage and I followed Kenzi to her vehicle. 

The parking area was filled with various vehicles I can only assume were all owned by Dreadstone employees, but I did wonder if some belonged directly to Dreadstone and what enhancements might have been made for various purposes. I would find out later

We both slid into the leather seats of her shiny black BMW. I envisioned her as more of a Mustang girl, but I had to admit the Bimmer fit her style—luxurious on the inside, sporty on the outside. I wondered how much it had set her back, and how much of the tab Dreadtone had picked up. The thought made me anxious to car shop. 

As we pulled out into crazy Boston traffic, Kenzi laid down a situation report on the way to our first stop. 

“Here’s what we’re working with just so you know. There’s a time-limit on spirit bargains. We have about three days to seal the deal. If it doesn’t happen in by then she’ll drift. 

“I’m not sure I understand. How did Dreadstone acquire her spirit in the first place?” 

“Okay, I can’t go into all the whats and wherefores it’s too complicated. Here’s the layman’s explanation: 

“When Dedra died she was able to attach herself to an object. In this case a doll. Dreadstone acquired the doll, and through a series of arcane rituals, I don’t fully understand, transferred her spirt to a containment vessel. Once they released her spirit in the ritual room, to make the pact, the clock started ticking.” 

“They can’t just put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak?” I asked.

“Easier said than done. She can attach willingly to an object. To force her would be very difficult. That’s why we have recruiters. 

“Your job is to make the pact and help hold up our end of the bargain. Once we get her as much as we can of what she wants, we still have to hold something over her, and it has to be enough that it keeps her spirit restless. If not, spirits are prone to drift. If she drifts, we breach a contract with our client. 

“How do you keep her from drifting from the location she’s been assigned?” I asked. 

“Simple. She self-attaches to the house for the required amount of time,” Kenzi said. 

“She can set a time limit?” I asked. 

“No. That’s where things get tricky,” Kenzi said. “Once the contract ends Dreadstone sends a wizard or psychic medium to release her. They’re supposed to fully release her.” 

“Supposed to? Do you mean they don’t always hold up their end of the bargain?”

“These contracts can play out over fifty, sometimes even one-hundred years. By the time the contract is up—,” Kenzi trailed off, thought for a moment before continuing. Well, let’s say sometimes things fall through the cracks. 

“I’m not saying it’s on purpose or anything, but it does happen. We have some spirits, and… other things, still in our employ well past their expiration date.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I could be all for both parties entering into a contract, even if I thought Dreadstone might be exploiting their workforce——they wouldn’t be the first company to do so——but not honoring the contract seemed beyond the pale. 

I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure I had the power to do anything about it. When the time was right, I’d have to weigh my options carefully. 

At a light, Kenzi asked me to enter the first address into the onboard GPS—safety first! 

Then we were weaving in and out of congestion, traversing tunnels, and avoiding one-way streets that always seemed to pop up out of nowhere overnight. 

“Are you buckled up?” she asked to my puzzlement. Using a seatbelt had become as automatic as breathing, I didn’t even have to think about it anymore. 

I acknowledged in the affirmative and wasn’t shy about asking why she was asking.

“We might have a tail,” Kenzi said shitting the vehicle into sport mode. “Hold on.” 

What the hell was going on? Who was after us——or was Kenzi just paranoid? 

Kenzi bolted left then (in Boston parlance) banged a right. A few quick turns with one eye on the road and the other on the rearview mirror and Kenzi seemed to relax a bit. 

“Who the hell was after us?” I asked. 

“I can tell you it wasn’t a government agency. They’re total professionals. You’ll never see them coming. If we were being followed, the people in the vehicle behind us were amateurs at tradecraft. Dreadstone has plenty of enemies. Congratulations, now they’re your enemies, too.”   

To be continued… 

 

NaNoWriMo – Chapter 12 – Black Magic Bullets

Between family obligations and the slower nature of this next chapter, It’s been a couple days since I’ve checked in. Glacial is probably a good word for how the writing has been proceeding.  Most of this is because world-building and crafting a mystery out of whole cloth are labor-intensive.

I’ve now reached a point where each layer is crucial to building a cogent and engaging narrative. There’s no doubt that I’ll have to go back and flesh out some early scenes as I move forward. Still, I’d like to keep the narrative readable and understandable, even in rough 1st draft form. Don’t forget, I’m writing this book organically (by the seat of my pants) and, as such, I’m not using an outline or figuring out anything beforehand. I’m trusting my subconscious mind to fill in details between writing sessions.  For now, I’ll consider this chapter finished and present it to you.

As it stands, I think this is shaping up to be a Dresden Files meets Monster Hunter International type of book.

 

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

 

Chapter 12

Kenzi touched an access card to an electric eye. The locking mechanism clicked open, and then we were through a pair of blast doors and inside what looked to be a two-floor loft that housed a control center of sorts. Workers buzzed to and fro, some wearing shoulder holster rigs over button-down shirts or blouses, looking more like Government Agents than employees of Dreadstone.  

Lit by natural lighting, coming from the frosted glass windows above the fray, as much as by electric lamps suspended from the vaulted ceiling, and with the addition of people moving about, created a shifting chiaroscuro, the light highlighting suspended dust particles, making the place appear fog-enshrouded.  

“Welcome to The Body,” Kenzi said. 

“What is this place?” I asked, genuinely curious. 

“It’s an acronym. B-O-D-I-E. BODIE. The Bureau of Defense Investigations and Espionage,” Kenzi said. We’re like a private FBI for the Dreadstone Company. 

“Like the name implies, we take care of the physical needs of the corporation—including but not limited to providing protection for our psychics, dedicated wizards, and recruiters like yourself.”

“I never would have guessed Dreadstone had its own private army,” I said.

“Oh, no. We’re not the army,” Kenzi said as she brought me over to a bank of beige cubicles. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

“This is Cybil,” Kenzi said.

“I go by Cyber,” the woman with the buzzcut and the black fingernail polish said.  

“She’s what we call a BRAIN transplant,” Kenzi said undeterred, explaining that BRAIN was another acronym for Dreadstone’s Computer science and hacking division: Biologic Computing, Random Access, AI, Information Systems, and Nanotech. “She works here in the BODIE helping us expel viruses and track down baddies using the information superhighway both in Surface Web and all levels of the Deep Net. 

“If not, the BRAIN wouldn’t know what the BODIE is doing,” Cyber said raising an eyebrow. “That’s just a little Dreadstone humor for ya.” 

“We have some intel and clues from SPIRT,” and then for me added, Sorcery, Psychics, Incantations & Remote Viewing.”

“Who are we talking about?” Cyber asked, raising an eyebrow. 

“Chavvi,” Kenzi said deadpan. I had no idea by her intonation if that was good, bad, or indifferent.” 

“Oh, she’s really good,” Cyber said as if she was telepathic herself. Her response also seemed to imply that Dreadstone had employed one or more psychics of dubious reputation. “Lay it on me.” 

“We’re looking for an abandoned building on the waterfront. A killer who is skilled with a garrot or at least has been accused of strangulation in the past, and a wide tie a man would wear that might be a homophone or an exact match for a lemure’s last name.”

“The property records search is the easiest. Do you know how long ago the lemure went missing?”

“I can’t give you an exact date,” Kenzi said. “Her clothing while reduced to rags looked modern enough. I gave a sample to Chavvi to get her impressions.”

“If Chavvi’s done, I’d suggest sending the sample to the lab,” Cyber said. “Even though most of the physical effects are just ectoplasmic facsimiles, for a period of time Dreadstone can determine what type of fiber was in the original garment.” 

“Can do,” Kenzi said.

 “Once we have an approximate time period, I can perform a record search for the perps MO through a backdoor in the local and federal databases. Then I’ll run a missing persons search for the same time period.”

“How much time will that take,”  Kenzi asked. 

“Too much,” Cyber said. Kenzi nodded. “Let’s work with what we have. You mentioned a wide men’s tie. Let’s see if I can get some terms we can search.” 

Cyber made her mechanical keyboard sing, cherry blue switches rat-tat-tatting an echoey staccato rhythm throughout the loft. 

“The first possibility that comes up is the cravat tie,” Cyber said. “What’s the first name?”

“Dedra,” I said before Kenzi had the chance to respond. If it bothered her, she didn’t show it. I was beginning to feel ineffectual just standing there.  

“Nothing comes up under that name combination,” Cyber said, continuing to click and clack on the keyboard. “Let’s try Ascot.” 

We waited as Cyber completed her search.

“Bingo!” Cyber said, jabbing a finger down on the enter key for emphasis and then swiveling on her chair to face us. “You’re in luck, Ascot is an unusual name and I only a few hits in the Boston Area.” 

“Any Dedra Ascots reported missing?”

“We have one,” Cyber said, her fingers still dancing over the keys. “Reported missing back in 2004. Cold case.” 

“Send me all the information on the case, along with a list of the abandoned buildings,” Kenzi said. “ Keep searching. I’ll still have Chavvi send the sample over to the lab. No time like the present to being our search.” 

To be continued… 

 

NaNoWriMo – Chap 10 & 11 – Black Magic Bullets

Day four of NaNoWriMo and got in about 1,500 words. I came up a little short but had to really think about the central mystery and its relationship to the plot. One character’s name became very important, and I had to craft it carefully.

The title also found it’s way into the manuscript. I was wondering if that would happen. You’ll see what I’m talking about if you give it a read.

This is a very rough 1st draft written by the seat of my pants,  but I’m trying to give you as tight a manuscript as possible. Feel free to give me feedback. I have a very thick skin.

In other news: I had an editor contact me today inquiring about I story I had submitted. She asked if the story had ever been sold before. I’m thinking she wanted to make sure it wasn’t a reprint. I let her know the story was an original with all rights available. I haven’t heard back yet, but I am hopeful. I’ll let you know what happens.

 

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS.

Chapter 10

I followed Kenzi to a new destination. When we entered the vestibule, I realized she had been serious. What else did this place have in store? 

Inside the small room, she grabbed a pair of eye and ear protection, handing them to me before grabbing her own. 

I put the glasses on first and then the muffs. The ear cups created a suction, clamping over my ears, isolating my sense of hearing from the outside environment. My breathing sounded loud in my head. I had always found the experience disconcerting, and today was no exception. 

In an attempt to be a gentleman, I opened the heavy door for Kenzi. She didn’t protest. Following close behind, we entered the range proper. 

Like most indoor ranges, the air was damp, much like a basement. It told me the place had good ventilation, important for filtering out all the atomized lead, gunpowder, and other combustible contaminants released with each shot fired. 

We were met with more battleship gray and surrounded by impenetrable concrete. The shooting muffs not only isolated my breathing, but also every footfall thudded in my head. 

Kenzi had transferred the pistol to a hard carrier and now placed it on a bench at the middle booth. She then plunked down a 50 round box of .45 ASP hollow-points. 

Manstoppers. 

After the meeting with the lemur, humans scared him less than they ever had. He wondered if Dreadstone was in the possession of any rounds that could stop something like that. 

It had been a long time since I’d been to a range. Shooting was an expensive hobby and I didn’t have the money to invest. If this job worked out, my luck just might be changing. 

She stepped aside to let me do my thing. 

Great. 

This felt like a test of sorts. 

Forcing myself to take it slow and steady, I removed the Colt from the case and locked it into battery before placing it on the bench. 

Next, I loaded the two seven-round magazines and arranged them beside the firearm. So far, so good. 

Kenzi brought over a silhouette target, tacket it up, and ran the motorized conveyer until it reached 21 feet away. 

She stepped away as if to say, it was all me. 

Retrieving the Colt, it felt solid and well balanced in my hand. I seated the first magazine and then racked the slide to chamber a round. 

Focused on the target, I lifted the weapon and settled into an isosceles stance. Both arms outstretched creating a triangle parallel to my chest. My upper body ached from the fight with the lemur. I focused on the pain then allowed it to fade away. Dropping my weight and bending my knees, I leaned forward ever so slightly. 

Flicked the safety off with my thumb. 

Breath in.

Line up front sights to rear. 

Breath out.

Squeeze trigger, don’t pull. 

Blam!

The colt bucked. 

Again.

The acrid scent of gunpowder rose in the air but quickly dissipated into the duct system. 

I continued the process until all rounds were spent, and the gun automatically returned to battery. 

Turning my palm up, I released the magazine and returned both to the bench. 

Kenzi had been watching from behind the whole time. Now she came back, flicking the switch in the opposite direction to retrieve the target.

“You’re listing to the left,” she said, examining the holes in the target. 

No shit. She didn’t need to overstate the obvious. 

Following her lead I removed my ear protection, let the muffs rest on my neck. The cool air felt good on my ears. 

“Nothing that can’t be fixed. You just need to adjust your grip,” she said. “That’s good enough for me. I wanted to make sure you could properly handle a firearm before we go into the field.”

“I’m carrying a gun?” I asked, incredulous. 

“You have a CCW?” Kenzi asked. Those were the initials for a Concealed Carry Weapons permit, or in Mass known as a Class A License to Carry Firearms Unrestricted. Seemed the powers that be in the Commonwealth thought the CCW term too appealing to the general populace.

I nodded. 

“Then it’s your choice,” she said. “I’ll be armed. I suggest you do the same until can do your wizardry in the Collective.”

Kenzi replaced the target with a fresh one and sent it back the same distance.

“Watch and learn,” she said, putting on her eyes and ears. I rushed to keep up. 

Drawing her carry gun she mimicked my earlier stance and lobbed maybe 15 rounds of lead down the lane. I lost count. 

Once the gun returned to battery, Kenzi smoothly turned her hand without taking her eyes off the target. She depressed the magazine release, letting it fall to the ground. With her eyes still on the target she retrieved and seated a new magazine and then racked the slide. Another fifteen rounds flew. She reloaded and then holstered her weapon.  

The target rocketed back with a flick of a switch. 

A nice tight grouping. 

“Nice,” I said and I meant it. I was very impressed. 

“That’s how you practice level one combat shooting,” Kanzi said. “I have one other thing to show you.” 

She took out a .45 round that if not for the coating of black fingernail polish would have looked ordinary. 

“I’m not getting it,” I said. 

“This is a black magic bullet,” Kenzi said. “They can be used on the possessed, shifters, zombies, anything in meatspace infused with power from the Collective. 

“Why don’t you just carry silver bullets?” 

“Now you’re just being silly.” 

“What makes that different for an ordinary round?” I asked, half expecting her to say black magic.

“We have a wizard augment them in the Collective,” Kenzi said “It’s a specialty. Not something just anyone can do.” 

“What’s next?” I asked. Did I really want to know?

“You’re full of questions today, aren’t ya,” Kenzi said with a wink. “Chavvi must have something for us by now.”

Chapter 11

“Tell me you have some good news,” Kenzi said as walked through the entry, beads clacking against each other behind us. 

“I might have something,” Chavvi said, rising from her cushion.

The impression I get is of a violent death. Deep, dark emotions. Terrible, really.” 

Poor Dedra. Not only had the end of her life been horrible, but even in death, she was affected by the circumstances of her demise. 

“Anyway to find her body?” I asked. It was unclear as to whether I’d be able to help her. Kenzi had indicated something would be held back until Dedra fulfilled her half of the bargain.  

“The impression I get is that her body was disposed of in an abandoned building. I get a distinct impression it’s near the waterfront. I feel a constriction on the throat like she had been strangled. But I also see a man’s tie, wider than normal. I hope that was helpful. 

“Yes, thank you,” Kenzi said. “It’s at least something to go on. Let me know if anything else comes to mind.” 

Then Kenzi looked at me. 

“It time I introduced you to the Body.” 

To be continued…

 

 

NaNoWriMo – Chap 8 & 9 Black Magic Bullets

Day four of #NaNoWriMo and I’ve made wordcount. Anyway, this is a rough draft. I continue to course-correct without going back to fix the previous day’s work. Feel free to tell me what you think. Don’t worry, I have a very thick skin.

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS.

Chapter 8

I have to admit, the Storeroom was a lot different than I expected. Instead of a closet filled with supplies, it turned out to be the whole lower level of the Dreadstone building. 

Before we grabbed the equipment, Kenzi brought me to the Human Resources office. 

The HR Generalist quickly listed my title as administrative and made my employment legal for the federal government and the state of Massachusetts. In this way, everything appeared above board and I wouldn’t have to find a way to launder the money I’d receive for services rendered.  

“I passed?” I finally asked Kenzi, genuinely surprised. I hadn’t thought of asking Stone. The whole day had been one big whirlwind with little hope of returning to sanity.

“You survived,” Kenzi said. “That’s more than can be said of the previous candidates.”

That’s when I realized just how dangerous the situation in the ritual room had been. I also noticed the effects of the gas had dissipated. That was good, I didn’t need any distractions outside the ritual room. 

Peal arrived for what they simply called the employment ceremony. 

“I want to make this absolutely clear,” Peal said, looming over all in the tight confines of the generalist’s office. 

I had a hard time concentrating. My mind kept intruding with thoughts that only a few minutes earlier I had been standing naked with this man in a pentacle, and a vengeful spirit——who almost killed me by the way——stalking around outside trying to find a way in. 

I rubbed at my throat absentmindedly, it felt tight but would be sore tomorrow.

“Once you’re bound by the contract, you’re required to keep everything we do here confidential into perpetuity. If you break the deal, your life is forfeit.” 

I studied Peal for a moment, his smooth almond skin, Alister Crowley haircut, which is to say he had none and powerful build which made him look more than formidable and belied his executive status and realized that I never wanted to cross this man. 

I needed the job so I nodded affirmation. 

Peal placed what looked like some sort of handheld device on the desk. Flicking a slider on the side of the unit, it took only a second for the device to flip open revealing two square halves. On one side, a sharp barb stood wickedly erect. On the other, a screen flickered and then came to life with a jaundiced glow. I didn’t have to wait for Peal to feed me instructions, what needed doing was painfully obvious. And I mean painful in a literal sense. 

Placing my finger over the barb, I pushed down. The needle bit into my skin. My finger throbbed but I kept my countenance stoic. From this moment forth, weakness wouldn’t be abided. 

Peal grabbed my thumb with one powerful hand and then rolled the digit over the display on the other side. The procedure reminded me of when I had applied for a firearms license. It’s not hyperbole to say I felt like a common criminal. I felt the same now. 

Blood——my——blood, pooled on the screen, then became the shape of my thumbprint, with all its ridges and indentations, before total absorption into the device. 

“Remember,” Peal warned as he scooped up and placed the device into his suit coat pocket, patting it for effect, “you are now subject to the constraints of the bargain.” 

My thumb still smarting, Kenzi took me, by elevator, to the labyrinthine lower level of the Dreadstone building. 

I still had no idea how we would find Dedra’s body, and what we would do with it once we had. 

Hopefully, we could provide her a proper burial, affording her some closure. From what Kenzi had told me, I wasn’t too confident in achieving my desired outcome. 

“Everything has to be done with an eye toward the bargain,” Kenzi said in answer to my inquiry. “This is a quid pro quo business. Dreadstone gets something and Dedra gets something. Nobody gets everything they want, or there would be no need to make the deal.”

“You’re saying we have to keep her wanting so she completes her end of the bargain?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Kenzi said. “If not, she’d have no need to stay on this plane of existence. Then where would we be?” 

I didn’t like it. The whole thing seemed exploitive and cruel. I needed to wait, though. Bide my time and see how things washed. I didn’t want to be too rash too quickly. Not completing my end of the bargain could mean my death. 

I followed her down a dimly lit echoey hallway past other suit-wearing denizens of the lower dark. 

“How do we even find where her body is located?” I asked, my voice sounding hollow. The whole thing seemed like an exercise in futility. What did we have to go on? Her first name? How far would that get us? 

“With this,” Kenzi held up an evidence bag with a torn piece of cloth protected inside. 

“Where did you get that?” 

“Mr. Peal pried it out of your hands after your skirmish with the entity.”

I looked at her dumbfounded. Searching every quadrant of my mind, I couldn’t remember ripping a piece off of Dedra’s rags. 

“You went into fight or flight,” Kenzi said. “It’s normal not to remember the whole incident. Believe me, I know.”

I was sure she did. Yet, I didn’t really know who this woman was or the extent of her position within the company. I figured I’d learn soon enough. 

Kenzi led me through a beaded entryway on the right. Inside, An Indian woman sat on a cushion in a lotus position. She wore silken robes dyed purple and trimmed in gold. Her raven hair done up with Japanese kanzashi hair sticks. The room smelled sweet of frankincense and sandalwood. The light scent spoke of quality, the kind Phantasmagoria, a shop in Amherst, produced. Asian tapestries and rugs adorned the walls and floor, giving me the image of a magic carpet dealer. Part of me wondered if Dreadstone had a fleet of flying carpets. After the day’s events, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had. 

“This is Chavvi, one of our resident physic mediums,” Kenzi said as we approached. I felt uncomfortable for not knocking before entering. As far as I could tell, Kenzi held no such reservations or feelings. 

“I’m——,” I began as I held out my hand. 

“No don’t tell me,” Chavvi said as she rose to greet us. She clasped my hand in hers, closing her eyes. Her hand felt both cool and soft against my skin. 

“I see a rosebush. Now a single rose, the stem. Thorns.”

Her eyes fluttered open. 

“Am I close?”

“I’d say.” Chavvi had truly impressive abilities. Compelled against reason, I lifted her hand to my lips and gave it a kiss. “My last name is Thorne. Harrison Thorne, but my friends call me Harris.”

“This one’s a charmer, isn’t he,” Chavvi said giving a wink to Kenzi and taking back her hand. 

Kenzi’s expression didn’t change. If some women were thought of as cool drinks, Kenzi was ice-water in a frosty glass. I didn’t mind that, though. Something about her frozen exterior was appealing. Perhaps she was hiding some torment under that arctic exterior, a hot pain cordoned off by a wall of ice. I’ve always been a sucker for a mystery. 

“I need you to enter the Collective and find out everything you can. Names, places, dates.I’d like to take action today if possible.”

“You never ask for much, do you?” Chavvi said stifling a giggle. “Okay, come back in an hour or two. I should have something then. Do me a favor: bring your friend. I like him.”

Chapter 9

With time to kill, Kenzi buzzed us into an oblong room painted battleship gray. Weapons both modern and archaic lined the walls and waited in cases. Tucked into each corner of the room stood heavy iron vaults I could only imagine held much of the same. 

“Welcome to the armory,” Kenzi said, the upturn of her lips was the closest she had come to a smile.

“You need all this to protect yourselves from ghosts?” I asked. There was enough firepower here alone to equip a small army. 

“Dreadstone is involved with a lot more than just inhuman resource recruiting,” Kenzi said, and I guess I had imagined as much. “Besides, when we go out into the field we’re not just dealing with what’s in the Collective.” 

“The author Richard Connell knew that humans were the most dangerous animals on earth,. Maybe they’re the most dangerous entity in any dimension as well,” I added. Kenzi didn’t seem impressed by my factoid. 

“They’re dangerous,” Kenzi said. “That’s why we prepare for the worst. You never know who you’re going to run into out in the field. And until you’re up to speed performing wizardry in the Collective, our weaponry is going to have to do double duty.” 

Then she looked at me straight in the eye. 

“Have you ever fired a gun before.”

“I used to go hunting with my dad,” I said. 

“So, in Mass, most likely shotgun,” She said. I nodded. She was right. With the state so heavily populated, most hunting with firearms was relegated to shotgun season. Rifle rounds traveled too far to be safely fired in most areas. 

“What about handguns?” She asked. 

“I’ve handled them,” I said. 

Kenzi retrieved a Colt 1911 from the case.

“Show me.” 

To be continued… 

 

 

NaNoWriMo – Chap 5, 6 & 7 Black Magic Bullets

Day three of NaNoWriMo and I’ve made word-count. Anyway, this is a very rough draft. Although I was trying to create a character arc, I came to the realization that my protagonist might not be a strong enough character for the genre. I attempted a slight course correction. Also, I write by the seat of my pants without an outline. I have no idea what’s going to happen from writing session to writing session. And as always, this is only a first draft with very light corrections. Feel free to let me know what you think. Don’t worry. I have a think skin.

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS.

Chapter 5

“You’ll know what to do,” Stone assured me before we began. “I can tell you’re suffering a crisis of confidence. That’s not who you really are. I want you to think back to all the training you’ve had, not just in wizardry but also as a fighter”

Stone was right. I wasn’t feeling myself. I had let my life circumstances rob me of my mojo, let them make me feel less than. I knew who I was. I had fought full contact not just in the dojang martial arts school but on the streets, against bullies. Had I won all my fights? No, who could? But I had never backed down from a fight. Thinking back, I had logged plenty of ritual sessions, even if most of them took place in my parent’s unfinished basement. 

Feeling better, I nodded my head. 

Peal began the process, walking around the circle, lighting each colored candle with a matte-black Zippo, calling upon the creatures of each direction, invoking a pentagram by cutting each line in the air with an athame. 

Voice booming, Peal uttered words of power, infusing his thoughts, and his words, with his actions. 

When he had finished, We entered the center of the pentagram. 

“Computer,” Stone uttered the wake word. “Protection.” 

Tiny tubes in the circle of the pentacle released the creature of salt until the grove had completely filled. 

She spoke the wake word again followed by the word undine, and I watched a tile on the floor slide open to reveal a hole in the floor filled with water. I knew why but thought it odd. Never in all the rites, I had observed, had anything like this been utilized. 

“Ritual,” Stone said right after the wake word and the lights shut off leaving them with only the illumination and moving shadows cast by candlelight. 

“It’s time to enter the Collective,” Stone said. “Are you ready?”

I took a deep breath to slow my heart. 

“I’m ready.”

Placing the mask over my nose and mouth, my other hand worked the valve releasing the gas. The seal was tight, the gas did not leak, and I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply. 

When I opened my eyes, everything had changed. 

The mundane world had been replaced by what Stone called the Collective. 

I realized I was in the collective now. One foot in waking reality, the other in an interdimensional dream. 

“Can you see it?” Stone asked when she opened her eyes. She hadn’t relied on the gas to enter and neither had Peal. A meditative state allowed them passage. I longed for the ability to transgress from one waking world to another naturally. 

I nodded. 

By the green candle stood a diminutive being, a gnome. His eyes black, staring, perhaps dreaming, lending power to our rite. 

A sylph fluttered her wings as she circled the yellow candle in ecstatic flight. 

A floating orb of light, an elemental of fire, referred to in medieval times as a salamander buzzed the red candle. 

Finally, I looked to the small water pool which had been revealed by the blue candle. Up came the head and shoulders of a beautiful undine water elemental. I averted my eyes to keep from being transfixed by her radiance. 

Never in all the rites, I had witnessed had I observed the manifestation of even one elemental. They had been called upon and believed to be there to protect and empower. Yet, they remained invisible. Only their presence could sometimes be felt. Seeing them in their natural or unnatural form, I couldn’t decide which, was somewhat disconcerting. 

At each quarter a pentagram hung in the air. Peal had created each one expertly, the cuts as precise as any human could accomplish. 

Peal used the athame to activate the sodium in the grooves of the circle, augmenting the natural protective qualities of the ordinary substance. 

A blinding white energy beam shot down through Peals head and out the athame, alighting the salt as it burned like a white-hot fire. 

“Welcome to the collective, Mr. Thorne,” Peal said as he placed the dagger on the floor. “The test is about to begin.”

 

Chapter 6

“I don’t think I need to tell you,” Stone began. “Whatever you do, don’t break the circle.”

What did she think he was… new? That was the first rule of ritual magic. Breaking the circle could be dangerous, seeing into the collective sent the message home in a big way. All of this had been invisible to him for so long. 

“Are you sure you’re ready?” Peal asked, concern wrinkling his brow and the skin under his eyes. 

“You don’t need to worry about me,”  I said. I had once again found my place of strength Let it rip. Get this thing over with. 

Peal said the invocation. Nothing happened. 

For some reason, I turned. I can’t remember if I had some objective or reason, but I immediately regretted it. 

Just beyond the circle stood a being not quite dead, not quite alive. A state of being sometimes described as undead. 

The thing stared at me with dead malevolent eyes. I gasped, stumbled back. I heard Peal’s sharp call too late. I had stumbled outside the circle taking the ethereal fire and the elementals with it. 

The thing was upon me then constricting my throat with powerful hands, lifting me into the air as it screamed banshee-like, a primal fit of rage. 

Tunnel vision set in. The constriction deprived me of both blood and oxygen. Below, Stone and Peal screamed for me to do something, anything. The life was draining out of me along with my strength as the creature screamed, tossing me around. 

With only seconds left before I blacked out, I hissed words of power between clenched teeth allowing the white light glow into the crown of my head and into my hands filling them with what the Chinese sages call chi. 

I hit the blasted thing with a double hand palm strike, releasing stored energy, blasting the creature into the opposite wall.

Free from constriction, I plummeted back to the floor. Peal dragged me back inside the circle. 

Picking up the athame, Stone summoned energy, and then closed the circle–walling us off from the evil being. 

“What the hell was that?” I managed to ask. My whole body hurt and I rubbed at my throat. 

“Lemur,” Stone said. “And she hasn’t left yet. Can’t leave until we release her.”

I looked across the circle and saw the lemur crouched, ready to pounce if given the chance.

“I’ve never heard that name,” I said, and I hoped never to have to deal with one again. 

“The lemur is an angry spirit,” Peal said. “One who wanders without reason.”

“We give them purpose,” Stone said, crawling to the edge of the circle to confront the lemur. 

Tentatively, I followed, careful to stay well away from the edge of the circle. If there was a next time with this thing, I might wind up dead.

“Observe me while I negotiate,” Stone said. 

The lemur looked like some form a wraith to me, like she had clawed her way out of an early grave. Her clothing, what was left of it, hung off her body, reduced to rags, and her long hair appeared matted and as dirty as her clothing. 

A once handsome face had succumbed to sharp angels and distorted features. Bulging eyes accented milky white sclera as if the iris and pupils had sunk below the surface.  

“What was your name in life,” Stone asked, uncharacteristic compassion warming her voice. 

“Dedra,” the lemur said her voice raspy, her eyes vacant as if she could see back to another time before the endless cold and perpetual darkness. 

“Dedra,” Stone said. “A very pretty name. Would you like to be called that name again? 

“Yes…”

“We would like you to do something for us, Dedra,” Stone said, licking her lips before speaking.

“What…?”

“A client of the Dreadstone Corporation needs someone like you to guard their property. They would address you as Dedra. You must leave the client and their guests alone, but you can kill anyone not authorized to be on the property. Would you like that?” 

“Yes…” A cock of Dedra’s head let me know she wanted something in return. Stone picked up on this as well.

“Name your price?” Stone asked.

“My body…’ Dedra hissed. 

“If you’re willing to start now,” Stone said looking up at me. “You have a corpse to find.”

Chapter 7

Full death-cycle recruiting, from the grave to all eternity. That was the responsibility of an Inhuman Resources Recruiter. I wondered if I was up to all this. My whole perspective changed when the brunette who had given me a once-over walked into the conference room. 

I was immediately struck by her beauty, her sophistication. Her graceful confidence made me believe there was something more to her, something hidden under the surface. 

I had known men who exuded this type of confidence but rarely a woman. The look in her eyes was both alluring as it was dangerous. 

“Meet Kenzi Harper,” Stone said as we all stood in greeting. “During your probationary period you’ll be working together.”

“You’ll follow my lead,” Kenzi said by way of greeting. “This is a dangerous business and I don’t  need a wet behind the ears newbie getting me killed.” 

I didn’t like the idea of taking orders in the field. It had nothing to do with her gender. Perhaps I had a deep-seated distrust and dislike for authority. My poor grades in high school certainly spoke to that. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work, I just chose not to listen to those who considered themselves above me. 

I nodded, held my tongue. There would be plenty of time later to test my boundaries. Discretion, after all, has been called the better part of valor. 

“We’ll see about that,” I said under my breath. How about that? My mojo had returned. 

“What was that?” Harper asked. 

Well, at least somewhat.

I said nothing.

“Good,” Harper said. “Let’s get you to the storeroom. You’re going to need a shovel. 

 

 

NaNoWriMo – Chap 3 & 4 – Black Magic Bullets

This is only my second day working on my NaNoWriMo novel. I wasn’t sure about joining in on the festivities, but after writing a short 800 words yesterday, I felt like I might be on to something. Also, had an encouraging Twitter comment from a very kind reader comparing my scant pages to Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. Wow! Those are big shoes to fill! Although very flattering, and it certainly made my day, I won’t let it go to my head.

200px-Skin_game_cover

I got up early and after helping my wife get off to work, and feeding our cat, I wrote the 1st draft of the 3rd and 4th chapters. I made word-count easier and quicker than expected. Sometimes it works out that way. I’ll take it. While I might write more later, I still have the 3rd draft edits of an 80,000-word horror thriller on my plate and some short story work I need to revisit.

award-honorable-mention-wotf

While I have you here, I  wanted to mention I’m now officially listed as receiving an Honorable Mention in the 3rd quarter of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. My story ended up in the top 2% of all submissions. This is one of the most prestigious contests in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre with thousands of entrants every quarter.  A contest like this can make your career. If you write SF&F, you will be well served to enter this contest. Bring your A-game and strive to be better every submission. And like Han Solo famously said, “Never tell me the odds!” If you want to see all the contest winners along with the Finalists and Honorable Mentions, click the link here.

Never Solo

 

I know I owe you another The Scribes Arcanum blog, where I talk about short fiction sales, and I hope to post more shortly.

Now without further ado, the next first draft chapters of Black Magic Bullets. Click here to read chapter 1 and 2.  Let me know what you think in the comments or on social media. I wish you all the best with your writing.

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS. 

Chapter 3

As I approached the elevator bank I caught sight of a young brunette, very well put together, very corporate, stepping out of the cab. She stopped for only three-tenths of a second. Gave me a once-over and then headed out to, I could only imagine, a trendy restaurant for her lunch break. Almost a full foot taller than me, I mussed that dancing might be out of the question. 

Feeling like a geek all my life, I was taken aback. Did that girl just check me out? I wasn’t used to it, but I couldn’t say I didn’t like it. Must be my new suit. 

They were waiting for me when I stepped off the elevator. It wasn’t the 666th floor but the ascent felt like it. My ears popped more than once on the way up. 

“Jasmin Stone, Executive Vice President of Human Resources,” the woman with the black silk skirt suit and the morticians smile greeted me with a cold handshake and spidery fingers. 

“Harrison Thorne,” I said

“Do you go by——?”

“Just Harrison,” I interrupted. Hate is not the word for what I think of nicknames. 

“I’m not a fan of names with three syllables,” she said with a wink. 

“Harris,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. Seemed like a fair compromise. 

“Well then, Harris,” She said splaying her fingers palm up, directing them toward a man in an equally shiny silk suit. “This is James Peal III our Director of HR. We’ll be conducting the interview. Come this way please.” 

Instead of a cold clinical corporate headquarters, the expanse of hallways and offices exuded warmth and reflected the refined taste of the CEO and executive management. Yet, instead of classic prints or success platitudes, oil paintings that can only be described as ghoulish adorned the walls. I wondered if they had been purchased from a serial killer’s estate sale. 

The conference room held nothing out of the ordinary, a long mahogany table, set with a water pitcher and glasses on a tray in the center, with plush crimson chairs surrounding, and a 75-inch flatscreen obelisk hanging on the wall, as reflective as any mirror. 

They sat across from me, my puny resume placed in front of them. I had no experience to speak of and very little education. What did I have to offer? 

“We don’t care about your resume,” Jasmin said as if reading my mind. If the rumors were true about Dreadstone, maybe she could. She tore the paper in half leting it float back to the tabletop. 

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. My heart raced and my palms felt clammy. I placed my hands below the table to wipe them on my pants. 

“What Ms. Stone means,” Peal said interjecting to break up the silence. “Is we’re not interested in your previous work or schooling. We want to see if you can recruit for us. It’s a very special type of recruiting that only those who have spent time in the environments you have could accomplish successfully.” 

“How will you know?” I asked. It was no idle curiosity. I had a very bad feeling about what was going to happen next.

“We’ll test you,” Stone said, with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. 

“How?” My mouth went dry and I found it hard to wrap my lips around the word. I pointed toward the water pitcher. Stone nodded. I waited a beat but when it didn’t look like Stone nor Peal were planning on playing gracious host, I reached for a glass and helped myself. 

She sat patiently until I’d hydrated before continuing. 

“There is a… place we call the Collective. The old joke is that you can’t get there from here. That is more than true. You can’t walk there or call an Uber. No bus, train, or plane can reach that destination.

“It says here that you have martial arts training,” Stone said, pointing to the ripped resume before her. 

Not having much work experience I had listed my black belt and assistant instructor status, but I was really pushing it with that. The assistant instructorship wasn’t anything formal.

 “Have you pursued mediation?” 

“Yes,” I said, then qualified, not wanting to oversell myself. “A little.” 

“Good,” Stone said, a smile coloring her voice. “The best and safest way into the Collective is through transcendental meditation, but it will take time for you to develop the skill.” 

“What do I do until I gain the ability?”

“I’m glad you asked that,” Peal chimed in. “You might not be, though.” 

With that, they led me out into a hall and to another room.

A placard read: RITUAL 667. 

What was I getting myself into?

 

Chapter 4 

The ritual room was more refined than any I had visited. In my teenage years, I hung out at The Chasm in North Hampton. Even in the wilds of Western Massachusetts, the owners went to great pains to hide the place from the inquisitive and the hostile. 

Normals fear what they don’t understand and during The Chasm’s early years someone threw a brick through the decorative plateglass window. After that, the owners had cast a masking spell around the store.

A friend I had met at another occult shop had given me the procedure to get in. 

I would pull up on the opposite side of the street, and shut off my mother’s Hyundai. Looking across the way, I’d see a cluster of businesses accordioning in on themselves. 

My retinas didn’t register The Chasm. It stood all but invisible until I closed my eyes and relaxed, pushed away my desire to visit, and remained still. 

As my mind quieted my body calmed, my heart rate slowed, and once I opened my eyes again, I’d see The Chasm as if it had materialized out of nowhere. 

Maybe I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. 

The ritual room in the basement had been outfitted similarly but was more utilitarian. I had only walked through the ritual space at the Chasm, never having the confidence nor the courage to do more than observe some basic wizardry or a local coven celebrating the change of the seasons during Samhain or Beltane. The sexually charged Beltane rituals were always my favorite. Can you blame me? 

Here the ritual room had been tiled, the same as the hall, in a rich black stone. A ubiquitous pentacle had been etched into the floor, porcelain white over ebony granite. 

Dim red recess lighting kept the place dark and reminded me of a photography darkroom. 

Yet, the glow remained bright enough to reveal all the tools of the trade: a small portable altar, stick incense–I could see that it had been hand-dipped, the kind of quality and attention to detail that relieved the inhaler of headaches caused by caustic additives–very expensive–a bakers dozen of double-sided antheme blades, a bowl for the creature of water, and another for the creature of salt. A solitary black candle waited on the alter for the creature of fire, and a red, blue, green, and yellow candle stood on pedestals at each cardinal compass point. 

A dozen-plus suit valet lined the far side of the room. 

Why are those here?

I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. 

“Undress,” Stone said simply as she and Peal to-the-third-power led me over to the valets. 

“What?” Had I heard her right? I didn’t see a changing room.

“What, are you that modest?” Stone asked before her crimson lips upturned into a devious smile. “I was under the impression that anyone who made time at The Chasm or Phantasmagoria would have no problem disrobing around others.”

My mouth went dry again and all I could manage was a nod. 

Sure, I had observed Beltane rituals, one of the few nights where outsiders to the covens were allowed to watch the Alexandrian or Gardnerian witches do their thing skyclad, but I had never been the one disrobing. 

When in Rome, I suppose.

Averting my gaze as much as my curiosity would allow, I tried not to stare at Stone’s porcelain skin or her chiseled curves. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. 

Now with all of us metaphorically clad only by the sky, Peal removed a portable breathing mask connected to a canister from a draw in the valet. 

“You’ll need this if you hope to enter the Collective,” he said, handing it to me.

“What’s in it?” I managed, not relishing the idea of inhaling some unknown substance.

“Ethylene gas,” Stone answered. “You’re holding a concentrator. Turn the valve one turn widdershins when you’re ready and breath deeply. No more than that at a time. This is the same inhalant, with a couple extra additives, used by Pythia the Oracle of Delphy. If you over concentrate you’ll end up babbling gibberish and will be no use to us. Not only will you fail the test, but you could end up dead. No pressure.” 

Yeah, no pressure. Sure. 

To be continued…