It was the kind of nightmare you wake up from with something on your chest. Literally, it felt like this time. I let out a short gasp and coughed; I smelled old cigarettes. I don’t smoke—had I had anyone over who smoked lately? I was too groggy to remember much beyond the fact that I do not entertain at my apartment very often.
Blackness gripped my vision. It was dark enough that I could not see across my bedroom. Normally, slanted bars of light cast from the streetlight pierce my blinds. But not tonight. Tonight, the air was opaque and stale.
I rolled over onto my right side and craned my neck to see my alarm clock; it displayed a sickly green 3:13. Witching Hour, just great. One of the first things you learn in The Program is how time and space affect magic, and the spells that were particularly nasty had a proclivity for the Witching Hour. I felt fearful, perhaps remembering dregs of my dream. But even if that was not the case, the time put me on edge. My mind wandered as I roused myself further—how many bad things happening could I imagine at once? What if someone was breaking in? What if it was someone who would not hesitate to harm me in their pursuit of my crap? What if it was a lunatic casting shadow magic?
I grabbed my book-light off the nightstand, contorting the flexible head so that it pointed in front of me. Just a quick glance around and I would be calmer. When I turned it on, instead of illuminating the far side of the room, the light swirled and absorbed, as though traveling through liquid. My eyes struggled to focus in the uncanny darkness, trying to take in the features of my room that were shrouded in far too much shadow. I wasn’t any calmer.
The coils in my mattress groaned as I sat up. I rose and walked in the direction of the light switch.
“Dammit!” I swore as I stubbed my toe on a heavy volume of hourly cycles and charts. It was open to a table of lunar phases. Tonight was the new moon, I remembered. Even better, I thought, a twinge of fear scurrying through my body. I made my way to the light switch, gingerly stepping around more books: Carmen Uniuersitatis, Principles of Feng Shui, Basic Automotive Repair—all of which I had started reading but failed to finish. I reached the switch next to my door and flicked it on.
At first, the volume of my room lit up, but with two successive pops, the bulbs burned out.
I took a breath and let out a muffled cough—the dank smell was worse on this side of the room. I snapped my fingers, attempting to produce a more adequate light source. A few weak sparks sputtered and fizzled like a lighter that was out of fluid. I tried again, focusing my thoughts on illumination to no avail. The book light would have to do for now.
I heard something—or thought I heard something—like someone walking on tiptoes over the floorboards in the hallway. I touched the doorknob, my heart jumping into my throat. I steadied myself as I opened the door enough to see into the hallway. Was I normally so skittish?
The book light again seemed dimmed and shadows encroached on the spot of light on the wall. My imagination immediately ran through the worst-case scenario, but the shadows were thankfully inert—they were only magnified, not alive. I walked down the hallway, my bare feet creaking along the cold, worn wood floor of my apartment. I felt a chill in the air, but then again I was only in a T-shirt and boxers. Were there anyone breaking in who could see me, I would be embarrassed, I realized. But what was I doing worrying about that when I could be in real danger? As I reached the living room, I could smell something noxious like burnt plastic.
Something was up.
I flicked the closest light switch. The overhead light blew out, but in the fleeting burst of light I saw something that made me freeze.
It was in the tattered tangerine armchair facing away from me. There was a limb using the left armrest, shiny like obsidian. I pointed the book light, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and exposed. It was foolish of me to investigate this abnormal darkness without a spell ready. I fingered my triquetra necklace—I could use whatever protection it afforded, even if it was only symbolic. I traced over each curve and corner of the steel trefoil knot, but it did not seem to be helping much.
Pointed fingers lightly drummed the armrest. A lustrous black torso and head leaned into the weak light. Its skull was oblong and covered in thorny protrusions pointing back. The face was pointed and turned towards me with white teeth bared in a sinister grin. The eyes were the milky white of cataracts and bulging like peeled hardboiled eggs.
The creature smiled wider and goose bumps sprang up on my skin. The white eyes were unnerving. It was difficult to tell if they were looking directly at me—there were no pupils. My light reflected in the smooth, wet orbs. It was the only place where the light did not seem diminished by darkness. The reflection danced unsteadily as I shook.
I cast my gaze down fearfully, my heart pounding in my ears and my body coated in a cold sweat. Where is the chalk? Where is the damn chalk? The table? Yes. The table. By the armchair.
I crept slowly towards the table, the creature still smiling. The closer I got, the worse the burning plastic smell became. Soon, my eyes were watering. Could I reach the chalk before the monster made a move? Could I draw a circle before it dug its sharp fingers into my eyes? It was only the size of a toddler, I realized—its clawed feet did not reach the ground. Somehow, this made it more unsettling to me.
I reached the table. I was to the left of the creature, which I could guess was tracking me with those large, unblinking eyes. I could not look directly at the face—that tiny, pointed face—but I suspected that looking away would give it a chance to pounce. I held the light in my right hand up in a defensive stance as I groped for the chalk in the pitch black to my left. The creature reduced its smile to a smirk and gripped the armrests, audibly tearing the upholstery.
I found the chalk stick and gripped it in my damp hand just as the creature sprang to its feet. I crouched, swiftly arcing the chalk across the floor between myself and the creature as it lunged. I prayed my intention had been strong enough.
The creature stopped at the chalk line, teetering as though on a precipice, looking more curious than angry. Confident that I had bought a few seconds, I drew a full circle around myself. It ended up as more of an oval, but that would have to suffice, given my circumstances. My voice shook as I incanted, “protection.”
A green glint embossed the chalk lines as the spell took effect. I tried to take stock of the situation: I was safe for the moment—the thing was walking back and forth—no, it was pacing, tiny claws clacking against the floor, halted by magic for the time being. But a piss-poor circle would not protect me for very long. I had to think quickly; I had no implements on me. My wand was back in my room, lying on the floor. My mind drew a blank as I tried to recall the unarmed drills I knew—not that I had time to learn many before I dropped out. My nostrils burned with acrid smoke. The creature stepped back, preparing to make a run at me. I was too afraid to wait and see if it would be successful.
I went with the most primal of forms and jabbed my left fist at the thing, focusing all my thought on an offensive force. There was a concussive bang as the creature fell backwards, though my hand never connected, remaining safely inside my protective oval.
It was a punch. I went with a magical punch. This was not me at my most creative, but it seemed to be all I could muster in my frightened state. Had I learned more in The Program, I would have gone with a more elegant spell.
The creature pulled itself up and scampered away, heading through the apartment towards the door, its smile nearly gone. With a whoosh, it passed through the door, leaving a sooty stain in the shape of itself behind.
What the hell just happened? I needed to figure this out. A wave of relief came over me as the darkness seemed to return to its normal level. I stopped quivering and realized I was soaked with sweat.
First thing’s first, I thought, back to basics. I sketched an illumination circle on the floor—it was another circle I would be cleaning up in the morning, but I really needed the light. The four-pointed star shape inside the circle glinted and a warm glow filled the room; shadows faded.
All around me were miniscule footprints—scorch marks, really. They led from the armchair to the kitchen area where they terminated at the charred marks on the front door.
The first thing I did was call George. There was no one else more equipped to deal with whatever the hell had just happened than him. I swore under my breath as I was directed to his voicemail. I can’t even remember what I said—only that it was hurried and I repeated myself a lot. I needed to speak to him as soon as possible. It was embarrassing, needing to call for help, but I lacked all but the basic skills of other magic users my age.
I sat on the edge of the couch, opposite the armchair, whose seat and armrests were blackened by the creature. I practically bored a hole through the orange thrift-store chair with my stare. I had no intention of sleeping, but my head ached and my eyes burned. I think I nodded off for a couple of minutes sitting up, but I kept the circle illuminated the rest of the night. When I finally looked away, I saw dawn approaching through the window.
I noticed another set of soot-prints leading to the chair from my room. I felt a lump form in my throat. That creature—that thing had been in my room. I went into my room and a gasp choked its way out of me. Soot stained my bed spread with a concentrated blotch squarely in the center. The whole thing reeked of smoke.
I grow tired of not being able to fully handle stuff like this.
Brandon Sorce is a college student stranded in western Pennsylvania. On occasion, he writes things at paragraphslost.blogspot.com.