Tim raked the sand in the chicken run and gathered old grain, husks, droppings, feathers, straw and other detritus into a pile beside the door. Clustered in the opposite corner his three chickens huddled in consternation, unhappy with the interruption to their routine. Heads bobbing, each bird tried to hide behind the other two, resulting in a continual and futile gyration.
In short order he scooped the sweepings into a waste sack, changed the water, topped up the grain, and scattered a few lettuce leaves around. Lastly, he made an inspection of the whole structure, checking for broken wire, holes, and loose joints.
As he moved round the roof so did the chickens, keeping as far away from him as possible.
I know exactly how you feel, he thought watching the birds alternately huddle together and dash around in small circles. You just want to know what’s going on, and whether it was something you did that made everything change.
He had upset Foxy when all he had been trying to do was help. Right now there was nothing he could do except hope she would realise that, and give him a call. Even if she didn’t, he could still help her with her plague of cats. Yes, there were obstacles: he didn’t know where she lived and she wasn’t a client, but this was an opportunity to put theory into practice. He should be able to do something right here, inside his own office.
Over the years Tim had accumulated a sizeable collection of books on alternative beliefs, divination, magic and meditation. Brighton, with its strong new-age culture, was a perfect place for this with several specialist shops and a good second-hand market from disillusioned or impoverished past practitioners. He had restricted himself to the traditional and academic texts, unable to see the point in learning about fairies, mermaids and dragons, and other creatures that did not exist.
Carrying a selection of books to the desk, he leafed through them, looking for something to break a connection, make a sending, or cause a diversion. The first thing he found was a prayer from Haitian voodoo, an appeal to the Loa, the Mavoungou Mystères, asking them to find something better for an enemy to do. The prayer was subtle, sinister, and daunting. To use it he would need one of the chickens. Faced with that immediate prospect he realised he was not ready to take that step. The knife of his soul, to paraphrase one commentator on ancient rites, was not yet sharp. Neither, for that matter, were the ones in his kitchen. There had to be another way.
Soon books on Wicca, Futhark rune divination, lost secrets of Ogham and Wyrd, and the hermetic lore of the Kabala covered Tim’s desk. He set to work, browsing indexes, tagging pages. After a while he got up and fetched more books.
The number of tagged pages grew along with the notes he was making. Wearily Tim rubbed his eyes and stretched his back. This was not as easy as he had hoped. When he’d bought these books he’d been thinking about how to discover things, not about how to change them. The tomes on Mo and Sho Mo, I Ching, the Nordic runes and Tarot were about divination, not alteration. Some were lavishly illustrated with photographs, paintings and reproductions of medieval woodcuts, while others like the Haitian voodoo and Goidelic Wyrd were dense, archaic and poorly printed, and in the case of the Haitian book, contained large sections in nineteenth century colloquial French.
He went back for more books.
The shadows had moved across the room before Tim finally pushed the weighty tomes aside. His eyes swam, his head felt clogged. The more he read the more overwhelmed he felt by alternatives. In his mind the information had all started to blend together: The Pharaonic Book of the Dead with the Mayan winged serpents and Toltec jaguars; numerology with the Ptolemaic elements; modern Wicca with Ahura Mazda, Mithras, Confucianism and Tao.
He knew he was a dabbler, a dilettante and parvenu. Each one of these ways was worthy of a lifetime of study, not simply sets of instructions to cherry-pick favourite recipes from. They weren’t cookbooks, they were systems of belief and ways of life.
Slumped forwards in his chair Tim rested his arms on top of the books, his head on his arms. What did you think you were doing? You’ve got nowhere, you haven’t helped Foxy, you haven’t found out how to banish the cats.
He settled his head more comfortably and closed his eyes.
Outside a motorbike droned past. Tim slipped into a light doze. The sounds of traffic and pedestrians faded away along with the feel of the books beneath him, his sense of location, the very aura of the room.
I’m asleep, Tim realised. This is odd. I know I’m asleep, and I know that I know.
Still able to sense his own body, he could feel how it lay and that it was content, but he felt no connection to it. He was drifting.
I’ve become detached from my soma, my physical self, Tim thought. I can wake up if I want, or go to sleep properly. Or, because it feels nice and peaceful, stay like this.
Slowly he became aware of change, a difference in the quality of the light permeating his eyelids, the texture and taste of the air he breathed. A low, gentle murmur came to his ears, a shuffling, rustling noise like cloth moving, or people breathing. It was in no way disconcerting. Tim concentrated on the sounds, trying to work out exactly what they were. Calmly he realised it must be because there was someone else in the room. As if to confirm it, there came a scuffing noise of a heel or a bare foot on stone.
Tim opened his eyes.
While he had slept someone had redecorated his room, removing all the furniture, replacing the walls and windows with featureless bare stone and lighting the room with smoky oil lamps and tapers that filled the air with a miasma of animal grease. The decorator was still there, a thin man of middling height with a crooked nose and a beard like a tangle of grey wires. Barefoot and wearing a dirty toga with an unravelling red hem and a comically outsize golden turban, he stood in front of Tim with arms upraised. A pendant of woven gold wire hung by a thong round his neck. Suspended in the gold sparkled a single blue diamond the size of a wren’s egg.
Behind him a dozen men and women occupied the rear half of the room. They must have been working hard because they were all asleep, lying on the packed dirt floor with their hands folded across their breasts, their feet towards Tim. The men wore simple breechclouts or sarongs, the women plain black ankle-length shifts that left their arms bare. Behind them stood a crude wooden door.
Belatedly, Tim realised that he was he was upright. Off balance, he staggered forwards.
‘Aieee!’ the turbaned man screeched. He raised his arms higher. ‘Hold! You are compelled. Not one step further.’
‘Ooh.’ The apparently sleeping crowd behind him, shifted uneasily.
‘I am Asklepios,’ the man declaimed in a surprisingly deep voice. ‘Opener of the dark doorway, seeker of truth, master of the indivisible three, five, and seven.’ He took a breath, ‘And also of the eleven.’
Slowly Tim became aware of the rancid odour of Asklepios and his cohorts. ‘What are you doing in my room?’
Confusion briefly clouded Asklepios’ brow. Glancing surreptitiously at a fragment of parchment concealed in his palm, he raised his arms again. ‘I am Asklepios, philosopher of the crystal spheres, adept of the Eleventh Circle of Light. Discarnate soul, I command thee pronounce your true name.’
‘Er… It’s Tim.’
‘Then know this, Eritstim, I have bound you to this place and to my will. You are my servant until your task is complete. Only then shall I grant you leave to depart.’
Looking down, Tim saw he was standing inside a circle gouged in the mud, the groove filled with an unpleasantly glistening dark stain he sincerely hoped was red wine. Small piles of wilting herbs lay outside the circle, interspersed with smouldering cones of incense.
‘This is a really odd dream,’ Tim said.
‘Aaah.’ The people lying on the floor were not as deeply asleep as Tim had thought. ‘We are the dreamers.’
Tim shook his head. ‘This is my dream.’
The room fell silent.
‘Asklepios,’ a worried voice hissed among the prone crowd. ‘Are you sure this is the right one?’
Tim reached across the circle and picked up some of the herbs, eliciting a soft wail of dismay from Asklepios.
‘Bay leaves and lavender. What are these for?’
Sweat broke out on Asklepios’ brow. ‘For protection and health, binding and summoning. Eritstim, I have passed your test of my knowledge. Now, heed the words of Asklepios, your master. I am Asklepios, traveller of the lands above and below. I have bound you once, bound you twice, bound you eleven times on pain of Hell’s freezing fire and the eternal darkness that lies between the spheres.’
That was pretty good, Tim thought. Despite his unprepossessing clothes and silly turban, Asklepios delivered his lines with verve and power. ‘I liked the way you said that. It was very convincing.’
‘Thank you,’ Asklepios’ chest swelled, a trickle of sweat gleamed on his temple. ‘You therefore acknowledge me as your master and I now bind you to utter only truths.’
‘Sure, why not. It doesn’t really matter, you’re all going to vanish when I wake up.’
‘Aiee.’ A distressing keening came from the women in the group.
‘Liar,’ Asklepios cried, waving his small piece of parchment. ‘Deceiver. I have followed the precepts. You are bound.’
‘Not at all. This is my dream and I’m imagining you all.’
‘Aieeee!’ Now the men joined in the wailing.
The parchment dropping from Asklepios’ trembling hand. ‘Liar.’
‘No. You see, I was reading about people like you and trying to see if there was anything useful you could do.’
‘And was there?’ Asklepios quavered.
‘Not really, no.’
A skinny man naked except for a breechclout scuttled forwards on all fours and prostrated himself in front of Tim. ‘Don’t unmake us, mighty one. Don’t undream us. Oh Lord, oh Master.’
It was the start of a rush. Moments later Asklepios was surrounded by men and women abasing themselves at Tim’s feet.
‘Save us from the unmaking.’
‘Don’t undream us, we implore thee.’
‘We are your servants.’
‘Mighty one, how may we serve you?’
Tim held up his hand. An expectant silence fell. ‘Well, there is one thing.’
‘Tell us, oh Master!’ the throng cried.
‘I have a plague of cats.’
Expectant faces looked up at Asklepios. A dozen trembling hands pushed him forwards.
‘He can do it. He really can.’
Asklepios clutched his beard. ‘Ah… I think I can do that.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Yes, I am sure I can.’
‘I’d really appreciate it.’
Emboldened, Asklepios managed a sickly smile and patted a few heads. He raised his hands. ‘Now, go from this place, Eritstim. I dismiss thee. Begone and return, Eritstim. Get ye hence to whence ye came–’
‘That’s not really my name, you know,’ Tim said, and stepped out of the circle.
Asklepios stared at Tim’s foot and bleated in terror. He broke and ran but crowd the behind him broke first. Men and women surged screaming for the door. Behind them Asklepios clawed and fought to get past the skinny man. The man twisted free with extraordinary agility, picked up Asklepios and flung him bodily at Tim. ‘Take him,’ the man cried. ‘Take Asklepios.’
Asklepios crashed into Tim and the both fell back into the circle.
All the lamps went out.
Whatever it was that had been, it wasn’t there any more.
Tim woke at his desk, straightened up and looked around. The sun had set, the room was filled with cool evening light. The world appeared two-dimensional, nothing looked quite as real as it should. Gradually the impression faded.
Tim rubbed his face, cotton-headed from the intensity of the dream. The dream had felt so real. Asklepios’ screams still rang in his ears, the acrid reek of unwashed bodies filled his nostrils. The groggy feeling persisted, Tim gulped water from a glass. It was cold and refreshing but somehow didn’t dispel the smell of body odour. Tim turned on the desk light.
Tim started forwards with an involuntary cry of astonishment. A pair of dirty, bare feet protruded on the carpet beyond the desk. Still wearing his huge golden turban, Asklepios lay unconscious on the carpet.
To be continued…