5000 words, give or take. That’s what’s required to summon a creature from the netherworld. 5000 words, many of them polysyllabic in the extreme, to praise, beguile and, ultimately, to command a ghastly entity to come forth from wherever they abide. Despite recent attempts at modernisation, archaic language was still the accepted standard and there were plenty of “verily”s, “forsooth”s and so on littered among the Lovecraftian prose. Honestly, “antediluvian”? Has anyone said “antediluvian” in the last 50 years? Really? So, Morgana Smythe told herself, it was hardly surprising that she’d made a mistake somewhere, even after careful googling for both meanings and correct pronunciations. Any fellow practitioner would surely understand, if perhaps not forgive. And it wasn’t as if she was a professional yet — she still had 6 months of her final university year to go before she could register as a chartered daemonologist and use the letters “ACD” after her name. That’s assuming she passed her finals. Based on her current dilemma, that was looking doubtful.
She stared into the eyes of the fat old man standing before her in the (still faintly glowing) circumscribed chalk pentagram. He looked confused and scared. And quite sweaty — his outfit was entirely inappropriate for the room, what with the heat being given off by the circle of braziers and the crackling electrical warmth in the air that always accompanied arcane energies and ritual. Morgana turned away and sighed.
“Wh… where am I?” stammered the old man. “Who are you people?”
Morgana felt a tug on her robe. It was Henrietta Bellicose, one of her cultists. The others, Xavier Jhuboo, Minty Satchell and Bobby Cadaver stood around the pentagram, staring. Blood dripped from Bobby’s knife unnoticed by all — with the possible exception of the chicken lying nearby. Its head had only recently been severed and the light of life still lingered faintly.
“Morgana!” hissed Henrietta, “Is that…?”
It was time, Morgana decided, to exercise some leadership. Her tutor had always said that was one of her strengths. No time to dwell on failure now, it was time for action. She gathered her robe about her, stood as tall and straight as she was able, and distributed commands.
“Xavier, Minty, make our guest comfortable. Bobby, head for the library, see if there’s any precedent. Henrietta — follow me.”
Bobby practically fled the room, almost tripping over a blackened skull in his haste. Xavier and Minty looked at each other and shrugged, not knowing quite how to proceed. She left them to it — it wasn’t as if she had any clue what to do either. The old man looked on pleadingly as she strode from the room into the study in what she hoped was a masterful manner. Henrietta scurried in after her.
“Close the door.” she asked, and Henrietta dutifully obeyed. Henrietta was a good servant. She was also smart, and that’s what Morgana needed right now. “So, first things first. What just happened?”
“Well, assuming that’s… him, I suppose there’s an obvious answer. The names are similar after all.”
“Great. Well, that’s all we need. Suggestions?”
“Well we can’t send him back to the realm below for obvious reasons…”
“Yes. It’s not where he’s from.”
“…and I’m not aware of any rituals that might get him anywhere more appropriate. It would have to be, what, the north pole?”
“Hmmm. I suppose we could try sacrificing a penguin.”
“No, that’s the south…” Morgana glared at Henrietta. Sometimes she was a little too smart.
There was a knock at the door and Xavier entered.
“Yes?” Morgana demanded.
“Ummm… he wants… he wants milk. And cookies.”
“Well go and get him some then! Make him comfortable. But be careful, we don’t know much about him. He might… I don’t know, turn you into an elf or something.”
Xavier emitted a sort of strangled yelping noise and ran out of the door. Morgana turned back to Henrietta.
“So, sending him home is one option, if we can work out how. Anything else you can think of?” They exchanged a lingering look as the obvious thought occurred to them both. There could be a lot of unhappy children this Christmas. No, there must be another way.
Morgana still held out hope that maybe, just once in her life, she’d manage to elicit some sort of emotional reaction from her tutor. Perhaps this would be her chance. Right now, though, Professor Hector Plasm sat impassive as a neolithic monument, giving the impression that should the earth tremble and the tectonic plates sink into the fulminating magma below he might, perhaps, raise an eyebrow. She really didn’t want to be here asking for help, but Bobby hadn’t found out anything useful in his library research and Henrietta was out of ideas. Morgana had no alternative but to ask for help.
“So. To clarify.” Professor Plasm intoned in a voice like the creak of a glacier, “You tried to summon the lord of hell?”
Morgana nodded guiltily.
“Well, that’s already enough to get you thrown off this course. I suppose you already know that. Since you’re telling me this, would I be correct in assuming that something went wrong?”
She nodded again.
Professor Plasm sighed, opened a drawer and, after a moment of rummaging, pulled out a sheet of yellowing parchment. “Let me see… yes, this is the one.” He placed the parchment on his desk, smoothed it down, and pulled a biro out of a stand which looked like (and probably was) a shrunken, hollowed out human foot. “Now, is anyone dead, mortally wounded, possessed, re-possessed, drowning in slime, on fire, hexed, ensorcelled, enchanted or enslaved?”
Morgana shook her head. Professor Plasm ticked a box on the sheet of paper. Morgana saw that there were a lot of boxes on the page.
“Is the earthly realm in which we live subject to imminent catastrophe in the form of daemonic invasion and/or a plague of any kind including, but not limited to, flies, rats, boils, cockroaches, measles, mumps, rubella, crickets, spiders, hamsters or reality talent show contestants?” he continued.
Morgana considered carefully. None of that seemed likely. Also, a plague of hamsters wouldn’t be too bad, would it? She shook her head again and Professor Plasm ticked another box. He was about to ask another question, but she interrupted him, saying “Look, I really think you should come and see for yourself.”
“So you see, less Old Nick, more Saint Nick.” said Morgana, pointing at her rotund, hirsute summonee.
“Hmm. And what’s that he’s holding?” asked Professor Plasm.
Morgana squinted. “Good question.” She looked around for her closest minion. “Minty?”
Minty Satchell stepped forward nervously. “Well, er, you said to make him comfortable…”
“Yes, go on?”
“He asked for some brandy, so we fetched him some.”
“You fetched him a whole bottle?”
Minty shrugged. The old man seemed to notice them for the first time and swayed as close as the pentagrammatic prison perimeter permitted.
“These guys… you guys… I love you guys! Come and have a drink with me!” He slurred. The bottle he was holding looked mostly empty.
Morgana turned back to Minty.
“You got Father Christmas drunk?”
Xavier piped in, “Jolly, I’d say. Not drunk. Jolly.”
Morgana silenced him with a glare. Professor Plasm may have been looking on disapprovingly; Morgana couldn’t tell.
“Well.” he said, “I’ve seen worse. The amount of times I’ve had to plug holes in the fabric of reality… Oh I could tell you some stories. Perform Yolanda Hollander’s rite of awkward reversal — that should sort things out. And we’ll hear no more about this. Let’s just say I was never here. And for pity’s sake get the man a chair, he looks like he’s about to pass out.”
The prisoner belched in what Morgana thought sounded like an approving manner. Professor Plasm turned on his heel and left.
Henrietta sidled over. “That could have gone worse.” she said.
“Yes, and that rite’s a great idea. How come we didn’t come up with that? I suppose relying on Bobby to do the research wasn’t the best idea I had.”
Morgana turned to her other assistants, who looked on expectantly. “You heard the Professor! Minty, fetch a goat. Xavier, make sure we’re fully stocked up with black candles. Henrietta, we’ll need Yolanda’s codex to check the details. And Bobby, give Santa a chair.”
Minty, Henrietta and Xavier scurried off, vanishing through side corridors. Bobby picked up a battered orange plastic chair from the edge of the room and approached the pentagram. And then, like seeing a saucer of virgin’s blood about to be knocked from a bone tripod by a carelessly swung censer, Morgana saw exactly what was about to happen.
“Bobby! No! Be caref…”
Too late. Bobby, not the most precise of people, was paying no attention to the carefully chalked lines surrounding the old man. As he approached with the chair, his foot scuffed the circle surrounding the pentagram, breaking its integrity and instantly negating the protection it provided.
Morgana turned and looked at the man in the centre of the now useless pentagram. He didn’t seem so drunk any more. He was staring at her, and his eyes were glowing red. He began to smile, his mouth widening and widening beyond human proportions. Darkness spilled from the edges of his expanding grimace, forming black tentacles that shot out in an explosion of inky foam. One hit Bobby, flinging him backwards onto the floor and splitting the orange chair in two. Morgana became aware of a deep, throaty chuckle clawing at the outer limits of her consciousness, and a sound like a thousand simultaneous screams coalesced into one, terrifying voice.
“I can’t believe you fell for the Satan-slash-Santa routine!”
A tentacle enveloped Morgana, gripping with the strength of cold iron. Too horrified to struggle, she was lifted off the ground and pulled in close until all she could see were a hundred eyes, a hundred mouths and a thousand teeth floating in an abyssal maelstrom. The voice spiraled around her, filled with the pain and terror of millennia.
“Morgana Smythe. What to do with you? I could rend you and flay your nerves to a red raw scream. I could burn you for a decade and freeze you for a lifetime. But… not today I think. To be frank, I’ve quite enjoyed our time together. It’s not every day I get the chance to come out and play with people in this realm. And in any case, you’re mine now. I’ll see you soon enough.”
And with that, the loathsome presence was gone, folded in on itself repeatedly until nothing was left except the lingering smell of Christmas pudding — a final joke perhaps. Now released from tentacular enclosure, Morgana sank to the floor, breathing heavily. A groan from somewhere behind her suggested that Bobby was also still alive, and the sound of running footsteps heralded the imminent return of Henrietta.
So. 5000 words. And she’d got every one of them right after all. She really had managed to entice the ruler of the underworld to leave his infernal home and come for a visit. Professor Plasm would probably be proud of her, although, if this had been a test, the whole being-marked-by-the-devil-then-very-nearly-being-flayed-and-incinerated thing would probably cost her a few percent. However, she was going to have to think carefully about her future. Was this the career she had in mind when she started? Should she give up now? The student loans would be a pain to pay back, but she couldn’t help thinking she might want to do something safer. Like perhaps joining the fire brigade or becoming a war reporter. But there would be no point. The damage was done. He had burned his sigil into her soul and would always be with her. Destiny is many things, but forgiving isn’t one of them.