Series: Magic, When You Need It
Genre: Angst, Fantasy
Warnings: Teaser fic. Minor warning going forward for involved religious themes being handled by an atheist. If you think that might offend you, this fic and its sequels will most probably not be for you.
Details: Gen, AU, genre!crack, pre-series, urban fantasy, magic, religion, atheism, prophecy, foreshadowing, unbetad.
Characters/Pairings: Kevin Ryan
Summary: "If you want to know where a man's future will lead, you have to know where he's been..." A fateful encounter leaves Kevin Ryan with two futures foretold—the one that he hopes for, and another that he fears. Unfortunately for him, both lie down the same path.
Notes: Written for spook_me's Halloween Ficathon. The creature prompt was "Witch/Wizard". Unfortunately, the resulting idea demanded a longer story, but I was unable to finish it before the deadline. Therefore this prologue is another stand-alone preview of what will soon (hopefully) be a full-length fic.
"If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow, and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate."
—Macbeth; Act I, Scene III
Two weeks before their graduation, Kevin and a few of his friends had taken off as soon as school was out to spend the rest of the afternoon at Coney Island.
It had hardly been the first time, but the closer they had gotten to the end of the term and eventual freedom the more unruly the student body as a whole had become, and Kevin and his friends had certainly not been the exception. Their afternoon expeditions had gradually become noticeably wilder and more daring as the days between their time at school and the rest of their lives fell away. It was doubtful that any of the others would even remember that day as being dramatically out of the ordinary... It had only been three days before the incident with Sister Darcy's stuffed owl, after all, and the trouble that had caused had inevitably gone on to overshadow most of their earlier mischief.
But Kevin remembered it vividly, and would continue to remember it for the rest of his life with a clarity he often felt was uncomfortably suspect.
At first glance the storefront hadn't been that remarkable either—just another small, cramped shop amid the row of cramped shops designed to take up as little space as possible. Yet while most of these resorted to brightly painted signs or neon lettering to catch the eye of passers by—and this shop had not been an exception in that regard—it was actually a rather small square of paper displayed in the corner of one window that had captured and held their attention.
It wasn't unusual to see occultists' shops on the street now and then, whether they were hawking amulets or remedies, or whatever other services sorcerers and witches offered in their trade. And those that were properly licensed by the city generally made a point of displaying their certificate prominently to the public. But fortunetellers were another matter, for indeed diviners were less common in general, and they were less likely to operate openly. While most of the magical arts could, in theory, be mastered by nearly anyone given time and hard study, the power of divination was said to be nearly impossible to hone unless the practitioner possessed that gift already—and the ability itself was well known to damage both body and mind if tapped too deeply.
Most would-be soothsayers never achieved the level of accuracy required for licensing under the guidelines set by the city's Occult Ethics Board. While that didn't precisely stop most of them from operating, they were usually forced to advertise as mystical advisers rather than claiming any significant power for seeing into the future. Locating a seer with some small degree of real talent at divination among the ranks of charlatans was so notoriously difficult that most people knew better than to put much stock in for-profit prophets.
Finding a real, licensed seer was incredibly rare—finding a dinky little boardwalk storefront advertising certified palmistry, livanomancy and tarot had been so impossibly bizarre that it simply strained belief.
Which, in short order, had left Kevin and his friends arguing about whether or not it could actually be for real. And he could no long remember which one of them had first made it a dare—almost certainly it had started jokingly, only blooming into seriousness the as jeers and name-calling continued to escalate. Finally, a combination of curiosity, coercion and general rambunctiousness had overcome their reservations enough to propel them forward.
The inside of the shop had been close and humid from the summer heat, and very dim—though in a way that spoke more to a lack of windows than any pretense at atmosphere. Its proprietor had been a smartly dressed woman in her late twenties, dark of hair and eye, with features hinting at Slavic heritage and an accent which was all New York. She had seemed rather unimpressed by the sight of them together, but had given a moment's brief consideration to each of them in turn before agreeing to peer into their futures for five bucks apiece.
"I won't promise a revelation at that price," she had told them, "but I can promise accuracy."
And Kevin had long ago forgotten the specific details of the fortunes she told to his friends. They had—most of them—all taken the form of simple, pointed advice on a specific choice that lay before them in the near future. But (save for Toby's, whose unheeded warning would be found to foreshadow certain owl-related chaos) those memories had all quickly been eclipsed in his mind...
What he would always remember was the moth-light whisper of her hand grazing his palm as she passed it over his. He would remember her looking up at him, eyebrows drawn tightly together over a frown. And he would remember his confusion, and his friends' confusion, and her apologetic tone as she handed his money back to him, shaking her head.
"Not today," she had said.
She had spoken the words quietly—a near-whisper, too low for the other boys to hear—before moving on to read the last boy's fortune, then wishing them well and shooing them all away. And Kevin had passed the rest of their afternoon almost in a daze as he tried to make sense of her refusal, a formless, queasy feeling of dread uncurling slowly in his gut. Confusion and uncertainty had gnawed at him, and more than just a little fear. There had been a voice in the back of his head warning him against returning—that consulting the seer just once had been sin enough, and that compounding it with a second visit could only make things worse. Still, though he had hardly been aware of his decision when he made it, Kevin had known from the moment the door closed behind them that he would be going back.
Which he had wound up doing the very next day.
It was late afternoon by the time he built up the courage to approach the shop. The sign in the window had said it was closed, but something had pushed him try the door anyway. And when he found the door unlocked Kevin went inside. His heart was beating very rapidly by then, his stomach churning, and the sight which greeted him inside—of the fortuneteller, waiting for him with a faint smile—had done nothing at all to ease his anxiety.
She said nothing, but continued waiting quietly. It took Kevin nearly a minute to find his voice.
"Why?" Kevin asked finally, unable to find any more to say.
The fortuneteller's smile turned somewhat wry at his simple question.
"Few things can ruin a man's future faster than having it told to him," she said. "What I have to say—if you decide you want to listen—should be for your ears alone."
Though her voice was soft, it held a discernible note of warning—though one that sounded almost defeated, as if she already knew what his choice would be. Probably she had.
With a nod, she led him back to the rear part of the shop. At her gesture Kevin took a seat at the table where, the previous day, he and his friends had sat for their fortunes. She paused for a moment, watching him silently, a contemplative quality to her gaze. She seemed herself almost uncertain—a detail which Kevin tried and failed to derive any comfort from. Finally, it appeared she came to some decision.
"I don't get many good little Catholic boys in here," she told him, taking the chair beside him, "but I still know better than to accuse them of sorcery while their friends are listening."
Kevin could only stare at her stupidly for a moment, stunned and numb feeling, before managing to shake his head.
"No, that's—" he couldn't quite finish the sentence, and was forced to pick up another. "You've made some kind of mistake."
And that sounded stupid, even to his own ears—but calling it a mistake, however unlikely, was better than calling her a liar. As horrified as he was, Kevin's mother had raised him better than that.
The fortuneteller raised a questioning eyebrow and held out her hand for his. For such a simple gesture, it almost felt like a dare.
Kevin hesitated, but finally offered his hand. He held his right hand forward, but it was the left one she took—and as nervous as he was the slight movement made him flinch. She offered him a sympathetic expression as she turned his hand over in her own.
"If you want to know where a man's future will lead," she said, "you have to know where he's been..."
Her voice was soft and her eyes somewhat distant. She swiped her hand slowly, lightly over his palm as she had the day before, frowning with intense focus at whatever it was she could see. After a moment she nodded as if she had confirmed something to herself.
"There are several conditions which either create or identify talent in the arts of magic," she told him quietly, her eyes lifting briefly to meet his own. "You were born with the pileus naturalis—with the membrane people call a veil or caul still covering your head. People born with the pileus often bear a heightened sensitivity to supernatural forces."
Returning her eyes to his hand, she traced the central crease in his palm with a fingernail, pausing to knead the flesh at the base of his index finger gently with the pad of her thumb.
"You were also born at solar midnight," she added, "at the moment directly between dawn and dusk, when the boundaries that define the physical world are at their weakest. The hour of midnight is associated with an aptitude for compelling spirits from the Void—"
"You mean demons," Kevin interrupted sharply, quickly pulling his hand away.
Because that was one thing that his parents—and Father Gleeson at their church, and his teachers at Saint Charles Academy—had always stressed when the subject of the dark arts was invoked. With the high-profile role the occult had played during the Second World War, the following decades had seen policy shift away from restriction in favor of regulation, and with legalization had come a grudging acceptance of its use. Magic, as a whole, was steadily gaining a more visible presence within mainstream culture, and, for all its documented hazards, had lost much of the fearful stigma that had forced its practice underground in the past.
But just because a thing was legal—he was frequently cautioned—didn't make it moral. Just because it was accepted didn't make it right. And old evils couldn't shed their wickedness just by hiding behind new names. Kevin and his friends had each committed a venial sin in having their fortunes read, even as a joke, and Kevin himself had committed a mortal one by returning in earnest. Magic as a whole was incompatible with a life lived by God's laws. The summoning of demons in particular was an offense so profane that a sorcerer would incur excommunication by the very act itself—so dark an evil that only necromancy stood more reviled.
The fortuneteller watched him draw away without argument, sitting back to look at him with a sigh.
"And that is the real shame here," she said, shaking her head sadly. "Either sign on its own is rare enough, and would suggest an in-born affinity for magic, but to display two of them... A natural sorcerer with your potential isn't born every day. Yet fear holds you back. Without it you could be powerful—very powerful."
"I don't care," Kevin said.
And as firmly and as honestly as he meant them, even he thought the words sounded a bit petulant.
"I mean...it doesn't matter," he clarified, more politely. "It's...that's not even something I want."
The fortuneteller didn't seem too offended by his outburst, or at least she hid the fact well if she was.
"I'm sure that you don't, not right now," she said. "And maybe you never will, but I sincerely doubt it."
It was in Kevin's mind to dispute that, but he was distracted from his efforts when she reached for the small wooden box sitting on the table. Kevin had noticed it earlier, though he couldn't recall seeing it the day before when he and his friends had been there. The fortuneteller opened its lid and drew out a deck of cards.
"Outside forces—the faith you grew up with and the fear it teaches—have kept you from even recognizing your gift, let alone tasting its benefits," she said, mixing the cards with a loose, overhand shuffle. "But it's not something you can actually sever yourself from just by pretending it isn't there."
She set the deck back on the table and spread them out in an arc along its edge with a sweep of her hand.
"It will be there for you, if you ever need it," she said finally waving a hand toward the cards. "The real question is: will you?"
In the silence that followed Kevin tried to remain calm under her waiting, expectant gaze. He wasn't wholly successful. He returned her stare just as quietly for several moments before finally giving in, reaching out with a surprisingly steady hand to show the face of one of the cards from the deck. And Kevin's breath caught and his stomach clenched at the image of a young man with a wand held high.
Kevin nearly stood up and walked out right there, but the fortuneteller let out a soft laugh.
"That does seem a little on the nose," she observed wryly, "but you'll be happy to know it doesn't actually mean what you think it does."
She lifted her hand, fingertips hovering over the surface of the card.
"You're a truth seeker," she said, lips drawing into a smile that formed the words into a complement. "You can't be content with loose ends or unanswered questions. Your natural curiosity drives you to search for answers. That's set you on a specific path, and it's not one you'll abandon lightly."
Even if Kevin had disagreed he couldn't have justified arguing, because it was exactly that impulse that had brought him back in the first place. He took a deep, slow breath to digest that, and when, after a few moments, he seemed calm the fortuneteller offered him an encouraging nod, glancing at her cards once again.
Taking it as invitation, Kevin turned over another card. A stern, seated figure—the King of Swords. The fortuneteller hummed thoughtfully.
"This is your intended path," she said. "A life lived in service to a higher authority, to order, to justice—the true calling of your heart that you've already chosen to pursue. What you want is easily within reach if you stay on your present course."
And Kevin didn't quite know what to make of that pronouncement, because on the surface it sounded like exactly what he would have want to hear. He was smart enough to distrust that, but it did make him wonder what might come next. Hesitantly, Kevin chose a third card, turning it over to reveal...
Okay, honestly he didn't know what he was looking at.
"The Ten of Cups," the fortuneteller offered helpfully, seeming to notice his confusion. "Love, family, friendship, satisfaction in your professional life... There will be a period in your life where you will feel as if you've achieved everything you desire—or at least those desires you choose to acknowledge."
In spite of her words and the vibrantly colored and cheerful image on the card, she was not smiling. For a moment she looked at him as if prepared to say more, but seemingly thought better of it with a light shake of her head. Uncertain, Kevin drew a fourth card from the spread.
The fortuneteller released a breath, as if this confirmed something which she had already begun to suspect.
"Tragic circumstances lie down your current path," she told him solemnly. "Some disastrous event that will shatter the life you've built at its foundations—a sudden reversal of fortune that will shake every conviction you have. This will be a defining moment in your life, but not by any means an end to it."
Kevin watched her expression closely as she watched him—weighing her thoughts as she seemed to weigh his reaction. He thought it was concern that was written there as well as caution. Though he had to question whether she was seeking to manipulate him, that wasn't what his instincts were telling him. And Kevin honestly wasn't sure whether he wanted to see any more than he already had, but he knew he would always be left wondering if he didn't see things through to the end.
Slowly, Kevin drew the next card, turning it over beside the others. Though there was nothing overtly menacing about it, the otherwise serene image on its face—a blindfolded woman, calm, and seated with a blade in each hand—inspired a brief pang of apprehension for no reason he could readily define.
"The Two of Swords represents balance," the fortuneteller said. "In this case it's a choice, and unless you manage to find a compromise capable of reconciling the conflicts that divide your heart it's bound to be a painful one. It may be possible to regain a part of what you've lost, but not without sacrificing something else you value."
Kevin sat in silence for a while, lost in a confused mix of emotion that forestalled any true thought—noticing only when the fortuneteller spoke up once again.
"The next card will be the last," she promised him quietly.
Kevin nodded, breathing out slowly as he drew the final card from the deck. On the card, the angel in the sky blew its horn, calling the dead from their graves for the final Judgement. Kevin's stomach sank at this reminder of the subject at hand, and just how much was at stake—the temptation of power, and its threat to his mortal soul.
"The choice you make will have inescapable consequences," the fortuneteller said, though, strangely, Kevin saw that her earlier concern had smoothed away, and that she was smiling. "Your fears and your secrets will be laid out in the open, exposed. But facing the challenges that come your way grants the opportunity for a transformative rebirth—joy and hope from the ashes of tragedy."
Kevin was doubtful, but he said nothing, looking over the full spread of cards for a moment with a frown. He wasn't quite sure he understood any of it...
"So what does that all mean?" Kevin asked finally, unable to make sense of it on his own.
"Well, that will depend on you, won't it?" the fortuneteller answered. "Fortunes aren't fated, they're just predictions. I've shown you the shape of events that lie down a road you'd already chosen to travel, and it forks, sharply. You can always change course before you meet that fork—try to avoid the hard choices on the path ahead of you—but a safer road might not take you where you truly want to be."
She took up the King of Swords from its position on the table.
"Following your dream will grant you the life you've wanted," she said, "but one day, you will be forced to fight in order to keep it. How hard and how far you'll take that fight, what tools you're willing to use, and the price you're willing to pay will be completely up to you..."
"In the end, as powerful as it is, magic is just like any tool," she told him finally. "The decision to wield it isn't one that anyone else can make for you."
Kevin chose to interpret her words as a reassurance, though he knew they had more probably been meant as a warning.
And it seemed those words concluded things, for the fortuneteller set about collecting her cards from the table. Kevin wasn't quite sure what to do with himself. A part of him was loudly insistent that he should thank her—for her time, for her efforts, it was just polite—but another that felt just as strong wanted to do anything but. He stood slowly, loitering for a few moments before reaching for his wallet.
"How much...?" he asked uncertainly, only to see her shake her head.
"Not for this," she said quietly, offering him a smile.
Taking that as dismissal, Kevin turned toward the door. Only one further question stopped him...
"Why?" he asked her, this time earning her surprise. At her frown he struggled to clarify. "I mean, you must have decided the price was worth it. And what you do...what it's going to do to you..."
Because while most details concerning the occult remained just that, some had become common knowledge, and few notions had become embedded in the public consciousness so readily as that of the mad prophet. And Kevin was worried, once he asked, that the question was too personal and might have offend her, but the fortuneteller met the question unflinchingly, and with a sincere smile.
"My father died from a degenerative illness when I was sixteen," she told him. "One of the first things I saw when my foresight developed was that, one day, I would too—that I would lose my reason one day no matter what I chose to do."
And Kevin's alarm must have shown on his face—the sympathy in her expression as she looked at him hardly seemed fair at all.
"I've never been a believer in any higher power," she told him, still smiling, "or in heaven, or the soul—I feel if this life has any purpose at all, it must be to help the people you can, where you can, how you can, for as long as you're here to do it. Using the gift I was born with means losing the battle ahead of me years sooner, but I've chosen to face that future on my own terms."
When Kevin got home that night, his mother had noticed his unusual quietness almost instantly. Mindful of his similarly distracted manner from the previous night, she had been understandably concerned. Kevin had been tempted to lie, though only briefly, deciding in the end to face up to her inevitable disappointment and offer the explanation she deserved. He had told her about the trip he and his friends had made the day before, and what they had done, and about his own choice to return for what more the fortuneteller had left to say.
Though she had been understandably upset with him Kevin's honesty had proven worth it when it afforded him the chance to confirm at least some of the seer's claims. For his mother had admitted, uneasily, that Kevin had indeed been born veiled, and during the small hours so that the asserted time was probably accurate as well. Though his mother and father had both been aware of the veil's significance, they had kept the detail hidden from him, wary of inspiring a potentially dangerous interest in the occult.
And Kevin had thought, at the time, that his mother's revelation should have had more impact, though he had eventually understood why it hadn't—that he had accepted the fortuneteller's words as truth already, so that their confirmation had only been a formality.
Still, for all his remarkable calm, sleep had not come easily that night.
Kevin had taken himself to confession at the nearest opportunity. And he had given the priest a full account of the events leading to his sin, as well as the foretelling that had come of it. Kevin's confessor had prescribed a modest penance, and offered a careful warning about the perils of unguarded curiosity leading the unwary into temptation.
And, at the very last, the priest had offered his thoughts on the fortuneteller's pronouncements—though they were not at all what Kevin would have expected.
"The information itself was collected by sinful means," the priest had reasoned, somewhat reluctantly, "but if the foretelling holds a true warning about future temptation it could be a dangerous one to ignore. If your future plans will lead you toward an occasion of greater sin, it might be best for you to consider a different calling."
Kevin had neither argued nor objected—but even though he gave it long consideration and earnest thought it had proven impossible for him to agree.
It had shamed him—deeply—but in the end Kevin had been unable to put his plans aside. He simply could not bring himself to barter the future he so badly wanted—not to escape some unnamed danger he wouldn't even face for years to come. And if he believed that much of the fortuneteller's prediction was true, then he had to believe her about the rest—that whatever choices he made truly would be in his hands. No, his mind was made up—perhaps only the stronger for his fleeting doubts, and their test of his resolve.
Kevin would face the seer's future when it came to him—but until that day nothing would stop him from becoming a cop.