Varvara’s nodding was helpful. Consent was not strictly required for the ritual he was about to perform, but it made things much easier to have it. Given that time was of the utmost essence, and that the ritual space was not ideal, this was fortuitous; any advantage he could muster at this point, the sin-eater was thankful for. He almost couldn’t quite believe what he was about to do: with the minimum of preparation, and in front of a hungry crowd, some of whom would do worse things than kill to coerce him into repeating the ritual for them. But the look of panic in the young gypsy’s eyes left him in no doubt as to the necessity of the course of action he was about to undertake.
Even as Johan began to try and ground the girl with his voice, Daniel started making his woefully inadequate preparations, his brain working overtime to try and find substitutions for ritual components that he was missing; when he’d contemplated doing something like this a little while before, he’d thought he’d not have to eat too much energy, but it had become apparent that things were far more serious that he’d first imagined. Digging out a silver lighter from his pockets, he lit the cigarette – in the circumstances, the rules didn’t apply to him either – but it was for the ritual’s benefit, rather than his: the very mundane scent of tobacco smoke would help anchor him in reality, and perhaps even be of some use in helping Varvara find her own way back to control, while the cigarette’s small flame was a useful representation of fire, a well-established element in rituals of purification; that was what he was really trying to do – purify the Purity.
The sin-eater took a few large draws on the cigarette and billowed out clouds of smoke around them, completely oblivious to anything else around them. He was pleased when Johan gave him the bloody glass: the droplets were fresher and purer than the stained bandage he’d handed her earlier. What he was going to do with the blood was risky on a practical as well as a magical level, but there was no time to finesse things. Daniel nodded at the Swede and closed his eyes for half a second while he tried to weave this new element into his ritual plans; ritual magic, even at the best of times, and especially when flying by the seat of one’s pants, as now, was more like art that it was science, more about feeling one’s way through the rules and the conventions and applying them organically and instinctively, rather than following a recipe; of course, you had to know the rules like the back of your hand to do that, and the tried-and-tested rituals were there for a reason – they had good efficacy for relatively low risk – but if you wanted flexibility, you had to get creative. Now, it was time for Daniel to craft a thirty-second masterpiece.
He took one last drag on the cigarette and then placed it down on the bar next to them. In one hand, he held the shard of glass, and in the other he produced a communion wafer and a small, ornate, crystal salt shaker from somewhere inside his coat. He put the wafer on the glass – it began to turn crimson as the blood osmosed into it – and sprinkled a few grains of salt on top of it. Then he closed his eyes and spent a few seconds muttering words under his breath that were impossible to make out. When he opened his eyes, he turned them on Johan, their fierce blue almost burning with concentration and focus.
“With respect, in the words of our American hosts, this ain’t my first rodeo.”
Daniel then looked at Varvara, but he was unsure of how much she was really taking in.
“This will be over soon,” he said, perhaps as much for his own benefit as hers, before focusing on Johan one last time and adding:
“Whatever it is that you’re going to do, don’t take too long about it.”
The sin-eater gave a small nod. He placed the salt shaker down on the bar, next to the still-lit cigarette; the shard of glass, loaded with ritual elements and infused with portentous words, was in his right hand. He shut his eyes and opened his mouth wide. Somewhere behind him, he heard a man speaking. If he’d been less of a professional this would’ve angered him, maybe even put him off, but he didn’t really register the words, and just let them flow over him as part of the meaningless fabric of background noise that was irrelevant to the here and now. He placed the piece of glass gingerly on his tongue and carefully closed his mouth around it, bracing himself.
Nothing happened. A whole second passed, and still nothing. He opened his eyes. It must be the alcohol, he thought: he’d been banking on there being enough whisky residue left in his mouth to provide that aspect of the rite. Just as he was about to remove the glass and lunge for the nearest beverage on the bar, Daniel remembered how deliberately Varvara had avoided touching his hand, and he knew that that was the answer.
He meant to grab her wrist with both of his hands, but as soon as his fingers made contact with her skin the torrent surged into him, and he only managed to latch onto her with his left. The glass in his mouth cut his gums as he bit down to stop himself from screaming; the pain was good, reminding him of the brutal normality of the word. But it was short-lived: the ecstatic kick of energy rushed into his soul, trying to drown out all the misery and pain it found there, trying to get him to focus only on obtaining more of that raw power. His fingers dug hard into Varvara’s flesh; his right hand clenched into a fist as the muscles of that arm began to spasm and contract.
To those who could witness such things, the sin-eater was beginning to glow with Arcane Purity; to Daniel, the world began to fade, being swept away by the incandescent rage of energy that threatened to consume him, a kaleidoscope of dazzling hues that were not visible to the naked eye encroaching on his field of view. Blood began to trickle out of the corner of his mouth, which was still firmly clamped around the glass, and he just about had the presence of mind to realise that he’d miscalculated: he’d pulled out all the stops, because his relative lack of preparation would tend to make the ritual less effective, but he’d gone too far and set a rate of eating that was too fast to be anything like safe; Johan’s ploy better work, and fast.