The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus Sequence #1)


by Jonathan Stroud

1

The temperature of the room dropped fast. Ice formed on the curtains and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling. The glowing filaments in each bulb shrank and dimmed, while the candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out. The darkened room filled with a yellow, choking cloud of brimstone, in which indistinct black shadows writhed and roiled. From far away came the sound of many voices screaming. Pressure was suddenly applied to the door that led to the landing. It bulged inward, the timbers groaning. Footsteps from invisible feet came pattering across the floorboards and invisible mouths whispered wicked things from behind the bed and under the desk.

The sulfur cloud contracted into a thick column of smoke that vomited forth thin tendrils; they licked the air like tongues before withdrawing. The column hung above the middle of the pentacle, bubbling ever upward against the ceiling like the cloud of an erupting volcano. There was a barely perceptible pause. Then two yellow staring eyes materialized in the heart of the smoke.

Hey, it was his first time. I wanted to scare him.

And I did, too. The dark-haired boy stood in a pentacle of his own, smaller, filled with different runes, three feet away from the main one. He was pale as a corpse, shaking like a dead leaf in a high wind. His teeth rattled in his shivering jaw. Beads of sweat dripped from his brow, turning to ice as they fell through the air. They tinkled with the sound of hailstones on the floor.

All well and good, but so what? I mean, he looked about twelve years old. Wide-eyed, hollow-cheeked. There’s not that much satisfaction to be had from scaring the pants off a scrawny kid.1

So I floated and waited, hoping he wasn’t going to take too long to get round to the dismissing spell. To keep myself occupied, I made blue flames lick up around the inner edges of the pentacle, as if they were seeking a way to get out and nab him. All hokum, of course. I’d already checked and the seal was drawn well enough. No spelling mistakes anywhere, unfortunately.

At last it looked as if the urchin was plucking up the courage to speak. I guessed this by a stammering about his lips that didn’t seem to be induced by pure fear alone. I let the blue fire die away, to be replaced by a foul smell.

The kid spoke. Very squeakily.

“I charge you … to … to …” Get on with it! “T-t-tell me your n-name.”

That’s usually how they start, the young ones. Meaningless waffle. He knew, and I knew that he knew, my name already; otherwise how could he have summoned me in the first place? You need the right words, the right actions, and most of all the right name. I mean, it’s not like hailing a cab—you don’t get just anybody when you call.

I chose a rich, deep, dark chocolaty sort of voice, the kind that resounds from everywhere and nowhere and makes the hairs stand up on the back of inexperienced necks.

“Bartimaeus.”

I saw the kid give a strangled kind of gulp when he heard the word. Good—then he wasn’t entirely stupid; he knew who and what I was. He knew my reputation.

After taking a moment to swallow some accumulated phlegm, he spoke again. “I-I charge you again to answer. Are you that B-Bartimaeus who in olden times was summoned by the magicians to repair the walls of Prague?”

What a time waster this kid was. Who else would it be? I upped the volume a bit on this one. The ice on the light bulbs cracked like caramelized sugar. Behind the dirty curtains the window glass shimmered and hummed. The kid rocked back on his heels.

“I am Bartimaeus! I am Sakhr al-Jinni, N’gorso the Mighty, and the Serpent of Silver Plumes! I have rebuilt the walls of Uruk, Karnak, and Prague. I have spoken with Solomon. I have run with the buffalo fathers of the plains. I have watched over Old Zimbabwe till the stones fell and the jackals fed on its people. I am Bartimaeus! I recognize no master. So I charge you in your turn, boy. Who are you to summon me?”

Impressive stuff, eh? All true as well, which gives it more power. And I wasn’t just doing it to sound big. I rather hoped the kid would be blustered by it into telling me his name in return, which would give me something to go on when his back was turned.2 But no luck there.

“By the constraints of the circle, the points on the pentacle, and the chain of runes, I am your master! You will obey my will!”

There was something particularly obnoxious about hearing this old shtick coming from a weedy stripling, and in such a foolish high voice too. I bit back the temptation to give him a piece of my mind and intoned the usual response. Anything to get it over with quickly.

“What is your will?”

I admit I was already surprised. Most tyro magicians look first and ask questions later. They go window-shopping, eyeing up their potential power, but are far too nervous to try it out. You don’t often get small ones like this squirt calling up entities like me in the first place, either.

The kid cleared his throat. This was the moment. This is what he’d been building up to. He’d been dreaming of this for years, when he should have been lying on his bed thinking about racing cars or girls. I waited grimly for the pathetic request. What would it be? Levitating some object was a usual one, or moving it from one side of the room to the other. Perhaps he’d want me to conjure an illusion. That might be fun: there was bound to be a way of misinterpreting his request and upsetting him.3

“I charge you to retrieve the Amulet of Samarkand from the house of Simon Lovelace and bring it to me when I summon you at dawn tomorrow.”

“You what?”

“I charge you to retrieve—”

“Yes, I heard what you said.” I didn’t mean to sound petulant. It just slipped out, and my sepulchral tones slipped a bit too.

“Then go!”

“Wait a minute!” I felt that queasy sensation in my stomach that you always get when they dismiss you. Like someone sucking out your insides through your back. They have to say it three times to get rid of you, if you’re keen on sticking around. Usually you’re not. But this time I remained where I was, two glowing eyes in an angry fug of boiling smoke.

“Do you know what you are asking for, boy?”

“I am neither to converse, discuss, nor parley with you; nor to engage in any riddles, bets, or games of chance; nor to—”

“I have no wish to converse with a scrawny adolescent, believe you me, so save your rote-learned rubbish. Someone is taking advantage of you. Who is it—your master, I suppose? A wizened coward hiding behind a boy.” I let the smoke recede a little, exposed my outlines for the first time, hovering dimly in the shadows. “You are playing with fire twice over, if you seek to rob a true magician by summoning me. Where are we? London?”