There was a strange atmosphere at the Camberwell Writer's Circle that Tuesday night.
Terri glanced at the notes on her lap, giving the words one last proof-read before everyone shuffled to their seats and started opening their own notebooks. Just like every other time she'd read them since they came spilling out in a breathless flurry, they felt perfect.
At two minutes to eight, something unusual happened. Nathan stood up, and the rest of the circle fell quiet.
"Evening, everyone." he said, clearing his throat somewhat nervously. "I know we usually start with a quick warm-up exercise, but tonight - I hope you don't mind - I've got something to share and I'm just too excited and nervous to wait."
Nathan, a retired postman, had been working on his Napoleonic War saga for longer than the wars themselves had raged. In all the time Terri had been coming along to this writer's circle, he'd never had anything new to share.
"It's actually nothing to do with my ongoing work," he said, "But I was so moved by the reference material for this week that I've written something quite outside of my comfort zone."
At this, Terri started to frown. The reference material he was referring to - an ancient English text on writing that had been recommended to the group last week, and a copy of which was now sitting on every lap in the room - had been exactly what had inspired her work, too.
"It's a bit free-form," Nathan continued, "but I finished reading and it was almost like - I don't know - I couldn't rest until it flowed out of me. Even the bits that I can't understand just feel... fitting. Like I already knew the words!"
That also sounded uncomfortably familiar, and at this point Terri could see several other faces in the circle peering down at their own pages in concern. While it was lovely that the strange little book had inspired so many, a small part of her hoped that Nathan's work wasn't about to outshine her own.
Terri smiled at Nathan when he caught her eye, in a way she hoped was encouraging. He cleared his throat again, and started to speak in a low, sonorous voice.
"In Grendel's name, hearst thou this plea,
Let ancient aid be called to me."
Terri's head snapped down to her notes, then back up to Nathan. In her peripheral vision, she noticed others doing the same with matching looks of disbelief. She had exactly the same lines written on the page on her lap.
Nathan carried on, swaying on the spot and not appearing to notice as he slid out of English entirely.
"Iâgieldan unge−endod cræft,
ætniman ûs of pro ic lâst êow unge−endod stund."
Three seats to her left, Sandra (lawyer; working on a vampire romance with a sci-fi twist) raised a shaking hand to cover her mouth. As Nathan continued to read, she stood up and began to speak the lines along with him.
"Cwêman l¯æfan me r¯æcan reach weorðful wêna,"
Jack and Ali (students; gritty London detective thriller and semi-autobiographical soap-opera set in a temple, respectively) glanced at each other's pages with wide eyes, then stood and joined Nathan and Sandra.
"Oncnâwan yfel spell ambihtan êcnes,"
Terri looked around her. One by one, members of the circle were standing up and reciting the piece - her piece - in one voice, exactly as it was written in front of her. It seemed impossible that everyone had the same exact inspiration, but the whole session had taken on an otherworldly, surreal atmosphere, as if the air itself was moving strangely.
Without making the conscious decision, Terri found herself on her feet too, reading the final couplet from her sheet as the circle swayed around her.
"Weorðian wægn gâst orgilde sê unorne,
Weddianêow endelêasnes, weddianêow endelêasnes."
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
There was dead silence for several long seconds when the reading had reached its climax. Terri and the other writers stared around at each other.
Then, with a quiet POP, a small man with thick black-rimmed glasses appeared on a chair which had previously been empty.
He peered around the room, counted the number of dumbstruck faces he had staring at him, and then shoved his jacket sleeve up to check a huge silver watch.
"Right," the man said, leaning back in his chair, "So you've each got one minute and 13 seconds of my time, in return for your ever-lasting worship. Who's up first?"
Terri wanted to laugh, but something about the man's face - which she couldn't seem to bring into focus, other than the glasses - and the faint odour of sulphur around him made her pause. Evidently the others were feeling the same way, as they sat down in silence, one by one.
The man tapped his watch. "Time, people. Who's first?"
"Who are you? What's going on?" The words had left Terri's mouth before she could think better of them.
The man turned towards her, and behind the thick lenses she got the vague impression that his eyes weren't quite human. "You all read the rites and performed the ceremony, and now I'm here. I've accepted your offer."
Something started to turn cold in Terri's throat. "What offer?"
"'Iætniman ûs of pro ic lâst êow unge−endod stund'" he recited, a line from their reading. "You summoned an ancient power to help your art in return for your eternal fealty, and here I am. Congratulations."
Terri gaped at him.
Ali jumped in. "Like, we summoned a demon?"
The man - demon? - snorted. "Call me whatever you want. It's your own time you're wasting and I still have you forevermore afterwards."
Ali swore loudly. "And if we tell you we didn't mean to offer the deal? It was a really weird mistake?"
"No-returns policy, I'm afraid. Tick tock."
"Well, fine then." Sandra had stood up and was rifling through her notebook. "Presumably the contract only holds if he's able to deliver the 'help in our art' that he promised. And I've got an impossible question here somewhere-- Aha."
She yanked a page free and waved it towards the man. "I'm blocked. My heroine needs to prove her loyalty to the vampire coven on the spot, but she's already engaged to an alien, their enemy. Are you able to help with that?"
The man spread his hands out wide and grinned. "Simply have her sacrifice her alien fiance to the vampire coven."
Sandra thought about it for a second, then sat down with a thump. She nodded to herself, and then pulled a pen out from her blazer pocket and started frantically scribbling onto the page.
More writers stood up in quick succession.
"I haven't got any ideas for my next book!"
"Write a horror opera from the point of view of the kraken."
"How do I get my protagonist out from the villain's impenetrable lair?"
"Have her find a snowmobile and two wild elk."
"What themes should I include to keep my book fresh and insightful?"
"Introspection, guilt and the fear of death without legacy."
And so it went on. Finally, with seconds to spare, the group had asked - and been given answers to - every question they'd ever wanted a fix for. Plotholes had been closed, narrative directions reversed and characters redeemed, leaving the whole group staring at the man in awe.
"Everyone happy?" He said, clapping his hands together. There was a distracted hum of approval from the group.
"Good. I will be back in due course with my payment demands."
With that, there was another small POP and the man vanished.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Terri was nearly finished with a book-signing in Islington when she next heard a POP.
She didn't need to look up to confirm who had arrived -- she recognised the sulphury aura as he slid his copy of her book onto the table in front of her.
"I hear it's a best-seller. Congratulations."
They all had been. The critics had applauded the adventures of Nathan's strait-laced lieutenant, had called Sandra's novel 'a refreshing new take on a tired genre', and there had been calls for Ali's soap-opera to be adapted into a series of feature-length films. So far, however, nothing more had been heard from any of them. No follow-ups, no sequels to satisfy the demand for more.
She smiled. "The others told me you'd be coming."
"I thought they would." He paused. "So you know what I've come here for?"
"Makes sense, right? I dole out the ideas and the creativity and the wit, and then you worship me by offering up your own in return for all eternity. It's only fair."
"Last night I had a dream about a cowboy who wanted to become an olympic swimmer. That could be an interesting story, do you want that one?"
It was as if the words left her brain as soon as they left her mouth. She sat back, puzzled, for a second while the man smiled. When she tried to retrace her thought-process to work out what she'd just been saying, she was left with the vague sense a great idea just out of grasp, and the more she tried to search for it, the foggier it all became.
"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "What was I just saying?"
A grin. "You were proving your worship for me with creative sacrifices."
"Of course. I must've been about to tell you about a magical sweet-shop that sells liquorice which tastes like memories."
Once again, no sooner had she finished her sentence, the thought was gone from her mind.
"I was going to tell you about a little girl who finds a room in her house that no-one else can see... The clown who becomes privy to a dark secret while hosting a birthday party... The school reunion where each ex-student has committed a small part one huge heist..." She trailed off.
The God's grin widened even further.
Leaving Terri blinking down at her book in front of her, he disappeared with one final, quiet POP.