Words and magic have an interesting relationship. It’s been described in a lot of ways over the years, most of them total bogus. The medieval Europeans, for example, apparently thought you had to ask the Devil for help any time you wanted to do magic. If so, he’s apparently decided to help me for free, because I’d never met him and I’d been doing magic most of my life.
You don’t need to invoke demons or strange deities to do magic. You don’t need to chant in ancient languages. I know a lot of people who are sorta disappointed to learn that there actually isn’t a mysterious language of magic, the words of which are somehow tied to reality itself and will make whatever you say happen, because magic says so. The truth is that there are no magic words.
Magic is all about ideas. The important thing is to have those ideas absolutely firm in your mind. Words are also about ideas, and can therefore provide a valuable concentration aid. Imagine how much easier that exercise with the ravens would have been if you’d had a stupid little rhyme about them to recite to yourself so that your mind didn’t wander.
On the spirit side of things, ideas have an even more immediate and potent strength. I mean, ideas are what the spirit world is made of. What I was doing was basically focusing on a single idea so strongly that it became, for that brief moment, the essence of what I was in a spiritual sense. That would, in turn, provide a sort of beacon by which the things I was looking for could find me.
So what I was chanting might come as a bit of a disappointment to you. It was in normal English, and it sounded depressingly mundane. I mean, you’ve probably read classified ads more amusing than my chant. What I was saying was:
“Human mage interested in procuring the services of a familiar. Must have knowledge of the physical world and be accustomed to working with mages. Spirit of thought or memory preferred. Will provide a body, shelter, and fill other reasonable requests. Require willingness to assist in research. Offer valid for a limited time only.”
I mean, really. Throw in a contact number and, these days, an email address, and that could be a classified ad. Admittedly only really weird newspapers would run it, but that’s not the point.
While I chanted, I focused on the ideas I was conveying. I concentrated, sending the concepts out as broadly as I could. Another length of time, interminable and indefinable, passed.
Eventually I became aware of another presence nearby. Like me it existed only on the spiritual level. It didn’t travel; the spirit world is only loosely related to concepts like space or geography. It simply was directly in front of me, with no transition between that and the moment before, during which it had been absent.
It appeared to me as a cloud of…something. It didn’t have a physical analogue that I knew of. It looked a little bit like smoke, except that instead of dissipating it hung around, cohering to itself. There were wisps around it, like I would expect from fog, but the core was solid and consistent even if it did move and change and expose gaps. It was also jet black in color. There were, within the cloud, lights. They looked a little bit like fireflies and a little bit like the sparks off a campfire. Tiny sparks of light in amethyst, emerald, and aquamarine, they flickered in an almost hypnotic way.
When I saw it, I was assaulted by the feeling of it. It smelled of death and decay, and felt like a forest fire. It was dark and dangerous and not something I was comfortable with. It was also, unfortunately, familiar.
“What are you doing here?” I asked the demon, displeasure putting an edge on my voice. I could, in what might be the creepiest thing yet, see the intention of my own words, leaving my mouth in a sharp-edged ray of black and green light.
The demon swirled, shifted in a way that made no sense in either world and hurt my eyes, and then solidified again. Now it had eyes, two big angular lights of pale, intense blue. “I told you,” the demon which had once possessed Garrett White said. “If you needed a favor, all you had to do was call.” Its voice was a lot like I remembered it, strangely toned and reminiscent of a big snake slithering on a stone floor.
“I wasn’t asking a favor,” I said coldly. “I was looking for a familiar, and you’re interrupting.”
Watching it, I felt the equivalent of an eye-roll. “I know what you were looking for,” it said. “Why did you think I was here?”
“Are you even capable of being a familiar? I have certain requirements…”
“Yes, I know, and yes, I am. Did you think the werewolf was my first time in your world? It was not. I have worked with human mages before, in an arrangement not unlike that which you describe.”
I rolled my own eyes. “Yeah, and I’m sure that worked out just great for them.”
“It did,” the demon said seriously—and, I could feel, sincerely. “Only one of them was not the better for my assistance. And, if a mage chooses to ignore the familiar’s advice, who is to blame?”
I frowned and, for the first time, considered its offer. I knew, with a certainty that belied explanation but which I did not doubt, that it wasn’t lying. I would have known it if it had been—communication in the spiritual realm, as it turned out, was not conducive to deception. It had served other mages, and it genuinely thought they had benefited from it. Now, that didn’t mean that taking the deal would be a good idea, and it didn’t mean that I would agree with it about how its previous employers had been affected—but it did mean that I couldn’t dismiss it out of hand.
I mean…this thing wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it was the only spiritual being I knew. And, for whatever reason, it really did seem to think it owed me for giving it a chance to kill Garrett. It wasn’t a good entity, by any means, but…I’d known when I was first considering this venture that I wasn’t exactly a pure soul myself.
I realized then, for the first time, how much of my perception of it before had been because of Garrett himself. Before I had thought that it smelled evil, downright evil to an extent unlike anything else I’d encountered. Now it was…different. It still smelled like decay, but there was less of rotten meat, and more of old leaves. That made sense, I supposed; much of the evil, much of the darkness, had been in the werewolf. It was him, not the demon, that had tortured and killed half a dozen wolves, that had gone on a remarkably enthusiastic killing spree, that had tried to spark a major supernatural war.
And in that moment I really grasped, as I hadn’t before, what demons embodied—or this demon, at any rate. It wasn’t destruction, and it wasn’t violence, and it wasn’t entropy, and it definitely wasn’t evil. It was nothing that simple, nothing I could encapsulate in a single word. But, in that moment, I understood it. Maybe it was because we were in the spirit world, and every time I saw or heard or thought of it I felt the concepts that made it what it was. Maybe it was just that, in a weird sort of way, we weren’t that different.
Think of a forest—a really big, really wild forest. There’s all kinds of life going on in a big forest. You’ve got more going on than anybody, even someone like me who understood it on a lot more levels than most people, can really hope to know entirely. There’s birth and growth and riotous, joyous life, a thousand kinds of life going on all at once.
But, in order for that life to exist, you need darker things too. The soil that a seed sprouts from is made up primarily of dead plant matter, decaying leaves and manure. It grows because other plants died to provide it something to grow in. It has a place to exist because another tree, that had once lived there, doesn’t live any longer.
It has been shown time and again that the natural world doesn’t work very well if everything is sweetness and light. Take Yellowstone, for example. When they reintroduced wolves to the park, things became better. Before there had been too many elk, destroying the trees. The absence of wolves had let the prey animals proliferate too much, and the forest as a whole had suffered for it.
That was what the demon was. It was the predator that thinned the herd, ensuring that those who live are the best and strongest. It was the wildfire that, in killing so many trees, made room for smaller plants and was, in fact, necessary for certain kinds of seeds to sprout. It was the breakdown of old things to be recycled into new things.
It was, to put it simply, the other half of the cycle. Not the nice half, maybe—but if you want life and beauty, it was necessary. And, if you know how to look, there is beauty to be found there as well.
I broke out of my reverie and looked at the demon again. “First thing,” I said. “What’s your name?”
I got the impression of a smile. “You cannot seriously think I am going to tell you that.”
I grunted. “Take your name seriously, do you?”
“Most intelligent things do.”
“Okay, I can live with that. But if you’re going to work for me I need something to call you besides ‘demon’ and ‘hey, you.’ Suggestions?”
Indifference. “Choose a label if you need one so badly as that.”
I came up blank for a moment, then grinned. “In that case,” I said, “I dub thee Legion.”
There was a brief pause. Then, in an amused voice, it said, “I presume you mean that in the sense of ‘My name is Legion, for we are many?’ Gospel of Mark, I believe?” There was another, shorter pause. “There is a certain amount of irony to that, you know. And I suppose it is appropriate enough, in a sense.”
“I know,” I said.
“Although if you think I am going to start referring to myself in the plural, you might be disappointed.”
“Quite frankly I would be disturbed if you did. Besides, English doesn’t have a distinct form for referring to someone in the second-person plural. Do you have a preference of gender?”
Legion looked at me in a way which suggested that I was rather disappointing. “You are aware, I hope, that the notion of gender is entirely inapplicable to me?”
“Yep,” I agreed. “But, again, this is more for my convenience than yours. It gets tiring thinking of a person as an it.”
I got the sense that it didn’t especially care, either about gender or my difficulty with an entity who truly did not have it. “Again, it makes no difference to me.”
“Cool. Male it is.”
I shrugged. “I’m male. You’re my familiar. Makes sense to me.”
“I see,” Legion said in the tone of someone who doesn’t see and doesn’t object to blindness. “Before you get too comfortable with this thought, I think we need to get specific on the details. Exactly what are you offering?”
“Well,” I said, “for starters, a body in the physical world.” I gestured vaguely at the skeleton in the circle.
There was a long pause, and I suddenly had the realization that to Legion, the physical world must be as foreign as this place was to me. Eventually, he said, “A…skeleton? You offer me a skeleton? Of a dog?”
“Hey,” I said. “That’s not a dog, it’s a barghest. Or, more accurately, the pieces of around a dozen barghests. I understand there was a bit of difficulty with finding intact bones after we got finished with them….”
“Even worse,” the demon said in a disgusted tone. “You offer me the dead body of something from the Otherside. Your bargaining ability lacks a certain something, do you know? Why not the actual dog over there?”
“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. “She has too many things in her head already.” I paused. “However….”
“Nobody said that you had to exist in the same vessel all the time, did they?” It didn’t move or speak at all, but nevertheless expressed negation perfectly. “In that case I might be able to arrange something. Consensual short-term possession, with a few rules. They would have to specifically give you permission—including their being aware of what you are, and what they’re agreeing to. You would be along for a sensory ride only—no influencing the host—and you’d have to leave as soon as they ask you to. Are those terms agreeable?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a pretty weak offer, especially given that you only might be able to arrange something.”
“Let’s say a six-month trial period, then. If you don’t like the arrangement, you can renegotiate then or just leave.” I would be fine with either option; six months isn’t long, especially to immortal beings like Legion, but I could get a lot of benefit out of it.
“That’s acceptable, I suppose. What else?”
“I’m willing to provide for other reasonable needs. You don’t require food, correct?”
“Not unless I possess a mortal host. In a skeleton, no.”
“Right, then. I can provide reasonable entertainment and a location to live in. Is there anything else?”
“That depends. What are you really looking for, here?”
“Research assistance and information,” I said. “That’s about it, really. If you want to get in on some violence I can practically guarantee the opportunity will arise, but I’m not trying to hire a thug.”
“I suppose your terms are acceptable, then, Winter Wolf,” he said quietly. “Bargain struck.”
And that was that. From what I’d learned from Alexander, spirits—even the demonic variety—are bound by their contracts and oaths. The same way as the fae work, really; they might screw you over in a million inventive ways, but they can’t or won’t outright break their word.
Which, given that I’d gotten screwed every single time I’d made a bargain with a supernatural being, wasn’t exactly a comforting thought.
There wasn’t any backing out now, though. I reached out and found the power which, in the real world, I still had available to me. It hadn’t carried over but, in some sense, it was still attached to me. That was what separated me from the true spirits, even when I was in their world. I was connected to the physical realm.
I dragged that magic over into this world, pulling it into myself. It was hard, but not undoable. Once I had it I sent it back, using it to sort of drill a channel—not to myself, but into the skeleton. The moment it was complete, Legion flowed down it, not so much moving as simply transitioning from one state to another.
My work done, I went back and settled onto my body, and closed my eyes. And, with a relaxation that felt like letting go of something you’ve been holding onto for so long you forgot it was even there, I returned to my natural environment, leaving the spiritual world behind.
And, frankly, good riddance.