It might have been dark out after that, according to some people. None of us were that sort of people, though. Even without the nearly-full moon, we probably wouldn’t have had a particularly difficult time. I have exceptional night vision, Aiko was…Aiko, and Snowflake was a dog. Nighttime was not a problem for us.
The sun had been down for about ten minutes when Aiko struck up a conversation again. “So why are we coming all the way out here again?” she asked me. “Wouldn’t a nice, convenient street corner have worked?”
“Not for me,” I said. “This is what my magic is about. Wild places, shadows under the trees with the wind in my face. I might live in the city, but it’s not really where I belong.” I shrugged. “Somebody who’s better with people than I am would probably rather do this in a subway tunnel or something.”
“So what exactly are you doing?”
“Getting a familiar,” I said. “The idea is that you summon an entity from the spirit world and bargain with it for its services.”
She frowned, which even with my eyes I perceived only as a vague motion in the darkness. “Spirit world? You mean the Otherside?”
“No,” I said. “The Otherside is another world, right? It’s a whole different place, which just happens to be connected to this reality somehow.” She nodded. “Well, the spirit world is more like the opposite surface of this world. Like the whole two-sides-of-one-coin metaphor, I guess. It’s the opposite, the balance. All about energy and ideas instead of forces and matter. The things that live there are the same way—their bodies, insomuch as they can be said to have them, are composed of ideas. They embody concepts.”
“Huh,” she said. “I…think I’ve heard of it. We call it by another name.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “People call it all kinds of things. Probably because, as important things go, it isn’t. There aren’t any real political factions over there, and beings from that world can’t contact us directly.”
“So if nothing from there can interact with us, how do we know about it?” She paused. “And what good does summoning something from that world do you?”
I smiled. She was a lot quicker on the uptake than I had been, at first. “I didn’t say they couldn’t interact with us. You and me think, right?” Snowflake growled gently. “And so do you,” I said, rolling my eyes. “The point is that we have ideas of our own. That means that we’re constantly interacting with the spirit world on some level. And just because they can’t affect the physical world directly doesn’t make them powerless.” I paused. “Demons are spiritual entities.”
Aiko didn’t shiver, but there was a long silence on all parts. Not too surprising; all of us had some nasty memories of the demon that had been possessing the werewolf Garrett White. Snowflake—or rather the wolf who shared her body and mind—had suffered the worst of anyone, but none of us made it through without a few new scars.
“What does a demon embody, then?” Aiko asked me after a few minutes.
I was silent for a long moment. “Decay,” I said finally. “Destruction. Endings. Entropy, you could say—the collapse of complex things into simple things, the eventual end of everything.”
“Nice,” she commented. “Why are you doing this again?”
“I’m not looking for a demon, if that’s what you’re wondering,” I said dryly. “Balance is the heart of the spirit world, which means that for every bad thing, there’s a good thing to equal it out. Spirits of charity and preservation and such.” I shrugged. “And then there’s a whole bunch of things that are essentially neutral. Embodiments of thought, for example, or memory—that’s the sort of thing I’m angling after here.”
She considered that for a moment. Actually, both of them did—it’s easy to assume that, just because Snowflake looks like a dog, she’s the same as an ordinary animal, so easy that I fall into that trap myself much of the time. It doesn’t help that she tries to encourage it herself, because it means that people don’t pay attention to her. Underneath that, though, she was at least as clever as I was. She understood English perfectly well, she could access much of my mind on top of that, and she was thinking about what I’d said.
If I didn’t trust her so much, it would be almost scary.
About that time we walked out into a roughly circular clearing maybe seventy feet across. The grass was tall, almost up to my knees. I glanced around critically, then nodded. “This’ll work,” I said, dropping my pack carefully to the ground. Aiko dropped hers with a sigh of relief, though I knew for a fact that it was in no way a heavy burden for her. Kitsune aren’t strong like werewolves, but they aren’t human either. She wasn’t especially muscular, but Aiko was quite fit by human standards.
“So how do you go about summoning these things?” Aiko asked curiously.
I grinned. “Watch and learn,” I said to her.
She snorted, sat down next to the packs, and turned into a fox. Unlike the werewolves she doesn’t contort around when she changes, and rather than larger she gets a lot smaller, so she doesn’t actually have to take her clothing off to change. It just involves a lot of squirming around to get comfortable when she doesn’t.
By the time I’d finished surveying the area, a perfectly ordinary-looking fox had finished nosing the pile of clothing into a comfortable position, and was curled up on it with her tail over her nose. Aiko looked like she was sleeping, but I saw her glittering eyes watching me, and her ears were pricked.
She didn’t have to explain why she’d changed, either. She was hardy by any normal standard, but she was still essentially flesh and bone. And, unlike me, she felt the cold about as much as anybody. Now, it might seem like July should be warm, but when the sun’s gone down and you aren’t moving around—and you’re in the mountains, that always helps—it still gets pretty chilly. Things with fur coats tend to not be bothered by it as much.
The really funny thing was that Snowflake was curled up next to her in almost the same position. So I wound up doing my preparations being watched by a husky and a fox, both of them staring at me with disconcerting focus.
The first thing I did was draw Tyrfing and mark out a circle in the ground, about twenty feet across, near the center of the clearing. It wasn’t perfectly round, but it didn’t really have to be. I could have used a square if I wanted; circles are just easier to envision.
The enchanted sword sliced easily into the dirt, and even the rocks didn’t slow it down much. There isn’t much that that Tyrfing can’t cut. Once that was done I cut all the grass inside the circle down to about ankle height, tossing the cuttings outside the boundaries.
I was very cautious setting my feet during and after that process. Tyrfing is a wonderful sword, the best I’d ever seen, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was made to kill and destroy—and that includes its wielder, if it gets half a chance. The entropy curse on the sword did not make exceptions for me, and if I wasn’t careful after I’d had the sword out it would be a simple matter for it to harm me.
Once the outermost circle was drawn, I established another circle just inside of it. This one was delineated with small rocks, pinecones, and bits of wood placed on the ground. Most of the markers were hidden by the grass. That didn’t much matter either. It was the idea that was important, really. The complicated arrangements were just a concentration aid for the ritual I was about to perform.
Inside the second circle I laid out two smaller ones, each about eight feet across, with a little space between them. The first thing I did was take a knife and trim down the grass to the ground inside the circles. Then I fetched a few bags from my packs and carefully mixed the contents into two different, off-white powders.
The first circle, on the northwest side of the larger circle, was mine. The base of the powder was salt, into which I’d mixed expensive cocoa powder, peppermint, lavender, and lupin. The result was a fine dust which, even without the somewhat toxic lupin, would never, ever be used in cooking. It didn’t smell bad, exactly, but it sure didn’t smell like food.
The things I’d mixed into the salt weren’t really important in and of themselves. Magical components almost never are. Oh, sure, there are a few—silver, for example, hurts werewolves simply because the energy associated with it isn’t compatible with their magic. But for the most part reagents are important more for what they symbolize and represent than anything. All of the substances I’d used—excepting the salt, which was just a convenient base to work from—were things that I had an affinity for. They were there, in some sense, simply to represent me.
The second circle was similar, but not quite the same. On the southeastern side of the enclosure, the powder I used started with salt as well. To it I had, very carefully, added hemlock, oak sawdust, and monkshood—which, as Aiko had teased me about earlier, I had labeled as wolfsbane.
There’s a lot of folklore surrounding werewolves, much of which is flat wrong. Others, which I find even more amusing, are sorta right but for entirely the wrong reasons. One of my favorites is the claim that werewolves can be cured (or killed, which for medieval Europeans often meant the same thing) by eating wolfsbane.
People who read those legends these days don’t necessarily realize that wolfsbane is another name for monkshood, which is noted for being poisonous. Like, really poisonous. Like, if-you-take-one-bite-you’re-probably-going-to-die poisonous.
So yeah, it’ll kill a werewolf all right. So will almost any sufficiently strong poison. The thing to keep in mind is that, although werewolf healing is very impressive, it isn’t unbeatable. It can handle minor toxins, things like poison ivy or most kinds of lupin. It can even deal with most drugs, making it possible for a werewolf (or me) to drink the average person under table and then some without it really having much of an effect, or take a tranquilizer dart that would drop an elephant without being incapacitated for more than a minute.
But a really potent toxin can overwhelm that healing, especially in high doses. A werewolf, like a human, will most likely die if they eat a monkshood salad. The same as they will most likely die if they take a sniper round to the head, or are exposed to nerve gas. Maybe wolfsbane is a little more effective than other toxins, I don’t know. It hardly matters.
So yeah, I was careful mixing that powder. I’d really hate to kill myself in a way that dumb.
The circles were really very simple. The idea of a magical circle is one of the simplest ones there is in magic. You’re establishing a line, and saying that this side of the line isn’t like that side of the line. That’s it. The only thing you’re doing is establishing a magical fence. Granted, once it’s established you can use it as the basis for more complicated spells—but the circle itself is very simple.
In this case, the outermost circle was just that. All it was there for was to keep outside energies from interfering with what I was doing. There are currents of magic everywhere, gentle eddies and flows of power. What I was doing was delicate enough that I didn’t want them getting in the way.
The second circle would form the skeleton of my summoning spell. You don’t actually need to use a circle as the foundation of a spell, but it makes it a little easier and more efficient. For something this difficult, I wanted every advantage I could lay my hands on.
The third layer of circles weren’t really necessary for the summoning. The one around me was there for protection, and the one where I was hoping my familiar would soon be was there for confinement. Spiritual entities might not be able to affect the world directly, but in order to summon them I would necessarily be putting myself in their world. I wanted every scrap of protection I could get before I did that. This was outside my scope, and that meant my ability to protect myself over there was pretty minimal.
Once the outline of the spell was set up I got my props from the bags. The first thing I did was dig a small pit just inside the southern edge of the middle circle. I grabbed some newspapers from my pack, and used them to kindle a fire in the pit. There was plenty of dry firewood around, and within a few minutes the fire was burning merrily.
East was even simpler. I piled gravel and a few larger rocks into a mound about six inches high and a foot across. On top of it I set the same river stone that I’d thrown in the restaurant. That was enough to anchor earth.
Water was trickier. I had to go nearly half a mile to find a stream, where I filled a small vase made out of glass so clear you could hardly see it at all. I brought the water back, being careful not to spill any, and set the vase on the north side of the circle. Done.
Then I pulled out a small, finely tuned set of wind chimes. I set them up on a collapsible metal stand inside the western boundary of the circle, where the gentle wind set them to tinkling. Perfect for symbolizing air.
That, too, was unnecessary. I mean, as anyone who passed even a basic chemistry class knows, the classical view of four elements of nature is pretty much bogus. Everything has an energy associated with it, though, and between air, water, earth, and fire, you have a pretty rounded set. That was what I was really going for.
And, of course, part of it was purely psychological. I could just as easily have, say, replaced earth with iron, fire with a hair plucked from a werewolf’s back while they were changing, air with a light show, and water with a set of lenses, and had roughly the same energies and ideas associated. I could have—but it wouldn’t have the same dramatic feeling to it, the same panache, and in magic style counts. In this kind of magic, magic counts for a lot.
That just left the inner circles. The elemental anchors were at the cardinal points of the compass, so for the other circles I worked in between them. On my circle I put a lock of my hair in one corner, and a drop of my blood in another. Both of them would represent my body. The other points held a bit of black walnut wood I’d idly carved into a pleasing, abstract shape one day, and the wolf’s-head pendant which had been crafted by an expert to resemble my mother, and which I’d worn off and on for most of my life. Those were to symbolize my will, my mind, my emotions—the essence of who and what I was. My soul, if you will.
The other circle was trickier. I wasn’t choosing items for their energies or affinities at this point; I was selecting them based on their symbolism. Objects have meanings, represent intentions. If you don’t believe me think of all the things a ring can symbolize. A knife. A straightjacket. They all carry meaning, all represent ideas. In the spirit world ideas are power, quite literally. A spirit can walk through walls without even thinking about it, but a locked door will stop them cold.
I chose objects which symbolized restraint, confinement. A closed padlock. The key, placed at the opposite side of the circle, was facing pointedly away from the lock. In between were a short length of chain and a heavy leather collar.
I checked over everything one more time. All of the circles were, if not perfect, close enough. I fed the fire another piece of wood. The wind had died down a little, but there was still enough to make the chimes sing.
Everything was ready. Well, almost everything.
I left the circle and extracted the bones of the faerie hound from the backpack. I reassembled it, being careful not to break anything, and placed the completed skeleton in the circle of entrapment. If everything went right, that skeleton would soon be housing my familiar.
I left the circle and walked back over to where Aiko and Snowflake were watching me. I knelt down near them and took my jacket off, setting it on the ground.
“What I’m about to do is dangerous,” I said to them, quietly. I met their eyes in turn. Snowflake’s were classic husky blue, pale and icy and disturbingly intense. Aiko’s were, as a fox, green-yellow rather than almost-black the way they were as a human. She, too, was watching me intensely.
I removed my magical foci and set them down on the jacket. Two rings, one of bronze and one of steel. One simple leather bracelet. With them I could do wonders with air, with darkness, with predators. None of them would help with what I was doing, and I didn’t want the enchantments on them to interfere with what I was doing.
“Whenever you attract the attention of spiritual entities, you run certain risks,” I continued. “There is a possibility that they will kill me. There is a possibility that they will possess me, take over my body. I don’t think this is very likely, but it is possible.”
I swallowed dryly and continued divesting myself of tools and weapons. All three of the knives were set on the jacket, along with the contents of my various pockets. Tyrfing I rested against one of the packs, the strap holding it into the scabbard securely fastened. Then I took my pistol and loaded a magazine into it. I worked the slide to chamber a round and then replaced it in the magazine from one of the small ammo boxes I’d removed from my pockets. I was, in a distant and detached way, surprised that my hands were so steady. I was very, very nervous about what was going to happen, but my motions were rock steady as I prepped the gun. Then I set it down in front of Aiko, making sure it wasn’t pointed at anything I valued—including the circle I was going to be working in.
“That’s why,” I said quietly, “I am telling you this, very seriously. This gun is loaded with charged-silver ammunition. If I seem to have difficulty exiting the circle, if I don’t speak to you or speak in a way that doesn’t make sense, if anything about my behavior seems wrong to you—either of you—I want you to shoot me.”
Two sets of canine eyes looked back at me. Snowflake whined, softly, uncomfortably.
“Oh, not until I’m dead or anything,” I told her. “Just enough to stop me. Once I’m down, you need to call this number.” I wrote Alexander’s phone number on a scrap of paper, setting it down next to my cell phone on the jacket. “Someone I trust—mostly—will answer. He might be upset that you called. Tell him who you’re calling on behalf of and what’s happening. Do what he tells you.”
What if he doesn’t answer? Snowflake whispered in my head, making me jump a little. Or we can’t find service?
“Then I guess you’ll have to improvise, won’t you?” I said seriously. Then I slipped my boots and socks off. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first was that I’ve never been fond of having my feet confined, and if I was about to have my mind and spirit eradicated by some beastie from the nether realms I’d rather be comfortable beforehand. The second, of course, was that being barefoot might slow down whatever ate me long enough for Aiko to transform and shoot it until my body was dead as well.
I walked over to my place in the circle and sat down, crossing my legs beneath myself. The cool grass tickled my feet as I did. Even barefoot and wearing a T-shirt I wasn’t worried about the cold. It would take more than that to harm me.
I took a few deep breaths, calming myself and slowing my breathing, then gently rested my hands against the grass to either side.