A short story
Accipiter G. Goshawk
This short story was written for the first week of Nataša Ilinčić’s #nataswitchtober2021. The prompt was “Familiar”. If you don’t know Nataša or have never seen her amazing art, you can find her here: natasailincic.com
I hope you enjoy the story!
It came for her in a dream.
She had been using the odd realm between sleep and wakefulness to finish a spell. Countless scribblings and runes dotted the landscape: sometimes as minuscule markings on the bark of trees, other times as mountains that pierced the clouds and grasped at the stars. An infinitely large circle locked them all in place, drawn in the earth and water, marked by simple pressure of her finger.
“That should do it,” she murmured to herself, eyeing her work critically.
The wind changed, carrying with it the smell of ice, hot iron and shadow. Her spell shuddered and crumbled, leaving her alone in the gathering darkness. She shivered and turned, her surroundings shifting as the new presence drew her deeper into the dreamscape.
She was on a forest path, her feet carrying her inexorably forward. She was no stranger to the ominous, or even the dangerous. She was a witch in her second decade of practice and had already seen much of what hid beyond the cracks in reality.
But this was different. The overwhelming presence ahead was familiar. Intimately so.
She stepped into a clearing and the wind turned to tempest, clutching at her hair and scratching cold fingers across the exposed flesh of her arms. Her attacker haunted the centre of the maelstrom, pacing impatiently only a hairsbreadth away. She could feel its hateful stare, hear its rattling breath, sense its titanic will directing the powers of the dreamscape to tear her apart and consign what remained to pain and madness.
She faltered, then grit her teeth.
Light flared like a harp string between her thumb and index, blooming into a dazzling dance of fire that galloped and crashed wildly into the wall of darkness. Taking advantage of the reprieve, she summoned her guardians from the hidden corners of the dream-realm, bidding them to cast the interloper out. They came, beautiful and alien: creatures of metal and wood, flesh and hope, singing and roaring with breaths of flower and thorn.
The thing laughed, and waved them into nothingness. It stepped forward, impossibly thin and tall, its face hidden behind a shadowed moon. The lines of fire fell away like cobwebs and now it had her by the throat, ragged fingers darkening her flesh and turning it to ash.
She screamed lightning and was free. In that heartbeat, she thrust herself from the dreaming to the comforting blackness beyond, fleeing the hissing entity she could not name.
* * *
For days she forsook her dreamscape, choosing instead to focus on her work in the waking world. For hours she poured over texts and manuscripts, trying to ignore the blackness pushing at the back of her mind. She finally succeeded in casting the spell, but barely took the time to notice her accomplishment before diving into another, more ambitious project.
Soon though, the thing invaded the spaces beyond her dreams.
Sleep became difficult, as did moments of inactivity or relaxation. Grey clouds began to gather beneath her eyes and sometimes her hands trembled while casting. She spent a little time researching her unwanted guest, but her attempts proved fruitless: nowhere could she find references to demonic or faerie entities such as the one that was haunting her.
One day she blurted the whole thing out to Aunt A.
“Really, Emma? A shadow-demon?”
The incredulous tone would usually have caused her to bow her head and blush, but the horrid fingers were now clawing at the edges of her vision. She could feel a cold weight in the centre of her skull, and it was becoming increasingly hard to do anything.
“That’s…that’s not what I said Auntie. It’s a shadow, beyond a doubt, but I don’t think it’s demonic in nature. I can’t find a way to get rid of it. It…lingers. I can only seem to quiet it when I’m working, but it’s becoming unbearable.”
Comprehension dawned on the older witch’s face.
“I see now. I know of this thing.”
Emma leapt to her feet clutching a handful of chestnuts she had been enchanting.
“Really? This is fantastic! How can I banish it?”
“Quite simple, you can’t. They are parasites; they lodge within you and never let go. The only way to quiet them is to work hard and never give up. It is rough at the beginning but you will see, it is a fulfilling life. I know this may be difficult to hear at first. But trust me, I have a lot experience in the matter; I’ve lived with one of these creatures for years. It can be done.”
Emma’s face fell, then twisted in disbelief, swiftly followed by horror.
“You live with it?” she breathed.
“It takes some getting used to, but yes.” Now that she knew what to look for, Emma could just make out the darker portions of her aunt’s shadow, the slow tattering of her essence, the frayed edges of her calm, commanding voice.
There was silence in the kitchen for a moment, then she swallowed.
“Is there any way that one can…alleviate… the effects?” she whispered.
Her aunt looked at her cooking absentmindedly, then glanced out the window.
“Your grandmother once said she could help, but I’m afraid that by then I’d managed to solve the issue on my own. If you feel like it, you could always pay her a visit.”
She moved away from the window, leaving Emma an unobscured view of the little cottage on the hill, surrounded by the great grey standing stones.
* * *
Although she had walked the path many times, she was always surprised by how steep and long it was. From the house, it looked like anyone could simply sprint up the hill and reach the cottage door in minutes. Emma knew that in truth it would take hours, and that the runner might never reach their destination. Unseen spirals and geometries swirled and leapt beneath the long grass creating an endless labyrinth, only traversable by following the path and only according to the will of she who lived on the hill.
She reached the standing stones at dusk. The torches were already lit, and her grandmother’s great black hound lounged happily between them, his great pink tongue lolling to one side. His ears pricked up as soon as he caught her scent, and she was greeted by two emerald eyes and a loud happy bark. She crossed into her grandmother’s land, carefully avoiding the things that slithered in the high grass.
She stepped into the front yard and looked around.
Keys hung and lay on every possible surface. Some dangled invitingly from sweet pea tendrils, while others emerged coquettishly from half dug-up molehills. A plastic flamingo clutched a massive and ancient-looking iron key in one floppy foot, while goldfish swam through the rings of three golden keys at the bottom of the pond.
Emma ignored all these and instead lifted up the mat and picked up a small, unassuming aluminium key that she easily fit in the lock. The door swung open, revealing a short corridor and a cosy parlour beyond.
“I’ll be with you in a second, Emma!”
“No rush, Grandmother!” she called back, as she lifted the cat’s head lid from a porcelain jar and helped herself to an oatmeal and raisin cookie.
Grandmother H. blew into the room like an autumn breeze, carrying dried leaves, the scent of pine, a small grey cat and a pot of tea in her wake. Her hair floated around her in a perfect curtain of midnight mystery, and as she poured out the brew, her eyes sparkled with laughter.
“Hello, granddaughter. What brings you up my hill on this very fine evening?”
Emma smiled, cradling her cup.
When she’d been younger, she’d resented these questions: grandmother had the gift of prophecy, so she already knew the answers. But as she grew older, she learned that it was the telling of the tale that mattered.
“There is a shadow living in my mind. It…hates me, I think. I believe it wants me gone.”
The older woman crouched in front of her and stared into her eyes for a very long time.
“Yeees…I can see it now. There, around the edges. Seems to have made itself at home. ‘Twill be tricky to get rid of. Your aunt has a similar problem, but she never dealt with it…a pity. Well, luckily I have just the spell. A simple thing, the casting; what comes after is usually…puzzling.”
She strode to a nearby shelf and picked up a small book, filled with her own elegant handwriting. She paged through it for a moment.
“Here we go, this should do the trick,” she said, handing it to Emma.
The young witch’s eyes ran over the page, taking in the details of the spell, the ingredients required, the result…
“Summoning a familiar?” she asked, looking up. “Isn’t that a little…old fashioned?”
Her grandmother snorted.
“I don’t see you using your smartphone to calculate and draw out circles of balance or summoning. Seems to me you still use quill and ink. And if you are still casting through a willow branch, I think summoning a familiar shouldn’t be a source of too much embarrassment.”
Emma’s cheeks coloured, but she suppressed the desire to answer sarcastically. Instead, she studied the spell for a few more minutes.
“It really is quite simple,” she said, gnawing her lip. Her hand lifted and went to scratch the side of her head, before she checked it and brought it back to her lap. She willed herself not to fidget.
“As I mentioned: the casting is easy. The real work comes after.”
“But isn’t a familiar supposed to help you accomplish your goals? Or assist in casting spells?”
Grandmother H. sighed loudly and sipped her tea for a moment.
“Familiars derive from a form of magic that has been mostly forgotten by today’s practitioners. Summoning a familiar is a way of calling forth a part of yourself and imbuing it with the power to help you. What is nebulous if the shape that help may take.”
Emma’s eyebrows scrunched together. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand. Can you give me the parameters? Will the familiar be powerful enough to cast out the parasite? Is it a source of its own magic? Will it feed off my magic?”
Her grandmother smiled.
“I have no answers for you. This is something you have to figure out for yourself. The less you know, the more true the summoning. I suggest you get started: that thing inside you is looking very hungry.”
As if in answer to her grandmother’s observation, the shadow screeched, sending a wave of pain cascading through her head. It almost had her on her knees.
She staggered up from the couch and made for the door and the path beyond.
From the top of her hill, Grandmother looked on, her smile and eyes merging into the stars of the night sky.
* * *
It was quiet in the little ring of stones. She had the blade of grass, her willow branch, milk and honey. With ease born of constant practice, she combined all the elements until they glowed and spun within the ring, their light reflecting oddly amongst the leaves of the pear trees.
She murmured the incantation once, letting the power grow. Letting it draw in as much of her magic as she could spare.
The second time she repeated it, she fed it her desire, her courage, her will to be rid of the dark thing. The ring sputtered angrily, blasting gold sparks that fell to the ground and turned to daisies.
The last time, she screamed the incantation at the sky, giving it her pain, her fear and her hopelessness.
There was a flash and then silence. A thick mist bloomed within the circle and a creature moved within it.
Emma held her breath.
It stepped forward on four spindly legs and loped forward, its ears flapping as it moved. The creature stopped in front of her, sat on its haunches and began licking itself.
The dog in question was a tricolour, long limbed mutt, with a long elegant nose and sweet soulful eyes. She lifted her head and stared at Emma for a moment, then returned to licking herself.
“Just a second, I’m almost finished.”
The voice was kind. Really kind. Fundamentally, too kind. She had hoped for fierce. A predator. Not a …darling pooch.
The dog lifted its head and regarded her solemnly.
“Do you have any biscuits? I’m pretty sure biscuits were mentioned.”
Emma’s eyes were wide and she was shaking. Her hands were clenched at her sides, knuckles white. She could feel her vision getting darker. Biscuits?!
“Are…are you my familiar?”
“Yes. My name is Echo. You are Emma. I believe I need biscuits. Then I would like to go for a walk. Or play. Or both.”
“No, you don’t understand. I don’t have time for all that. I need to defeat the thing that’s inside me, then I have to get back to work. I didn’t summon you to…go on walks! I need your help! If you can give me any that is,” she added, eyeing the dog sceptically.
Echo sighed heavily, then yawned.
“Why would you say that? You don’t like me?”
The plaintive tone struck a chord within her and immediately she crouched down and scratched behind Echo’s ears.
“No, no. That’s not…that’s not it. I was just hoping for…somebody fierce and powerful. Somebody who could fight something scary.”
The dog stared up at her for a moment, then licked her hand.
“You don’t need any of that stuff,” she said confidently. “You have me now. Come on, let’s go see this scary thing.”
She began to trot off in a seemingly random direction, but as Emma followed, she realized her footsteps were taking her away from the garden, away from the world and back into herself. As they strolled along the darkening path, Echo would stop and stare back at her, checking to make sure she was coming. Then she would be off again, sniffing at their nebulous surroundings with interest.
They found the shadow in the clearing where she had last encountered it. It wheezed a cruel laugh and took one slow step towards them.
Emma looked down at Echo, hoping to see her blazing with infinite power, or transforming into a hulking beast. Instead, her sweet little companion was scratching behind her right ear, seemingly ignoring the monstrous apparition coming towards them.
“That’s it then? I see the issue. Can we go now? I really want those biscuits.”
“I…I don’t have any biscuits,” Emma mumbled. She was rooted to the spot and trembling violently. As the entity moved closer, frost crept before it. It had now reached her feet and was crawling up her legs, chilling her beyond hope of recovery.
Something warm butted into her leg.
She looked down to stare into two loving, chocolate eyes.
“Play with me, please?”
The request was accompanied by a wet snout pushing a ball into her half-frozen hand.
She wrestled with it. It was stupid; playing was a waste of time, especially now! She was seconds away from oblivion. She should be thinking of a clever escape, or a spell. Or maybe she should think about work, like her Aunt suggested. That -at least- would save her for a time.
Shaking herself, she thrust it all aside, and letting go, threw the ball.
Echo barked joyfully and sped after the little round sphere, dashing past the advancing shadow. As the small furry creature bounded past it, it stopped and turned. It seemed confused. Hesitant.
Emma gasped, as the tongues of frost crept back, leaving her ankles warm and tingly.
Echo came prancing back, carrying the ball in her mouth. She dropped it expectantly at Emma’s feet.
The witch scooped up the ball and waved it around the eager dog’s head.
“You want this girl? Huh? Huh?”
Echo yipped happily and danced around, her tail wagging and tongue lolling.
“Yes! Yes! Throw the ball, throw it! It’s mine!”
She threw with all the strength she could muster, and her familiar sprinted away, zooming towards the far end of the clearing. The shadow thing turned away from Emma and slowly walked after the dog, its form shifting and growing smaller.
As Echo returned, she stopped and stared at the thing. Then, she ran forward and began weaving circles and half-feints around the shrinking entity. It jumped, startled to begin with. Then it squatted down on all fours, its shape changing until there were two dogs in the clearing: one of flesh, the other of shadow.
Emma blinked once and there they were, sitting at her feet, looking up expectantly. She threw the ball a few more times, and with each throw the shadow became more and more dog-like, until it was rolling around happily in the grass. She laughed at its antics and finally when it approached her again, she scratched it behind the ears.
A weight within her lifted and she felt as if she could breathe again for the first time in years. She was back in her Aunt’s garden and Echo was sitting next to her on the grass.
“Thank you for playing. Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Yes, I did. It was…thank you.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Will it…Will it be back?” she asked, trying to keep the worry out of her voice.
“It never left. It’s part of you, I think. A part of you that really needed to play. If you keep playing, maybe it won’t be so angry. Now let’s go, I’m hungry.”
She sat there for a moment more, contemplating what Echo had said. Then she smiled and skipped towards the door to her Aunt’s kitchen. She let Echo in and the dog immediately made a beeline for the far counter, where a fresh batch of cookies was cooling on a rack.
As she passed by the pantry, Emma’s attention was caught by an odd bulky shape wrapped in cloth on the lowest shelf. She’d walked by it plenty of times, but only now did she take the time to peel back the stained canvas covering.
Her Aunt’s easel.
On it, an unfinished painting. She remembered that when she was very little her Aunt would still take her brushes and paints to the top of the hill. She would paint the countryside, a robin, a molehill…anything that caught her fancy.
“She got so busy…,” she murmured, before realizing what it meant. What had been lost.
She straightened and turned to find herself caught in one of Echo’s soulful stares.
“Your Aunt could use some help too. Maybe you could talk to her. But first, biscuits!”
Emma laughed loud and hard, for the first time in months. Then she put the water to boil and prepared a pot of tea for her Aunt.
As she put the cups on a tray, she heard a loud and satisfied crunching noise. She smiled and went to call her Aunt.-