“WHO ARE you?”
The setting sun limned the man standing on the end of the dock in a reddish aura and shadowed his face inside the hood of his sweatshirt. I wasn’t getting any closer until I knew what the hell was going on, so I held my canoe offshore about twenty feet, which wasn’t easy in the choppy water. Typical for a summer Vermont day, the wind had picked up late in the afternoon.
The man raised a hand in greeting. “Mr. North? I’m Alan Holsen.”
Like hell he was. “I was expecting a kid.” There was a beat-up red car parked beside my old truck in the dirt parking lot, so I knew he’d driven himself there.
“What? I’m twenty-one.” He sounded honestly shocked that I expected otherwise. He pushed back his hood to reveal curly hair that looked red, but then, the sun was making everything look that shade. I couldn’t see any of his features. Given that he was standing on a dock above me, it was possible he wasn’t as tall as I initially thought, but no way was this guy the ten-year-old demon who was supposed to be there. Arnold knew I preferred to train children. After my last disastrous result training an adult, I couldn’t believe my coven would send me another. What were they trying to pull on me? The text Arnold had sent the day before implied he’d be dropping off a kid. Bastard.
“You aren’t here to convince me to move back to town, are you?” I called. Town was miles away down the dirt road that ended in the tiny parking lot.
“Where’s your stuff?”
He turned so I could see he wore a backpack.
“Why did Arnold text that he was sending me a ten-year-old?”
“I don’t know. Autocorrect?”
Bullshit. “I never take anyone over fifteen.”
“I’m sorry,” he called back.
Sorry for me, or sorry for himself? I started to imagine the message I would send Arnold as I put my paddle back in the water and swung the bow of the canoe around. “Go home, Alan Holsen, and finish training with whoever started you.”
“No one has started me, Mr. North. I just found out.”
Was he kidding me? That must have been a hell of a shock, finding out that late that he was different from almost everyone else and that he was going to have to spend the rest of his life hiding a big secret. At twenty-one I had known for sixteen years that I was a witch. Training this guy would be even worse than taking over a job someone else had botched. He must’ve had the talent of a mealworm, not to have found out sooner. Caruthers could handle him just fine. “Go home, kid,” I called over my shoulder. “Good luck.”
I turned the canoe firmly and headed back toward my island. I would send Arnold a text as soon as I got home, and then I’d throw my damn phone in the pond.
I was so frustrated with my coven. They seemed to think they could foist everybody off on me with the excuse that I was so talented that I was obligated to teach the next generation. I didn’t mind a kid once in a while—preferably quiet ones who would shut up and do as I said—but not a guy that old. No way was that much testosterone coming into my cabin. No memories would awaken, thank you very—Holy shit.
A sea monster reared its head up out of the waves before me.
Good detail in the green scales, nice point of light in the red eyes, even drops of water coming off the horns. It opened its mouth and roared. The sound had good bass, but the highs were a little nasal. Tonsils looked impressive, and the tongue that snaked at me was perfectly forked. Huh. Maybe not a mealworm after all.
I conjured a dragon that swooped down out of the sky straight for the sea monster. In an instant, the monster dove and vanished with a lot of nice bubbles. I turned in my seat and raced my dragon, breathing a blast of fire, at the figure on the dock. The young man gazed at my creation until it vanished over his head.
“That was fantastic.” He pumped one hand into the air. “I could feel the heat.”
I snorted. I could have roasted him if I wanted to.
“Okay. Do you get seasick, like most demons?” I finally called.
“Absolutely not. I swear it.”
Damn. There went my last excuse. I could not stand the sight of anyone being sick. I growled under my breath and sent my canoe back toward the shore. I’d give him a week of my time. That was it. No more. It wasn’t my fault I had a soft spot for sea monsters.
But if the guy was lying and puked in my canoe, he was going overboard.
OF COURSE he was lying, but he managed to hide his nausea until we were more than halfway there, so I would be forced to keep going. Granted, the waves did get a bit bigger once we got away from shore and the full wind hit us. But there’s a huge difference between regular seasickness and the sound of a demon barfing because he’s on water. Nothing else has quite the same “Oh my God, let me die now” sound. In my opinion he carried on a lot longer than necessary, certainly beyond the point of actually bringing anything up. And as soon as he was done, he slid bonelessly to the bottom of the boat. He looked about as lifeless as his paddle, which he at least had the courtesy to put down before he hung his head over the side.
I struggled a few moments longer to keep my own dinner in place, but it wasn’t going to happen, and I hit my knees and leaned over the side. But it lasted just a few moments, and I didn’t make any disgusting death gargles while I was doing it. I wasn’t a demon made helpless by a little water. I was a witch in the finest tradition of the word, just a little more sensitive to other people’s distress than I needed to be.
When I was finished, I cupped a handful of water to my mouth, rinsed, and spat. Arnold was never going to hear the end of it.
My unwanted student hadn’t budged, except to retreat further into the depths of his gray hood. His life jacket gave him another layer of defense. I poked him in the back with my paddle. Gently. “Hey, demon. You okay?”
After a time delay, I saw one hand crawl out from under him and make what might have been a thumbs-up and then withdraw. Okay. That worked for me. I began to paddle again.
It was a beautiful July evening. A thunderstorm in the afternoon had cleared out the hot, muggy air that had camped over Vermont for the last week, and left a stiff breeze from the north. The sun had gone down, but the last of the departing clouds over the already dark mountains in the west were red and lined with gold. The water around us reflected the sky, but muted it softly. Around the shoreline, the tall, pointy spruce trees and the high rock ledges were going dark too, though I had enough light to see by. I paddled quickly, glad that the wind was from behind us and pushed us along with the waves, which were maybe a foot and a half high. It was a bit bouncy, but nothing I couldn’t handle, even out in the middle.
I owned the whole damn pond and a wide swath of the forest around it. My cabin was on an island, smack in the middle of it all, and that was the way I wanted it. The rest of the world had carried on without me for the last two years. The only people I related to were the members of my coven. We were kin because of the secrets and the magic we shared. I was perfectly willing to keep my distance from the rest of humanity.
But the world I was part of gave me plenty to think about. I was a witch, able to do things like light fires, make lights turn on and off with my mind, teleport myself from one place to another, and make shields to protect myself and my belongings from danger. The man on the bottom of my canoe was a demon. After I trained him up a bit, he would be able to do the same things. Demons generally couldn’t achieve the level of ability that witches could. But what they couldn’t do with talent, they made up for with sheer strength. Demons were powerhouses and could keep going long after a witch had burned out.
Centuries before, so far back no one knew when it had started, witches and demons paired up to complement each other. I had no more understanding than anyone else of how it worked, but our pairings were predestined, arranged before we were even born. Every witch had a demon with whom they were perfectly coordinated to work. Usually the two halves of the equation met when they were both young, and they spent their lives working in perfect harmony. Or at least that was the theory.
Occasionally things went very wrong. For some reason that seemed to be happening more often lately. Demons were going bad. Perhaps it was the nature of power itself. Our community was still reeling from what had happened to a witch-demon pair who had been captured by a band of rogue demons and literally taken apart to find out what made them work. Though I hadn’t known James and Ambient personally, I shuddered every time I thought of the torture they’d gone through, and I sincerely hoped they had been able to recover from the experience after they were rescued.
Closer to home a demon I’d known very well had also gone rogue. I pulled my thoughts away from him and took a strong stroke with my paddle, as though to leave him even farther behind. I had not yet met my true demon, and to be perfectly honest, I had no desire to. But looking at the poor guy before me, I knew that part of the reason I had changed my mind about training him was because of the alarming trend of recent years. Leaving a demon loose, untrained…. I suspected that was the same fear that had prompted Arnold to send him to me.
A wave a bit larger than the rest rocked us. I swiftly brought my paddle out of the water, slapped the shaft of it across the gunwales, and leaned hard on it, using my weight to balance us out. In a second we were stable again. He gave a low moan that he probably couldn’t help. It served him right for lying to me, but I sighed and sent a burst of power into the aluminum shell around us. Instantly we picked up speed. I used my paddle to steer as though we were sailing. It was even bouncier, but we’d be there sooner.
My island grew larger. It was a perfect gem of green in the middle of the blue water, just big enough for my cabin and the maple tree next to it, a stand of spruce trees, and a grassy rise with a bench at the top. I aimed for the small strip of sandy beach in front of the cabin porch. The rest of the shoreline was rocky. I’d been incredibly lucky to be in the market for a hiding place just when a major paper company went bankrupt, and I’d been able to snap up a piece of their timber supply in the far northeastern part of Vermont. Some logger had built the cabin years before, and probably the dock on the mainland as well. But almost nobody drove up the ten miles of logging road. That road, my cell phone, and my laptop were all that connected me to the world, and they were three more things than I really wanted. It never bothered me in the least when I couldn’t get cell service, which was about half the time.
As the beach approached, I let our momentum carry us. My passenger picked up his head when the bow of the canoe scraped the sand. I quickly jumped over the side into knee-deep water and waded past him to pull the bow firmly onto the land. He sat up blearily and tried to untangle his body from where he’d wedged himself in the triangle-shaped area between the seat and the bow.
“Here,” I said and held down a hand. “You’ve turned yourself into a pretzel.”
He took my hand. It was kind of like helping a blob of Jell-O ooze over the gunwale. Together we got his feet on the ground, but that didn’t translate into standing, and walking looked like a real long shot.
“You’ve got it bad, kid,” I said.
I think he tried to answer, but whatever came out didn’t sound like English. Traveling across water floored some demons. It wasn’t their fault. I picked him up, tossed him over my shoulder, and carried him into the cabin. He was heavier than he looked, and it took a fair amount of power to do it. But I had plenty to spare, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
My cabin had four rooms. The largest was a kitchen, dining, and living room combination that took up most of the space. My bedroom, the bathroom, and a spare room that doubled as my office each opened up along the back wall. The spare room was where I planned to put my student. He was my first since I’d moved out there two years earlier. I’d never had to carry one into my home before. This guy had better live up to his sea monster, or I’d be carrying him right back out.
I flopped him down on the guest bed, which was low, soft, and freshly made, because I was a little obsessive that way. Getting him out of the life jacket was like undressing a doll. If it hadn’t been for an occasional moan, I’d have checked him for a pulse. I got his shoes off too. Then I brought him a glass of water and a pail, left both within reach, and went to put the canoe away.
When I finished it was fully dark. The sky was the beautiful, deep violet of summer, the water was a shimmer of movement below it, and Venus hung so brightly and so low in the sky I could have touched her. As usual after sunset, the wind dropped quickly. Near the dock on the mainland shore, a barred owl called. Softly another answered.
Peace settled around me. I’d wait until morning to tell Arnold what I thought of him. Yeah. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of sharing my space with another adult. But the poor shit needed help figuring out what it meant to be a demon in the modern world just as much as the rest of us needed to make sure he was trained up safely. It wouldn’t kill me to be nice.
For a little while.
“Nice” had gotten me fucked up badly two years before, and it wasn’t easy to jump back into it with my eyes open. But Gagnon wasn’t in my life any longer. It was time I stopped letting him control it.
I grabbed the guy’s backpack, which was very heavy, and went inside. I lit a couple candles with a wave of my hand. When the cabin glowed softly with light, I poked my head into the spare room. My guest was curled under his blanket, facing the wall. The glass of water was empty. So was the pail. Both were good signs.
For a moment I watched him sleep and felt an odd sensation at the back of my head that I didn’t understand and didn’t want to.
I went into my own room. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. I’d planned to work that night, but it would be a good idea to get back into a normal sleep schedule. I had company who was probably used to measuring time by days and nights and not by the seasons. I’d been sleeping in naps for so long that it felt a little odd to actually get ready for bed—as in brushing my teeth and taking off my clothes. But I was tired, my bed felt good, and the owls were hooting nearby. I fell asleep easily.