From the author: A familiar mourns his witch and seeks out revenge on the people responsible for her death.
They killed my tin opener. The humans called her Margaret, but what do humans know? She was my tin opener.
More than that, she was a witch, and a good one. A crone for the village, a sharp mind, and a healer. She knew the best way to mend broken bones, and how to scratch my ears so that I purred deep and long in her lap. I liked her, and they killed her. A poor choice. I knew she was dead when I saw her and felt her magic dissipate with the blood spilling on the floor. Hearing is the last sense to go; I trilled at her while I paced around the body. My tail swished and flicked. When I was certain, I dug into her purse for silver coins to place on her eyes. Then I curled against her chest as we waited for the reaper. The reaper was nice; I’d seen her before. But Margaret passed too soon.
“What do you want, Jasper?” came the death whisper as shadows converged into a tall form beside the body. Her face was only a skull this time, perhaps because of the short notice. She usually wore skin, at least.
“She was mine, and they killed her.”
“Indeed, she’s dead—her soul waits.” A pale hand held itself out for Margaret’s ghost to take. She was a lovely ghost, pallid, but strong as her recent death allowed.
“I had another twenty years,” the ghost grumbled. Her milky eyes glared at the reaper.
“You did, but they killed you. Complain to your familiar, not me.”
“I failed you, tin opener,” I mewed, standing high so she could pluck me up.
“You couldn’t know; the signs weren’t there. Which means it was deliberate. You must let the coven know, Jasper, so they can give me the rites and pursue those that did this.”
“Yes, Margaret,” I agreed, rubbing myself against her rough chin and soft, wrinkled cheeks.
“And don’t be sulking about it. Angela will see you’re placed with someone else soon. You’re too smart to be without a witch.” She popped me down next to her abandoned body and took the hand of the reaper, folded into the shadows of her cloak, then winked from existence.
“She will go over peacefully. Do you require anything else?” she asked, her eyeless holes staring down at me.
“Yes. Can you open that jar of blood on the desk?” I tilted my head to the heavy work table, scarred, and burned from various potions.
“You don’t drink blood,” the reaper said, skeletal jaw askew.
“I know, but that’s not why I asked. Can you?” She studied me a moment longer and went to the jar, her cloak chilling the swirling air as she passed. She unscrewed the lid and set the jar back on the counter.
“That is what you wanted?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, stretching myself long in supplication to her. Not an act we performed often, but death deserved a level of respect.
“You are a strange creature. You have never asked for such a thing with your other witches.”
“My other witches were due to meet you. A cat has many minds.” My tail danced, live as a snake. I caught it with a paw and stilled it.
“Make sure one of those minds doesn’t get you killed, Jasper. You’re not due for some time.”
“Naturally, oh cold one.” I stared her down. I knew my eyes glowed in what was left of the candle light, and she shook her skull at me. With a wry laugh she was gone, and I was alone in our cottage with the low flames and the body.
Not for long.
I leapt on the table and rooted through Margaret’s supplies, sniffing and batting at the various items. Over time, familiars learn a thing or two about the magic our witches use, and I had seven generations of witches behind me. Not all the same type, of course. I had hedge witches, and coven leaders, and ladies who knew ancient secrets of the forests and could talk with the trees—and the things inside them.
My favourite witch had been Sayeeda, a young business woman with skin like ochre clay. Her magic was ages old, passed down from a time when rains cleared villages and the fires atop of mountains were warnings. I was with her for forty years, watched her raise a family, and saw them grown. Her death was natural, the reaper expected. I have no problem with death—those of us with many lives can’t afford to be squeamish about it. But I have a problem with my charges being taken from me prematurely.
The circle was simple enough to make. A scratch to open the bag of ashes was nothing for my claws. The sigils were trickier, though - the powder clogged my nose as I rubbed them into the carpet. Back on the table for an aerial view, it looked right. I jumped down and padded to Margaret’s bedroom, slinking underneath her chest of drawers. I squeezed between the chest and the wall to the top drawer and pushed it out, and then scattered its trinkets over the floor. She would have scolded me for the mess, but the coven could clear it up later.
I sniffed through the items and selected a silver brooch, an amber ring, and a gold chain. They were all genuine and worth a good amount, handed down to Margaret from family or grateful clients. She was a magpie with her precious things, hoarding them away in the drawer rather than wearing them as some did. These would do.
I ferried the items back into the living room and dropped them into the middle of the circle, and then checked it for gaps, smudging my pawprints to keep the integrity of the lines. It was as good as it could be. Back on the table, I sniffed at the blood to check for pureness and then pushed the bottle off the edge. The blood splashed over the circle and jewellery lying within.
Flames leapt from the circle of ashes, the livid purple of old juniper berries. They flew around and around like a cat chasing its tail. The jewellery floated level with the table and then higher still, and a man popped into existence in the centre of the circle. He was tall, taller than Margaret had been, with long, black hair that reflected the flames, tousled and buffeted by the heat. He frowned in the dim light and waved his hand. The candles scattered about the room flamed brighter.
The man started when he spotted the body on the floor. “What in the earthen world?” He glanced about, finally settling on me. His lovely turquoise eyes narrowed to slits. “Great, I’m stuck with a cat and a crone that killed herself in a summoning. How long must I wait for the circle to break and I can leave?”
“Excuse me,” I said, from the edge of the table top. “She was far too good a witch to die in a basic summoning, and you were easy to find. Just because you hide out of the way in uninhabited places doesn’t make you special. Just try finding some of the elder things,” I nodded toward Margaret, “she could have them dancing on a pin.”
His dark red lips formed a wide oh. “You talk?” A blush crept over his tawny skin.
“No, I’m just a very good puppet. Of course, I talk, idiot. It can’t be her speaking. Honestly, you can’t tell her soul has gone?”
“Well yes, that’s why I was confused. What are you?”
“I was her familiar; my calling for generations.”
“You’re a familiar?” His eyebrow hiked, and he studied me anew.
“You must have met a familiar before.”
“Sure, but you’re . . . well . . . you’re ginger.”
“And?” I asked, my tail flicking like a metronome.
“Aren’t familiars usually black? Black cats, black dogs, bats?”
“Much as it may surprise you, fire man, we can be whatever colour we’re born with. I happen to be ginger, and my witches have been fine with that. At least, none expressed a need to roll me in soot. You’re the best form of vengeance the universe has to offer? For a djinn, you don’t seem that smart.”
“No need to be rude—whatever your name is—”
“Okay, Jasper. Odd name for a cat that.”
“I’m an odd cat. Can we get down to business?” I asked, closing my eyes against his glare.
“Yes, I summoned you for a reason.”
“Wait, you summoned me?”
“Well, the corpse didn’t do it.”
“How did you cast a circle?”
“I’m resourceful. I want you to do something for me.”
“Hold on, I don’t bargain with cats.”
“Well, you are standing in a summoning circle. My offering is fair—an even trade. What’s the problem?”
“You’re a cat. Perhaps a magical cat, but still a cat.”
“And you’re a jumped-up fire spirit, what’s your point?”
“Frankly, I don’t know if we can do this,” he said, looking about the room again as if someone was listening in.
“Why not? The jewellery is mine to give; I inherit what was my witch’s. Again, I’ve offered fair trade, and the circle is obviously adequate, since you’re standing in it.”
He paused seeming to consider my words, and then plucked up the jewellery that’d fallen to the floor and weighed it in his hand. “These are real.”
“Of course, I’m not in the habit of summoning without proper payment. What do you take me for?”
“Right. Honestly, Jasper I have no idea how to proceed.”
“Simple. You’ve been paid, and now you do as I ask. If you keep dicking around, the corpse will start to smell. I can be very patient.” The djinn looked at me, brows arched again, then glanced back to Margaret’s body.
“The old lady meant that much to you?”
“She was my charge, yes. She cared for me and fed me, and they stole the time remaining to her.”
“Okay. What is it you want?”
“I want you to track down the ones who did this and kill them.”
“You’re summoning a murder?”
“Think of it as a ‘rebalancing.’ This was not meant to happen—it wasn’t Margaret’s time. We’re just putting the clock right.”
“You’re not intending to bring her back, are you? ‘Cause that’s off in the cards. We don’t do that.”
“I’ve been around long enough to know necromancy is never a good idea, fire man. What is your name, anyway?”
“I am Aziz, Jasper the cat. And if all we’re talking about is balance, I can assist you.”
“Good, I was beginning to think I’d have to send you away and call a demon instead.”
“You know a demon would eat you, right?”
I looked at him for a silent minute, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. “I know it could try.”
“You’re confident for a cat.”
“A smart cat.”
“A magical bloody being, you absolute oaf!” I hissed, hackles up, tail straight as a rod. “And one who could easily send you to the top of mount Snowdon.”
“It’s a very cold mountain in Wales. Now, will you deal or not?”
“Yes, alright, let’s get to it. I find your murderer, I kill him, you give me these items.” He held the jewellery up, the gold glinted in the flames. The amber shone like trapped sunlight, bright enough to equal the life of the reprobate who killed my Margaret.
“And two books,” he said, nodding to the shelf beside the dying hearth.
I considered his request. “Not her book of shadows or the older grimoires, but you can choose two of the others for your collection.”
“Then we have a deal. Do you want me to report back once it’s done?”
“Like hell, I’m going with you.” I dropped from the table and opened the circle with a clean swipe of one paw. “If circumstances allow, I mean to scratch the killer’s eyes out.”
“You’re crazy,” he sighed, and then bent to pick me up. He was warm, like lying in the bank of a dying fire, and he smelled of crisp, clean air and peach blossoms. I nestled into the crook of his neck and purred.
“No crazier than a djinn who just dealt with a cat,” I murmured, sinking my claws into his waistcoat for a good hold.
We appeared in the graveyard, amongst the old stones and wisps of old ghosts.
“Really?” I asked, disappointed by the worn cliché. I sniffed the air as we stood in the shade of the crypts.
“They’re in the church,” he said, scratching behind my ear.
“More than one?”
“Three of them. All young idiots who are playing with powers they don’t understand.”
“They understood enough to murder Margaret.”
“That they did, ginger. That they did. Now do you want to claw their eyes out?”
“Let’s see what they’re like first,” I said, still curled in the crook of his arm. I pressed against his chest and he headed for the church, silent as a cat on the frosted grass. With me in his arms, we passed through the locked door as easy as smoke.
The inside was dark, lit only by the stubs of candles. Left to burn too long, they hissed and spit in the gloom. In the shadows, we watched as three men milled about, spilling salt as they fashioned a crude circle on the floor of the cavernous room. Items were dotted around the circle’s edge—a dead raven, rich, red wine, and incense far too strong to be any use.
“Do you know what they’re doing?” Aziz asked in a low murmur.
I shook my head, eyes scanning their faces. I recognized the blonde one; a man from the village who’d shadowed Margaret before, learning how to heal. From healing to this? My ears flattened against my skull and I glared at him. The other two were strangers. The fattest resembled the blonde, maybe a brother or a cousin.
“The fair-haired one is local, I don’t know about the others,” I whispered to Aziz.
“I think they’re making a summoning circle for a demon. Incorrectly, which is probably why you don’t recognise it. They needed hags blood for the ritual. Your lady wasn’t a hag though, she was a crone. They’re not smart enough to realise that.”
“This could be entertaining,” I said, watching them scurry around. “Why are they summoning a demon?”
“The usual reasons, money, power, wealth. All irritating and predictable. Humans are so fixated on the material. None of it matters in the end, they return to the stars only to be shoved back into the flesh.”
“That’s a miserable way to look at reincarnation, fire man.”
“Without memories, it’s a waste.” He shrugged, pushing me into the crook of his neck as he did so.
“My tin opener could recall previous cycles. She knew what she had been and what she was seeking to be. She would have kept working at it too.”
“Tin opener?” he asked, leaning his head back so he could look at my eyes.
“My name for her. It’s a great honour to be the giver of food. I could hunt on my own, but I trusted her to feed me.”
“So, allowing her to serve you food was your way of honouring her?”
“Yes, precisely,” I said, pleased he could grasp the basics. He shrugged again, brows high but asked no further questions.
“How do you want to do this?” He nodded back to the men. They were ready to start their bastardised ritual now. One person stood at each point of a large triangle they’d drawn within the circle, the variety of odd items within hands’ reach. Horrendous amateurs, they were all standing inside their own circle!
“Isn’t it about time for you to show up?” I asked, looking at the smaller, central circle. It was no good, it couldn’t possibly hold, but they didn’t know that.
“Playing with your food, billi?”
“Mice have more sense.”
“As you wish.” He set me down and I stalked closer, slinking just beyond the candle light.
“We summon thee, old unclean one,” called one of the men, an olive-skinned squirt with a tattoo of an ankh, unearned I was sure, on the side of his neck. “We offer death and vice, blood and wickedness to guide your way.” The bird was thrown into the circle, the wine poured over it. A cup of blood went in next followed by a stained knife that I knew belonged to the blonde one. It was Margaret’s blood. I felt a growl curl low in my chest and bit it back, flattening myself as low as I could so I wouldn’t bolt forward.
“We call upon you now at this darkest hour. Heed our call and appear,” the blonde beckoned, raising his hands above his head. I quietly considered praying for lightning to strike them but was cheered when a bloom of turquoise flame shot up from the inner circle, flooding the chamber with light.
“Who seeks to disturb my eternal contemplation?” boomed Aziz, his skin now dark as ink and his eyes glowing from the fire that shrouded him.
“Y-you’re Thobarabau?” the fat one warbled, flinching.
“Shut up, Findlay,” hissed the blonde.
“Fuck you, Arthur, he’s huge,” Findlay shot back.
“Yes, I am,” Aziz said, peering above them, “Am I not what you expected?”
“You’re dark skinned. I thought demons were pale,” said the tattooed idiot.
“Don’t be racist to the fucking demon, Jamie,” The blonde, Arthur, sighed, his hands going to his temples. Well at least he knew he was a disaster.
“If you looked in the grimoire for my name, you will see my association with Mesopotamia. You call it Syria now, but we don’t care for such paltry labels. Why did you summon me?” Aziz continued, nostrils flaring.as thin trails of smoke emerged.
“We want to bargain,” said Arthur, grasping control from the jaws of inadequacy.
“What do you offer?”
“Murder, sacrifice, lives for your cause,” said Jamie, surging forward to the edge of the circle. “We will shed blood in your name.”
“And what do you seek?” Aziz voice reverberated throughout the church, the promise of condemnation and judgement lurking in his words.
“Power. Influence over those around us to bend them to our will,” Arthur said, the scratch of desire threaded through his voice. I wondered who he had in mind for that desire, and worried for the women of the village.
“Power is a two-pointed tool, it pierces those who wield it. Are you sure this is what you want?” Aziz asked, his hair rising behind him in an intricate braid that twisted and brushed like my tail when I’m agitated.
“Yes, we are willing to pay the price,” Jamie assured him, looking at the other two. Findlay looked fit to run for it, but Arthur stood his ground, rod straight.
“As you wish. Jamie,” Aziz nodded at the tattooed one, “take up the knife from under my feet and stab fatty there through the throat.” Aziz’ tone was casual, his illusion wavered as he floated above the circle.
“What?” squeaked Findlay.
“No, we’ve offered you blood already, hags blood to desecrate the holy ground,” Arthur said, eyes wide.
“I’m sure that would have impressed Thobarabau, but you spelled his name wrong and your circle is flawed,” Aziz said, shrugging as he dropped gently to the floor. He stepped aside to allow Jamie scoop up the knife.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked.
“I’m someone who’s not so dumb as to give my name to a summoned spirit,” Aziz laughed, flashing teeth sharp enough to match mine.
“I banish thee,” Arthur spat, slipping a vial from his pocket and flinging it at Aziz’s torso. It burst, spilling over his clothes and evaporating into a puff of steam.
“Was that meant to do something?” Aziz asked, taking a step closer to the man. He loomed over him.
“But that was holy water, why are you still here?”
“You really should have done your research, Arthur. Stabbing the witch was a big mistake.” Aziz sighed, letting fire spill from his eyes and down over his arms as he leaned closer. “I’m a fire creature, not a demon. All holy water does is provide me a good steam cleaning.” He enfolded Arthur in a fiery hug. The flames surged upward enveloping them both in a cocoon of peacock heat. Arthur fought to pull away, but Aziz lifted him off the floor, the man’s harmless kicks to Aziz’ legs casing blue sparks around them.
A dreadful, squealing shriek rent the air, and I tore my eyes from the flaming pillar that was Aziz and Arthur. Jamie had fat Findlay pinned against one wall and was stabbing him in the chest and throat. I stood to get a better view just as Jamie delivered the fatal stab through Findlay’s thigh.
“Good work, Jamie. Now come here and stab yourself in the chest,” Aziz called, still holding onto the twitching form of what was once Arthur. There was no odor of burning flesh, only the metallic smell of Findlay’s blood pooling on the church floor beneath his dangling feet, for which I was grateful. I could live the rest of my lives ignorant of the smell of burning humans.
Jamie did as bid. He walked to the centre of the circle and buried the blade deep under his diaphragm, and then fell to the floor. Aziz dropped the smouldering remains of Arthur next to the bloody mess that was Jamie and cast flames over their bodies.
“Tidying up?” I asked, emerging from the shadows to sit beside him.
“They’re not worth funeral rights.”
“A touch brutal for your kind, no?”
“We only honour those who deserve it. These were nothing more than greedy, undeserving degenerates and murderers.”
“You seem a bit hostile toward them.”
“Says the cat that bartered for their deaths?” He raised an eyebrow at me and I rubbed against his legs, hinting to be picked up. He did, plonking me against his chest where I purred, contented.
“I’m just saying your methods were irregular.”
“They deserved a lot worse. Your lady trusted the blonde, and he turned on her. I don’t hold patience for those who act without honour. I may trick the unwary, but I do not lie or exploit. All the worlds could do with less treachery.”
“Amen to that,” I murmured and nuzzled his neck.
“Let’s return to your cottage and finish our transaction.”
Peaks of light crept through the windows of the cottage, tinting the walls pink and orange. Aziz stood at the bookshelf, pursuing the titles.
“You must have most of those already,” I said. “Your lot saved most of the Library of Alexandria, after all.” I sat beside Margaret’s body watching him.
“We did, but modern knowledge is more interesting.” He pulled a copy of Computers for Dummies and a collection of Oscar Wilde’s works from the shelves. “These will do.”
“Whatever you like,” I said, watching him tuck the books into a pocket of his bag.
“It’s been an experience doing business with you, Jasper of many witches. I hope when we meet again it’s under better circumstances. I am pleased your charge made her way over peacefully.”
I nodded and flicked my tail. “Enjoy your reading.”
He smiled and was gone in a blink, only a faint curl of blue smoke lingered. I stood, stretched, and padding to Margaret’s summoning mirror.
“Show me Angela,” I commanded, and its surface rippled like water. Angela’s image displayed bleary eyed in the early morning light.
“Jasper, is that you?” she asked, squinting down at me.
“Afraid so, Angela. You need to come; Margaret’s been killed. The reaper has arrived and gone, but there’s still the burial rites.”
“Oh goddess—on my way,” she said, her image fading to black. A good head witch, she’d be here in ten minutes.
I made my way into the kitchen. On the washing board sat an old-fashioned tin opener, it’s handles spread wide. I hopped up on the counter and, taking it in my mouth, returned to Margaret, placing it on her chest. Then I curled beside her, purring in the glow of morning, and waited for Angela.
I would make sure they buried her with it.