Nov 06

Alternate Susan — Chapter Seventeen

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Chapter Seventeen




“You’re positive this is safe?” I asked Miles, for about the fifteenth time since the crack of dawn when my alarm went off. We were sitting in the back yard, inside a ring of stones that looked like a giant C. I dearly wanted to close it, and had the stones in my hand, but Miles shook his head.

“This is why you weren’t able to summon her the other night, Miss Susan. She’s your friend. She doesn’t like it when you show her mistrust.”

Summoning a goddess to help me with a djinn felt like getting a second surgery to fix the horrible damage caused by the first one. Intellectually, it was the right thing to do. Emotionally, I wanted to eat cookies and curl up under the covers, cuddling a teddy bear. I set the stones down outside the ring.

“What about Nightjack? Won’t he be able to get in?”

“Yes, but he hasn’t killed you yet, so he may wait. Besides, he won’t know what you’re up to unless someone tells him.”

Funny thing is, I trusted Amber not to tell him. Maybe that was dumb, but it was easier than acknowledging that Nightjack was coming to get me. I yawned and squinted eastward. A thin line of light began to peep through the air pollution. Close enough to dawn. Get this over with, and then go back to bed.

“By the light of breaking morn

Goddess fair of shape and form

Bring your daughter grace and might

Grant a shape to bless my sight.”

Sure, I should have memorized it, but it was easier just to bring Susie’s spellbook out into the yard with me. That way I could be sure I wasn’t forgetting anything.

“It’s not going to work, Miss Susan. You have to say it with feeling, not yawn it.”

“I don’t know if she’s going to come. She didn’t last time.”

“You have to focus your desire. Do you want her to come, or not?”

“I don’t know. I’m scared.” I rolled the stone lightly from palm to palm, then tossed it into the grass. It would be easy to close the circle and protect myself. I had the sphere of force already imprinted in my mind, and the power flickered up around my hips. The sun rose higher in the sky now, creating an edge of pink fire. It hadn’t been cold enough for dew, and the grass hadn’t lost its heat from the day before. I idly scratched a mosquito bite. It wasn’t too late to just go inside and forget about it.

“Why is it so hard for you to ask for help, Miss Susan?”

“You know what would help, Miles? It would help if you would go somewhere else. This is really just between Ruby and me.” If she showed up, that was.

“Very well.” Miles scampered across the patio, then climbed the wall to wriggle in through the bent window frame.

The sound of a lawn mower, followed by the dusty smell of cut grass, blew over the fence. The sky had grown completely light, and a cicada started singing in the ash tree.


It felt like summer already. Don’t know why I expected any different. Maybe it was because the early fall catalogs were already out. Flipping through pages of women in heathered tweed made me feel like it should be autumn already. On the roof, the air conditioner hummed on. It would be nice and cool inside, not itchy and sweaty like on the lawn. Was Ruby even going to show up for me?

“By the light of breaking morn

Goddess fair of shape and form

Bring your daughter grace and might

Grant a shape to bless my sight.”

Still no Ruby.

“Am I even doing this right?” I muttered, crossing my legs again. What if Ruby Gardner didn’t really exist? What if Susie got her spells from somewhere else, and she just pretended that she and Maggie worshipped a Goddess in the form of a pioneer woman in a calico dress? No, I had the memories too. And what about my hand getting possessed? That didn’t seem like a benign force.

“Come on, Susie. Help me out here.” I closed my eyes and meditated. Ruby Gardner. A friend. Ruby Gardner felt like a friend, or rather, like our grandma or cool aunt. Memories of her surfaced, vignettes, rather, as though she were someone so intrinsic to Susie’s life that Susie took her for granted.  Ruby wasn’t going to help me. She wasn’t my friend, she was Susie’s friend. Great, once again, I get all the disadvantages of Susie’s life and not the advantages. Well, I was still Susan Elizabeth Stillwater, and Amber had no one else to save her from Nightjack. There had to be a way to un-summon a djinn.

The breathing and meditation must have shook my second sight loose, because when I opened my eyes again, the fey were up and about in the garden. Bramblemaes feasted on the firethorn berries. Hexelmoths flitted here and there, probably seeking aetheric remnants from where Nightjack had broken things. They did that. Hexelmoths liked to eat the remnants of spells. Like earthworms, their excrement broke magic power back into a form the earth could reclaim. Wonderful. Susie’s memory didn’t tell me squat about what I needed to know, but I’d be great at mage-trivia.

Butterflies must have had second sight too, because when the wrinkled little thornwights chased them, the insects flittered off.  The thornwights were hard to see, because their skin was dark with irregular diamond spots. When sitting still they looked like the negative spaces between twigs. They moved quickly, and had sharp teeth, but each time I was sure they’d catch a butterfly, the thornwight’s claws went right through it. They weren’t on the same plane of existence.

I whistled to a bramblemae in the tree and beckoned it. In response, they fluttered around and climbed higher in the branches, until only bead black eyes and the flick of a sparrow’s wing or a mouse’s tail showed through the ash leaves. Okay, so the fey weren’t interested in being observed.

“They took their forms from nature

And to her alone they bowed.”

There was something else after that, something about how these fey were mere windows to the Elsewhere, and that only mages and the gifted could reach through the window and catch them. It was more poetic than factual. What about djinns, did Susie know anything about them? She ought to have, if she had summoned one, but in my experience, ‘ought to’ and ‘did’ rarely went together.

One of the thornwights caught a hexelmoth by mistake. To my surprise, the thornwight stuffed the moth into its mouth and ate it. All the other hexelmoths froze, then launched themselves as one into the air, raining iridescent brown scales, like ducks who have lost one of their number to a hunter’s gun.

So, they could die. Or, at least, they could eat each other.

Capture Nightjack, imprison him, cut him into pieces, and stuff the pieces into cages containing captive fey. Sounded brutal. Sounded evil. Would it work?

Okay, so there were problems with the plan. One, how to get Nightjack here. Two, how to keep the fey imprisoned until we needed them. Three, how were the fey going to know what they were supposed to do? Well, if Ruby showed up, she could tell me that too.

According to Susie’s spellbook, Hexelmoths were perfect for this spell, because they were small, could be kept in jars, and had a tendency to hold still when left alone. Some mages kept them as pets, but Susie hated bugs, and she noted that gathering food for them was a nuisance. Thornwights would work too, and bramblemaes, since they were the most common types of fey in the garden. Better yet, they were too big to fit through the spaces in the cat trap.

The sun had come up over the horizon now, and a trickle of sweat pooled in my bra. Screw this. Ruby wasn’t going to help me. That left Maggie. I shut Susie’s spellbook and went inside.

“Were you successful, Miss Susan?” Miles asked, as soon as I walked inside.

“Ruby didn’t show, if that’s what you mean, but I figured out what to do.” I scooped him up and placed him on my shoulder. Miles made a small coo of surprise. (Miles still creeped me out, but if I could date Bo, I could certainly flirt with a lizard.) “I’m going to need your help. I have to figure out how to rescue Maggie.” I set the book down on the table and booted my computer.

“You tried that before, Miss Susan. What makes you think it will work now?”

“Because now I’m a mage.”




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