John Burridge writes fiction across several genres. His story “Mask Glass Magic,” may be found in the anthology “Writers of the Future, vol 23.” His stories have appeared in “On The Premises” and elsewhere. He is a former chair of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writers’ critique group. John has a writer’s beard, IT job, and cats. He lives with his family in Eugene, Oregon. You can read more about John at http://johnburridge.blogspot.com.
A Summonerʼs Tale
by John Burridge
Today was going to be the year Grandma finally chose me to summon the spirits of Halloween. This year wasn’t going to suck like last year when she’d chosen my cousin, Laura; or the year before, when it had been Will—who was okay, I guess. The year before she hadn’t chosen anyone and had done the summoning herself.
The late afternoon sun cast long shadows through the clouds. It wasn’t raining; that always brought out droopy, soggy spirits. The laurel hedge and the trees cast twilight shadows over the backyard. Just the thing to begin a night of mystery.
All of my relatives—uncles, aunts and cousins, and great-aunts, great-uncles and cousins once removed—stood holding hands. We made a great circle between the back porch of Grandma’s beat-up old Victorian house and her koi pond. Outside the circle, Grandma shuffled through the fallen oak and apple leaves around the circle’s outside. The sapphire pendant she wore glowed like a morning star.
She went around twice. My right hand tingled and Mom squeezed it; I was supposed to be spinning the protective energy of the circle counter-clockwise. To me, the circle’s like a whirlpool. I mentally pushed it along.
The third time Grandma circled, I knew: this was going to be the year I was allowed to join the adults as they scried the veil between the worlds for holes that needed fixing. Instead of staring at Grandma, I fixed my eyes straight across the circle and my gaze fell on my older cousin, Melissa. Back when I was a kid and she was teaching me kung fu, I kind of had a crush on her. All of us boys, and a few of the girls, had crushes on her. She had seemed so mysterious and bad-ass then. I shifted my gaze to slacker Uncle Mike standing next to her.
The leaves rustled as Grandma drew closer. I held my breath. Grandma’s steps slowed, and then she walked past me. My stomach dropped. She stopped on the other side of my parents.
“Samantha,” Grandma said to my kid sister, who was barely fourteen, “would you like to do the summoning?”
Someone to my left whispered a surprised, “Oh.”
Samantha’s gaze flicked to me for about a half-second before she said, “Yes, Grandmother.”
Crap, crap, crappity-crap! This was not happening. I’d practiced for tonight for the last three weeks. I was the oldest unchosen kid. Next year I’d be eighteen. Only losers like Uncle Mike were called so late. Mom squeezed my hand again. If breaking the circle wouldn’t have fried me with its power, I would have left. Which was nothing compared to what Dad and everyone would have done to me afterward.
I gritted my teeth, realized I’d been holding up the power, and slammed the protective energy along.
Grandma stood behind Samantha, covered her hands with her own, and took Samantha’s place in the circle.
Samantha stepped forward into the center. She raised her arms and inhaled slowly. “By north and east.”
I would have started in the east for new beginnings, but her choice worked, and earth energies bubbled up. Within my Sight, sparkles streamed down from the sky.
“By south and west!” She gathered the magical force as it built. “By the center where we meet as one! As the wheel of the year turns, hear me now!” She reached out and grabbed earth force with her right hand, and the energy from the sky in her left. I frowned. That should have been me working the energy.
“Emblem of wind,” she said, “fire given form by rain and earth, make the portal now!” She brought her hands together. Wind sprang up and scooped the leaves off the ground. A thick column of them whirled into the center of the circle and shadows thickened within and hid Samantha.
A flutter in my stomach signaled the portal’s opening. The first of the spirits of Halloween to appear were rolling pumpkins, rumbling like thunder in the twilight. We kept holding hands and they rumbled clockwise within our circle, contained until Samantha was ready to direct them.
Second came the shadow squirrel. Next, the leaping stag with the moon in his antlers. Then, the great horned owl and the white raven; the umbra cat like a panther with eyes of flame; the horse of bone, and others. Sam called them all—a little Disney-looking, I thought. Part of me wanted Samantha to open the portal too wide or for a rogue spirit to appear so I could leap in and save the day. But the family was gathered together and the wards in Grandma’s garden were strong, so that didn’t happen.
From within the fountain of spiraling leaves and shadow, Samantha called out. “To the Hunt! The Hunt!” The cavalcade of spirits spiraled up in the sky and over the hedge on their way to join the Great Hunt that rides when the sun is at the mid-point between equinox and solstice. The spirits and energy of the Hunt would cleanse the local ley lines of blockages.
The leaves scattered. Samantha kneeled. “May the circle be open,” she said, “but never broken.”
Like opening the gates of a dam before there’s a flood, the magical pressure between the worlds had been relieved for another season. Hooray for my sister.
We all let go of each other’s hands. Mom and Dad walked toward Samantha, no doubt to congratulate her and invite her to the adult scrying.
Grandma walked up, her sapphire not quite so bright. I waited for her explanation of why she didn’t choose me. “Jack,” she said, “the younglings need someone to go with them trick-or-treating.” She patted my forearm. “Will you keep them safe?”
I knew the veils between the worlds were thin; it was possible something from the spirit world might stalk them tonight. But I also knew the neighborhood was at greater risk from my cousins than the other way around. Over Grandma’s shoulder, I saw Melissa gave me one of her mysterious-sensei looks. Whatever.
I shrugged. “Sure.” It wasn’t as if I had any choice. I did not roll my eyes at her.
Grandma nodded her head and smiled. “Thank you.”
Mom, Dad, and Samantha walked past me. Mom slowed and gave me a questioning look as if to ask if I was going to be okay.
Please don’t hug me, please don’t hug me, I thought. I knew I had to say something. Something nice. “Congratulations, Sam.” If I could have called a lightning storm, I would have.
Dad was beaming at Samantha, who kept her eyes focused on the ground.
Everyone broke into small groups and wandered inside, the kids to get into their costumes, and the adults to prepare for the scrying circle upstairs. I stayed outside and shoved the spent energy of the circle. It whirled a little.
Melissa paused as she walked by me. “Hey, Jack. If it’s any consolation, I got passed up until I was twenty.”
I smiled the smile I saved for clueless teachers. “Yeah.”
She put on that damn mysterious look that always makes me want to break things. “You know you’re welcome to come by the dojo any time.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. As if I wanted to be nagged to persevere or focus. I’d be the oldest green belt there. Probably all my friends had blue belts by now.
“Remember, everything’s a test.” She patted me on the shoulder and went inside.
Just what I needed, platitudes. I turned and faced the koi pond. It’s supposed to be calming. Stray shimmers from the ritual sparkled along the ground and air as if to taunt me. “By east and south,” I said, and flicked my hands out. A faint ripple shook the energy. “By west and north.” A leaf leapt up then settled back onto the ground.
I could shape the threads of magic. I had been shaping since I was thirteen. And what did they have me doing? Babysitting.
I growled and went to find the kids.
Troupes of costumed trick-or-treaters and their parents walking from house to house muddied up the energy of the street. It was stupid. I tried showing the brats how to spot any stray and potentially dangerous elementals, but they were more interested in candy. Ingrates. I’d like to see their faces if a rogue earth elemental showed up. But so far, I’d only spotted more typical shadow-wings, wheeling like small bats over the trees. Harmless—and the brats said so when I pointed the first one out to them.
“By east and south,” I said, as I waited at the end of a walkway. There might have been a subtle motion of energy, but noticing it was like noticing a ripple in a busy pool in summer. I wondered if I could do something with all the mundanes around.
“Trick or treat!” chorused the kids.
“By west and north,” I said more forcefully and a small wiggle of energy pulsed. Hah, I’d like to see Samantha do better.
“Thank you!” the kids shouted and ran toward me.
I held out a hand palm out. “No running. You owe me a candy bar tax.”
Two hours later, I dragged them back to Grandma’s. By then it was that tired time of Trick-or-Treating, when the little kids have finished, candles are starting to gutter out, and mostly older kids are scavenging around. The candy bars I’d levied sat heavily in my stomach. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The things I suffered through to save the brats from a total sugar overdose.
We went through the front door and into the front sitting room. A cauldron of snacks sat on a long table, along with hot cider, and small sandwiches. Melissa was there, cup in hand, dressed in her black sensei outfit, with a star drawn on her forehead. She typically patrolled the yard, countering any stray spirits that show up and discouraging kids who wanted to TP the house. The mundanes would think she was some sort of mystic ninja.
“Hey guys!” Melissa said, “Are you back from trick-or-treating?”
“Yeah,” the kids said, and “Look what we got!”
I ditched them and snuck out the back door.
The full moon came out from behind a cloud, sharpening shadows and turning the leaves gray and black. I stepped off the porch and toward the koi pond. The energy from the evening’s ritual earlier had died down.
I imagined the evening as it should have gone. Only maybe with thunder and lighting. Unlike Samantha’s domesticated summonings, mine would have some wildness in them. “By east and south!” I gestured with my left hand. “By west and north!” I gestured with my right. It wasn’t fair. “By the center where we meet as one!” Yeah, but some of us are more equal than others. “As the wheel of the year turns, hear me now!” My voice echoed between the worlds and rippled away from me. Leaves scattered. A lot. Apples and acorns fell from the trees.
“Crap!” I scuttled backward to the porch as Melissa rounded the corner of the house.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I’d gotten a little carried away and put too much power into my words. The laurels at the edge of the property swayed as something fled the garden’s wards. From the other side of the hedge, I heard some middle-schoolers shouting “What the?” and “What was that?”
Oops. Something skittered around the property and away. It might have been a raccoon. Or something.
“Jack,” Melissa said. “What did you do?”
“Nothing.” I looked at the ritual ground, which had a dormant feel to it. I’d only stirred up the energy a little, and I hadn’t summoned anything. At least not on purpose.
Melissa folded her arms across her chest, took an instructor stance, and waited. Crap.
“It’s not fair,” I said. “I should have done the summoning, not got stuck babysitting.”
“What did you summon just now?”
“I don’t know. Nothing.” It was true. I hadn’t done a full-blown ritual. “I was just saying the words as if Grandma had chosen me.” And flicking the energy around a little.
“How long have you been ‘just saying the words’?”
I shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe since I got humiliated tonight.”
“Stop pouting and think.”
What the frick? I wasn’t going to stand here and take this. I started for the kitchen.
“Jack! If you’ve been muttering the words under your breath all night, you’ve defined a large area for the spell to work with.”
Maybe I had been muttering part of the summoning spell while I stood at the end of walkways while my cousins got candy. “So?”
“Where’d you send whatever you summoned?” she asked.
The streetlights went out. The kids in the house squealed.
We both froze.
He held out my hands. “I didn’t send anything anywhere because I didn’t do any ritual.” God, she was treating me like a three-year-old. “I’m not stupid.”
“No,” she said, “but you’re angry, and anger is power.” She stopped and sniffed the air. “And we might need that power.” She closed her eyes for a few seconds, then her eyes snapped open. “C’mon, Jack, I’ll need your help.” She sprinted around the house.
I followed. I could sense something drawing nearer to the front of the property. Damn. Then I nearly killed myself when I tripped over the fricking garden gnomes Grandma has along the side of the house.
By the time I limped up to Melissa out front, she had already swung half of the rusting wrought iron gate shut. I closed the other half with a clang.
In the moonlight and the flickering flames from the jack-o-lanterns at the gateposts, I glimpsed a rolling blob of shadows and glints the size of a large beach ball. It was a pumpkin, a really big one. It thundered back and forth in front of the gate and sucked up leaves. I thought I heard a breathy “Trick or treat.”
Whoa. I took a step back. Before I could ask Melissa if she’d heard it, the blob-pumpkin threw itself against the iron curlicues, and began to ooze around the bars. Some leaves on our side of the gate flew up and stuck to it.
A sinking feeling grew in my stomach. The quivering, dark pumpkin glinted here and there, as if a kindergartner had made a sloppy picture with a black crayon and some glitter. Large, untamed, and shadowy; yep, I’d summoned this alright.
Melissa planted her feet on the ground and held up a palm. “Avert!”
Flames from the jack-o-lanterns around the gates sputtered, but her spell only slowed the blob-pumpkin down.
I looked more closely at it. Its glints were foil and its shadows were candy bar wrappers and some leaves. It smelled like a combination of a compost heap, Halloween candy, and dog poop. My stomach flopped a little. It would be through the gate soon.
I took another step back. “Why isn’t the gate stopping it?”
“Good question,” Melissa said. She crouched down and got closer to it than I would have. “It’s connected to you.” She straightened and pointed at my chest.
I looked down. A thin foggy ribbon of ectoplasm ran from me to the blob. Frick! I passed my hand through the ribbon a few times. It felt like a connection, not a drain—at least not yet.
“Congratulations,” she said quietly. “You’ve created a junk pumpkin out of your anger. I’m guessing those are the wrappers from your candy-bar tax.”
Crap, the brats had squealed.
“So,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
“Me?” I hate it when adults ask you that. “You’re the kung fu lady guarding the circle.”
“You summoned it. Have you noticed it growing larger? You can’t let it get into the house or it’ll trash Grandma’s sanctuary. What if it eats Grandma’s sapphire?”
“Whatever.” I raised my hands. “I’ll just banish it.”
“How?” she asked. “If you send it away, it’ll only become bigger and haunt the street—” It did look bigger. “—And don’t forget it’s connected to you.”
Gah, she was right. The blob-pumpkin hadn’t been summoned, exactly; it was a construct I’d made unconsciously. The ectoplasmic line would let it follow me home or to school, pressing against any wards around me. I had a feeling it would easily slurp up all the leaves and wrappers it could until it was the size of a house.
“You’ll have to re-absorb it,” she said.
“Eeuw,” I said.
“The longer you let it run loose, the bigger it’ll get.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I just figured that out.” I tried to recall what I’d read about magical constructs. There might be another way to deal with this thing.
Melissa’s eyes narrowed. I’d seen that look before, when she was getting ready to teach a student a lesson, usually by letting them try to flip her.
“Look,” she said, “I don’t know, but I guess Grandma probably chose Samantha because she’s got discipline.”
Thanks for reminding me. “You mean she’s sweet and compliant.” I pointed to the junk pumpkin, which was nearly through the gate. “What’s your point? It’s nearly through.”
“Okay.” She took a breath. “Did I ever tell you about the Halloween when I unleashed a bunch of squirrels?”
“No way!” Spirit squirrels were part of the reason the house was so beat up. “You summoned squirrel-pocolypse?”
She held her hands up, palms out. “Not my proudest moment. My point is, if I had fessed-up right away, I would have only had to deal with five squirrels instead of an army of them.”
I snorted. The kung fu lady had messed up. Wow. I guessed sharing her dark secret was her way of saying she wasn’t perfect. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
The first step was letting the construct know who was boss. I faced it and pointed to the ground. “Sit,” I said, as if addressing a dog. “Stay! Nice angry junk-pumpkin; let me undo you with love and good vibrations….”
The blob quivered on our side of the gate. It jiggled closer until it pressed up against my leg and tugged my pants. Eeeuw. I closed my eyes, the better to see the red glowing tendril of energy flowing from the blob to me.
A wave of anger passed over me. Damn Grandma anyway for starting this with her stupid initiation games. I gulped the cold night air and unclenched my hands. I fought the urge to kick something. It was a good thing my big toe was still throbbing from the garden gnomes. Anyway, getting mad at Grandma wasn’t going to help. Besides, she was only following a family tradition far older than her.
“You can do it,” Melissa said.
In my mind’s eye, Mom, Dad, and Samantha walked in front of me. My heart pounded. They could have at least said something. Samantha always was Dad’s favorite. I should test her; I could anchor my pumpkin blob to Samantha and see if she was smart enough to banish it. That would be funny.
Augh, the pumpkin blob was growing. Man, it knew how to push my buttons. The smarter part of me knew the blob was trying to engineer situations where someone would be really pissed off so it would have anger to feed off of.
Good intentions. Right. Maybe saccharine would dispel the blob. “I love my sister,” I said. Euew. But the anger pulsing off the pumpkin lessened.
Mom had looked concerned; and at least Samantha was embarrassed. I guess if I had a stupid son or brother I’d feel bad, too. Why did I have to be so stupid?
Through the connection I had with the blob came the suggestion that I could be powerful instead of stupid. I had laid down a wide foundation for a spell. A surge of power came through my connection with the junk pumpkin. The wind shifted and picked up. My hands tingled and I felt my Sight expanding to a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood I’d walked with the kids. The sleeping energy of Grandma’s backyard woke up. The apple and oak trees woke up, too. Clouds rumbled overhead.
My hands lifted and my fingers played with the threads of the veil between the worlds. With the Sight, I saw a silver circle, with my adult relatives’ faces looking down through it. The pumpkin’s senses were showing me my relatives as they scried the spirit world in Grandma’s silver bowl.
“Jack,” Melissa said evenly, “you’re ripping the veil between the worlds.” She was right; the ectoplasmic cord between me and the blob had damaged the boundary to let more magical force through.
I opened my eyes as a flock of air elementals slipped through the fissure. Melissa’s hand flashed into her ninja sash and she threw a handful of maple seeds into the air. The sprites latched onto them and began to wear themselves out keeping the seeds whirling.
“That thing will use you for its own ends if you let it,” Melissa said. “You’ve got to—”
A swarm of fire elementals, small flames without candles, flashed into our world above the junk pumpkin.
Melissa lunged for a jack-o-lantern at the gatepost, opened its lid, and held it aloft. “Fire find form, by water, earth, and loam!”
Her spell grounded most of the sprits into the jack-o-lantern, but three got away and buzzed toward the house. Melissa sprinted after them, the incandescent jack-o-lantern held like a football.
“Shut that thing down!” she shouted over her shoulder.
The skies rumbled and the moonlight dimmed. I felt a sharpening in the air, as if a very large bullseye was shrinking and closing in on where I stood. Grandma’s circle must have noticed the tear in the veil.
I focused on the quivering blob at my feet and took a deep breath. “Bad junk pumpkin. You are not going to use me. Now help me fix this.” I closed my eyes and with my Sight, I unraveled a thread from the ectoplasmic cord from the blob and ran it through the veil near its rip. The electrical tension in the air increased.
Fine. I ran the thread across the fissure and drew the ragged edges together. Lighting flashed red through my eyelids and thunder rumbled overhead. I stitched more of the the fissure together. Grandma thought I couldn’t do adult magic. A spell focused on me with a psychic click. I pulled the veil closed. Well, I’d show her. I pulled more ectoplasmic thread from the blob. Its quivers grew still as I pulled power from it and mended the fissure. See that, Grandma? I closed up the last of the fissure and knotted the thread. Anyone can summon, but I’d just mended the veil between the worlds. Thunder sounded again, but fainter this time.
I’d used up a lot of the blob; it was smaller now. I pulled the remainder of its energy back into me.
I shook all over an opened my eyes. The blob was a debris pile at my feet. “Ugh.” I stepped away. “There.”
“Good.” Melissa walked back from the house, two bright jack-o-lanterns in her hands. “How do you feel?”
I took another step away from the pile and shook my leg where the thing had sidled up against me. “Dirty. Tired.” And something else. “Uh, grounded?”
The streetlights came back on.
“Remember what you did tonight.” She put the jack-o-lanterns by the stone gateposts and opened the gate. “Let’s talk more tomorrow. C’mon, we need a rake.”
I noticed that she’d said we and not you. “Okay.” I walked beside her on the way to the tool shed. Maybe next year I could guard the circle with her. “So, just before you told me about squirrel-pocolypse, you got a funny look on your face. What were you thinking?”
She gave me a sideways glance. “I was thinking if I flipped you into that rolling blob of yuck, you’d reflexively blast it apart. End of problem.”
“Oh.” Crap, I would have smelled like a psychic compost pile for weeks. “Uh, thanks.” The questions I had about squirrel-pocolypse remained unasked.
Copyright 2019 by John Burridge