Saturday, March 28, 2009

Strangely Familiar by Cari Z.

All too soon it was time. They sat down along the outside of the circle, knees nearly touching. The five elder witches were chanting softly, hands joined, eyes focused on the elaborate markings inside the summoning circle Cecily had chalked there earlier. Cecily sat in the middle of her sisters, holding hands with Brigit and Katrina. They were mustering their power, adding it to the mix, and the spell blossomed in her mind’s eye, beautiful but amorphous, a hovering fog of ever-changing colors hanging over the circle, waiting to coalesce. It was her turn to concentrate.

Cecily shut her eyes, trying not to get distracted or let her nervousness get the better of her. Visualize what you need…visualize what you want. It will come to you.

Easier said than done. What did she need? Strength to accentuate strength, wisdom to compliment wisdom? Beauty, or speed? No. The problem was, Cecily didn’t know what she needed. She had never been allowed to fail. She had never done anything without the approval of her family, their guidance and love. She’d had plenty of that. What she didn’t have was anything unique, anything that had ever challenged her. Who was she, really? Cecily didn’t know. She felt sometimes like she was a reflection of all her elders, the result of patient poking and prodding and expectation. She needed something totally different. Something challenging.

There, on the edge of her consciousness. A tremor, something clawing its way into her mind. She breathed in deep, trying to open her mind and let the presence make itself better known. Colors swirled, shades of gold and green and black working their way to the forefront.

Strong. Fierce. Confused, hurt, and lovely. Emotions hit Cecily like blows from a hammer, falling one right after the other into her brain. She gasped, her eyes momentarily flying open at the intensity of the creature’s pain. It was an immediate sense of recognition, a sudden kinship. What was it?

“Come to me,” she breathed, certain now that this was the familiar for her. It called to her, siren-like, irresistible. Something she could help, something for her alone that would help her in return. What was it? “Come to me.”

It was so hard. One second she felt the pull strongly, could almost see the animal, but the next it was gone, almost impossible to reach. She began to chant along with the elders, focusing her powers. She reached out with the spell, grabbed the creature’s essence, and pulled.

Suddenly the mist shrank, silhouetting a low, stocky form before suddenly popping like a soap bubble. In its place was her familiar. At first groggy, after a few moments it sat up, then stood. It growled.

Cecily was transfixed. “A jaguar.”

“It’s huge!” her sister Hannah marveled.

“It’s not under your control yet,” Melinda, the coven’s leader, snapped. “Touch it, Cecily, connect your minds.”

She reached out, both physically and mentally. The bond was there between them, and she drew the jaguar’s face towards her own. It continued to snarl, clearly angry. When she put her hand on its shoulder, it reared back and clawed her.

“Ahh!” Cecily drew her hand back in astonishment, looking down at three-inch long scrapes on her forearm that were just starting to well with blood.

“Cess, control it!” her mother ordered.

“I can’t get in,” she replied desperately. “I can feel him, but I can’t enter his mind.”

Melinda glared at the jaguar pacing the circle, which suddenly seemed way too small to contain it. “Is it…no, surely not!” Nevertheless, she pulled a small dry charm from a satchel on her belt, throwing it at the jaguar. “Show yourself, creature!”

Cecily was about to object when suddenly the jaguar melded into a human. Not just a human, a man. A huge, dark, naked man. And he looked pissed off. “Oh, Goddess,” she whispered.

He stood up, glaring at her. “Who are you? How did you force me here?” He spoke English with a thick Brazilian accent.

“A were,” Melinda muttered.

“A were?” Cecily knew her voice was shrill, but she couldn’t help it.

“How could that happen?” Brenda demanded. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before in my entire life!”

The man suddenly squatted before Cecily, his eyes filled with anger, rage in his voice. “A witch,” he hissed. “What spell is this, witch?” If looks could kill, Cecily would be bleeding out on the floor. She felt the connection between them tremor, as though twanged like a string. It was there, but tenuous and fragile. His reddish-brown eyes captured hers, smoldering like coals in his broad face. His skin was dark brown, and his head was shaved. She didn’t let her eyes travel past his face, knowing that way lay danger, not to mention distraction.

“I…” she stammered, unsure of herself but knowing what she felt, “I…summoned you. To be my familiar.”

“A witch’s familiar.” His face twisted in a fierce grimace. “You thought I would be your willing slave? Release me, witch, or die.”

“No threats from you!” Melinda threw up a shield around him, a complex defensive magic in which she was an expert. He turned towards her, snarling and shifting towards his other shape, but the spell held him fast. He hovered in between man and jaguar, hideous and beautiful at the same time, a frightening vision of power and grace and barely-contained fury. “And there you’ll stay until we determine the cause of this.” She stood up, straightened her skirt, and turned to Cecily. “We need to talk.”

“May I come?” Brenda asked anxiously.

“No. Stay here, keep him contained. The rest of you, stay!” She motioned Cecily towards the door.

The air in the hall felt cold. Goosebumps rose on her skin and she shivered. Melinda faced her and set both hands on her shoulders. “What did you feel during the summoning?”

“I felt…need,” she whispered. “Loneliness. Anger. It was easy to connect at one point, difficult the next.”

“A were,” Melinda sighed. “Bloody damn, this is going to be tough.”

“How could this happen?” Cecily asked desperately. “The spell only works on animals!”

“He was an animal when you summoned him. You connected with that part of him and drew him to you. It’s the human half that’s causing the problems.”

“Can’t we, I don’t know, send him back? Let me try again?”

The look on Melinda’s face dashed her hopes even before she began to speak. “We don’t often tell people this, Cecily, especially not before their summoning, but this spell can only be done once for you. You and your familiar are permanently connected. If he dies, you lose much of your ability. If he leaves, the pain of separation will be agonizing for both of you. Our familiars are our greatest strength and our most potent weakness. That’s why we have so many protective spells for them. You could fire a cannon at your mother’s hawk and it would survive.

“This has only happened once before that I know of, and then it was a much different situation. The witch and the werewolf knew each other before the summoning. You’re going to have to live with this, Cecily. Live with him.”

“Live with him?” she squeaked.

“Your apartment is big enough, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but…”

“Cecily Anne Mason, you will make this work or you will give up your abilities as a witch,” Melinda said firmly. “Forsaking your familiar means forsaking your power. I know it wasn’t your fault, I know you weren’t expecting this, but it happened. You need to improve your bond. Be understanding. The longer he takes the animal shape, the harder it will be for him to leave you. Encourage it. He won’t hurt you.”

“But…” She gestured at her arm.

“A reflex. It won’t happen again, and it isn’t deep. Clean it thoroughly.” She gently squeezed Cecily’s shoulders, then let go. “Let’s go back in. You need to make it clear to the others that this is what’s meant to be.”

“All right.” Dazed, Cecily followed Melinda back into the altar room. All eyes turned towards her, but she had eyes only for her familiar. He was back in jaguar form, thank the Goddess. She walked over to the circle, took a deep breath, and dissolved the shield spell. The jaguar was growling, but as she knelt in front of him he stopped. “Why did he change?” she asked softly, not taking her eyes off the were.

“I don’t think he had a choice,” her mother said crossly. “Like most weres, he has next to no control over his emotions. When he got mad, he changed. We need to get him to change back, get in touch with his Alpha, and send him back to wherever he came from.”

“No, Brenda.”

Her mother’s eyes widened. “Oh, surely not—not really—”

“Yes.” Melinda’s voice was firm.

Cecily did her best to block out the arguments that were erupting all around her, the exclamations and questions. She focused on the jaguar, trying not to be afraid of its giant head and thick, muscular body. She reached out, feeling for their bond, touching it, trying to strengthen it. The jaguar blinked at her once, but gave no other outward sign of responding to their connection. She could feel it, though. She could feel the fight going on inside of him as well, his human, independent half rebelling at any connection, crying out for freedom. The jaguar quelled it. It was tired of being alone. It was tired…

“He has no pack,” Cecily said softly.

“How do you know?” Brigit asked. She was the only one close enough to hear.

“He’s lonely. He’s so lonely. It’s been a long time since he’s had a pack, or a mate…but jaguars are solitary animals. Aren’t they?”

“Even creatures that prefer their own company have to come together sometimes,” her sister rationalized. “It’s in their nature. For mating, at the very least.”

Cecily trembled slightly. “Do you think he wants to mate with me?”



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