Jeve leaned closer to the oil lamp, trying to make out the faded letters on the book he held without risking setting it ablaze. Reading spellbooks was hard enough in good light, and good light was one of many things Jeve found himself in short supply of these days. The fire at his makeshift campsite did little to keep the crisp autumn air at bay, and the wool blanket partially draped over him—well, truthfully he wasn’t sure it had ever seen better days, and its days were currently not at all good.
Sighing, Jeve set the book down beside him, rolling his shoulders to loosen them, and looked across the campsite into another pair of eyes—ones that didn’t look at all human. He started.
Sure enough, the golden eyes belonged to a coyote standing a mere ten yards away, head turned toward him, poised as if to run but remaining perfectly still.
Jeve and the coyote looked at one another for a good twenty seconds in motionless silence, before the coyote relaxed—and slowly padded toward him, rather than away.
“Hey, wild animals are supposed to be afraid of humans,” he told it sharply, tensing up again. “Don’t make me scream like a little girl. I will, I’m warning you.”
The coyote sat down on its haunches, now only about ten feet away, and cocked its head to one side, continuing to stare straight at him.
Jeve brushed a lock of stray hair out of his eyes. He’d thought of coyotes as pretty scraggly animals, but this one looked better-groomed than he was. Not, of course, that that was difficult at the moment; he needed a shave and a haircut. And a bath. And a new wardrobe. And, oh yes, money and food. “This is the third night this week I’ve seen a coyote near me,” he told his visitor. “You animals are remarkably bold. Unless it was you each time.”
Of course, it just continued to look at him.
“I don’t have any food for you to steal. Truth be told, I’m such a sop I’d probably share what I had if I could. But I’m afraid I’ll be a food thief tomorrow myself. Or a common pickpocket. Well, uncommon, if I can be allowed a small measure of pride.”
The coyote got to all fours and started ambling toward him, very slowly this time, as if it were the one approaching a wild animal trying not to frighten it away.
“Ah… I trust you don’t think I’m food. I’ve heard coyotes are crafty and all, but I’m at least six times your weight.”
The coyote kept walking, just one paw-step a second, eyes locked onto his. Jeve found it hard to even blink, much less move. Finally it sat down on its haunches again, now mere inches from the itinerant magician.
“Ah,” he said again, barely breathing. “I don’t suppose you’re volunteering to be my familiar, are you? I’d have had one by now if things had gone differently for me.”
The coyote touched its nose to his hand, and promptly lay down, looking up at him.
“Most extraordinary,” he murmured, sitting back and running a hand through his hair.
At that, the coyote acquired an expression that could only be called a grin, as if to say, you don’t know the half of it yet.
When Jeve went to sleep, the coyote was still there. That didn’t entirely surprise him. When he woke up, though, it was nowhere to be seen. That didn’t surprise him, either.
“Good morning, wretched day,” he said aloud, stretching and packing up his possessions. It didn’t take all that long—a sleeping roll he tied under a duffel bag, the whole thing easy enough to sling over a shoulder. He made sure no embers remained from the fire; the area here wasn’t quite desert, but it was dry enough that a stray spark might send the whole place ablaze. Not that he’d personally miss the area, but he desperately needed to restock at the nearest town of note.
It lay a good two hours’ southward on foot. If he’d ever gotten the hang of a Conjuration of Conveyance, he could be riding in on a flying carpet, or just a self-propelled wagon. That, however, was a difficult spell. Most spells of value were difficult spells, and required finding one of the dwindling number of magicians who took on apprentices. Jeve had succeeded in doing that on his nineteenth birthday, nearly a decade ago, and to a respected wizard who believed in tried and true teaching methods. This involved a good four years of theoretical and historical study before one did so much as a parlor trick. About now, though, into his ninth year of study, Jeve would be formidable. Or at least competent.
Would be, that is, if Master Smathin hadn’t had the damnable gall to die in Jeve’s sixth year.
He’d tried to find another wizard, but it was a dying profession, tended only by old men like Smathin. Engineering is the way of the future, he’d been lectured—even by more than one wizard. You can’t fight change, Jeve. And he’d been shown the wonders of pumps and valves, of screws and gears, of fantastic devices that could pull trains and weave clothes and calculate optimal cannon trajectories, all through the scientific application of fire and steam, combustion and pressure.
And engineering required no impoverished apprenticeships with eccentric old men, no calculations about mana that remained at best imprecise after a thousand years of study. No dealing with spirits and demons who, if they gained the upper hand, would kill you if you were lucky. No dangerous use of the caster’s energy, no eldritch phrases and gestures that had to be completed perfectly every time lest unimaginable horror be visited upon you.
Jeve hated engineering with every fiber of his being.
New Bingham, thus, wouldn’t be the town he’d choose to visit, if he had a choice. It was a small, rough-and-tumble mining community that had the curious fortune of now being home to one of the most infuriatingly successful mechanical engineers in the region. Jeve knew of three companies that had once kept magicians on retainer, but no more, thanks to this man’s infernal devices. Businessmen were finding automation to be worth more to their bottom line than thaumaturgy. Nonetheless, he was homeless, approaching penniless, and had grievously misjudged how far his meager supplies could be stretched. He had no choice but to procure more food, at the least, and ideally some hard currency.
The day wasn’t shaping up to be wretched, but it wasn’t shaping up to be beautiful, either. The sun hadn’t emerged from the cloud cover, and while it didn’t appear that it would rain, the air had barely heated since dawn. This gave the town a pallor as he approached it which he found wryly fitting. Even the borders of this oasis of civilization had a neatly drawn scientific edge: the scrubland became grass and the grass became manicured, all in the space of a dozen yards.
Jeve walked around New Bingham’s oddly clear demarcation, glowering at the drab little houses, until he came to a cobblestone road. From his map, he knew the road continued on—just as a dirt track—another hundred-twenty miles to the southeast. He, however, headed west, on into the town, acutely aware of the stares of passersby. He simply nodded courteously to each one, quietly sizing them up until he found a likely mark.
The portly gentleman with the ostentatious stopwatch seemed as good a target as any. Steeling himself, he turned to the man and sketched a small, stiff bow in his direction. “Excuse me, good sir.”
“Yes?” the man said, pausing and looking wary.
“I’m wondering if you could be so kind as to direct me to the nearest general store.” He stepped up closer to the man, closer than arm’s length, disregarding the gentleman’s obvious discomfort with the invasion of personal space.
“Well. Yes. Yes. You’d want Stuart’s.” The man turned and pointed. “Two blocks just in the way you’ve been going, left one block, then right and up one more half-block. You can’t miss it. New Bingham’s not a very large town, after all.”
Jeve nodded, smiling, as he listened, surreptitiously casting a small cantrip under his breath.
“Thank you kindly. Is there a boarding house near there, by any chance?”
“Another block along on the same street, although I don’t know if they’ll take your dog.”
Jeve blinked. “My—” He turned in the direction of the man’s gaze to see the coyote sitting on its haunches, perhaps two feet back, looking at both of them.
“Is that a coyote?” the man said, sounding wary again. “We don’t take well to those in these parts, you know. Still a lot of farming out here.”
“I—ah—” Jeve ran a hand through his hair. Farms? Where? For that matter, how? Were tumbleweeds a cash crop? “No. Ah, no. I know she looks like a coyote, but she’s a husky. Dwarf husky. Very rare.”
The man squinted at Jeve skeptically. “I see. Good luck, sir.” He hurried on his way without waiting for a reply.
Jeve waved cheerfully, waiting for the man to get another half-block away, then dropped his pack and opened it. The portly gentleman’s wallet lay on top of the blanket. Quickly rifling through it, Jeve withdrew about half the money from it—still a goodly sum, thank heavens—and then set it down on the ground, as if it had been dropped there by chance, before hefting his pack again. He kept his eyes on the coyote the whole time. The coyote kept her eyes on him the whole time, too.
“Well, you are a she, aren’t you? And quite pretty in the light,” Jeve murmured. “And that spell worked more smoothly than I’d expected, I have to say. Are you really my familiar?”
The coyote wagged her tail, once.
“I don’t know about this,” he said to her as he started walking down the street. She trotted along beside him. “I’ve never heard of a coyote familiar before. Most of the ones I’ve seen have been birds or mice, the occasional cat. I’ve never heard of anyone keeping a coyote as a pet, for that matter. Well, let’s head on, I suppose, to see more of this drab little town.”
He turned at the appropriate junction to head to the general store. “Truth be known, I suppose it really isn’t that drab, which is all the more galling. It’s pretty, but look.” He waved his hand around, and he fancied the coyote looked in the directions he was pointing. “The buildings all look almost identical, precisely machined. No imagination. That’s what’s wrong with engineering, I dare say. Part of what’s wrong with it.”
The coyote made a growling chuff noise, as if she thought just as poorly of engineers as he did.
“To the right here.” He continued on talking, the coyote following several paces behind. “This should be enough to get me a room, food, even some clothes. I’d prefer honest work, but one problem at a time.” He walked on another thirty yards before looking around with a start. “Drat, this is an alley. Well, it likely runs behind the store… unless it’s on the other side of the street I should be on.” He hurried on, stepping over some trash.
The coyote growled again, and he turned to look at her curiously, then ahead. Then stopped abruptly. Two men had stepped into the alley from a blind intersection, just a few paces from him. They weren’t dressed any better than he was, but didn’t look bothered by it. He suspected that boded ill.
“We couldn’t help overhear you talking about all that money, sir,” one said with a leer, “I trust you won’t mind sharing it with us.” He was a thin, wiry fellow, an inch or two shorter than Jeve’s own five-foot-ten.
“There’s not enough to share, I’m afraid.” He smiled forcedly. “Now, I don’t want any trouble.”
“Then you’ll probably want to be giving us that money,” the other one said, with no smile at all. That man was burly, well over six feet high, and he was holding a knife.
The coyote’s teeth were bared now, her ears back. She looked distinctly threatening.
“And that mangy coyote best not bite us,” the second one added, pronouncing it like kai-yoat rather than kai-yo-tee. He waved a hand in a circular motion. “Hurry it up.”
Jeve muttereds, slowly pulling out the money he’d just acquired. Could he work another cantrip? Maybe, but he couldn’t think of something that wouldn’t just stall for time. Grab the knife, perhaps—
The coyote leapt at the second man, forepaws smacking into his shoulders, knocking the knife out of his hands—and knocking him right over, even though she didn’t look remotely big enough to do that.
“Christ!” the man snarled, bringing his arms up and putting them against the coyote’s muzzle, keeping her snapping teeth away from him. “I told you—what the hell?”
The man was shrinking.
Jeve and the other robber both stared as the first man became five feet high, then four, then three, then two, all in the space of seconds. His hands had been around the coyote’s muzzle; now they were in the coyote’s muzzle, being held fast.
“Stop it!” the thin man shrieked. “Stop it, you fucking wizard, or I’ll kill—”
“I’m not a wizard! I mean, I am, but I’m not doing it!” Jeve protested, hands in the air. One hand still clutched all of his money.
The burly man was now just a foot high, then less. He dangled by his arm’s from the coyote’s muzzle, and he blubbered, sounding like a frightened child—or a toy. Jeve could only imagine what the canine looked like to him now.
Then, abruptly, the coyote tossed her head back, sending the now mouse-sized man up into the air, her jaws opening wide as he reached the top of his arc. “Noooo—” he shrieked, voice comically tinny, cut off abruptly as the coyote snapped him out of the air. Jeve watched in a dumbfounded mix of disbelief and horror as she worked her jaws, twice, then swallowed. As far as he could tell, the man went down her throat whole and alive.
Jeve and the other robber looked at one another. Then the thin man took off down the alley, screaming. “Witch! Demon!”
“No—stop—” Jeve called, starting to run after him. “Oh, a witch hunt would be just peachy.”
Instead of following, the coyote sat on her haunches, and raised one paw off the ground. The running man jerked to a stop, and fell over, as if his feet had been caught in a rope. He shrieked as he began to be dragged back toward them, shrinking on the way.
Jeve came to an abrupt halt, staring rapidly between the man and the coyote.
He came to rest at just a few inches high, directly under the coyote’s paw, on his back staring up. “No!” he yelled up, crying hysterically. “Please! Please don’t eat me! I don’t want to be eaten! Please don’t!”
The coyote smiled—there was no other way to describe the expression—and smashed her paw down on him. The cries stopped abruptly.
Jeve’s mouth hung open. The coyote pushed the little body out of the way, then tapped her paw on the ground. The broken man shimmered and abruptly became his normal size again. The corpse looked like it had been in a fight with a half-dozen prizefighters and a sack of billiard balls.
The coyote looked at him and wagged her tail once, then trotted on ten paces, stopped, and looked back over her shoulder at him.
He raised his hands. “What the hell are you?”
She tilted her head at him quizzically.
“I knew you weren’t a normal coyote, but most familiars are a little unusual, more intelligent, more aware. But you… you’re… Good Lord, you’re a demon!” he blurted.
She shook her head.
He stared. “You understand me, don’t you?”
She nodded, then continued on down the alley, without looking to see if he was following. Eventually he did.
When he emerged from the alley himself, just to the side of Stuart’s, the coyote was nowhere to be seen. He looked around nervously, then headed into the store.
It was late in the afternoon, after Jeve had rented a room and even had a first drink at the bar, when he saw the coyote again. He’d showered, toweled off on what he objectively knew were cheap towels but for the moment seemed unconscionably luxurious, undressed, and stretched out on the bed, falling asleep.
When he woke up, the coyote was lying next to him in the bed, furry back pressed against his side.
He blinked, starting awake, which made her turn her head to look at him, her nose just inches from his face. At the same moment he became aware of having woken up in a somewhat aroused state, the coyote licked his lips.
“Gah!” Jeve spluttered, backing away into the headboard. The coyote simply rolled over onto his lap, immediately making for some extremely flustering sensations of fur against skin. He squirmed away. “Heavens,” he muttered.
The coyote pressed her nose to his stomach in response. He jumped again and hurriedly hopped out of the bed, almost falling. “That’s quite enough of that,” he said shakily.
She rolled onto all fours, wagging her tail and looking unmistakably amused.
Hopping into his trousers, Jeve took a few deep breaths, then started to put on his shirt more sedately. “Now, look, you’re a beautiful animal, but you’ll understand if I stick to girls with opposable thumbs, hmm?” He paused as he tied his tie, then shook his head at himself. “I’m lecturing a magical coyote about not flirting with me.”
She tilted her head, and pawed at the bed.
“But as long as I’m lecturing you, let’s get something straight.” He thrust a finger at her. “I may be a thief, but I’m no killer. I appreciate you saving my life, but just…scare them away. You’re in my service, so no more swallowing people whole and the like, do you understand me?”
She crossed her forepaws, meeting his eyes with hers. If she were able to speak, she’d clearly be saying, and you’re going to do what about it?
They kept staring at one another, until he just shook his finger. “Bad girl.”
The coyote made a noise that sounded distinctly like a laugh—a feminine laugh, no less—and hopped off the bed, heading to the door.
They walked out of the boarding house together, past the front desk. The clerk, a mean-looking elderly woman, called after them. “Hey! You didn’t have no dog when you came in here earlier.”
“You must be mistaken,” Jeve said. “She travels with me regularly.”
“I’m not mistaken. We don’t take no pets. Either you board her somewhere or you get—”
The coyote growled, baring her teeth.
The woman paused, and put her hands on her hips, looking at Jeve. “You’d better not let her bite me.”
“I haven’t ever seen her bite someone.” Technically true.
“I don’t care. I don’t…” The woman trailed off, seemingly caught by the coyote’s gaze. Then she blinked. “What was I saying?”
Jeve gave the coyote a sidelong glance, then looked back at the woman and smiled in his most beseeching manner. “That it would be okay for us to stay just this night.”
“Right. Only one night, do you hear me?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
Jeve spent the night in several taverns, not drinking as much as trying to drum up business. It was as bad as he feared—not only did New Bingham have no use for magicians, most residents seemed openly hostile. Things were merely difficult until the very last prospect, a professorial, hawk-nosed man in a grey jacket who’d been sitting in a secluded booth with a glass of rye.
“You’re suggesting that I hire you,” the man said, “to spy on my industrial opponents.”
“Well,” Jeve said hastily, “‘spy’ is such a harsh word, don’t you think? Just look at it as a competitive—”
“I’m gathering you didn’t recognize my name, young man.”
“Mr. Moore? I suppose I—” He stopped, eyes widening slightly. “Ah. Artemis Moore, of Moore Metalworks, I presume.”
“One and the same,” Moore said with an unattractive smirk. He leaned back, pressing his hands together. “I’m not well-thought of by your kind, Mr. Galliway. They say I’m costing wizards business.”
“Well, at most that’s—that’s an unfortunate byproduct of—”
“Nonsense,” Moore snapped. “It’s quite fortunate and if I could wipe the lot of you off the earth I would in an instant.”
Jeve drew back, unable to hide his shocked expression.
“It’s nothing personal, understand,” Moore continued, waving a dismissive hand. “But you see, magicians are like priests, like medieval monks who hoard all the power and influence for themselves by keeping everyone else in the dark about what they do and how to do it. But engineers, we can bring power to the masses. Setting type the same way we send telegraphs, so newspapers could be printed in a dozen cities at once. Computational machines as good as any accountant. Personal flying machines. Mechanical servants. The possibilities are limitless.”
The coyote growled from somewhere nearby.
“With all respect, sir,” Jeve said tightly, “surely you’re not claiming that everyone can become an engineer?”
“If they’re bright enough and study hard enough, of course.”
“The same’s true for wizardry.”
“Pff. You and I both know that’s not what any of the old masters would say. They’d tell us magic is a noble and lonely art for the rarified few, only those of the strongest fortitude and highest moral character.” He snorted, sipping his whiskey. “Which you no doubt possess in spades, Mr. Galliway, as evidenced by your attempt to engage me for illegal activities.”
“Well. I think I’ll be taking my leave now,” Jeve muttered, standing up again.
“Before you go,” Moore said, then raised his hand, waving at a man several tables away. “Constable Jameson? Over here. This young wizard wants to explain some creative business ideas to you.”
Jeve muttered a shadow cantrip, hurrying toward the exit. He was fairly sure he heard an authoritative voice call “Sir? Sir!” after him and knew he heard Moore’s sordid chuckling, but he just kept his head down and walked faster.
His briefly-gathered shadows dissipated before he’d walked a block. The coyote still growled every few steps, the volume increasing when another, more distinct “Sir!” echoed from the tavern door. Cursing under his breath, he ducked into an alley. The coyote stayed in the street. He waved her toward him. “No harassing the police!” he hissed at her. “I mean it!”
She sat on her haunches, looking up at him.
“All right. I need a good place to hide. Let’s—” The words became a sharp wheeze as the coyote launched herself at him, knocking him over, then pressed her muzzle to his mouth before he could scream. While he was still trying to catch his breath and twist away from her, he felt—rather than heard—a strong, commanding word in his head:
And the world blurred, everything become larger. The coyote’s muzzle became a foot long, then two feet, then bigger than he was, pressing him back against the cobblestone, opening, a tongue bigger than he was coming out. He started to scream—
I said quiet, Jeve.
A lick and a tumble, and his surroundings became hot, wet flesh as he found himself on his back, on the tongue, staring up at roof then black coyote lips then white coyote teeth then red coyote mouth then darkness. He felt a shudder as the coyote moved, then heard footsteps approach, shoes crackling on the pavement.
“Mr. Galliway?” A creak, a rapping on stone. He could catalog the sounds, but only abstractly—most of what Jeve could hear was the moist sounds of mother of God being completely in a coyote’s mouth. Her breath wasn’t bad, not like he’d have expected—almost sweet. But it was hot, and saliva pooled around him, and while he hadn’t been feeling in control of his situation for most of the day, this was a whole new level. With any luck, his own hyperventilating and the hammering of his heart wouldn’t be audible.
“Well, aren’t you a pretty dog,” a second voice came. “Are you a coyote? I’ve never seen a domesticated coyote before.”
You still haven’t, Jeve thought, and only barely managed to suppress hysterical laughter.
“If she’s here, he can’t be too far away.”
The coyote whined, rattling his bones, then pressed her tongue—and Jeve—to the roof of her mouth. He wheezed, acutely aware of the strength and pressure on every part of his body. He writhed helplessly, somewhere beyond fear into emotions he couldn’t quite put a name to.
“I don’t know. Coyotes are more like cats then dogs, I think. He could be anywhere. Let’s head down the alley and loop back.”
The footsteps receded, eventually going silent.
Abruptly, Jeve found himself on the ground in front of the coyote, between her forepaws, covered in drool. She looked down at him. Holy shit, she looked huge.
The coyote tapped her paw twice, and in a vertigo-inducing blur, he returned to his normal size. Still sprawled on the floor, still covered in spit. The coyote was straddling one of his legs now, looking at him with an expression somewhere between smug and suggestive.
“Don’t you get any more ideas,” he gasped, scrambling back against a wall. “So you talk.”
The coyote snorted and stepped back, sitting on her haunches.
“Come on, you don’t just talk to people who are in your mouth, do you?”
They’re usually not saying anything interesting.
He stared, then squinted.
Aren’t you going to thank me for hiding you?
He hauled himself to his feet. “Y…yes. That was, uh, very…creative. Thank you.” If she had that much power, couldn’t she have just teleported them somewhere? Maybe shrinking people was her only power. If only was the right word. “I’m going to clean up and get my bag. After that, I think we should get out of town very quickly.”
They’d almost made it out of town, taking a side street parallel to the main road, without being stopped again. Their luck ran out just when they entered the open field past the last building. “Jeve Galliway! Stop!”
The two policemen approached. “Well. You’re a hard one to keep up with. We’d like to ask you a few questions about your conversation at a bar with Mr. Moore earlier this evening. We have to say, he’s levied some serious accusations,” one said.
“And you’ve violated boarding house rules with that coyote of yours,” the second said.
“And a gentleman who spoke with you when you came into town today reported his wallet missing,” the first continued. “So you see,” he smiled, tipping his hat, “a lot of questions.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the latter,” Jeve said, “and Mr. Moore simply doesn’t like magicians. And given that I’m on my way out of town, I’m no longer violating any rules, am I?”
“Well, I confess most of us here are a little suspicious of magicians,” the first policeman said.
“A lot of grifters, if you ask me,” the second said. “Old academics past their prime, and young grifters.”
The coyote growled.
“Mind your dog,” the first one said.
“Sorry, she rather has a mind of her own.”
“Make it heel.” The policeman spoke more sharply.
Jeve crossed his arms and addressed the coyote. “Heel, girl.”
She bared her teeth.
“Right, then,” Jeve said. “Look, you’ll have no trouble. The truth is I’ll be just as happy to be rid of your town as you are of me.”
“We already have trouble, Mr. Galliway, and if you don’t come with us now we’re going to have a lot more.”
“For God’s sake, I’d be just as happy to see your entire town leveled,” Jeve spat. “Just let me be on my way.”
“That sounds like a threat.”
“Oh, yes, I’m going to snap my fingers and New Bingham will collapse, because that’s how magic works, isn’t it?” He snapped his fingers. Both of the policemen flinched, then scowled.
“Enough of this,” the quieter one said, stepping forward.
The coyote howled. All three of them paused, looking at her. As the howl finished, the coyote wavered like a heat mirage and disappeared.
“What—what did you just do, sir?”
“I didn’t do it.” Jeve cleared his throat. “That coyote is—uh…”
Another heat mirage started to shimmer in the distance, over the town. All of it.
Jeve felt the blood drain out of his face. “Please don’t take this as a threat, but I think we should consider running for our lives now.”
“What—” The policeman turned to stare.
The mirage solidified into the coyote—now incredibly, impossibly, huge, almost filling the horizon. Jeve couldn’t easily estimate just how big she was, but when she lifted a paw and set it back down on a house, the house disappeared completely in a thunderous crash, entirely flattened.
As was the next. And the next. And the next.
The policemen started running toward the coyote. People started running out of buildings. Jeve, at least, followed his own advice, running for the town’s borders.
It took a good ten seconds for the earthquake—coyotequake?—to start. He looked back over his shoulder. The coyote had began to scratch her front paws through the streets, scrabbling as if she were after a mouse.
Scrabbling. The motion sounded so simple, but buildings began to simply disappear, huge chunks of stone and metal spinning through the air, plumes of dust and gravel thrown as the rumble of her movements rising in force. The dust started to obscure the coyote’s upper body, but not her paws, not the noise. Jeve fancied he could hear screams, once or twice, through the crashing.
“Stop!” he yelled, as if she could hear him. “For God’s sake, coyote, stop!”
Her huge head swung in his direction, obscured by the rising clouds of dust and smoke.
The rumbling quieted.
He held his head, then turned and resumed running, not turning back until he’d made it nearly a mile away.
The clouds of smoke and dust had started to settle; neither town nor coyote could be seen. It wasn’t that they were obscured. It was that both were simply…gone. The town might as well have been hit by a giant, methodical tornado. Some buildings remained standing. But far less than half. Maybe far less than a quarter.
“Good lord.” He ran a hand through his hair. While he hoped there were survivors, survivors might remember him. And “his” coyote. The giant apocalyptic coyote who trampled their town underpaw.
Hefting his backpack again, he turned away. “Maybe I can go to Mexico,” he muttered aloud. “Somewhere they won’t recognize me.”
He jumped, then whirled around until he spotted the coyote, back at her normal sized, standing by the side of the road.
“What—I…” He spluttered. “Relax? Relax? You just destroyed a town!”
The coyote tilted her head, then shimmered again.
Jeve tensed, stepping back. But instead of becoming giant, she blurred, forelegs becoming arms, body becoming larger, legs becoming longer. Becoming a biped. She stood up after several seconds and looked at him.
He stared, open-mouthed. She now stood perhaps five feet high, managing to look like a beautiful woman and a feral coyote simultaneously. Her head remained almost exactly the same as before, although larger; her feet remained paws, if wider; her arms, hands, and torso were human, with modest—but, he abstractly noted, attractive—breasts. Her body remained covered in lush fur.
“Not all of it,” she said in a conversational, decidedly feminine voice.
She spun around, tail swirling. “You said you preferred girls with opposable thumbs.”
“You don’t think I’m attractive?”
He waved his hands, frustrated. “Can we go back to the destroying the town part here?”
She tilted her head in the same way she had as a four-legged coyote. “You said you’d be happy to see that town leveled, and when I started, you screamed at me to stop.”
“It was a figure of speech!”
She crossed her arms. “You’re a very confusing human.”
He stared open-mouthed. “You’ve changed shape, changed size, spoken to me telepathically, and casually crushed dozens of buildings, and I’m the confusing one here?”
“I’m simple.” She shrugged, and grinned in a fashion that might have inspired a hundred trickster stories. “I’m your familiar, right?”
“You’re…” He trailed off, and shook his head. “I may not be the greatest wizard left, but you’re not a familiar animal. You might be more powerful than I am.”
She laughed. “There’s no ‘might’ about that, Jeve.” She held out her hand. “Walk with me.”
He swallowed, putting his hand in hers and letting her lead him along.
“Frankly, creatures of magic don’t usually get along with magicians. You get a lot of your power by taking advantage of our power. But we need your spells and all the disturbances you cause in the mana, or we can’t cross into the mortal world. The fewer practicing wizards there are, the harder the crossing gets.”
“And the harder it becomes for wizards to practice magic.”
“Right. So we both have an interest in stopping the spread of engineering. That’s part of why I chose you.”
“And the other part?”
“You’re pretty cute and I’ve always wanted a human.”
He felt his cheeks flush. “Thank you. I think. Ah, Miss…” He trailed off.
“Call me Juniper.”
“Juniper. That’s a pretty name. But, ah…I’m not sure how to take ‘wanted a human’ in that context, Miss Juniper.”
She grinned. “Well, there’s two ways I can think of offhand. That I’d like to have you as a pet, and that I’d like to have you as a lover. I just want to know which of those ways made you blush.”
“One doesn’t keep humans as pets.”
“You were treating me like one when you thought you were the more powerful one. Now that we’ve established you’re not, doesn’t that reverse, too?”
“I don’t think it’s that simple.”
She let go of his hand, dancing ahead to lithely twirl a pirouette in front of him. “It’s perfect. I’ll be your familiar, and you’ll be my pet.”
“I don’t think that’s an option.”
The world blurred, and abruptly he was in one of her hands, the huge grin he could fit in at most a yard overhead—or inches, presuming she’d just shrunk him. “No.” She blew a soft puff of warm, moist air over him, setting his nerves on fire in odd and distracting ways. “It’s not an option.”
It took him several seconds to gather enough breath to speak. “I…I…take your point, Miss Juniper.”
The world blurred again, and he stood, wobbling, beside her.
“Come on.” She started walking. “I’m sure we’ve got somewhere to be. We should also talk about how attractive you find me.”
“We definitely should not.”
“‘We definitely should not, mistress,’” she corrected, flashing another coyote grin.
“We—I—you…” He shook his head, following after. “You’re going to be an awful lot of trouble as my familiar, aren’t you?”
She did another happy spin. “The likes of which the world has never seen.”
Jeve and Juniper’s adventures continue in “The Banishing Spell.”