Kyle led Robert from the hospital. Robert’s wrist was bandaged, but he had passed the psych evaluation and was being let go, much to Kyle and Tempest’s relief. They had spent the week training and worrying, imagining Robert’s fate in a psychiatric hospital, withering away without the world of magic.
“Finally,” Tempest said, sitting outside in his car. “What took you so long?”
“Paperwork,” Robert sighed. “Those damn fools think I’m going to kill myself again. It took all of my skills and a little magic to keep them from committing me. Let’s get the hell out of here.” He climbed into the back of the car and slammed the door.
“Dragon wants to meet Kyle,” Tempest said, driving out of the parking lot and into the city. “Apparently Catalina met Kyle and recommended him to her master.”
“The Coven Master?” Kyle asked, lost in the conversation.
“He’s not ready for his Naming yet,” Robert said, ignoring Kyle. “I’ve barely had time to teach him anything.”
“I did a little work on him while you were resting up,” Tempest said. “He can consistently summon fire without a magic circle and make the potions Panacea and Sleep without any trouble.”
“Thanks,” Robert said. “Still, there’s familiar training to be done before he meets the Dragon.”
“Hey, I’m sitting right here,” Kyle protested.
“Of course.” Kyle was sure he could see the hint of a smile on Robert’s face but he wondered if he was imagining it.
“So, how are you feeling?” Kyle asked, changing the subject back to one he wasn’t lost in.
“All things considered, not so bad,” Robert said. “I’m still here, that’s what counts.”
The car fell into an awkward silence as Kyle remembered the night of the specter. He still had nightmares about it, and pushed the uneasy thought of the thing returning someday to the back of his mind as they pulled into the driveway of Robert’s house. Kyle got out of the car and opened Robert’s door. Robert got out and looked at the house with a little reluctance.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Tempest stuck his head out of the window. “I have a hot date with a fire witch who’s promised me a flaming night of passion.” He grinned, proud of his puns.
“Just don’t complain to us about any burning sensations later on,” Kyle said, a smirk on his face.
“Ouch! You hear that, Raven? The boy’s getting mouthy.”
“Good,” Robert said, trying to suppress a smile. Tempest drove away, his Mini speeding down the hill and Robert’s smile faded as he contemplated the old house.
“Are you okay?” Kyle asked.
“Yeah,” Robert sighed. “It’s just… tough coming back here, you know?” He shook his head. “It’s just a house. I’m not even superstitious. This is ridiculous.” He walked over the gravel and paused at the front door. “I feel like he’s still here.”
“He’s not,” Kyle said. “Tempest made all kinds of magical charms and cast a dozen protection and detection spells on this house. Your master… he’s not here any more.”
“I never did thank you.” Robert turned his face away as he opened the door. “You saved my life. What you did took great courage.”
“You saved mine too. Even though he was your former master. Even though he was your lover.” Kyle looked down at his feet.
“Once upon a time,” Robert said, wandering into the kitchen. “For years I wondered if what I had done was wrong. If I had given him one more chance, could he have redeemed himself? He used that doubt to bring his spirit back into this world. Now I know I was right.” He hung his coat up on the kitchen door and sat down on a stool at the counter. “What he became at the end, whatever his soul is now, is not the man I loved.”
“I’m sorry,” Kyle said, not knowing what to say.
“Don’t be,” Robert stood up. “In some ways, it has given me closure. Now we can focus on your training. The Dragon, the Coven Master, has called you. That means he has sensed your power and your true name will be decided. Still, I would like for you to have your own familiar before we go.”
“I was reading about familiars while you were in the hospital.” Kyle sat down. “There are still some things I don’t understand. Like, what happens to the animal? Isn’t it cruel to force a creature’s mind away and steal its body?”
Robert smiled. “Such compassion for others gives me confidence in you, Kyle. As long as you keep that attitude, you’ll never be tempted by blood magic. As for your question… well, there’s not really an easy answer to it. Yes, in essence you are stealing a creature’s body. You could even get it killed if you are careless. However, we only use animals that are willing to work with us. It’s an unspoken kind of consent. If you ever feel an animal’s mind fight back against yours, discontinue your attempts at control. Never attempt to control a human mind with your own. It was said that some dark witches used the bodies of the mentally handicapped.” He shuddered. “Those are the kind of actions that led to the persecution of witches.”
“That’s pretty scary,” Kyle said.
“Witches have lived for thousands of years alongside humans and other animals. Animals have accepted us as part of the natural order. Still, it’s polite to ask in your own way. Start by gently probing towards a creature’s mind and see if it is willing to accept your will. That’s how we differentiate between consent and cruelty.”
“I see,” Kyle said. “The Penumbra didn’t speak of any of this.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t. The Penumbra was composed by witches who lived by standards far different to our own. They wouldn’t recognize us modern witches as anything other than pretenders, I’m sure.” He closed his eyes and his raven landed on the window ledge, pecking at the window. Kyle walked over to the window and opened it, letting the raven in. Robert’s raven sat on his arm.
“You have to concentrate,” Robert said through the raven, “but it’s something you’ll get used to.”
“Christ, you scared me,” Kyle said. “No matter how many times I see it, animals talking to me still freaks me out.”
Robert laughed through the raven, a cawing sound. “You’d better get used to it. Witches love to show up to coven meetings as familiars, Some do it for sport, others to keep their human identities secret from the rest of the coven.” He let go of the raven and jumped back into his body, opening his eyes. The raven sat on the kitchen faucet, using it like a perch.
“You can do that?” Kyle asked.
“Sure you can. Some don’t feel it’s safe to be a witch in this modern world. They fear being outed, especially if they have day jobs.”
“I’ve never heard of anybody being accused of witchcraft,” Kyle said.
“Sure, because nobody would take you seriously if you said your teacher was a witch. Still, there have been cases where people have been quietly laid off or fired after being caught using magic or after enough whispers. People fear that which is different, and we are certainly that.”
“I’ve been different all my life,” Kyle looked away from Robert, keeping his eyes on the bird. “I never fitted in with the other kids. They wanted to play football, I wanted to read. They wanted to chase girls, I shyly looked at the boys. Then you came along. You showed me magic. For the first time I felt like I was different for a reason.”
“It’s good to be different,” Robert said. “They will live out their lives in cubicles and factories, same shit, different day, while we get to live in this magical world of wonder. Where nobody gives a damn if you’re gay, straight, bi, queer, trans, genderqueer – hell, the weirder the better. Just look at Dimitrius. As obnoxious as he can be sometimes, he’s loved by the coven. You won’t have to hide anything from them.”
Kyle smiled. The sun came out from behind a cloud, the light shining through the window and hitting his face.
Robert paused for a second, just looking at him, before getting up off the stool. “I could use a bite to eat. Hospital food is disgusting. What about you?”
“Yeah, absolutely.” What was that look about? Kyle wondered, getting up himself and helping to prepare a spread for them both.
* * *
After lunch they headed out into the yard. A rabbit jumped out from behind the hedge, bouncing across the grass.
“Rabbits are pretty affable creatures,” Robert said. “Close your eyes and reach out with your mind, see how it responds.”
Kyle did so. The rabbit welcomed him and he slipped into its body. “Okay. This is totally weird.” He said it with the rabbit’s voice and the rabbit jumped in the air as he scared himself. Robert was beside himself with laughter, bent over double as Kyle freaked out.
“How do I get back?”
“Relax,” Robert said. “You’re not in any danger.”
“Seriously, I want my body back!” Kyle yelled.
“Just open your eyes,” Robert said. He saw the rabbit blink. “No, not those eyes. Your real eyes.”
Kyle opened his eyes and took a sharp breath. “That was weird. I’m not sure I like it.”
“It is strange at first,” Robert said. “It takes time to acclimate to being inside the body of another being. Just keep at it. I was hoping we would have more time before you met the Coven Master. I wanted you to find an animal you could bind to as your primary familiar, but…”
Rain started to fall, a few droplets at first, then the heavens opened. The rabbit fled as Kyle and Robert raced to the shelter of the house.
“Well, I guess training’s over for today,” Robert sighed. He opened the door and they stepped inside. Kyle looked up suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Robert asked.
“I don’t know,” Kyle said. “I just had a bad feeling. Like something terrible’s going to happen.”
“Me too,” Robert said. “This isn’t good.” The phone rang and they both jumped. Kyle’s hand was on his chest as Robert answered the phone.
“Yes. Yes. Gods.” Kyle heard Robert’s breathless whisper and felt his gut roll. Robert finally put the phone down and turned to Kyle.
“It’s Dimitri. He’s been caught by witch hunters.” Robert closed his eyes. “They’re going to kill him.”