The light had developed that changing quality to it that informed the alert it was fall. That meant, mercifully, that the temperature was dropping, albeit slowly.

Alison stood on the porch, looking out into it. The southern summer was the worst part of living here. No.

It was the second worst part. The worst part was the neighbors and their parochial attitudes and their going on and on and on about religion.

That was all some of them could talk about. The most common conversation opener was ‘Which church do you go to?’

Small minded. As soon as Robert finished this contract, she was going to demand that they left. Oregon. California.

Anywhere but here. Besides. There was a thing out there. A beast of some kind. She knew it was there.

Nobody else seemed to, so perhaps it was all in and only in her mind. All in her head. Maybe she was going nuts.

If she was, it was the heat that was doing it, the humidity, and the utter secrecy with which she was forced to live.

Not to mention the loneliness. At least in some places she could admit to not following the teachings of scripture.

Here? She dared not. She even had forced herself to go to church a couple of times, hating herself for the hypocrisy and being careful what she had said.

The beast had been prowling outside.

Maybe the beast was after her. Maybe it hunted witches. Maybe it was something these good people had called to keep her kind out.

She would be only too glad to get out, but she could not. Not until the contract was over.

They needed the money.

Maybe she would have to separate from Bob for a while. Maybe he’d understand if she told him she was leaving. Not leaving him. Just that she needed a vacation.

Just that she needed space and air and freedom. She needed to be able to step out into her back yard and do stuff without worrying about being seen.

And there it was. The beast. Snuffling at the edge of her lawn. It sort of looked like a dog. In fact, she would have thought it was exactly that, or maybe a coyote, if she had not had other senses.

It was something. A hellhound, maybe, if such things really existed. Knowing her luck, they just might.

Maybe she was hallucinating, but she murmured a few words.

It backed off, then abruptly turned and padded away. No doubt to bother somebody else, somebody with fewer defenses.

She hoped it would not end up hurting anyone. She would feel bad if it mauled some kid who’d bought a tarot deck and was trying to see the future.

That was the moment at which she realized she had to do something about the beast.

She began to make plans almost immediately. Bob was working twelve and fourteen hour days, yet another reason to be glad when the contract was over.

He didn’t normally work quite that hard. In fact, she had not managed to get him into her bed for, literally, weeks. He’d been too tired to perform, as it were.

Maybe that was the real reason she was so out of sorts. Maybe, though, it was something else.

First, she had to identify the beast. Not, after all, a hellhound, she realized quite quickly. Had it been such, in normal circumstances, she’d have called the nearest Catholic priest. They were properly trained to deal with demons of all ranks, after all, far more than she was.

But this was not a hellhound, it was an elemental creature of some kind. That was, as it happened, far more dangerous. Hellhounds can only really touch people who are genuinely evil.

Elementals can kill.

That realization led her in a different direction. Obviously, somebody had summoned it. She still thought it could be the good citizens, calling something to deal with outsiders. On the other hand, most of them were frankly too narrow and dull to even believe in magic, much less attempt to wield it.

Most of them, if they did believe in it, would think it the devil’s work.

The other possibility was somebody who didn’t want rivals. What mage would set up shop here?

One who didn’t want to be disturbed. As stifling as this community was, at least somebody living and working here would not have to worry about dealing with other magic users.

The beast would probably be completely invisible to mundanes. She doubted Robert could see it, even, and he had a wee bit of sensitivity. Or she would never have married him.

Of course, he had yet to give her a female child. Or any kind of child. She would have settled for a boy, after eight years, but no...

In any case. Banishing an elemental...and this one was clearly earth...was one of those things that managed to be simple and dangerous at the same time.

The process was not complicated, but it was likely to lead to her being attacked by the beast.

It was that she was preparing for, carefully. For one thing, she did not want to deal with it at her home, but where?

Elementals could walk right into churches, even if any of the churches here would have tolerated her. A properly cast circle could stop one, she just needed a place to put it.

The logical spot was Martin Hill. It was called a hill by virtue of being one of the few places that rose above the unrelenting flatness of this particular part of the country. In any other place it would not have obtained such distinction, and probably not even a name. Had it been only a little larger, they would probably have claimed it a mountain.

Martin Hill did not belong to anyone, having been donated to the county by the Martin family fifty years ago. It was a park, and a popular one. But there were times when it would be almost deserted, and nobody around here enforced ‘closed at dusk’ on any level other than the honor system.

Yeah. That would be the place. Slowly, she began to gather up what she needed.

Of course, that was when the weather took a turn for the worse. Witch or no, Alison could not simply turn off the rain. It did not work like that.

Sure, she could affect the weather, but not so abruptly or suddenly. Which left her the choice between delaying things and, well...

Trying to cast a spell in the rain. Not that she had never done so before. It was miserable, but certainly doable.

Could she really risk waiting? She glanced at the skies, then at the doppler on her computer.

It looked like it was about to set in for a couple of days. The fact that that was highly unusual stuck in her mind.

Maybe, just maybe, she had a battle on her hands. The thought both alarmed and excited her. She hadn’t got into a real fight in, at this point, a good long while.

A good long while indeed. There was no easy way to find out, though. She had to go to the hill, and try to capture and banish the beast...and keep her eye open for other trouble.

Trudging up the hill in the rain, she thought she might have no problems finding the beast. Was that it in the shadows?

Yes. It was following her, looking more like a dog now than before, as if settling into that form.

That was not a good thing. If it settled too much, if it became too solidly here, it might be hard indeed to get rid of. And she was most certainly not keeping it as a familiar!

It was definitely following her. Definitely. With a frown and narrowed eyes, she quickened her pace, just a little.

It broke into a slight trot. Pad, pad, pad.

She scowled into the rain. Blasted thing was following her like a stray dog.

It was not, of course. It was trouble on paws. Although, oddly, it had not actually attacked her.

It had to be under orders not to. That was the only explanation. The fact that it had no reason to did not occur to her.

She reached the top of the hill, and started to cast the circle.

It sat just outside, now fully manifested into a shaggy brown dog. It regarded her with sad eyes and wagged its tail slowly.

A trick. It was a trick. It was trying to get her sympathy so she did not banish it.

She steeled her heart. She opened her mouth to begin the binding spell.

Wag. Wag.

Blast it. It was making it hard to concentrate. She closed her eyes so she could not see it.

Thump. Thump.

“Stupid thing,” she said, the spell shattered as she cracked her eye open. “What?”

It just sat there at the edge of the circle, but it, and her resolve weakened. No, she was not going to keep the thing as a familiar. It already had a master!

But the circle broke, and it padded towards her. “You have a master.”

It nudged her. “What?”

Then she saw the slim chains of the binding spell, and she realized that it was stretching them, pulling them to the limit. In a moment, it would break free...

And those chains chafed, and in a moment, she changed her mind, her heart softened...and she reached out and broke them.

It wagged its tail and licked her face. For all the world, it looked like a normal dog. vanished...willingly returning whence it came.

A week later, the contract ended. Alison never did find out who had been using that elemental.

But she did make a mental note. In future, she would never assume.

She would always check.


# # #

The Beast by Jennifer Povey
originally published June 29, 2009



Jennifer Povey
is in her mid thirties, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband. She writes a variety of speculative fiction, whilst following current affairs and occasionally indulging in horse riding and role playing games. She has recent fiction in Cosmos Online and Zombist: Undead Western Tales.

For more of Jennifer's work,
visit her Big Pulp author page


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