The Unmapped Lands: Chapter One

   

I don’t know what to do about the demon in my quartz bottle.

I don’t want him, but I can’t let him out. Getting him in there was a real battle. I was proud of myself for managing it and felt quite valiant at first, but I hadn’t really considered the consequences. I don’t want to lug a bottled demon around for the rest of my life. I considered selling him—there’s all sorts of stuff you can do with a captive demon, significant stuff, and I know a few people who’d be delighted to try—but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. A sense of social responsibility is just about the most inconvenient thing you can have, if you’re a witch.

It’s not my fault, though. Nature raised me, and Nature raises realists, and the realest thing of all is that life is mostly awful, but people can choose not to be. Our success rate isn’t even that bad, if you think about it. We’re nothing more than overdeveloped animals, so it’s very near a miracle that some of us get it even almost right part of the time. I’m especially overdeveloped, so I should get it more right, or at least right more often, but hey. I try. What else can I do?   

One of my earliest memories is of my mother’s face, her pale eyes murky, her swollen lips cracked and blue. I knew she was gone, even though at the time, I didn’t fully understand what death was. The blank spot, the empty space in the energy in the air, tipped me off more than those glazed gray eyes. I stood by the bed in our dark, smoky hut, deep in the northern Canadian wilderness, surrounded by nothing but an army of stately conifers. I frowned at her, chewed my stuffed bunny’s ear, and burbled a toddler’s best estimate of “Well, shit.”   

I survived. Witches always do. When you read about the Salem trials in middle school, did you think, if they were really witches, they would’ve flown away on their broomsticks or something instead of just waiting around to be hanged! Well, exactly. That particular group of Puritans wasn’t as keen on logic as they were on indulging hysterics and paranoia. If there had been any real witches in Salem, they would’ve put a stop to that violent mess. I entombed my mother in her room, slowly covering her body with small handfuls of gritty mud that dried into a lumpen sarcophagus, and carried on.  

I think I’ve turned out all right under the circumstances, but a witch’s mother is the one who teaches her to be a proper human. Nature is a largely indifferent parent, and I’ve had to sacrifice some sanity for the sake of self-sufficiency. I lived on moonlight and owl pellets for six years. As an adolescent, I spent a summer draped over a boulder, listening to it breathe. I rode the Aurora Borealis once, briefly; it was unpleasant. I was a bear for a while, too. I wanted to know what hibernation was like and lost track of time. I may have borne and raised a pair of cubs, but my memory is hazy and it’s too troubling to think about for extended periods. The point is, none of that would’ve happened if I’d had a mother instead of Nature, and I wouldn’t have such an unruly, realist perspective on things, and I might therefore have an easier time figuring out how to deal with the demon in my quartz bottle.  

It’s my favorite bottle, too. Sumerian. Carved from a chunk of crystal older than the moon. He’s probably contaminated it beyond repair.   

He must have thought I was a real idiot. I was living in Albany, New York, when I captured him. Small cities are my Baby Bear’s bed—not too crowded, not too isolated, but just right. I can’t handle the mega metropolises, stratified like concrete rainforests with layers of adaptive organisms, bums and businessmen and billionaires, all living stacked on top of one another. I’m twice as mad without soil beneath my feet. The time had long since come, though, for me to forsake the wilderness and attempt to serve some purpose. I finally grew curious about the rest of the world. I wanted to be useful and accomplish things and maybe have a relationship or two with members of my own species, so I picked the leaves from my hair, packed a bag, and started walking. I don’t know how I ended up in Albany, but I imagine few people do.  

I could smell him coming. Demons smell like baked earth, not brimstone. It’s kind of nice, actually, and must make desert exorcisms confusing. It stood out among the cold, bright scents of a northeastern October afternoon, though, and so I was prepared.   

He was accompanied by a skinny, black-clad teenager with a face punched full of holes. They’d heard about my services and had come to make an inquiry. The poor kid was trying so hard to be cool, keeping his voice light, feigning disinterest. He kept swallowing, his Adam’s apple lurching beneath the pale skin of his throat like it was trying to escape. I forget what it was he wanted.   

I was focused on the demon. His human facade was impressive, but overdone. He was tall, with red hair, acid green eyes, and a face that was just a little too handsome. Demons have every human weakness times eternity and vanity usually works in their favor, but my vibrant guest had overshot the mark. His suit was too slick for Wall Street, let alone my dingy duplex apartment.  

Most witches try hard to avoid being taken seriously. You meet the occasional show-off, with gleaming spike-heeled boots and closets full of leather corsets and lace dresses, but they’re the minority. Too obvious, and too alluring. One of the best ways to avoid the unwanted attention that can come our way is to appear deliberately ridiculous, to be the kind of person everyone notices, but rolls their eyes at. Punk or Hippie Poseur are reliable uniforms, but so are Soccer Mom and Trophy Wife.  

I’ve taken another tactic. I make sure no one notices me at all. Growing up in a hut with nothing to wear but animal hides and a poncho fashioned from an old horse blanket has given me a talent for shabbiness. My entire wardrobe consists of oversized sweaters, T-shirts, and hooded sweatshirts in various shades of gray. I wear unfashionably baggy jeans and keep my hair—which is grayish brown, the tired color of a vending machine cappuccino—pulled back in a sloppy, unflattering bun. People’s eyes slide past me as if I’m just another bit of scenery, like a lamppost or potted plant. It’s as good as being truly invisible, and I’m comfortable to boot. I like to blend in with my surroundings as much as possible, so I gravitate towards student apartments in cheaper neighborhoods even though I could afford something significantly nicer.   

Business was good in Albany. A witch’s business is always good if she wants it to be. It’s hard to track a real witch down, though, and not just because we aren’t listed in the phone book. Even when someone knows what we are, what we do, and where we live, it takes some measure of fortitude to seek us out. Most people, even intelligent and imaginative ones, have very narrow, set opinions about the way the world should work, and while pieces that don’t fit the puzzle can seem exciting at first, confronting the reality of them is a blind dive into dark water.   

I have few clients, but they are discreet, generous, and terribly interesting. Those I turn away are usually either mentally unstable or poorly disguised government agents. I also get the occasional confused individual who’s looking for a psychic. Witches are not psychics. Psychics aren’t even psychics; they’re intuitives. “Psychic” is just a word adopted by crafty swindlers who advertise in tabloids and late-night infomercials. Even “intuitive” is misleading, since we all have intuition. You know how wild animals vanish before an earthquake, and dogs always know when their masters are coming home? Humans can do that, too, when we pay attention. Sensing variations in the energy field is a simple matter, requiring only alertness and trust. Unfortunately, stirrings in the gut and tingles up the spine are easy to ignore when you’ve got other things on your mind, and we always have other things on our minds, weighing them down, burying instinct under a heap of trivial distractions.   

What intuitives actually are is hypersensitive. Their stirrings and tingles are too strong to ignore. You’ve probably encountered a few: people who always seem miserable for no reason, who fuss with the office thermostat and constantly complain about the buzzing fluorescent lights or the receptionist’s strong perfume. They scowl at their laptops with watery eyes while reapplying unscented lotion to their cracked, chapped hands. They can’t read thoughts, exactly, but often pick up enough to prefer solitude. Some try to pass themselves off as seers because they can sense others’ anticipation, but any intuitive who boasts an ability to see the future is either deluded or a con artist. Highly skilled, dedicated witches can manage it on occasion, but true seers, natural ones, are scarce and uniformly bonkers.

Intuitives are the ones who really belong in huts in the woods, but the condition isn’t hereditary like being a witch. It happens randomly, so a lot of them are born in cities and suburbs to parents who can’t understand why their kid is so damn fussy. A lot of intuitives end up drunks or drug addicts. I’ve treated a few. I always tell them to move to the country and take up yoga and gardening.

My guest, Mr. Chin Stud, was interested in something more along “psychic” lines, I think. A charm to pick winning lottery numbers or something. He’d been doing research on the Internet. He was so out of his depth; I wanted to pat him on the head and send him off with a cookie and glass of warm milk.

The demon sat next to him at my kitchen table, smug and shiny. I don’t know what had brought them together, but I could see why they’d paired up. The demon needed the kid’s earnestness; the kid needed the demon’s aura of power and money. I wouldn’t have agreed to meet with either of them alone. The demon must have known this, but that’s about the only thing he knew, the moron.

“So, can you do it?” said Chin Stud, embarrassed to ask and clearly skeptical.  

I pretended to think for a moment, took a delicate sip of tea, and said, “I’ll need one of your teeth.” 

All color drained from the kid’s face. I felt a pang of sympathy, but I really did need one of his teeth. To capture a demon, you must imprison it in something organic. A tooth is an ideal vessel, with its hard shell and pulpy innards. Dead tissue like hair and fingernails won’t work, and I wasn’t prepared for an all-out exorcism. I had to set a foolproof trap.

“That’s a pretty high price for what we’re asking,” the demon said, his voice a cold, flowing stream. “It hardly seems fair.”   

I raised an eyebrow and said nothing.  

“If that’s really the case, I think we deserve something extra. Another charm, perhaps.” He cleared his throat. “Or some of your blood.”   

So that’s what he wanted.   

He didn’t mean for me to prick my finger over a vial and call it a day, of course. He was after menstrual blood. A witch’s menstrual blood is just about the most potent magical substance there is. It adds incredible power to any potion or spell, makes the best herb fertilizer, and heals pretty much every malady this side of terminal cancer. Menstrual blood is concentrated nourishment, after all, the first and best we get, but since it’s exclusively feminine, it has, of course, been considered dirty, dangerous, and shameful by the general population for thousands of years. Those ancient tribal patriarchs knew how to set a trend.   

Most witches drink half their monthly flow and save the rest for emergencies. Refrigeration will keep it usable for a few weeks, but fresh is best. I didn’t have any at the moment. I’d managed—and it was not easy, let me tell you—to get a tiny portion of my last period into every vial of flu vaccine at the local clinics. Albany was going to be a haven of good health come winter, and nobody but me would know why. Getting no credit for your work is something witches learn to get used to early on. It’s never really bothered me. I like having secrets.  

I didn’t know what a demon might want to use a witch’s moon blood for, but I wasn’t about to let anyone find out.   

“Very well,” I said. “And if the spell doesn’t work, I’ll waive the standard fee. How does that sound?”  

The demon’s eyes lit up like neon. Chin Stud swallowed a whimper and nodded.  

“This one isn’t seasonal or lunar phase-specific,” I said. “I can do it now, if you like.”  

Chin Stud began to protest, but his mouth snapped shut at a flashing look from the demon. He gave another bobbing nod.  

“Excellent.” 

I led them down to the chalk circle in the basement, palming the quartz bottle on the way.