Writing this story took me on a reading journey high over the streets of Manhattan to learn who lives in these immensely high buildings and what that life is like. One really interesting fact is that at a certain point, you’re so high that you can’t see the city below without going to your window and looking straight down, and the sky in front of you is rather dull. Not a fact I used here, but interesting none the less.
This story won the F-F monthly contest in January 2017.
A black paw flicked from the shadows and swatted my candle, snuffing out the flame, and spilling wax on a ten-thousand-dollar rug. "Stop that, Py," I said. The wax hardened into another strata of trial-and-error. Teaching myself witchcraft had been a very slow business.
I righted the candle, but as soon as I flicked the lighter, Pywacket pounced on the summoning circle again. I scooped up the annoying cat and tossed her out of the room. As I yanked the study door closed, Py let out a weird yowl and dashed down the hall.
Something walked across my grave.
Yes, I know. I live at the height of the Empire State building in my father's thirty-million-dollar skyscraper condominium, eighty floors from balcony to blacktop. The closest cemetery is a thousand feet down and ten blocks over. Still.
I followed Py into the living room. She was pawing at something on the other side of the thick floor-to-ceiling glass wall that kept us from falling out into the midnight sky above Manhattan. "You are ridiculous, cat." My so-called familiar was frantically chasing a moth.
The endless nightscape beyond the glass drew my eyes. You've seen those photographs of Manhattan at night, like the entire galaxy is laid out at your feet. From our building you can see everything, day and night: the iconic towers, the bridges, the broad avenues, the Hudson. We had an unobstructed view across to the East River until another skyscraper went up right across the street from us. Now we had an unobstructed view that way of partially-finished glass sheathing, open girders, and construction cranes.
Something moved on that building; my eyes caught on it five floors down. Pale, multi-limbed, nearly invisible unless you're a witch. A goddamned jibber, and it wasn't alone. A whole line of the things was crawling up the side of the unfinished skyscraper. I hadn't seen that many since a hunting pack found me practicing spells in the clock tower at college. My father forked out millions to make the four-alarm fire thing go away.
I ran to the kitchen to check on the "insurance policy" I kept in a sealed cookie jar on the top shelf of the walk-in pantry. A piece of masking tape stretched across it with the words "Gillian's Stuff - Do Not Touch". I tilted the jar and the Marble rolled across the bottom, sounding its telltale, queasy music. Still working.
But if the Marble was protecting me and jibbers were still on the way, then someone else was using magic up here in my sliver of the sky.
We kept a telescope in a corner for guests to enjoy the view. It resembled something you'd expect from a retired sea captain, but was actually a powerful electronic device you could mount on the International Space Station. I swung the scope around to the unfinished building and spoke a quick spell of finding, feeling the power leave me.
I still might have missed her except for the glowing end of a cigarette. I zoomed in tight.
The woman dangled her legs off the ledge of an unfinished floor a little higher than ours. My pulse pounded in my throat just looking at her. It's one thing to live up here behind the glass; another to sit right out on the edge of the empty. She must have been using a spell to keep warm in the freezing air; all she wore were hiking boots, shorts, and a blue t-shirt. She had some kind of long, wrapped bundle strapped to her back. I looked without the telescope, crossing my eyes, which is the best way to see magic. Power evanesced all around her. No wonder the jibbers were hunting.
"What do you call a witch on a skyscraper using magic without any protection, Py?" The cat didn't answer. "An idiot, that's what." Someday, I'd find a real familiar, not this little stray that shadowed me home from Central Park. "What is she doing, anyway, sightseeing?"
I needed to do something. I didn't know many witches - a Jamaican taxi driver; the creepy Romanian who sold me the Marble; an annoying woman who worked at the public library. There weren't many of us left in New York, what with all the jibbers. Crowd a few million people together, and you get thousands of the things. It's one of the reasons witches usually live far away, in moors, forests, swamps - or spectacularly high condominiums. So when you're in the city, you shouldn't turn your back on a witch in need.
The hunters were slowly gathering below the woman. They like to wait until they're all in place. I only had a few minutes to think of something.
I didn't know what to do. The Marble blinded the spirit world any magic within a hundred-foot radius, but that wouldn't help my skyscraper-climbing friend. If I'd known a spell to drive the things away, I'd have used it myself.
Py stared at me. Warn her, the green eyes said. Yeah. I could try that.
I rifled through the grimoire for a spell I half-remembered. I'm always amazed at what witches of the past figured out before electricity displaced our ancient technology of the soul. I found it, or close enough, and when I read what I needed, I laughed. "Here's a job for you, cat".
Of course, I had to catch the moth myself, luring it with a flashlight to one of the panels we could open up for fresh air. I spoke the incantation over the trembling creature, whispered my message, and more power rushed out. This needed to work the first time. No witch has unlimited power.
The little insect fluttered out into the frigid night. Across the gap, the mass of jibbers clung to the building just feet below the woman. The pressure of their power hit me. The witch must have sensed it too. She glanced around. I went back to the telescope. Her head turned; she stared at my building, through the glass wall, straight into my eyes. Then she looked away, her attention drawn to something else.
The moth landed on her shoulder. She brushed it away.
A jibber scuttled up right beside the woman, its claws opening and closing.
The moth hovered in front of her and released my words into her ear. "Fellow witch," they said. "There are jibbers, witch-hungry spirits, right below you. Run." It was all I could do.
She froze, then moved. She jumped straight up, grabbed the beam over her head, and pulled herself up to the next floor. The jibbers moved too, surging upward, each one crawling over its fellows. Above them, the woman pulled the long object off her back and tossed the wrapping away. She slipped it between her legs and jumped off the building. "Christ!" I screamed.
A shape zoomed up from below, a black shadow slashing the night. A broom. She was riding a broom. I couldn't believe it. "Look at her, Py!" I cheered. Then I saw the grotesque shape clinging to the bristles of the broom.
The broom turned back toward me. It moved too fast, and I couldn't tell what was happening. There was a struggle. The witch blew past, and the shape of a jibber tumbled through the air, spinning, and catching a claw on the open sill of my window.
A jibber was inside the protection cast by the Marble. It would smell me. It would send for the others, and there wasn't a handy clock tower to burn down this time.
Knife-like fingers reached around the glass, and ozone filled the room, prickling my nose. My heart stuttered. I turned in panic, and a black blur streaked past. Pywacket struck the jibber right in it's horrible face. They tumbled back out the window and fell together, into the dark.
My so-called familiar. My little stray.
I dropped to my knees and took a ragged breath. I was freezing, but I didn't even have the strength to close the window.
Py jumped back through window an hour later. They say true familiars have nine lives.