by K. Stonham
first released 25th December 2014
Sneakered feet pounded the pavement and surely the loud thuds they made were only in Jamie's ears. Or maybe that was his heart racing, the stitch in his side slicing deep and painful as he ran for his life, backpack jouncing against him, the shape and weight of the canister of sea salt the only thing reassuring in this situation.
"Hang a left!" Jack yelled.
Dodging between pedestrians, Jamie did so, turning onto Ninth. Ordinarily, the flying winter spirit would have slicked a path for him, used wind gusts to help Jamie evade the thing hunting him, but it was high summer now, and Jack, as he had put it, couldn't do jack during this season.
"I'm winter, Jamie," the blue-white ghost had told him, his hands' grip on his shepherd's staff so tight that the wood creaked. "Spring, I have some power. Autumn too. Winter, I'm pretty strong. But summer?" he shook his head. "Any pixie with a claw tied behind its back can best me. The most I can do is be an extra set of eyes."
So Jamie was running for his life from something that looked like a black cloud with too many eyes and far too many fanged mouths, and all Jack was able to do was pathfind for him.
At least, Jamie thought, at least he was Burgess' best-known freerunner, with his daily dawn and dusk parkour runs marking him as odd but not crazy, so that when he had to run and dodge like this from monsters that no one else could see... well, it was just Jamie Bennett being Jamie Bennett.
"Red light!" Jack yelled from his aerial vantage. "The alley's blocked. Go around."
Jamie couldn't spare breath to curse the way he wanted to. The loss of his shortcut was going to cost him seconds. But there was no way around it; all he could do was hope his lead was enough.
He blasted through the park, raced around Jackson Pond, ignoring the swimmers there, bounded up the slope to his home, didn't even bother looking before crossing the street, burst through the loose board in the fence and skidded to his knees in the middle of the circle burned into the turf of the lawn, tearing open his backpack and fumbling open the canister of sea salt, spreading it in a thick, even circle, leaving open just the space he'd come in through.
"Incoming!" Jack shot over the fence, heels dogged by the gaki. Knowing the plan, he dodged around the circle while the demon, eyes on the prize that was Jamie, went straight in.
Jamie ducked and rolled out of the circle, yelling in shock as the shadow-cloud brushed icy pain through his shoulder. Twisting, he let salt fly free, closing the circle.
The demon screamed, deafening, its claws slicing at the air, inches from taking off Jamie's nose.
But the circle held. That was the important thing. The sea salt circle held.
Breathing deeply, pushing down adrenaline and exhaustion, Jamie forced himself to his feet. Unclenched his fist, revealing the book of matches. Face grim, he pulled one out. Struck it. Tossed it into the circle.
The gaki's train-whistle shriek matched the sky-high plume of white flame that erupted.
Jamie waited until the flames, and the demon, were gone before he let himself fall to his knees, panting, holding his shoulder.
Jack dropped from the sky, landing silently beside Jamie. His hand covered Jamie's; Jamie let his hand come away from the spirit-injury. The cold of Jack's touch seeped into the wound, numbing it. "That was too damn close," Jack said, even as the pixies and brownies and other tiny folk who lived in Jamie's garden crept back into sight.
"Yeah," Jamie agreed. "Too damn close."
He favored the shoulder, and the arm, all evening. When his mother asked, Jamie lied and said he'd wrenched it on a bad landing during his afternoon run. She pursed her mouth but kept any comments to herself. His sister Sophie just looked at him silently. Jamie didn't know what she thought. Sometimes he thought maybe she could see into the same world he did, but he never asked. If she could, she would be prey for the same things he was, and Jamie didn't want that.
After dinner, he made sure their greyhound was in for the night, and locked the doors. He left a dish of cream, another of honey, and a small loaf of whole wheat bread on the back step. They would be gone by morning, taken by the small folk who lived in his garden and kept his home safe. A small price to pay, and much easier than warding every door and window with salt each night. Then Jamie turned off the lights, and went upstairs to bed.
Jack was waiting in his room, sitting on the low step before Jamie's window. "Let me see," he said as Jamie turned off the bedroom light.
Quiet, worn down, Jamie pulled off his long-sleeved shirt, revealing his shoulder.
The dark mark spread like wine across his shoulder where the gaki's essence had raked through him.
Jack stood behind Jamie and placed an icy hand on the wound. He took a breath, in and out, and Jamie relaxed.
Jack might not be powerful during the summer, but he was Jamie's guardian spirit. Which meant there were certain things he could do regardless of season.
Cool crept into the injury. Behind Jamie, he knew, Jack glittered and glowed like moonlight on fresh-fallen snow. To Jamie's eyes, the room reflected that light. Gradually, the pain eased.
Then Jack cut off with a cough, stumbling back, gasping for breath.
"Jack!" Jamie was by his side in an instant, helping support the deathly pale teenager.
Jack eased down onto the sill, eyes closed, face contorted. Jamie's shoulder still twinged; he mentally told it to go take a hike, more concerned for his guardian than for the injury. "Jack, are you okay?"
Eyes still closed, Jack nodded. He took a few deep breaths, then clearly forced himself straight. "Nasty magic," he said, voice still breathy, with a nod at Jamie's shoulder. "That'll take a few more sessions to clean out of you. Gimme a couple days."
"Take as long as you need," Jamie told him. "You saved my life today."
Jack's smile was wan. "Yeah, well, you save my sanity. Consider us even."
"Hardly." Jamie glanced at his friend, who now looked sickly under his usual winter pallor, and sighed, taking a seat next to Jack. "I hate summer. There's always more monsters out there when it's warm."
"Not really," Jack rebutted. "But during the rest of the year, I'm strong enough that a lot of them think twice."
"More monsters coming after me, then," Jamie amended. He looked at Jack, who had taken more than a few spirit-wounds of his own over the past couple years. His mouth wrinkled. "After us."
Jack was silent, then dredged a wan smile up. "We do pretty good, though."
Jamie laughed and directed a soft punch at Jack's shoulder. Jack's smile grew as he dodged away.
"Yeah," said Jamie. "We do."