Patchy grass disrupted the symbols Chloe was attempting to lay over it. The stringy strap of her vest top slipped down her arm as she moved and she readjusted it with more force than was necessary, leaving chalky fingerprints dusted over her shoulder. She huffed and it fogged in the air. Despite the chill of the early morning, her muscles burned hot at the exertion of hurrying about the ritual site she was preparing.
Jagged pieces of crystal peppered the powdered circle and Chloe sprinkled the remaining empty slots with the herbs listed on the scrap of paper tucked into the tie around her waist. Every now and then she would knock her glasses down from her forehead to double-check an ingredient before pushing them back into her fluffy hairline.
Some of her chalk lines were a little crooked, and she was still relying on store-bought ingredients, but the final product brought a flush of pride to her already too-warm skin. Stepping into the centre of the markings, she lifted her hands, palm up, until they were level with her waist. Tapping into the flow of magic that ran beneath the surface of her skin, she released a burst into the ground through her feet, momentarily illuminating the chalk. The summoning circle was complete.
After a second of soaking up her own achievement, she scurried back to the cover of her cabin. Now, she could only wait. With a shrug of her shoulders, she knocked the end of her foliage-filled braid to her back and out of the way. She needed complete stillness and silence.
Leaving food out had left a grim scent in the air around her rented cabin. Wooden animal call whistles from the wilderness survival store hadn’t yielded a single visitor - Chloe half-wondered if the salesman had been confused and they were actually intended to repel animals wandering too close.
The frustrating fact hovering at her back was that Summer break was halfway over, and Chloe couldn’t keep so much as a squirrel in her proximity long enough to form a friendship.
It was meant to happen here, she could feel it down to the tips of her toes. Standing barefoot upon the soil filled her with an energy that she couldn’t explain except to call it real, unbridled magic. She was meant to be one with nature and her familiar should be, too. The stars didn’t call to her the way they did her brother, her mother, and half her other relatives. The forest was her place, she knew it in her bones.
Barely noticeable movement, a twitching in the very earth itself beneath the ritual markings. Chloe frowned, curious. A mole? The earth bubbled with dark brown crumbs. Except, not all of them were earthen. A squeak caught in Chloe’s throat and she leapt back towards the circle. Hordes of ants, beetles and other bugs were scurrying from beneath the sigil. Frenzied and falling over each other as they fought to the surface.
Chloe cursed, loud enough that she was glad she was far from civilisation and, more importantly, her mother’s ears. She snatched her broom from where it leant against the cabin’s wood panelled sides and began to furiously brush at her painstakingly-crafted work. The magic was dispelled immediately, but she continued to swipe at the markings until not a single one could be deciphered, just in case. She swatted at the bugs, too, showing them exactly where to head: far away from her cabin.
The cabin’s true owner, an old man that owned a printing press in the centre of town, had never mentioned any infestations so she could only assume something hadn’t gone quite right with her spell. Chloe slumped on the top step leading into the small wooden home. What a disaster all that effort had lead to.
The squiggling movement of more bugs drew her hurrying back to the brushed earth, wielding her broom like a weapon.
Chloe raised her head. The clearing of grass around the cabin was as empty as it always was. Between the trees that surrounded it, there was no movement. She put the sound from her mind and continued scrubbing the earth, forcing the bugs in the direction of the tree line.
The same sound, like wood hitting wood. Loud and dull.
Then a shout. A man, she guessed. Chloe held completely still, straining her ears and eyes. This far out into the forest there weren’t people roaming around unless they had reason to be. When she had been arranging the cabin rental, the owner had assumed she wanted it for hunting purposes. Hunting without license was illegal, but he wasn’t the least bit concerned. It didn’t matter how desperately Chloe tried to assure him that she had no intention of harming any animals, he simply winked and told her it was none of his business as long as he got paid the agreed amount for the house. The agreed amount being all of her saved allowance and odd-job money for the last year.
Chloe dropped the broom and hurried, light-footed, to the tree line. The forest had already fallen silent again when she reached it. She peered between trunks, searching for any signs of life, but still nothing. Nothing but more forest. Putting the disturbance from her mind, she loped back to the cabin. Something had gone very wrong with her summoning circle, and she needed to work out what.
She broke from her studies only when the blue of the sky began to shift into pink hues and darken.
Petals and leaves of varying colours and patterns filled the bowl she sifted through, occasionally triple-checking one against her herbology dictionary. It would be more embarrassing than anything for her to journey out into the wilderness to pursue the magical field she had announced to all her nearest and dearest as her destiny… and then poison herself with an incorrectly identified root.
Fairly certain about the mixture, she brought a pot of water to boil over her tiny cove of a fireplace. Having to heat anything, including herself, via real fire had been a novelty at first. Now she had learned a few things… like opening the windows to let out the smoke since the chimney built into the small cabin didn’t seem to suck up any of the fumes. Whether it had been purposely blocked, or a bird had filled it with a nest, she wasn’t sure and climbing under the opening had offered no clues. Cooking outside was only marginally better, but the wind blew the fumes back in her face no matter where she sat, and endangered the fire that she had worked so hard to build in the first place.
Watching the pot boil, a singular rustle sounded from outside. Chloe frowned into her concoction, knowing that wasn't the wind. She glanced out of the open window by the front door, face pressed into the crisp air of night. Nothing out of the ordinary. She shrugged it off. A noisy day it seemed. Something tickled in her tummy, though. Expectation... anticipation... the approach of destiny? Chloe giggled to herself and shook her head, feeling her braid smack her shoulders, almost an admonishment to calm her hopeful heart.
It would happen for her as it had for the others in her class. The wait would be worth it.
A crunch of leaves being squashed and twigs being cracked, followed by a quiet groan, and Chloe raced back to lean over the window sill and squint into the dim light of early evening. An animal was out there; she couldn't see it properly but there was fur amongst the trees. Her heartbeat quickened. Whether her summoning spell had brought them here, or fate was finally delivering her furry familiar to her doorstep, it was time to embrace the biggest moment in her magical life thus far.
Chloe put out the fire, hopped into her boots and ran from the cabin, beaming and shaking. She wished she was wearing her best clothes, that the sky wasn't so dark, this meeting was so special she wanted it to be perfect. This was it, she could feel it in her blood. That feeling earlier had been fate. She smoothed her skirt, ignoring the muddy marks around her knees. The last thing she needed was her forever friend seeing her scruffy in their first encounter, but there was no time to waste with a wash.
Just before the tree line she skidded to slow her boots in the mud. This was still an animal, she reminded herself. It might be spooked by a witch charging at it head-on. A few calming breaths, clenching and unclenching her hands in an attempt to feign a collected demeanour, and she approached the tree trunks at half-pace. Between them white, orange and brown smudged fur was moving jerkily. Its shape was still disrupted by the trees, but a solid guess seemed a very large dog. There was a few feet between them, with a tree blocking their view of each other, but she could see dark brown eyes glinting amongst the undergrowth. The poor pup was creeping backwards amongst the bushes and branches, probably scared senseless seeing magic folk this deep in the forest.
Chloe clutched one hand to the trunk that separated them, dropped to a crouch to seem less intimidating, and leant her body around the other side to carefully catch a peek. Behind the enormous tree was an equally enormous wolf. It stared at her without fear, and as it rose up to its full height she realised it may have been her own scare that the wolf was avoiding. Shocked halfway to her grave, she fell back on her behind. Sharp twigs and thorns dug into her palms and elbows. Shaggy fur formed a canopy as tall as Chloe was standing upright and probably five times her weight. She stared at the beast, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, gormless on the ground amongst the forest debris. The wolf made no acts of aggression, so she scrabbled back up against the trunk.
Chloe shimmied out from behind the tree, never breaking eye contact, and smiled nervously.
"Hello," she said quietly. The wolf continued to stare at her. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting. "I'm Chloe. I've never met a wolf before so I'm not sure what to say. Not that you can understand me but I hope my soft tone of voice is reassuring to y-"
The wolf keeled over onto the dry grass, straight-legged and eyes still open. Chloe yelped and jumped back, clinging to the tree again for emotional and physical support. The wolf was still, laid on its side with legs outstretched, dark eyes still locked on her. Shallow breaths shifted the red-toned fur. From its side, a bolt protruded.