Blackie’s a REALLY BIG black dog

I returned to Muddy River for this Halloween story. The veil between our world and the next grows thin on Hallows Eve…too thin.

A Fire Demon’s Familiar
Judi Lynn
After the last student left the building, I locked my school for witches and crossed the street to our tall, yellow Victorian house.  Claws padded beside me, our breaths showing in the cool, late October air.  It was Friday, and we had Monday off—a three-day weekend.  Sunday was Halloween.  Every witch in Muddy River was readying to celebrate Samhain.  This year was special.  There was a blue moon on the thirty-first, the second one in the month. 
When I reached our driveway, the orange lights flicked on that decorated our front porch.  Raven must have beaten me home.  My fire demon was starting to enjoy Hallow’s Eve as much as I did.
I circled to the back of the house to enter through the kitchen door, halting in surprise when I saw Raven sitting at the wooden table, a black dog on steroids lying at his feet.  I stared.  “Is he hurt?”
“No, and he should be.” 
What did that mean?  The beast rose, his tawny eyes focused on Claws, and my ocelot arched his back, a low growl thrumming in his throat. 
“No, boy, he’s a friend.”  Raven stroked the dog’s thick, black fur.  “He’s Hester’s familiar.”
The beast sat, studying me and my familiar.  I frowned.  He was a perfect match to Raven’s ebony hair and amber eyes.  Still, when he padded toward me, I raised my palms, ready to defend myself until he stopped and leaned his head forward to lick my hand.  The top of his head was higher than my shoulder.  I’d never seen a dog this big.
“What is he?” I asked.
Raven stood and came to rest a hand on his back.  “I think he’s a hellhound.”
“One of Diana’s pack?”  I knew the goddess called for her beasts when a new moon blackened the sky and she went on the hunt.  If a worthy woman prayed to her for rightful retribution, Diana listened.  But the new moon was long past.  “Why is he here?”
Raven rubbed his chin, shaded with stubble.  I loved his dark coloring.  “I don’t know, but I think he searched me out.  When he raced toward me, I blasted him with fire, but it didn’t even faze him.  He knocked me to the ground, and I wrapped my hands around his neck to strangle him, but then I noticed he was wagging his tail.  When I hesitated, he started licking my face.”
I took a deep breath.  His answer troubled me.  If Diana sent the hound to Raven, there was a reason.  And it wasn’t to reward him with a pet.  “I’m worried.”
He stroked the hound’s head and nodded.  “So am I.”  We both knew all too well that sometimes goddess’s blessings came with strings attached.
I was surprised by how well Blackie and Claws got along.  When Claws wanted outside to hunt at the river banks, Blackie went with him.  That evening, they curled together on the floor in front of the fireplace while we read and did the same in our room when we went to bed at night.  But where Raven went on Saturday, so went Blackie.  And Claws stayed next to me each time I left the house.  It was sweet, until they both hovered underfoot as Raven helped me cook for the town’s carry-in for Hallows Eve. 
I sighed in vexation.  “Who knew hellhounds begged for treats?”  The beast liked everything—even pumpkin bread and popcorn balls. 
“I don’t want to know what Diana tossed him as snacks.”  We’d both heard the myths of her and her dogs, how she fed them pieces of her prey’s heart after they’d torn him to shreds.  Raven bent to sniff the aromas coming from the oven.  Each member of my coven, including me, was bringing platters piled with BBQ ribs to the harvest table this year.  Suri and Noira, the two exceptions, since they owned the town’s bakery, were bringing biscuits and cornbread. 
When the preparations were done, I seared salmon for our supper.  Blackie liked that, too.  Claws, as usual, turned up his nose. 
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” I told Raven as we ate.  “Magic is at its strongest during Halloween and a full moon.  Maybe Diana sent you Blackie to keep you safe over Samhain.”
“Safe from what?  Together, our townspeople have managed to defend ourselves against just about everything.”
“Maybe that’s about to change.”
He reached for his wine.  “I certainly hope not.”
So did I, but Diana sent us a hellhound for a reason.
We were washing up breakfast things on Sunday when Raven’s cellphone rang.  He listened to the caller with a scowl, then said, “I’m on my way.”
A chill raced down my spine.  This was it.  Trouble had found us.
Raven started to the door, Blackie plastered to his side.  “Paws called.  Something’s going on in the forest past his farm.  Strange balls of fire are erupting into the sky.  It hasn’t crossed our town’s border and your wards, but something’s wrong.”
“I’m coming with you.”  Paws, a shifter, and his wife lived at the farthest edge of Muddy River and owned a poultry farm.  They were the first to let us know when rogues snuck into town from that direction.  But rogues didn’t shoot fire higher than tree lines.
He gave me a grateful smile.  “I might need backup this time.  Thanks.”
As if I’d let him go alone!  Claws followed me to my white SUV, jumping on the backseat when I held the door for him.  Blackie jumped in behind Raven.  My fire demon always drove.  He had no patience for people like me who only went five miles over the speed limit.  We zoomed past Paws’s place in record time and kept going.  When fire burst a short distance away, we headed there.
We had to park and hike into the trees to find the spot.  A crack had opened in the earth, a deep one.  We looked down, down, down to see a flowing river of fire at its bottom.  As we watched, tall, crimson human-like things with long, pointed tails scaled its side.
I gulped down panic.  “Are those demons?”
Raven’s dark brow rose in irritation.  “I’m a demon.  I don’t know what those are, but they don’t look friendly.”
Blackie’s fur rose.  He bared his teeth and growled. 
“I don’t want to fight them here.”  I sprinted away from the crevice.  “We’ll need some room.”
We stopped in an open meadow, the four of us lining up to battle, and the things rushed toward us.  The first one sprang toward the hellhound.  Raven shot fire at it, but it kept coming.  After all, it lived in a pit of fire.  Flames were its home.  The hound turned at the last second and ripped out its throat. 
It twitched in death throes, and I smiled.  We could kill them.  I’d wondered. 
Another thing charged at Raven, whipping its barbed tail over its head and aiming its stinger at him.  I threw up a protective shield, and the tail bounced away, its stinger bent sideways, virtually useless.  I squared my shoulders.  Fire might not harm them, but magic might.
Three more crawled over the edge of the crevice and ran toward us.  I raised my palms and blasted them.  They flew into the air and screamed as they fell into the gaping crack. 
“Give me a shield again,” Raven called.  And when it was in place, he ran to the edge of the meadow, returning with a heavy branch larger than most saplings.  “If my fire doesn’t work, I need a weapon.”
“I wish I could conjure a knife or a sword.”
“So do I.  Maybe I should start carrying one.”  But he’d never had to before.  His fire was enough.
A half dozen more sprang out of the ground.  Then the crack spread farther, opening halfway across the meadow.  I called for a wind that pushed them back toward the earth’s lip and toppled them over it.
“Can you close the ground with your earth magic?” Raven asked.
“I can try.”
Two more crawled over the lip of the chasm. 
“I’ll deal with these if you close the crack.”  He held the branch like a bat, ready to bash heads.
With a nod, I turned to the growing opening and began to chant.  It started to close, crushing a few of the things climbing its sides.  But when I turned to hurry back to Raven, I saw one of the crimson beings dart its tail toward him.  Raven raised the branch, blocking it, and the pointed tip buried itself in the old wood.  With a grin, Raven whirled in a circle, dragging the monstrosity with him, knocking its friends off their feet so that Blackie could dash forward to finish them.  I’d almost reached Raven’s side when the earth heaved, and a new crevice opened almost to Raven’s feet.  Five creatures dashed out of it, one of them flicking its tail toward Raven, but Blackie jumped in front of him. 
The stinger sank into the hound, and the dog’s legs buckled.  Raven let out a roar, and rushed the thing, choking the life out of it.  “Save him!” he cried to me.
I blasted the four other creatures before turning to place my palms on Blackie to pour healing magic into him.  He’d sagged to the ground, whimpering, but when enough magic filled him, his eyes opened and he focused on me.  Then his gaze shifted to Raven, who was beating another creature with the branch as it tried to reach the hound.  Claws leapt on the thing, scratching at its eyes and body. As my familiar’s poison spread through its limbs, they turned gray until the monstrosity gave a final gasp and died. 
When I was sure Blackie would be all right, I patted him, then leapt to my feet to toss up a shield as even more creatures poured from the opening.  Behind me, the hellhound struggled to his feet, lifted his face, and howled.
The howl sent goosebumps up and down my flesh.  It was more intense, more frightening than a werewolf’s eerie call.  But in less than a minute, more howls sounded close by.  The creatures who’d been advancing toward us paused.  Twigs snapped and branches swayed as more hounds ran in our direction.  Soon, a pack stood beside their friend, teeth bared, growling, itching to kill the creatures who’d hurt Blackie.
Raven turned to the advancing crimson monsters and grinned.  They’d been joined by others, but they still cringed.  “Drop the shield,” he told me.
The minute I did, the hounds raced forward, tearing and shredding anything in their path.  But more creatures crawled from the molten pit.  This time, before they could take a step toward us, arrows whizzed past us, imbedding themselves in their heads.  They fell backward into the crevice. 
I turned, shocked, to see the shimmering form of the goddess loading more arrows.  When another swarm of creatures climbed out of the ground, she let them loose.  More bodies fell.  Then she strode forward, standing on the edge of the cracked earth, and looked skyward.  With a few words, the clouds parted, and as if aiming a flashlight, a powerful shaft of sunlight filled the parted earth.  Screams drifted from the depths of the ground.  She sent more light into it, erasing every shadow.  And with a giant tremble, the crevice closed. 
With a grim smile, she turned to walk back to us.  I shivered.  I’d never expected to see the goddess, and Raven reached for my hand.  Her smile turned warmer, and her pack settled at her heels.  “I must thank you for coming to my aid.  Fallen angels from the pit and their progeny have been stalking me for months, lusting after my hounds.  I knew if I left one on its own, they’d make a grab for it.  And I knew that if I sent it to you, you’d keep it safe.”  She looked at Blackie.  “My brave one here volunteered for this duty.  He had faith in you, and I believe he grew fond of you, too.”
Raven blinked, turning to his hound.  His expression warred between victory and sorrow.  He reached to scratch Blackie behind his ears.  “Are you all right?”
Blackie leaned forward to lick his hand.  Claws went to sit beside him.
Diana’s smile grew wider, studying them, then she returned her attention to us.  “No one will dare challenge me again for centuries.  For that, I’m grateful.  I’ve watched you make your world safer one battle after the next.  You’ve done it again, but now I must leave you.  Blessed be Hallows Eve.”  She tilted her head to her hound.  “You’ve served me well.  Choose what you wish.  I give you my blessings.”
Blackie rose and walked to sit at Raven’s side.
Diana beamed.  “He risked his life for you, and you for him.  I understand.”  Then she and her pack walked away, fading as they went.
I swallowed a lump in my throat and took a deep breath.  Then Diana’s voice came back to us.  “Go.  Enjoy your town’s Samhain celebration.  You deserve it.”
Samhain.  I’d forgotten. 
Raven grinned and tugged on my arm.  “You made BBQ ribs.  Everyone’s bringing a dish.  And there’ll be music and dancing.  We won.  A perfect way to celebrate.”
He was right.  My nerves were still on edge, but there was nothing like a Hallows Eve celebration to set them right.  Loading Blackie and Claws in the SUV, we hurried home.  An hour later, we sat at the long tables set up on Main Street, along with everyone else who lived in Muddy River.  One dish after another lined the center of each one, and music spilled from the speakers set up in front of Raven’s office. 
Claws nudged Blackie and led him to meet the other familiars in our town.  And friends came to greet us.  I’d tell my coven what happened later, after we partied.  For now, it was time to enjoy all things magic.