Harrow saw her for the first time when she was five.
She was her first summoning she did entirely by herself. She had been learning the theorems and the languages from when she was three, slowly and carefully shaping them in her mouth from almost the moment she’d started to talk at all. Mother and Father had had her observing summonings from about the same time - she still remembered the flat terror of the first, of seeing Mother’s study thrown into disarray by the creature, trembling in her circle of safety and crying; she remembered Mother making her recite the Rules, afterwards, until her throat was hoarse (and Father giving her water with a drop of lemon in for her throat, and telling her that the fear was the point, and would help her remember the Rules). She had been summoning with supervision since she was four and had bound one in heavy ties of Sumerian and silver last week, blood leaking from the pores of her face as she looked upon its leopard-like shape.
But this was the first one she would do entirely by herself. She scrubbed the slate within the study entirely clean, took a fresh length of chalk - it’s always better to use new and whole chalk than to risk making a mistake when switching to another - and carefully etched out the geometric lines of the summoned’s circle, the layers of protection and naming and binding, and the summoner’s around herself. She didn’t need to, but she took her little ruler out of her pocket and used it to check the circles were correct, that none of the chalk had smudged, that she had room to lift her arms without breaking the circle. She lifted the heavy weight of the bell, holding its tongue so it didn’t ring before she wanted it to, and set it between her feet. The matchbox was too big for her hands, and she almost fumbled it - it is vital you maintain composure, always, for a moment of unbridled emotion can be your undoing - but managed to barely catch it in her tiny hands and light the candles and incense burners before the match burned the tips of her fingers and she hurled it well away from her and the circles, sticking her hands in her mouth for a moment.
Then, her hands clenched tight against the sting of the burn, eyes watering from the pungent scent of the incense, she chanted through the cant that would summon a minor mote from outside reality and give it a bridge into the human world. For a moment, she feared she’d lost her place, but the soft curls of Latin fell steadily from her as she raised her arms -
- and there was a girl in the circle opposite her.
She fell into it with a yelp and flailing of arms - she looked to be no older than Harrowhark herself, not that she had any experience with other children. Her clothes were strange and pearlescent, hair a shockingly unreal splash of red over brown and freckled skin.
She was most certainly not a minor mote.
Harrowhark wouldn’t admit this at the time, but she panicked. It was in direct violation of one of the Rules - do not show Them weakness - but she did. She knew her summoning had worked, she had felt it, felt the universe lean in to listen to her, but it had gone wrong somehow and something - anything - could have ended up in the circle opposite her.
She formed a diamond window with her fingers and slipped them through the shapes necessary to form a connection blocking net while she began a generic banishment - she stumbled the syllables and had to start again, the thing in the other circle was groaning but it was feigning, it would get her because -
The most important Rule. Demons are very bad, Harrowhark, and they will hurt you if they can.
(She remembered learning that one; would always remember learning it even if time would shift the emotions she viewed it through. Demons are very bad, and they will hurt you if they can. They’re not of our reality; they are anathema to us. You must never give them the opportunity.)
“Ow, hey, wait - !” said the unknown demon in the other circle, its elbows apparently rubbed raw. “What are you - ”
Finally, heart pounding and with that upset, hurting feeling in her throat of having failed, Harrowhark managed to spit out the binding net. Its lace-black draperies settled over the demon, and the thing hissed out another exclamation of pain. Clumsily, she fumbled the bell off the ground - she didn’t hold it right at first - and there was a flat gong as it rang once. Oh nine hells and their attendant lords, she was ruining everything -
“What is this? Hey - who - who am I?”
That. That made Harrowhark pause. Had she - somehow done so poorly she’d not only failed to summon the correct demon, but also summon some form of failed, incorrect being - no, it was a trick. “Silence.”
“My name’s not silence. That’s a dumb name.” The demon hissed as it made contact with the net again. “Ow - ow! ”
“Shut up!” Banishment - general banishment. She needed to stop engaging with it - “You irritating, wretched being.” She couldn’t stop the words spilling out of her like water from a cracked vessel. No, no, I need control - “You’re not what I wanted! I hate you!”
The circles should keep her safe, even if she had somehow ruined everything. She controlled her shaking, began to chant the banishment, using her fingers to keep the net around the demon tight.
The demon scowled at her. Its eyes - she hadn’t noticed before, but they were golden, impossibly golden and bright, shimmering and shining like someone had plucked stars from the sky and set them in the thing’s head. Inhuman, wrong. Demons will hurt you if they can. “Well, I hate you too.” It grinned. “Also, you set the carpet behind you on fire.”
Harrowhark’s head whipped round and, as she finished the banishment and the thing went, she said one of the words Crux had said after dropping the athame case on his foot that she wasn’t meant to say.
She did put the fire out eventually. But Mother and Father were furious. And it had all been the demon’s fault.
Harrow heaved the huge steamer trunk into the room she’d be staying in for the next week. She hauled it with the grim determination of a prisoner on a chain gang, her shirt tight against her with sweat pooling uncomfortably on her lower back, arms and fingers burning and screaming. Her hair, already a little too long, had clumped and clung into tendrils curled across her face and neck, her makeup running and smeared against them.
“Do you… need help?” asked the idiot who had been assigned to show her to her room.
“No. I’m fine.” She would glare, but she’s not sure she has the energy even for that. She settles for fixing her dead black eyes somewhere on the idiot’s face and waiting for the natural unnaturalness of being a diabolist - that creeping sense of dread people should get when she’s in the room from having spent too much time in the presence of things that literally erode reality - to drive them away.
“And you have your schedule? I’m pretty sure Classics candidates are meant to be meeting in about an hour - ”
Harrow did manage a glare at the un-driven idiot at that. “Thank you. I am aware of the schedule.” She bit the words off like the sharp lines of the gestural symbols of a banishment. She hauled the steamer further into the room’s dim orange light and considered trying to fuck with the thin lines of minor magic that represented his attention.
No. Too much energy. Not what she was good at, either. And for tonight she needed to conserve energy, fall into a particular role.
“You do know you’re only staying for a few days - ”
The steamer shifted itself against her foot sharply, digging into her aching shin, and she kicked it firmly. Retrieved her other two suitcases and closed the door in the babbling idiot’s face. She heard them mutter an insult, and leave, their footsteps echoing on the steep narrow staircase that had been such arduous work to climb.
She took a moment to look at the room. So this is Oxford. The building from the outside had been almost as imposing as Drearburh Hall, if much more ornate - curlicues of glistening sandstone and carved grey gargoyles, weathered by age - but the inside was, apart from the nightmare staircase, far more modern, albeit a cheap form of modernity. The beige wallpaper sagged in the dim overhead light, the desk sad and topped like a kitchen bench. Mold grew on the corner of the ceiling.
The steamer shook again, more insistently, thumping off the floor.
Harrow opened the first of the two smaller suitcases. Retrieved the two rolls of prepared masking tape, measured a rough rectangle around the hideous bed with at least three feet of space between its edge and the edge of the bed. Laid the tape down, making sure she cut at a particular phrase, even if that left her rectangle a little lopsided, the silver wire she’d pressed into it gleaming up at her. As the steamer trunk began shaking in earnest, she laid the second roll of masking tape around the edge of the room, feeling the magic snap into effect as she finished. No connections from outside this room. As good as soundproofing.
Then, finally, she undid the two latches on the steamer trunk, and undid the other sealings on it with a few sharp, cracking twists of her fingers.
It took several moments for the thing in the suitcase to unfold itself from the position it had been in, and several obscene cracking and squishing noises that were likely entirely unnecessary. Eventually Harrow looked back, and there was Gideon.
“You,” said Gideon. “Hit every single step of that staircase right against my knee.”
Passing over the ridiculousness of this accusation, of Gideon remaining in a human body during transportation, especially one with vulnerable joints, and of - “What are you wearing?”
Most humans could only perceive a single ‘plane’ of reality. In truth, reality was split into many but, like wavelengths of light, there were seven ‘primary’ planes that most beings that intersected and interacted with the physical world made use of. On the first plane - and on the other six, most likely, another of Gideon’s oddities - Gideon was clad in a sober black suit - good, if far too tight against entirely unnecessary muscles - and a pair of mirrored aviator shades through which the faint glow of her eyes could be seen.
“Nothing at all~” Gideon’s smile grew incredibly wide.
Harrow did not blush at this, because that would be ludicrous. “That’s not - the sunglasses.”
“I had fuckall to do in there, so I came up with a backstory. Also, I saw it in a comic.”
Harrow reached up - damn Gideon’s height, damn the fact that she was unmistakably feminine despite being a demon - and pulled the sunglasses off. When she looked up, a new pair had already pushed out of Gideon’s face, and the one in her hands was gone. “No. You are not dressing as anything inspired by your comics.”
“It was a demon wearing the outfit in the comic. Be glad I’ve still got my shirt on at least.” The glow from the eyes grew brighter, and the demon’s bizarrely human bones lit up too, like the starfire that lit her eyes had spread down her whole body. “I haven’t had any other inspiration, and it does seem a shame to deprive the stuck up academics here a view of my sweet abs...”
Harrow did not blush. She scowled, lips pursing together into a thin line.
“Is that a yes please?”
“Keep the suit and sunglasses then.” Harrow hissed. She had tried, for a while, to think of Gideon in the appropriate objective terms that normally applied to demons. But there was no denying that she was distractingly female. And at least this way her ridiculousness makes her less so.
“Kinda pokey, isn’t it?” Gideon toed the edge of the marker around Harrow’s bed, sparks pinging where her foot met the barrier. Already her presence was distorting the room, a stack of magazines and comics scattered haphazard across the desk. “From the way you were going on about it I was expecting Oxford to be fancy. Like a castle on a cliff by the ocean or something.”
Harrow ignored that stupidity, and the other sprawled pile of comics piling itself up by the window, and instead sat down on the bed. “Do you remember the rules we discussed, Griddle?”
Gideon wrinkled her nose. “Yes, because you made me repeat them twenty fucking times before you shoved me in that trunk.”
“Repeat them to me.”
“For fuck’s sake - ”
Harrow formed the first two gestural syllables of the Everlasting Frost. “Repeat them.”
“Fine.” Gideon lounged into the moth-eaten armchair. “You’re here in not-bonewitch mode for your Classics and Oriental Studies interviews - which’ll be hilarious because like you can ever stop being a freaky bonewitch. Which is why you’re actually here for, uh… magic studies - ”
“Yeah, that word. You’re here for that. When you’re doing the classics stuff, I’m meant to stay here and do sweet fuck-all unless you say otherwise. When it comes to the Thaumaturgy things, that’s where I help you out. I’m meant to be your familiar, but I’m not a demon because demons are spooky or some shit.”
Harrow ignored the complete minimalist nature of that statement that ignored that most practitioners’ response to discovering diabolists was to murder them as quickly as possible before their summonings inevitably went wrong. “Continue.”
“I’m not allowed to talk to anyone, which’ll make selling the whole thing tough because you can’t lie because of magic shit. I’m not to allow harm to come to you by either my action or inaction, physically, mentally, karmically or spiritually, which feels excessive. I am to be, for all intents and purposes, your bound partner and ally and whatever actually is involved in the familiar bond. And once this is done…” Gideon sat forward, and Harrow was reminded that she was a demon, one she had made a contract with, one she had allowed a foothold into reality - “Once this is done, you’ll let me go, and erase my name from your family books.” She leant back again. “So are you finally done bothering me about this?”
“This is important, Griddle.” Harrow’s hands fisted in her skirt. “This may be the most important thing I ever do, ever have to do, ever. You cannot set a single foot wrong, or I am in ruins.” Demons will hurt you if they can and she had placed everything on the back of Gideon not betraying her, of Gideon not destroying her down to bone and leaving her a barren, empty soul.
“Then why pick me for it? You never answered me when I asked before. Why not that toad thing, Ortus, or Aiglamene, or just say you never got a damn familiar. Why me?”
“I - ” Harrow shut her mouth with a click of teeth. No, too close to falsehood. “I do not want to answer that.”
“Consider it part of us trying to work together on this. If I’m going to be helping you, I want to know.” And she looked so infuriatingly serious as she said it, sunglasses and all.
“Because…” Harrow licked her dry and cracked lips. Resigned herself to the loss of power from the lie. “Because your loss is the one easiest to bear. Be it to finished contract or mishap.”
Something in Gideon’s face hardened at that, and the too hot fire of her eyes shone brighter. “Fine. Fuck me for asking. We going to get started, or what?”
The lie had hit her like a blow to the stomach, dragging power from her body. But better than saying the truth. Anything was better than that.
So, instead, she managed to force out from her quivering lungs, “Yes. Let’s get started.”