The old man swore as the tiny flame licked his finger, dropping the lit match to the pavement by his feet. He quickly stomped the fire out before the match could roll towards his pant leg or the binder that laid open less than an arm's-length away, frantically shaking out his hand all the while. After a few moments, the flare of pain had almost entirely seceded, and a cursory examination of the afflicted digit showed no signs of burn damage.
He looked over his work with far more care, taking the time to redraw two scuffed chalk lines and shifting one of the tiny, unscented tea light candles that had been shifted a few centimeters off of it’s appointed vertex. He went over every line, every symbol and candle, three times and then once more, measuring out angles with a clear plastic protractor and a little handheld—what had his grand-niece called it? A laser pointer? The light itself was weak, and he had no use for the dial that switched the light from a little red dot to a butterfly to a ladybug, but the device had proven to be a surprisingly useful gift from Mabel nonetheless.
He could already feel the beginnings of his old bones letting him know how little they appreciated his having spent two hours sitting on a cold cement floor of the unheated storage unit. It was his second autumn on his own after that fateful summer, since he had left the Shack and Stanley, but this one was already shaping up to be worse on his aging body than the last.
It’s what you get for running away, a voice that sounded suspiciously like his brother grumbled. Ford quashed it down with the reminder that there had been no reason to stay in Gravity Falls after the Transcendence, and plenty of reason to see how the rest of the country was dealing with a world of weirdness as opposed to the almost-unchanged daily life of one small town in Oregon.
There was nothing left for Stanford Pines in Gravity Falls. The Transcendence had finished what his brother had started, when Stanley had stolen his name all those decades ago.
Whoever had named the Transcendence, the scientist knew, down the very marrow in his bones, had no idea about what had really happened that day. They hadn’t heard the screaming of their brother’s grandchildren, hadn’t seen their grand-nephew’s body vanish into thin air and leave nothing behind but a ragged hat. Ford looked down at the chalk circle, with the familiar symbols that made his chest twist in on itself with old shame and new guilt, and reached out a hand to one of the candles.
This is a bad idea. I’m sure I could get the answer from that local kelpie colony, or if not them maybe the local library,
I don’t need to summon him.
I don’t need to make a deal.
Only... the kelpies were getting ready to set off on their biannual migration, and were busy setting their affairs in order and arranging for various belongings to be shipped to their southern addresses. He doubted a public library would have in-depth information of the sort he needed, and even if it did sorting the truth from the wild stories and legends could be impossible. The summoning circle was perfect, and as for making deals…
Ford pulled his arm back. and instead reached for the bag of offerings sitting just beyond the binder. The contents rustled and crinkled as he set it down on his other side. Next, he pulled the binder a foot closer, running his eyes over the photocopied words he himself had written, decades ago, which he knew by heart and had been told he he even recited in his sleep.
Still, he would take no chances in summoning a demon, even, especially, not with this demon. He bit his thumb, letting a few small beads of blood drip down onto the center of the circle.
“Triangulum, entangulum,” he rumbled, watching the blood begin to sizzle. “Meteforis dominus ventium. Meteforis venetisarium!”
The nearest candle flickered briefly before going out. The candle to its right followed, and the rest after that, one by one, until the room was left in darkness. There was a long, tense moment—did it fail?—and then, suddenly, the first candle was lit again.
The flame was blue. Just as they had gone out, each candle now sprang back to life, tinting the white chalk of the circle a soul-chilling pale blue.
Two golden lights came into being in the air above the circle, where night-dark smoke had begun to coil. Something opened in the darkness—Ford glimpsed one, two, too many fangs to want to count.
W͚͆̽̉̓̌̂H̫̱̽ͯ̒̓̾ͫÖ̮́͒ͪ̍ ̧̠̣ͅD̸̖̱̖̝̖̹À͒̎R͔̥̳̰̯̬͇Ê̲̩̬̯̘ͬ̆͌ͥ̓̇Ș̭̘̳͚̖̮͆́͒̔̏͑ͮ ̲̠̘ͨ̆̋ͥ̑ͫ͌Š̝͕̳͚̆ͨͭ͜U̵̻̪͉̺̣ͪM̮̏ͬͯ͒̍̑ͬM̵͓̗̪̹̮͎ͧ̾O̢̭̳̐̍̆Ň̴̪̥̀ͬ ͇̹̔ͯ͘A̖̘̥͛̋̇͂ͧ̄̿L͔͖̭̘ͧ̌͂ͪͧC̤̠͑̓͊ͩǑ̏ͨͤ̎͏̠̩̳̳̹̻̼R̶̯̻̫̙̲͔̈͐ͣ ̨͎̟̮͕̗̓͒ͥ͂̾̅T̨̫͕̫̍̔̉̃͆H͕͓͖̫̦̖̦ͯͭ̔ͣ̏̾̚E̯͐̃̈́ͯ ̪͐͠D̵̤̤̫̞̗̰̐̎̓͆R̻̹͌ͣͪ͛͡E̱͚̰A̙͓̘̩ͬ̌̾ͬͅM̤̗͉̰̺̣͈͑ͬ͞BE͇͖͕͇͇͈͔͘N̡͚̫̖͇͓͓̑ͫ͑͆Ḑ̃̒͌ͫ̾̍̀E̶͍͍͉̬͉ͨ̌ͦ͊̅͌R̘͓͈̭̼͙͒̏̑?̥̜͂ͧ͞
Ford forced himself to take a deep, calming breath. “Hello, Dipper.”
“G̨̲̗̠͎͈͗̎r̹̺̖ͫe̵̫̳̰͆͑̽ͩ̅at͗—” The figure, still-half-hidden in the smoke, trailed off into what sounded like a coughing fit. Ford hesitated, wariness—paranoia, corrected a little voice that sounded too much like Stan for the old man’s peace of mind—battling with concern. The figure flapped the small wings that hadn’t been there last time he’d seen the de—the bo—Dipper, dispelling the last lingering wisps of smoke.
“S͠ór̕—́” Dipper gave a last cough, and cleared his throat. “Sorry about that. I—wow, sorry, I just wasn’t expecting… um. Hi?”
Ford tried to put on a reassuring smile, but the expression felt thin and brittle on his lips as he took in the double-row of sharp teeth, the fluttering batlike wings on the lower back, the slightly elongated ears with their tapered tips. “That was quite an entrance.”
Dipper lit up—literally, the glow coming from his eyes and birthmark brightening just the slightest bit. “Thanks! Mabel and Grunkle Stan have been helping me figure it out. I’m still getting the hang of the voice, though…oh, almost forgot!”
A snap of the fingers, and the candles had regained their normal hue, stripping the room of it’s eerie blue cast.
The old scientist nodded, glancing down at the circle to check, yet again, that the basic wards were still in place. “It’s… certainly something.”
The two lapsed into an awkward silence, until Dipper flitted his wings nervously and twisted himself in the air to get a better view of the circle below. He let out a sound that was half surprise, half curiosity.
“I thought something about this summoning felt weird!” Dipper drifted down a bit lower in the air, resting his head on his arms as he inspected the painstakingly-etched circle. “Bill’s circle… it’s been awhile since anyone used this one!”
“Really?” Ford perked up. “Are you using another circle, now? How did you discover it? Did you have—”
“Whoa, whoa, hang on!” Dipper held up a hand. “I want to answer all of your questions, but I can’t stick around for much longer without a deal.” He fidgeted in the air, looking down at the circle. “Sorry…”
Sheepishness was a strange look for a demon’s face. Even a demon who should have been a fourteen-year-old boy. Ford nodded, reaching for the bag at his side.
“I actually summoned you to help out with my research, if that’s alright.” He began, rifling through the bag. Dipper’s glow grew even brighter, and Ford felt a lump form in his throat, hot and heavy even as the b—the demon’s excitement grew. He forced it down and unwrapped the offering—a Mr. Adequate Bar, one of the few sweets he recognized from his own childhood at the convenience store he’d visited before the summoning. “You like these, right?”
“Sure, anything! I’m just happy to help!” Dipper hardly glanced at the treat. “So, what are we doing? Fighting wendigos? Taking down a cult?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” Wendigos? Cults? What in the multiverse has he been up to since—no, I probably don’t want to ask him that. Especially not with some of the stories I’ve been hearing… “I just had a few questions.”
“Oh.” The demon drooped slightly, drifting a few inches closer to the ground, before his gold-on-black eyes fixed hungrily on the Mr. Adequate Bar in Ford’s hand. “Is that jumbo-sized?”
Ford had to force himself not to stare at the demon’s fangs as he nodded, which only grew more difficult as Dipper exposed more of them in a grin. “If you gave me the entire bag, I could probably stick around for a couple hours… plenty of time for all of the questions you could think of! Maybe we could even just, you know, hang out afterwards or play a round of—”
“No!” Ford had never seen a demon flinch before, not even during the handful of times he’d been present for a Dipper summoning before the twins had returned to Piedmont in the aftermath of the Transcendence. The scientist took a steadying breath before he continued, trying to soften his voice. “We don’t know how long this will take. It’s...better to do it this way.”
Safer, he didn’t say. Dipper’s face fell momentarily before he spun himself in the air with a quick flap of his wings, coming to a stop almost upside-down, his head resting on his arms. The inhuman eyes crossed as he examined the candy.
“I’ll give you five questions for each jumbo bar,” he announced. “Maybe even up to ten depending on what kind of questions they are. Three to six for regular-sized bars, and one to two if you have anything bite-sized. How’s that?”
Ford tried to mask his surprise at the generous offer, at the fact that a demon had given him a better bargain than he had asked for. Bill had never done anything like that—he’d either taken the deals as offered or tweaked them in his favor, even back when Ford had thought him a friend.
Yet as Ford tried to think of any way that the deal Dipper had offered could be turned against him, nothing came to mind. “I… yes, that will be sufficient.”
The hungry, hungry smile grew, and the demon held out a hand. “T͏̨h̀e̡͟͝n ̛͢i̕͏͘t͘'s͏ ̛a̷ ̴́͡d̨e͘͞a̢͘l̴̨.̴”
The old man couldn’t hide the tension that bubbled up under his skin at the familiar words. He saw the smile falter, and then suddenly instead of a demon floating in the air in the middle of the circle there was a boy. No wings, no claws—maybe the ears were still slightly pointier than they should have been, but nothing out of the realm of possibilities for humans.
He looked… taller. His face was a bit thinner, a bit older even. The figure standing awkwardly in the middle of the chalk circle, arms now firmly crossed over a scrawny chest, looked closer to the age of the red-headed girl who had worked for his brother than the child Ford still saw in his nightmares, vanishing into thin air while a hated voice laughed and laughed and—
No. Don’t think about that right now.
Dipper opened his eyes—Ford couldn’t stop a slight jump when the sclera briefly flickered black before settling to a benign white. Before the scientist could say anything, the demon quickly twisted around to try and look at his lower back. “Did I manage to get the wings this time? They keep popping out if I’m not careful…”
“No, you—you’re very convincing.” Ford swallowed. “Although, the, um...”
He rubbed the tips of his own ears. Dipper groaned and materialized a familiar Pine Tree hat, tucking it down over the pointed ear tips. Ford tossed over the Mr. Adequate Bar, and Dipper took a bite and sat down. Ford pulled the binder that held the copied pages that were all that remained of his journals, flipping to a section in the back full of blank pages. He glanced at the demon and began to write, noting the way that the chalk left a streak on the jeans as if they were real fabric.
“So what exactly is that you’re doing right now?” He asked. “Is it an illusion? Shapeshifting? Something else altogether?”
Dipper opened his mouth to answer, giving Ford a look at half-chewed chocolate and nuts but a surprising lack of fangs or double-rows of teeth before he caught himself and flushed. He took a few more seconds to chew before swallowing the remainder in a hasty gulp, and launching into a detailed explanation that had the scientist jotting down follow-up questions before it was even halfway through, only pausing to ask one or toss Dipper another snack.
Finally, at long last, Stanford reached into the plastic bag and felt only empty wrappers. The slight ache in his joints had spread throughout his body, reminding him of seven decades of wear. Dipper rubbed away a bit of chocolate around his mouth.
“We can make another deal,” he offered, hesitantly.
“...No.” Ford glanced down at his wrist, then out at the entrance to the unit. “No, it’s getting late. I’m sure your parents are worried about you.”
Dipper looked down, shoving his hands into the pockets of the jeans that Ford had ended up categorizing as ‘not quite real, not quite not’. “Yeah… right.”
“This was…” Ford thought for a long, long moment. “This was a good start.”
His grand-nephew blinked, shock bringing his wings back into being with a pop! Ford made a conscious effort not to look at them. “It’s… likely that I’ll summon you again, with more questions.”
He looked down at the lined notebook paper—thirteen pages filled with questions and answers, followed by another four of unanswered questions—then back up at the seemingly-human eyes a mere few feet away. “You were very helpful today, Dipper. Thank you.”
The youth turned a deep red. Mumbling something Ford couldn’t quite manage to catch, he yanked the blue and white hat off of his head and started fumbling around the lining. Ford saw that the familiar constellation birthmark was glowing brightly enough that the golden dots were visible even through the thick poof of brown hair.
“Here!” Dipper, still blushing, pulled out what looked like a business card from the depths of the snapback. Most snapbacks wouldn’t have depths to speak of, yet somehow this one’s owner had managed to reach in almost up to his shoulder to find his quarry. Ford stared at the outstretched hand, then slowly, cautiously, reached out over the wards.
It felt… like cardstock. There was something rough and bumpy on the back, which turned out to be the words ‘Dip-Dot’s Circle for Super-Duper Extra-Awesome People!!!’ He frowned at the glittery pink substance forming the curly script, which smelled faintly of sugar. “Is this… icing?”
“Mabel made it.” Dipper said simply.
“Ah.” Ford turned the card over, taking in the pentagram on the front—which, fortunately for his peace of mind, looked to be printed in nothing more unusual than black ink.
The first thing he noticed was the triangle in the upper-right, a fingernail-sized simplification of the one that dominated the middle of the circle Ford had drawn out on the floor of the empty storage unit. He stared into the tiny, tiny eye for a long moment, and had to remind himself that it couldn’t be looking back at him, not anymore.
The rest of the circle somehow simultaneously managed to be both more and less surprising. Ford had long ago memorized the layout of the symbols in the Cipher Wheel, though it hadn’t been until that fateful showdown with the demon it was named for that he had learned what most of them had truly meant. The Question Mark, the Watchful Star, the Healing Heart… they were gone. His Six-Fingered Hand was gone. Of the eight original symbols, only the Shooting Star, the Pine Tree, and the Hungry Moon remained, with Bill’s Eye of Providence rounding out the new ring. In the center of the design were two stars, the larger one framing the smaller with large black wings.
“The incantation isn’t really important,” Dipper’s voice suddenly sounded younger, even cracking slightly as it had so often when he was twelve and human. “It’s really the intent that matters, you know? And if you use that circle, I’ll be able to tell that it’s a family call, so you won’t get the answering machine or anything.”
Ford could only nod, still staring down at the card, rubbing the symbol Stanley had worn on his Fez for decades with a thumb. He heard his grand-nephew shift awkwardly in the ensuing silence.
After a long, long minute, the boy spoke again. “Well, um… good night.”
One of the candles flickered before finally guttering out. Ford looked up, and saw only an empty circle, the lines in the center scuffed and blurred until all that was still recognizable of the triangle was the top hat and thin, outstretched arms.
And the old man knew he was alone.