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It was the kind of day that people wrote poems about. The afternoon sun was bright, casting a cheerful golden glow over the surrounding area and the people out enjoying it. Any discomfort the heat might otherwise have caused was disrupted by a mild, late spring breeze- creating gentle white ripples in the surface of the water that was just a few shades darker than the eyes that were looking at it without truly seeing it. The sky stretching out over the ocean was just as clear and blue…
And it made Daphne feel sick.
Laughter reached her ears then, even over the sounds of the surf rushing over the rocks below the deck of the restaurant she was sitting nearby, and she lifted her head to see a group of students she recognized from her own school. No doubt celebrating the end of another semester, her peers drifted into place around a table. They were no one she knew personally, but their laughing and jokes, heard even above the raucous cries of the gulls flying overhead filled her with a sudden, hot stab of irrational resentment.
She watched them for a few more minutes, the sight of their light-hearted mirth prompting a surge of mingled pain and anger coursing through her to replace the numbness that had preceded it. A distant part of her was fully aware of how misplaced her feelings were, but rationality didn’t make those emotions any less real.
How dare those people be so carefree, so happy, when she felt like curling up and screaming until her throat was raw? How could the day be so perfect and beautiful when her entire world had come to an end with just four words?
“There’s been an accident.”
It had been a wonderful day, up until that moment. She’d just finished her final exams and was looking forward to a long relaxing summer break before her last semester of college. The plump, friendly figure of the university’s counselor, approaching her from the other end of the hall, hadn’t seemed out of place until she’d realized she was coming for her. “Miss Harper, can I please speak to you in my office?” The woman’s voice had been so quiet, so gentle, that within seconds Daphne had experienced a feeling of creeping dread blossoming in the pit of her stomach.
A few minutes later, sitting in a room decorated with a multitude of cat figurines and motivational posters that dread had turned into shock, and then denial. It was like a scene out of one of those chick flick movies she’d always rolled her eyes at, only this time it was real, and it was her life that was being destroyed.
An accident…that’s what the woman had called it. An accident was when you bumped into another car and knocked your headlight out, or tripped over a rock trying to get to class on time and twisted your ankle. ‘Accident’ was too mundane a word to involve something as final and unalterable as death.
Especially when that ‘accident’ had just killed her sister.
A glint of gold against blue drew her attention downwards, to the ring on her finger. A clear flawless sapphire, the same color as the ocean a few feet away was the focal point of the piece. Curling around the stone as if frozen together in a dance or an act of play was a dolphin and mermaid: each chasing after the other’s tail as though they were locked in a never-ending game of tag.
“I don’t want to go!” As if it had happened that morning instead of seventeen years earlier, she could still hear her own sullen words echoing in her head- full of all the anger and indignation her five year old self could muster, “I want to stay with you!”
Just as clearly as she could recall the words they had spoken, her memories of seeing her sister standing there in the kitchen of their childhood home were just as vivid. Ariana, older than her by a full ten years, had been a tall, radiant girl with short black hair and eyes as gray as a stormy sea. Always protective and guiding her, especially after their parents had died, she’d been the person Daphne had looked up to above all others. Her sibling had been more of a mother to her than the woman she could hardly remember. The bond the two girls had shared was the only reason Daphne had listened to her that day…no matter how much the subject of that conversation had upset her.
“I know you do Daffy.” Her sister’s nickname for her had been spoken with regret, and, she’d realized as an adult, pain, “But you can’t. Things are really hard now for Aunt Mary. She can’t afford to take care of us both anymore. Uncle Oliver and Aunt Sarah both have good jobs, and they’re already on their way down to come get you.”
She’d listened, albeit petulantly, but the protest over her already ordained fate had come instantly to her lips, “But why do I have to go by myself?” The idea of being separated from her adored sister had been incomprehensible to her five year old self, “Why can’t you come with me?”
“I wish I could Daffy, but Aunt Mary needs someone to help her out around here, and I’m old enough to do that. Hey,” At the first sign of tears, Ariana had knelt down until she was at eye level with her little sister, “You have a lot of growing up to do, and you deserve to do that in a house where you’re not living off mac and cheese and bologna sandwiches. You’re going to love it up there in Boston. You’ll still be by the ocean, you’ll have lots of other kids your age to play with, and I’ll come visit you every chance I get. And…”
The older girl had taken off the ring she’d always worn and that Daphne had always envied- slipping it onto her own finger with a great deal of ceremony, “I’m sending you there with my good luck charm. As long as you have it on, nothing bad will happen, and you’ll always have part of me with you. It’s a promise too…you have to keep wearing it for me, until we’re both together again for good.”
“Okay.” The anger had left her tone and been replaced with resignation, but the beautiful ring had provided a source of consolation the little girl hadn’t been expecting, “I’ll never take it off.”
And she never had.
Ariana had been right though, Daphne loved Boston. The ocean, the atmosphere, the very history of the place had come to feel more like home to her than the five short years she’d lived in Ocala, the town of their birth. Her aunt and uncle doted on her, she’d grown close to her three cousins and made plenty of friends…she’d had a rich, very happy childhood.
But she hadn’t had her sister.
Oh, true to her word, Ariana had visited a few times every year. But as wonderful as they were, they never lasted long. Reasons for the shortness of the visits, or why she never moved up to resume living with Daphne had varied, and changed as time passed. First it was the necessity of having to take care of their aunt, who’d been debilitated by a stroke and had ultimately passed away a few years earlier. Then it had been college, and then finally her job as a marine biologist. If she hadn’t loved her so much, she would’ve gotten angry at her sister’s excuses for not living with her again.
And now…they never would.
She’d gotten to her feet without truly being aware of it, moving until she was gripping the safety railing that separated the sidewalk from the swirling waters of the Atlantic below. Inexorably her gaze was drawn back to her ring. A promise, Ariana had called it- a promise between the two of them- to be kept until the time when they’d be reunited permanently. The pain of before returned full force, wrapped tightly with anger, “Drown…damn it Ari, how could you drown? You swam better than I do!” Fury overtaking her, she’d torn off the sapphire ring without realizing what she’d done, not until she’d already flung it down into the bitter blue waters.
She froze then: eyes wide and horrified as the full impact of her irrational action crashed over her like the waves hitting the nearby shore. She looked at her now naked hand, to the circle of flesh turned paler than the surrounding skin by seventeen years of being shielded from the sun by that tiny piece of golden armor. Then grief filled her like a rising tide, and she gave voice to a piercing, keening cry of despair.
She clung to the cold metal railing like it was the only thing anchoring her to the world- the pain of the double loss blinding her to even the worried glances from a few restaurant patrons. The ear-splitting crack of thunder that suddenly rent the sky above was the only thing that could’ve torn her free from the desolation searing through her- confusion replacing pain when she tilted her head back and saw thick, dark clouds where pristine blue had been only minutes before.
Cold droplets fell down and mingled with the hot salty ones stinging her eyes, and abruptly, Daphne turned away from the sea and fled into the now driving sheets of rain; leaving the last link to her sister lost to the depths.
The rain was still pouring down in torrents when she reached a cluster of shops several blocks away from the waterfront. Drenched to her skin and beginning to shiver, she cast her gaze over the tightly packed row of shops: seeking refuge from the eerie storm. She was halfway to her intended target- a small candy store- when almost against her own will she halted…turning around and going instead into a bookshop several doors down the sidewalk.
Frowning to herself, her steps seemed to possess an odd sense of purpose as they carried her deeper among the mostly deserted aisles until at last she found herself standing in front of a tall shelf near the back of the building. Without even needing to think about it, the girl stretched out her hand, her fingers closing automatically around a book halfway up and pulling it free from the others- her frown deepening when she turned it over and read the title. “The Book of Witches; a Guide for the Newly Awakened.” She murmured out loud, her brow furrowing.
The cover was simple but elegant; a girl standing in a forest clearing facing what looked like some kind of magical portal. Daphne gave her head an absent shake. While she didn’t dislike fantasy novels, it had never been a genre she was particularly interested in either, and she moved to restore the book back to its original place on the shelf.
Only to discover that she couldn’t.
She could still move as she pleased, but whenever she attempted to lift her arm and put the book away the urge to do so completely vanished; leaving her standing there still holding it and blinking in bemused consternation. The longer she held it though, the more another compulsion made itself known, and she found herself walking back to the front of the store with the strange book firmly in her hand.
The clerk watching the counter was a pleasant-looking man of middle years who offered a polite smile at her arrival, “Did you find what you needed?”
“I’ll go ahead and take this one, I guess.” Still feeling flustered by the whole situation, she placed the book on the smooth wooden surface before digging around in her side pocket in search of her change purse.
“That’s one heck of a weird storm going on out there, isn’t it?” The man shook his head in disbelief as he glanced out the front windows before busying himself with ringing up her purchase, “The forecast wasn’t even calling for rain at all, and then boom, down comes that storm like it came out of nowhere.” He accepted the money for the book and then handed back her change; fetching a small plastic bag for it before looking down at the cover, “Oh neat, are you thinking about planning a vacation to Scotland?”
The question brought her up short, “Scotland? No, I’ve never even really thought about it much. Why do you ask?”
It was the clerk’s turn to give her a puzzled look, “From Aberfeldy to Aberdeen, My Time in Scotland?” He lifted the book a bit higher and gave it a shake, “A travel memoir to a country usually does indicate an interest in going there.”
“Travel memoir?” Daphne felt more than a little foolish repeating the man’s words, but they slipped past her control before she could stop them, “It’s not a-“ Then, just as suddenly as the outside storm had first manifested, the rest of her protest died in her throat before she could finish voicing it. “You know what, don’t worry about it. I’ve had the day from hell today and just want to get back to my dorm. So whatever it is, I’ll take it.”
He raised an eyebrow at her tone, but chose not to comment on her remark; sliding the book and her receipt into the bag before handing it over.
It was still thundering when she left the bookstore, but the rain had been reduced to a gentle drizzle that was easy to avoid as she kept to the sidewalk with its protective eaves and canopies. The further she got from the scene of her earlier distress in fact, the weaker the unusual storm became…until she reached a point a few blocks away where it seemed some divine hand had drawn a line across the skies above. She came to a brief halt on the still rainy side of the divide, looking up at the contrast of dark gray and perfect blue, wet pavement and dry, and shook her head. “Weird.” She muttered under her breath, before stepping over that imaginary line and continuing on her way.
Her plans to return to campus were temporarily abandoned when the temptation of a locally owned coffee shop presented itself, settling down into a cozy chair on the edge of the little courtyard with a mocha and oversized pistachio muffin. She glanced at the horizon, mentally taking stock of the sun’s low position in the sky. It wasn’t that long before it would set, but she knew she had time enough to take a short break and still make it back to her dorm before dark. Boston didn’t have nearly the crime rate as other large cities did, but she was cautious enough to acknowledge that walking alone at night in any city held a potential danger that could be easily avoided.
It hadn’t even rained here, she noticed, everything currently around her was as dry and warm as it had been at the waterfront; even though it was only a few blocks away. She slipped her hand into the bag, drawing the book out into the sunlight and looking down at the cover. The title was still The Book of Witches, and Daphne shook her head, absently wondering what had been wrong with the bookstore clerk. She wasn’t the type to make snap judgements about a person she knew nothing about, but given his general age and how grossly he’d misread the subject of the book, part of her couldn’t help but wonder if he’d paid Woodstock a visit at some point in his youth.
She felt a trickle of amusement at the thought, and it was a welcome respite from the emotional tumult she’d already experienced that day. Her gaze drifted further down the predominantly purple and green cover, to where the author’s name was printed in pretty white lettering. “Megan Conroy.” Daphne repeated the name out loud before giving a small shrug. She’d never heard of her before, so maybe her writing wasn’t that good. Deciding to give the unknown writer the benefit of the doubt at least until she got bored, she opened the cover and glanced at the first page with writing on it.
Read This First! Her attention was immediately drawn by the text dominating the top of the table of contents, and fighting another flicker of amusement the young woman turned the page to do just that.
First thing’s first, I’m sorry for what happened to you. Her eyes widened in shock after they’d scanned the first sentence, and her surprise only grew as she continued to read. I don’t know if it was from fear, or grief, or anger, but you’re here reading this book because you’ve just had something bad happen to you, maybe even traumatic, and it’s just the beginning of what you’re about to go through. She paused to take a drink of her mocha, her earlier amusement beginning to give way a little to unease. But before we do anything else, I need to make sure you’re in a safe place. If you’re in a city, especially a large one, GET OUT NOW! Don’t worry about packing or making travel arrangements, just get out. If you’re in the country or a small town, you can skip this part. But if you’re in a city you could be in a lot of danger right now…especially once it gets dark.
Unbidden, Daphne turned her head to check the position of the sun. It had not yet set, but the horizon was already awash in a riot of red, orange, and gold in preparation of the event. You’re looking for nature, and I’m not talking about a city park. You need real nature…a forest, desert, ocean- go there, and help will find you. Stay in a city, and something else will find you, something you don’t want to meet.
Her unease deepened, and she shook her head in irritation. It’s just a book Daphne. A weird book, but still a book. You have enough to worry about already without letting yourself get creeped out by something you read in a book. With a small show of private defiance she put the book down on the table, resolving to take the time to finish her muffin and drink in peace.
The air possessed that warm amber glow that preceded twilight by the time she’d tossed her empty containers into a nearby trashcan and picked the book back up. I’m guessing that right now you don’t believe me. The words made Daphne smile despite her earlier apprehension; you’re thinking ’ha ha, very funny Miss Conroy is this some kind of weird new book marketing tactic? It’s not, I promise. Believe me; I know exactly what you’re going through right now. Maybe not the situation that got you in this mess in the first place, but everything that’s going to come next. I thought it was crazy too, but let me give you some proof if it’ll make you believe me. Whoever you bought this from; they couldn’t see the real book, could they? As far as they were concerned you were buying a memoir of my trip to Scotland, not ‘The Book of Witches’. And maybe you started to try to point out their mistake, but then you couldn’t get the words out. A chill that had nothing to do with the approaching evening slid down her spine, but she kept reading.
That last part is because of a geas…a magical compulsion. It’s what drew you to the book and got you to buy it (or you might have stolen it if you didn’t have any money, but don’t feel bad if you did. I wrote this to help people like us, not make a profit). Anyway, the geas also stopped you from speaking about the book’s true nature to any outsider. It’s a one-time thing by the way, so you don’t have to worry about constantly wandering into bookstores and being compelled to buy multiple copies of the book. As to why other people are seeing it as a travel memoir and you’re seeing this, that’s a glamour, or illusion. If you want the truth, I actually wrote two books here. Most people can pick this up and they really will be reading about my experiences in Scotland, but for you and the others who have been tossed into the same boat…well, think of this book as a reference manual to provide some much-needed answers until you find your feet.
As for why you’re now different…well, there’s no easy way to say this. You recently experienced some kind of trauma, and it woke something up in you. You’ve essentially become a different race. You’re still technically human, but human plus; human plus magic. The proper name for what we are is Witana, or Wise One. But if you want a modern, easier word, then congratulations, you’re officially a witch now. Daphne snorted before she could stop herself, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I know, I know it sounds crazy. Like I said before, when I was in your shoes I thought all this was some kind of sick prank one of my classmates was trying to pull on me. But it’s not a prank, and it’s not a joke. This is real. But forget about all the things you might’ve seen in movies or read in books. Your skin isn’t going to turn green, you don’t need to get a pointy hat or magic wand, and you’re not going to be flying on a broomstick anytime soon (sorry for that last one, I was disappointed too).
You are going to get magic. You have magic now actually; you just need to learn how to use it. You’re going to get beauty and wonder, but you’re going to get danger too. If you’re in a safe place, then keep reading and I’ll explain everything in the following chapters, including how to find more hands on help. But if you’re in a city, you should’ve left already. I’m serious about this; your life could be in danger. There’s always bad to go along with the good, and unfortunately our bad is very bad. There are things out there that are very interested in what you’ve become, and none of their motives are good for you. So think this is stupid or crazy all you want, but please, just humor me. Get out of the city and find the nearest wild place you can find…even if it’s just a small patch of woods or a meadow. Help will find you, I promise. You don’t have to go through this alone.
She sighed and shook her head; slipping the book back into its bag before rising to her feet. The book was strange, and had been a welcome distraction, but it was almost dark and she needed to get back to her room.
She was only a few blocks from campus when she sensed someone was following her. She’d been walking at a brisk pace, wanting to reach the security of her dorm before full dark fell, when she felt prickles on the back of her neck. The disquieting sensation continued for a few minutes, until at last she heard the sound of footsteps on the pavement behind her. Daphne quickened her step even as she tried to force the feeling of paranoia down. But when she realized she wouldn’t make it to her destination before her follower caught up to her she decided to switch tactics; turning around on the sidewalk to face them.
The unease became the first flicker of fear when her suspicions were borne out in the sight of the tall figure thirty or so feet away, who had also come to a halt at her movement. “Don’t come any closer.” She called out in warning, making a deliberate show of letting her free hand go to her side pocket, “I have pepper spray.”
Against all expectations, the man- for it was a male voice that emerged from the stranger’s throat- laughed, but it wasn’t a normal laugh. It was a low, rich sound of indulgence, like an adult that had just been amused by a child. “No you don’t.” He corrected mildly, “And even if you ‘did’, it wouldn’t do you any good. Not against me.”
He started approaching her then, and as the street lights blinked on in response to the freshly fallen darkness she got her first good look at him. As she’d noted a few moments before he was tall- six foot four easy- with pale skin and long black hair.
“What do you want?” She backed up with every step he took forward, “I don’t have much money on me, but you can have it if you just leave me alone.”
A second laugh followed the first one, this one tinged with the barest trace of cruel mockery. “You think I’m a mugger, young one? A common thug stalking a girl in search of coins and meaningless scraps of paper? Oh no, I’m afraid your luck is far worse than that, or maybe it’s good, depending on your perspective. I can be generous to my pets when the mood strikes me or they behave well.”
The warning she’d read in the book only a short time before came back to silently taunt her then, and Daphne felt her initial trepidation slowly morph into true fear as she continued to retreat. He came close enough that the light from the nearest streetlamp illuminated him, and Daphne gasped. She would’ve thought a strange, potentially dangerous man would have been sketchy-looking at best, but this man was…beautiful.
His appearance went far beyond just handsome- she’d seen more than her fair share of handsome guys and had even dated a few-but the word didn’t suit the approaching stranger. Clean, silken-looking hair, eyes that were a dark, rich shade of blue, even his skin and bone structure seemed…perfect.
But yet that very beauty made her uneasy, and it took her a few moments to realize why.
Whether they realized it or not, people automatically sought out physical imperfections when they first saw someone. A scar, a mole, a slightly crooked nose or any other flaw that anyone could possess…you couldn’t help but notice them, and it was one thing out of many that made everyone unique. But this man had no such imperfections, at least none that were visible. No discolorations or blemishes marred that pale, flawless flesh, even his features were a study in perfect symmetry…and it struck her as utterly unnatural.
He was beautiful, but it was a cold, distant beauty, like a star. More than that though, there was just something…off, about his entire demeanor. Even when he’d been following her his pace had been casual and unhurried. He hadn’t increased his speed when she had. And now as he came closer she saw the effortless grace he moved with, the lazy, almost feline stalk of a predator confident that it would catch its prey.
Her fear increased sharply then, and distantly she became aware of fog creeping into the surrounding area, though the evening had been clear only minutes earlier. She had more pressing concerns than the weather conditions however. “Don’t come any closer.” She warned him even as he stopped less than ten feet away from her, which only made him give a repeat of the same low, indulgent laugh of before.
“Or what? You’ll kick, scratch, bite? That might be fun in the right situation.” A purr, low and seductive, had entered his voice, and it made her skin crawl.
“I’ll scream.” She glanced around as her panic began to mount. She couldn’t see anyone on the street besides them, but they weren’t far from the campus. Even if most of the other students had already packed up and gone home for the summer, if she screamed loudly enough someone was bound to hear it. But the prospect didn’t seem to concern the man in front of her.
“No you won’t. In fact, in a few minutes you’ll come with me of your own accord and do whatever I want.”
She felt a flash of alarm, only instants before an odd sensation swept over her. He’d stretched his hand out to her, and a feeling of warmth and dizziness suffused her. Her skin tingled, and it was as if the outer edges of her fear were being caressed away by invisible fingers. There was a scent too, teasing her nostrils in a heady rush that seemed to combine ocean breezes, the spice of ginger, and the sweetness of jasmine flowers after a heavy rain…her favorite smells.
She looked back up at him then, at his offered hand, and against all rationality some part of her wanted to take it. It was hard to think clearly with the heat and lassitude overtaking her senses, and only dimly did she hear his softly crooned command, “That’s a good girl, come along now.”
Although she’d been barely cognizant of it before, a cool tendril of the fog brushed against her face. As brief as the contact was, it allowed resurgence of her fear, and on instinct Daphne dug the nails of her free hand into her palm hard enough to draw blood. The flash of pain brought awareness back with it, even over the still present supernatural manipulation.
“No!” She shrieked; and she threw the book at the man as hard as she could before whirling around and running for the cover of the now-thick fog. Behind her, she heard that wicked, mocking laughter, and another thing as well- a rush of sound and displaced air like something large had just leapt into the sky.
The fog was so thick that it was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction, and so her escape was mostly a matter of blind panic and intuition.
Nature…the book said if you went to nature, help would find you. It was crazy, but so was a creepy man with some kind of sex magic trying to make you his ‘pet’. There were no forests or meadows she could run to here, but ocean…there was plenty of ocean.
She was almost to the nearest pier when she heard his laughter again, this time above her.
Despite the fear filling her at the thought of whatever it was she was being chased by, she hesitated. The pier was empty, and narrow, and high: a good ten to fifteen feet over the now dark waters. Her hesitation was interrupted by the fog billowing beneath a diving form that passed directly behind her in a blinding rush of motion. To her shock she sensed more than saw wings, but it was the teasing tickle of what were obviously claws gliding across her back that made her scream.
“There you are!” Through her disbelief and terror, it took her a moment to realize the young male voice was different from that of her pursuer, and was coming from the ocean at the end of the pier.
Too frightened to question, Daphne raced onto the pier and didn’t stop until she was at the very limit of it, though she balked at the new stranger’s next words, “Hurry and jump in! I’ll keep you safe!”
She climbed up on the bench and leaned over the rail. The voice had come from down there, but it was too dark to see anything beyond an occasional glimmer of light on the water. She’d spent her entire life on the coast, but there was a big difference between going swimming at the beach on a bright sunny day and leaping off a high pier into the ocean at night.
The decision was taken from her within the next few heartbeats, as two sounds almost simultaneously rent the air; an angry, inhuman hiss from the fog above, and an exasperated snort from the water below.
“We don’t have time for this!” There was a surge of motion then, and suddenly a human-sized form had lunged up from the ocean and seized her by the arms. There was a sharp stinging pain as the claws returned, tormenting instead of teasing as they raked her back, and then she was plunging headfirst into the cold black water.
Unable to see or hear anything and with the salt stinging her injured flesh, Daphne panicked; opening her mouth to scream-only to have another cover hers before the sea could rush in…the same arms that had plucked her from the pier tightening protectively around her.
Then some kind of energy, like a thousand tiny electrical currents, emerged from the lips touching hers and shot through her entire body; granting her the dubious mercy of unconsciousness.