Perspiration trickled down Alistair’s back as he raced along the shortcut to Savvy’s house. Following the path through a belt of trees, he took a hard left at Needwood Pond and crossed over Lover’s Bridge, a quaint wooden structure spanning Needwood Creek. Then he passed the tree on which he and Savvy had sat the day before and slogged his way up the long grassy hill to the front steps of the Morgans’ house. There he stopped to catch his breath and wipe his forehead on his sleeve before climbing the stairs to bang on the door.
“Savvy, its Alistair, come down!” he panted. “Something awful has happened.”
Sitting at her desk upstairs, Savvy brooded over a spread of tarot cards while chewing on the end of her ginger ponytail. All that morning she had pored through her books hoping to find the meaning of her dream, but nothing she read had helped. After tossing the last book onto the floor, her eyes had drifted to the tarot deck and she wondered what the cards could tell her. She shuffled the deck slowly, keeping the question about the meaning of her dream in the front of her mind until she was ready to draw three cards. Then she laid the cards face down in front of her and turned over the first one on her left.
The yellow grinning skull of the Grim Reaper leered back at her from the desktop. Signifying transformation, the Death card would only reveal its true meaning after Savvy had seen the remaining two cards. She let the wet tip of her hair fall from her mouth and flipped the second card in the spread.
A smile formed on Savvy’s lips. She counted Strength as one of her favorite cards, admiring the symbol of a powerful woman taming a lion. Then she turned the last card.
The High Priestess.
“Oh, now that’s interesting,” she muttered. “The Priestess symbolizes going inside of oneself for answers.”
Seated between pillars of black and white and wearing a hat bearing an image of the moon, the Priestess reminded Savvy of a sorceress. Magic was a subject in which she had great interest, even though Father Anderson had warned her strongly against studying it. Her mother, however, had spoken well of magic and promised to tell Savvy more when she got older, but then Magdalene had died, taking with her any chance they might have had to discuss the esoteric arts. At least she still had Magdalene’s books, thought Savvy. Several of her mother’s volumes concerned magic and the practice of casting spells.
Lost momentarily in her memories, Savvy forced her attention back to the cards.
“Alright, let’s see now. Death, Strength, and The High Priestess. If I’m reading these correctly, they’re telling me that a change is coming, but I must be strong and use my intuition to bring it about. What does that have to do with the creature in my nightmare?”
Savvy slumped back in her chair to ponder the cards when she heard Alistair calling her from outside.
Missus Higgins heard Alistair too and went to the door to let him in. “My word, Alistair, why all the racket?” she asked.
“Hello … Missus … Higgins.”
“Take a moment to get your breath, my dear.”
“Thank you. Just … need … a second.”
Savvy rushed down the carpeted stairs to find Alistair bent over in the hall with his hands on his knees.
“Savilla Morgan, you stop running this instant!” scolded Higgins. “How many times has your father told you not to run in the house?”
“I’m sorry. I heard Alistair calling and it sounded important. Alistair, what’s the matter?”
“You’ve got to come to town with me,” Alistair gulped. “Jacob Alder just told Constable Edwards that something killed his father in Needwood Forest. A mob is gathering.”
“What?” yelped Higgins, the back of her hand rising to her mouth. “That’s terrible news, Alistair. How did it happen?”
Grimacing, Alistair rubbed a stich in his side. “Jacob said a creature came at them in a mist. It killed his dad and a farmer named Lars Thomond.”
“A creature? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. Jacob said it was black and furry and had fangs. Constable Edwards is calling for men to hunt the thing down. We should—hey, Savvy, what’s wrong?”
Savvy stood quietly in the hallway, a look of alarm on her face. “Alistair, where is Jacob now? I need to talk to him,” she asked.
“Last I knew he was in the constable’s office.”
Savvy grabbed her nanny by the elbow. “Missus Higgins, I need to go there now. I promise I’ll be back for supper. Come on, Alistair!”
Alistair shrugged and followed Savvy out of the door, leaving Higgins sputtering “be careful!” behind them.
The two friends raced down the footpath toward town. Even before they had entered the alleyway that led to Main Street they could hear angry shouting. Jogging around a shed on the corner, Savvy saw a large crowd of men outside of Constable Edwards’s office shaking fists in the air and vowing to hunt down the creature that had killed Joshua Alder.
“Alistair, follow me!” Savvy waved, making straight for the mob.
Skirting around the milling bodies, she squeezed her way to the front of the assembly to find Constable Edwards calling for order. His chubby cheeks had flushed crimson and he wore a grim expression on his face.
“Tell us where this happened!” demanded a man in the crowd.
“Jacob said it was about five miles south of here,” replied the constable. “We’re to look for an old wagon track that leads from the main road to an opening in the trees. That’s where they entered the forest and walked to a clearing about a mile further on.”
“We ought to go now!” shouted the man. “Let’s get this monster before it kills again!”
“But what about Lilith?” asked Constance McCad, Alistair’s mother, from the open doorway of McCad’s General Store. “This could be her doing. Logging is forbidden in Needwood Forest yet Lars did it anyway.”
“Pish-posh!” scoffed Edwards. “Lilith wasn’t the thing that killed Lars and Joshua. Besides, no one’s seen Lilith in years. She may not even be alive.”
Angry voices murmured in assent. These murders were not Lilith’s doing. They were the work of the strange creature that Jacob had seen.
“Be quiet and listen to me!” shouted Edwards above the crowd. “Lilith or not, the sun’s already gone down behind Long Mountain. We can’t go out there now. The last place we want to meet this thing is in the forest at night. Let’s wait until tomorrow.”
Faces gazed up at the darkening sky. Not only was night falling, but the low ceiling of gray clouds also looked like rain. Realizing the expedition would have to wait, tempers in the crowd began to cool.
“Alright, then, it’s decided,” called the constable “Go home tonight and prepare yourselves. We’ll meet back here tomorrow at sunrise for the hunt. Those of you with dogs, bring them along. We’ll need them to track this thing.”
The crowd began to disperse, allowing Savvy to push forward and grab Edwards’s sleeve. “Constable, where is Jacob?” she asked.
“Why, Savilla Morgan. Why am I not surprised to find you here? Jacob is in my office.”
“I need to see him. Can Alistair and I talk to him?”
“He’s pretty shaken up, so I’m inclined to say no, but let’s leave it up to him, shall we? Come along.”
Turning to the jailhouse, Edwards pushed through the door with Savvy and Alistair at his heels. Jacob looked up at them from his place on a long wooden bench in the middle of the sparsely furnished room. Savvy noted the puffiness of Jacob’s eyes. Clearly, the young man had been crying.
“Forgive the intrusion, Jacob, but these two would like to speak with you,” said Edwards. “If you don’t want to talk to them just let me know and I’ll show them out.”
“I don’t mind,” replied Jacob weakly.
“As you wish. Go ahead, Savvy. I’ll be over here at my desk.”
Sitting down beside Jacob, Savvy put her hand on his shoulder. “Jacob, we’re very sorry for what happened to your father. If you don’t mind, could you tell us what you saw?”
Jacob sniffed and shook his head. “I don’t know what it was, Savvy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Could you tell us what it looked like, then?” asked Alistair from his place on the bench next to Savvy.
“It was disgusting,” Jacob shivered. “It stood about six feet tall and was covered with matted dark fur, and boy did it stink! I’m telling you, it stank like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. The smell was so bad it made my eyes water. I couldn’t even get my breath.”
Savvy wrinkled her nose. “It sounds revolting. Did you get a look at its eyes? What were they like?”
“It’s eyes? Yeah, I saw them. They were big and shaped like a cat’s, but they were green and they glowed too.”
Savvy shot a glance at Alistair, who shook his head as if to say, “don’t tell him.”
“Why? What’s wrong, Savvy?” asked Jacob.
Savvy cracked an awkward smile, hoping it was not inappropriate given the grim mood. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Is there anything else you can tell us?”
With his bottom lip trembling, Jacob fell silent. He shook his head and a tear streamed down his cheek.
“Alright, Savvy. That’s enough,” said Constable Edwards, rising from his chair.
“Very well, Jacob. Thank you for talking to us,” Savvy nodded and after patting the poor youth’s hand she rose to her feet.
“You’re welcome,” Jacob sniffed. “Constable Edwards, I need to go home. My mom has got to be pretty upset by now.”
“Indeed she must. Tell your mother not to worry. We’re going to get this thing, whatever it is.”
Savvy and Alistair followed Jacob outside and after bidding him goodbye Savvy grabbed Alistair by the arm.
“The creature’s eyes! Did you hear what he said? They were the same eyes I saw in my dream!”
“Yeah, I heard him,” nodded Alistair. “You were right, Savvy, your dream did mean something after all. We need to learn what that thing is and fast. Let’s go upstairs and look in your books. Maybe we can find something that will help.”
Taking Savvy by the hand, Alistair led her through a doorway next to his family’s store and up a narrow set of stairs. When they reached the dark landing at the top, Alistair felt around the door frame for a small metal latch.
“I know it’s here somewhere,” he muttered. “A-ha, here it is!”
Pushing a hidden button, Alistair clicked a latch that allowed the door to swing open.
“That’s new,” said Savvy.
“Yeah, my dad put it in for me. It lets me lock the door without a key. All I need to do is pull it closed and the latch catches. Then, when I want back in, I push this button and the door opens. Neat, huh?”
Alistair thrust open the door and allowed Savvy to enter the room first.
“Always the gentleman,” she teased as she stepped through the doorway.
A dizzying array of herbal scents assaulted Savvy’s senses and she reached up to grab a sprig of mint from a hook in a wooden ceiling beam. Dozens of other plants that Alistair had gathered in Needwood Forest hung from other hooks around the room. A smile formed on Savvy’s lips and she sighed with joy. She loved Alistair’s attic, spending many a day there studying books and working with his collection of plants. Her crowning herbology achievement so far had been to make a drink of chamomile and passion flower for Missus Higgins. Savvy had wanted to escape the house one night to watch the Perseid meteor shower and she gave the drink to Higgins to make her sleep. She had done her work too well, though, rising the next morning to hear her father scolding the poor nanny for oversleeping.
Stacks of leather-bound books, almost all of them from Magdalene’s library, also lay piled on tables about the room. Books lay on the floor as well, their covers flipped open to pages filled with drawings and strange writing. Flasks, glass beakers, knives, mortar, pestles, and other tools lay scattered on a table in the center of the room. Most of these tools Alistair had pinched from the storeroom of his parents’ shop; a dusty place containing boxes of decades-old things that his father, a notorious local pack-rat, had collected.
Alistair lit an oil lamp. The room’s lone window allowed in sunlight, but not enough to fully drive away the shadows, especially as night was falling outside.
“Which one of these books should we check first?” asked Savvy.
“Jacob described something that sounded familiar to me, so I’m going to look in an encyclopedia on supernatural creatures,” said Alistair.
“That sounds good. I’ll start with this one,” Savvy nodded, stooping to retrieve a book entitled The Legends of Needwood Forest from the floor. “I forgot it was here.”
Striking a match, Savvy lit a candle for more light and settled down on a stool opposite Alistair. The sky outside grew dark and noise in the street quieted down for the evening. Finally, after a long period of silence, Savvy looked up at the old cuckoo clock that ticked on the wall by the door.
“I’m hungry,” she yawned. “Missus Higgins is going to be cross with me for missing supper.”
“That’s right! You told her you’d be home, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but that was a while ago. I’m surprised your parents haven’t called you down to eat.”
“So am I and I’m hungry too.”
“Do you have any food up here?”
“I don’t think so, but let me check.”
Alistair rose from his stool and went to a basket on the far side of the table. Throwing off the cloth cover, he pulled out a heel of bread and rapped it against the tabletop. It crunched, sending a shower of crumbs onto the floor.
“This bread’s stale,” he frowned. “Maybe there’s something else in here.”
He dug deeper.
“Yes, here we are!” he said, drawing out a length of hard sausage. “It’s not a lot, but this sausage was pretty good the last time I had it.”
“When was that?” asked Savvy, making a face as Alistair picked up a knife to slice the shriveled link in half.
“About a week ago. Eat up, Savvy!”
“Mm, stale sausage!” Savvy sighed, wishing the food was something more palatable.
Beggars cannot be choosers, however, so Savvy began gnawing at the meat as she resumed her reading. Alistair returned to his book as well and they flipped through the pages for some time before Alistair gave out a sudden yelp.
“I found it! Look at this!”
Swinging the book around, Alistair pointed to the hunched figure of a cat-like being on two legs. Savvy gasped when she saw the picture. The black fur and long claws on its human-like hands matched Jacob’s description. It was the face, though, that really caught Savvy’s attention. Two oversized eyes featured prominently above a leonine snout filled with rows of sharp teeth. Paint the eyes green and they would be the same ones that Savvy had seen in her dream.
She took the book from Alistair and read the description out loud.
“The Krytten is a beast that inhabits the Malebolge, the circle of Hell into which magicians and soothsayers are cast. It is an arch-demon that serves Satan directly. Powerful sorcerers have been known to attempt summoning the Krytten to do their bidding, but this is extremely hazardous for even advanced practitioners of the dark arts because once the Krytten has been summoned it cannot return to the underworld without carrying with it a human soul. Many spellcasters have fallen victim to this rule after losing control of the creature once they have brought it to earth. Because it is an arch-demon, the Krytten is impervious to all known weapons and most magic.”
Savvy stared at the picture, the color draining from her face.
“You look awful, Savvy. What’s the matter?” asked Alistair.
Savvy looked up from the book, her eyes dewy with tears. “Alistair, this creature is what I saw in my dream. If this is what’s stalking Needwood Forest we’re in big trouble. What are we going to do?”
Alistair scratched his head. “I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll figure out something. The first thing I want to know is what it’s doing here in Needwood.”
Alistair left Savvy’s side to pace the floor. Wiping her nose on her sleeve, Savvy rose from her stool to gaze out of the small window. Gas lamps cast dim circles of light in the deserted street below. She dabbed at her tears with her shirt and thought of something her father had said when Magdalene died. Taking Savvy into his arms, he had whispered, “never fear, my dear. God is always with us.”
Edward had uttered this advice to console Savvy to their loss, but now she realized that she could also draw from it a sense of strength. Fear and despair made her feel weak, but she could not confront the Krytten with weakness. The tarot card had said she must be strong and maybe God could give her that strength, if she asked for it. Needwood needed her in this dark hour, and so did Alistair, so Savvy took a deep breath and got hold of herself. Alistair was correct, they should start by finding out why the Krytten was in Needwood Forest. Only then could they devise a way to stop it.
She turned to Alistair as a new thought popped into her head. “Do you think Lilith could be involved? Maybe she was the one who summoned it.”
Alistair ceased pacing. “Why would she do that and how could she possibly control it?”
“I have no idea why Lilith would bring an arch-demon here,” replied Savvy with a shake of her head. “What do you know about her?”
“Not much. I think I saw her once in the forest, though.”
“Really? You never told me that.”
“I can’t be sure it was her. I was out hunting for a kind of mushroom that only grows in the spring.”
“You mean morel mushrooms.”
“Yeah, morels, that’s the name. Anyway, I was in Needwood Forest picking mushrooms when I heard a woman’s voice. I hid behind a tree and waited until the voice got closer. Then I looked out and that’s when I saw her.”
“What did she look like?”
“It was kind of far away, but she had long dark reddish hair.”
“Red hair like mine?” Savvy pouted.
“Oh, no! It wasn’t nearly like yours. It was more brown than red.”
“That’s good. I don’t want to hear that I look like Lilith.”
“Remember, Savvy, I don’t know if the person I saw was Lilith. She had strange looking skin too.”
“I don’t know. It shifted colors in the light.
“That is strange!”
“Yeah, it looked like the inside of an oyster shell. Hey, wait a minute! I think there’s something in that Needwood Forest book about Lilith. Didn’t you find it?”
Savvy picked the book of Needwood legends off of the floor. “I didn’t see anything, but I can look again. Do you remember what the section’s called?”
“I don’t. Just keep looking. You’ll find it soon enough.
Savvy skimmed the book for the entry and soon found what she sought. “Here it is, Alistair. ‘The Tale of the Three Sisters’.”
“That’s the one! Go ahead and read it.”
“Alright. The people of Needwood Village have long told a tale of three sisters living in Needwood Forest. The sisters belong to an ancient magical race of women called the Sirachim who live for hundreds of years in solitude with nature. Only rarely do they take male companions. Indeed, it is unknown if they are capable of truly loving mortal men. The common belief is that they mate only to produce offspring. The names of the three sisters are Lilith, Fiona, and Mag—”
“Mag? What kind of name is that?” sneered Alistair.
“It can’t be,” Savvy whimpered.
“What’s wrong? What can’t be?” asked Alistair.
Savvy looked up, her face gone pale. “The name of the last Sirachim isn’t Mag, its Magdalene.”
Alistair’s brow wrinkled in disbelief. “But that’s impossible. Your mother’s name was Magdalene!”
Savvy stared back at the book, her voice dropping low in the candlelight. “That’s right, Alistair. My mother’s name was Magdalene, too.”