The clock chimed eleven times to mark the hour. Edith Philpot, the witch in residence, ignored the announcement as she sat with her feet tucked under her in her favorite chair. Earlier, she’d thrown the cottage’s windows open to welcome in the evening breeze. Edith enjoyed the juxtaposition of the nip of cool night air against the warmth of the roaring fire just a few feet away.
Now with supper finished and chores completed, Edith snuggled in with a cup of tea and one of her favorite books. Head bent in concentration as she followed the plot’s twists and turns, she chuckled in delight.
Unbeknownst to her, a soft burst of wind swept inside through the open window. This breeze, however, was no ordinary breeze. Playful as it danced across the room, the tuft of air fluttered papers and curtains alike. Light from the fire exposed the sheen of magic that clung to its underbelly. Sparks spit from the hearth as the gust picked up speed and slapped at the logs as it passed. Yet, in pursuit of its objective, the breeze and its parasitical incantation continued on toward Edith and her book.
She sensed the danger too late to react. As the draft brushed across her face light and teasing, Edith tensed causing her witches’ senses to kick in. Contact with the air left her skin tingling in its wake. A prickly sensation on her lips begged for her tongue to dart out and soothe. The faint lingering taste of wicked magic registered as she froze. A voice, just above a whisper, spoke.
At half past dead of night,
Meet me in the pale moonlight.
Near center of the wooded sphere,
At grove’s edge, you will appear.
Ignore this message at your peril,
Time has come, we’ve scores to settle.
Do not think that you can flee,
As I will, so mote it be.
Within mere seconds, Edith was confident of the sender’s identity as impossible as it was. He had been stripped of his powers and banished from town ages ago. The witch’s council themselves had performed the rite, divesting him of all magic. Yet, no matter how preposterous the conclusion, Gideon was back. His magic was unmistakable. Edith remembered his brash and arrogant style. However, now, something more was interwoven.
Terror overtook Edith’s aging bones. Gideon’s mastery of the elements had always been remarkable. Not one to boast, Edith was no lightweight herself, but she knew she wasn’t a match for his current strength. His power seemed greater, more controlled and worse, the stench of brimfire lingered as it dispersed.
Her first instinct was to call for the coven. A circle, her circle, could combine their powers to defeat this interloper. For he was an interloper. She was sure his goal remained the same. He had come for the girl. Now as before, it was imperative he left empty-handed.
To beckon for her sisters now though would ensure their massacre. His message had been laced with a wicked spell. A spell so black and dark, she shuddered as she fought its pull. Her magic, the core of who and what she was, was being exorbitantly tugged from her as if she would be the one stripped of her power this time.
She rubbed a finger against her lips, recognizing the folly in licking them earlier. If she called for her sisters in arms, they too would be affected. Her sole hope to defeat him was her own power or what remained of it.
“This can’t be happening,” Edith shouted the words in anger. “More than twenty years have passed. Magdalene! You promised he would never come back!” Her tortured scream echoed against the walls of her cabin.
“This is nothing more than a trick! A nuisance! He would have been here years ago if he could!” Edith’s eyes alit at this thought. Her lagging confidence bolstered some as she continued to reassure herself. “Nothing more than a poor joke. I’ll teach them!”
Edith nodded with defiance even as she heard the falseness of her words. Without further pause, she stood and retrieved her sturdy leather hiking boots from her bedroom closet.
She pulled on her shoes and gathered her things as she continued to mumble to herself. “Thinks to mess with this witch, does he?” A glance at the clock, quarter past eleven. She nodded. There was still time.
Time to plan.
Hand stretched wide, she called for her Book of Shadows. She had started the personal grimoire when she was no more than a child. Spells, potions, every secret she had uncovered or learned had been faithfully recorded by her own hand for decades. She needed its wisdom now more than ever.
The tome sailed across the room without incident, slamming its’ spine against her palm with the force of her command. Edith laid it down with reverence. Its cover fell back, opening to reveal its contents. Pages, one after another, jerked by in a frenzy, as she hovered her hand above, searching for a forgotten truth.
Agnes, the leader of her coven, would caution her to be mindful of her power. “One can’t always be prudent Agnes,” she chided her old friend.
If all didn’t go as planned tonight, she hoped Agnes understood.
Abrupt as it had begun, the pages halted their forward motion and fell back to reveal the contents of the book. On the right, the page was blank. No text or pictures marred the surface. Edith had tried many times over the years to put something on that page, but it was if the page would not absorb ink or even allow a substance of any kind to mar it.
The facing page was its opposite. Text, written in the old tongue, was scribed in red, blood freely given by one of her ancestors. She’d been naive in believing only greed or selfishness lured one toward that path. All her life, shame for the choices of her forebears pushed Edith to be better, do more. She knew that once chosen, the path could not be re-traced. Edith now too stood at that fork in the road, and at last understood. Her attention sharpened as she read the opening line of the spell.
Demons of the Abyss, heed my call…
Worry and self-doubt engulfed her for a moment and Edith closed her eyes against it. If she did this and prevailed, she would be compelled to leave the coven. After this, there was no turning back. Her blood would be forevermore tainted with the dark. But if it was him, did she have a choice? She forced her eyes to open, to read. To memorize the forbidden words.
“Only if it’s absolutely necessary,” she promised herself. Edith didn’t allow a single syllable to cross her breath. The violation in her mind was more than enough.
She read then re-read. Paced, then stilled.
The chime of midnight had come and gone. It was time. The trek through the woods to the assigned destination required that she leave now.
A black crow perched in the window. Its shiny feathers glistened in the moonlight as it sat observing.
Edith pushed aside her fear and apprehension. With a flourish of her hand, she swished her cloak around her shoulders and unbolted her cabin door. Fortified with the blackest magic she’d ever been privy to discover, Edith glanced one last time around her cabin and whispered a solemn farewell. With full knowledge of the consequences and no regrets, she crossed the threshold and stepped out into the night.
The crow spread its wings and took flight.
* * *
Less than an hour later…
A crack of thunder off in the distance lit the night sky.
Isadora woke, gasping for breath. Each pull of oxygen seared her throat and lungs. Adrenaline chugged through her veins. Her right hand reflexively reached for and rubbed at the mark on her left shoulder as it throbbed in time with her heartbeat.
Still heavily panting from the fright, she pushed herself up in bed. Her gaze fell toward the window next to her bed. Beyond lay the night, shrouded in an inky nothingness. Even the moon appeared to be in hiding.
Isadora squeezed her eyes shut against the images playing out in her head and tried to blank her mind of everything. Heart still pounding, her breath slowly began to even out. Focus. Pleasant thoughts, she told herself, concentrating on early, happier memories. Watching an ocean crashing on the beach. The sound of bird’s chirping as it greeted a new day in the woods.
Blood seeping into the ground from a body that lay nearby.
Izzy’s eyes popped back open to escape the grisly picture. She couldn’t accept what she was seeing. It had to be just a horrible dream.
The words from her childhood tumbled out by rote.
Monster, dragon, bring your fear,
I am stronger than I appear.
Your roar is loud, it makes me quake,
My whisper, though, can end your fate.
Go find your rest and set me free,
As I will, so mote it be.
Agnes’, the woman who had raised her since she’d been a toddler, insisted half the battle against bad dreams was facing them. A good witch knew to mind her psyche. Banish the evil, bide the night. Soon dawn would break, and she could move past this nonsense.
Satisfied that she’d done all she could to dismiss the dream, Izzy maneuvered herself to the bed’s edge and swung her legs off the side. Sleep would elude her for hours yet. Best just to get up and begin her day. Later she might be able to nap, but for now, she was too wired to rest.
Coffee first; a woman had her priorities. After she got that brewing, she could shower away the bitter sweat that coated her skin from the nightmare. She shoved the remnants of the dream away. There was nothing to be gained by reliving the creations of her crazy imagination.
Plan in place, Isadora retrieved her robe, pulled it on, and headed towards the kitchen. A clattering noise from the down the hall had her hastening her steps towards the kitchen. Also heard was Dodger, her ferret, screeching his displeasure at the rude awakening.
“Shh! I’m here now.” Izzy shushed her pet while she flipped on lights to ascertain what was making the ruckus.
“What on Earth?!”
Copper pots and pans danced overhead, clanging a cheerful tune. The door leading toward her greenhouse swung open and closed like a pendulum. And lastly, her kitchen window had been shoved open to the night. The chimes placed outside the opening played a raucous tune while a crow sat on the sill looking on.
Without thought for an explanation, Izzy’s hands rose to restore calm to the chaos. Kitchenware clattered to the ground, the door slammed shut then trembled in its frame. The chimes outside continued their hollow melody.
Dodger, her faithful friend and familiar, stood at the door of his cage located against the far kitchen wall near the pantry. Long after the other noises died away, he continued to chatter his unhappiness. Once free, he zipped up her arm and burrowed into her neck, under her hair.
A familiar scent caused Izzy to pause in her movements. For no reason she could think of, lavender wafted around the room. Nightmares were one thing. But, hexes and wayward curses were another. Isadora was too much Agnes’ daughter to put up with the nonsense without mentioning it at the next coven meeting. Not sure how the younger witches had learned of her mother’s propensity to lavender, Isadora planned to teach the hellions some things just weren’t funny.
Cool, night air scattered goosebumps on her uncovered skin despite Dodger cuddling close and sharing his warmth. Untapped magic, carried on the breeze, grated across her skin as she walked toward the window.
Izzy rounded on the crow and accused, “Which witch sent you? It matters not. Shoo, now!” she scolded the crow. Dodger barked at the crow too.
“It’s okay,” she whispered to Dodger, blindly reaching up to console him as she rubbed his furry back. She and the crow continued to lock eyes as she spoke to Dodger. “We’re fine. A demon came to dance, but you scared him away. You’re such a good boy.”
The crow tilted his head as if to say he found Izzy and her ferret eccentric. He moved his feet, re-aligning his body, then screeched an eerie caw, spread his wings, and flew away.
Izzy marched toward the window, slammed it shut and locked it for good measure. She didn’t remember leaving it open the previous night but refused to follow that path of thought. Anything was possible. The small town of Wits’ End where she lived was not a bedrock of crime. It wasn’t unusual to sleep with the doors unlocked and the windows wide open on a warm spring night.
To appease her compulsion for tidiness, Isadora collected the pans off the floor. She would give them a quick rinse for cleanliness later, before she returned them to their hooks above the island. However, coffee was the current goal.
Dodger hung on to her shoulder as she spun toward the freezer. Beans retrieved, she flicked her fingers, sending the carafe whizzing through the air toward the sink, while she turned toward the grinder. By the time the filter and ground coffee was inserted, the carafe had returned, water had been added and the machine was set to brewing. The wait had begun.
The scent of lavender gradually began to dissipate as the steam lifted the aroma of coffee into the air. Odd, she pondered, it had been years since she had last thought of her mother. So sensitive to any whiff of the fragrance, she didn’t stock lavender in her cupboards unless necessary. She didn’t talk about her reaction to it either though. How had the kids known? She was convinced the younger witches had to be the culprits of the prank. Very peculiar.
Dry lips coaxed her to lick their surface and soothe them. The acrid taste of smoke and sulfur that coated her tongue, made her mouth curl in distaste. She refused to allow her thoughts to stray to why they were so. Surely it was just a prank. Izzy shut off that line of thought. Eyes keen on the dark brew cascading into the pot, Izzy prayed to the goddess that dawn would hurry.