Chapter 1: Between Realms
ONE WEEK EARLIER...
After giving my last psychic reading for the day, I decided to call it quits. My mind was fried and I was sick of seeing other people’s lives in my head. My job was starting to feel like a broken record sometimes. Every single person who came through the front doors of the Snapdragon, who wanted a reading, always asked the same three questions: What does my future look like? When will I find my true love? When will I die? Most of the time, I saw the answers they were seeking, while others didn’t like what I had to say, demanding a refund. Those were the customers I wished wouldn’t ever come back and they usually didn’t. I still don’t understand how my mother kept this store open for all these years, not wanting to pull her hair out. People are seriously annoying sometimes.
Walking through the familiar store I had grown up in, I always noticed the wall of herbs that my mother spent hours tending to in her personal garden back home. A person could find any magical herb they desired on that wall. Sage was her specialty and I loved watching her prune the plants before she hung them upside down to dry out. The smell of sage filled the four walls of Snapdragon and everyone who walked in commented on the calming energy and smell. My mother’s shop had occupied this same building in downtown Savannah for nearly 200 years and I hoped I could keep it going for another 200, but after the kind of day I had today, I’m not entirely sure I can do it.
And then I saw the one face that always got me through each day. His glacial blue eyes sparkled when he looked up at me, slowly approaching as I noted his inky black unkempt bed head that he calls hair. The color always reminded me of my mother’s healing obsidian stone. His broad-shouldered and muscular form moved powerfully as he walked, making me think about what my mother would say about him if she were still alive. “He’s a strapping young man, now isn’t he?” Mica Black was a force to be reckoned with and I fell for his chiseled stubble lined jaw and sensitive soul the moment I gave him his first reading. He continued to come into the shop every couple of days, spending an obscene amount of money just to get a reading from me, even though I saw the exact same thing each time. But, it was when he wanted to see his future that I drew a blank. That’s never happened to me before and I told him as much.
As he crossed the busy street towards me, the palms lining the sidewalk swaying in the light ocean breeze, I stood frozen in the front door. A huge smile tugged on my lips as he approached and as soon as he opened the door I felt heat fill my chest, crawling into my cheeks.
“Well, if it isn’t my brunette beauty,” Mica purred, wrapping me in his arms before he buried his face into my neck as he always did.
When people complimented me on my looks or my character, I usually shrunk into my shell. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always hated people making a fuss over me and that was no different when Mica did it.
“Okay, what do you want now?” I joked, stepping out of his embrace as I locked up the front door behind him. I also didn’t want him seeing my reddened cheeks and needed a diversion.
Mica chuckled as he placed his hands on my hips. “You. Forever and ever.”
Now my heart was pounding in my chest. He had brought up our future in previous conversations and I always avoided the subject like the plague. I’d give anything to be with Mica day in and day out but the rules of the realm were simple: no romantic relationships between witches and humans. I’m a witch and he’s a human. Can you see the problem now?
Chuckling myself, I spun towards him, trapping myself between him and the door. “Mica,” I breathed out, staring into his warm eyes, “are you hungry? I can make you something before I head home.”
“I’ll take an order of Willow,” he rasped, giving me the look I knew meant he wanted me in bed. Right now. But I don’t have time for that today, unfortunately. Curfew was coming up and if I wasn’t back in time, I’d get another mark against my code. If I got to three strikes, I couldn’t come out for a month and a month away from Mica was too unbearable to think about.
“Well, how about a small side order of Willow and a turkey sandwich to-go?” I laughed, moving around him and further into the store. Mica’s laugh echoed behind me as I made my way towards the back store room where my mother kept all the extra inventory. There was a small kitchen back there so we could make food while we were here and not waste any time traveling from this realm to our own and back.
“Can I walk you home tonight?”
His question froze me to my spot as a cold chill swept over me. Out of all the things he’s asked of me before, he’s never asked this. How am I supposed to tell him that he can’t do that? How do I tell him that my home wasn’t on his plane of existence? I can’t exactly explain to him how I just disappeared into thin air right before his very eyes. There’s also the fact that if human’s ever tried to enter our realm, they’d burst into a giant cloud of ash and dust and the thought of Mica dying made my stomach cramp up as anxiety filled me.
He must have noted my silence as he walked up behind me and wrapped his arms around me. “Alright, my mysterious girl, I won’t walk you home. I will take that turkey sandwich, though.” His soft lips pressed against the bare skin on my shoulder as I squeezed my eyes shut and felt all the emotions I had for this man. I hate that we can’t be together like normal people, but that’s what I get for falling for a human.
“One turkey sandwich coming up,” I chimed, stepping out of his embrace once again as I made my way to the kitchen in back.
After Mica had one large turkey sandwich with all the fixings, we were leaving through the back entrance, getting ready to say our nightly goodbyes as I felt my heart squeeze. I’d give anything to go home with him or to have him come home with me. Living in a completely different realm than him made this relationship really difficult and even though I was madly, deeply in love with this human, I knew that we’d never have anything normal. Did that make me a bad person? Should I set him free so he could have something normal? The thought alone made me anxious. I didn’t want to lose him. Not yet.
“See you tomorrow?” Mica asked with a small mouth full of sandwich.
Giving him a single nod, he stepped forward and lightly kissed my cheek before he turned and disappeared down the alley that lead back to the street in front. This was the part I hated the most, watching him walk away from me and not entirely knowing if I’d see him again. Sure, I had access to the human realm because of my mother’s shop and work, but anything could happen on any given day and I could be banned from entering back out here.
Once I knew he was out of sight, I held my arm up and pressed the inside of my wrist, alerting my driver that he could come pick me up now. That was one of the nice things about being a witch from the enchantment realm, having our own car service to take us to and from our portal dock. Using public transportation was too risky and most of them would probably wonder why I was getting off at the Bonaventure Cemetery after park hours. I couldn’t very well tell them that I live there and I definitely couldn’t tell them that there was a magical portal in the back of the cemetery. There’d be one of two problems: one, they’d either go searching for the portal, or two, they’d think I was bat shit crazy and have me admitted to the nearest hospital. Neither of those things could happen so the Coven leaders created our own witchy taxi service.
My driver finally arrived, a man I had known my entire life and had always been my mother’s driver, pulled right up to me in the back alley. I never got to see that city of Savannah other than what I could see from the back alley, the front windows of my shop, or on the drive to and from the cemetery, but from travelers coming and going from my shop, I hear good things. Maybe someday I could actually explore my human city and maybe, just maybe, Mica would be my guide.
“How was your day, Miss Willow?” Payne asked from the driver’s seat, never turning around to look at me. Even though he was like family to my mother and I, he always kept to himself, never wanting to get too close to us. I’ve never really seen his face, just glimpses when he looked around while driving, but I knew he had white hair beneath the driver’s cap he always wore and his skin was stretched like old leather. He looked the same today than he did the first time I laid eyes on him when I was five years old. Did he never age?
“My day was fine, Payne. Yours?” It was a normal conversation we had every single day, always replying with the same answers. I wonder if he ever gets sick of doing the same thing day in and day out. Did his life feel like a broken record much the same way I felt about my job?
Payne began driving from the alley before he answered quickly over his shoulder. “Same story, different day.” He pulled his gaze back to the road, driving silently out of the historic district towards the highway that would take us to the cemetery. It was only a five-minute drive so trying to get more out of him was pointless.
The sun was setting behind the horizon, casting the first blue hues of dusk throughout the city. From what I could see, everything was gorgeous and I ached to walk among the humans, exploring the streets. Tree lined streets tried to mask the grand brick federal style homes beyond them, while across the street large Greek Revival homes sat wide open, their two-story columns the focal point. That’s one thing I noticed about this city, there were so many different architecture styles throughout, each one leaving behind an unspeakable beauty. Some of my favorites were the Creole style homes with wrought iron framed balconies that seemed to wrap around the entire front side of a home. It reminded me of New Orleans, a city I had traveled to once with my mother when I was a small child. We were visiting their city’s realm for supplies for the Snapdragon and I got my first real taste of a different city. I never went to another city after that.
“Bonaventure Cemetery,” Payne stated as he stopped the car at the front gates that were closed tight for the night.
“Thanks, Payne, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I slipped him a few dollars as a way of saying thanks. Even though this was a free service, I knew he had a family to take care of and the Coven didn’t pay him much for doing this job. I slid out of the back and walked towards the towering iron gates that kept the public out of the cemetery after hours before I disappeared into the large bushes framing the gates. A small hidden door came into view as I pushed it open, stepping into the cemetery before I shut it tight behind me. I don’t want to be held responsible for a human following in after me while walking them straight to their death if they tried to walk through the portal.
The cemetery was beautiful this time of night when the sun ducking behind the horizon left just enough light to be able to see. The main road that went straight through the cemetery is lined with ancient oaks that had been here for many years before I was even born, all of which were drowning in Spanish moss. All the gravestones and statues in the park were covered in small patches of moss from years of being exposed to the elements. This place was gorgeous during the day but when the sun was absent from the sky, it was a place where horror movies were created. But for me, it couldn’t be more comforting to walk through. All the souls resting in their places in the ground were either already in their final destination or walking among the living. Most of them knew I could see them, but if I kept my eyes away from them they left me alone. I deal with dead people and living people’s thoughts all day long and I think they know I want my space. I would send a friendly nod to some of them as I passed and when the children spirits saw me, they came running. They always brought a smile to my face, knowing they were bored to death, literally.
Speaking of children, a tall white marble statue of little Gracie Watson came into view and just behind her was a small hedge that turned purple in the fall and then just beyond the hedge was another ancient oak covered in Spanish moss. The moss nearly grabbed the ground with its overgrowth and as I pushed it aside and stepped below its canopy, I placed my wrist against the trunk of the tree, matching it up with a carved-in symbol of circles and triangles. The tree glowed beneath my wrist right before I felt a small shock from the touch and then I was home.
The cemetery immediately vanished as I stood in the realm of the witches, my home. All evidence of the human world was gone; leaving nothing but dark, ominous forests for as far as the eye could see, save for the witch version of a city. There wasn’t a single thing modern about our home, but we didn’t need anything fancy. After all, we had all the magic in the world and could have whatever we wanted. Material items weren’t a priority in our realm. However, seeing the human world made me miss having solid walls and running water.
I was nearly knocked on my rear end when a few teenagers flew by me on their new broomsticks, scaring the hell out of me.
“Sorry, Willow!” One of them shouted back to me as they disappeared into the tree line.
My heart was pounding in my chest as I shook my head at them. I know they’re just learning how to fly, but didn’t anyone tell them not to fly so low to the ground? They could have taken my head off!
Taking a few deep breaths, I walked over to the check in station, writing my name and the time down on the old journal with the quill and ink. A wad of cash tucked in my back pocket reminded me that I should probably turn it into witch coins so I could pay my due to the Coven and then hopefully have enough left over to buy some salts for a long overdue relaxing bath.
“Welcome back, Miss Willow. Did you get a good take today?” I knew the portal gate guard was referring to the cash in my back pocket but he should know by now that my business is mine and I never tell him anything. He worked directly under the Coven leaders and I didn’t need them knowing my business anymore than they already do.
“Good enough,” I replied dryly, keeping my eyes cast down as I pulled only part of the wad of cash from my back pocket. “Can you pay my due to the Coven? I’ll take the change.”
He didn’t seem pleased that I wasn’t being personable with him but he didn’t say anything, just huffed out a breath, shook his head and then did what I asked of him. “I heard the Coven is going to raise the due soon. By the looks of it, you’ll need to up your game out in the human realm, Willow.” His judgmental eyes skated over me as he handed me my change in gold witch coins.
“I’ll take care of it when the time comes, Kale. Thanks.” I shoved my witch coins into my other back pocket and stepped away from the check in station, glad to be done speaking with the guard. I miss the old guard that had sat there for nearly a hundred years, treating me like his own daughter. He died a few weeks ago from old age and now this pipsqueak was put in his place. I don’t like change, I never have and one look at my living quarters would tell you that. After my mother died, I kept everything the exact same, even though my best friend, Jade, told me I need to add my own touch. I mean, it is technically my own place now, but I felt like I was getting rid of my mother if I took her things from the home. I’m going to keep it just how it is.
“Willow! Where have you been?!”
Speaking of my best friend, here she comes now. She was the complete opposite of me in every sense of the word, yet I think that’s why I loved her as much as I did. Her lavender shaded pixie cut gleamed beneath the moonlight as her hourglass hips sashayed its way over to me. Thoughts of my mother came back to me again when I saw Jade’s bear arms. Mother always said she looked like a cup of strong tea, making us giggle every time she said it. It was her whiskey colored eyes beneath thick, sweeping eyelashes that always made me do a double look at her, though. My best friend is gorgeous and I envied her heart-shaped face and perfect body. Throw in the fact that she had a small gap between her two front teeth and she was the epitome of perfection.
“Where do you think I’ve been?” My reply was dripping in sarcasm and she didn’t miss it.
Rolling her eyes at me, she threw her arm around my neck and pulled me away from the portal gate. Tall torches with raging fires atop them lit our path towards the village as I inhaled the clean, fresh air of the forest. That was one thing I really didn’t miss about the human world once I was home. All that pollution and smog out there was enough to kill anyone!
Even though I loved my home, looking at it now made me wonder what there really was to love about it. Every single building looked like giant cardboard boxes stacked five or six high in some places and two or three in others. In the human world, I’ve read enough books to know people would consider this the dumps. Small to large rugs hung from laundry lines connecting from one home to the next. All kinds of smells and sounds came from each one, creating the atmosphere of the village. What made it worse, I think, is seeing the Coven’s gardens just beyond that loomed over the village in all its glory. The place had perfectly manicured lawns that led up to an enormous black and grey marble mansion the size of Buckingham Palace. I know the size from another one of those books I read in the human world; either way, the picture of human wealth and power over the little people were very evident in our realm and I don’t think anyone is aware of it.
Looking around, I saw several elderly witches standing in their normal social circles, catching snatches of their conversations as we passed. How do they not get sick of talking about the same things every single day? It was the same story every time I came home. One would argue about who was the strongest of them while the others taunted them to prove it. I really wished they’d just go out to Gargoyle Field and end the debate once and for all.
Small children hunched near the ground, practicing new spells they learned at the Coven’s academy and when we passed them, they grinned up at me with their toothy smiles.
“Miss Willow!” They cried, jumping up from their spots to swarm me. For some reason, children flocked to me like I was a candy store.
“Hey, girls,” I greeted, smiling warmly down at them as I tried to continue on towards my destination. The girls were fine, don’t get me wrong, but I really didn’t like anyone making a fuss over me. And as I looked over at my best friend, I caught her sticking her tongue out at them before I heard their rebuttals. “Jade!” I scolded her. “They’re little girls. What’s wrong with you?”
“Little girls, my ass. Just last week that one there,” she nodded to the redheaded girl before continuing, “cast a damn spell on me. I had warts on my face for a whole day!”
Giggling, I looked back and winked at the cute redheaded girl, remembering that day well. “They’re just having fun, Jade. You remember we were like that when we were their age. Actually, we were probably worse.”
She rolled her eyes again. “They’re still little brats.” Jade had never liked children, for reasons I couldn’t figure out why, but I never held it against her. Each to their own, right?
“Hey, where are you going?” I pointed toward the path that lead back to my place but Jade was trying to pull me away, heading for the heart of the village.
“You just got back. I wanted to hang with you for a bit. I saw that Blaise had some new concoctions and thought he’d give us a deal considering who you are.” She nibbled on her bottom lip nervously, stepping from one foot to the other as her eyes begged me to agree.
I hated when Jade tried to use my connections in the village for her gain. Just because my mother was a well known and adored witch among the realm, doesn’t mean she can use that whenever she likes. She might be my best friend, but I had my limits.
“Jade, I’m really tired and…”
Cutting me off, she grabbed my arm and pulled me away from my path home anyways.
“I promise we won’t be long and then you can go home and be a hermit like the eighty-year-old witch that you think you are.” If she weren’t my best friend, I’d lug her for that statement. I don’t act like an eighty-year-old hermit!
Before I could comment on her ridiculous statement, she was pulling me right up to Blaise’s pop up magic store. He was never in the same place twice and tracking him down could get tiring real fast. When he looked up and saw us approach, he gave Jade a dirty look before he turned a wide smile that reached his eyes to me. I had known Blaise since I was born and considered him an uncle I never had. Even though he wasn’t around much and I scarcely saw him anymore, he still meant the world to me. After my mother’s death, he made himself nearly impossible for me to find. It was only recently that he decided to open his pop up magic shop up again.
“Hello, Blaise,” I greeted warmly but my shy gaze looked anywhere but at him. “What’s the world on the streets?” It was something my mother used to always ask him and being near him now made me feel a bit closer to her as well.
His grin was back after a short absence in Jade’s direction. “Well, I was up selling near the Coven’s gardens yesterday and there’s talk of raising due’s as well as…” he trailed off, looking over at Jade with uncertainty. He never hid his true feelings towards people, a quality I quite admired compared to my timid, be polite always demeanor.
“Oh, just cough it up, old man. We don’t have all night,” Jade snapped, waving her hands around. “What did you hear?”
I watched his jaw clench as his eyes iced over with hatred towards her but he still said nothing. Whatever he had to say must be too delicate to be heard in the presence of Jade. It doesn’t help that she’s known as a loud-mouth around here, not able to keep a secret if her life depended on it. Except for mine. The girl was true to her word when she promised me she’d keep mine and she always had.
“Jade,” I began but she held her hand up to my face and peered over my shoulder. As soon as I looked over my shoulder, I saw three robed figures disappear behind one of the village shacks. And they weren’t just any robes. No, they were deep burgundy, tied together with a golden rope. They were from the Coven, but what in the world are they doing down here in the slumps?“Looks like you’re not going home anytime soon, hermit,” Jade whispered to me as she grabbed my arm and pulled me away from Blaise’s stand.