When I felt Jackie’s hand leave me, I glanced up. There, in front of the altar, was Rick, being held hostage by some guy. He looked important, his robes were different and his face was visible, but I had very little to go on beyond that. I stood and took a couple steps forward, but didn’t leave the forest like Jackie did. My attention kept bouncing between her, and Rick, and John. Why was no one doing anything? Why wasn’t any magic stopping this? Jackie fell to her knees and I knew something was wrong, but if it was affecting an experienced witch like her so bad, what was I going to do about it? I took another step forward and watched, waiting for something to happen.
Then something did happen. Rick threw himself and the other guy into the portal. I screamed. I didn’t know what else to do. I screamed and I felt tears on my cheeks and I saw Jackie reach out and John started to run forward to catch Rick, and suddenly I remembered that John breaks magic, and that portal is magic.
“No!” I yelled. I ran out of the woods toward John. “No, wait!” But it was too late. I don’t know if John heard me or not. I don’t know if he realized I was even talking to him. But he ran forward, and he reached out, and as soon as he got within a few yards of the altar the portal just exploded in a flash of light and collapsed in on itself. The flash was nearly blinding, and it took me a few moments of blinking and rubbing my eyes before I could see John, standing on the altar, holding his hand up as if feeling for the portal that was suddenly gone. I collapsed and everything just came out. All the fear, all the discomfort with the secrets I knew about magic, all the guilt of what I’d done or caused to happen today, and now Rick was gone into some other plane of existence with monsters and who knows what else, and as far as I knew, John’s attempt to catch him had severed any chance we had of helping. I just laid there, pulled my knees up to my chest, and wept.
I felt the magic stir in me. It was an awfully strange feeling, like I was suddenly aware of myself in a way I had never been before, and somehow that self included these roots that were dragging people below the surface of the earth. I knew it was me that did that, somehow, but I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I felt like I was going to throw up, and it was only Jackie calling me that broke my train of thought long enough to stop me from doing exactly that.
I asked Jackie if she was the one who cast that spell, because I had to hope that it was, but she was well aware it was me. I followed her as we found a safer place to watch, and leaned against a log there trying to still my gut. I killed people. There’s no way they weren’t dead. I couldn’t even imagine the weight of that before this moment, and now that I knew it, I didn’t think I could bear it. And I had watched John almost certainly kill someone! Trying to save me! I wanted to cry, but I just felt cold. Like something broke deep inside me and I couldn’t grasp quite what it was. I tried to tell Jackie about my concern, but before we could get very far into it she pointed me to the clearing and we both realized that the spell was being powered by all the blood being spilled. Whatever they were trying to do, they would accomplish, simply by letting us kill them in service to the ritual.
That’s when I couldn’t handle it any more and threw up over the other side of the log.
Everything felt dirty. What I had learned of magic so far was so broken, so twisted, so wrong. My cousin has a spirit sex slave to give him power. My boyfriend’s body is infused with enough spiritual energy to kill someone with a punch. There was someone on fire out there, and I had personally put two bodies into the ground. And who could I talk to about any of this? They all seemed so numb to it, and I didn’t think anyone else would really even believe me. I remembered what John has told me, after that Christmas party, about how he couldn’t exactly go to a therapist with this stuff. I offered to be the person who listened then. But what if no one I knew understood my position well enough for me to talk to them? What was I supposed to do then? I moaned as I lay across the log and felt more bile rising. Jackie pulled my hair away from my face and tried to offer some soothing words, I could tell from the tone, but I couldn’t focus enough to hear them.
I was starting to think I didn’t really want to be involved in this magic thing anymore.
I came back to my senses in the woods. I have no memory of what happened between the cabin and there, but I was already walking, with my hands tied behind my back and another rope tight around my waist that varied in tension as I moved. I glanced over and saw Rick, his eyes glazed over, stumbling along beside me. Behind him, and I assumed behind me as well, was a robed figure wearing a red mask. I could hear them, at least three voices, chanting from behind us, and I found that I couldn’t stop myself from continuing to walk forward. They didn’t seem bothered by my awareness and looking around, so I kept trying to take everything in. The rope at my waist was connected to the one on Rick’s, and his hands were clearly bound. I had to imagine that the knot on mine was the same as his, which didn’t look like one I’d find easy to work my way free from. I tried to say something, but my mouth wouldn’t open. I didn’t have anything physically blocking it, but trying to open it felt like I was pushing against something solid and unyielding. Unable to control my walk or my mouth, and sensing a lot of energy up ahead, I turned my attention to where we were going.
After passing a few more trees, I was able to see the clearing. We were coming from a different angle than we had when we’d discovered it, but it was unmistakable. And now there were probably a dozen people standing around the stone altar, swaying and chanting. On the stone altar itself, with just enough room in front of it for a person to pay across, was something that must have been a portal. My eyes were fixed on the portal. Beyond it was swirling dark energy, with occasional flashes like a dark sort of lightning. There were forms moving around and past the portal, dark blotches with no discernible shape or means of movement. I felt like I was staring at a reality that undergirded everything we knew but shared none of this world’s traits, as if this was the primordial chaos that the order of creation rode upon but never allowed to be released. There were shapes that looked almost like eyes, staring straight back at me and making my very soul feel cold and dry, and then gone again in the passing of a second.
I looked back to Rick and saw his eyes fluttering. I continued to watch as the cloudiness passed from his eyes and they suddenly grew wide and darted around. He was trying to talk, to stop himself from moving, just as I had. Finally, on apparently realizing the futility, he looked into my eyes. I could see the fear there, and was sure he could see mine just as clearly. Whatever was about to happen, we both knew we were powerless against it.
Then there was a rustling in the woods on the other side of the clearing. We both looked, and saw a shadow move in the darkness. The others didn’t seem to notice over the sound of their own voices continuing to chant. I mentally begged for that to be John and Jackie, and soon, I was affirmed by the form of John bursting out of the trees and throwing a punch to the first robed figure in his path. I could hear the crunch from the hit from where I was, and watched as the figure crumpled to the ground and blood started to spread on the grass.
“Oh God,” I thought, remembering the work I’d been doing trying to assess his strength. “I didn’t account for what adrenaline would do!”
The chanting continued as the figures turned to John, and I realized one of the ones who’d led us here was now pointing a gun at John. It looked like Rick’s gun. I realized it probably was Rick’s gun. I closed my eyes before I heard the first shot.
I took the dinner dishes to the kitchen and started washing them, mostly to watch John and Jackie as long as I could out the back window. I didn’t know what else to do. There they were, running off to some new supernatural danger, and Rick and I were just…here. Left behind. Waiting on the hope that they’d be back for us. Rick came into the kitchen with the last of the cups and then stood watching out the back door.
“I feel like a dog watching its humans go to work,” he finally said. I nodded.
“I get that.”
“You know they left us behind because nothing’s going to happen here.”
“We don’t know that, actually.”
“What, that that’s their reason, or that nothing’s going to happen?”
“Either. Both. I don’t know. I just.” I let my hands sink into the water and stared out the window at the dark trees. “I understand that we both need to be our own people and have our own lives, and the relationship is the place where those lives intersect, but. It’s hard sometimes to believe he’s really letting me in when he keeps this stuff so closed off from me. I want to trust him, to not assume he views me as outside of this stuff, but sometimes it really seems like he does.”
“Yeah. You know that’s the main reason I haven’t proposed to Jackie?”
“I didn’t! I just assumed you weren’t thinking about that yet.”
“I’ve been paying on a ring over at the Eastwood Mall, you know, far enough from town she wouldn’t just run into me there.”
“Don’t tell me that was the unavoidable appointment in Ohio you had to do before coming here!”
“The last payment was due. The ring’s in my bag, hidden. I’m not gonna ask her while we’re here, you know, this is for Matteson’s birthday. That seems rude.”
“Oh, Rick, that’s exciting! I’m sure—”
We were interrupted by the creak of the front door. We stopped, looked at each other, and then I grabbed a towel for my hands and he pulled his gun from the back of his pants.
“Are you really going to shoot someone?” I whispered.
“Last time we encountered the cult, I hesitated,” he whispered back. “It almost got me killed. I swore I wouldn’t hesitate again.”
We heard footsteps in the foyer. He raised his gun to point it at the door and waved be back. I stepped behind and past him, locking checking the lock on the back door as I passed it. I didn’t see anyone out there, but I was also pretty certain we’d locked the front door, and yet…
Thick black smoke started to seep into the room under the kitchen door. I sniffed the air but didn’t smell any fire, and when I looked to Rick to see if he noticed he was still fixed on the door itself. I pushed back against the wall and lowered myself to the floor as quietly as I could. From under the breakfast table I could see the smoke moving, almost like it was alive. It didn’t rise like regular smoke, and it didn’t dissipate. It just flowed, and twitched, as if looking around for something. Then it fixed on us and shot forward. I didn’t have time to react before it surrounded me and the world started to fade. I heard the door, and three gunshots, and then everything went dark.
“Oh HELL no,” Jackie exclaimed, stepping back away from the stone. I stared at the marking. Not here. Not this close to our cabin.
“The paint’s still tacky,” John said, poking the spiral. “This was just made. They’re active here now.” Shit.
“Maybe we should go,” I said. Everyone turned to me. “Look, it’s just, these folks are dangerous, and we’re trying to have a nice relaxing weekend, and I’m sorry if we can’t do that at the cabin but we could find some other place?”
“This cult, they kill people, Alice.”
“Yes! Yes, so we should call the police—”
“And they use magic and they bind elder gods to power their magic and they won’t stop, not until they’ve stripped the world of its magic.”
“Or someone stops them,” Rick said.
“Oh God, you want to stay, too?” I asked.
“I can’t just walk away this time.”
“You can and you should,” Jackie said, pointing at him. “You’re not equipped to deal with them and almost got yourself killed last time you came barging in!”
“And what, huh? Leave the rest of you here to deal with this!?”
“We have Alpha. If you and Alice go back to town—”
“I’m not doing that, Jackie! I’m not running away and leaving you to face these bastards without backup!”
“Not here,” John said. Everyone stopped. “We can talk about this somewhere else. We don’t know who or what is listening here.” We all begrudgingly agreed and headed back to the cabin. No one talked on the way back, I assume they were as lost in their thoughts as I was. The Brood was here. Now. I couldn’t wrap my head around what to do with this situation. On the flight to England, I’d heard so much about them, how John broke his leg fighting one of their bound gods, how they’d enslaved the minds of an entire town, how they’d been hunting people as far away as Pakistan. And now here they were, a brisk walk away from my family’s cabin, where we were expected to sleep at night, and the rest of them are just…trying to fight them. I didn’t want to be here, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave everyone else behind.
Back at the cabin, we gathered in the living room and sat uneasily for a few minutes. John finally broke the silence.
“What do we know so far?”
“You said they just made that spiral,” Rick said. “So they must have made it recently.”
“Because they intend to use it soon,” I said.
“Beltaine,” Jackie said. “They’re waiting for Beltaine.”
“And what’s that?” Rick asked.
“It’s May 1. The Celtic traditions believe it’s one of the four main liminal days of the year, when the veil between worlds is thin and magic is easier.”
“You haven’t mentioned Beltaine as important before.”
“I don’t practice the Celtic traditions. My holidays are different. But the fact remains that the veil only exists because people believe it exists. So if a large number of people believe the veil is thin on May 1, and they do—that calendar has been co-opted by a lot of European pagans whether they have ties to the Celts or not—then the veil is thin on May 1.”
“Happy birthday to me,” John muttered. I patted his knee.
“Do we know how to stop them?” I asked.
“It depends on what they’re doing. But I know a fair bit about countermagic and Matteson is what he is,” Jackie answered.
“And I have a gun,” Rick added. Jackie glared at him. “So overall we’re pretty much ready for whatever they have going on.”
“I thought you weren’t carrying that around anymore.”
“It isn’t that gun. I, uh…bought my own.” Rick scratched the back of his neck as Jackie threw her hands up and leaned back into her chair.
“I can’t believe you!”
“We run into dangerous shit, Jackie! And no one’s jumping to give me any other way to deal with it!”
“And I don’t know how to control my magic, but I have it on good authority that it’ll be available if I really need it,” I said.
“No, Alice,” John said, “you, at least, should go back. I don’t want you in any danger.”
“Oh it’s too late for that! You think I can be safe here, ever, if we let them take this place? This is practically my second home, I’m not just leaving it, I’m not.”
“You didn’t sound so certain in the clearing,” Rick said.
“I had some time to think about it.” There was another long pause.
“Okay. If we’re all in,” John said, “we need to sort out a plan.”
8 December 2006
It was a few more days before Rick and Mandy could come down. They probably would have come faster, but I didn’t want to sound crazy over the phone and decided to hold back on explaining the situation until they got here. They were excited to see the new house, and we had arranged for them to stay the night with movies and snacks like when we were teens, before she moved north. I had expressed some interest in meeting Rick’s girlfriend, who Mandy said was a witch, but she wasn’t available.
I gave them the tour of the house when they arrived, since they hadn’t seen it yet, and we talked about the layout and the beautiful tub upstairs and the railing on the stairs. I explained that it had been built sometime early in the 1900s, on the site of a previous house that had been torn down or something. The records were kind of murky once we were looking that far back. I had ordered delivery, and when it arrived we all gathered around the living room and caught up on what’s been new with them and how school was going, and it was a really nice time that I wasn’t sure whether or not to interrupt. But I knew Rick liked talking about this stuff, so I slipped in a question about whether or not he had seen anything weird lately. He turned off most of the lights and told some extravagant story about a place called The Devil’s Church where he insisted he and a couple of his friends nearly died. Mandy rolled her eyes every time he said that, which made me laugh, which made him insist that we had no idea how lucky we really were to have him still around.
“Well,” I said once he was done, “what’s it like being such a fearless expert of the unknown?” Mandy shoved me and laughed, but he took a heroic pose.
“It’s all part of the job, ladies.” We threw fries at him until he sat down.
“Okay, okay, so tell me honestly. If there was a ghost here, for instance, how would you find out?”
“Ah, well, about that—”
“He wouldn’t!” Mandy cried out. “Don’t let my cousin fool you, he’s just along for the ride. It’s that Matteson that’s supposed to see ghosts.”
“Oh, really?” I asked. “You never mentioned that!”
“Well, I did say he was there, you know,” Rick offered.
“There, he says. It was Matteson’s idea. Well, that night, anyway, Tony convinced us to try going before,” Mandy said.
“Us? Did you go to this Devil’s Church?” I asked, turning to her.
“Well of course I did. I was with Matteson when Rick called to invite him.” Rick cleared his throat and Mandy rolled her eyes again. “Rick doesn’t like me talking about that. But we went to the Devil’s Church, and someone freaked out, and we left. Nothing happened. Maybe nothing happened when they went back, either, who knows?”
“I know,” Rick said, “and it definitely was not that nothing happened.”
“So why haven’t I heard more about this guy in your stories?” I needled, reaching over to poke at Rick’s stomach. He swatted me away with a laugh.
“He doesn’t like not being the center of the story,” Mandy said, “you know how he is. But oh! You should meet Matteson. I think you two would get along great, he’s a bookworm like you. But he’s in my band, too.”
“At any rate, I’m always excited to meet your friends, even if it does sound like you just made him up based on the town I moved into.”
“His name’s John,” Rick explained, “his ex started calling him Matteson, that’s his last name, because it set him apart from the other Johns in town, and I guess it just stuck.”
“Why are you asking so much about ghost stories anyway, Alice?” Mandy leaned forward, staring into my eyes. “You don’t normally ask about ghost stories.”
“Oh, no,” I waved the question off, “no reason, really.”
“Is it this old house?” She gasped in mock drama. “Are there ghosts in this old house?”
“Now, Mandy, come on, I just—” She jumped up and walked into the hall between the living room and the stairs, calling for the ghosts. I started to shake, and Rick must have noticed because he sidled over and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, Alice, you alright?” he asked. I nodded and gave him a fake smile, and then we heard that scream again. It was like a man in agony, echoing from somewhere far away, but loud. Loud like it was inside the house. Mandy screamed, too, and ran back into the living room. We all huddled on the couch, peeking over the back of it for something to follow her into the room, but the sound ended and nothing new happened.
“Shit,” Mandy whispered. “There are ghosts in this old house.”
“I’ll get you Matteson’s number.” I nodded, and we all resumed watching for a little while, before they started asking me about it. I confessed that there was no evidence I was in actual danger, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable with this going on, and we decided to turn some comedies to calm down.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.