A Wyrd Precinct Story
By Hillaire Walters
Splinter Reign (Carte Blanche Confidential #1)
Copyright 2016 by Hillaire Walters
All rights reserved. Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.
This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual places or actual events is purely coincidental.
The Witch Splinter King has returned!
The thought crept into the mind of Miranda d’Apophis while she watched Mage Abigail Arley-Tolmach of the South Tower race up the spine of the tyrannosaurus Rex.
As the blonde woman neared the top of the creature’s head, the runic tattoos on her gauntlet covered arms shone with a golden glow. Suddenly, a series of cards with shimmering symbols appeared from the folds of her clothing and whirled around her. Plucking one of the cards out of the air, Abigail artfully leapt off the T-Rex’s head. She flipped in mid-air and then hurled the magical card into the open mouth of the great lizard. The blonde mage landed on the ground with a satisfied smile on her face as a large, malformed, spiked club materialized in the mouth of the tyrannosaurus, killing it instantly.
Unfortunately, the thundering thud of the felled beast had attracted a pack of red-eyed raptors with drooling fanged maws toward Abigail.
Summoning her powers again, the tattoos running down the middle of the mage’s pale forehead glowed as she spun in place, her long royal blue sash whirling around her. As she twirled on the toes of her blue dragon-scaled boots, she grasped a strip of mystically embroidered ribbon from her sash and tossed it in the air. The sparkling ribbon hovered eerily over the whirling mage and the encroaching raptors.
Quickly, Abigail shifted from her spin to a series of dance steps that caused a series of symbols along her body to glow through her grey-black trousers and tunic vest, which she wore over a short-sleeved red undershirt. The hovering ribbon then exploded into a multitude of twisted phantom pixie daggers that rained down on the raptors, driving them back from the dancing woman.
And towards me, Miranda thought as her gaze drifted toward Abigail’s husband, the young master of the Gardens, Sorcerer Rory Tolmach of the West Tower.
The pale-skinned man stood in the midst of a stampeding gallimimus herd, busily trying to protect his nephew, young Callum Arley. He threw three potion vials that he had released from the winking green-scaled armour, which coated most of his left arm and covered his right arm up to the lower half of his face. A thick black goop spilled out from the broken vials and pooled around his brown boots, weaving together to form an arcane circle.
A beautiful note filled the air just as Rory’s golden voice appeared at his throat in the form of a small ball of light. He sang a spell and the black mystical circle bubbled, dissolving the beasts caught within it while leaving their tell-tale mechanical skeletons. A flood of energy roared up, flowing through Rory’s boots, dark green trousers, and blue short-sleeved tunic.
Miranda felt a tingle as arcane power, nearly visible to the eye, fountained out of the strapping man’s bald head into her veins.
For his part, Callum wielded a homemade ebony staff and cast bolts of lightning at the creatures surrounding himself and his uncle. There were deep cuts along the boy’s dark trousers and a claw mark in his dark laced boots. Miranda would normally have been proud of the nine-year-old boy who still wore the white hooded tunic and royal blue sailor neckerchief of an uninitiated novice, but this fight rattled her more than it should have.
The Witch Splinter King is here, Miranda’s mind said. But Mason Kaliroth is dead.
She watched the bleeding gashes on the boy’s legs close themselves, calling her attention to Rory’s sister, Wizard Nerys Tolmach of the North Tower.
The black-clad woman sat aloft in the air at the far end of the field by a nest of young brachiosauruses, balanced perfectly on her long, prehensile, black locks of hair. Sweat glinted off her forehead and the silver circlet on her brow as she raised her own staff in the air with a black gloved hand. It was a proper staff of oak wood, which had never been cut with any metal or stone but was nevertheless engraved with sigils and adorned by gems formed from the elements themselves.
With several sigils on her staff glinting, Nerys brought the staff down and struck the ground beneath her with a force like thunder. The ends of the long tunic that she wore over her black trousers fluttered in an unfelt breeze. Several strands of her hair lifted and formed a web of runes around her head. Pillars of earth shot into the air around her and energy played between them. The silver bands over her gloves and black boots shimmered. Waves of power flowed outward from the woman. An ache in Miranda’s side eased as the power struck her.
Miranda realized that in her distress she had let one of charging triceratopses scrap her. There was a cut in her navy band-collared jacket and another had gone through her navy trousers. There was a small gash on her right side where the jacket was fastened. There was a small dent in the gold plates she wore over her high black boots. Acceptable causalities.
Focusing her energy into the swirling cloud of sand protecting her, Miranda made a slashing motion. The sand formed symbols in the air and then a large blade materialized, slitting the throat of the offending beast and a few of its comrades before disappearing.
I need to concentrate, Miranda ordered herself, stilling her mind with deep breaths.
The parade of giant lizards was now fully trained on her. Everything depended on her now.
This was all standard combat procedure for high-level threats among the witches of the Phorcysae Citadel. The dancing tattooed mages of the South Tower unleashed a barrage of spells from their personal library of magic. The singing sorcerers of the West Tower used their potions to dredge up arcane forces for their fellow combatants. The long-haired, staff wielding wizards of the North Tower channeled their spells and resources into the healing arts. Meanwhile, each group was trained to corral the bulk of the enemy’s might at the familiar tamers, the enchanters of the East Tower.
Miranda brought her arms protectively before her body and there was a slight clink as her golden bracers met. She summoned a large shield from the sand whirling around her, just in time as a stegosaurus took a swipe at her with its spiked tail.
I want these abominations out of my sight, she resolved, forcing the remnants of her unease into her power.
Her blood boiled under her olive skin. Swiftly, she cast a spell by making an artful mix of mundane and mystical hand gestures. The sand formed symbols in the air. Then it coalesced into its true form, a long serpentine basilisk. Her familiar.
Her fingers crafted another spell and the scales of the giant snake shifted like sand into runic symbols, while coiling swiftly around her. Miranda made a final symbol and the basilisk rear its head, looming over her. The serpent’s back flared into a hood, displaying the sacred eye hidden on the underside of is belly.
A torrent of energy lashed out from the basilisk’s eye and at once each of the dinosaur invaders were encased in shrieking crystal prisons. Energy lashed the immobilized monstrosities as they peered at her with blood-coloured eyes.
The menace was over. With a silent command, her basilisk retreated to its resting form as a small hourglass ornament belted around Miranda’s waist by a gold thread.
“You couldn’t have found a quieter way to handle the beasts?” Rory asked. The ball of light at Rory’s throat flashed as he spoke. The man winced at the continuous ear piercing wails coming from the crystals.
As he strode towards Miranda with his wife in tow, she noticed that Abigail’s tattoos had vanished.
“The crystal will hold them and destroy the foul energy that powers these beasts, along with their unnatural bodies,” Miranda said distractedly, running her hand through her black hair. She was sweating profusely. Her breathing was uneven. These weren’t by-products of physical exertion. She was more frazzled than she’d thought. “Why did you call me here? This could have been handled by the guards.”
“Yes,” Rory spoke softly, letting his voice ball dim slightly. “But, you have history with these matters.” Miranda could only sigh at that. It was true. It was that very history why she didn’t want to be here.
Abigail looked more distressed than Miranda felt. Then again, this was a part of both of their past.
There was cheering coming towards them. Both carrying staves in their hands, Callum and Nerys celebrated their victory.
Hubris, Miranda thought.
It was one man’s hubris that led to the creation of the monstrosities they had just fought. The fiends were a foul blend of cloning technology, mechanics, and demonic energy. They’d once stormed England in an attempt to rid the nation of its witches.
Now, they’ve breached the citadel, she thought.
“Tell him to destroy that thing,” Miranda spoke, leveling her gaze at the staff in Callum’s hand.
“What?” Abigail asked in disbelief, shaking herself from her gloom. She turned to follow Miranda’s gaze and then her head snapped back in surprise. “No, Miranda. Please. Callum was so proud of making that staff.”
“If he wants a staff, then tell him to initiate with the North Tower and become a wizard,” Miranda angrily retorted, casting a withering gaze at Abigail. “You don’t have to be here and neither does he. This is not a school. The Phorcysae Citadel is for witches who wish to enlist their magic in service of our matriarchs and our society at large. If he just wants to be a regular spell caster who plays with the elements, then he should join the other witches in Avalon and learn a useful trade.”
Abigail shrank in her rebuke and Rory bristled. For her part, Miranda recoiled. She hadn’t meant to be so angry.
“I’m sorry,” Miranda said with a sigh. “I’m just a little on edge.”
“Because of him?” Rory asked pointedly, looking into Miranda’s brown eyes.
“You don’t think it’s him, do you?” Abigail asked, shaking.
“It might be,” Miranda answered cautiously.
“It can’t be,” Abigail wailed, shaking harder. “Miranda, that monster kidnapped me and held me for months while he tried to resurrect the inquisition. He has to be dead. Please tell me he’s dead!”
The sound of wood being thrown to the ground rang out over the wailing crystals and Abigail’s pleas.
“Callum!” Nerys cried behind them. She shot a disapproving look at the trio before racing after her nephew on her prehensile hair.
“Oh no,” Abigail whispered with grief. “We finally just started to get along.”
“He’ll come around,” Rory said softly, giving Abigail a hug.
“Sure,” The blonde woman responded unconvinced. “I’ve only killed his mother and spent his entire young life disparaging his father. I have to go talk to him.” Abigail walked after Nerys and Callum with her head hung low.
“Maybe I should speak with the boy as well,” Miranda offered. “This was my fault.”
“I think your services are needed elsewhere,” Rory said, gesturing across the field to the coastline.
There was a young man in a black suit gazing out at the unmoving sea of glass and white pearl that lay before him. His long red hair was held in a single braid that trailed down to the ground where it ended in a white mess of hair that was wrapped around a small curved blade.
“Go find out what the servant to the gods wants,” Rory whispered. His voice appeared as a small ball in her ear while he bent to pick up his nephew’s staff. “I have to call the weather chanters to send purifying rain on the meadow island.”
Miranda simply nodded and marched over to the young man.
“What is your business here, avatar of Death?” Miranda asked in a harsh, commanding tone when she approached the young man.
“I thought that the servants of Death were the most welcome of my kind among you witches,” the young man spoke with a smile. There was an unsettling amount of mischief in his red eyes.
“Being the most welcome, doesn’t actually make you welcome,” Miranda spoke pointedly. “Death doesn’t need a manservant.”
“No, but Death does need warriors,” the young man countered. “And someone here has violated the natural order of life and death.”
Surprising herself, Miranda burst into laughter. “We have entire schools dedicated to the necromantic arts and mediumship. Our own matriarchs have defied the call of Death for centuries. You have to be far more specific.”
The young man’s eyes grew cold as he looked away from her and cast his eyes back on the unmoving sea, known as the Cecaemue Bridge. Large black tentacles covered in white eyes darted in and out of the sea, and through the dense fog that lay above the waves. The guards of the West Tower, strongly built men and women donned in a similar uniform to Rory, walked into the still waves and sank beneath them. A moment later, they reappeared bare-chested and slender with metal-scaled tails. They swam and played like dolphins, splashing through the solid surface. Then they sank quietly away.
“Death is coming here,” the young man whispered.
“And why were you the only one Death whispered to?” Miranda asked. A chill raced up her spine.
“I have a connection here,” the avatar spoke with a voice filled with sorrow. His gaze remained on the sea.
Miranda followed his sight and saw the false head of the Cecaemue poking out of the sea. It appeared as a hauntingly beautiful, pale-haired, young woman with longing grey eyes that stood in the middle of the sea. According to legend, below the surface, the Cecaemue had a terrifyingly large head in the shape of a rose, with slimy folds and many poisonous fangs. The massive black pearl tentacles that swam through the still sea were the beast’s grasping appendages.
The legends never spoke of where the creature came from, Miranda noted, looking at the man standing beside her.
“Tell Death the witches command him to wait,” Miranda spoke harshly to the avatar. She turned away from the man, not waiting for a reply. She truly didn’t want one.
Her urgent motions toward the floral-lined trails weren’t the pressing need to file the report she needed to write regarding the afternoon’s encounters. They were simply to separate herself from the ill-omen chilling her to her bones.
He has to be dead. Please tell me he’s dead! Abigail’s words echoed in Miranda’s mind.
Of course, he was dead. She answered within herself.
She’d killed Mason Kaliroth herself.
As a series of cries filled the air and the scent of holy rain wafted into her nose, Miranda found herself at the Central Hecatian Grove. Formed by a small group of alder trees, it was the only grove in the citadel with the five stone archways, portals, which could be used to traverse the citadel. Each archway held a guardian statue that protected the portals. The statues were each based on a sprijurling, creatures conjured into being as a result of various spells and now lived among the witches.
There was the Golden Aethonra for the East Tower portal. It was a massive reptilian bird made of white marble and light with a long peaked crown and a beak that resembled a broadsword blade. The feathers on its wings and tail were pure gold. The three-eyed Azure Eurdyel that protected the South Tower portal was a blue-scaled wyvern with one eye on its forehead and one eye on each of its wings. Its tail was an oak tree branch bearing a single acorn. The North Tower guardian was the Obsidian Nemyniron, a six-legged, serpentine, shadow cat made of black stone and glass with silver coins for eyes. The two-headed Silver Nocuttrus, a scaled hound with no eyes, was sculpted to forever dance off the edge of a cliff in the archway to the Ceridwen Tower for the Uninitiated. And finally, there was the spritely Emerald Panmenjukai. The little faceless satyr-like being whose horns grew into trees that each bore masks guarded the portal to the various other wild areas of the citadel.
Unlike the rest of the tower archways, the Pearl Cecaemue Bridge acted as the portal to the mysterious West Tower, with the fierce Cecaemue acting as its guardian.
A heady feeling took Miranda as she gazed at the Golden Aethonra gate. She was standing on an island in an ever-shifting maze-like world, which was formed by folding space in on itself. It was populated by powerful witches, spirits, and demons. Its only entrance was the Triviai Lighthouse on the other side of the Cecaemue Bridge, which was guarded by monsters.
She lived in a magical fortress.
And yet, Miranda thought to herself. Death had once again come lurking around her home.
You let an uncontrolled conjure run wild in the streets! Do you know how much damage you’ve caused?
If you’d told us about your magic or initiated with the East Tower, we could have trained you to have the willpower to control it.
You’re sorry! Being sorry won’t undo the Witch Splinter Massacre of Manchester!
I’m so sorry.
It had been over ten years since that interrogation. Ten years since Abigail was forced to stand before the elders of the citadel and answer for Libby’s actions. And her only reply to each inquiry and assault was a paltry apology.
This was bound to happen eventually, Lord Arley had spat at the hearing. As usual, her ‘father’ hadn’t come to her defense, only to rebuke her. The girl was sired by a pixie. Her magic and nature are bound to their unruly mischief.
And with that, ten years ago, the Arley family’s shame had been revealed. Lady Arley, Abigail’s mother, had engaged in an illicit affair with one of the family’s gardeners for several years and had produced a daughter as a result.
Apparently, the only saving grace for the Arley family was that they had a child with broken spellcasting abilities, rather than the obvious animal features of the faeries. Even a minor noble family from Wales could suffer a witch with misshapen magic in their home, especially due to the influence of the mystical aristocracy, but not a misshapen freak with fur or a tail. Or wings. That would be too great a scandal.
But after the trial, ‘Naughty’ Abbey was exposed to the world and all she could do was say, I’m sorry.
Ten years, Abigail sighed, while she wiped the steam off her bathroom mirror and then plopped herself down at the vanity. After this afternoon, she couldn’t help reminiscing. And now, it’s all coming back again.
She frowned slightly as she caught the sight of her reflection. A defeated woman gazed back at her from the mirror.
Since the incident with Libby and Mason Kaliroth in Manchester, Abigail had worked hard to rebuild her standing in the citadel and her own family.
But they love you now and they’re worried about you, Abigail, she thought to herself. A confusing mix of emotions overtook her while she stared at the sad reflected blue eyes. I just wish they didn’t care so damn much about me sometimes.
Rory was sweet, but so disarmingly patronizing in his concern and his constant requests for them to talk after the attack in the gardens. Frankly, so were Miranda and Nerys. They’d all made heartfelt gestures to her, remembering only that Abigail was a kidnapped victim. For her own peace of mind, she didn’t need that right now. She didn’t want to be cuddled.
What she needed, what she’d needed years ago, was the courage to explain. She just wished she knew where to begin.
Things have gone so wrong. This isn’t how it should have turned out.
Libby would have known what to say, Abigail thought. Her sister had always been the stronger of the two.
They had been exact mirrors of each other, with the same hair, face, and eyes. And yet, therein lay the crux of the matter. They mirrored each other. Where one moved left, the other moved right. In every way that Abigail was meek, Libby was wild and rebellious.
It hadn’t surprised Abigail that as she was studying to earn her mage’s title, Libby had run off to London and fallen in love with a megalomaniac. Nor had it surprised her that Libby had orchestrated Abigail’s kidnapping, in order to lend Mason her magical talents. It had surprised her that Libby assisted in the deaths of seventeen people. If Abigail had to be honest, her sister was a monster in her own right.
Then again, so was Abigail.
All in all, she loved her sister. Only, her sister never loved her back.
Abigail sighed again. If she could only see me now, she thought.
I’d say there is no way you can hang out with the gang looking like that.
She giggled at the thought and then wheeled around in shock when she heard another giggle echo her own. Her eyes widened in shock at the sight before her.
The mist from her shower hadn’t cleared. Instead, it had shaped itself into parodies of her thoughts and memories. An obscene tableau of misty caricatures chased each other around her shower and toilet. A giggling ghostly image of Libby stood in the centre of it all. A misshapen image of how Abigail had remembered her.
She was doing this lately. Since the first holy day of harvest, she conjured things when she lost concentration.
Shaking her head, Abigail looked around herself and found the sigil she had absentmindedly written in the condensation around her makeup kit. With a swipe, she erased the symbol and dispelled her errant magic. She watched blankly as the visions formed from mist slowly dissipated. The last image was of Abigail’s brother, Gawain, holding his golden-haired daughter, Tarian.
That was another issue she needed to worry about. Something was happening to her and her niece.
I don’t want to think about this anymore.
Ruefully, she shook her head again and tried to banish away her negative thoughts. This wasn’t the time for ancient history. Her friends had planned a long awaited girls’ night. They’d all been so busy lately. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d hung out together. She couldn’t let them down now, especially over something that Rory could only officially report as a minor issue.
After all, demons are always trying to attack the citadel and their kind trafficked in torment and personal pain. There were whole schools dedicated to understanding their ways and countering their effects, which they’d done hours ago.
Everything’s fine. There’s no reason for all of this worry.
A smile crept across her face.
Just the thought of being with her old friends had shifted her mood. She wanted to have fun tonight and feel sexy. Tomorrow, she’d find the words to talk to her husband and friends. She’d have the long awkward conversation that she should have had years ago. Maybe, she’d ask Salome for advice. The older woman had been a great listening ear over the years and was the only living person whom Abigail had told the truth. After that was all over, then she’d talk to her brother.
Something is coming.
Sighing, and mentally kicking herself for not doing this before, Abigail tapped the crystal ball on the bathroom counter to turn it on. Television for the modern witch, they called it. She then collapsed into laughter when one of her favourite music videos played. She stopped as a free promotional code flashed on the screen. It was a spell, specifically a conjuration and transfiguration spell, to give the caster a look similar to the singer’s appearance.
Should I? Abigail thought. The look was much more fun than the outfit she’d picked out for the evening.
Conjuring, especially using mirrors, was her natural spellcasting ability and it was also the most broken of her skills. While she’d learned to adapt spells in order to perform her daily tasks and be an effective member of the South Tower, but she still couldn’t conjure something correctly.
Oh, why not? A little voice urged in her head while glowing tattoos appeared along her arms and in the centre of her forehead. Then she started to write the spell on the vanity mirror. It’s just a small spell.
Giggling, Abigail tossed the towel she had wrapped around herself into the air. It glowed and crackled as her magic created a series of atomic reactions, altering the material before it wrapped itself around her body again. Her skin tingled as the magic changed her as well.
Perfume, Abigail silently commanded the power while she twirled in a sea of transfiguring light. The spell was already collecting some of the air around her and forming an intoxicating fragrance.
Volumize the hair.
Makeup to make them blush.
Then suddenly, the spell ended.
The mystic light and her magic tattoos disappeared. She tapped off the crystal ball and admired herself in the mirror, then frowned slightly. The spell had worked in the broadest sense. Abigail was wearing a beautiful red dress with red high heels and painted for a night out. Only, her magic had altered the design.
The simple red dress was now based on artful asymmetrical cuts with garish gold jewelry. There was one long sleeve where there shouldn’t be any. The heels now spiraled and curled. Her hair and makeup were dramatic and daring, instead of being understatedly lovely.
Simply put, Abigail had intended for a pretty look to go out for karaoke and instead had created an haute couture ensemble fit for a runway.
It could’ve been worse and Libby would be proud, she resolved, shrugging it off. If nothing else, her sister always knew how to have fun. I miss her. In some ways, she was the best between the two of us.
Then why did you kill me?
Startled, Abigail paused in the empty bathroom and looked around herself. She listened to her own heart beating wildly in her chest for as long as it took to convince her that the other voice was just a figment of her imagination. Then she walked out of the bathroom. Swiftly collected her purse along the way, she rushed toward the portal archway in her flat before she could stop herself.
A dizzying moment later, Abigail was stepping out into the stone medieval courtyard within the tower of the uninitiated. Amid blazing fountains that issued humming energy runes and heavily inscribed trees that bore various mystic tomes, dozens of children and their live-in teachers milled about around her.
Some children played various games by using black crystals to pilot their characters through miniature worlds that they’d summoned. Several were seated on benches before crystal balls, watching the latest TV show episodes or movies while snacking. Everywhere the children were accompanied by the artificial familiars created by the East Tower, known as the wispirrei. Some rode their flying elemental and spectral pets around, chasing their friends through the air.
“I hate them both!” Callum’s loud cry called her attention. Uneasy, Abigail sighed and made her way toward the alcove where the boy was nestled with Nerys. Evidently, their talk wasn’t going well. “They killed my parents!”
“Let her handle this,” a small golden ball of light said to her as it approached. Rory’s voice.
Abigail found her husband hiding by the entrance to the alcove trying not to be seen by the boy, but still in a position to observe. He placed a finger to his covered mouth and swiftly gestured for her to move toward him. His strong arms wrapped around Abigail when she joined him.
“He’s been fuming for hours, but it’s not really about you, Abbey,” Rory explained. “I think he’ll be fine given time.”
Nodding, Abigail just nuzzled against Rory’s chest and felt the cold stone of the wall they were pressed against.
It was easy to forget in the citadel that the dying light illuminating their skin wasn’t sunlight, but the light from the many Helyolena flowers on the high ceiling as the sun petals gave way to the night petals. It was easy to forget in a large space like this courtyard that there were no real outsides within the towers or the home of the uninitiated.
They lived in pockets of open concept rooms linked by portals. Some rooms were large enough to house several sports arenas with space for marketplaces and even parks. But, if you travelled far enough in either direction, you would eventually run into a wall. If you travelled high enough, there would be a ceiling with cloudlike sylph sprijurlings playing among the Helyolena blossoms on their vines. It was all done to alleviate the claustrophobic feeling that they were trapped and entombed.
As Abigail sighed against the stone and her husband’s embrace, she realized she needed the feeling that there was stone all around her, protecting her.
“Callum,” Nerys said gently to her nephew.
“No, I get it,” Callum angrily interrupted her. “Everyone’s been saying it my whole life. My mum was just some insane conjure that Aunt Abbey created and my dad was super evil. And somehow, they made me.”
“Sweetie,” Nerys said in a voice pregnant with deep emotion after the crying boy had quieted to just hoarse angry breathing. She was visibly shaking. “We’ve talked about this. Do you remember what I told you about your Uncle Liam?”
“It’s not the same,” Callum mumbled back.
“It is,” Nerys responded. “Our family history is complicated. I’m not going to pretend this is an easy thing to grow up with or that the pain will go away because it won’t. You may never have known your parents, but they were still your parents. Just remember, nothing they’ve done reflects on you or how we feel about you. I just hope that someday you can understand the decision your Aunt Abbey and Miranda had to make. The same decision your Uncle Rory and I had to make. I need to know that you understand that we did the right thing. Because we had to do the right thing, Callum.”
As he listened to her plea, the boy’s breathing shifted from angry sniffles to contemplative silence. Finally, when he seemed to realize that she was waiting for a reply, he nodded slowly.
“I want you to know something,” Nerys continued with a bit of sorrow in her voice. “No matter what you think of me, Aunt Abbey, Uncle Rory or your parents or what we’ve done, we’re still family. Despite everything else, we have to try to love and forgive each other, even when we don’t or can’t like each other. We have to try.”
“I still love you, Aunt Nerys,” Callum said in a small voice.
“I love you too, sweetie,” Nerys said with a chuckle, wiping a tear that fell on her cheek.
“And I love Uncle Rory,” he continued and then paused, before adding, “and Aunt Abbey. I still hate Miranda, though. She wants me to destroy my staff.”
“Oh, I agree with her on that,” Nerys said with a bit of humour in her voice, clearly happy about the subject change.
“What!” Callum shrieked.
“Look, Callum,” Nerys said. “You didn’t enlist for early initiation, but you’re turning ten soon and you’ll have to initiate into one of the towers or leave the citadel. We don’t make exceptions like we used to. By this time next year, you will be expected to have already gotten your first familiar or preliminary tattoos, if you were initiating into the East or South Towers respectively. Or have had your voice detached from your body, if you were thinking of joining the West Tower. You’ll also be expected to know the basics of your chosen casting technique.”
“Spellcasting is a language, sweetie,” She continued. “It doesn’t matter what technique you learn. You can learn the Aethonra Gale Chorus, the Eurdyel Flame Tempo, the Cecaemue Tidal Verse, and the Nemyniron Woodland Melody or one of the non-citadel techniques. The key is that you’ll have to learn at least one of them or you will be functionally and mystically illiterate. You can only get so far by using someone else’s spells.”
“Besides, making that staff proves you have talent,” Nerys gently soothed, while reaching out to hug her nephew. “You could join the North Tower and be a wizard like me. Think about it, what are you going to do if a real disaster comes to the citadel or if the Great Sin rises out of the West Tower? You can’t just hurl lightning at everything.”
“Would I have to grow out my hair?” the boy whined, running his fingers through his golden brown locks. “I don’t want to look like a girl.”
“You wouldn’t look like a girl,” Nerys answered with a playful grimace. “You’d be a barbarian, especially if you grow out a wild bushy beard.” She tickled his chin and the pair laughed.
“Plus, the long hair is useful,” Nerys continued, lifting her hair to form a web of runes around her head. “While my staff directs the flow of my power, my long hair shapes my spells. Together, they make a tune that the universe dances to, which allows me to do this with lightning.”
With a smile, Nerys dramatically slammed her staff on the ground. A bolt of lightning shot out of her staff and formed a cloud above her head. Dazzled, Callum looked up and chocolates rained down on him from the cloud. Smiling, he collected a few in his hands and bit into one. The boy jolted as static electricity shot into his body and made his hair stand on end.
“Fun, huh?” Nerys said with a wide grin. Echoing her grin, Callum nodded and gathered more chocolates. “I could teach you more spells if you’d like?”
“Okay,” Callum answered, before shoving a handful of chocolates into his mouth. He then jumped as more electricity shot through him.
“Good,” Nerys said with a laugh. “Now go share those with your friends, alright? We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Sure. Thanks, Aunt Nerys,” Callum mumbled with his mouth now full of chocolate. He gave the woman a hug and scampered away with a trail of chocolate in his wake. He hadn’t seen his other aunt or uncle hiding in their vantage point.
“You can come out now,” Nerys urged while dismissing her cloud.
“Thanks, Nerys,” Rory said as he and Abigail came out of hiding. His golden voice returned to its place at his throat.
“It was nothing,” Nerys shrugged. She used her hair to gather the chocolate on the ground.
“No, it means the world to me,” Abigail said gently. She watched as Nerys did a double-take.
“Now, that’s a look,” Nerys assessed. Her brown eyes looked Abigail up and down.
“I just wanted to play dress up,” Abigail added shyly. A frown crossed her face as she assessed Nerys’ outfit in return. “You’re not coming to karaoke?”
“No,” Nerys sighed, rubbing her forehead. “I’ve got too much to do and I’ve also just promised Callum that I’d be teaching him North Tower magic. Anyway, you look great. Send my love to the others for me.” She stretched out her arms to pull her sister-in-law into a hug.
Stay away from my son!
Both women jerked to a stop and pulled away from one another. Abigail stared into a pair of puzzled brown eyes, while Nerys looked into her blue ones with identical puzzlement and fear. An unspoken question hung in the air, but neither of them seemed willing to voice it.
“I should go,” Nerys forced herself to say and swiftly left, walking away on her prehensile hair.
“I should go too,” Abigail hurriedly said to her husband before he could question what had transpired between the women. She forced herself to kiss the man on the forehead and then sped out of the courtyard.
A mix of emotion filled her when Rory’s voice appeared at her ear and whispered, “I love you.”
“So, who wants to go next?” Amalia Nachtvogel piped up, trying to lighten the mood.
Her efforts only earned her sympathetic glances from Sophie Obia and Rowan Darc as well as a weary half-hearted smirk from Abigail. Linh Sprigganwood just shot her a wary look from across the table, before returning to her drink. Music played in the uncomfortable silence. Another song the women didn’t have the heart to sing.
Karaoke night had been a bust. It had been like this since they reached their private room within the club.
“Now, come on,” Rowan chimed in. “We worked hard for this time off. Let’s have some enthusiasm.”
“Yeah, Rowan, because taking time off beautification duty in the citadel really compares to overseeing Avalon’s orphan problem,” Linh sneered. Rowan exchanged glances with Amalia and Sophie.
“Linh,” Sophie began calmly.
“It’s ok,” Abigail offered. “Sometimes, we forget that working in the citadel isn’t the harsh ordeal we make it out to be. I mean, being behind in translating an ancient journal doesn’t compare to managing the youth of Avalon.”
“You still haven’t translated that journal?” Rowan asked, giving Abigail a sympathetic look. Abigail shook her head ruefully, kicking herself for bringing up the subject.
“Maybe you should slow down on the drinks?” Amalia pointedly suggested to Linh.
“Why is someone else going to cause another disaster and cause more kids to flood our streets?” Linh shot back, her words slurring.
“Linh!” Sophie snapped, before looking at Abigail.
“I didn’t mean her. She knows I don’t mean her. No one would blame Abbey for this. I mean, it was always going to happen anyway,” Linh protested angrily. Her dark eyes flashed around the room at each of her friends. Then with a sobering deep breath, Linh calmed herself.
“Look, guys, I’m sorry. I’m just tired,” Linh said quietly. “I get why the matriarchs did what they did. I get the prophesy warning that something terrible is coming from within our ranks. I get that every witch had to relocate to Avalon. I get that not all witches are born in witch families. But, we’re reaching a tipping point. I have to report on Monday that we’re looking at a generation or two of parentless witches. I mean, we can fill the city with boarding schools and orphanages, and force adults to work in them. We can even make adoptions mandatory. But soon, we simply won’t have enough adults to take care of them all. Period.”
At that, Abigail looked away uneasily, before standing up. “I’m going to call the waiter. We need more drinks or something,” she said hurriedly, then went to leave the room.
“Linh,” Rowan cautioned quietly as Abigail left.
“Oh, what’s her problem now?” Linh grumbled when the door shut behind Abigail. There were sounds of a hushed argument between her friends from the other side of the door.
Guilt-ridden, Abigail went to the ladies’ room. She was being overly sensitive and she knew it. She’d already made her peace with the Gatherings. Logically, she knew Linh was just venting. It was just another old issue her mind had decided to fuss over since this afternoon because she wouldn’t let it focus on what really bothered her. Her troubled mood had mixed with the collective stress in the room and formed the perfect storm for a terrible night. She’d gone out tonight hoping her friends would finally ease her mind, though it seemed like they all had that same idea. Now, they needed her to cure their malaise. Well, someone had to turn this night around.
Stepping into the restroom, Abigail resolved that she would apologize to Linh when she got back to the room. She’d even sing loudly and off-key with all the drunken flare ten shots of vodka would provide her. They’d laugh and talk like they all use to, and just unload.
Something terrible is coming, Linh’s words played in Abigail’s mind while she walked to the sink.
Just more borrowed drama, she thought.
Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Abigail reached out to lean on the sink for support. Though instead of touching the cold porcelain inches away from her, she stumbled and oddly fell forward a few steps before regaining her balance. Her eyes flew open when she felt the cold sink surface beneath her hands.
Something terrible is already here, said that strange voice again. This time, Abigail knew she recognized that voice.
A chill raced up her spine when she felt the familiar glass shard pressed underneath her left hand and the bathroom sink.
Her eyes looked around herself in panic, while the old calling card rested menacingly under her hand. Raw terror crept up her spine and her body seemed unable to move on its own. There was something wrong about the bathroom, but she couldn’t say what it was. There was something wrong with her reflection as well.
It was her face in the mirror, except there was too much mischief and menace in the blue eyes.
I know that voice, Abigail thought with terror.
She watched her right arm move on its own, mirroring the movements of the woman on the other side of the glass.
I know what’s wrong with the bathroom.
She watched as her arm lashed out and smashed the mirror in front of her.
Then darkness fell as the mirror world Abigail was trapped within shattered.
Exhausted, Nerys sat at the desk in her dark office. She’d been trying to review some notes on the latest experiment her group was working on but had given up when she simply couldn’t focus. Instead, she’d gathered a pile of training books for Callum and then spent the rest of the time sipping her brother’s homemade brandy. She couldn’t shake the feeling all night that she was being watched.
Nerys took another sip and lightly drummed on her desk with her fingers. She stopped when her fingers hit a strange object. A large glass shard. Confused, she picked it up. There was something about the object that scared her, but her mind couldn’t quite remember why. Strangely, she was finding it hard to focus. The heady smell of lilacs, roses, and vanilla filled her nostrils. A black widow spider crept along her arm.
Her terror grew, when she looked up and found a dark figure looming in the shadows of her office. Instinctively, she tried to grab her staff, but instead, her hand moved on its own and grasped the glass shard. Entranced, Nerys watched as her hand brought the broken glass to her chest.
“Nerys,” the figure spoke to her with a deep male voice. Somehow, she recognized that voice, but her mind couldn’t recall from where or when. “I told you to stay away from my son.”
Suddenly, the fog lifted in her mind and dreadful understanding dawned on Nerys. Darkness began to spread in the office, enveloping her immobilized body. Her eyes grew wide with fright and a sickeningly satisfied, razor thin smile stretched across the face of the man in the shadows. She wasn’t holding a glass shard, but a splinter.
He comes like a phantom in the night.
With a shard as sharp as a knife.
What the inquisition couldn’t do with a hammer, he’d do with a splinter.
Beware the witches’ bane.
Because Mason Kaliroth rides once again.
Rory, help me! She cried out with her last thought.
Then she felt herself sink into oblivion.
With her heart pounding in her chest, Miranda burst through the wall of flames surrounding Piccadilly Gardens. She was back. Once again, she was sixteen and wearing the Wyrd Precinct’s hooded black paramilitary uniform, along with its crimson domino mask. She was in Manchester again, standing before a makeshift dais formed by a grotesque assembly of medieval torture devices nailed together.
In the distance, she heard the sounds of her teammates and fellow agents in the Wyrd Precinct while they battled the onslaught of Mason Kaliroth’s prehistoric army. Overhead, silhouetted against the pale full moon, the white marble obelisk called Aella’s Tooth loomed silently over the English city. Below it, a fierce battle was waged over the large white pearl resting on its summit, Arista’s Eye. The orb containing the Phorcysae Citadel.
No matter how many times she signaled to her squad, the only answer she received on the communications device in her mask was a saved recording of the last message they’d sent to each other hours ago.
She was alone.
I’ve had this dream too many times, Miranda thought.
For a moment, she just listened to her heart beating wildly in her chest. Just like before, her eyes weren’t on the man in the mechanical black suit of armour seated on the oversized golden throne high on his dais.
Instead, her eyes were on her blonde friend while the other woman battled her mirror image before the throne.
Abbey and Libby.
In truth, this wasn’t just a mere dream, but a memory her mind had latched onto over the years. It had been almost ten years now, just before the matriarchs moved the citadel from Manchester to the Green Lady Square in the heart of Avalon. Just before the world’s witches were gathered there as well.
Her squad’s efforts to track down Mason Kaliroth and bring him to justice had led to an explosive and desperate final battle.
The Sentinels had been called to the city to investigate a rash of bizarre murders. Each time, the victim was a witch who had seemingly committed suicide and the body was later found posed in gruesome tableaus of medieval torture. It wasn’t hard to link the bloody glass shards used in the suicides and the obvious hateful imagery to the disgraced Breaelé University student from Leeds, who was kicked out for his radical views and alleged theft of experimental equipment. Despite his formation of the Witch Splinters, legally Kaliroth wasn’t found culpable of these deaths. Not initially.
Then Kaliroth became sloppy.
His one-man crusade had ballooned into a motley band that he couldn’t control. Horrified supporters began to talk when things got real and the bodies began to pile up. Conclusive evidence that would’ve been painstakingly removed now littered crime scenes. And then, when he had nowhere to hide, he kidnapped Abigail and openly taunted every authority into a final stand.
Oddly enough, this wasn’t Miranda’s hardest or most personal fight. And yet, it kept haunting her in her dreams.
Maybe, a small voice spoke to her, while she watched Libby strike Abbey down. It’s because this is the first time since you finally became comfortable that someone threatened a place you called home.
Someone destroyed my home right after this, Miranda scoffed internally, feeling her body move toward her fallen friend.
Destroyed for the second time, the voice mocked her, just as she noticed the now empty throne.
Her training took over her body as she heard a telltale whistle in the air. In a heartbeat, she summoned her shield just in time for Mason’s blade to shatter through it. Using his armoured weight, he slammed her to the ground and then pinned her down with his sword at her throat. In vain, Miranda grabbed the blade and, with the metal biting into her flesh, she tried to push it away from herself.
“First the witches and then the rest of the magical tribes will fall,” Mason hissed through the helmet of his suit, while he leaned closer to her. “Hear me, people of the Aetheri Blood! Here me and tremble in the presence of the rightful ruler of all mankind!”
Dark hate-filled eyes peered down at her through the slits of his helmet. Anger overtook Miranda’s being. It warred with the waves of nausea coming towards her from the strangely luminous bluish-silver metal that composed his sword.
The bane of all things arcane, otherwise known as the Ragnorak metal. The radioactive metal had been mysteriously planted into the mountains of the Western Hemisphere and rendered all magic in the continental Americas moot.
A very weak alloy, though, Miranda observed curiously, letting her anger fuel the power boiling in her blood. Even a moderately purer sample would have cancelled my abilities. And prevent this!
Her mouth opened and a greenish noxious cloud flowed out. Within seconds, it began to eat away at Mason’s armour and caused the man to cough violently. Using the distraction, she spread her magic out to the lingering sand that was her basilisk familiar and formed two extra arms at her sides. With her hands still holding the sword, her extra hands formed magical instructions to the poisonous cloud, directing it to only eat the armour around Mason’s body.
Surprise came into Mason’s dark eyes now that the battle had turned. He clearly wasn’t prepared to fight a familiar tamer. He should have anticipated that her basilisk was not merely a pet, which he could dismiss with a swipe of his blade, but an extension of her being. She was as much a basilisk as she was a witch.
Now the pair tussled on the ground, but her extensive combat skills triumphed over his flailing attempts to turn back the tide with just his greater mass. She twisted the sword and aimed it at his midsection, then drove it through him. A fatal wound.
Rolling off the man, Miranda watched with utter dispassion while Mason choked on his own blood. She continued to watch as his body grew still. A scream called her attention from the corpse before her. She looked back at the dais in time to see Abigail take a swing at Libby with a flail.
The sound of glass shattering filled the air. Libby exploded into a shower of shards, leaving a shell-shocked Abigail who just collapsed to her knees.
Thuds sounded in the distance. The abominations Mason had created seemed to be collapsing with both Libby’s magic and Mason’s automated direction gone. Someone was extinguishing the wall of flames around them, allowing the rest of her squad to come through.
Moving swiftly, Miranda went to her friend.
“Abbey?” Miranda asked the woman before her in a small voice.
Ignoring her, Abigail just continued to grasp at the broken glass on the ground. There was a sad desperate horror to her actions while the blonde woman held the remains of her sister.
“Abigail?” Miranda asked again, now worried.
“We have to stop hiding what we are,” a strangely familiar voice issued from Abigail’s lips, shocking Miranda enough to stir her into wakefulness.
That didn’t happen, Miranda thought.
The blonde woman looked up at her with haunting hollow eyes that stared into Miranda, filling the dark-haired woman with dread.
“I’m fine,” Abigail spoke in an all-too-calm voice before the dream simply ended.
A cool breeze played over her skin while Miranda’s mind drifted back into the waking world. Instinctively, she mentally shook off the lingering dread from her dream. Slowly, her eyes opened and she found herself staring at an eternally sunny day in the French countryside just a few feet from her bed, framed by thick black curtains.
Her painting was open.
The little pockets of reality they called paintings were created by both the East and North Towers and installed into each of towers’ windowless flats. Unfortunately for Miranda, someone who didn’t know her thought she wanted to have a reminder of her birthplace. She’d only opened the painting once and that was to just to place another unwanted reminder from her past in its picturesque field.
Her black Sentinel uniform hung like a scarecrow among a sea of wildflowers. The soft breeze lifted the edges of the material, creating the illusion of a dark phantom mocking her.
The mask is gone, Miranda observed, subtly letting her power flow into the golden morning haze in her room.
Using the hovering ‘haze’ as her eyes, she found the intruder in her room, seated quietly at the table in her bedroom. Her first thought was to entomb the brazen man in a fist made of stone, but instead, she sat up and silently called the golden granules in the air toward herself. Making a few quick motions, she transfigured the golden sand into a modest shawl.
“You know, John, you could have visited me at a more decent hour,” Miranda said playfully, looking at the dark-suited man when she got out of bed. Out of habit, her eyes avoided his blurred face. “Or, at least, waited until I was awake. I may just rethink giving you unlimited access to my room.”
“I could have, if I was visiting with Enchantress Miranda,” John Doe spoke too calmly before he pointedly held up her missing mask. There were a series of files laid out in front of him on the table. “But, I have urgent information for Agent d’Apophis.”
“Still,” Miranda continued, trying to stay light-hearted while she let her hands cast the spell that would prevent anyone from spying on their meeting. “That technology you use to conceal your true identity doesn’t protect you from our detection. The authorities were probably counting the freckles on your face, while you ‘stealthily’ crept your way into my chambers.” She felt a slight rush of satisfaction when he visibly recoiled.
“Do you really want to play this game, Jasmine?” John warned, still remaining composed. As a member of the Society, John could play this game of spies for days. His lot trafficked in hidden information.
For her part, Miranda just laughed. She’d been made to forget that name. Jasmine had died when she was forcibly taken from her home in France and brought to her people’s ancestral lands in the shadows of the black dunes in the Tech Duinn Desert. There, deep in the caves, she and several of her peers took part in the Rite of the Wyrm Whisperers.
The brutal practice was ritualized to make it seem much better than what it really was. A culling. It was enacted to bury a long-held shame. Several children entered the sacred caves, only one exited. To her people, that child was recognized as the progeny of the snake demon, Apophis. From that moment on, they were deemed clanless, nameless and forever cursed to exile. Their only kin was the basilisk familiar at their side.
“What do you have for me?” Miranda said with a sigh, taking her seat across from him.
“I did some follow-up on the situation in Americellio,” John spoke, passing the documents to her. “As you suspected, it seems the Nidhogg Enchanter has indeed returned and he is becoming a hassle for the faeries again.”
“Can they handle him?” Miranda asked, looking through the report.
“For now,” John said slowly. His report answered her in more shocking detail. It outlined a string of odd coincidences that together formed the basis of a larger agenda. An agenda the faeries were clearly oblivious to. “They seem to be headed for a violent and very public confrontation with him.”
“When?” Miranda inquired.
“Tomorrow,” John replied. “I plan to be there, just in case, but your real work will come after that. By the way, Director Majors has already been informed. He’s sending your mates to help you deal with the fallout. They’ll arrive Sunday night.”
Her heart felt a bit lighter at the prospect of seeing her old squad again. It had been awhile since they’d even spoken to each other. Then she remembered why that was the case and her heart tightened again.
“Who am I looking at?” She asked, indicating the next set of files.
“These are the four children that have been roped into this conflict along with the faeries,” John answered. “Aria Tianlong, Lucille Spadesten, Kala Runen, and Tarian Arley. I’ve compiled case files on each of them. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated on all fronts. You’re going to want to use a delicate hand when you tackle this.”
Tarian Arley, as in Gawain’s daughter? Miranda thought, looking at the girl in the profile. Abigail’s niece?
It struck her just how young the girl was.
She remembered the haunting gaze from her dreams and suppressed a shudder. That family, she thought ruefully. Just then, John cleared his throat to get her attention.
“I have some other matters for you to look over,” John added, before passing her more files. Miranda’s blood ran cold when she saw what lay within them.
Surveillance pictures of seemingly innocuous meetings at various cafes. She immediately noticed the friendly facades attempting to hide the documents that the participants were covertly exchanging. She also recognized a number of the people as witches in the citadel, particularly an auburn-haired woman who was in the middle of each photo.
“Recognize anyone?” John asked slyly.
Her blood boiling, Miranda let her power flow through herself and into her familiar. Her shawl suddenly grew an arm and grasped for the hidden compartment she kept under her bed. A moment later it produced a set of files and brought them to the table. She noticed a light flare in John’s eyes when he saw her files.
“When things get slow, I find it helpful to do some paperwork. Things tend to stop being slow after that,” Miranda said darkly. “I’ve been investigating some people in Avalon and here in the citadel. See what you can make of these.” The man almost snatched the files from her and started pouring through them.
Just then, she heard a low whistle in the air, indicating that something or someone wanted to enter her room. Quickly, Miranda closed the files on her table and cast a veil of invisibility over them and John, and then she lowered her privacy spell.
Threads of rainbow coloured cobweb materialized just in front of her face. The Sprijurling Dream Lines. Formed by weaving the psychic energy from the sprijurlings’ dreams, it was a network used as the citadel’s primary message and delivery system. She watched as a glowing light appeared out of the threads and floated toward her, becoming a handwritten message as it approached. When she plucked the note out of the air, the cobwebs vanished.
“Well,” John spoke, after Miranda had reinstated her privacy spell. “It seems like you’re needed at another engagement. I’ll do some filing while you’re gone.” Miranda simply nodded.
After a quick change into her East Tower uniform, Miranda made one last check to ensure her privacy spell was still in place. Then training her thoughts on her destination, she stepped through her portal archway and emerged into the office of the citadel’s director of Foreign Affairs, Enchantress Salome Lilithridge.
For a brief moment, Miranda just stood there watching the swarm of skeletal squirrel corpses with sewn up eyes perform menial tasks around the full-figured, auburn-haired woman who sat at the desk in front of her.
She noticed that there was a new statue on the older woman’s desk depicting a woman with swollen hips, whose body ended in a long snake tail. The beckoning figure held out a golden apple that bore the symbol of two swords crossed at the hilt with a pair of snakes entwined around them. Inscribed on the base of the statue were the words, ‘The path to Enlightenment.’
There was something unnerving about the simple statue that stood out in a room decorated with items emblazon with the Hand of Eris.
“Welcome, Miranda,” Salome said when she noticed the younger woman. “Please have a seat. I hope John Doe is enjoying our hospitality. We certainly enjoyed watching him slink around in the shadows with that flaming red hair of his.”
Smiling, Miranda just said, “He is, Salome.”
She then took her seat across from the woman who was both her mentor and department head within the citadel.
“Now, what did the spy have to offer us?” Salome asked, returning Miranda’s smile.
“It seems the Nidhogg Enchanter is back to his old tricks,” Miranda answered.
“Is he only making trouble for the non-witches?” Salome asked slowly.
“Then let him have his fun,” Salome responded, giving her a dismissive wave.
“He’s insane,” Miranda retorted.
“Miranda, if insanity was a crime, then most of the citadel would have to be locked away,” Salome replied with a sigh. “He is one of us. We can tolerate madness, but we cannot tolerate betrayal. Besides, there are other matters to attend to. There has been an incident. You’re needed at the meadow island.”
At that, three of the squirrels around Salome began to make magical signs. Suddenly, a case file materialized on Miranda’s lap. It was the Witch Splinter case. The ‘case closed’ label had been magically redacted and more notes were added, victim profiles. An icy chill gripped Miranda’s spine. There was no feeling in her legs as she rose to her feet. She had no desire to read the case updates.
“I’m sorry, my little cobra. It’s a sad day when you have work to do,” Salome said softly.
Miranda said numbly, “I should look into this right away.”
She began to shuffle toward the portal and then stopped.
“Salome,” Miranda started softly. Turning to face the other woman, she continued, “How are your new revenants working out?”
“Oh, they’re fine for the most part,” the older woman said, visibly taken aback by the subject change. “It’s not like bonding with a familiar, though. There is something disconcerting about not being able to kill my own prey myself. But, I suppose for the sake of others we all have to leash our inner natures.”
Taking that answer in strides, Miranda nodded politely and went through the portal. A dizzying moment later, she was stepping out into the Central Hecatian Grove on the meadow island in the gardens. There was a flurry of activity and panic around her in the dim early morning light.
The citadel was awoken to the new crisis in their midst.
She let the tide of bodies carry her to the shores of the island, and then she crept her way to the head of the crowd. Her eyes roamed over the investigators struggling to disentangle the corpse seated in a crude wooden apparatus and suspended symbolically over the sea of the Cecaemue Bridge. The sordid tableau was the dunking of the witch.
Raw hate and disgust caused her to shift her gaze, only to meet the deep sorrow of Rory Tolmach’s expressive green eyes. As the nearest kin of the deceased, Rory had the unwanted privilege to oversee the handling of his loved one’s body. The tragic reality of what was befalling them came upon her suddenly. She forced herself to finally look at the victim seated in the dunking stool and she felt the floor fall away from her.
They’ve been attacked before, but this would be the first murder in the citadel in at least two hundred years. Yesterday, Miranda had the honour of serving with her and now, Nerys Tolmach lay dead before her eyes.
“Pardon, Madame Sentinel” a male voice interrupted her solemn moment. It was the avatar of Death from the day before. She automatically focused her attention on him.
Her status as a Sentinel was public, but the fact that he’d chosen now to use it held significance. The Sentinels weren’t called on lightly, especially in these days.
“Ma’am, we have a problem,” he whispered, scuttling closer to her.
When she raised her eyebrow in response, he shook his head and led her away from the crime scene toward an unoccupied edge of the island coast. “No, ma’am, I mean another issue. I wanted to warn you earlier, but I couldn’t use the portals.”
“That is by design. We restrict access and use of the portals. Only the matriarchs can traverse the entire citadel unimpeded. Even I can’t enter the public areas in the other towers without the proper clearance,” she simply told him. “And please, call me Miranda.”
The young man gave her a thoughtful look before pointing to himself and saying, “Mal.”
He then crouched down and dipped his hand into the Cecaemue Bridge and showed her his wet hand.
“No one has been able to leave or enter the citadel for the past hour,” Mal spoke simply. “What does this mean?”
The emptiness in Miranda gave way to concern and then deep dread. Her eyes looked out at the Cecaemue Bridge, only to find that the frozen sea of pearl and glass was now just rolling water. Curiously, the Cecaemue itself was missing.
Her brows furrowed. Her mind searched for answers. She had noticed the inordinate number of nightshift guards mingling with the crowds and lining the shore of the meadow island. In her grief, she’d just assumed this the result of such an unprecedented homicide in their stronghold. Now, it occurred to her that there were no morning shift guards present and none of the guards made an attempt to enter the West Tower portal. She also now noted that a number of the guards were seemingly drenched.
The West Tower might have vanished, an unruly voice speculated in her head.
Taking a deep breath, she craned her head up to the clouds above. Somewhere in that whirling mist lay the other island terrains of the gardens and beyond them lay the other towers. The foundation spells that made the portals possible also held those islands and towers in place. They also held the entirety of the sprawling Phorcysae Citadel in the relatively small Arista’s Eye.
An icy breeze crept up Miranda’s spine and sank into her bones.
Suddenly, her magical fortress felt like a tiny fragile bubble precariously suspended over a city and Miranda had no idea what would if the bubble burst.
Death is here, the voice in her head whispered when she looked at Mal’s blood-red eyes.
“Come, we have work to do. I won’t allow your master to make a feast out of my home.”
In her mind’s eye, Miranda saw a dirt-covered, wisp of a girl with black hair, who was dressed in rags. The girl was in the company of a tall, heavy set woman with auburn hair. The girl was being escorted toward an older girl with wavy golden hair and an appraising glare in her baby blue eyes. Despite her shy demeanor, the blonde girl still managed to look down her upturned nose at the dark-haired girl. As they approached, the dirt-covered girl shot the expensively outfitted girl an appraising look of her own.
“Welcome, Ms. Abigail Elysia Arley,” the woman spoke to the blonde girl. “I’d like to introduce you to Ms. Miranda d’Apophis. She will be joining us at the citadel. I’d like you to train her in the arts of becoming a proper lady.”
The blonde girl crinkled her nose. “Can’t her own people make her into a proper lady, Senora Salome?” she whined. “Or is she an outcast or something?”
At that, the younger girl quickly gestured with her hands and a hand formed from stone materialized around the other girl’s neck. The blonde girl fell to the ground, scrambling to pull the tightening vice from her throat.
“Miranda,” Salome chided softly. The smaller scowling girl waved her hand and the hand of stone disappeared.
“She tried to kill me!” Abigail protested between coughs while she struggled to her feet. There were tears running down her now red face.
“Calm yourself,” Salome said softly with a hint of humour. “If Miranda wanted to kill you, she would have.”
A shocked look crossed Abigail’s face as she looked at the older woman than at the menacing glare of the feral looking child at Salome’s side. Abigail’s face grew pale and understanding sank in.
“Miranda is a gift from one of the oldest lines of witches,” Salome explained, ignoring the mortified child. “Her people are more than capable of turning her into a lady, however, she was sent to be trained by the citadel.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Abigail said with a shrug.
“I’ve read your file,” Salome said with a hint of admiration. “A week after running away from your home in Wales, you were found posing as an heiress-turned-model in Milan where you attended celebrity galas and had a hotel suite paid by two wealthy, amorous princes.” Salome smiled when a proud smirk crept on Abigail’s face.
“I don’t see how that helps anything,” Abigail said confused.
“You’ve heard of the Sentinels of the Wyrd Precinct?” Salome asked.
“The men in capes?”
“That’s a myth,” Salome corrected.
“My brother says they are a lawless band of American hooligans,” Abigail answered.
“Of course, he’d say that,” Salome sneered. “Your brother is a knight. Well, a sea change is coming thanks to that band of hooligans. The Wyrd Precinct is being legitimized worldwide. While the various knightly orders will continue to handle the military and 9 to 5 policing within their various regional boundaries, the Wyrd Precinct will now be the official jurisdiction of all international clandestine matters, as well as the deeper issues within the extranormal and preternatural communities.”
“The knights have always had an uncomfortable preference for the so-called normal humans, the tru-sapiens,” Salome continued. “Now that the Sentinels are rising to power with unprecedented levels of authority, the rest of humanity is seeking greater prominence through their agency and we witches need a watchful eye within their ranks. We would like one of our representatives to take a prominent seat among them and to act as the official liaison for the entire mystical community.”
“I don’t understand why you need me,” Abigail said, still looking confused.
“Miranda has her own raw talents and the citadel will provide her with training as well as knowledge,” Salome calmly explained. “However, she will be surrounded by tru-sapiens who will look down on her magical heritage. What we need is a woman who cannot be ignored, unless we want her to be. Simply put, we want you to impart her with attitude.”
“I can teach attitude,” Abigail purred with a grin.
That night, young Miranda shared a room with Abigail. She awoke at the twilight hours to find the older girl solemnly working before an ornate, Egyptian style, full-length mirror and cast in the eerie glow of spellcasting.
As Miranda watched, Abigail’s reflection shifted. The meek demeanor faded while a sassy smirk crept along the doppelganger’s pale face. The blue eyes took on a mischievous glare before they shifted toward Miranda. Silently, the image alerted Abigail. Panicked, Abigail whipped her head around to face the dark-haired girl.
“Miranda!” Abigail shrieked. “Go back to bed! Go back to bed now!”
Despite Abigail’s desperate pleas, Miranda remembered being captivated by the blue eyes peering at her from the other side of the mirror. They were so unlike Abigail’s eyes.
That was how the story had begun for her, Abigail and Libby. Miranda formed a tenuous friendship with the gentle Abigail, while Libby became her true mentor. It was Libby who had taught Miranda how to glide into a room on wispy long legs and high heels. Libby taught her the art of becoming the most beguiling being in any crowd. In a short time, the somber little girl gained a sharp tongue and a commanding stance. After about a year with Libby, Miranda had crafted the persona of a well-respected celebutante, who could defraud her way through palaces, embassies and any governmental mansion she wished.
It was a story that should have ended on one fateful night in Manchester. Unfortunately, as she and her companions entered the foyer of the Tolmachs’ flat, it occurred to her that there was another chapter yet to be told in their long intertwined saga.
“Shattered,” John Doe muttered quietly. Miranda followed his gaze to the old Egyptian style mirror with the thoroughly cracked glass. It had been a long time since she’d seen the object, now conspicuously hidden in the open among the cozy décor of the Tolmachs’ sitting room.
No one’s repaired the glass in all these years, Miranda noted curiously.
“There is a piece missing,” John observed. Indeed, there was a large shard missing from the mirror’s glass.
“We’re not blaming you, Linh!” a female voice shouted from deep within the flat. Miranda ushered her followers forward toward the voice. “We’re just saying that we all knew Abbey was sensitive about the Gatherings and that you didn’t need to bring it up. We’re saying maybe she would’ve stayed with us last night.”
“So, it’s my fault Abbey’s gone?” Miranda recognized Linh’s voice as the other woman angrily retorted. “I was one of the first children rescued by the Gatherings and last time I checked, no one blamed anyone for it happening.”
“Stop!” Rory’s voice roared over the angry female voices, just as Miranda made her way to where the group was assembled in the little nook Abigail claimed as her office.
The poor man was seated at his wife’s desk with his head in hands. Around him were four women with dark rings around their sleep-deprived eyes who Miranda recognized as Abbey’s friends, though not Miranda’s. According to the report, Miranda had just read, these women were all with Abigail last night. Unfortunately, the tension in the room wasn’t going to be eased by anything Miranda had to say.
Scowling, Enchantress Rowan Darc leaned against the wall in her East Tower uniform, avoiding eye contact with everyone while her familiars furiously darting around her brunette hair. Mage Amalia Nachtvogel paced around angrily in her South Tower uniform, flipping her strawberry blonde locks on each turn. Linh Sprigganwood’s eyes just shot daggers at the others from under her long raven bangs. For her part, Mage Sophie Obia busied herself with combing through Abigail’s leftover work notes in an obvious attempt to avoid the conflict. Above them, Rory’s golden voice hung like an angry booming sun.
“Abbey was blamed for the Gatherings,” Rory spoke to the women, now gently. As he grew quieter, his voice shrank. “It was poor timing. English towns were just recovering from the effects of the Arcane Labour Initiative. And then, the decree struck the United Kingdom like lightning and we were all spirited away to the other side of the world in the aftermath of the Witch Splinter crisis. It was only later that the rationale came thundering down to the masses, along with the apologies. Linh wasn’t here so she didn’t know. She didn’t do anything wrong last night.”
“Thank you. And I’m sorry for all this,” Linh whispered to him. “I just wish we knew what happened when Abbey left us last night.”
Linh looked up and smiled when she saw Miranda waiting patiently at the entrance of the office.
“Miranda!” she exclaimed.
Unlike the other women who had changed into their uniforms, Miranda noticed that Linh was still wearing her green dress and black heels from the night before.
Returning Linh’s smile, Miranda took note of the mixed reactions to herself and the men in her wake while she tentatively entered the room. Wary, sideways glances and scowls followed their every step. As expected, Rowan and her familiars shuddered at her mere presence.
“Morning,” Miranda said to those in the room. To the bereaved man, she whispered, “I’m really sorry about what happened, Rory.”
“So, it is him,” Rory muttered. His sad eyes accusingly gazed up at her.
“I can only tell you what has been relayed to Foreign Affairs by the Department of Internal Investigations so far,” Miranda stated cautiously. “In addition to Nerys, four people in total were found dead this morning. Enchantress Evie Ortego was found in the East Tower courtyard bound in stocks. Mage Henrik Yoccm’s co-workers discovered him hanging from a noose in the desert island’s oasis. And finally, the imps within the forest island led investigators to where Sorcerer Boris Ekkelsen was tied to a wooden stake before the Helyolena Mother Tree and booby-trapped to light on fire when anyone approached. Investigators have found lingering traces of chemicals that would induce a highly suggestible state and post-hypnotic suggestions that would trigger a suicide hidden in the victims’ last known locations. And of course, a bloody glass shard was left at each crime scene. As of right now, all of this seems to align with Kaliroth’s documented modus operandi.”
A wave of horrified disbelief radiated through the room.
“There are still a number of unanswered questions,” Miranda continued. “There haven’t been any reports of unusual or unaccounted people accessing the portals last night. Unfortunately, we still don’t have any records of where or when the portals were used. Also, Kaliroth hasn’t been spotted by any of the sprijurlings, not even his specter. And finally, there are no clear answers how the items were planted within the citadel or how the victims were moved.”
“He tampered with Nerys’ work notes,” Rory said somberly, looking lost. “Some of the investigators told me that when they came here to look for clues. They didn’t find anything.”
“Honestly, the only good news that I have right now is that Abigail is only listed as missing,” Miranda admitted. “And frankly, after the other discoveries this morning, we’re exploring other avenues.”
“You mean magic,” Amalia gasped.
“I’ve studied his case file multiple times. I hunted him. And then, I killed this man myself,” Miranda said gravely. “Mason Kaliroth was a tru-sapien with their characteristic hyper-intelligence who displayed a talent for mechanics and an interest in genetic engineering. He had a slew of personality disorders and a vendetta against our community, based on his own complicated family history. While he had no respect or understanding of magic that didn’t stop him from using it before in desperation. And, we’re finding multiple casting signatures overlapping each other.”
“Multiple?” Rowan wondered out loud. “Like a group of hostages?”
“Or a rogue coven,” Miranda answered darkly, recalling the files John had brought her. When she noticed the shocked, disbelieving eyes staring at her, she simply shrugged. “But that’s why I’m here investigating.”
“So, you don’t have any idea what happened to Abbey,” Linh summed up, looking defeated.
Tattoos blazing on her dark skin, Sophie loudly cursed when she finally looked up and saw Mal. A card drifted out of her South Tower uniform and hung like a warning above her head.
“Why don’t you ask him?” Sophie spat out while stepping forward. Her gaze was leveled at Mal.
“Why is an avatar of Death here anyway?” Amalia asked with concern. “Did his temple send him?”
“The Temple of Illarya didn’t send me,” Mal answered simply, not meeting her eye.
“How dare you say the Betrayer’s name here?” Sophie hissed. Rage etched deep lines in her face.
“Isn’t it interesting that the most universally celebrated member of your tribe is considered an outcast among your people?” Mal shot back with malice.
“Does Death want a battle?” Sophie challenged him while untying the runic wrap holding her braids. She then took three artful dance steps toward Mal. “Many ancient witches have already unseated the greatest of divines and are still hailed as gods by the unknowing masses. Maybe we need to remind him why the witches have no respect for any so-called deities.”
“It’s always fun listening to the conflicts within the magical communities,” John Doe mused quietly. There was palpable shock in the room when they noticed that the man had scuttled quietly away from Miranda’s side in the short time since her small group had entered the room. He was rummaging through the drawers of Abigail’s desk.
“It’s always the same old story. Capricious godlings, scheming shamans, changeling tricksters, fiendish monsters and devious champions,” John stated, earning hateful stares from the rest of the room. “Don’t let me interrupt your fighting. Recreate the War of the Hours, for all I care. The last time the witches and the avatars fought you burned a desert into the middle of Ireland. Maybe you can do the same thing with Avalon. You can justify it by saying you desperately needed to win an argument with a fifteen-year-old boy.”
“Fifteen!” Rowan exclaimed.
“How?” Mal asked.
“I borrowed your wallet a moment ago,” John said cheekily. He playfully waved the ‘borrowed’ wallet in the air before tossing it back to its owner. “You may want to assume your normal form.”
There was a sobering moment of shame when Mal shifted from a young man with unusually long red hair to a defiant looking boy with sad grey eyes and short pale hair. There was just something about how his black suit now looked like an ill-fitting hand-me-down that softened Miranda’s heart to him. A smile crossed her face when she looked at him.
“Officially, we respect the Great Betrayer’s efforts to end the battles between the tribes of magic and the rest of humanity, but we cannot forgive her actions,” Miranda said to Mal, who looked away with sudden regret.
To the others, she said, “I had eyes on him last night. We can trust him.”
With visible reluctance, Sophie quieted her summoned magic and quickly bound her hair.
“What about him?” asked Amalia, pointing to where John had continued searching through Abigail’s desk.
“The tru-sapien is snooping again,” Rowan murmured. She summoned her fire sparrow familiars and aimed them toward the blurry-faced man in preparation for an impending strike.
“He’s not housebroken,” Miranda chided dryly, gesturing for John to return to her side.
“I’m just good at puzzles,” John said distractedly.
Carefully, he pulled out one of the bottom drawers and showed everyone the contents. It was filled with torn photos of Abigail’s face. There was something unsettling about the sheer mass of detached eyes and tattered frozen smiles, like recalling a lurid crime scene.
“What is that?” Miranda asked, indicating the old leather bound book that was nestled within the torn photos.
“Oh, that’s just the journal Abbey has been trying to translate,” Rowan said dismissively.
“The library sent it to her on the first holy day of harvest,” Rory informed them in a small detached tone, his voice now at his throat. “She’s been a little different since then.”
“It’s not from the library or anywhere from within the South Tower,” Sophie said slowly. Both she and Amalia exchanged troubled looks before she went to retrieve the journal. “It’s too old. I work with the chief archivist. Our practice is to store the original documents and send out fresh duplicates for the mages to work on.” She handed the book to Amalia who recoiled instantly when it touched her hand.
A series of tattoos flared momentarily around Amalia’s green eyes.
“There are several spells on this,” Amalia stated. She almost tossed the journal at Miranda and then made a brief show of wiping her gauntlet covered hands while muttering furiously under her breath. “It’s written in some language similar to the ancient Oiorpatan language the West Tower uses for confidential material.”
There was a pregnant unsettling silence following Amalia’s declaration. More troublingly for Miranda, when she started to leaf through the book, she found that Abigail’s private notes displayed two distinct handwriting styles. A prominent bold and assertive writing style that Miranda recognized from her youth routinely crept within Abigail’s gentler summations. She turned another page and cold dread washed through her.
“Can you decode this?” Miranda asked Rory, pointing to a line on the first page.
“No,” Rory hissed. His eyes flared with seething rage. “It may be a sister language, but it’s too different.”
“It says, ‘My name is Talianna’,” Mal read the page to the surprise of everyone around him. There was a hint of old pain caught within his youthful eyes. “It’s a personal journal.”
“Then why does it have detailed diagrams and outlines for both Arista’s Eye and Aella’s Tooth,” Miranda countered, showing him another page. Genuine shock played on the boy’s face and echoed through the women around them. Questioning eyes darted around the room.
Only a few in the West Tower knew the secrets of how Arista’s Eye and Aella’s Tooth were created.
“I need to go,” Rory proclaimed suddenly. He rose and swiftly marched out of the office.
“Rory!” Miranda called, dashing after him with Linh in tow.
“I’m fine,” the man said, now standing by the portal to his flat with his back to her. His broad body shook with emotion. “I have something I need to do.”
With that, Rory vanished through the portal, leaving a pronounced emptiness in his wake.
For a moment, Miranda contemplated following him then she slowly decided against it. He needed answers and she would find them for him. She turned on her heels and came face to face with the other women and Mal. A series of bashful eyes suddenly averted their gaze when they caught her looking back at them.
“I’ll help you decode the journal,” Mal offered to no one in particular, followed by vehement nods from Sophie, Rowan, and Amalia. Miranda suppressed a smile when they quickly scuttled back to the office.
Curiously, she noticed that Linh hadn’t moved. The other woman just stood there, studying her intently. Miranda raised a questioning eyebrow at her.
“I just noticed you’re not wearing any makeup,” Linh observed, rocking back on her heels. “It’s odd seeing you without a mask.”
“After all the Sentinels hung up their masks, I decided to stop wearing all of mine,” Miranda explained.
“Too bad,” Linh retorted with a shrug, before twirling on her heels to join the others. “Masks can be fun.”
“How long has he been at it?” Rory asked the group of children seated on the floating rocks and debris before him.
“Since you told him what happened to his aunts this morning,” Callum’s friend, Beca Beng, replied. Unlike the rest of the children, the brown-haired girl wasn’t looking at his nephew. Instead, her eyes were on the crystal ball hovering inches from her face.
Watching his nephew fight impish sprijurlings under the mid-afternoon light, Rory let out a regretful sigh. He’d wanted to spend more time with Callum after they’d received the terrible news about both Nerys and Abigail. Unfortunately, he had to entertain all manner of investigators who still had no clear answers and then he had to make a quick stop to the other gardeners in order to leave instructions for the day. Luckily, he was able to sneak in a few words with the guards now lining the coast of the meadow island.
Though sadly, Callum was left to his own devices and had ventured to the hovering Greco-Roman ruins on the valley island that was used as a training arena.
There were cheers when Callum vanquished a rabbit looking imp. Rory noticed with pride that the boy was using a modified version of basic North Tower fighting techniques Nerys had written down for him last night. In lieu of having long prehensile hair, Callum tethered the jolt of power released when he bit into a piece of the lightning chocolates to his short locks and then shaped the electricity into a mystic circle around his head. With his staff, Callum released bolts of arcane energy to sunder his foes as they leapt out from behind the stone columns surrounding him.
He taught himself that much within a few hours, Rory thought impressed.
“Beca, turn that off already,” Emil Blackwing whined beside Rory, pulling his attention away from Callum.
When he shot Emil a questioning look, the blue-eyed boy explained, “It’s an episode from some old soap opera that keeps playing nonstop on all of the crystal balls. It’s on every channel. Ugh, we get it! She’s her own evil sister!”
“But, she lost her memories in the tragic car crash years ago,” Katie Aaryn added laughingly. “Now that she has her memories back, she’s going to get her revenge by exposing everyone’s hidden secrets in one hellish night.”
Rory just nodded in reply.
“So, are we really trapped inside the citadel?” asked Drew de la Solis, turning to look up at him. The rest of the kids focused their attention on Rory now, except Callum.
“No,” the man simply responded.
“Then, why can’t anyone use the Cecaemue Bridge?” challenged Laura Bruin.
“I heard some criminal escaped from the West Tower prisons,” Jaime Lychfield whispered, before adjusting the glasses that had slid down his nose.
“We’re not trapped and nothing escapes the West Tower unless the sorcerers will it to be released,” Rory stated firmly. “Just because we’re having trouble finding the door, doesn’t mean it’s barred or missing. All magic is based on artful deception. And not all illusions are made equal.”
With that, Rory sang a soft note with his golden voice and three vials appeared in his hands. He beckoned the children to approach him and take one.
Jaime tried to grasp the first one only to find that the vial disappeared as his hand touched it. Biting his lip, Drew stepped forward and picked up the second one. Unfortunately, the vial turned to green slime in his hands, causing his friends to giggle at the pitiful child. Cautiously, Katie reached out for the last vial and gingerly picked it with just her fingers. After a few seconds of holding it at arm’s length, she began to smile and then the vial turned into a tiny glass spider demon that pounced on her head.
Quickly, Rory sounded a note to quickly banish the summoned creature from the now shrieking girl, while she tore at her own chestnut pigtails. When Katie finally realized the creature was gone, she shot out her tongue at Rory.
Ignoring her, Rory said loudly, “Since your classes are cancelled for today, I’m recruiting you all to help me prepare some potions.”
One by one the children nodded their heads. Only his nephew ignored him. The boy had continued to fight imps while Rory spoke to his friends.
“I’m not asking for your help,” Rory spoke to Callum, letting his angry voice travel ahead of him to his nephew. “I’m enlisting your aid as one of your superiors and elders.”
Releasing another note, Rory banished the imps that continually charged at the boy.
His nephew’s angry glare met him when he approached. For a moment, the two just huffed at each other, silently venting their unexpressed feelings.
“Listen,” Rory barked at Callum. “You lost two aunts today. I lost a sister and a wife. You can waste the rest of the day playing around in this arena or you can help me brew the vilest potions possible so we can avenge Nerys and Abigail.”
Hot tears streamed down the boy’s face suddenly and he collapsed into his uncle’s arms. Rory just held him tightly and wept openly along with Callum.
“Let it out, boy,” Rory whispered. “Soon, we’re going to show whoever did this to our family that good and gentle witches don’t initiate into the citadel. We’re a dread coven that none should cross.”
“You know what I just realized?” Linh heard Rory’s mournful voice say, causing her to stop in her tracks.
Just a few feet from her, lit by the pale light of the Helyolena crescent moon petals, the man sat facing the Central Hecatian Grove on a bench made from an overgrown set of roots. There was a large flask made of a white flower in his hands. Beside him, Mal leaned on the stalk of a large red flower that dripped a clear liquid into a blue flower positioned as a basin beneath it. She spotted the man’s young nephew sleeping on the bench with his shaggy head lying in his uncle’s lap.
“There’s no one at home for me to tell about Nerys’ passing,” Rory continued sadly. “Nerys and I never knew much about our family. We lived a rather isolated life in Glasgow and now they’re all gone thanks to my brother Liam. I don’t even know where my father came from. I think my mother said once that she was born in Aberdeen.” He paused to think about it and then shrugged.
Craning his head to look at Mal, Rory asked softly, “Could you use your powers to help me speak to Nerys or any of my past relatives?”
“No,” Mal said flatly, shocking both Rory and Linh. “You have mediums here, why don’t you ask them?”
“Because I’m asking you,” Rory shot back testily.
“I’m sorry,” Mal said with his head hung low. “But avatars don’t enter the realms of Death. Not even Death’s own servants. We just reincarnate at our masters’ command once we die. And I can’t call a spirit back from the other side.”
“Is Death so greedy?” Rory scoffed.
“I wish my aspect of Death was to act as a comforter, but it isn’t. I can only tell you that I understand your grief,” Mal said simply, garnering a skeptical look for the man several years his senior.
Mal looked down at Rory with old eyes and said, “Yes, this body was born in Melbourne only a few years ago, but I’ve lived through nine lifetimes. I’ve lost my share of sisters and spouses in the past, only to be forced back into the world of the living when it was my time to rest. Trust me when I tell you, Death isn’t greedy for company. Life, however, is a ravenous beast.”
Silent tension hung in the night air and for a moment Linh just shifted awkwardly on her heels, not wanting to disturb them. Just then, Rory looked in her direction and smiled at her with his eyes.
“Out for a late night stroll?” Rory’s voice asked her, while he took a swig from his flask. It was then that Linh noticed that Rory had removed the covering from his mouth.
Stepping forward, she was fascinated to finally see the lower half of his rather handsome face. Oddly enough, Rory’s lips were completely expressionless when he wasn’t drinking, while his green eyes were lively and emotive.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she answered, before taking a seat next to Rory. After giving it a quick thought, she shot him an imploring look before she continued, “I’ve been having nightmares.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what were they about?” Rory asked.
“Would you believe I ate a man once?” Linh responded, giving him a smirk.
“I didn’t think witches could eat meat,” Mal remarked, visibly taken aback.
“We can when we transfigure it into something more eatable,” Linh said nonchalantly, garnering a look of disgust from Mal.
Shrugging, Linh simply explained, “I was hungry and grew up on the streets. You’d be surprised how many witches lose control of our powers, especially when we’re left on our own and not trained properly at a young age. Sometimes the shadows whisper to us and take us to a dark place. Twelve other girls at my orphanage in Liverpool had done the exact same thing as I did. We formed a little coven actually.”
“And now, you’re probably looking for some way to get a decent night’s rest, like my famous sleep potion perhaps?” Rory asked, swirling his flask gently.
“Maybe,” Linh answered with feigned naiveté.
“Well, he drank the last of it,” Rory responded, pointing to his sleeping nephew. An artful, homemade staff was strapped to the boy’s back, along with a satchel. “Apparently, everyone in the citadel has been having nightmares and they’ve drained my entire supply.”
Deflated suddenly, Linh was almost willing to accept defeat. Then her eyes followed Rory’s flask as he brought it to his lips once more.
“What are you drinking?” she inquired, narrowing her eyes at the man.
“Ale,” Rory replied dryly.
“Oh,” Linh sheepishly remarked, before looking away in embarrassment.
She finally caught a whiff of the rich dark brew collecting in the blue flower basin from the red flower’s clear drops. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted someone else prowling around in the field.
“What is he doing?” She asked.
“Who? Red?” Rory asked playfully, indicating John Doe. Beside them, Mal visibly suppressed an infectious chuckle. “He says he’s investigating.”
Amid the overgrown grass and the towering flowers that were shaped into a veritable park by the gardeners, they watched the man busily skulking around. There was something comical about the way the suit wearing spy awkwardly maneuvered his way around the plants, so as not to touch anything.
“According to Rowan’s familiars, he is desperately trying to conceal a Canadian accent under that identity masking technology,” Rory jokingly added.
“Seriously? Canada doesn’t even exist anymore,” Linh responded with a chuckle. “Honestly, by the end of this night, we’ll have his real name, his home address and the proper location of the Society itself. Never bring secrets to a den of witches, they never stay buried.”
“I thought you instructed the weather chanters to not make fog or any concealing atmospheric conditions tonight,” John Doe called out to Rory, pointing toward a thick rolling cloud of mist rapidly sweeping over the meadows.
“I did,” the bald man whispered nervously, while he watched the white cloud spread its searching tendrils forward. Linh noticed a lone tendril snake its way toward the East Tower portal.
“It’s just a bit of fog,” an amused woman’s voice said from behind them.
Looking at the reports spread out on the table in her sparsely decorated flat, Miranda could only sigh fruitlessly. It had been a long day and frankly she was tired.
Thankfully, except for an odd glitch occurring with the crystal ball signals throughout the citadel, all lines of communications were still working. She’d spent the day coordinating with Avalon’s city council, the security offices in the West Tower and the Department of Internal Investigations. Unfortunately, with each answer they’d obtained, more questions arose.
Based on the evidence so far, Internal Investigations concluded that the perpetrator, or perpetrators, had to be someone with routine access to the citadel who could utilize the dream lines and portals without raising any initial warnings from security or the monitoring sprijurlings. While Mage Yoccm and Sorcerer Ekkelsen were instructed to commit suicide in the same public locations that they were discovered in, the assailant would have needed access to the Tolmach’s private flats within the Ceridwen Tower and the public meeting areas within the East Tower in order to arrange both Nerys’ and Enchantress Ortego’s bodies. It was also speculated that the individual used their relative familiarity as a basis to cloud the instincts of the sprijurlings in order to hide their movements.
They still couldn’t determine the sender of the tampered items or determine if more were sent, due to the same issue affecting the portals. With the exception of Nerys’ own personal notes, they had determined that the items were all received around August 1st, which was over a month ago. The investigators believed someone close to Nerys had to have meddled with her documents within the last few days. Curiously, only Abigail had received a spelled object.
At Miranda’s behest, the city council had made several inquiries to both Americellio and overseas to England. The grave and rotted body of Mason Kaliroth had remained untouched and the Nidhogg Enchanter’s magic seemed contained within the borders of Americellio. Also, other than Abigail, there were no reports of missing witches. And, the only allegations of apostate witches were within Miranda’s own reports.
Meanwhile, the city’s investigators confirmed a net of compulsion spells wrapped around the outside of Arista’s Eye, subtly preventing anyone from entering or exiting.
The security offices also confirmed that there was also a web of spells, formed by a series of casters, interwoven throughout the citadel. And thanks to Mal translating key parts of the journal they had found, they had a notion of the spells that were enacted. Unfortunately, they made it clear that not only could they not identify the specific casters, but they couldn’t dispel the magic either.
It was actually an ancient combat tactic that the witches had routinely employed when they once fought wars amongst themselves. A nest of interconnecting spells would be planted within the enemy’s own defense spells, where they would lurk and remained unreachable until the spells were fully set into motion. After which, the enemy would need to find the weak link between the spells in order to disable the entire network.
However, spells can’t be chemically or hypnotically compelled against a caster’s will and spells that require a high degree of skill would be dangerous if coerced, even more so if the casters were intimidated.
The message was clear.
Someone wanted them to know that they could use the citadel’s own people, spells, and its foundations to infiltrate the witch’s stronghold. Though, they were no closer to finding out who, apart from a collection of broken glass and a vipers’ nest of incantations.
For now, there were no plans to find Abigail or to mobilize the citadel’s defenses. They were simply under watch until their enemy sprung their trap. They’d also wait for the forensic results from the North Tower labs.
Most frustrating to Miranda, due to bureaucratic in-fighting about jurisdictions, Internal Investigations was claiming this as their case and had dismissed her with the message that her continued aid would only be welcome if specifically requested.
Someone had just assaulted her home, along with those closest to her, and now duty demanded that she simply hand over her files, then simply move on.
Troublingly, they seemed to be concealing proof that a covert radio signal was being sent to a tru-sapien device somewhere within the citadel.
Seething, Miranda rose from her chair and began to pace in frustration. Her legs waded in the pool of mist that seeped into her flat through her portal. She stopped when she noticed the picturesque field of her painting. It cast a warm glow into the otherwise dark room. Slowly, Miranda walked towards it and the black uniform waving at her in the everlasting soft breeze.
Without thinking, she brought her hand to her face and found a picture of herself at fifteen with her fellow squad mates. In an era of bell-bottoms, a smiling young Miranda stood in a miniskirt amid the people she had come to think of as family.
Off in the corner of the picture, glasses wearing Emory Adore and chocolate-skinned Lucius Xera shared a private joke. Large, floppy-haired Sven Klik had his arms wrapped around goofily grinning Alexandra Brystone while he nuzzled within her feathered, deep golden hair. And finally, square-jawed Jolon Majors stood rather awkwardly beside them, flashing a handsome smile.
By force of habit, Miranda’s eyes glanced over the last person in the photograph.
Duty had been the defining aspect of her life. Someone else’s definition of duty had determined the course of her life, magic and the way she wore her long raven hair. She had a disorienting moment of horror when she couldn’t remember whether she actually liked the lights of Paris or if that was simply another detail she’d been forced to memorize.
I could use my Sentinel credentials to supersede their order, Miranda thought as a surge of rebellious anger rose within her. I could take charge of the investigation and hunt for the culprits as well as Abigail in my own way. I could take charge of my life for once.
And be forever cursed to exile, a small voice soberly reminded her. A spike of wild aimless resentment flared inside her when she realized that such a defiant act of heroism would mean forfeiting her title and home in the citadel.
When she looked at the photo once more, a bitter realization came to her. Duty had made her a Sentinel, but it wasn’t duty that caused her to smile so broadly in that picture.
Her eyelids grew heavy while she stood facing her old uniform. She was frustrated and tired suddenly. The mask was fun, but it was a lie, she thought drowsily, dropping heavily to her knees and then laying down under the warm eternal sunshine.
The mask was freeing, she thought before closing her eyes.
I want my life back, came an enraged cry from within. Then she let her anger carry her away from the waking world.
She suddenly found herself in Piccadilly Gardens again, only the city outside of the flames wasn’t Manchester. Ancient palaces nestled in black desert sands and French hillsides were interlaced within an American city. Miranda could also make out the reminiscence of a certain village that had once rested on an island just off the coast of Peru.
This time, Miranda’s eyes weren’t on the blonde women fighting on the dais, but on the eerie comet barreling down on the patchwork city of regrets. Her suspicions were verified when the comet drew closer and she realized that it was a strange flying saucer with crumbling skyscrapers that had been set ablaze.
The Olympesias, Miranda thought.
She watched the former headquarters of the Sentinels, affectionately nicknamed Olympus, smash its way through buildings as it headed toward her. A small part of her mind remembered that the day the Olympesias had fallen was also the day that Alexandra had torn up and then flushed the photo she was looking at earlier.
This time when she heard the familiar whistle through the air, she let her wild rage unshackle her full mystic might and she prepared to strike. She resolved to cast off the scripted confines that duty had put on her life, at least in her own dreams. The basilisk power growled savagely under her skin. Noxious gas mystically bubbled up in her body and seeped out of her nose as she turned swiftly.
Letting out a savage scream, Miranda released a torrent of hellfire and pent up wrath onto the armoured man leaping onto her.
Curiously, Linh turned to look at the woman who joined them and smiled. Donned in a strange white gown, Abigail smiled back at her, before giving her husband a chiding stare.
“What are you and Callum doing out here so late?” Abigail inquired.
“We’re on a stake-out,” Callum exclaimed gleefully, surprisingly now awake. “We’re protecting the main entrance portals from any outside intruders and we’re looking for clues to find you.”
“The boy just wanted to help, sweetheart,” Rory lovingly said to Abbey, oddly enough using his mouth. A smile was even stretching across his normally still lips. “It’s good to keep a boy busy, while he’s grieving.”
Deeply confused, Linh suddenly felt her heavy eyelids fly open. She wasn’t aware that she had closed them. Looking around, she realized that Abigail was gone and Callum was laying on the bench beside her while his uncle took visibly labored steps toward where John Doe was lying still in the tall grass, blanketed by a sheet of fog. Despite the immense wariness welling up in Linh as the fog drew closer, she could feel her eyelids droop steadily.
“Don’t,” Mal’s voice spoke out in gasps.
The pale-haired boy was on his knees with one hand gripping the red flower tightly. His wide eyes shone with terror.
“Don’t. Don’t,” he repeated before Linh felt herself blink deeply once more.
Her fatigue was gone.
She watched dispassionately while Mal slumped heavily against the large red flower, succumbing to whatever strange ailment had claimed him. Before her eyes, Rory was swallowed by a sweeping curtain of mist. All the while, his wife sat next to Linh singing a lullaby to a malnourished, almost skeletal Callum.
“He’s hungry,” Abigail pleaded with Linh. “They’re all hungry.”
From deep within the fog came a sound Linh had long ago come to associate with her childhood. The anguished cries of children. Slowly, scores of hollow-eyed, haggard youth covered in dirt and rags crept out of the pale impenetrable cloud. Linh’s heart broke at the sight of them.
“You can feed them,” Abigail whispered softly in Linh’s ear. “You did it once before. You remember how.”
“Blood and stone,” chanted the multitude of children, as a dazed man in an ill-fitting guard’s uniform was led out of the fog on a chain. “Blood and flame.”
“I can’t,” Linh tearfully protested, even while her magic boiled within her blood. She could feel it reaching outward as her arms rose and a chill wind stirred itself into being.
“You’ll let us all die because you fear using your full powers?” Callum said despondently to Linh while looking into her brown eyes. One of the children, a dark-haired girl, stripped the guard of his belt and raised it above her head.
Power hummed through Linh’s being while the encroaching horde of children continued to chant. The song of power played in concert with a chorus of sorrow deep with her and began to overwhelm her senses. Linh could feel her lips moving, shaping the words of a spell.
“Let yourself be free,” Abigail’s voice urged seemingly from afar as Linh watched the little girl slowly bring the belt down onto the guard’s back. “Be the messiah of the downtrodden youth that you were always meant to be.”
A wave of clarity reached Linh through the haze blinding her senses when she felt a hard lash across her back, and then another. As old wounds painfully opened up on her back, she looked once more at the children reaching for her and the familiar-looking girl savagely whipping the guard.
From within strangely contorted and mangled faces, the children gazed at her with black soulless eyes filled with a menacing hunger. Tiny needle-like fangs poked out of their mean mouths when they chanted. Their soft beseeching hands had become decaying, scuttling spider-like appendages that dug deeply into her flesh with diseased, yellow, talon-like nails.
Foul worming tongues lapped up the blood dripping from her wounds just as her eyes opened once more.
Curiously, Linh found herself hovering above a sea of mist and she was bleeding from mysterious bite marks along her arms. Runic patterns burned themselves into her pale skin. The plants of the meadow shifted and twisted, caught in the throes of her power. Shrieking mouths bubbled out of the stems while grasping claws wrenched themselves from the leaves and peering eyeballs oozed out of the flowering buds.
“Blood and stone,” Linh heard herself chant in her enraptured state.
“Linh!” she heard Rory’s voice cry out. The fog rolled back and she saw the large man running out toward her.
“Blood and flame,” Linh continued to chant just as her eyes began to close once more.
“Linh, don’t fall asleep!”
This isn’t right, Mal thought, gazing out in horror from his throne made of corpses to the wasteland that had once been his kingdom long ago.
Winged demons had blotted out the raging sky. Vile abominations performed unspeakable acts amid the ash and torn down stones that had once been the castle city. A monstrous horde of wild men busily hurled chanting, black-eyed, carcasses into piles of burning bodies.
The crude image of two swords crossed at the hilt with snakes entwined around them began to form out of the funeral pyres.
As he stared at the once sacred symbol of his nation, a foul foreboding energy reached out to the transfixed Mal, immobilizing him. Framing him on either side of his throne, two grey-eyed women wrapped in royal robes shook in the throes of power.
This was a day that had haunted Mal throughout several lifetimes. It was the day when a careless, desperate appeal had led to his own death and the devastation of his people. His kingdom had become a cursed land, consumed by demons and erased from the memory of time itself. The once sacred symbols of his great nation had become profaned and twisted into occult icons. The very name of his realm had become a dread curse that even now he was fearful to think of.
To many, the man he had once been was the child of the true Evil Ones and a demon god-king in his own right. He’d been mythologized as the dark-hearted Father of all Nightmares, whose demonic cruelty knew no bounds. Even to this day, he was professed to be the Lord of Armageddon who sought to rule over a netherworld.
The first recorded assembly of the Great Powers of Olde had allegedly been to seal away Mal’s fiendish past self.
It was a legend burned into the annals of the mystical community, consecrated in the tortured souls of millions and written across all the elements, never to be rescinded.
“Maldaerog,” the corpses beneath Mal chanted his true name with ceaseless fervour.
This isn’t how it happened, Mal thought with horror, while he stared at the ghastly circus playing out before him.
Suddenly, the dark-haired young woman on his left hoisted the Golden Disc of Mepolmek, the symbol for their serpent goddess of the depths and shadow. Howls tore out of the deepest shades lurking around them. Black flames erupted on the woman’s pale skin and engulfed her.
Talianna! Mal screamed within his mind, while the woman collapsed into a shrieking heap.
Then, the pale-haired young woman on his right hoisted the Black Blade of Olvyldhep, the snake-hilted sword that represented their serpent god of the heavens and light. The dark storming skies groaned and a bolt of lightning struck the woman down.
Arista! He cried internally.
Once again, he was forced to witness the death of his sisters from another life.
With rage and misery filling him, he gripped the necklace depicting a black sun radiating snakes that was slung around his neck. It was the Pendant of Zulpyhk, otherwise known as the Humbled Sun or simply the Eclipse. It was the symbol for their fox god of death and the emblem for their royal bloodline.
Death sang out all around him in the shrill cries of millions as Mal’s power flowed out over the fields to quell the demonic turmoil. In haunting tones, a decaying force lurched toward him on a wave of shambling bodies to answer his challenge. This wasn’t the gentle touch of the Reaper that had gathered him millennia ago and made him one of its warriors. It was the shrieking, clawing hunger of unlife creeping through his veins and defiantly chocking the essence from his being, even as cold greying hands and gnashing mouths tore at his limbs.
Desperately, he unleashed the full raw forces of Death to combat the waves of undead scrambling over each other to consume him and the hateful black bile that tried to stifle his screams from within.
And then, a golden sound called out to him from the descending darkness.
“Is it over? Why does he still look like that?” Callum asked, looking at his uncle, who just shrugged in reply.
“Is he alright?” Rory asked John Doe, while his eyes remained on the much larger man Mal had become.
The bald man was struck by how much the trembling and gasping avatar resembled the false head of the Cecaemue. The mysterious magicked journal that his wife had been working on, which Mal could read with ease, flashed in his mind suddenly.
“He’s Aspecting,” the spy answered, walking in a wide perimeter around the circle of debris and decay around Mal.
When confused stares followed his answer, John sighed and explained, “He’s taken the form of one of his past incarnations. We just need to stop him before he goes Visiting.”
“Visiting?” Rory asked, looking away from the confused, searching grey eyes of Mal to the hazy-faced man.
“He can displace himself through time and space. Avatars usually use it to interact with their past lives. I hear it’s a rather enlightening experience,” John distractedly replied, plucking a long fresh blade of grass. “With all of the mystical in-fighting and treaty-enforced bartered magic, I’m always quite amazed by how much you all don’t know about each other.”
Dismissing the glares his comments earned him, John thrust the grass forward into the circle several times. When it didn’t wither, he nodded and proclaimed, “I think the boy will be alright?”
“Did I harm anyone?” Mal asked in a small voice as the others tentatively approached him.
“No,” Linh responded, stepping forward to help the young man to his feet. “We didn’t hurt anyone.”
The pair exchanged a series of troubled and shamed glances before Linh gestured to the dried debris of mutated half-human plants at their feet. The remnants of the battle that had been waged between the two now lay on the strangely blood soaked ground amid a cloud of fog and the many smashed potion vials Rory had used to awaken them.
Before their eyes, Mal reverted back to a teenager.
“We’ve all had a harrowing nocturnal sojourn,” John chimed in dryly.
“What was so harrowing about your ‘nocturnal sojourn’?” Linh shot back in a mocking tone.
“Pie,” John stated, ignoring Linh’s sneering tone.
“Pie?” Linh asked skeptically.
“Apple, pumpkin, boysenberry,” John responded nonchalantly, while the others just gawked at him strangely. He then added darkly, “Meringue.”
“The question you all should be asking is how did he manage to pull us out of those nightmares?” John inquired, gesturing at Rory.
“This is one of the potions I use to induce a meditative state,” Rory answered testily, waving at the fog. “A special blend I made for deep introspection. Someone is using my own potion against us. And I only have enough of the counter-potion for one more person. The rest is in there.” Rory pointed to the Central Hecatian Grove.
The archway portals were all filled in with bricks, except for the East Tower portal. The Aethonra statue was also missing. Mist poured freely through the shimmering, translucent air within the archway.
What is happening in there? Rory wondered to himself.
“Unless you all have any reserves, we should probably find Agent D’Apophis,” John declared.
“What we need to do is to alert the matriarchs,” Linh said shaking, while her troubled dark eyes stared at the portal.
“How?” Rory asked pointedly. “The dream lines are down.”
He then demonstrated by whistling a note. A frayed mess of multi-coloured threads appeared in the air and then vanished just as suddenly.
“Even if we could notify someone else, there is no way we could get the matriarchs to declare a proper Walpurgis,” Rory explained. “La Dame left the East Tower on a business trip days ago. The Great Crow is still slumbering in her shell in the North Tower. No one in the West Tower even knows where the Crone’s secret grotto is. And frankly, the last time someone tried to speak unbidden to La Bruja of the South, we had body parts raining down on the gardens for a month.”
From somewhere deep in the mist came the ominous laughter of children and the witches tensed suddenly.
“The Nocuttrus,” Callum whispered, as the sound drew closer. The boy clung to his uncle. “They eat you away from the inside and when they’re done, the only thing left is a terrified skin husk filled with silver eggs.”
“We can’t stay here,” Rory confirmed, nodding slowly.
“Fine,” Mal spoke grimly, stepping forward.
A war scythe materialized in his right hand. His eyes became blood-red, and then an unusually long red braid unfurled out of his short pale hair. His black suit was replaced by a leather tunic vest, leather trousers and a pair of black boots that resembled fox feet.
“Let’s go find the Sentinel and end this,” Mal said, before marching towards the open portal.
With trepidation, the others joined him and they all stepped through the portal. After a dizzying moment, the small band was walking out onto the cobbled walkways of the East Tower Market District.
Mist filled the dark, oddly empty and quiet stone paths. The flashing will-o’-wisp lights of the vacant shops and eateries winked at them as they passed. Under skeletal trees adorned with candles that billowed spiraling scrolls, the pavilions stood unmanned. Lonely crystal balls glowed softly on benches and chairs. Still steaming plates of food remained on the tables in restaurants and outdoor eating places waiting for their owners.
The district isn’t closed, Rory noticed, looking around. Just abandoned.
“Does the East Tower always decorate their communal areas like a little girl’s room?” Mal asked and others followed his gaze upward.
An impossibly massive child’s room loomed overhead in all of its pink and purple glory.
“No,” Rory answered worriedly.
As he continued to stare at the disorienting vision, glass shards of various shapes and sizes began to rain down on them.
“Look out!” he cried, diving to shield his nephew while the others tried to duck for cover. He watched with horror when he realized that they were a hair too late.
The shards sliced into them.
“What on earth!” Linh exclaimed, watching the shards pass harmlessly through her body.
The group stared in confusion and wonder while the glass traveled through them as though they were just phantoms. Their confusion deepened when John tentatively reached out and grasped one of the glass shards, then stared intently at the rest falling around them.
Without warning, the spy dashed over to a nearby restaurant table cluttered with bags of shopping goods. John upended one of the bags and then began plucking out random shards out of the air, before placing them carefully into the bag.
“What are you doing?” Linh asked.
“I’m really good at puzzles,” John responded, just as he finished.
“How do we find Miranda in here?” Rory interjected. “I don’t have access to the portals in this tower. I don’t know the layout either.”
A chilling breeze drifted past him that hummed with power and whispered words.
“I placed a tracer on her,” John stated, approaching them. He produced a glowing device from his suit coat. “She’s in this marketplace. We need to go.”
They all tense as the whispered breeze lightly whirled around them and the shadows deepened.
Just then, howling laughter filled the air as a pair of shadow hands reached out and gripped John’s neck. A dark braid materialized around Mal’s throat and tightened, strangling him.
“Claim him!” Rory shouted to Linh, while he undid the top of his uniform to free his mouth.
Acting quickly, Linh reached into the healing cuts on her arms and then shoved her hand into John’s mouth to write a cat sigil on his tongue with her blood. When she finished, the man grew momentarily rigid until the shadow hands faded from his neck.
“Open your mouth!” Rory yelled at the avatar as he fought to pry Mal’s lips apart.
Rory roughly reached into the young man’s mouth and yanked Mal’s tongue out. Using a sharp pin hidden in the clasp of his uniform, Rory cut along his own tongue and then used the blood to write a huntsman spider sigil on Mal’s tongue.
The ground shook suddenly, while the avatar’s eyes rolled up into his head. Mal’s shadow grew in size and stretched towards the ceiling, taking the shape of a spectral fox that angrily peered down at the bald man with burning eyes.
Then just as suddenly, the shaking stopped and Mal returned to normal.
“What did you do to me?” Mal demanded angrily.
“I just made sure that you couldn’t be controlled by any other caster,” Rory responded, fastening the uniform cover over his mouth.
“My power comes from the oldest of gods,” Mal said incredulously. “There is no way they could control that.”
“Your power comes from a powerful, but barely sentient personification of an abstract concept,” Rory snapped. “Do you have any idea what my people can do with that kind of power with just the turn of a phrase? We turned your Olde Ones into jinn!”
“And I suppose my appeal would be for them to gain control of the smartest man in the citadel,” John said, pulling a gun out of his suit jacket.
“You’re not the smartest-,” Callum started, only for both Linh and Mal to counter him with knowing sidelong glances.
Suddenly, mad laughter rang through the air, followed by shrieks and howls.
Then a leaf plucked itself off a nearby tree and floated gently towards them on an unfelt breeze.
Mal and John quickly readied their weapons, while Rory let a potion vial slip into his hands. Before unstrapping the staff from his back, Callum opened his satchel and produced a bit of chocolate.
Beside him, Linh muttered a spell to her glowing finger and then spoke out loud in English, “I need clothes.”
A glowing ball shot out from her finger and raced out into the emptiness. Rory watched her wait for a heartbeat and then the ball came back.
In a blaze of light, her black heels were replaced by mismatching black and red running shoes. A pair of grey sweatpants appeared underneath her green dress and a brown jacket wrapped itself around her shoulders. Rory shot a disproving look at her use of the theft spell.
“I promise to return everything later,” Linh said to him, rolling her eyes.
“You’re not a citadel witch, are you going to be alright in here?” Mal asked as the leaf drew nearer.
She whispered an incantation and ball of magic runes appeared in her hand.
“I may have left the citadel, but I know a few useful spells,” Linh answered with a savage grin.
The group huddled to together and waited.
The echoing laughter became deafening.
The air became filled with rampant tormented cries. In the distance, a storm stirred itself into being. The ground shook violently as an explosion rocked the marketplace. Tables and chairs rose in the air and burst into steaming yellowish venom that ate through the trees and the stones that it landed on.
In a whirling cloud of flaming embers, a furious man danced himself into being. Barking unintelligibly at someone who wasn’t there, he summoned strange winged black demons and loosed them into the streets.
An old woman with wild hair leapt out of the shadows wielding a dagger. She angrily cut off the tip of her tongue and hurled it toward the man. The bloody flesh transformed itself into a sword formed out of fire that began wildly slashing as the woman mindlessly screamed in fury and pain.
Before their eyes, the quiet district erupted into violent arcane chaos. The witches of the East Tower Market District emerged. Enwrapped by their delusions, they fought against each other and their imagined foes. Or even themselves.
In a shower of blood, a woman called her swarm of bee familiars to tear herself apart.
Amidst the rampage, the floating leaf changed itself into a little girl in a white shift with blood flowing out of her eyes. Using a long strand of dark hair as a rope, she skipped toward them slowly. The girl chanted something repeatedly in a strange language and floating disembodied heads appeared around her.
While the heads opened their mouths to bare their fangs, Rory realized what the girl was speaking in her backwards tongue.
“Run for your lives!”
“We can’t kill them!” Rory cried over the din, while their small group raced through an outdoor restaurant.
Somehow as John Doe led them along a winding path through the malls and shops of the marketplace, they had attracted the ire of a number of the maddened casters and ethereal creatures. Now, a furious stampede of familiars and wispirrei pets raced after them on shadow paws and fiery wings. Shapeshifting elemental talons and claws reached out to snatch at their flesh, while Rory busily tried to shield his nephew.
Suddenly, a vine tore out of the ground and blocked Rory’s path. In a whirl of leaves, it transformed itself into a large gazelle made of vines and leaves. Snorting a challenge, the creature planted its hooves and leveled its tree branch-like antlers at Rory and Callum. Just before it could charge forward, Mal leapt over Rory’s head and then seemingly hung in the air. The curved blade attached to his long red braid lashed out and slashed the beast’s neck.
Before their eyes, the creature collapsed in a green heap.
“I said, we can’t kill any of them,” Rory chastised the impossibly slowly descending man. “They’re one-half of a witch.”
“Oh,” Mal simply responded with a shrug.
“Oh!” Linh snapped, coming up behind them.
“Don’t judge me,” Mal snapped back.
With a swift turn, he swiped at a white ethereal falcon with his war scythe. As it touched the blade, the falcon exploded into a series of breezes and then vanished.
“Besides, I have the power to paralyze as well as kill,” Mal said dryly, answering the three sets of horror-struck eyes that just stared at him.
“This way!” John shouted ahead of them. He bounded over an upended table then spun in mid-air. With perfect precision, he fired darts at the nearest encroaching familiars before performing a skillful landing.
Gesturing them forward, the spy cried, “Agent d’Apophis is just up ahead.”
With that, the dark-suited man raced around a corner toward the central plaza. Following him, Rory pulled Callum around the fallen remains of the gazelle. Still in the air, Mal grasped Linh’s hand and dash forward after them in a staggering burst of speed.
The group skidded to a stop as they entered the square.
Floating over the sea of white fog, a large green cloud glinted with whirling sand particles filled the ominously empty plaza. The green veil rolled back to reveal a graveyard of stone statues scattered around the large griffin fountain. Rory slowly realized that they hadn’t been followed into the square. It also occurred to him that those weren’t statues, but petrified sprijurlings.
“What is that?” Callum asked, looking at the cloud.
“I believe that would be Agent d’Apophis,” John responded.
A few of the statues had begun to crumble and crack apart.
“Oh no,” Rory whispered when he noticed a shadow slink in a serpentine manner through the vapours.
“She unleashed her full basilisk side,” Linh said in a hushed, horrified voice.
Just then, they heard a pained, inhuman cry. A large white and gold reptilian bird plummeted from above, cracking the cobblestones. A dark figure stood on top of it with her hands wrapped around its long neck. Flares of power drained out of the broken creature and into the woman they had all been searching for. Her skin and uniform were scaled in sand and mud.
Before their eyes, the Aethonra turned to stone.
“Miranda,” Rory called out slowly, just as John and Mal trained their weapons at the crazed dark-haired woman.
Miranda looked back at them with hellish fiery eyes. Her long black hair fanned out to resemble a cobra hood. She hissed at them before retreating back into her acidic cloud.
“She can kill an Aethonra!” Linh shrieked in panic. “She can feed on them. They were born out of forbidden earth-shattering magic.”
Shaking himself out of his shock, Rory reached into his pocket and pull out his notepad. A quill materialized in his hand when he opened it. He quickly scribbled a diagram on one of its pages, before tearing it out and passing it to John.
“I need this pattern,” Rory said quickly, indicating the statues.
John studied the image closely and then nodded. The spy then busied himself with replacing his ammunition while Rory then turned his attention toward Linh.
“I need you to transmute those statues into metal after John finishes,” Rory said. “Can you do that?”
Grimacing, Linh slowly nodded in response.
“Good,” Rory said slowly. “Callum eat a couple pieces of chocolate. We’re going to free Miranda by recreating the basilisk wrangling from the old Red Reign legends.”
From within the cloud, they heard a challenging, angry hiss.
“I’m highly resistant to most poisons,” Mal offered. “I can distract her.”
“Are you sure?” Rory asked.
“Trust me,” Mal shrugged. “No matter how hurt I get, I won’t truly die unless I want to.”
With that, Mal leapt into the green haze. Gazing intently, John rapidly fired a round of bullets at a number of seemingly random statues, shattering them. Once his task was completed, John signaled to Linh. Taking a deep breath, Linh raised her arms slowly and she spoke swiftly. Only instead of sound, the words came out as glowing runes that gathered into balls of energy that then shot forward at the statues, instantly turning the stone of the statues into copper.
“Help!” Mal screamed from within the poisonous fumes.
“Callum!” Rory ordered.
The little boy at his side nodded and then popped a handful of chocolate into his mouth. A magical circle appeared around the boy’s head while he pointed his staff at the nearest statue.
Rory chanted in his mystically taught tongue. To the others, he was merely singing in tones and notes. His golden voice moved clockwise around the perimeter of statues, leaving a shimmering trail that finally formed a circle. As he chanted, lightning erupted out of Callum’s staff. Rory used his power to direct the electricity, causing it to dart between the statues and form a pattern of electricity, using the statues as points. He then commanded the power to erode and chemically break down the cloud.
“Oh no,” Linh gasped when the looming green mist dissipated.
To their horror, Miranda had Mal pinned on the floor. The avatar struggled in vain while a swirl of sand sigils surrounded him. The lightning had formed chains around the enchantress’ neck and limbs, in a vain effort to restrain her.
“I was wrong! She’s going to kill me!” Mal cried. “Hurry!”
Behind the struggling pair, the rest of them saw the spitefully mangled and gruesomely disfigured remains of the sprijurlings Miranda’s magic hadn’t turned to stone.
Continuing his chant, Rory pulled out the last counter-potion vial and hurled it at the witch.
Her dreams had turned against her, Miranda realized painfully as Mason once more plunge his blade into her chest.
She was caught in an endless losing cycle within her own mind, no matter how hard she fought. On the dais, Libby had once more shattered Abigail. Her squad mates were once more defeated by their primordial foes and then thrown in a heap at her side. Above her, crimson masked men and women rained down onto Piccadilly Gardens.
“The Sentinels of Olympus have fallen,” a female voice crowed. Miranda didn’t need to turn her head to know who was speaking the words that had haunted her for years.
It was the seventh member of her squad. The pale-haired young woman with the icy blue eyes who had been wearing a distinctive purple tunic dress in the group photo she had reminisced over before falling asleep. The same woman who now marched proudly over the fallen body of Sven Klik, just as she had years prior.
The traitor. Gwenythe DeSimone.
“And now, your world has come to an end,” Gwenythe said.
In the distance, a blaze of light flared like the sun in the dark dream-conjured city. It birthed a screaming plume of smoke that grew toward the sky where it formed a distinctive mushroom shape. An expanding wave of dread white-hot light and debris spread out from the base of the mushroom, consuming Miranda’s dream.
It was an all-encompassing destructive force most of the world had no name for or knowledge of thanks to the Sentinels. A force someone had used to destroy almost all of the Sentinels in its wake.
A devastating roar filled the air as the light neared. It drowned out the triumphant cheers and laughter from her imagined foes while they raced into the light toward their own destruction. Rage lashed her heart, just as the booming roar reached her.
And then, just as Miranda had closed her eyes and prepared to restart her dream cycle, a male voice called out softly.
With a jolt, Miranda opened her eyes.
For a perplexing moment, she just stared at the broken potion vial that rested by her side and slowly dissolved into the air. A numbing shame and sadness washed through her and soothed the inhuman rage that had burned within her.
I am a monster, Miranda thought, while the ringing in her ears began to subside. The image of the mushroom cloud hung in her mind.
Then she noticed that someone was pulling her to her feet.
“Miranda,” Rory was saying, while a wild chorus of voices and animalistic screams drew closer. “Miranda, we need to go. Someone stole my meditation potion and set it loose in the East Tower, turning every witch in here into a maniac. And, I can’t wake them up!”
That’s what happened, Miranda thought, looking around.
Her eyes caught sight of the sprijurling statues and the fleshy mess that stank of her power and pain. Every evil her mind and magic could muster lay bare before her eyes. She was shocked, repulsed and ashamed at what she had done. Yet, underneath it all, there was something else lurking.
A deep satisfying sense of catharsis.
“We don’t need to wake them,” Miranda hissed at Rory.
She snarled when he was about to rebut her. The sounds of the crazed witches crept closer. She lifted her arms and drew her basilisk sand towards herself, where it formed two extra pairs of arms at her sides.
“My best mate was a telepath. We don’t need to stop them dreaming,” Miranda spoke with a growl. All six arms busily shaped spells. “We just need to stop their dreams from hurting us. Let them run around in their own sleeping heads for a while.”
Suddenly, the fog around them changed into tiny, clear crystals that floated outward and away. The screams and shrieks steadily quieted, much to the surprise of the others.
“Are you alright?” Linh asked Miranda in concern while reaching out with a supportive hand. Still frazzled, Miranda could only slap away the other woman’s support.
“I am very much not alright,” Miranda simply said, suddenly noticing the sand scales coating her body.
With a vigorous shake, she cast the golden granules off herself and then recoiled.
Her citadel uniform had vanished suddenly, only to be replaced by a distinctive purple tunic dress.
“Someone is trying to send you a message,” John declared at her side.
Shaking her head, Miranda mentally blocked him out. She let her hands form the incantation to recall her uniform. When nothing happened, she cast the spell again and still, nothing happened. For a moment all she heard was her own shallow breathing.
“Can you sheath that thing?” Rory asked, staring nervously at the serpent-shaped dust cloud slithering around them. A furious pair of eyes made of sand glared at Rory in response. Palpable terror sang from those around her.
Taking a breath, Miranda forced herself to find a modicum of calm and signaled the basilisk to retreat to its resting place.
“It might be useful for us to discuss our plan now that things have calmed,” John said.
“Help me, Rory,” a female voice called out, interrupting him.
It was coming from a strange floating metal sphere with short antennae on it. While it floated towards them, Miranda noticed the screen on one side of the sphere displaying a crying woman.
“Help me! He’s going to kill me!” The crying woman begged.
“Abbey,” Rory whispered slowly, emotion choking his voice. His deep grieving eyes stared deeply into Miranda’s for answers. “What is this thing?”
“It’s a com-orb,” she responded thoughtfully, staring at the crying woman on the screen. She then she looked at Rory and clarified. “It’s a communications device that was made by the tru-sapiens. We can use this to find Abigail.”
As soon as the words left her lips, gunshots rang through the air and four bullets tore into the com-orb. With sparks and chunks of metal casing flying, the floating device crashed to the ground.
Before she could process her own shock, Rory shrieked out an ugly note and pinned John Doe to the ground, knocking the smoking gun out of the other man’s hand. Rory produced a potion vial from his uniform and stood poised to throw it at John.
“Explain yourself!” Miranda barked at the struggling blurry-faced spy. The others, even Mal, crept menacingly toward John.
“It’s just too convenient and distracting,” John choked out. “Someone has been manipulating us all night with dreams and deceptions. And now, they’ve sent something else to lead us by the nose through seeming chaos.”
“That was one of the old com-orb models that Olympus donated to Breaelé University,” Miranda shot back. “One of the items Kaliroth stole years ago.”
“It’s also one of the models the Society donated to the citadel and other agencies,” John countered.
“What is he saying?” Linh inquired with a confused scowl.
“I’m saying,” John responded pointedly. “Let’s not follow the obvious red herring.”
“No,” a female voice said in the distance and all of their eyes went to the speaker. “Please do follow it.”
For a moment, Miranda irrationally realized how strange it was to see the pale woman with the extraordinarily long black walking toward them on her feet.
“Aunt Nerys,” Callum spoke in a hushed tone. The black-clad woman smiled warmly at the young boy briefly then grew serious.
“I thoroughly underestimated your resistance to your own potions, young man,” Nerys spoke gently, gazing at Rory. “It has been awhile since a partied with a potion maker. I forgot how insanely high your tolerance can be.”
“Nerys,” Miranda whispered.
“I’m sorry, my little cobra, but you are all wasting the witching hour,” Nerys said in a tone that sent chills through Miranda’s spine. “The witches still need their time to journey down the path of enlightenment and for that, I need you out of the way.”
“Salome,” Miranda hissed.
Cold dread and hatred slowly filled her as she watched the other woman smile. And then, three other people approached from behind Nerys. Enchantress Evie Ortego, Mage Henrik Yoccm and Sorcerer Boris Ekkelsen. The four blinked and, for a moment, their eyes appeared to be stitched up by course thread.
“Abominations,” Mal growled in anger, pointing his war scythe at the deceased quartet.
“Revenants,” Miranda clarified under her breath.
“Witch magic,” Mal countered.
“Busy,” Nerys said dryly, while the four revenants performed a synchronized eye roll in mock boredom. “You all need an outlet for your wayward misgivings. Liam, there are some bad people here to see us.”
Miranda watched both Rory and Callum stiffen as a small boy stepped out from behind Nerys. The man and his nephew drifted toward each other and then stepped backward slowly, while Miranda and Linh exchanged questioning glances.
“He’s my baby brother,” Rory answered Miranda’s silent confusion.
Understanding filled both women at once and they also backed away. Rory’s magic hold on John dissipated.
“We need to run,” Rory said with a tremor in his voice, while Liam’s brows furrowed. “We need to run now!” The panicked man cried, picking up his nephew.
“Why?” Mal challenged, staring at the cowering witches.
Just then, Liam’s eyes went wholly black. His head slowly rotated until it was upside. His mouth began to open abnormally wide. A torrent of cellar spiders poured forth from the orifice and scuttled toward them.
“My brother is a pure witch!” Rory shouted, before racing away with the other witches and spy in his wake.
“Run!” he commanded the avatar and Mal stiffly obeyed.
Once more, they were forced to race for their lives through the marketplace district. This time, a tidal wave of arachnids charged after them, rushing unexpectedly out of street corners and blocking pathways. The menace herded them forward along a twisting path with a bizarre, threatening assortment of disjointed mystically talents.
Spiders leapt forward from the approaching tide onto fallen objects or the sleeping witches that lay in the retreating group’s path and set hem ablaze, only to then freeze them. Many witches grew and shrank, then twisted into parodies of themselves. A few tables screamed and melted, while simultaneously transfiguring themselves into quivering, malformed fleshy beings. Chairs exploded into tears in the fabric of space that threatened to pull anything near them into the void.
“We need to get out of here!” Rory cried, while they ran.
“How?” Miranda yelled back in frustration.
As they approached yet another portal, the space within the archway began to fill with bricks.
“We need to enter the looking glass,” John said with an odd glee.
He pointed toward the oddly familiar, Egyptian style mirror frame that sat out in the open beside an empty mall the group was being steered toward.
As they approached it, Miranda recognized the frame at once but noticed that the symbol on the top of the frame was wrong. It depicted a winged sphinx that had a cobra for its tail.
The god Tithoes, Miranda thought. Guardian from danger and bad dreams.
She shivered when she noticed that the sphinx symbol was bound in chains and its head was twisted backward.
“What are you doing?” Linh huffed out, looking back at the steadily approaching spider horde.
“A puzzle,” John answered simply.
He swiftly pulled a collection of glass shards from the bag he was carrying and filled in the mirror frame. Once the glass was whole, the mirror shimmered and glowed.
“Come on,” John urged, before leaping into through the mirror and vanishing. The others swiftly followed.
After a dizzying moment, they all stepped out onto the shifting black sand of a desert cast in the light of large blood moon. A steaming black river of tar dotted with white feathers wormed through the dunes in the distance. Stepping out of the arid air, a strange assortment of armed blonde women in soiled wraps and grotesque metal shame masks with pig snouts surrounded them.
Not women, Miranda realized. As the devil-horned women awkwardly approached them, she noticed the visible seams in their all-too-artificial skin. Dolls.
“Surrender!” the dolls ordered in one voice. “Hand over the master’s son and yield.”
“Oh, this isn’t going to mentally scar me at all,” Linh groaned sarcastically. Her dark eyes surveyed the macabre madness playing out around her.
Bound in black chains that held chunks of a radiant bluish-silver metal, the small group found itself escorted through the bazaar of a futuristic castle town that was lit by electric torches and filled with faceless, shock-collared people in a myriad of period dress. Whirring machines hovered through the anachronistic medieval streets that were dotted with ancient Egyptian temples and Wild West saloons. Brightly coloured, plastic exaggerations of animals authoritatively marched through the crowds with watchful red eyes.
In the shadowy corners of the techno-fantastic town, people with a pentagram branded onto their faces were strapped into devices that resembled large batteries. Jolts of energy lashed them before being painfully syphoned out through wires that connected the batteries to the torches. As the doll soldiers led them toward an opulent palace that dwarfed the town, Miranda realized that the people in the batteries were all women.
Or rather, they were all copies of just one specific brown-haired woman.
“How did we even get here?” Linh asked, looking away from the streets. “Is there a black desert island in the citadel?”
“Actually,” John said, slipping his hands out of his cuffs and then retrieving a device from his jacket pocket. He examined the device and then continued, “Just as I thought. According to my tracer, we are actually in the Tolmach’s flat.”
“You can take off your cuffs!” Linh snapped at him, garnering a repudiating tug on her chain by one of the dolls.
“Of course,” John replied with a shrug. “Eddalokium has no power over my kind. In fact, truth be told, the radiation has a pleasant tingle.”
In her weakened and demoralized state, Miranda could only sigh as she listened to their argument. There was a storm of questions in her head that she didn’t want answered at the moment.
The face of Gwenythe DeSimone flashed in her mind every time she blinked.
“Why did you let yourself get captured?” Linh demanded in frustration.
“Frankly, for the same reason you are continuing to participate in this obvious façade,” John answered, indicating the chains. “We all want to see where this witch’s tale takes us,” he added in an excited tone.
At that, Miranda decided the man was being sarcastic. The alternative was far too disturbing to contemplate.
“No witch would create this. Not by choice, anyway,” Linh protested, gesturing to the batteries.
“She bound their spirits in artificial flesh,” Mal spoke up in utter disgust. His accusing grey eyes glared outward from under pale locks, now that he’d been forced to return to his normal guise.
“Director Lilithridge is naturally a necromantic witch,” Linh said dismissively. “It wouldn’t take much for someone to get her to claim revenants. Look at what we’ve all seen tonight. We’re just lucky she didn’t dig up their dead bodies. It’s her natural state. Not all spellcraft is based on will or skill.”
“It’s based on desire,” Miranda interjected quietly, earning a glare from a pair of dark brown eyes. “And Salome is naturally a stitch witch, not a necromancer.”
“Not even the vilest of witches would betray their own coven,” Linh urged. “Come on, Miranda. You, Abbey and I have known Salome for years. If anyone is forcing the witches through their own nightmares, it would be the man who used chemicals and hypnosis to kill them. Kaliroth is using our own natural talents against us.”
“Intriguing,” John said thoughtfully. “So, I suppose there is someone with the natural talent to disrupt the citadel’s external portals?”
“Maybe,” Linh said defiantly.
“And, I also suppose there are other witches with the natural ability to manipulate the internal spells of the citadel?” John countered coolly.
“Probably,” Linh shot back.
“And this?” John inquired, indicating their surroundings.
“Oh please, Abbey could conjure this in her sleep if you just hand her a large enough reflective surface,” Linh responded with a casual eye roll. Her skin then paled when she realized what she had just said.
“The Cecaemue Bridge is quite reflective now and I did notice that the architecture around us had a distinctive old Welsh design,” John said slowly, before glancing in Rory’s direction. “Who else has a sentimental attachment for ancient Egyptian artwork? Who else has access to Sorcerer Tolmach’s store of potions within his own private chambers? Whose bedroom were we looking at in the Market District?”
Rendered silent by the Ragnorak metal, Rory could only clench his jaw in reply.
“Abigail isn’t this broken,” Linh declared.
“But Libby was,” Miranda said. “In the end, Libby was very broken. She had used Abigail’s magic to do terrible things.”
She turned to look at Linh sadly and continued, “Where do you think the mechanical cowboy theme came from? It was born from the mind of a deranged conjure who dreamed of a continent that would destroy her as soon as she stepped foot on it. And unfortunately for us, conjures don’t truly die unless their master does.”
Suddenly, Rory grunted at John. When he got the other man’s attention, he began blinking furiously.
He’s using Morse code, Miranda realized.
“He says that his wife has been conjuring a lot of things lately,” John said, interpreting for them.
“Conjures can’t use magic,” Linh said slowly in confusion. “And, they don’t have control over the person who conjured them.”
“They also can’t have children,” Miranda added, gesturing at the barred gilded palanquin that hovered ahead of them. Behind the flowing draperies, they heard the imprisoned young Callum struggle from within.
“How did Libby manage to have a child?” Linh asked slowly.
Deep in thought, the dark-haired woman’s steps halted. In response, the dolls roughly dragged the snarling woman back into step with the rest.
“Why, exactly, were you all so afraid of that boy Liam?” Mal asked, after an uncomfortable silence. “I thought the witches fought wars to have only pure witches.”
“No,” Miranda said simply. “The casters fought wars to have pure dynasties of witches.”
Looking at Mal, she explained, “Like the rest of the mystical community, the vast majority of witches are born with certain talents or elemental and ethereal affinities. We are the natural witches. Our magical connections can often limit our spellcasting, but it also grounds our senses to reality. It forms the basis for how we witches understand the world and learn to work within it. And even then, we’re susceptible to madness.”
After a deep sigh, Miranda continued somberly, “Pure witches are born without a connection to anything. For them, reality is just a shifting sea without reason that simply drowns out their senses. Like the rest of us, they can be taught all manner of proper spells and casting disciplines. But for many like Liam, the story merely ends in tragedy and death.”
Miranda noticed a tear well up in Rory’s eyes and the group marched in solemn silence. Just as they were ushered out of the town into the plastic oasis that lay beyond the palace gates, a pained cry ran out from one of the batteries.
“By all that is holy,” Linh exclaimed angrily. “Who is that woman?”
“Mason Kaliroth’s mother,” Miranda answered her darkly. “His first victim.”
In silence, they were led onto the black cobbles that ran through the fake green foliage and then steered past fields dotted with stone flowers and marble trees toward the golden palace doors. Stepping through shimmering gold doors, the group was directed down seemingly endless hallways that sparkled.
In every direction, the adorning precious stones, marble, and onyx dazzled the eye and slightly blinded them from seeing the grotesque paintings on the walls depicting each of Mason Kaliroth’s murders. Though curiously, portraits depicting the four recent murders in the citadel were not among them.
After a few minutes of wandering through the glittering halls, their captors thrust them through a massive iron gate into a gladiatorial arena filled with faceless spectators and locked them in the ring. Forced cheers moaned through the air with a haunting tremor. Across the field, a mechanical behemoth that resembled Kaliroth’s mechanized armour sat on a colossal stone throne. A high pitched sound, along with the flash of a pale light, came from the top of the throne and signaled for the crowd to stop cheering.
Without warning, the hovering palanquin shot up into the air and flew into a hatch in the side of the throne.
And then, the captive group was released from their chains.
Flanked by hissing sand, five sets of feet raced across the arena with Rory leading the pack. Mal shifted back into his other form, while John and Linh readied their attacks. Miranda leapt into the air and swiftly summoned her desert serpent under the feet of the charging gang. With a toss of its mammoth head, the creature launched them all into the air.
Bolts of arcane power, potion vials, bullets, an ethereal blade and a war scythe rained down on the mechanical monstrosity at once.
Unfortunately, their furious assault dissipated when it struck a translucent energy barrier surrounding the throne. An invisible force gripped the makeshift team and lowered them back into the arena. Before their eyes, a large holographic screen appeared displaying Mason Kaliroth wrapped in elaborate robes of black and gold. A five-tiered crown rested on his head. Each tier was styled to represent one of the tribes of magic, with witches at the top.
“Where is my wife and nephew, you monster?” Rory bellowed at Mason’s impassive smiling face.
“With family,” Mason said simply.
He pressed one of the buttons on the automated chair he was seated on and two mirrors rose out of the large armrests on the throne. Each mirror resembled Abigail’s looking glass, only the designs on the top were different. On the left mirror, there was a symbol representing the god Set and on the right, there was a symbol representing the god Osiris.
Out of both mirrors stepped two identical sets of Callum and Abigail.
“I knew it had to be him,” Linh growled before she screamed out a string of expletives. Mason just laughed mockingly at their confused faces.
“I killed you once, Witch Splinter King,” Miranda snarled. “And I assure you that I will banish you back to whatever nether realm takes your diseased kind after death.”
In response, Kaliroth pressed another button on his chair and an earsplitting sound filled the air, bringing the five to their knees.
“Well done,” Mason crowed while clapping. A mocking thin smile stretched across his face. “I suppose this is where I retaliate and swear that now the world will know my might. The ground will tremble at my presence. And that by my hand, the skies will turn black and the rivers will flow with the blood of my enemies.”
He laughed once more before continuing, “Forgive me for disappointing you, but I sit on an empty throne and wear a hollow crown. This is my dream.” Miranda was visibly taken aback when she noticed that Mason’s mouth had actually said nightmare.
For a brief moment, course thread was sewn across the pale man’s eyes, spelling ‘witch kin’. Gleaming spindle fibers were attached to his limbs, tugging them and controlling his movements. Then, he returned to normal and his smile grew wider when he registered the dawning understanding sweeping over the gang.
“I’m going to kill that woman myself,” Linh spoke up, breaking the strained silence.
“Good,” Mason hissed with a dark gleam in his eye. Black gates around the arena opened and a series of growls issued from within the shadows, accompanied by peering red eyes and thundering steps. “If you would like to fight, then I have an offer for you. You may fight me and my army. If you prevail, then you will be provided a door where you may continue your quest to find Abigail and the source of tonight’s machinations.”
“But, let me guarantee you this,” Mason said gravely. “You may dispel what has been wrought, but you can never roll back the tide. The damage to your citadel has already been done and the woman you know as Abigail Elysia Arley is now lost forever.”
At that, Rory released a potion vial from his space defining, scaled armour. Then he stiffened.
Stepping out of a hatch at the bottom of the throne, Nerys led the other revenants along with Liam, who scuttled forward on long spider-like limbs. Behind them, a pudgy guard walked out with nine dirt-covered children, two grey-eyed women in royal dress and, surprisingly, four giant slices of pie.
A tremor rang through Miranda and her cohorts. Even John Doe’s cool demeanor shattered as Mason’s champions strode forward.
“Apple,” the slices of pie chanted sinisterly as they drew nearer. “Pumpkin. Boysenberry. Meringue.”
As they spoke the last word, the pie suddenly changed into a glowering family of four. The ground beneath John’s feet churned and then began to stir under the rest of the five in the arena. Their feet started to slowly sink into the shifting sand.
“Ah,” Mason said with a satisfied sigh, observing the effect his new revelations were having. “As I was saying, you are free to pointlessly struggle and engage me in battle, but first you must kill the victims of your past. As you now see, however, you can also choose to surrender and let yourself slip guiltlessly into the black sands of forgetfulness. You can choose to wake up with no memory of all that has transpired and simply live in whatever the world has become.”
As he spoke, the resurrected haunts tauntingly approached. John, Linh, and Rory were already falling through the sand, though Mal and Miranda remained standing. A confusing mixture of emotions swirled within Miranda when she saw the children walking toward her.
“I had assumed the avatar of Death would be shamelessly callous, but I’m quite surprised at you, Sentinel,” Mason said, feigning his shock.
“She has shame,” the identical Abigails bellowed down from the throne.
In unison, the blonde pair cast a gleaming object at Miranda that struck her down before she could even think to counter it. A moment later, Miranda awoke to the most peculiar sensation.
She had been split in two.
A large cut of glass stood on the ground between her halves. On one side, dressed in the same miniskirt outfit she had been wearing in her old photograph, she was the artifice of all that was perceived as noble and human about Miranda. On the other side, caked in mud and dressed in the same filthy rags she’d worn when she left the caves, she was the embodiment of all of Miranda’s animalistic, dark impulses and the sum of her basilisk half.
Lady Majahdelor. Miranda’s fragmented mind finally recalled the name she had given the basilisk before it had become her familiar. Just before, the two had claimed each other. It was a name she rarely thought of after the basilisk had become part of herself.
Both sets of her ears heard a whistling sound cut through the air, they turned to see Mal’s war scythe slice through the two grey-eyed women who approached him. Their bodies were shredded into a fine powder before the spinning scythe flew back into the hand of its master.
“Those were not my sisters,” Mal declared angrily. “I know where their spirits reside. None of us have crossed through the veil into your sphere of influence, necromancer.”
“Then maybe, we should resurrect people who are within my power,” Mason responded in Salome’s voice.
“Do it,” Mal challenged, raising his scythe. At once, his shadow spread outward across the ground of the arena and seeped into the now groaning shadows. The expanding shade bubbled and sang in melancholic notes. “I’ve opened the doors to the other side. Send anyone you wish. I will sever the power that binds them to you and cast them back to their resting places.”
For a moment, a greedy glare flared within Mason’s eyes.
“Forget about them,” twin voices whispered into the ears of both halves of Miranda. It suddenly occurred to Miranda that both sides of herself were now sinking into the sand. Beside both versions of herself, there stood one of the Abigails angrily pointing at each other.
“Forget about her!” the Abigails barked in tandem at each other and the Mirandas. “She did this. She did all of this. She ruined your life. It’s her fault and now it’s time to let her go.” Listening intently, Miranda continued to let her halves be wholly consumed by a growing sense of shame and regret.
“You fought harder in the caves, Jasmine,” the youngest of the ragged children chastised, while the rest surrounded her. “You didn’t have to fight so hard. You didn’t need to bash our heads in with the rock.”
At that, a sense of clarity came over Miranda in her disorienting state. Her two sinking halves stared at each other. She was finally free from the confusion and turmoil that had consumed her life. For the first time since they were joined, she finally connected to the lost little girl who loved to play in her family gardens with shimmering sprites and the beast that once marveled at the stars while it lounged with its kin under the night sky.
Yet, she felt empty.
Ignoring the Abigails as they continued to curse at each other, both halves of Miranda reached out to each other. In an instant, the Abigails and the glass were gone. Standing on the shifting black sands, the Mirandas were one woman once more. Only now, she wore her Sentinel uniform with a small hourglass ornament belted around her waist by a gold thread.
For a moment, a sad smile stretched on her face when she recalled being dazzled by the Parisian streets for the first time.
Kneeling down, Miranda cupped the small scowling boy who had spoken to her and said, “I only told that story to one other person, but I had lied. Samael was the youngest of us who had entered the trials that year. He was the only one of us who had read what was going to happen. He knew about the fumes our elders would use to rile our blood and the lie they’d later tell the survivor about our cursed connection to a vile bestial nature. He’d begged me to bludgeon him before the real horror of the frenzy began. He wanted me to save him.” Her voice choked with emotion suddenly and tears welled up in her eyes. The children smiled softly and nodded encouragingly.
Miranda’s fingers slowly shaped a simple spell. Solemnly, she let her magic swirl around the children in a cloud of sand and sigils. The youths vanished before her eyes as Miranda simply whispered, “Thank you.”
Gunshots rang out from beside her.
Trembling, John now stood on top of the sand, over the bodies of the family he had just shot. He muttered in a hoarse voice, “Roast beef. Ham. Mutton. Blood sausage.”
They watched as the family vanished into Mal’s shadow.
Next, the guard standing over Linh reached out and pulled the other woman up. He whispered to Linh as she cried in his arms. Then spheres of magic made of twirling runes engulfed the man and he too vanished.
“He said that we had to forgive each other,” Linh blurted out, while she cried softly.
Then the distraught four turned their attention to Rory. Nerys stood over him, reaching her hand out to her brother while Liam menacingly growled from behind.
“I can’t kill my baby brother again,” Rory cried as he let himself slip away. “It wasn’t his fault. He saw us playing with our spindle spells and he just wanted to join in. He just wanted to be a spider witch too. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
His sister nodded sympathetically down at him.
“Nerys, I can’t lose you too,” Rory tearfully said to her while she gently rubbed his bald head.
“I know,” Nerys replied gently, before slowly pulling the large man up out of the sand. “But, I’m afraid you’ll have to. This illusion takes a lot of mental strain and I only have a small amount of control in it, but my control is already beginning to wane. Listen to me. If you don’t try to stop this nightmare, none of it will end for any of us. The witches of the citadel will either be dead or driven insane. So please, just send us back to Mum and Dad.”
The siblings held hands briefly and then slowly pulled their hands apart. Tiny gleaming threads that sang of power filled the space between their hands and connected their fingertips. The pair swiftly knitted the threads into the shape of a white gift-wrapped box topped with a red bow. When they were finished, they both nodded to each other in deep resolve.
“Liam,” Rory called out in a sing-song voice. He and Nerys held out the box together. “Present.”
“Present!” Liam exclaimed in an excited youthful voice.
In an instant, the boy was transformed back to normal. He raced toward his siblings with a wide innocent smile on his face. Placing his hands on the box, Liam shivered slightly. For a moment, gleaming threads played under his pale skin.
“Can I open it now?” Liam asked with wide-eyed wonder.
“We can open it together,” Nerys said softly.
She took Liam’s hand and grasped the bow with him. Threads appeared under her skin as well. She then pointed at the other revenants and released threads onto to them, connecting their flesh to her and the red bow.
“Remember, the key to dispelling this chaos is to accept the truth. Take care of Callum and Abigail,” Nerys tearfully whispered. “Goodbye.”
With that, Nerys Tolmach pulled the bow. Before their eyes, the revenants unraveled into threads and then faded into nothingness, leaving Rory alone with his shoulders hung low in sorrow.
“Intriguing,” Mason simply hissed in his normal voice, garnering glares from five angry pairs of eyes.
His holographic screen vanished and the mechanical armour rose to its feet. The ground shook with thunder as Mason’s dinosaur horde lurched out of their pens and rushed en masse toward the arena.
“You’ve earned the right to battle me,” boomed Mason’s voice from the head of the robotic menace.
Releasing her powers and basilisk half, Miranda swiftly cast a spell. A column of sand formed under her feet and propelled her upward. She stopped when she was level with the massive throne’s armrest. Casting another spell, she summoned a massive broadsword that hung in the air and pointed it toward Mason’s robot.
“Join us, Callum,” Miranda urged, staring at the twin versions of the boy on either side of the throne.
Just then, a laser blast rocketed toward her from one of the robotic limbs. She dove to avoid it, causing her column of sand to slide with her. With inhuman speed, Miranda swiftly summoned two extra pairs of arms at her sides and crafted a complex slew of spells that filled the air. Three more blasts were released and Miranda’s spells wrapped around them.
Suddenly, the plasma bursts slowed down in the air as they approached the Sentinel. Steam poured out of the laser blasts as Miranda’s magic syphoned the heat from them. Another set of spells converted the beams to blasts of hot air that burned through the arms of Miranda’s uniform and her skin.
Before she could shriek in pain, twin thuds sounded from the throne followed by waves of healing energy from both versions of Callum. Miranda looked on with pride as the boy maintained the magic circle around his head with an air of masterful daftness.
“Jump,” Miranda commanded Callum when she was fully healed.
Nodding, both boys leapt forward and suddenly became one again. At her command, a giant sand serpent formed a long, looping slide that carried the boy safely down to his uncle’s waiting arms.
The shadow of a robotic hand fell over Miranda, followed by a warning glow as Mason trained his lasers on her once more. Miranda readied herself for another blast only to see a black scythe strike the mechanical hand from above. The hand began to rapidly rust and rot away before her eyes.
Looking upward, she shot Mal an appreciative smile while he slowly glided downward and then virtually stopped in mid-fall. With practiced ease, he caught his spinning scythe as it flew back to him.
Below, the prehistoric army exploded onto the gladiatorial field. Gargantuan beasts stomped forward in an angry cloud, cracking the ground with their sheer mass. Leathery wings took to the sky with horrid cries.
“Come on, Freckles!” Linh shouted at John, while she took off her brown jacket.
Chanting glowing runes at the garment, Linh changed the jacket into two long lassoes. She handed one to John and the pair swung the lassoes at the swooping, snapping pterodactyls.
Then one after the other, they each roped one of the flying lizards and were hauled into the air. Using their momentum, the two swung on top of the winged beasts and fought their own mid-air battles to wrangle their flying mounts. When they gained control, they steered the creatures toward the robot slowly stomping toward Miranda and Mal.
Just then, the other mechanical hand targeted the Sentinel and avatar with its lasers.
Acting in tandem, explosive rounds, and transfiguring bolts struck the robotic appendage, shattering it and then twisting the electronic debris into harmless fluff.
“Duck!” Rory shouted to Callum.
He cast his spindle fibers at a pterodactyl inches away from attacking his nephew and roughly yanked the winged reptile towards himself. Then with a mighty right hook, he punched the beast and sent it flying backward into a swarm of its comrades.
“Did your Aunt Nerys’ notes include that spell she cast yesterday?” Rory asked Callum. “Or something like it?”
“Yeah,” Callum said, nodding nervously. The boy shook visibly while he tried not to look at the stampede of great lizards that were only a few feet away.
“We’re going to do that, but much wider,” Rory instructed, petting his nephew’s head. “Follow my lead.”
He then flung his arms out wide, casting a multitude of potion vials at the furthest ends of the arena. The black liquid swiftly shaped a wide web of spells on the ground.
Choking down handfuls of chocolate, Callum erupted with massive bolts of magical lightning that shaped itself into a dazzling circle around his head. In a trance, the small youth floated into the air and sat cross-legged by his uncle.
Tossing their heads back just as the first talons threatened to tear them to shreds, Callum struck the ground with an earth-shattering force and Rory released bellowing notes with his golden voice of light. Pillars of earth rose up around the arena and energy played between them, forming another web of spells with the surging volts. The army of twisted dinosaurs dissolved in the field as they touched the bubbling dark fluid, leaving piles of metallic skeletal corpses.
Torrents of rushing power rose up from the two circles of spells and through Miranda, filling her with arcane forces. While the others used their assorted might to decimate Kaliroth’s mecha, the power finally rocketed out of Miranda’s open mouth with a primal riotous scream. She formed incantations with six arms and wrapped the swelling magic in granular sigils, shaping it into a colossal blade that hovered over the machine.
With a final swipe, she brought down the blade with a mighty force that obliterated the robot. A sundering light that rivaled the stars engulfed the arena and expanded outward to annihilate the surrounding castle, and then the make-believe town of futuristic wonders and toys.
When the light and dust finally cleared, the six heaving and panting champions stood in a black desert in the ruins of the razed kingdom. At their feet, burned and scarred, Mason Kaliroth lay within the remains of his armoured giant beside a charred crown.
“Please,” Mason croaked out painfully. “Take your revenge or have pity, but please let me go back to my rest.”
Staring at the broken man, the group hesitated. Then Miranda swallowed heavily and summoned a sword with her magic. With a sigh, she plunged the blade into Mason Kaliroth’s chest and once more put an end to the menace known as the Witch Splinter King.
His body disappeared into the fading shadow of Death.
Before them, an Egyptian-styled mirror materialized. Once more, it was nearly identical to Abigail’s looking glass. Miranda watched the others walk through it and vanish in the shimmering portal that manifested in the frame.
Alone, with only the sounds of her uniform repairing itself, Miranda examined the mirror. An ominous chill filled her as she stared at the symbol on top of the mirror. It depicted the fearsome goddess Sekhmet.
Taking an unsettling deep breath, Miranda stepped through the portal, bracing herself for the unknown.
Her long night was still not over.
Warily, the six stepped out of the portal and were at once surprised to find themselves walking into the dark foyer of the Tolmach’s flat. Cautiously, they walked toward the lone pale light leading them to the family’s sitting room.
Under the light of a will-o’-wisp floor lamp, they found a blonde woman in an artfully designed red dress plopped down in a white sofa chair and hugging a brown cushion. Her head hung low, the woman didn’t seem to notice the group as they entered the room.
“Aunt Abbey?” Callum squeaked out as they all eyed the woman in the red dress warily.
“Callum,” the golden-haired woman responded in a timid voice, looking up at the boy with sorrowful blue eyes.
“Abbey,” Rory whispered.
A pair of tearful blue eyes shifted to look at the bald man suddenly. An uneasy silence hung in the air with a sense of growing uncertainty. The tension broke when the woman sitting in front of them broke down into tears, prompting the small boy to rush forward and wrap his arms around her. The others watched awkwardly, while Rory walked up to the pair and the family embraced.
Out of the corner of her eye, Miranda caught sight of John wandering off into the shadows.
“She hates me,” the crying woman blurted out. Fleetingly, Miranda noticed that there was something unusual about the woman’s tone. “She’s doing all of this just to hurt me.”
“It’s alright now, Abbey,” Rory said soothingly.
“No,” the other woman exclaimed, pulling out of her family’s arms. She looked up at the man with wide, frightened eyes. “You don’t understand. She’s not done. She wants to destroy me. She wants to destroy everything about me. I’ve always loved my sister, but she never loved me back.” The woman wept once more.
A slight clicking sound called Miranda’s attention away from the grieving woman to where John Doe was standing. For a confused moment, Miranda stared out the window beside John. Her brown eyes then followed his gaze to the large golden cage tucked away in the corner where Abigail’s mirror should have been.
“I gave her everything,” the blonde woman said bitterly in-between sobs. Her face contorted as anger filled her voice. “I let her have everything. I gave her my life. I even gave her my son.” As she said that, she reached out and cupped the small boy’s face in her hands.
At once, the witches in the room froze.
An icy chill crept up Miranda’s spine as she turned her attention to the other woman.
“Abigail,” she said slowly, finally noticing the devilish mischief peering at her from behind the blue eyes. “You don’t have a son.”
Miranda watched in horror while the blonde woman’s pouting red lips pulled into a sinister grin before speaking the word, “Oops.”
“Libby,” Rory whispered, pulling the boy away from his now chuckling mother.
Mad laughter filled the dark room, while the six stepped slowly away from the woman in red. Runic tattoos blazed along the pale woman’s skin and red droplets dripped down from the shadows of the ceiling onto Libby, coating her in blood. Arcane light flowed through the fluid, shaping it into sigils.
Before their eyes, Libby’s golden hair lifted into the air and artfully piled itself on her head. A large diadem affixed itself to her brow. A high majestic collar fanned out around her head and a long, embroidered black cape unfurled down her back. Long gloves wrapped around her arms and jewels adorned her red party dress, which now trailed along the floor. Her red lips turned black and pulled into a razor thin smile under smoldering kohl eyes.
When the power ceased, Libby tossed her head back and howled in laughter at the perturbed stares gazing on her.
“It’s just like old times,” she purred, her eyes on Miranda’s Sentinel uniform. A large shard of glass materialized in her hand. “Capes and cowls. Operatic gloves and domino masks. It’s like we’re at a fancy dress party, isn’t it? Would you care to dance with the queen?”
As they stared uneasily at the blonde woman, she caressed the glass shard and it transformed into a crystal scepter.
“Conjures can’t do magic. Conjures can’t do magic,” Linh muttered repeatedly under her breath, staring intently at the scepter.
“You know, I had an inkling that Mason would fail to stop you,” Libby continued while sashaying about before them. “Robotic laser cannons or not, who brings a gun to a witch fight?”
She shifted her gaze toward John, who was busily retrieving his own gun from his pocket, and added pointedly, “Hey, brown eyes.”
“About that,” John replied.
His hand went to his hairline and he slowly pulled a torn translucent film from his blurry face. Small spots that resembled freckle marks decorated the thin material. Oddly, even without the film on his face, the spy’s identity remained shrouded by a strange haze that made him appear bizarrely average, in a cartoonish sense.
“Seriously?” Libby mocked with a snicker. “Too bad, I kind of like freckle-faced men.”
“Where is my wife?” Rory barked at Libby. He passed Callum into Linh’s arms and stepped towards the woman.
“I put her where she’s most comfortable,” Libby said with a smirk. “In a gilded cage.”
She waved her hand at the cage tucked away in the dark corner. The shadows within the cage lifted, revealing a weeping Abigail in her party dress.
“Rory! Callum!” Abigail cried while grasping the bars of her prison. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Run! Please, just run away and leave me. A group of rogue casters made her the living cornerstone for their spells. You can’t fight her. The citadel itself is protecting her along with a net of spells. And, I don’t know how to dispel any of this.”
“Nerys told us how to dispel it,” Rory spoke slowly. “She said that we had to accept the truth.”
“Just like a witch,” Libby mockingly mused, glancing at her twin within the cage. “What truth would that be, I wonder?”
A growing sense of understanding and grim acceptance seemingly filled Abigail’s blue eyes suddenly.
“Mum,” Callum said softly.
“Yes, my baby,” Libby answered with genuine warmth in her voice. Her expression became softer while she kneeled down and beckoned her son forward with open arms.
“Please let Aunt Abbey go,” Callum said, not moving toward her.
“It’s always about Saint Abbey, isn’t it?” Libby spoke distantly, looking away from Callum.
Her arms slowly dropped to her sides. The warmth drained from her face as she rose to her feet. Her hands balled into tight fists. Cold hatred visibly grew within the woman’s narrowing blue eyes.
“I could care less about witch schemes and some old woman’s delusions,” Libby continued with a growl as her face contorted with rage and her chest heaved with heavy emotion. “I just wanted to dream one last time and have a little bit of fun, but no one cares what I want. No one ever cared about me or my suffering. No one even missed me while I was gone. No one wants me.”
For a moment, the regally attired woman just stared at her own son inching further away from her in horror and fear. Then, she shook her head violently.
“That’s not true,” Abigail cried, pleading with her twin.
“Hell, I don’t even want me,” Libby muttered solemnly. Tattoos gleamed on Libby’s skin once more as she hugged herself. A series of runic cards then appeared and whirled around her.
“Libby, stop!” Abigail yelled.
Without warning, Libby grabbed her own head and released a blood-curdling scream. For a heartbreaking moment, Miranda watched the wild eyes of the huffing woman as Libby slowly calmed herself. Underneath the mischief, the dark-haired woman noticed that it wasn’t anger flaring within Libby’s blue eyes.
“Fine, you all came here for a fight. Then come, let’s end this futility once and for all,” Libby said dejectedly, plucking one of her summoned cards. Casting the card into the air, she whirled once and then performed a few artful steps. A ring of knives materialized and spun around her.
Grasping another card, Libby hissed, “Join the Walpurgis Dance.”
Fleetingly, the golden-haired woman looked at her nervous son while he shifted uneasily on his feet and pointed his staff at her. She then glared at Rory as the scowling man produced a potion vial. Continuing her steps, Libby went round the room once, before Rory joined her in the dance. The bald man released a series of notes, before gesturing at the others.
Solemnly, Callum began to rhythmically strike the floor with his staff and Miranda’s fingers skipped their own dance in time to the tempo. Then Linh chanted under breath, while Mal and John readied their weapons. All at once, they circled Libby as she danced around them to the pulsing beat of battle.
Spells hummed in the air, while fingers twitched on their respective weapons and they all prepared to perform the witches’ orchestral song of war.
“This is all Salome’s fault. We don’t need to fight,” Miranda said, reaching out to the distraught dancing woman.
In response, a series of cards hanging above them transformed into a flock of tiny pterodactyls that threateningly buzzed about in the darkness of the room. Miniature, red-eyed dinosaurs raced out from under Libby’s dress and snapped at their heels. Miranda watch as the others flew into a frenzy, attacking the small menacing horde. She stood alone and unharmed in the heart of the maelstrom with Libby.
“Libby, just calm down,” Miranda urged.
“You don’t get to tell me how to feel right now,” Libby countered with tears welling up in her eyes, before breaking into wild laughter and another dance step. “You don’t know how much I need to do this.”
“You’re right, Libby,” Abigail shouted over the din, looking at her twin. “They don’t know because I didn’t tell them, but I can make them see. I can make them finally understand.”
An unexpected hesitant look crossed over Libby’s face as she listened to Abigail.
“Do you remember the Red Reign Legends?” the caged woman asked, looking pointedly at Miranda. “At the start of the War of Hours, the old casters sought to breach the avatars’ realms in Eternity, so they harnessed basilisks. Beasts bred by the ifrit to see through the blinding light of the heavens and grasp the power of the divines. See with those eyes, Miranda. Grasp with those claws.”
“Don’t you dare,” Libby hissed at Miranda, while threateningly jabbing her scepter into the other woman’s face. A pleading look crossed Libby’s face suddenly. “I’m well-accustomed to playing the villain in my own game. And, they need a villain.”
Libby’s blue eyes stared deeply into Miranda’s brown ones and for a moment Miranda recalled both sides of herself staring at each other in the gladiatorial arena. She registered the loneliness and emptiness in Libby’s eyes.
Then she heard distinctive animalistic cries from within the depths of the Tolmach home. She’d only heard those sounds when she was a young girl locked in the ritual caves.
“What did you do?” Miranda asked with trepidation.
“I created a few playmates for you,” Libby said with a wild giggle. Her crazed eyes grew wide. “So, just play the game. No cheating!”
She then grasped a shimmering card from the air, but before she could throw it, a blast of energy erupted next to her. The room shook violently with a thunderous force.
Unfazed, Libby whirled on her heels to sneer at Rory as he readied another potion vial. Her small summoned minions trained their sights at the man but were stopped by a round of bullets. A ball of runic spells struck Libby and the incantations warred with the power in her royal garments, unsuccessfully trying to shape them into binding chains. With her scepter, Libby blocked Mal’s hair blade as it slashed at her.
“I love you, Rory,” Miranda heard Abigail whisper softly. Then the caged woman shouted, “Now, Miranda!”
“No!” Libby shouted, turning back to face Miranda. Unfortunately for the regally dressed woman, she was too late.
For the second time that night, Miranda had unleashed the full furious power of her basilisk half, except she was in control this time. It surprised her how easily the powers and instincts flowed freely under her skin. Curiously, her normal inhibitions were all gone.
Her now red predatory eyes burned with shrieking force, while she saw clearly through the dark shadows as though it were high noon. The people around her became arrays of infrared shapes and their various magical traces were gleaming streams of light.
Underneath it all, Miranda saw a glistening net of spells, wrapping itself around the cage and connecting the twin golden-haired women. The spells sang to her of illusion magic. With two extra pairs of arms made of sand forming powerful charms, Miranda grasped the net of spells in hands that were now scaled with sand. Glaring at Libby, she breathed hellfire sigils onto the magic net.
The air groaned suddenly and filled with the sound of glass shattering as the net of illusion spells disintegrated.
Without warning, Libby’s gown shifted back into her party dress and the cage disappeared, along with the window, summoned cards and tiny dinosaur army. The disturbing sounds within the rest of the house had ceased. Surprisingly heartbroken, Miranda noticed that her Sentinel uniform had changed back into her citadel uniform.
The blonde women grew eerie still and vacant. The scepter in Libby’s hand changed back into a glass shard. In the corner, Abigail lay slumped at an awkward angle in front of the looking glass that had been guiding the group all night. Once again, the mirror bore the wrong symbol at the top of the frame. This time, it depicted the goddess, Ma’at.
“Abbey?” Rory asked softly as he stared at the woman lying on the ground.
“I’m so sorry, Rory,” Libby said. Only the voice that came out of her mouth was Abigail’s. “I didn’t want you to find out this way.”
With halting steps, Libby walked toward Abigail and dropped on her knees next to her twin. She then lightly stroked her hair. The other woman on the floor shifted even more awkwardly. Visible seams appeared in Abigail’s now plastic-looking skin.
Tears rolled down Rory’s numb face as understanding crept through their collective shock.
“She’s some kind of a conjure,” Linh gasped, placing her hand over her mouth in disbelief.
“She’s my sister,” Libby growled defiantly in her regular voice while taking hold of Abigail’s hand.
“I’m your doll, Abbey,” Libby answered herself in Abigail’s voice. Palpable shock coursed through the room and all eyes were on the slumped over body in the corner. Suddenly, Abigail’s body disappeared and Libby just stared despondently at herself in the mirror. “I’m your reflection and it’s time we stopped playing.”
Symbols written crudely in crayon appeared on the cracked glass of the mirror. It was a child’s spell. The missing piece of the mirror cut a hole through a line in the spell referring to the mind.
“I didn’t want this,” Libby cried, while tears flowed down her face. She chuckled softly and then grew quiet as a faraway look came into her eyes. “I don’t even know what I want anymore. I just can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can,” Libby spoke again in Abigail’s voice, while she rose to her feet. “Someone is using us to hurt our family. Now, be a big girl and end our game. Fix daddy’s broken mirror.”
Looking over her shoulder, the golden-haired woman smiled sweetly at Rory and whispered, “I love you.”
With a trembling hand, Libby placed the missing piece of glass back in the frame and, at once, the cracked mirror healed itself. At the top of the frame, the mirror finally displayed its proper symbol. It was a man holding a pair of entwined serpents in his arms, one formed from shadow and the other formed of light.
It was the Egyptian god of magic, Heka.
Sorrowfully, they watched the golden-haired woman’s face shift from confusion to grief and then finally to shame.
“What have I done?” the blonde woman whispered while the mirror exhaled a gentle breeze.
Just then, a shard fell curiously from the intact mirror. When the glass hit the floor, it changed into a golden apple that rolled a few feet away from the group before transfiguring into the form of a scampering squirrel with sewn up eyes.
Before the sneaking revenant could leave the room, it found itself caught in binding chains. In the blink of an eye, the squirming little beast was blasted into a nearby wall by a combination of lightning, hellfire, exploding potions and several rounds of bullets.
Finally, the shadow of Death fell upon the poor creature, ending the nightmare once and for all.
“She? We? They?” stammered the golden-haired woman, while she stumbled through the beginning of her confession. She looked at the others seated around her in vain, but she was only met by confused and blank stares.
“I,” she spoke softly and then stopped.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Miranda said, wearing a mask of calm on her face.
Regrettably, she was forced to sit apart from the others and take charge of the interrogation they’d been asked to hold in the Tolmach’s sitting room. In the palms of her hands, she held the black spelled candle the security offices had sent to her. With each word spoken and gesture made, the candle’s ghostly flame breathed in the first-hand account of the meeting from the air and stored it in the dark depths of the wax.
Taking a deep breath, Abigail began once more.
“It started simply at first,” she stated simply. “It was just a game created by a young girl who grew up in a large house that never seemed to have enough time for her. That is unless she was in trouble and then she was sent to her father’s study to await punishment. She spent a lot of time in that study. I guess Aunt Bethany really hated having frogs in her stew.” Abigail chuckled softly and Callum giggled along with her.
The pair stopped when Rory’s stern eyes fell on them and Abigail grew serious.
“Anyway, I cast the spell,” she blurted out, seemingly shocked to say the words.
“Upon inspection, your spell wasn’t an idle flare of natural conjuration magic and your family isn’t known to be magical. How did you learn to cast it?” Miranda asked with genuine interest.
“I adapted it from one of my great ancestor’s doppelganger spells. I was five years old and too clever for my own good. I wanted a real sister, not another stiff doll or a golem. I had Gawain for that,” Abigail responded with a petulant eye roll.
With a sigh, she continued, “You should know that I’m not the first witch in the Arley family. The bloodline is ancient and they marry into other ancient family lines, like my mother’s. Whether they want them or flaunt them, both families have ties to all of the magical tribes, as well as many of the tru-sapien crowns. And, my father had stores of old family spell books in his study along with his mirror.”
Her blue eyes warily shifted to the Egyptian mirror standing beside her.
Then smiling dreamily, Abigail added, “But then, we were together. We shared everything openly. We never wanted to know who was more real, or whose mind inhabited the body made of glass and magic. We made sure to swap regularly and periodically layer illusion spells to maintain a five-year-old’s crude incantation. It was fun.”
Miranda was captivated by the golden-haired woman sitting in front of her. The other woman’s mannerisms and speech intertwined both Libby’s and Abbey’s habits, yet also added some extra flare that hadn’t been part of the two. It struck Miranda that she didn’t know who this woman was. Reluctantly, Miranda cleared her throat to get the golden-haired woman’s attention.
“When did it start to go wrong?” Miranda asked.
“Almost immediately, as usual,” Abigail admitted, looking down in regret. “It was just the little things at first. I was split fully in two and the two had different versions of my thoughts. Then they started to dislike each other’s passions and even took a perverse pleasure in desiring things the other truly hated.”
Her eyes searched about in confusion, then they landed on Rory and Abigail’s skin paled a damning shade before she looked away.
“So, why didn’t you end your game years ago? Why did continue it for so long?” Miranda asked.
“Because, we didn’t want to be alone!” Abigail snapped suddenly with tears in her eyes. She clamped a hand over her mouth and forced herself to calm down.
She then said quietly, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Miranda replied with a small encouraging smile. “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”
“Abbey couldn’t,” the other woman said distantly. “Subconsciously, the two of them gave each other what they thought the other needed. Libby gave Abbey her wits so that her sister could study magic. Abbey gave Libby her forthrightness, as well as her freedom. Then Libby lost her mind.”
“And then she was gone,” Abigail uttered, visibly forcing herself to say the words. “Shattered. She left sheepish Abbey alone. But then, I received that journal. And then, Libby was back.”
A mad glee momentarily filled Abigail’s eyes, which slowly drained to show a deep bitterness.
“Abbey only had the courage to mention the truth to Salome,” Abigail muttered. She looked sadly at Miranda, who nodded her understanding.
“What about Kaliroth?” Rory interjected. There was a touch of anger in his trembling voice. “Was your relationship with him a product of this madness?”
Oh, Rory, Miranda thought suddenly. All eyes turned toward the huffing man. Even if you were really asking about Mason, you don’t want to know that answer.
“Our relationship was a destructive diversion,” Abigail answered the man. Unfortunately, her tone didn’t indicate what relationship she was referring to. Crestfallen, the man simply turned his gaze away from her and Abigail cast her own gaze downward in regret. “Mason and I shared a mutual inability to let go of the pieces of broken reflection that changed our lives.”
“I have to ask,” Miranda declared loudly, turning the attention back to Abigail. “Does any of this affect your previous testimony regarding the Manchester Massacre?”
“No,” Abigail replied. “You can have the memory readers verify that if you’d like.”
“Were you a willing accomplice to what happened tonight or any events leading up to tonight?” Miranda asked bluntly.
“No,” Abigail answered again. “Abbey was in a prison. They turned the symbol of our sisterhood into a token of madness and made Libby into its standard bearer. We weren’t in control. Anything Libby did, she was told to do. And thankfully, it wasn’t much.”
“Alright,” Miranda responded with a sigh and a nod. “I think that’s all we’ll need.”
“What happens now?” Abigail asked Miranda, suddenly serious.
“Nothing,” Miranda answered before blowing out the candle and stretching her stiff, weary body. Then she released her privacy spell.
At once, the rainbow cobwebs of the dream lines appeared in the air and the cobra totem she had left on the nearby table next to a stack of reports began to rattle. A storm of magical symbols erupted from the totem and littered the air above the table. A scroll unfurled from the swirling mass and spilled out onto the table as text wrote itself on the ever-growing parchment. The pages in the files fluttered wildly and the text on them rewrote itself, updating the information.
Reports and active conversations from the security offices as well as other agencies, Miranda thought, as she summoned blood rune stones from within the security totem.
With the network of spells finally broken, the security offices had acted quickly, shutting down access into and throughout the citadel. A number of other interrogations were being held throughout the twilight hours. And, troubling answers were pouring in quickly.
“Frankly,” Miranda continued, looking away from the unreeling mess of communications that awaited her. “I don’t think you’ve broken any of our laws, not willingly anyway. No one is going to condemn you for being someone’s pawn, not on my watch, and I have the authority to do what I want. And what I want is to let you have your freedom, Abigail Elysia Arley. You have your mind back now live your life, Abbey.” She smiled sweetly at the woman.
Collecting her runes, Miranda cast a few of them at the black candle and watched as the objects were consumed by a pale flame. The little ball of phantom light then drifted to the dream lines and vanished.
“But, what are you going to do with me now?” Abigail asked suddenly in a distraught tone. Confused stares looked at the lost looking woman.
“We’re going to try to love you,” Callum said, stepping forward. The boy threw his arms around his surprised mother and the pair embraced. “Aunt Nerys would want it this way, right?” He smiled warmly and turned to look at his uncle.
“Right,” Rory answered in a non-committal tone. His eyes shifted toward Miranda and a tiny golden voice appeared at her ear. “What do we do now?”
Narrowing her own dark eyes, Miranda cast runes in the air and then thought, Type-talk. The stones formed an alphabetic arrangement in front of her. As her fingers rapidly skipped across the runes, a message spelled itself out in glowing symbols that wafted from her fingertips and drifted into the dream lines.
A moment later, the Tolmach’s portal archway glowed.
“Now, we face the queen of nightmares,” Miranda answered darkly.
“You didn’t even have the decency to run,” her protégé growled while stepping out of her portal.
“Why would I run, my little cobra?” Salome calmly questioned the infuriated woman, who strode into her living room and planted herself in the chair opposite hers.
A stack of files was angrily slammed onto the table next to her. Salome took another sip of tea before she looked up at Miranda.
For a moment, Salome smiled as she took in the sight of Miranda’s long black gown and the black, wide-brim, conical hat on the dark-haired woman’s head.
She dressed up for me, Salome thought pleasantly, admiring the black heels poking out from under Miranda’s gown.
It could also be the lingering effects of that damned potion, a small voice in her mind said ruefully. She quickly shrugged the voice off.
Salome suppressed a chuckle when she caught Miranda sneering at the white gown and veil the older woman had thrown on. Salome knew it was trite, but she appreciated the symbolism.
Some may have been injured in the night’s lesson, but apart from her four revenants, no one had died. Nothing was taken from the citadel, other than its innocence. Nothing was intentionally destroyed, other than their trust.
Calmly sipping her tea, the auburn-haired woman held her veiled head high and proud. She was far from innocent, but she was also ultimately and divinely right.
“I knew you’d find me, sooner rather than later,” Salome spoke to the woman, before putting down her cup. “I didn’t want to bother you. Look, I’ve even dispatched my army of revenants.”
She gestured to the pile of dead squirrels in a far corner. In a show of good faith, Salome had made sure to position the creatures so that they all revealed that she’d removed the magic thread that once animated them.
Just then, the older woman heard a few more feet march out of the portal and head toward them.
“The whole gang came along, I see,” Salome said, greeting the glowering group of six that joined her and Miranda.
Like, the darker-haired woman, they were all donned in black formal attire, even the boy. The witches among them wore wide-brim, conical hats. Of course, Rory made sure to have his mouth covered.
Once more, Salome wondered if what she was seeing was a by-product of Rory’s potions.
Her smile wavered when she noticed the large golden pumpkin bell in the young boy’s hands and the runes carved out of bones his elder witches were busily casting around the room. With bittersweet resolve, she watched the younger witches move clockwise around the room while Death himself just leaned on a nearby wall beside the gentleman spy.
The casters were calling the sacred corners.
Salome had accepted her fate, but her work was not finished yet.
“You even brought along our broken little princess,” Salome said when her dark eyes rested on the face of the golden-haired woman who had joined them. A furious pair of blue eyes glared back at her.
“Why wouldn’t we bring her?” Miranda hissed. “We can tolerant madness, but we cannot tolerate betrayal.”
And there, Salome had found her opening.
“Betrayal?” Salome mused. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I did all of this?”
“You know damn well that we can drag the truth out of your shrieking spirit after we kill you,” Miranda growled in a low dangerous voice. Her eyes flashed a hellish red as they narrowed on the older woman.
“I taught you too well,” Salome spoke, shaking her head in disappointment.
“Portrait-talk. Silent mode,” Miranda ordered.
At the dark-haired woman’s command, the spells interwoven in the stack of files glowed then the reports exploded into a variety of flying portraits. Each portrait displayed crime scene photos, imagined recreations of the documented events or silent footage of the recorded testimonials.
Waving dramatically at the collected evidence, the younger woman barked, “This was a stupid plan!”
Salome responded with a knowing grin, enraging the younger woman even more.
“Dialogue-talk. Highlighted sections,” Miranda called out.
In a flash, the portraits transformed themselves into hovering balls of light. The room was filled with a chorus of voices implicating Salome.
“It was Enchantress Salome Lilithridge,” the voices were saying. “Salome did everything. Director Lilithridge made me.”
Turncoats! Salome thought bitterly. She held her head high and defiantly looked into Miranda’s eyes. “And?”
“You kidnapped one of our witches and killed four others. You led us on a wild goose chase by framing Mason Kaliroth. You poisoned us. You exploited our defenses and our trust. You abused your office to commit and cover up heinous crimes. You sabotaged our security. All of it, just so you could orchestrate a night of trauma and lunacy!” The air itself vibrated with the force of Miranda’s voice and the heat from her rage.
“Is that really all tonight has been for you?” Salome questioned the fuming younger woman. For a moment, she marveled at Miranda’s sudden acceptance of her bestial fury. “Don’t you see what I’ve done for you? Don’t you understand the gift I’ve given you all? I exposed the lies you hid from yourselves and freed the truth you buried deep within. I unchained your true inner natures and made you all as you were meant to be.”
“Unleash the beast,” the spy dryly summarized.
“Unleash a beast,” Salome countered with a sly grin.
“How droll,” John mocked her. “The journal you had obtained provided you with unprecedented power over the witches’ stronghold. You could have led a coup that unseated the Sovereign Coven and remade it as you saw fit. You could have even become a new matriarch for the witches. Instead, you chose to send a pedestrian little message.”
“Such small imaginations,” Salome disappointedly whispered. “I was preparing you ingrates for the inevitable.”
From the folds of her veil, she produced the small statue that had rested on her desk and tossed it to a very confused Miranda. Salome was surprised when both the spy and the avatar visibly reacted to seeing it. Under furrowed brows, the avatar’s blood red eyes fixated on the symbol engraved on the golden apple.
“What is this?” Miranda inquired.
“A gift from the Nidhogg Enchanter,” Salome explained. She noticed with deep satisfaction that the other woman went pale and understanding filled Miranda’s eyes.
“A warning,” the avatar whispered with deep dread.
“A guarantee,” Salome corrected. “It’s a message that the day has come when the people of the Aetheri Blood will no longer pretend what we are. We will finally reclaim our past glory. Look at us, we witches used to be able to eat meat like the rest of humanity and now we are no better than sheep.”
The older woman’s voice trembled with her growing zeal. The other casters stopped their spells and all eyes were upon her.
“So, what are you all exactly?” John inquired.
“Underneath all of our polite labels and tribal delusions, the people of magic are the dark side of the human soul. We are all the children of chaos and madness. And now, that wondrous chaos is coming back to claim us,” Salome declared.
“Really?” Linh scoffed.
“What do you think the shadows are whispering to all those orphan children we are stuffing into Avalon?” Salome asked sly.
Her skin growing pale, Linh’s eyes shifted away warily.
A thoughtful silence hung in the air.
Understanding, at last, Salome thought with satisfaction when she noticed a tremor pass through her room of accusers.
“Text-talk,” Miranda commanded softly, rising to her feet. The reports changed back into paper files and placed themselves back on the table. She looked down at the statue in her hands in deep contemplation.
“Are you done?” Miranda asked simply.
“Yes,” Salome replied. She watched the younger woman take a deep breath before placing the statue on the table.
Miranda’s hands cast a spell and swirls of sand sigils whirled around the room. She flung her right hand into the air and an athame materialized in it. At the same time, Rory flung both of his arms above his head and a large chalice materialized in his hands.
“Salome Lilithridge,” Miranda declared with a voice that throbbed with ancient power and sang deep within Salome’s bones. Miranda pointed her athame toward the heavens while her brown eyes held Salome’s dark ones in a steel gaze.
Then the darker-haired woman intoned, “In the eyes of magic, we witches are equal-sized specks standing before an ocean, each trying to bend the waters to our will. No witch is greater than any other. No coven is greater than any single witch. Therefore, trust is our most sacred virtue. We trust that no witch will use their skill and craft against their brothers and sisters. Tonight, you have broken that trust.”
“You have been damned by your own testimony and the testimony of your cohorts. You have committed egregious crimes against your coven and matriarchs,” Miranda continued. “You are an oath-breaker and a traitor to our people. By my authority, I pronounce you wǣrloga.”
As the dark-haired woman stabbed the athame into the floor, a booming force shook the room. A dark essence filled the chalice. The boy struck the dreaded pumpkin bell at Miranda’s decree and a chill crept in the air.
Out of the corner of her eye, Salome caught a slinking dark form weave in and out of the shadows. The Nemyniron, she thought with real terror.
The boy struck the bell once more, summoning the fearsome beast that was born out of the most spiteful hexes ever crafted. The casters began to move around the room clockwise.
Steadying herself, Salome kept her head high and rebelliously asked, “Now, what punishment have you all devised for me?”
The younger woman glared at her and hissed, “We’re witches, Salome. We’re going to give exactly what you want.”
Then the boy struck the bell once more and his uncle poured out the dark essence from his chalice.
Then they all vanished.
Suddenly, Salome found herself naked standing in an old wood beside a river. Her skin was caked in mud and viscera. There was wild laughter coming from within the shadows.
Just then, a pale-haired young girl in a simple pale dress stepped out from behind the trees with the rising sun and wind at her back. Her hollowed out eye sockets teemed with creeping insects. Craning her head upward, the girl released a swarm of butterflies from her mouth. Filling the sky, they heralded a dawning darkness that descended onto the wood. Then girl began to dance.
A fire sparked itself into being and a dark-haired girl leapt out of the flames. She had a single eye in the middle of her forehead and an eye in the palms of each of her hands. The girl released a robin from her mouth. When she grasped the little flying bird, it turned into a broom that she held aloft in the air. Power hummed through the wood. Then the dark-haired girl joined in the dance.
Suddenly, a red-haired girl with a red rose for a mouth walked out from the flowing waters of the river. Her petals unfolded themselves and she released a fish riding torrents of water from the rose blossom. When the fish flopped itself into the fire, it heralded another dawning darkness. The flames turned black and phantoms from the Otherworld waltzed into the wood. As the song of power grew, the red-haired girl joined in the dance.
Finally, the earth churned and a girl with black feathers for hair crawled her way out of the dirt. From her mouth, a snake slithered out. When she grasped it, the serpent turned into a wooden staff that she rhythmically struck against the forest floor. She joined the dance with the other girls and they all went round in a circle.
As they made a full round, the girls cast an eye into the fire. After the following round, they cast a tongue into the flames and then a heart after the next round. The mystical power surged to a booming crescendo.
Entranced, the auburn-haired woman realized that she was dancing widdershins around the girls.
Above them, naked men and women with sewn up eyes and mouths carrying candles of animal fat leapt through the branches of the trees. The wild revelers howled with glee as they succumbed to the thundering power of the sabbat.
The beasts of the earth and sky flowed out of the shadows and lent their cries to the rite. The elements themselves shrieked and bowed. The firmament and celestial hosts abandoned their cycles and danced to the beat of power. Towering spirits were wretched from the heavens and brought to their knees.
Just before her severed head was cast into the pyre, Salome realized that what she was witnessing wasn’t the polite art of spellcasting. It was magic that harkened back to the time before the casters were known as the wise folk, but were instead called the mad people of the woods.
It was the raw unbridled force of witchcraft.
“How much more of this do I need to drink?” Mal grumbled.
“More than that,” Linh replied with sympathy.
Using her finger, she lightly pushed on the bottom of his mug, tipping its rim over the young man’s lips. She watched attentively as he gagged down mouthfuls of its contents in pure disgust. With visible reluctance, Linh then forced herself to drain her own mug.
For several moments afterward, the pair cringed and heaved.
“Keep drinking,” Rory instructed, returning to the table with another pitcher full of the vile fluid before refilling their mugs. A pair of grey and dark eyes looked at the man with deep scorn.
“What’s in this?” Linh grumbled.
“Something herbal,” Rory responded dryly.
In response, Mal pulled out a leathery wing that was fused to an eyeball from his mug and then showed it to Rory with an accusingly raised eyebrow.
“Keep drinking,” Rory repeated, adding a threatening touch to his voice. A pair of loud groans filled Miranda’s dining room. “We’ve all been breathing in a potent mind-altering potion for over twenty-four hours, or at least before the dinosaur attack on the meadow island. The entire citadel is on a mandatory purge. So, drink up.”
“He’s right,” Miranda agreed, while she lay prostrate across the table. Waves of nausea silently seized her body. “Our thoughts and memories have been compromised over the past few days.”
As she pulled herself upright in her chair, Miranda remembered the stack of files she had found on the table in her bedroom when the group had returned to her flat. Silently cursing her former mentor, she’d realized that she hadn’t sent the files to the security offices.
Her mind had been made to believe a great number of things.
“She didn’t say witches,” Abigail whispered to no one in particular. It had been the first thing the golden-haired woman had said since her interrogation hours ago. Now, she trembled in her seat at the dining table. “When Salome was droning on about her impending chaos, she didn’t just mention witches.”
“Neither did the prophecy,” Rory quietly stated as an uncomfortable silence filled the room. He sang a note to the large red dispensary flower that sat next to Miranda’s sink, causing it to pour more of the tonic into his waiting pitcher.
“Children of chaos and madness,” Linh said in a hushed voice while wrapping herself in John’s arms. “Witches, avatars, faeries, elementals and keepers. Avalon is just one city. The citadel is just one of the mystical strongholds we moved to Yoseinnyo Island to avoid that prophecy and seventeen rogue witches could have destroyed it in one night. Is this happening all across the island?”
“Possibly, my dear,” John replied gently. “After what Mal told us, I have to reevaluate my initial risk assessments, however, I believe your prophecy may come to pass.”
“My family is in Americellio with Damon Myller, right now,” Abigail said deeply troubled. Miranda shivered when the other woman mentioned the name of the Nidhogg Enchanter. She shot the blonde woman a knowing look, but Abigail just shook her head. “Only Gawain remembers me. If anything happens, the family is defenseless.”
“Don’t worry. My cognitive faculties are mending faster than yours. I will be on hand today in case the faeries cannot handle the situation in Americellio,” John said to Abigail.
“And I’ve already sent messages to Alfheim, Tír na nÓg and Ys. The other strongholds are on alert,” Miranda informed them.
“What about the others?” John asked knowingly. “The Solaossians aren’t going to be pleased when they learn that you’ve brought trouble to their island so close to Founders Day.”
“I’ll deal with them too,” Miranda answered him. Her voice grew distant. Her dark eyes went to the crimson domino mask in her hands. She looked up and held the gaze of the others in the room. “This is my sworn duty and my burden. No matter what happens today, the Sentinels are now marching.”
“And, we’re going with you,” Rory declared in a firm voice.
“No, Callum’s becoming a wizard,” Miranda countered, gesturing toward the sleeping boy in the soft chair in the corner. “You’re going to spend the day attending his initiation and then you’re going to help him move into the North Tower. The citadel and Abigail are now safe. The West Tower has the evidence they need and the secrets of the citadel have been torn out of that damned journal, which now lies within the library. Your story ends here.”
Rory’s enraged green-eyed glare answered her. She met his gaze with a pair of fierce red eyes while her skin suddenly became scaled with sand. For a tense moment, the pair remained locked in a silent war of glares. Then a hand fell on Miranda’s shoulder.
“Miranda,” Abigail soothed, looking into Miranda’s eyes. “That’s our family.”
“And our friends,” Linh added, sitting up straight.
“And my legacy,” Mal muttered with a sigh.
“And, I’m already on the case,” John joked with a shrug.
“The citadel also trained us to be warriors,” Rory growled. “We are going.”
With a sigh, Miranda relented and shifted back to normal. “Fine. I appreciate the company.”
“Just remember,” John said. “Secrets like to congregate.”
“What does that mean?” Linh asked, looking from John to Miranda and back again.
“It means your mystical community didn’t come to this island just to avoid a prophecy, my dear,” John explained. “Your tribes all harbour deep secrets they wished to conceal from the rest of the world and Salome’s group, just exploited one of them.”
“Secrets, such as the fact that I’m part of the ancient House of King Naidathal,” Miranda said with a shrug. She waited as the usual shock from that revelation wore off.
She continued, “Yes, my people are directly related to the king of Tylwyth Hylah, who crafted the Great Illumination spell that created the Aethonra and shunted our planet from its parent stars. A great evil committed all because he wanted to prove that his house didn’t descend from a serpent demon, the basilisk king Apophis. Even now, long after planet Terra has finally settled into its new shared orbit in a very crowded solar system, my people still bear the shame of that mistake.”
Turning away from the sympathetic and understanding looks the others gave her, Miranda said, “The mystical community has turned these infamous deeds into an almost forgotten myth, along with the rest of our other crimes. And our world already has treasure troves of secrets and crimes to exploit.”
“This is the life I lead,” she explained. “There’s always a plot within plots to destroy our world or for humanity to tear itself apart. The remaining Sentinels and our associated agencies have dedicated ourselves to fight a daily hidden war to hold back the end of the world. We’re keeping it intact for people like you and we hide the true ugliness from you. If you follow me, then that veil will be lifted. So, go to Callum’s initiation and then you can decide how much of the world’s truth you are willing to see.”
Miranda held Rory’s eyes with an imploring look until he nodded in agreement. Then his green eyes looked down at her hands.
“Why is your mask flashing?” He inquired. She followed his gaze and found that the communication device that she kept in her mask was indeed flashing.
“There’s a message on it,” Miranda answered in disbelief. A very recent one, she realized when she inspected the small device. This was the radio signal coming into the citadel.
Hesitantly, she brought the device to her ear and pressed the play button.
“Hey,” she heard Jolon Majors’ voice say.
With her heart racing, she stopped the recording. It had been awhile since she heard his voice and an assortment of buried feelings rose swiftly in her. Her mind briefly remembered a stolen kiss under the moonlight on a floating city.
“Here you go, I put honey it for you,” Rory said gently to Abigail, snapping Miranda out of her brief reverie. The entire room watched while Rory handed a delicate teacup filled with tonic to the woman his wife had become. “It should counteract the vile taste.”
“That was an option?” Linh whispered.
“I don’t like the taste of honey,” Abigail stated flatly.
She met his longing gaze with a pained questioning look. Tense moments passed as the pair searched each other’s eyes for answers to questions neither of them seemed willing to ask. Then slowly, the blonde woman’s blue eyes shifted away from her husband. Reluctantly, Rory bowed his head and started to pull away from her.
Without warning, Abigail’s hands lashed out and grasped his retreating arms.
“I can learn to like it,” Abigail declared with a sudden pleading look in her tear-filled eyes. “If you give me a chance, I can try.”
An audible sigh echoed through the room and hope rose in Rory’s dancing eyes. A shy smile crossed Abigail’s face. The pair was so engrossed in the silent reunion that they forgot about the little cup in-between their yearning hands.
All of a sudden, the cup slipped out of their grasp and crashed loudly on the table, surprising the others.
“Huh!” Callum exclaimed, jumping up from his seat. His sleepy eyes looked around for the source of the noise that jolted him out his dreams and landed on the unbroken cup laying in its spilled contents on the table.
“I’ll get something to clean this up,” Rory said calmly. He began to walk toward the kitchen sink, but then stopped himself when he noticed Abigail staring intently at the spill in front of her.
Almost in a daze, the blond woman pulled the cup out of the mess and placed it upright next to the spilled tonic. Using her middle fingers, she wrote glowing sigils on her palms. She then placed one hand glowing over the cup and the other over the tonic. The surface of the tonic rippled under her power. They all watched as a perfect replica of the little cup rose out of the brownish-green slurry and sat on top of the fluid.
With the magic complete, Abigail’s trance broke and she stared in wide-eyed wonder at the newly created cup. The witches looked in disbelief at the creation and the creator.
“Oh my,” Abigail gasped, before bringing a hand to her mouth.
Abigail’s other hand searched for Rory’s and their fingers interlaced. An infectious giddy smile slowly filled her face and echoed around the room.
“Mum, you did it!” Callum happily exclaimed, while rushing toward Abigail with a big grin. He threw his arms around her and she wrapped her free arm around him tightly.
“This calls for a celebration,” Rory declared, finally letting go of his wife. “Let’s all have another round of tonic!” His eyes danced mirthfully as a unanimous chorus of groans filled the dining room.
“With honey this time,” the bald man added playfully. He laughed when a resounding cheer answered him.
While the others merrily rose from the table to get dollops of honey added to their drinks, Miranda restarted the message on her communications device.
“Hey, there’s something about almost dying that brings people together,” Jolon joked in her ear. Her heart surged when she heard the familiar saying. “I know how lonely our life can be. We let ourselves be alone for too long. I just wanted you to know, I was thinking about you today.”
Then the message ended, leaving Miranda with a lump of emotion forming in her throat and a smile on her lips.
Her dark eyes combed the room of tired smiling survivors, who had all just pledged to walk into chaos with her. She felt a calming strength rise out of her sleeping other half, resting in its hourglass at her hip.
When she looked at Abigail, the other woman smiled back at her warmly. In unison, the two women reached across the table to hold each other’s hand.
In that moment, Miranda’s mind drifted backward to a time before the pair sat in wait for an impending apocalypse with their new friends. She remembered a time when the girl who played with her reflection and the exiled basilisk witch spent their first night in the citadel together.
When it was time for them to sleep, the blonde girl said, “I’m sorry for calling you an outcast earlier. I wasn’t trying to insult you, honest. It’s just that at home I’m an outcast.”
The little dark-haired girl simply looked back at her and said, “I’m an outcast too.”
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed this book, then please check out the following:
The Necromancer’s Flame (Wyrd Precinct #1) – coming soon
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Case file #0101: “All magic is based on artful deception.” A murder has been committed in the Phorcysae Citadel, the stronghold of the witches. The prime suspect appears to be a notorious serial killer and mad cultist, the Witch Splinter King, who has been dead for over ten years. Now, Agent Miranda d’Apophis, the Basilisk Enchantress of the East Tower, is forced to reopen a closed case from within the files of the Wyrd Precinct in order to save a friend from what appears to be the return of her old tormentor and one of the deadliest foes the witches have faced in modern history. However, as nightmares begin to invade the citadel, Miranda finds that there’s more than just a long buried wound threatening to destroy her home. The first chapter in the Wyrd Precinct saga opens with a case that will rock the foundations of the entire mystical community. Death has come with dinosaurs, and things have just gotten Wyrd.