Updated: Mar 21
My Gift For You!
As the upstairs hallway clock struck its third chime of the thirteenth hour, I let my eyelids creep open. I was lying in wait to catch someone…or something.
Time works differently inside my home, The Overmorrow. A lot of things work differently. Spirits are invited in and allowed to roam. Seances are a norm. Even the occasional daemon takes up temporary residence. Not like the kind from The Exorcist , but the kind that you never hear anything about; the helpful ones that work with the darker deities, with no particular penchant towards good or evil, but more or less hanging around to assist and help define a witch's character or personality. Oh yeah, by the way, we’re a house of Hexe—witches of the German variety—where grey magic prevails. More than five generations of Hexe have lived here, and currently that would include me, my mother, and my great-aunt. We don’t live by the Wiccan Rede: there is no rule of three for our kind.
The Overmorrow is a rambling beauty originally built around 1780 with a renovation in 1855 and rests at the end of a quiet street in a small yet bustling historic town. Behind the house’s wrought iron gated back yard, sparkling pool, and expansive garden complete with greenhouse, lies the Overmorrow Woods. They’re rumored in town to be extensively haunted. The rumors are absolutely correct.
Those woods are one of the outstanding reasons for the decline in business at our bed and breakfast. Did I mention The Overmorrow is a B&B? I think I left that out.
Anyway, business was down, way down. Dead tourists were found in our woods. It wasn’t just us, but of course we were catching the brunt of it. Only one had actually been found on our land, which was bad enough; all the others were on the state forest side. Investigations were being held, of course, and security was at a high, but tourism had fallen as a result.
The Overmorrow was never empty, partly due to its beauty and hospitality, the other being the buzz promising supernatural activity. We didn’t advertise it as such, but it wasn’t a hidden fact that we’re witches either, and well, people in town like to gossip. Why not take advantage of the hype?
There were two sources of illumination being lent to my room. One was a childhood night light still glowing softly from across the room near the door. The other was a fat full moon that sat high above the trees, shining brightly across my bed. I was bathing in full moon magic. There was a slight reddish tint to it that sent a shiver of concern through me, but all was quiet as I laid there waiting.
I peered around the room ready to confront whatever or whoever had been messing with my belongings.
First it had been my earrings. I’d removed them as I got ready for bed my first night back home from college. They were a gift from my parents on my sixteenth birthday, and I’d always been very careful to place them in the little porcelain dish on my dresser, never wanting to risk them going down a drain in the bathroom or getting lost in the shaggy pile of the area rug. The following morning when I reached into the dish to retrieve them my fingertips only found the smooth porcelain.
I’d spent a good deal of time, and tears, crawling around the bedroom floor feeling around in the carpet, reaching under furniture, and exploring the nooks and crannies along the floorboards, but they were nowhere to be found.
Until I went to brush my teeth and found them resting on the toilet tank.
The second morning home, the book I’d left resting on my nightstand was clear across the room on the dresser. And my phone, which had also been on the nightstand, was in the hallway. On the floor.
Third morning home, my favorite pair of boots had gone AWOL. I’d left them resting at the foot of my bed. I had yet to find them.
My summer plans had been to rise baker-early—that’s about 4 am for you not in the know—and prep the baked goods for the guests’ brekkie, and then to spend my afternoons dozing by the pool with a good book. Most of the time guests went out exploring the town during the day and returned after dinner at one of the local joints. No one wanted to stay away too long after the moon rose, all hoping to hear or see something spooky. It was generally why they chose to stay with us.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” I mumbled. After long stretched out moments of listening to the room, neither sensing nor seeing even the slightest movement, I rolled over and turned on the bedside lamp. The warm glow washed softly over the room, revealing everything exactly as I’d left it two hours earlier.
“Of course.” I stretched and yawned, then ambled toward the door, stopping just long enough at my standing mirror—which was much larger than my five-foot six stature needed—and peered closely at my reflection. My grey eyes were looking a little bloodshot. At some point, this summer vacation would actually become a vacation, right? I smoothed my silvery mane into a ponytail. “Well, since I’m up, might as well hit up the kitchen for a midnight margarita.” Doing a little dance out the door, I called softly to the dark form lying near the top of the stairs. “Hey Aldo, wanna join me in the kitchen? I’ll get you a midnight munchie.” Aldo was my home guardian, he had the appearance of some sort of blend between a Mastiff, a timber wolf, and a Newfoundland. Of course, he was really none of those. He was an Egregore, a guardian brought to creation by my mother just a few months before I was born. His home-base had been right outside my door on the second-floor landing since, well, forever.
“Hey, you, what did you do today to get so tuckered out?” I whispered, drawing closer to him. I didn’t want to wake our remaining guests, a family of three sleeping in the bedroom across the hall from mine. “Aldo.” The lamp in the hall gave off a weak light. I squatted to speak into his ear and felt a warm, thick wetness touch my bare toes. “Ah man, Aldo, keep your sleepy-time drool to yourself. Yuck.” Wiping at my toes, I giggled softly, but it died quickly when I looked down to find deep red coating my fingers.
Terrified, I stretched my shaking hands to Aldo’s body, sliding them over his dense fur. More wet stickiness met my fingers, and a sob caught in my throat. I rocked him gently, trying to wake him. He didn’t move. “Aldo, please wake up. Please, please, please.” I pulled him into my lap. He was warm, but oh-so-still. Pressing my face deep into his coat, I waited for the reassuring rise and fall of his chest. But there was none. And no soft thumping of his heart or tail. There was only stillness. Only a lack of life.
I released a muffled sob into his fur, and stayed that way, listening to the grandfather clock ticking away the moments, until finally I half lifted, half dragged, his lifeless form into my bedroom.
My mind was racing with fear and questions, and after stealthily checking on the safety of the Hendersons—the family was still safe and sleeping in their beds—I returned quietly to the landing with the task of cleaning. It had to be spotless before the Hendersons woke and emerged for breakfast. Their nine-year old boy, Danny, didn’t need to see the aftermath.
When I finished and had checked all the locks in the house again, I shut myself away in my room for the last few remaining hours of night, sealing away my sobs from anyone’s ears. I needed to figure out what had happened and if we were safe here.
The cold wind whipped my hair around my face as I ran bare hands over the raw, torn surface of the earth in the garden nearest the woods, smoothing the dirt of the fresh grave now holding my beloved guardian. I wiped the tears from my cheeks, leaving a smudge of dirt in their wake, which quickly turned to mud.
Weak, watery light cast by the early morning sun was just skimming the treetops of the towering woods. It stretched forlornly across the garden and the lawn but left the front of the house hidden in shadows. I shivered against the unseasonable chill that was taking hold of the summer. According to the porch thermometer, it was more than twenty degrees cooler than the day before.
A delicate hand slipped into mine. “It was horrible Adelaide.” I didn’t need to turn and look, recognizing the familiar touch right away. She’d been comforting me since I was a baby and had been here for generations of my family. I knew the feel of her energy and the scent that always accompanied her arrival into my world. Peonies and honeysuckle.
“I’m so sorry. He was an excellent Egregore.” Adelaide took me into her arms, wrapping me in her comforting embrace as much as she could. She was spirit after all and therefore somewhat of an insubstantial being. There was only so much energy she could convert into actual matter.
“Why is it so damn cold?” It was rhetorical and highly unlikely she’d know anything about the cold snap. “Where are all the birds and crickets? I’ve never heard it so quiet.” The firmness of her hug grew airy before lifting completely, causing me to take a step back and study her.
The outline of Addie’s body was foggy against the crisp background of the woods. Her solidity flickered and grew gauzier before growing solid once more. I watched with a mounting unease in the pit of my stomach.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“It’s been happening off and on for a few days now. It’s become increasingly more difficult to get to you.”
“When did it start?”
Addie’s brow dipped. She looked down at the brown leaves blowing past our feet. “I began feeling weaker…I noticed a difficulty in gathering energy to corporealize the day after your return.”
“And the animals, when did they disappear?” I frowned and wrapped my arms around my waist.
“That same night.”
“And the weather was fine yesterday.” I peered into the sky, at the gathering of fast approaching steel-grey storm clouds.
“It’s worse today. I’m having a problem raising energy to stay here with you.”
“What’s going on? Do you have any idea what’s causing it?”
She shook her head. She was diaphanous again, and her voice airy. “No, I don’t. There were no songs from the frogs or cicadas last night, and you know quite well the cacophony they create. I’ve seen no rabbits or squirrels. No foxes. Even the leaves are abandoning the woods. They’ve all begun to turn brown. The forest floor is carpeted in them already. The only life still lingering is of your faithful vultures, and even they seem unlike themselves.” Adelaide gestured upward to the treetops of the towering hemlocks and red oaks at the woods edge.
The two huge birds seemed agitated; soft, worried chuffing accompanied their restless shifting from branch to branch, as if they wanted nothing more than to fly far from their home. “Activity in the house began increasing about a week ago, merely noises at first, but much more aggressive than the usual spirits. Constant knocking on the walls, dragging footsteps in the hallways, ceaseless scratching at the doors that kept the guests from resting. Two families cut their stays short. They looked terrified as they left.”
"I can’t imagine my mom thought it was dangerous, or it would get worse. She wouldn’t have left me here alone to deal with it.”
“She believes in your abilities or she never would have left you on your own. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit. And I’d like to add, you’re not alone. You always have me.” She chucked me under the chin and gave a sweet smile.
The cold, ominous mood of the woods reached out toward us; it sent an insuppressible shiver crawling up my spine. “I heard scratching at my window last night, right before I went to bed. It went on for a few minutes. And there was tapping too, like an impatient person waiting to be let in. It was seriously creepy. I looked but there was no one out there. Not like I really expected to find anyone outside my second-floor window, but I couldn’t just not look. If this is what the guests have been dealing with, I don’t blame them for jumping ship early. If I hadn’t been raised here among this as normal, I’d run too.”
“No one is left here aside from myself, Sloane. No familiar spirits anyway, there seem to be more than plenty of something else, but all the other spirits have gone. Savannah, Clark, George, everyone. Even Saxon.”
“I was wondering why he wasn’t answering me. Saxon would never leave me.” Saxon and I had become friends the day after I turned thirteen. I was roaming in the deepest part of our woods for hawthorn berries and mugwort when I came across him. He was an interesting spirit. He had died at the age of twenty, in 1790, while taking part in a botched highwaymen robbery. When I met him, he held the appearance of a fifteen-year-old. As I grew older, he altered his appearance to match. He was pretty much my first boyfriend. Weird, I know.
Adelaide nodded. “I’m worried. It all adds up to something deeply out of sorts. When are your parents to return?”
“Not for another day. I tried calling my mom right after I found Aldo, but I couldn’t get a call out. I chalked it up to the bad weather, but…now I’m not so sure if it’s that simple. What about Henry? Has he been around?” Henry was Addie’s beau. They’d been alive in different centuries but had fallen in love in this one.
“Saxon was the first to vanish, then the others.” Addie looked down, her bottom lip trembled, and her eyes filled with tears. “Henry was still here until the day before your arrival.”
I bit down on my lip, a strengthening unease building steadily in my gut. “I’m so sorry Addie.” Here she was being so strong for me and her heart was obviously breaking. I gave her hand a squeeze. “I’ll find them. Somehow.” My gaze shifted uneasily from house to woods and back again. “I’m actually scared, and I’ve never been scared in my home or anywhere on these grounds. There’s just the one family left. And Aldo…” Misery pounded through my temple in a steady beat and clutched at my heart. “There was so much blood. he was so cut up. You would have thought he fell through a window. But he was just lying in his usual spot at the top of the stairs. His death wasn’t natural or done by anything natural. All the doors and windows were locked, and the Hendersons were sound asleep. Something bad is here.”
“Do you think the guests heard or saw anything?”
“No. And that’s really weird. The house was so silent. The air conditioner wasn’t even running. If he was outwardly attacked, he would have made such a racket. I should have heard something. And it had to have happened right outside my door, there was no trail of blood anywhere. For as much as he was sliced up, there wasn’t enough blood on the floor. He was just lying in a pool of it, like it had happened right before I walked through the door.” As the words passed from my lips, I became increasingly more frightened. A trickle of real terror crawled through me. “Addy, he died right there. Right outside my room. Without a single bark or growl. Without a single thought projected to my mind in warning. As soon as the Hendersons left for town, I brought him here. They’re spending the day on tours and don’t plan to be back until after dinner. I have to get them out. They can’t stay another night.” I stared up at the second-floor window belonging to my bedroom.
Adelaide firmly set her jaw, her eyes filling with determination as she pulled her blouse edge taut and said very matter-of-factly, “We’ll figure it out. You’ll ward the house. You’ll call a new Guardian right away. I’ll be with you, stay with you, all the time.” She guided me toward the porch steps. “And once an Egregore has arrived, and you’ve shielded the rest of the house, you’ll make a pot of tea and build a fire in the parlor. You’ll send the Hendersons back to town. We will get through to your parents and they’ll be back. All will be put to right.”
“Except Aldo. That can’t be fixed.” My words were forlorn. There was a tremor in my voice I couldn’t keep away.
Stopping us on the last step she turned me to her. “A way will be found to fix even that. Your magic is strong. Spells first and then you rest.” She reached for the doorknob, “No…” she began, watching as her hand sputtered out of sight. “Sloane?” Addie looked up from where her hands and arms should have been, her eyes were filled with confusion and helplessness. Irritation and apology crossed her face a split second before her entire form evaporated.
“Addie!” What was happening? I couldn’t lose Addie too. I didn’t want to be alone with whatever was happening, with whatever was taking hold here. My racing heart choked me. My gaze tore in every direction as the onslaught of panic filled me, making my eyes sting with tears of fear and frustration, but I only found increasingly dark clouds coming my way across the sky, swallowing what was left of the murky sunlight of mid-morning.
I’d warded the entire house, floor by floor, room by room, before setting in on my very first conjuring of an Egregore. With hopes of calling back the same spirit that had lived in our ever-faithful Aldo, I used his kitchen-bed as a nest. It already had some of his shed hair caught in its plush cover. I added a few wolves’ teeth, a handful of thorns from our hawthorn hedge, chunks of smoky quartz and fire agate, a few generous drops of my blood, and his favorite chew toy. Then came the drawing of a sigil, along with some energy work and visualization.
I placed the house guardian nest close to the hearth in the parlor. This is where I planned on hunkering down for the remainder of the afternoon with my tea and a book, while waiting for the Hendersons, and hopefully Saxon or Adelaide to return.
Kicking off my boots, I blew at the rising steam from my mug of tea and folded my legs under me, nestling into the deep armchair across from the fireplace. As gentle flames ate away at the ash logs in the fireplace, the stress and lack of sleep from the night before began eating away at my resolve to remain alert. At the first slip of the mug in my hands, and the first slip of my eyelids, I set the tea aside on the end table. My cell phone was resting next to it. Should I make yet another attempt at contacting my mom? I’d been trying every ten minutes or so since coming back in the house, but it just wasn’t happening. I guess I’d just have to wait for her return. I just have to hold it together until then.
Something tickled at my cheek and I jerked alert and upright, brushing my hair away from my face. A glance out the window revealed a darker sky. A glance at the mantle clock revealed I’d only fallen asleep for an hour. And yet it looked like dusk out.
An abrupt rasping sound to the right of the fireplace caught my attention. Leaning forward in my seat, I focused my senses. Small scratchy noises continued from near the baseboard. Was it a raccoon? I really wanted to believe it was a raccoon.
The furtive scratches were replaced by deep, long pulls running down the inner side of the wall from top to bottom—inspiring visions in my mind of hooked claws. I let my sight follow the sound as it progressed slowly clockwise around the room. It will stop before it hits the door frame, it has to. It’s just a squirrel or something. Or something.
As it reached the door, the scratching turned into tapping. It paused there for too long, tapping out a frenzy of disjointed sounds to rattle my nerves before making its move to the other side of the door jamb.
The fine hairs on the nape of my neck rose to attention. The horrid sound of long claws dragging through hard plaster sent icy threads deep through my body. They were soon replaced by a steady knocking and pounding; a sharp rapping of knuckles and fists, which had to belong to more than one set of hands.
I cowered into the chair cushion when I should have been raising my power to cast a spell. But all my words failed me. My mind went blank. I could only stare at the wall, twisting in the chair to follow the racket as it made its way around me, surrounded me, closing me in. When the noise reached the window to my left, claws I couldn’t see squealed their way down and up the paned glass and then over the wood sill.
“Saxon,” I whispered to the room, pushing his name out into the ether from my mind and heart. “Please, please, be here. Find your way back from wherever you are.”
I’d grown up in this house, where things went bump-in-the-night on a very regular basis and Adelaide had been the first ghost I’d ever seen. I’d been a mere toddler at the time and Addie had become something of a nanny to me, occasionally joining me for my makeshift tea parties with all the stuffed animals in my room. Addie was the one who always re-tucked me into bed whenever I’d get up in the middle of the night for a drink of water. I could really use her comfort skills about now.
Life at The Overmorrow had never been what anyone could term as ordinary. There had always been spirits, seances, and spell casting. It was just as normal to me as afternoon cartoons with cookies and milk. But this was different. This event had a level of grimness to it that I had never experienced in my own home. It was wrong. A malodorous stench clung to it. This was not one of my family’s conjured spirits or daemons. This was not from our casting or calling.
I was truly terrified for the first time in my life.
A deep gurgling, guttural laugh pealed through the room. It, whatever it was, knew I was afraid. You could never let them know you were afraid.
Sitting bolt upright, my eyes narrowed with purpose as my brain and instincts as a Hexe finally kicked into gear. I flew into full defense mode, rummaging through all the lessons locked away in my brain from years of tutelage under my mom and great-aunt. I needed something much stronger than the warding spells I’d put in place.
With my heart racing and my mind focused, I spoke, throwing out a quick incantation of protection and deflection.
But it wouldn’t last.
What I’d tossed out was a band-aid, a temporary fix.
I was going to need the big guns for this one.
I rushed from the room and made my way directly up the hall to the Hexe pantry—a large room just off the kitchen where all the accoutrements of the trade were stashed. My hands skimmed over various mystical objects and magic paraphernalia as I made my way hurriedly through the room. My heart knew and sought out the exact implements I would need to hold this entity at bay. Placing them in a sweetgrass basket, I made my way quickly back to the parlor.
The band-aid had been ripped off. What I found stopped me cold in my tracks. The knocking and tapping and scratching remained absent, but what had taken its place was far worse. Emerging from the wall, literally struggling out from the dry wall, plaster, and wallpaper was a creature of such vileness that for just a moment I thought I was going to lose my lunch.
A smile filled with nothing but evil intent strained across its horrid face as it locked eyes with me. A foul stream of brackish, thick ooze coursed over its mouthful of razors, dripped down its elongated chin to fall in globs to the floor. I half expected the gruesome seepage to sizzle and burn the wood of the floor, but it just pooled up disgustingly.
Breaking the horrible staring contest, I went about my Hexe business, swiftly calling upon Hekate, but I found it impossible to keep my gaze from rolling back to the being that was attempting to claw and pull its way through the wall. It was now exposed to the waist, halfway out of its prison. The flesh on its skull was split open in several places, exposing ghoulishly bright tissue and muscle through its pustule encrusted skin.
It saw what I was doing, and it was pissed.
Dragging my sight away from its continued struggle, I spread out my tools and lit the incense and candle. The creature doubled its efforts to rip its way into my world. It was fighting to pull itself out any further. The claw tipped fingers were ripping at the wallpaper with a renewed frenzy. Thick noises burbled from its crowded mouth and cracked, oozing lips.
My heart raced while I tried to keep my thoughts and concentration steady. Without another glance at the creature or a pause in my actions, I raised my power and spoke the needed incantation.
“Hekate, hear me, I call upon you to bring down the fiends that encircle. Be at my front, at my back, at my sides; left and right. Hold up your power to those of ill intent. Protect the boundaries, mighty Hekate.”
A roar reverberated through the room shaking the picture frames before the creature was pulled back to the other side of the wall, back into the world it belonged to, with an echoing squeal and a resounding pop, which had me clapping my hands over my ears.
It left no breach in the wall, no gaping void into some dark place as I’d half expected, but the wallpaper was definitely worse from the experience; several angry gouges ran from the floor to exactly where the creature had been.
The parlor was once again still, except for the soft crackling of the fire.
Pulling out my phone, unable to move my eyes from the scored wall, I dialed my mother’s number. Instead of the much-desired ringing and warm voice of my mom, I was greeted with an error message stating there was no service. Trying again, I raised the phone above my head and moved around the room, willing the bars to rise. I wandered from room to room with no success, finally standing on the porch with my arm raised to the sky. But still nothing. I was without communication. No internet, no phone, no parents, and an absent Saxon…quite the dismal situation.
“Saxon!” I yelled into the growing frigidness of the air. The atmosphere had grown even meaner while I’d been inside the last few hours. Black clouds streamed quickly across the sky, crowding out any last remnants of blue above me, filling the horizon with their imminent chaos. The strength of the winds had picked up whipping my hair around in a frenzy. It bit at my skin, feeling like December, and I wished I’d thought to grab a coat on my way out the door. Summer had fled.
There was utter stillness and silence as I crossed the threshold between the yard and the woods. A shiver zinged through me, not caused by the weather but because everything just felt so wrong.
Dead leaves crunched beneath my boots as I wandered the woods calling for my friend, until I found myself at the river’s edge. If I didn’t know for a fact that it was June, I’d swear it was deep winter.
The river was crusted in ice, thickest at the shore. Kneeling, I knocked on it, waiting a moment before tossing a rock further out into the middle. It easily cracked through and sank into the frigid water. I knocked on the ice again and waited. My reward was a pounding that emanated from beneath, along with a resounding crack, which split open the frosty crust in front of me.
Two hands emerged, shoving the plates of frozen water aside. A breath-taking creature with long waves of blue and green hair and shimmering green eyes pulled her way above the icy water and onto the bank of the river.
“Naira. Oh my gods, I’m so happy to see you.” I quickly threw myself down on the frosted grass of the riverbank and flung my arms around my dear friend. “Is everyone okay down there?”
“We’re getting by, but what the hell is happening? What is all this? We’ve all moved down river, except for me and Rian. We were hoping you’d make your way here and fill us in.”
“I don’t know, not exactly anyway. Something dark has moved in. Not just here, but at the house too. I just had to banish a demon, a really fucking dark and gruesome demon, from the parlor. And I can’t find Saxon. And Addie was with me and then just evaporated. Have you seen Saxon at all?”
“No. Not since last week. To be honest, we’ve just been hiding out down river on the other side of town, in the deepest section, as far away from this area as possible.”
“Do you know how far this reaches? Is it this way in town?”
“It’s spreading. From what we’ve been able to gather, it seems to have begun here and is spreading outward from your property. The Overmorrow is at the heart.”
“The clouds, the storm and the winds…I’ve been watching and it’s like they’re being pulled here. I can’t get a call out to my parents. I can’t find Saxon…I need—”
“Sloane. What’s that over there?” Naira pulled herself a little more out of the water, as far as she dared without overexposing her tail to the frosty air.
I glanced behind us, squinting against the wind. I didn’t know what Naira was seeing. “What? Where?”
“Right there.” Naira pointed to a spot near a leaning and recently defrocked birch tree. There was a long heap of dead leaves piled up.
“That’s another thing. Why are all the leaves off the trees in June?”
“No, Sloane, not the leaves. What’s under the pile of leaves. There’s a little shoe. Right there at the right side of the pile. Please tell me it’s not a little kid?”
I focused my gaze more intently, trying to see what Naira was pointing out. “I don’t see anything but leaves.” I was going to have to go look closer. As I walked toward the pile, I glanced back at Naira where she was stretched out on the grass shivering.
Filled with dread, I trudged through the drifts of dead leaves to get closer to the mound that my friend was pointing out. My breath caught and bile rose for the second time in one day as shock ripped through my body.
The sight on the other side was something from a slasher film. There was a child, or what was remaining of a child. He had to have been only nine or ten years old. One of his legs, the one still wearing a shoe, was twisted grotesquely away from his body. One arm was also at an unnatural angle, contorted up and under his torso. The other arm was missing. The torso was ripped open and his guts were spilling out onto the ground. But that was not the worst part. It was his face. One empty eye was open wide and staring up at the sky. A terrified grimace was frozen on that half of his face. The other half was missing. It had been sheared away from his little skull. Spinning away and clutching my stomach, I vomited my tea into the grass.
“It’s a little boy, Naira. Something tore him apart.” I yelled, wiping my mouth across my sleeve as I ran, stumbling, back toward the river. My feet caught, tangling in vines, and I went down sprawling, sliding across the iced grass for a few feet before I was able to scramble back upright. My phone was out of my pocket and into my sweaty palm as quickly as my trembling hands could manage. I punched in the emergency number frantically. But each time the same message popped up on the screen. No Service. I tried texting, but the same message was displayed. I bellowed my frustration to the treetops.
Full blown panic was threatening to take over. “Saxon!” I screamed into the woods, into the bitter wind. The only answer was a loud keening and hollow moaning mixed with a sepulchral growl from further in the woods. Absolutely knowing that no human, no animal, could ever produce such a sound, I backed away from the direction it was coming from, my feet crunching through the crust at the river’s edge. My retreat stopped when the cold shock of the river’s freezing water soaked through my boots.
“Naira, you have to go. Everything’s so wrong and dangerous.”
“But what about you? What about the kid?”
With tears beginning to spill, my vision rolled back to the ravaged body. “Where…” I turned, to the left, to the right, before loping closer to the mound that partially obscured the body. There was no body. There were no blood-soaked leaves. Just dead leaves and cold wind. “Naira, there’s nothing here. There’s no boy, dead or alive. What the hell? What is going on?”
Naira had begun to slide her body back into the water. “Oh gods, Sloane, it’s so cold. And everything is dying down here too. Not us, just everything else.”
“Go, you have to go.”
“But what are you going to do?”
“I have to find Saxon. And I need to get back to the house. We still have a family staying. I have to make sure they stay safe.”
“I’ll be back; we’ll be back, just as soon as we can. Stay safe, Sloane.” Naira pounded on the ice to break it away from where it had begun to refreeze around her tail, then waved a kiss and sank below the surface. The ice began to reform almost immediately.
With the wind and inhuman wailing cutting through me, I made a mad dash back toward the house, abandoning my quest of finding Saxon, or the boy, or what was making that god awful noise.
The guardian nest at the hearth was gone. This could be a good sign, or a really bad one. I’d need to keep an eye out for the new Egregore. I could only hope that the disappearance of the nest meant a guardian much too large for it had made its way here and had taken the nest to a more suitable spot to be used as feathering for its new resting spot. The alternative was too grim to think about now. It would mean something else had removed it.
Normally, I’d set up the evening snack platter for the guests in the parlor, but due to circumstances beyond my conjuring or control I brought the trays of coffee, tea, milk, and cookies into the library. The Henderson family had arrived just a short while after my return from my ordeal in the woods. The house was still quiet and the protection spell holding.
Sally and Reg Henderson entered the room laughing and jovial after an adventurous day in town and helped themselves to coffee and cookies before settling into the sofa, oblivious to all that had taken place in their absence. “Danny is upstairs putting his souvenirs in the room, but I’m sure he’ll be down right away for some of these cookies, they’re delicious. Did you make them yourself?” Sally asked.
“Thank you, I did. They’re from my great grandmother’s recipe, family secrets and all.” I winked playfully, though inside my nerves were sitting on a sharp edge, pondering how best to get them to leave. I needed to artfully suggest they shuffle off to another B&B in town.
“We were wondering, the weather took such an extreme turn since yesterday. Is that a usual thing for this part of the country?” Reg inquired.
“It can be pretty unpredictable, but this extreme is definitely an oddity. I don’t think anybody was prepared for it. In fact, it might be a little less harsh in town, away from the woods and the river. It would be no trouble at all to book you a room in town.” Hint, hint.
“It’s like winter out there, but it’s so cozy in here. I think we’d like to stay.” Mrs. Henderson giggled as she snuggled deeper into her cardigan and against her husband’s side. “I was so happy to see you’d built a fire, it’s so perfect for the evening.”
“Always happy to make our guests as comfortable as possible.” I was trying for a warm smile, but I had my doubts that the result was quite what I was going for. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some things to tend to upstairs. Please just help yourself to as much as you like, and if there is anything else you might need, don’t hesitate to ring the bell and I’ll be back down asap.” I gestured to an ornate bronze serving bell on the coffee table, giving them another wide smile.
When I reached the arched doorway to exit the room and go about my guardian search, I turned back and tossed out cheerfully, “Oh, if I run into Danny, I’ll let him know that warm cookies are waiting for him.”
“Thank you so much.” Reg replied, hugging his wife to him.
“You’re very welcome.” Slipping into the hallway, I let the heavy doors between the two rooms close, pausing to consider if I should insist on the move into town.
Before I could make a choice between guest relocation, incanting more protection, or checking for the possible whereabouts of the new Egregore, my next move was chosen for me. There was faint knocking under the stairs. It was all too familiar and was accompanied by the clawing noise as well. I glanced back at the library and hoped the disturbing sounds were not audible to the Hendersons.
Snatching up the basket, which held all the mystical goodies I’d gathered for the parlor earlier, I hesitantly made my way up the stairs, pausing every couple of steps to listen intently to what emanated from beneath my feet.It was making its way steadily up the stairs to the second level.
The sounds halted abruptly. My head snapped up. There was a little boy all alone up here. My mind flashed to the body in the woods. He had been about the same age and size as Danny. Maybe that was why he had disappeared. Perhaps it hadn’t been real, but rather a foretelling of a possible outcome? “Oh shit.” I breathed out between clenched teeth, a fresh wave of panic gripping at my heart.
Taking the last steps two at a time, I raced to the Henderson’s room and threw the door open. It was empty. He was supposed to be in his room. Where was Danny? If not in his room where his parents thought he was, where would he go? I closed my eyes and took several deep calming breaths, attempting to quiet my disorderly thoughts.
There it was. The precursory scratching and tapping. The sound was above me now. The attic.
I crept up the stairs at the far end of the landing as quickly and soundlessly as I could manage and paused outside the door, listening. All was silent on the other side. Easing the door open, I peered inside cautiously, flipping the switch for the overhead light. It didn’t turn on. “Of course.”
Resting the basket on the floor, I dug out and lit the banishing candle before placing it in a lantern that sat on a table in the center of the room. This was no ordinary banishing candle. This was not the stuff that was made for the tourists in town. This was custom and created with absolute intensity and purpose for the heavy stuff. I anointed myself with the Hekate power oil, also not of the tourist variety, then quickly scribbled the same sigil I’d used in the parlor onto a sheet of parchment and slid it under the lantern.
The room by no means could be considered derelict, my mom still used it as her painting studio and my childhood playroom was still intact. Antique furniture, family heirlooms, and my toys and tea set still lay scattered lovingly about the room. As a young girl, I’d hide up here nearly every day after school to meet with my secret friend, Sjenka. We shared stories and magic spells over pretend tea parties and crayon drawings. She’d been the only friend I’d found who shared the gift of the ancestral arts. Before her, I’d been a pretty lonely kid.
Of course, during all the long days leading up to Halloween, I’d be bombarded with more friends than I could handle, I was the best thing any kid could dream up for a bestie. But as visions of sugar plums began dancing through their heads, my friendships waned in favor of Santa and fancy wrapping paper. It was in the midst of one of these downslides that Sjenka appeared in the attic playroom for the very first time, while I was deeply tucked into in one of those melancholiest times of desertion. I was five.
Resting against the front wall between two windows was a massive gilt-framed mirror; it was easily six feet tall and four feet wide and had been in the family for generations. It was rumored to go as far back as the 15th century. The proof was in its craftsmanship. Instead of being coated on the back with silver, it was an amalgam of tin and mercury; the telltale signs were the slight bits of oxidation at the side edges. The glass also held the tiniest indicators of old-world era in the way it was a bit wavy near the top. The slight sparkly, crystalline appearance behind the glass could be from either its antiquity or its magical status. I wasn’t sure on that one. There was a story as to how the mirror came to our family. It had something to do with lost love and tragedy.
I ran my hand down the surface while gazing into the world on the other side, that opposite world, what my mom called the Gegenwelt. “It’s the world that thrives on the other side of the looking glass. It’s where your ÜbelSelbst lives. Your other self. Your darker version.” She’d warned me, but Sjenka had never been anything but sweet and wonderful.
“Whatever happened to you Sjenka? Where did you go?” I half expected to find Sjenka waiting on the other side, but the mirror only reflected the room behind me. This was where Sjenka lived. On the other side of the mirror.
Sadly, we’d always been separated by the reflective glass, unable to give each other the hugs of friendship or have a real sleepover. Many Saturday nights had found us with our sleeping bags nudged as close together as the barrier of the mirror could allow, each tragically stuck on our own side, but always still managing to have a blast; a night full of spooky stories by candlelight, complete with S’mores and giggles.
Plenty of times through the years I’d sneak up the stairs into the attic after my Gegenwelt friend called to me through a series of raps and taps.
Raps and taps. Sjenka would tap on the mirror in the attic and it would travel down to the mirror in my bedroom like a telegraph or Morse code.
Peering more deeply into the mirror, I searched its depths for a peek at the friend I hadn’t seen since my junior year of high school. One day we’d been sitting in front of the mirror, crisscross applesauce, gossiping about boys and clothes and magic, and the next day the room on the other side was empty. And it had remained empty. Just reflecting back what I already knew of my own world.
All had seemed as usual that last day, so there never seemed to be a reason for the sudden absence of my friend. It happened with no warning or explanation, and those unrelenting questions were never far from my mind, particularly whenever I looked into a mirror.
I was always half-expecting my reflection to speak back to me, to flash me that mischievous smile that belonged to Sjenka and not to me. Appearance wise, Sjenka and I were sisters. It was the mannerisms that were only revealed in movement that delineated us.
A shiver curled up my spine and I turned my back on that counter-world. Something, an idea not fully formed, poked at my brain. Shaking myself out of the reverie of childhood memories, I took one last look around the room and left. There was no time to ponder over the past. I needed to get back to finding Danny.
Walking across the room, the atmosphere began to feel heavy, thick and gummy to move through, and all the fine hairs on my body were standing at attention. At this end of the attic was a narrow corridor leading to a second set of stairs, which led to the rear second floor landing and then on down to the kitchen. Back in-the-day, these were the servant’s stairs.
I spotted Danny’s sneakered feet. He was laid out flat on his back, toes-to-ceiling, and his body was beginning to slide away from me and into the shadows of the narrow passage.
I ran to him, sliding to an abrupt halt, catching myself on the wall so I wouldn’t tumble into Danny and…the thing tugging on his little body.
Here was a creature even more monstrous than the one that had been crawling from the parlor wall. This one was long and lanky, so tall it had no choice but to be hunched over in the passageway even though the ceiling was a generous ten feet high. Its arms were long enough to drag the floor, and of course it had the claws; the familiar lengthy razor-sharp talons that looked hungry for the taste of flesh and blood.
It was unclothed and every inch of its body was the cemetery grey-green of rot and stench. It was slick with the gunk from its splitting skin, raw and peeling away. The eye sockets were too big for the head; the eyes within crazed and piercing. The hair on its skull was patchy and stringy and clotted with what might have been dried blood, and gods only knew what else. I gagged, fighting down the feeling that was threatening to hinder my work.
The mouth. Just once I’d like to see a demon, or whatever, with a small mouth, and with no teeth, just gums. This mouth was jammed full of death. It wasn’t just the short, wildly serrated teeth disturbing me to my core, but the fact that strings of meat hung from between them. Leftovers from a previous meal?
Danny’s eyelids flickered but remained closed as a soft groan slipped from him. He was still alive. Still breathing, and not a spot of blood marred his clean clothes. The meat hanging from the teeth was not from Danny.
“Get away from the kid, asshole.” I reached down to the Hexe gear at my feet and grabbed up two handfuls of black salt. Raising my hands in front of me, I opened them palms up and blew the mix of salt, ash, and crushed herbs at the face of the creature.
“Mine. All mine.” It croaked from between gnarled lips and bits of rotting flesh. When it spoke, some of the tendrils of putrid meat dropped to the floor.
“No. Not in my house.” Picking up my leather-bound book from the floor, I repeated the spell from the parlor. Words poured from my mind seconds before they passed my lips. I saw them migrate on the air between me, the boy, and the monster, watched as time seemed to slow and the words wrapped around the head of the creature, coursing down its body. Beyond the words of incantation, I envisioned their effect, and blew more spell salt at its face.
It cringed at my words, gurgled and glared and growled at me when the salt hit its body. Not wanting to lose its treasured feast, talon-tipped fingers reached for Danny’s face but couldn’t break through the invisible barrier keeping them from their goal. Backing away from Danny and down the hall, it uttered, “Hate you. Hate you, we all. Be back.” The garbled voice was edged with more hatred than I’d ever heard.
“Mutual. So very mutual. Get out of my home.” I followed the thing down the hall as it scuttled, bent over and in pain. “And be sure to tell whoever sent you that I’m up to the task. What I did to you is nothing to what I’m capable.”
“You dead.” It laughed maniacally, gnashing its gnarled teeth at me and slobbering. “Not under the death ground, worse for you.” As a parting gift, before it was sucked through the attic roof, it projectile-barfed a grotesque, nasty lump of goo at me—I was really happy its aim was off. It shot over Danny and landed near my feet. The smell was unbearable.
“Asshole.” Stepping over the steaming mess, I moved tentatively to Danny, ready with each step for something to reach out of the wall and grab me.
The Henderson boy was waking, the spell of the creature had vanished along with its presence. I was going to have to play this off well. “Hey, little man, whatcha doin’ sitting up here?”
His expression was one of confusion rather than terror; he’d been passed out for the entire show. He looked up at me as if I could supply the answer for him. I was perfectly happy to oblige. “Did you fall asleep and maybe wander in here? Maybe you sleep-walked? Sometimes that happens to people in unfamiliar surroundings.” Helping him to his feet, I made at brushing him off, as if he’d become dusty while on the floor. The truth of the matter was I wanted a reason to give him quick once-over to be certain he was indeed uninjured.
There were no marks on him, not so much as a bruise. “Why don’t we get you down to the library for some yummy fresh-baked cookies and milk. Your parents are down there. We wouldn’t want them to eat them all up without you, now would we?”
Looking up at me with his innocent brown eyes, Danny gave me a wide toothy grin. It was lopsided and missing a front tooth. He shook his head. “I want some cookies. We didn’t have dessert at the restaurant we ate at.” He placed his hand in mine and pulled me towards the stairs.
“Well, okay then, let’s get you set up with a plate of goodies right away. There are some really good books in there too, and paper and crayons if you feel like coloring.”
“I love coloring.”
I held in my sigh as relief flooded through me. One disaster avoided. He didn’t seem at all aware of what had happened. Now…how to politely ask the Hendersons to get the hell out without alarming them? I’d let them enjoy their dessert before tackling that hurdle.
I was in the kitchen setting the stage for a burst-plumbing-scenario to throw at the Hendersons as a reason for my insisting they leave, when I was startled by a scream tearing through the house. Running from the kitchen, I skidded to a halt in the library where the Henderson family stood transfixed at the wide window. They looked out into the dusk shrouded yard. Terror frozen on all three faces.
“What? What is it?”
They all turned as one and pointed out the window.