My Post-Samhain Gift To 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. We’re a house of Hexe—witches of the German variety—where grey magic prevails. 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. “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. My hands skimmed over various mystical objects and magic paraphernalia as I made my way hurriedly through our Hexe pantry—a large room just off the kitchen where all the accoutrements of the trade were stashed. 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 a s 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 gods 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 craftmanship. 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 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.
If you don’t know anything about the Gegenwelt, and you may not if you’re not a Hexe, it’s the world that thrives on the other side of the looking glass. Appearance wise, Sjenka and I were sisters.
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.
“Out there. It was at the window. It was looking in. It was scratching at the window. Its face was at the window. Watching us.” Sally stammered.
Danny was glued to his mother’s side. He was crying so hard snot was running down his chin.
I pushed past them.
“What’s going on out there? What is that thing? Is this some kind of insane joke? Who does this? I know your place is reportedly haunted, but what kind of sick game is this to play on people?” Reg was not amused. But this was no joke.
Across the darkened yard, under the trees, I could just make out a hulking black mass of fur with four long legs and a snout full of fearsome teeth. It was currently standing-off with a pale skinned, rotund atrocity on two legs.
“I assure you this is no joke. And I had nothing to do with it.” I watched transfixed as the enormous dog-like creature took chase after the pasty, corpulent thing into the woods.
“I don’t see anything out there,” I fibbed, sort of, currently nothing was out there to see. But the Hendersons needed to leave. Things had gone way too south, and it was unsafe for anyone non-magical to be here any longer.
“It was a man. A huge, fat, greasy horrific man. He had his face against the glass. he was watching us. He was laughing and scratching at the window. He yelled at us.” Sally was beginning to lose it. “We were just having a nice time drawing with Danny and I looked up when I heard the scratching and knocking, and he was there. He was grotesque and bloated. He looked like something from a horror movie.” Sally was reaching a tone of hysteria. Reg hugged her too him, quieting her words. She began to cry.
There was a sudden clomping upstairs. A deep booming of steps vibrating across the ceiling of the room. Damn it! Why wasn’t my magic holding?
“What the fuck are you up to?” His glare was scathing. “Who treats guests this way?”
“This is not me. We don’t do things like this. I would never.” I shook my head, looking down at poor Danny who couldn’t stop hiccupping through his tears. “Really, I promise you. I don’t know what’s happening.” No lie there. Aside from the monstrosities, which we’d all seen now, I had no idea what was causing the hubbub, or how to halt it completely. I was only slightly more informed then they.
“I wanna go Mommy. Daddy, please, I don’t wanna be here anymore. It wants to eat me. It came back for me. It’s going to eat my soul and leave me dead in my bed tonight. It said it was going to eat my soul and tear off my face. It said all the bad words at me Mommy. It said all the worse words and said you and daddy would be next and it said, it said, it said—” The rest of the little boy’s words were choked off in the most gut-wrenching sobs.
“Fuck you and fuck your B and B!” Scooping Danny up, Mr. Henderson clutched his wife’s hand and pulled his family from the library, charging firmly toward the front door. He transferred his son into Sally’s waiting arms and dug the car keys from his coat pocket before hustling them all through the front door. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney. This is absolute fucking bullshit!” His tirade was highlighted by a pounding from upstairs, accompanied by a resounding blood-curdling scream.
My gaze was transfixed on the ceiling overhead. “Really, this isn’t us. This isn’t what we do. I don’t know—” I tried to assure him, even though I did want them to go. I needed to get upstairs and stop this attack on my home.
“Fuck you, fuck your house, fuck your supernatural bs and your games. I’m going to see to it that you’re closed down.”
“I’m so sorry. I can call into town and get you a room at another bed and breakfast or hotel. But you’ve got to understand, this isn’t us. I’m not doing this.”
Mr. Henderson did not hesitate getting right up in my face, ignoring his wife’s arm tugging as she tried to pull him away. His voice was low and primally threatening, hot on my face as he spit out his words. “Fuck you and your help. You’ve done enough. I should call the police and have them haul your pathetic scamming ass into jail right now, you sorry excuse—”
Mr. Henderson’s words were sharply cut short by the crash of a breaking window above our heads. A shower of glass rained down between us. Next came the deep throaty growl from a huge dog approaching us from the woods.
Aldo? Had my conjuring for an Egregore brought him back?
“Go, please just go, now.” I begged Sally. “Whatever this is, it’s real and not of my doing or invitation. Please take your family and go. I’ll be sure your things get back to you. But please, please, go.”
Sally had regained enough of her reason to see I was sincere.
“Reg, please, please let’s go. Let’s get out of here. Be mad later. Do whatever you feel you need to later, but now, let’s go.” Sally tugged him away in great jerks of her body, to their car in the drive.
“I’m not done with you, or this place, you bitch.” He slid behind the wheel of the car as Sally, with Danny crushed tightly too her, and with her eyes darting wildly around the surrounding area, got in the car, slamming the locks down.
I could no longer hear their words, but I was sure from Sally’s gestures, she was urging Reg to start the car and get them the hell away from The Overmorrow.
I didn’t stay to watch them drive away.
Creeping with extreme caution through the first floor of the house, I listened for even the slightest noise. All was silent. Eerily silent. No knocking or tapping. No growling or screams. Was it the calm before the storm? Or had the wanted end been achieved with the departure of the last guests? I had no way of knowing, but I was extra uncomfortable with being so completely alone in the house now. Not that the Henderson’s could be of any help against these things, but at least they were human.
After drawing a protective sigil at the center of each room on the first floor in chalk, and black salting them for good measure, I moved on to the second floor, giving my bedroom a little extra care before heading to the attic. I needed a quick fix for my broken window. From the sounds of it, the storm was ramping up out there into something savage. The winds were howling, and hail was pounding on the roof. A garbage bag and a roll of duct tape would have to suffice. I’d keep my fingers crossed that it would hold until getting someone out for a permanent fix.
Standing in the center of the attic after finishing the exhaustive work of warding, I stretched out my senses in all directions, picking up absolute zilch. All was still. The oppressive essence, which had been infiltrating multiple areas of the house all day, was gone. I was anxious to believe I had stopped the attacks. I held still for several long minutes. Listening, Feeling. Waiting.
Finally, with a soft sigh, all the tension of the last hours drained from me, leaving me immediately and deeply drained. Maybe I should try to get some sleep.
There would be much to do in the morning. I still needed to find Saxon and the other spirits. I had to get in touch with my parents and fill them in. And had that been Aldo I’d seen heading into the woods? Above all, I really needed to figure out why this infiltration had happened. What had set it in motion? So much to do and so little energy remaining.
Flopping into a cushy armchair with my feet on the ottoman, I let my eyelids slip closed. I was so done with this day. “Just for a minute.” I bargained with myself.
I shot upright at the third chime of the thirteenth hour with panic lighting up my chest. Unsettled and eyes wide open. Something was off. The lamp next to me still cast a misleading warm glow. There was a thickness permeating the room, a heavy sluggishness.
“Sloane?” A voice called. It was Saxon. I scanned the room quickly, but he wasn’t there. It had been faint. Maybe he’s in the hall.
“Saxon?” I rose from the chair.
“Sloane.” His voice was just on the other side of the attic door.
Smiling in relief, I headed toward his voice, but stopped short. Waiting. Thinking. What am I doing? How stupid would I be to open the door thinking it was really going to be him waiting for me out there? Of course it isn’t him. If it was, he’d simply be here next to me, not on the other side of the door.
With no warning, a set of cold hands latched onto me, dragging me up against the heirloom mirror I’d stopped in front of. I whipped my head to face the mirror and was shocked to see not my reflection, but Sjenka. I had just enough time to register it was her and not me before being pulled clean through the glass.
Passing through the mirror was like swimming through jello. It was very much what I’d been feeling in spots throughout the Overmorrow since coming home, but significantly stronger. Thick, as if the air was sticking to my skin, and misleadingly sweetly scented.
I’d never known traveling through the glass had been a possibility. We used to talk about how much we wished we could do it, so we could sit side by side to read and draw and daydream. To have real sleepovers.
Sjenka’s nails dug into my arms painfully, then she was shoving me away and into the alternate bedroom. I stumbled and fell to the floor, dazed and heavily disoriented. For a few moments I could only stare at Sjenka. Why was she looking at me as if she wanted to rip me open? The atmosphere was charged with dark anger, it vibrated through the air, dense and dangerous.
“Sjenka, what are you doing? Where have you been? How did you pull me through? Why are you so pissed off?”
Sjenka didn’t answer. Instead, she turned her glance to the mirror and made intricate hand motions in front of it while speaking words I didn’t know. What language is that?
I could still see the attic on the other side. The armchair, bright flashes of lightning, the lamp. The little table still set for a child’s tea party. But for just a moment. It was becoming clouded, smudgy, as if grease had been painted over the glass.
“You left.” Sjenka’s voice seethed. “It was bad enough when high school started for you and you became too busy to be my friend. You visited less and less and then just stopped.”
“I wasn’t too busy. I called on you all the time and you didn’t show up.”
“That’s not true. You lie. My daemons told me everything you did. You were so enamored with your new friends and social life that you just ignored me. And then you went off to college and there was nothing. I couldn’t figure out what kind of magic you knew to block my voice. To keep you from seeing me there.” She jabbed her finger toward her mirror.
“I didn’t ignore you. I didn’t cast anything on the mirror.” I didn’t know what to say. It had been the other way around. And I’d definitely done no magic to keep her away. “You stopped showing up. It was junior year in high school, and I came home wanting to tell you all about homecoming dance and art classes and cute boys and I waited right there,” It was my turn to jab a finger at the mirror now. “but you didn’t show up. You never did again.”
“But none of it matters now. It’s too late. Everything you have to say is too late. I watched for years as you had everything I wanted; the mother, the father, the schooling, the fun, all of it, everything…all the things I never had. But I shoved all the feelings down because at least I had you. I never truly revealed to you all that was my life on this side. Oh, how I hated how you woke up every day so damn happy. Smiling and singing and brushing your hair in the fucking mirror and you didn’t even see me.”
Sjenka stalked closer to me and I scrambled to my feet, the look on my new nemesis’ face sent a bolt of fear to my heart. “But one day your mother slipped up, I heard her. She had done it. She was the one who blocked me from you. It made so much more sense. You would never have enough power to perform a spell of that degree.”
Sjenka stalked around me. “You were just so pleased with yourself and your life. And Saxon. You even got Saxon, who should have been mine all along. Why do you even get to have the ghost boy when you can have a live flesh-and-blood boy? Why should you have all the best of everything while I suffer on this side in darkness and gloom with the vilest of creatures as my only family and friends. If I’d only known then what I know now. If I’d had the power then, which I’ve grown into over your years of abandonment, I’d have taken your life so, so long ago.”
My heart froze and the chill of ice ran through my veins. Take my life? But Sjenka was my long-lost friend. And Saxon. Why did she want Saxon? “Did you do something to Saxon?” Fear for him tightened and heart.
“Oh, I’ve done something to Saxon alright.” The peel of laughter that ripped from Sjenka’s throat curdled my stomach. “You think you’re such a powerful Hexe.” Sjenka flashed a sneer my way full of such disgust and hatred it made me back away. “Your powers are nothing compared to mine. While you were studying American history and learning to drive, I was learning of true power, I was taught how to command the dead and the demons of my world, and yours.”
“What have you done to Saxon?” I yelled.
“Oh, nothing he didn’t beg me to do to him. It’s funny how at first, he thought I was you. Laying right out there in your bed.”
“You were on my side of the mirror?”
“Oh yes, more than once.” Sjenka paced even closer to me, circling around like a lion to its prey. “This past Spring Break was outstanding. Thank you so much for not coming home, by the way. I made him scream in the most delicious style. By the time I revealed I wasn’t you, he was so besotted he swore his heart to me.” Another sharp peel of laughter escaped her.
“You slept with him?” My heart was cracking.
“Oh, darling other-self, we never slept…well, at least not until I’d exhausted him too thoroughly to do anything else.”
“You were my sister, my best of all best friends. Why would you do this? How can you hate me so much? Were you never really my friend? Was it all fake?”
“At first it was real, but you ruined it by being so fucking smug all the time. And your mother? Well, let’s see how well she fares when I release her and send your gutted body back to her. You know about our father and my mother, don’t you? Well, a story for another time perhaps. Or maybe never. I can’t wait to watch your mother’s grief on both accounts.” She clapped her hands in front of her with an obscene squeal of pleasure.
“I was never smug. All I ever wanted was to spend all my time with you. To share everything with you. And what about my father?”
“Until you didn’t anymore! So, I took it. I found a way. I worked with Walpurga and crafted the perfect spell to break through to your side and I took everything I wanted. I took it all, Sloane. Everyone you love. And I’m not done yet! Your father is my father, Sloane. Do you get it?
“No. You’re lying. And what do you mean everyone?”
“Your parents never made it out of town. I’ve got them, your aunt, and all your ghosties locked away between worlds. I couldn’t have them getting in my way. I have your father somewhere special you’ll never get to. He’s my father now, as he always should have been.” She lunged at me with a dagger in her hand.
But she didn’t know me anymore, she was right about that. Apparently, she thought I’d abandoned my Hexe studies, when in truth I’d surpassed even the teachings of my mother and great-aunt. They called me a Helligkeit. I was considered gifted and blessed by not only Hekate but Sgathach and Blodeuwedd. My ancestors were Margot du Coignet and Malin Matsdotter. I’d been told on more than one occasion that the dark goddesses and witchy ancestors held me in high favor.
Testing this, I called upon Scáthach for help, for a barrier between myself and Sjenka, to deflect the slicing blade being jabbed at me mercilessly.
Sjenka came at me screaming, her dagger held high and ready, but instead of meeting her target she slammed into an invisible barricade. She shrieked in frustration, unable to land a strike against me. Her eyes met mine, and she began intoning her own magical words.
I took advantage of the moment and ran down the stairs, meaning to run out the front door, but the stairs took me to the back of the house, not the front. Of course! The house was reversed. As was the magic. Spells were cast backward. Sjenka had tried to teach me her natural language, but I’d never been very good at it.
But it was worth a shot. I drew a sigil in the air at the base of the stairs just as Sjenka came charging down them two at a time. Crashing into another invisible barrier, she howled in rage. It worked. But would it hold?
I charged to where the mirror-world Hexe room would be. The place where in my home, on my side, all the magic implements and grimoires were held.
I didn’t know what I would need here, so I called to Hekate for help, to guide my hands as I rummaged through grimoires and tools and herbs in the shadowed room. Flipping through the books quickly, I discovered I was right; magic was reversed here, spells spoken in reverse, sigils drawn in mirror imagery.
This was going to need to be down and dirty work, fast and precise. This would take calling upon everything I’d already learned and held inside, along with any help from ancestors, deities, and willing spirits.
My fingers danced across an alter blade. Approximately ten inches of wavy, double-sided deadliness that slid perfectly into my boot. Leaning to the side of the alter was a ceremonial sword for the casting of circles, if things were done at all the same on this side. And if not, well, it was still sharp as hell. I cleansed it, anointed it with a blend of protection and banishment oils, said some fancy witchy words over it as I offered it my blood in the names of my warrior deities, and then strapped it to my belt.
I froze, hearing heavy footfalls beyond the closed door, and held my breath, listening. Those were the sounds of something big and bad out there. After it passed, I moved like a mouse toward the door at the far side of the room and hid behind a shelving unit. This door should lead out into the back hallway. I needed more time to devise a plan. Did Sjenka pull Saxon through to this side?
All was quiet outside the door, but angry stomping was taking place above my head on the second floor, what could only be Sjenka trapped by magic for the time being.
A nasty, decay smell assaulted my nose, making me recoil and fight back a gag. Only faint light seeped in through the few scum-covered windows. I couldn’t see what was causing the stench. I was about to chalk it up to a concoction gone bad when my boot struck something soft but unyielding, which had been crammed haphazardly under the shelf. Forcing my gaze downward, I saw what the obstacle was. A kid. A boy of about nine. A boy that was missing a sneaker as well as half of his face. It was the boy from the woods.
This time there was no holding it back and I spun away from the body just in time not to layer it with the contents from my stomach. I dropped to a squat before I could fall down. “Oh my gods.” My words rushed out on a tight breath as I fought back a sob.
There was a rustling outside the window and the sound of something squealing across the glass. I stuffed my hands against my mouth to stifle my sob, not daring to look up, instead trying to flatten myself further down and against the cupboard I was behind. I’d seen enough horror films to know that staying in one spot was a death sentence, but I also knew from my Hexe studies that running out there before having my magical wits about me was just as much of one.
I needed to figure out how to get back to my side of the mirror. I’d have to find a way of undoing Sjenka’s magic that had closed it. But first, I had to know if Saxon was stuck on this side. I couldn’t leave him behind with this ÜbelSelbst. No matter what he had done. No matter how it might affect my feelings for him
Covering my mouth with my sleeve, I took a few deep breaths before slowly turning the knob of the door and peeking out into the hall.
I was readily armed with weapons, sigils, thorns, and a few bottles of banishment and protection oils, all of which were stuffed into a tattered canvas bag I’d commandeered. All just to escape this side. Once back I’d need an entire other array of items to destroy and seal the enchantment from my side.
If Saxon was here, I had no choice but to conjure him to me. Wandering around this house calling out for him while searching every room was not an option.
I created precise lines and swirls with ritual sand, then jabbing my ring finger with a pin, I wrote his name in the center. Sigil and blood magic, some of the most potent. Whispering the right words, in reverse, I called to Saxon. Hopefully, he could make it to me without the ÜbelSelbst. I didn’t want to refer to her by her name anymore. She’d turned into something vile and cruel since our time together. My mother’s warnings had come true.
At the sound of jostling jars on the table, I swung away from the door, the sword in one hand and a jar of banishment oil in the other. I was crouched, ready to fight.
“Sloane? Is that you?” It was Saxon and he was squinting through the gloom at me.
“Are you alone?” My battle stance didn’t relax. If he’d slept with her, he may not be on my side.
“I am. Why are you in here? How did you get here?” He seemed genuinely baffled.
“That bitch yanked me through the mirror. She’s my ÜbelSelbst, the shadow version of me. I’m leaving. Are you coming with me? She plans on gutting me, by the way. Did she happen to mention that to you while you were…” The words clogged my throat. “…while in bed with her?” I pushed past him, opening the door and peering down the hall in each direction.
“I’m coming to get you Sloane! It’ll all be mine! You can’t stop me!” The screams of the ÜbelSelbst echoed through the hall from upstairs maniacally. Apparently her Walpurga was a fickle helper.
“Bet me.” I muttered before spinning on Saxon. “You honestly thought that was me? You’ve known me since I was a little kid and you couldn’t tell us apart? Or did you just not want to? Never mind. It doesn’t matter. There are more important things to tackle.” I entered the hall stealthily, all my abilities on high alert as I made my way to the front stairs and began my ascent. Getting back to the mirror in the attic was the goal.
“Sloane, it’s nothing like she told you,” he whispered near my ear as we crept up the steps.
“Seriously, later.” I could hear the ÜbelSelbst charging down the other set of stairs; she’d broken through the barrier. Reaching the second-floor landing, I reinstated the barrier with a quick pass of my hands, drawing a boundary sigil in the air and strengthening it with an incantation in reverse.
I held my breath as I opened the door to the attic, hoping there would be no creak. My luck held. “Thank you, Hekate.“
Heading up the last set of stairs, Saxon grabbed my hand into his and I tugged it away, shaking my head at him and frowning.
The mirror was still standing between the two windows. But what lay between us and our destination froze me in my tracks. The lifeless bodies of several kids. They were all the same as the boy in the Hexe room; torn apart. The coppery smell of their blood was nearly overwhelming.
“She’s been bringing them here and killing them to raise her power. Her mother taught her.”
“What? They weren’t here before. No, never mind, tell me later.” There was no time to hear of the horrors she had committed. That’s how the girl always died in the movie, she stopped to hear the reasons behind everything instead of just getting the hell out of the place where she was trapped.
Taking care, I stepped over the bodies while trying my best to keep my eyes from veering toward the carnage. I made it halfway when the door exploded inward; shards of wood whizzed through Saxon and sliced into my skin. I whirled around to see the ÜbelSelbst standing in the doorway. Close behind was the huge grotesque I’d seen outside the Overmorrow, the one being pursued into the woods by what may or may not have been a reincarnated Aldo.
“Well, isn’t this cozy? Did you fill Sloane in on all our exploits?” Sjenka taunted.
“There’s nothing to tell her, aside from the way you manipulated me and cast against me.”
The hulking mass of greasy pastiness lumbered past Sjenka. She placed a hand on its arm, halting its progress into the room. “I’ll handle this. It’s my time for fun.”
“I have some fun for you.” I charged at her with the sword and caught her off guard with an upward slice meant to gut her. She may have known everything about me before high school, but she had no idea what I’d been studying while I was away at college. Thanks to a sweet boy at school who was heavily into medieval reenactment, I was schooled in western swordplay. I could best the best of any of the Ren Faire knights.
But the ÜbelSelbst was wily, and she was fast, deflecting my blow with her arm. It cost her a deep and nasty gash in her bicep. I just needed to keep her busy until the spell oil could seep into her veins. If I’d done the casting correctly, she should begin to slow down and become incapacitated completely.
Before I could attack a second time, the monstrosity that was her pal threw itself at me. I dodged to its right and yelled to Saxon. “The blue stuff, the bottle, open it and throw it at him!”
The bottle flew across the few feet separating us, spraying its contents in an arc across the hulking mass of nastiness. It began to sizzle and whine, then fell to the floor writhing in pain.
“What have you done to him?” The ÜbelSelbst flung herself in my direction with her dagger drawn, hellfire was in her eyes. The easiest opponent to take down was one lost in a fit of madness. Or was it that they were the most dangerous? I couldn’t remember.
My battle instincts took over and I blocked her dagger lunge, spun and arced my sword into her side. She staggered, disbelief attaching to her face in big wide eyes and an open mouth. No words came from her now. No smart remarks or threats. Her knees buckled, bringing her down to the grungy attic floor next to her monster. Jagged purple lines were quickly mapping their way across her flesh. She clutched at her throat with her clawed hands.
I didn’t wait around to see any more. I ran to the mirror, fumbled a jar of moon water from my bag and poured in alter salt. Stabbing my finger deeply with a thorn, I dropped it into the mix and squeezed my blood into the water, then swirled it counterclockwise while beseeching Hekate and Sgathaich for their assistance and protection. Putting my hand over the opening, I gave it a good, solid shaking, then pulled a length of cord from the bag and quickly tied it into a loop, dragging it through the water as I worked. “When you lunge, I will parry. Where you strike, I will block. When you threaten, I will decimate. With this water and life, with the blessings of Hekate and Sgathaich, I cut your tie to me. I cut your tie to those of my blood and love. I cut your power from my path and from my world.”
I drew the dagger from my boot. “Saxon, place a hand on the cord.” He did and I sliced the knife through the cord. I was dimly aware of Sjenka’s angry screams, but I didn’t slow my work. I turned to the mirror and wiped the soaked cord down its surface. It crackled and flared, and grabbing Saxon, and holding my breath, I threw us at the mirror.
We slipped through it easily. There was no thick jello feel this time, but fresh green summer night breezes instead.
We fell onto my bedroom floor and I scrambled to my knees. The work was not done yet.
I had everything I needed here on my side of the mirror. I ran to my armoire and flung packages of rue, rowan, oak, broom, and thorns at the foot of the mirror. I pulled a jar full of blood moon water from the windowsill and uncapping it, dumped in salt and the dried plant life and gave it all a good shake and a clockwise swirl. As a final power boost, I called on my deities.
“Hekate, Badb Catha, Blodeuwedd, Sgathaich, I call upon you all. Come to me, guard my corners, guide my hands. Assist me in my battle and my work. With this water and this earth, with my blood and my breath, I call you.” I drew the dagger across my palm and let the blood flow freely into the jar, stirring it with the dagger. I dipped a cloth into the potion and wiped all my exposed skin down. I wiped down the mirror before tossing the cloth at Saxon. “If you can, wipe yourself down.”
“Blood for blood, what you sent to me; I send back to you. What you created; I dissolve. I wash away your influence. Let it return from whence it came. May the evil you have sent my way return to you. I close the door and lock it shut, no harm can come to me, that way is barred forever more.” With those final words I slammed the hilt of the sword into the mirror three times, then another three, and a final three. “With three by three by three do I release your hold on me.” Shards and slivers of the mirror fell to the floor around us, leaving the frame empty.
But that wasn’t enough for me. I pulled it from its resting place against the wall and stomped with all I could muster until the frame broke into small chunks and splinters. I gathered it all into a sheet from the bed and hauled it down the stairs to the backyard where I threw it in the fire pit and immediately set it ablaze.
The rain had stopped. It was still frigidly cold, but the howling wind and hail were gone. A good sign.
The wood was old, burning down to ash, and only a few shards of mirror didn’t melt. That was okay, it didn’t have to. When the fire eventually died out and cooled, I slipped on some garden gloves, retrieving the mirror shards and a healthy scoop of the ash. I placed it all in a much larger jar of spell water. I harvested some hawthorn vines and looped them into the mix, dropping in a few rusty nails for good measure, and then sealed the jar with black binding wax. “I seal your power and your magic away from me, from harming me or those I love. From harming this world. I seal away this portal between the Gegenwelt, and away from all others you have created.”
Leaving Saxon standing by the fire pit, I made my way into the woods. Now was still not the time to hear his explanations. I needed a favor from the Finnfolk. The jar had to be carried down into the river and buried deep beneath the silt.
I rapped on the what was left of the icy crust at the river’s edge; it was melting away fast. The weather was already returning to normal. As I waited for Naira to arrive, I tilted the jar in my hands and studied its contents. Early morning sun was just beginning to break through the gloom and a band of bright light glinted through the jar, sparkling and yellow. Sun should give the spell against Sjenka’s brand of evil an extra little kick.
“You must have succeeded, “Naira’s voice broke through my thoughts. “The water is warming. What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Remnants of a cursed mirror. Can you do me a solid and swim it down to the deepest part of the river here and bury it as deep as you can?”
“You got it, more than happy to help. Will that fix all the darkness and cold?” Naira took hold of the jar.
“It should…I mean, yes, it will. It won’t change what happened, but it will stop it from continuing or happening again.”
“I’m all for that.” Flashing me a bright smile and clutching the jar to her chest, Naira dove back into the river. I lifted my face to the cheerful slivers of sun breaking through the thinning grey clouds and basked in their warmth. Summer would be back, and if my magic held the strength inferred by my heritage, we’d all be safe again.
Bursting through the front door after sprinting back to the house, I called out to my parents as I ran from room to room. I found my mom and dad in the kitchen, crying and holding each other. I threw myself into their arms and sobbed a sigh of relief as they locked me in their embrace. Addie joined in on the family hug.
“You did so well, honey. We’re so proud of you.” I had them back. Any questions about Sjenka’s parentage could wait.
Saxon stood sheepishly in the doorway. That could also wait for another day. For now, my family was back and safe and The Overmorrow was back to normal.
Or as normal as The Overmorrow ever could be.