“I’ll be damned, Bill, if that ain’t Joe Sullivan here to claim yer pitch-black soul!”
With a trembling hand, Bill put down his beer on the counter.
“Quit yapping, will ya, Kurt?” he said. “I ain’t to blame fer that old man fallin’ of his friggin’ bike and breakin’ his friggin’ neck!”
“Damn right ye are! Didn’t ye fix that bike of his last time?”
“Well, I did. So what?.. He was a hundred years old, for God’s sake, just like his bike! No wonder he end’d up in that friggin’ ditch.”
“Yeah, right after he lost his front wheel,” Kurt went on. “’Cause ye didn’t tighten it properly!”
Bill stood up from the bar stool, threw a couple of crumpled notes on the counter and went to the door, the unfinished bottle in his hand.
“And there ye has it!” he heard Kurt calling after him. “His ghost is back from the grave and a-lookin’ for ya. Everyone here heard his bike growlin’ on an empty road! And me too.” As if to confirm those claims, an engine growled outside, painting Bill’s face pale white.
“Damn ya, Kurt Brougham!” he snapped. “Ye an’ yer ghost tales!”
Spitting emphatically, the old mechanic left the roadside bar. The engine growl was still mounting. Bill’s heart was racing, and perspiration was beading on his forehead. Frantically, he looked around for the source of the growl, while it built up to a crescendo and then faded away into the distance. The next second Bill’s hat was blasted from his head by a gust of wind.
The old mechanic long stood gazing in shock at the empty motorway and into the distance. Then he tossed his beer bottle away, took to his heels and ran.
* * *
Tasha was running late. The Sabbath was several nights away, but she had yet to get there, and her old Harley was moving haltingly. The flying charm was perfect, but the engine powering the turbine coughed and sputtered, almost on the verge of failing. Which was alarming, but she didn’t have time to stop and make repairs. First things first: she had to catch up with her Sisters.
Felicia, sitting between Tasha’s legs, meowed and scratched the tank. A quick glance at the fuel indicator made the witch sigh. The needle was faintly hovering in the red zone. The bike needed a refill. In moments like this, Tasha envied those who preferred traditional means of transportation.
The flying Harley slowed down and hovered about three hundred feet above the ground. The cat started rubbing against Tasha’s naked belly. The witch ignored her familiar, bent down and reached into the saddle bag. From there she produced a bundle, which contained a weird Y-shaped contraption made of a pair of wrenches and a long bolt welded together. She took it, outstretched her arms and muttered spells while swiveling the outward-pointing bolt in a widening horizontal arc. Eventually, the bolt started vibrating, sending a pleasant tingling through her fingers.
“A-ha! There is a gas station just a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles away… We’ll manage!”
Felicia extended her paw under the tank and switched the fuel valve into “reserve” mode. Tasha deftly turned her hulking bike around and zoomed to the north.
* * *
Bob Ferone was bored. The Oil Industries gas station No. 265 was located on the periphery of the State of Maine--a proverbial middle of nowhere. Only a handful of long-haul drivers ever stopped there, but they won’t be in these parts for another week. Bob sighed and went on kicking an empty can across cracked pavement.
The tin can rattled against the sandbox, but Bob was suddenly distracted by a clear growl. A car or a motorcycle was coming. Squinting, he peered at the winding highway in the hills trying to spot some loser who was probably lost. The growl died. The road was empty. Now I’m hearing things. Great, Bob thought. He turned to face the pumps--and almost lost his tongue.
A bike was standing by one of the pumps, its tank opened, and the biker--a girl--was fitting the nozzle into the outlet. Noticing Bob, she looked up and smiled at him.
“May I fill my can, too, mister, if you don’t mind? I have a long distance to cover.”
Bob replied something indecipherable, shake-nodding his head in a dubious gesture. Guessing, probably, that it must have been a yes, the biker girl produced a collapsible jerry can from the saddle bag.
Bob was totally subdued by her authoritarian way around his gas station, so he just stood silently and watched the girl filling the jerry can with gas. She was not very tall and double-lidded, which were hallmarks of Asian ancestry, but her skin was tan, and she spoke without accent, which meant she settled down in North America a long time ago. She wore a green synthetic parka and long skirt that all but covered army issue boots. The entire outfit seemed weird to Ferone, but he couldn’t tell much when it came to fashion, so he had to admit that for them sophisticated folk it was perfectly normal to dress like that. Still, there was one thing that baffled him: how on earth did this girl mount her bike in such a skirt?
The biker girl released the nozzle and put the hose back on the pump. “And it makes... eight and a half gallons,” she said. “Where can I pay, mister?”
“The c-cash register i-inside.” Bob pointed his finger at the nearby building.
The girl went in, and Bob followed. Just for a moment he stopped by the bike--and looked at it like he had never seen a two-wheeler before.
It looked like a Harley-Davidson Sportster alright, though rather the worse for wear, its glorious time long past. Quite a mismatch for a lady’s bike. Massive black-ribbed cylinders glistened with oily stains, bolt heads looked like they had been routinely unscrewed and screwed back again. The crankcase was covered in multiple dents and welded-over fissures, the chassis was somewhat rusted. Airbrush-painted flames were consuming the bulky gas tank, with a word “BROOMY” sprayed over it in white. The bike, it seemed, had covered hundreds of thousands of miles. And yet, there was something about it--something weird. Trying to make out what it was, Ferone walked round the bike and almost tripped over the second jiffy stand.
“Damn you… What?!”
All motorcycles that Bob had encountered before had only one jiffy stand, and surely not at the back wheel. And yet, looking under the saddle bag, he didn’t find any alien parts. Harley still leaned on its single jiffy stand, which was in the front part of the chassis, as usual.
“Hey, mister! What’s keeping you so long?” the girl called from the shop. Bob walked to the building, and stole one more glance at the bike before entering. It meowed in return. I need a vacation, Bob thought.
Meanwhile, the traveler girl was examining a newspaper from the nearby stand. Across the front page ran a headline: “MY HUSBAND BACK FROM GRAVE!”
“Wow, do people still believe in this? Seems like we’re back in the Dark Ages…”
“That will be thirty eight dollars, miss.” Bob said standing behind the counter by the cash register.
The girl reached into her jeans pocket, produced a fifty-dollar bill and put it into the Bob’s palm.
“Keep the change, cowboy! I have to go now. Thanks for the gas!” Bending over the counter, she flashed the cleavage of her low-cut blouse. Bob’s eyes were immediately glued to her naked breasts. Seizing the opportunity, the girl kissed him on the cheek, then turned around on her high heels and went outside.
The growl of a motorcycle driving away jerked Bob back from reverie. He ran outside, but there was no bike and no girl, anywhere, just as if both vanished into thin air. Bob unclenched his fist--he was holding a maple leaf.
* * *
Even the howling wind wasn’t enough to drown her rapturous laughter. “You should’ve just seen the look on his face! What would’ve happened to him, I wonder, hadn’t I used the Veil?” Felicia turned to the witch with a reproving ‘me-eow’. “Oh, come on! He didn’t even notice me changing--thrice! People are generally bad in observing anything outside their normal worldview-- Well, okay, I got the point. I’ll try to be more careful. Next time.”
The cat snorted and stretched on the tank. Cool wind caressed Tasha’s naked body; her only garment was a short Denim waistcoat with “Hell’s Witches--Jacksonville” freshly stitched onto it. She has just been initiated as a full-fledged witch. This was to be her first Sabbath, so she wouldn’t want to be late. And if she didn’t find the place, she would be covered with shame forever. No surprise, then, she was in such a hurry.
She glided along a busy freeway, high enough so that people in cars speeding below her wouldn’t see her tiny shadow in the night sky. A trail of clouds covered stars and moon making it impossible to navigate. Still, the brightly-lit asphalt snake was a decent guide; Tasha could follow it for another couple hundred miles or so.
After an hour, Tasha caught up with another young witch, who was flying standing on a broomstick. She pulled it to the left then to the right, all the while keeping a perfect balance. Her cascading ink-black hair were billowing in the wind, her eyes were sparking with confidence. She was wearing a pair of massive golden earrings and a long string of beads--and that was it. Her features bore hallmarks of gypsy parentage. A huge bat was gliding beside her.
Noticing the fellow traveler, the gypsy girl smiled and waved, then deftly leveled off with the flying bike.
“Lachhi tjiri rat, hello!” she called. “Fly to the Sabbath? Me--Saffrone from the Nightbeasts. Katar aves, you… Which coven are you?”
“Moon-night, Sister! I’m Tasha, from Hell’s Witches of Jacksonville, Miami coven”. Tasha pointed at her forearm with the glowing tattoo of crossed broomsticks.
“Ha! I hear about witchiz from Jakesonville, I do! Your so… what is the word?... future looking! But no crystal ball!”
“We prefer to use the word ‘progress’.”
“Your so brave! Too little like you. Ancient Sisters don’t like it.”
“We honour the traditions, too, Saffrone. But those who don’t keep in step with the times, are going to be stuck in the past. Lots of Sisters fell victims to their unwillingness to change. Remember Salem!”
“Your right, Tasha. But your little, too little. Also, your pro-gress is feeling sad.”
Broomy’s engine started coughing and sputtering. Again. The flying bike was losing both speed and altitude. Saffrone laughed.
“Will see you at the Sabbath, Sora”, she cried, zooming through the sky. “Hope you will get to there!”
* * *
She had no other choice but to land on the freeway shoulder. Cars sweeping past the witch irritated her, but Broomy had an emergency. Streetlights also provided at least some light, since Tasha didn’t have Felicia’s night vision. Surely, she could conjure a will-o’-the-wisp or a campfire, but drawing unnecessary attention was the last thing she wanted. And the bike looked like it wouldn’t last long.
Tasha used the Veil only when Broomy touched the ground. Full invisibility demanded much power, and the traffic was rather lively here. Cars zoomed past one after another, and there was little chance anyone noticed a girl suddenly appear by the road pushing a motorbike along. Casting the Veil was much easier, given Tasha’s expertise in it. She dragged the bike onto a small paved spot, perched it onto the jiffy stand, opened the saddle bag and took a toolbox from there.
Tasha was so engrossed in fixing her Broomy that she didn’t notice a car stopping nearby. The door clanged, startling the young witch. She jerked around.
On the highway shoulder, not far from her, there was a green Pontiac station wagon. A young, twenty-odd, guy was climbing from the driver’s seat. He had an open and friendly face that seemed immediately likable.
“Hi!” he said, smiling. ”Is everything alright? I was just driving by, but saw you. Do you need any help?”
Tasha smiled back. “No, but thanks anyway! A little trouble, actually. The wiring. Nothing that can’t be mended with patience and a bit of tape. I’ll get this old guy back into shape in no time!
The guy, who was wearing a worker’s coveralls, fumbled in his pockets and produced a roll of duct tape. “You’re lucky”, he said, handing it to Tasha. “I’ve just grabbed a couple of these. Keep it, looks like you’ll need it! You never know what will fail next, with these old monsters.”
”You’re my saviour! I ran out of mine this morning, and was already thinking of taking some from the throttle--”
“I’m Matt. Matt Nomad”, the guy said, offering his hand. “Long way ahead?”
The witch eyed Matt’s hand thoughtfully for some time, then shook it. “No, just wandering around. I’m Yuki Smith. Nice to meet you, Matt”, she said.
“Want some hot coffee, Yuki? We have a thermos and some sandwiches.”
“Yes, I’d like some. Did you just say ‘we’?”
Before Tasha finished her question, Matt turned to the car and called: “Amy, come here! And bring the food bag!”
From the passenger seat there emerged a girl tentatively clutching a plastic bag. She was small and fragile; her light brown hair disheveled, movements stiff, though demonstrative not of weakness, rather alertness. And of curiosity.
“Don’t be shy, Amy! Come here. This is Miss Smith here; her bike’s got a little bit sick.” He turned to Tasha with an excusing smile, and said: “It’s Amalia, my younger sister.” With a quick glance at Tasha, the girl shank behind the broad back of her brother. “She’s nice,” he went on, “just a tad strange. She has difficulty making friends, that’s why I have to move her to a new school. Dawson’s boarding school,” he pointed out, as if to justify himself, and pushed his sister to the front.
“And why is such a nice girl so--” Tasha looked up at Amy and cut herself short. The girl eyed her heavily, as though penetrating the witch with her gaze. She had mismatching eyes, which showed a wide range of emotions. Kindness was not one of them, though.
Matt took the food bag from the girl’s hands and produced a thermos, three cups and a few cellophane wraps.
“Now you see? She’s like this with every stranger. And she doesn’t like to make any acquaintances… Well, Amy, while I’m pouring coffee for everyone, be so kind as to unwrap the sandwiches. I think, we might enjoy a snack as well.”
Tasha took a gulp of the hot coffee and started patching the wires with the duct tape Matt gave her. Even with her back to Amy, she felt her unflinching gaze on her. Looking over her shoulder: The girl did stand at a safe distance, keeping her eyes on the witch.
“Miss… May I feed your cat?” She asked in a low voice.
Tasha almost dropped the tape. Damn, she thought. I’ve completely forgotten about Felicia!
Her familiar, snoozing on the fuel tank, woke up and raised its snout in surprise.
“What cat?..” Matt wondered, and only then did he notice the pet. “Well, well, Miss Smith! I see, you like having company on the road, too! Admittedly, I completely overlook it in the darkness.”
“Yeah, sure...” Tasha said to Amy, mildly astonished. “Try to give her a bite of your sandwich. I bet she’d love some liver sausage.”
Felicia gave Tasha a puzzled look, then jumped off the bike and approached the kid. Amy offered the cat a half of her sandwich.
“Well, miss, if you don’t need any further help, we’ll be on our way then”, Matt said standing up. “Our auntie hates it when we’re late, and we have a long way to go.”
“Sure, Matt. Many thanks, again! You and Amy were a great help. Have a safe trip!”
Before they got back into the car, Amy approached her brother and whispered something in his ear. Matt replied in a low voice, but Tasha heard him saying: “Don’t be silly, Amy! Why on Earth do you think she is naked? Have you forgotten to take your pills, again?”
Tasha was stunned. Her vague suspicions that the girl sees much more than her brother have just been confirmed. Amalia was immune to her Veil.
It could have more than one explanation, one wilder than another. Still, Tasha couldn’t take that risk, so she had to see the kid’s aura--or that of a creature disguising itself as a twelve-year girl. She cast a True Vision spell off the cuff and focused on the departing Pontiac.
The world went bleak, dark, as if shrouded in shifting shadows. Weird astral silhouettes and exquisite flowers were writhing around Tasha, unseen by normal eye. The air condensed and thickened, time was moving slowly. The improvised spell wouldn’t hold for long, but a couple of seconds were enough to notice a blue glare on the passenger seat of the Pontiac. The cold flame was so bright that it penetrated through fabric and metal. Amalia had an innate Gift of an enormous power, enough to make her a witch of legends. Magic permeated each cell of the girl’s body, flowing in her veins, and growing with each passing day. Though, the power was yet unconscious, formless, like a top-grade clay waiting for a talented sculptor. Without proper training, Amy would be shunned for the rest of her days by both children and adults.
The discovery fascinated Tasha so much that she almost missed another crucial detail: Behind the Nomad siblings, clutching their shoulders with bony hands, sat a huge, hunched figure. The Reaper. He turned his head towards the witch, but instead of a face she saw a skull engulfed by darkness. That moment, the spell exhausted. The Reaper was gone, time resumed its normal speed. The Nomads’ car vanished in the traffic.
The Reaper’s presence could mean only one thing: The Nomads would soon be dead. Tasha felt sadness wash over her as she contemplated that such power could just be wasted, never reaching its pinnacle. But the girl’s fate was sealed, and no one could change it. You must be completely out of your head to stand in the Death’s way.
Felicia finished her sandwich and mounted Broomy.
Tasha was in a hurry: She quickly patched the wires, jumped onto the bike and pushed the starter button. From underneath her came stuttering whir.
“Come on! Come on…”
She reached under the tank and touched the engine. Warmth streamed from her fingers to the metallic parts, and the bike, finally, started.
Deafened by insistent honks, she swerved into the heavy traffic and set off after the old Pontiac.
* * *
As soon as Tasha saw the smoke ahead, she knew that she was too late. Maneuvering between braking vehicles, she sped to the crash site. In a couple of minutes, she saw a grisly spectacle.
The green station wagon had hit the barrier in the middle of the road. Its hood was bent and shrouded in fire and billows of oily smoke. A few feet away, there stood a pickup truck carrying heavy steel pipes, one of which jutted from the Pontiac’s windshield.
A siren came from the distance. Too far. Other drivers were stopping by, running and scurrying to and fro. Some were trying to break open the passenger door, which was stuck. Tasha jumped off her bike and ran to the mangled Pontiac, weaving a spell on the fly. Felicia hopped behind her.
She tasted blood. It is dangerous to switch between the worlds so frequently, especially without proper training. Astral pushes out all living beings, like water pushes out divers, so staying there requires a huge amount of strength. And if you are not careful, you may even sink.
The world around her slowed down. The howl of the approaching ambulance stretched and strained, turning into an air raid siren. Strikes against the metal sounded like explosions and gunshots. The door, finally dislodged, floated in the air.
Matt was dead. His head had been smashed by the pipe that fell out of the truck. It was now protruding from the back seat. The Reaper was still there. He had already taken Matt’s soul and was waiting for his sister to pass away, too.
Amy was lying in her seat, her head on the dashboard. Her nose was bleeding, and the inner flame was barely flickering, fading away with every passing second. Peering deeper inside the girl, Tasha saw ruptured tissues, a hemorrhage, and a swelling hematoma. Life was quickly flowing out of her frail body.
The Reaper reached into his robes and produced a tiny hourglass. Just a couple of grains were remaining in the upper bulb. Tasha realized that she had to act fast.
Having read her mind, Felicia dashed to the crashed Pontiac. In the astral projection, the familiar’s eyes and claws were glowing green, and its hide was sparking with electricity. Unlike the owner, the cat lived in both worlds at once, and thus was able to switch between them freely.
Felicia leaped into the broken window and attacked the Reaper in a raging flurry of teeth and claws. Since all the biting and scratching went through the robes as if through smoke, the beast was unable to do any damage to the Death himself, but it won a few precious seconds for Tasha.
The Reaper caught Felicia by the neck with his bony hand. The cat’s body immediately went slack, and her glow faded. At the same moment, Tasha pulled the girl’s face to herself and kissed her on the lips.
The flame inside Amy sprang alive. Sucking out the pain, the witch was pouring her own life force into the girl. Tasha felt a white-hot nail puncturing the back of her skull, going deeper and deeper with every passing moment, but she kept their lips locked. The balance didn’t yet tip in Amy’s favor.
Sand rushed into the upper bulb of the Death’s hourglass, faster than it was running out. He flung the cat away angrily and reached for Amalia. At this moment, Tasha felt she had shared enough life force with the girl, and she forcefully pulled Amy from the car.
Broomy came flying to them, raising clouds of dust and making astral dwellers scatter. From the headlight glass, a huge eye with a vertical-slit pupil gave Tasha a devoted look. The witch dropped the girl across the seat, then swiftly vaulted to dodge the Reaper jumping onto her from the car, and scooped her unconscious familiar.
Earth behind her rumbled. Tasha glanced at the rear-view mirror and saw the highway cracking and crumbling. A burning skeletal horse emerged from the resulting hole, filling the surrounding area with a chilling neigh that would have made a banshee shriek sounding like a lullaby. The Reaper jumped on his mount and sped off to chase the bike. Even the deafening roar of Broomy’s engine was drowned out by the thundering of the horse’s hooves. But nonetheless, the rider was actually falling behind.
And then the Reaper and his nightmarish horse disappeared; bleak colors and flickering flame in the girl’s chest faded. The spell wore away, and Tasha emerged from the astral world. Her head was in agony, and blood was running from her mouth. With all strength that she had left, she sent her bike upwards, fleeing the unseen pursuit, until exhaustion caught up with her.
* * *
Tasha came to because someone was intently licking her face. With a considerable effort, she parted her eyelids and saw Felicia. The familiar looked terrible: its dishevelled fur turned paler, the right eye wouldn’t open, the tail was hanging, wagging faintly. The cat seemed as though it came back from the dead. The witch tried to move, but realized she was in no better shape.
Felicia meowed coarsely. Gathering her remaining strength, Tasha looked around: The bike was stuck on the top a tall poplar. It probably landed there when the engine had died or had started idling. The tree has almost lost its foliage, but the branches were strong enough to hold Broomy and its riders. Tasha was hanging from a twig that caught her by the waistcoat, while Amy miraculously remained on the bike.
They were in some wilderness: only woods and fields powdered slightly with snow, as far as the eye could see. The gloomy day was already fading. The wind alone knew how far they managed to get away from the Reaper. The witch didn’t feel the Death anywhere near, but she was also too weak to cast any spells.
Tasha was shaking. She had forgot what it’s like when the October cold pierces you to the bones. It meant her inner fire was so depleted that she hadn’t got enough left even to protect herself from the environment. Those charms were the simplest, and young witches were taught to cast them before mounting a broom. Tasha didn’t know how long it would take her to recover, but it was clear that unless she did something soon, she’d freeze to death.
With her hands trembling, the witch took a woolen blanket roll from Broomy’s fork and threw it around herself like a cloak. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep warm through the night. Tasha tried to pull the bike carefully out of branches. The metal was stinging cold, goosebumps rose across her naked skin, the witch started coughing. With intermittent effort, she was able to free the bike from the poplar’s clutches, and Broomy, carrying, Tasha, Amy and Felicia, slowly descended.
Tasha checked her surroundings and collected some firewood and a few bunches of dry grass. Usually, she made fire just by snapping her fingers since she never carried any matches or lighters with her. Left without this option, she had to improvise.
She rinsed the grass with some gasoline from Broomy’s tank, removed a spark plug and wedged it between cylinders, connecting the wire back. Tasha took the bunch of grass in her left hand and held it up near the plug, then pushed the starter button. A spark immediately ignited the grass, and the witch hastened to bring the kindling to the fire she had built.
The fire started quickly. Tasha wrapped herself in the blanket and covered the girl placing Amy’s head onto her lap. Amy was still unconscious, but her life was not in danger anymore. She was sleeping sound. Felicia was snoozing curled up on the girl’s stomach.
For a long time, the witch stared into the dancing flames pondering about what had transpired. The thing she had done qualified as a grave meddling with matters that were outside the understanding of such lowly beings as she. Stealing a soul from the Reaper himself spelled real trouble. Although the Death had no power over Tasha’s--or any Sister’s--soul, he was more than capable to affect their life spans indirectly. The witch also knew that the Pale Rider wouldn’t give up the chase until he retrieved what had been stolen. After all, she had to credit him for his plentiful patience and persistence.
Tasha looked down at the girl and was startled to see Amy’s mismatching eyes gazing at her. The girl’s face, though, remained still and emotionless, like a plaster mask.
“Hi,” was the only thing Tasha could manage to say.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the one who saved you from the Death’s grasp.”
“So, I didn’t dream it then? That black-clad person riding in our car?”
“Yes, it was him--the Death, the Grim Reaper, Kharon… He goes by numerous names.”
“And he took Matt away?” Amy asked in a low voice.
Tasha nodded. Her eyes glistening, Amy sobbed and then burst into tears. Tasha let the girl cry herself dry.
“You are different,” Amy said at last, her voice still trembling. “You are glowing. And you’re naked. Are you an angel?”
“Sort of. Well, not quite… I’m a witch, you know.”
Amy seemed unconvinced. “You don’t look like one. Aren’t witches all old and ugly, and flying on broomsticks?”
“Like in fairy-tales?” Tasha asked feeling herself smile. “Not anymore. Nowadays, witches are young. And instead of a broomstick, I ride Broomy,” she pointed at the bike propped against the tree.
“And I read that witches are evil and that they eat children… Why did you save me? You want to eat me, don’t you?”
“I prefer beef. Children are tough and rather unhealthy. Seriously, though, I knew that you are like me, like one of us. You see things through.”
“Yeah,” Amy sighed. “I told them, but no one believed me. They kept repeating I’m making things up because I crave attention. Making fun of me. My aunt took me to a doctor, and he prescribed me those pills. They were bitter and made me feel light-headed all the time, but this… this didn’t go away at all. Only my brother was ever kind to me, and now he’s gone...”
“When a bright light begins to shine among the gulfs of drabness, there’s always the desire to snuff it out. You possess a Gift of immense power. You’re able see the things and creatures that are not of this world, and cast mighty spells… after you learn how to do this, that is.”
The girl was silent, astonished.
“Your life,” Tasha went on, “was to end back there, in the car, but Felicia and I--we intervened. Now, the Reaper is chasing us, but it seems we managed to escape, for a while. He is powerful, but not almighty, so he has to play by the rules.”
“You mean, he won’t leave me alone, will he?”
“No, he won’t. The Reaper won’t rest until he gets your soul. But I’ve got a plan.”
“Once a year, all witches gather at the Sabbath. There, they perform rites, struggle for power, and do other magical things. Besides, any witch may bring an apprentice to Initiate her as a Little Sister. The Reaper wields no power over Sisters or their souls… They belong to another master. The good news is the Sabbath will be held in a few days; I had been heading there, before meeting you. But the downside is: The event is held in a new, undisclosed place each year, so we will have to find it.”
“And if we fail?”
“The Reaper won’t be able to claim me, but you… I don’t know of a power capable of concealing a mortal soul from the Pale Rider servants for long.”
“I don’t want to die,” the girl said and pulled herself closer to Tasha, “but that Sabbath of yours… It scares me, too. I don’t know anything about your kind...”
“Well, since we’re not going anywhere, until I recover my magic powers… Okay, listen...”
* * *
“Across every age, there were girls capable of seeing a little bit more than other people. Some, scared by this talent, tried to suppress it, while others tried to harness and master it. A number of them succeeded at it. They became known as witches, sorceresses, wiccans, fortune tellers, and many others--different names, but the essence was the same. But then came bloody times, as the Church was struggling to be the sole source of miracles. They didn’t need any magic-wielding contenders. And thus, thousands of women--both dark hexes, harmless witch doctors, and even innocent girls--were burnt to death.
“So, the witches saw that they need some protection from the outside. For the first time ever, the Night Sisters joined their efforts for a common cause--to plead for help. Their call wasn’t left unanswered. They were contacted by an entity we all refer to as the Prince of Silence. Like the Reaper, he has many different names, and this it just one of them. The Prince is not good, but he is not evil either--at least in the conventional sense. Still, he is sentient and wields immense power. Having heard the witches’ plea at the first Sabbath, he made an offer: protection for souls.”
“But… Souls belong to the Reaper… Where does he take them, anyway?”
“No one can tell. The Church forecast doom and infernal torture, so the witches had nothing to lose. Thus, the Covenant was made.
“The Prince taught the witches how to reach their full potential, how to cast the Veil, and helped with formalizing the spells. In return, they had to abide by two Commandments. According to the first one, as I’ve said, the witches commit their souls to the Prince, so that he would get them after they die. The second Commandment instructs that all witches bound by the Covenant have to gather together once a year for a Sabbath, to pay tribute to their Prince. Surprisingly enough, though, this was met by a fierce opposition from the Night Sisters.“
“Why? Were they too arrogant to accept that?”
“No, they couldn’t reconcile themselves to do anything together. You see, back then, witches were stubborn and egoistic, and saw fellow Sisters only as rivals, as challengers.”
“So, did they reach an agreement?”
‘’Eventually, yes, mostly because they had no other choice. Those who had refused, at first, either changed their mind later, or ended up being burnt by the Inquisition. So, it had been established that once a year, all witches from around the world would come together to the Sabbath to meet with the Prince of Silence, but for the rest of the time they would be completely independent.
‘’This order had kept for centuries, until a new enemy appeared. When the Church started to lose its sway, and Inquisition fires went out, not only the Night Sisters were able to spread their wings, but men of science, too. For them, witches were a curiosity, like a three-legged frog, which they would dissect, again and again, to find out what is behind this freak of Nature.”
‘’But the Prince protects them! And all those Veils and other spells of yours...”
“Things that had helped them to escape the Church, alas, were not enough to escape scientists. You can’t stand against science on your own. Its weapons are rigor, analysis and observations, and individual witches could do nothing to counter them. More than that, a lapse by a single witch could deal a blow to all Sisters. All instances of magic, all inexplicable events were documented, catalogued and examined, giving rise to more questions.
“The witches realized that they couldn’t hide all by themselves anymore. Something had to be done, lest the society confirms their existence and swallows them up. Or destroys them. Neither alternative sat well with the freedom-loving Night Sisters.
“That is why a century and a half ago, the third Commandment was added to the Covenant, which instructed that each newly initiated witch, in addition to committing herself to the Prince of Silence, had to join a coven… a kind of a band or a private club.
“Although that innovation was met with even more backlash than the first two Commandments, the system did actually work. Thanks to coordinated efforts of the Sisters, official science decried magic and branded all practitioners as frauds, and through prudent control, this situation has been preserved still.”
Tasha took a stick to stir the embers and put some more firewood into the fire. After a moment, she went on:
“Just as I’ve said, while the witches consented to joining together to form covens, they remained very conservative in every other aspect. Prejudices that were rooted in the Middle Ages had been still considered a law. The witches barred themselves from using any devices more complicated than a distaff. And the covens accepted only those girls who had the right complexion, hair color, or eye shape. In other words, no Asians, Native Americans, or blacks could ever join them… though it goes without saying that the Gift--or its strength, for that matter--has nothing to do with race.”
Amy gave her a piercing and questioning look.
“I see, you wish to ask how on earth did I become one, huh? With such racial background? Be patient, I’m getting to it.
“Those were the ways of Europe, the cradle of witchcraft, and the old colonies of the New World. But far off from there, on the frontier, younger covens were profoundly different.
“The first ones to abolish the most of those anachronistic ways were Hell’s Witches of Jacksonville, a small group back then. They switched from broomsticks to motorbikes, forsook the caste system, and began preaching that magic is not about power, but about freedom--quite an unorthodox view! But, most importantly, Hell’s Witches accepted any Gifted girl into their ranks, regardless of their backgrounds. Other covens abhorred us, but we never broke any Commandments, and were therefore protected by the Prince of Silence. Sure, they are trying to trip us up all the time, but we keep growing. So far, Hell’s Witches have spread across the entire continent and even beyond. I myself, for instance, come from the Miami coven.”
“But how did you become a witch?” Flushed with excitement, Amy gripped Tasha’s wrist. The witch tried to clear her throat, then said:
“Next time, all right? My throat is all sore.”
Amalia sighed in disappointment and turned her face to the fire. Tasha freed her hand and rubbed her fingers. A tiny spark gleamed on her index finder.
“Well, okay, I have an idea. I’m not strong enough yet for some serious sorcery, but I think, I’ll manage this trick...”
Closing her eyes, Tasha touched her temple with the fingers on her right hand, and placed her left palm on the girl’s forehead.
* * *
Children have woken up already. With trays in their hands, they take their seats at the tables. Plates and tin forks are clinking and clanking; teachers are shouting. It’s just an ordinary morning in St. Joseph Orphanage.
Yuki stares bleakly at her cracked plate and some yellowish wobbling mass on it--Fat Mo’s Tuesday special. She calls this a casserole. Yuki hates Tuesdays.
The girl carries her tray across the dining hall looking for an empty seat. She is late today, and her usual nook has been occupied already. During the night, somebody ripped her dress, and Yuki had to sew it back hastily. Over the years spent in the orphanage, she learned that such incidents could happen anytime.
She makes a detour to avoid the table occupied by “Olsen sisters”--a group of girls, who are to be adopted by a rich philanthropist couple when summer ends. Yuki doesn’t know exactly what a ‘philanthropist’ is, but suspects it is just another word for “deranged”. The “sisters” themselves were not kin, but it so happened that they all were tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes--perfect lookalikes of the dead daughter of the Olsens. They were hated by the less lucky orphanage girls, who actually envied the “sisters” for getting this ticket to the better life.
Unfortunately, the “sisters” have noticed her. One of them, Sophie, points at Yuki’s stitched up dress, lets out a giggle, and starts chattering with her friends. Soon, the laughter engulfs the dining hall like a wild fire. Yuki, wishing the earth could swallow her up, grips the tray in her thin fingers and quickens up the pace, almost running...
“Why such a haste, young miss? Where are you going?” calls a voice from behind, like a lash of a whip. Yuki stops dead in her tracks.
“To the b-breakfast… Mrs. H-Halloran...”
“Haven’t you been taught to face adults when talking to them?” the housemother demands.
The girl swallows hard and turns around slowly. Mrs. Halloran’s steely temperament, high, granite-cut cheekbones and chilling voice instilled fear into every dweller at St. Joseph’s, both young and adult alike. She also had a unique talent to look down on everyone, even though the housemother was smaller than most girls at the orphanage.
“Lower your tray, young miss. What is it you’re trying to hide there?”
The last bit of hope to get an easy pass this time goes up in smoke. Yuki drops her hands obediently, and the housemother explodes in fury.
“Shame on you, wretched child! Look, what you have done to your dress! How did you even dare to come here in such a mess?!” she shouts.
“It w-was like this w-when I woke up and… and...”
“Spare me this nonsense! Living on taxpayers’ money, you’re supposed to look after the public property, not to go ripping it! Such ingratitude!”
A single tear drops onto the casserole plate. Yuki tries hard not to cry. Over her spell at St. Joseph’s, she had to endure beating and maltreatment, but never before was she humiliated in public. Bile starts rising up in her throat.
“You’ll pay for your… untidiness, young miss,” Mrs. Halloran’s voice has become chilly again, stinging like November wind. “Go and sit down in the middle of the hall, in our special place, so that every other child sees who they have to live with. And after you have your breakfast, I’ll be waiting for you in my room, to make sure you’ve learnt your lesson. Properly.”
Yuki’s face grows pale. She looks around desperately, but can’t find any support. Other girls are either gloating or shying away. Accompanied by reproving shouts, she drags herself to a highchair for small children that stands between common tables. When there are no infants at the orphanage, the highchair is used as a pillory.
Yuki has to abandon any hope of mounting the highchair--it’s just too small for her--so she settles the tray down on the table, stands on her knees and takes her fork with a trembling hand.
For an unsociable girl like Yuki, who always tries to avoid unwanted attention, this is a torture. She is struggling not to look up in order not to see dozens of staring eyes, to ignore the whispering--surely, all about her--not to think. Barely moving her lips, she keeps telling herself “Thisisntreal, thisisntreal, thisisntreal...”, but the words are not convincing at all. The casserole, disgusting as it is, makes the girl nauseous, but she keeps stuffing the amorphous blobs into her mouth, afraid of drawing even more castigation upon herself.
Yuki is on the verge of throwing up the stuff cooked by Fat Mo, when suddenly the large door creaks open, letting Mr. Morrison, the headmaster, with an unfamiliar woman into the dining hall. Girls grow silent immediately, ducking their heads into their plates. Only the rattle of cutlery and headmaster’s voice fill the room.
“...and I doubt you will find anyone you’d like there,” Mr. Morrison bleats like an out-of-tune violin. “Nice ones have all been taken, and I suppose, you’re looking for someone with bla… um-m… with a darker skin tone, aren’t you?”
The headmaster rarely visits the orphans. He doesn’t like them much, and they say lots of terrible things about Mr. Morrison, like, his grandfather was a gnome or an Irish leprechaun, or that he eats girls who just won’t be adopted. And so, each his coming is a great deal. Yet this time, all attention, every furtive glance is glued to the woman accompanying him.
The first thing that strikes the eye is that she is very tall. She could reach the chandelier in the middle of the hall without standing on a stepladder, like teachers do when they need to change a bulb.
Yuki can’t see the woman’s outfit properly--because of tears, apparently, she appears just as a blurry shape, but the girl is able to see strong arms with ropy muscles rippling under her shiny chocolate-dark skin. Her head--a thick bush of ink-black curls. Her emotionless face brings to mind tiki idols.
She interrupts the old headmaster; her voice is deep. “I thought we’d settled this already, Joseph. I’ll select a girl myself and I don’t need your advice. Understood?”
“Very well. Choose whichever you like, except those at the blondes’ table.”
“Those don’t interest me in the least,” the negro snorts throwing a glance in that direction.
The hall grows silent, and at the same moment Yuki finally vomits.
The giantess looks around in surprise. The sight in front of her is quite disgusting.
A girl in a dress that is all stitched up sits on the dining hall floor, right in an unsightly puddle with lumps of casserolle floating in it, tears streaming down her face. There can’t be a spectacle as woeful as this in all Florida right now.
The dark woman regards Yuki closely, but indifferently, while the girl lets out all the frustration that has been piling up inside her since morning. Never before did she feel herself such a loser, worthless and pathetic. Everything is against her this day, from the very beginning. Damned dress, damned casserole, damned Mrs. Halloran, that wicked hag… and Yuki has just embarrassed herself in front of a woman, who could--can I dream for a moment!--take her away from this devil-take-it orphanage of Saint devil-take-him-as-well Joseph, where she is living on someone else’s money, where she is constantly getting reminded of that, where everyone is seeing her as a yellow, slant-eyed rice-eater, where she has no friends, let alone anyone to trust! And still, she blew that chance, however slim, and everyone would be pointing at this day ever since!..
The wall holding her from wailing finally crumbles, and Yuki presses her dirty, vomit-stinking hands to her face. She hears Mrs. Halloran’s heels approaching and shrinks expecting a slap.
“Stand up, child,” an unfamiliar woman’s voice thunders around the hall.
The order is so sudden and powerful that the hall grows totally silent at once. Even the clack of housemother’s heels is drowned out by the silence.
“Do you hear me? Stand. Up.”
The voice is in her head, Yuki suddenly realizes, and is coming from the inside, not through her ears. And it is a personal address to her. The girl musters up the courage to look up and into the woman’s eyes. The things she sees there leave her utterly transformed.
The giantess turns to the headmaster, nodding at Yuki. “I like this one. When can I take her?”
Mr. Morrison looks confused. “This Asian maggot?.. Why, anytime, even tomorrow. Her papers need to be put in order, give it a week or two, though I doubt there would be any--”
“A maggot between your ears, you old fool! I’ll take her right now. You can shove her papers whichever way you like.”
Everyone present in the hall, including Mr. Morrison, let out a collective gasp. Before he can mount a retort, the negro pins him down with a heavy stare. Mumbling something incomprehensible, the headmaster retreats.
“Do you have anything of value here?” The voice in Yuki’s head demands.
“Then we leave, not to come back. Come with me, child.”
Her legs are wobbly, but Yuki can’t resist the authority of the voice. Besides, she wishes to leave the dining hall as quickly as possible.
They follow a long hallway to the outside. There is a motorbike parked by the worn stone porch.
“Have you ever ridden on a bike?” the giantess asks.
Yuki glances up at her new mother. “N-no, m-ma’am...”
“Well, have you ever flown on any?”
The girl pauses in confusion, her jaw dropped.
“Climb onto the bike, little chick. My name is Tabitha, but for you it’s Aunt Tabby,” she says, laughing amiably.
Yuki starts clambering onto the bike, too tall for her. It takes her two tries to settle on the passenger seat. Even from there, she has to crane her neck to look at Tabitha.
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“It’s Yuki. Yuki Kawasaki, m-m… Aunt Tabby.”
“What, like those Jap bikes?” wonders the giantess.
“I’ve been left at the orphanage door as a baby. That was the first name that occurred to the headmaster when he had to fill out the papers.”
“That racist bastard… Could’ve been Pearl Harbour, for Prince’s sake! Forget this rubbish, from now on, you’ll be...” The woman puts her giant hand on Yuki’s head, pausing for a while. “From now on, you’ll be called Tasha.”
The girl tries her new name on her tongue as if tasting it. “Ta-sha... Feels like I’ve been called this all along...”
“This is the name of your soul, your true name, child. Tasha and Tabby. Sounds like a great name for a quartet!”
“A quartet, ma’am?.. But isn’t it four?”
“Call me ‘ma’am’ just one more time, and we’ll be three again!.. Okay. Please meet Broomy here.” Tabitha taps the bike’s tank. “And this is Ba’Kum.”
An enormous tarantula emerges from the negro’s curly hair. Tasha falls down from the bike.
* * *
The witch roused from the trance and rubbed her sleepy eyes.
“Tabitha saw my Gift”, she went on when her vision cleared. “She became not only my mentor, but a real mother as well. She taught me everything I know, told me about witchcraft and introduced me to a local Hell’s Witches coven. I miss her so much...”
“What happened to her?”
“Her house has been burnt down, and she went missing. I never learnt what really happened there, whether it’s because she was a witch, or it had something to do with her skin colour, or her ugly character… She sure had many enemies both among witches and simple men. Though, she definitely felt something wicked was coming. The day before the fire she asked me to take Broomy and move it to my place. I didn’t understand why, then. But now this bike is the only thing I have left of Aunt Tabby, apart from recollections. Ah, and the ring she gave me right before my initiation.”
Tasha showed Amy a simple copper band on her left ring finger.
“And you haven’t heard anything about her whereabouts since, have you?”
“I tried every means at my disposal, but she’d left no trace. I couldn’t find her anywhere in this world.”
“You told me the souls of witches belong to the Prince of Silence. Couldn’t you just ask him?”
“You see, Amy, the Prince is not an information desk or a helpline. Only the head of the coven bestowed with the Branch of Power, a heather twig, can address him personally. Hell’s Witches have never got the Branch, and my prospects of becoming a Matron myself are slim at best.”
“If I ever get my hands on it, I’ll surely ask him! I promise.”
Her words made Tasha smile. “You will have much more interesting questions, I believe. Firstly, though, we have to survive this night and reach the Sabbath. The Grim Reaper himself is at our heels. Frankly, I’m worried that he’s given up the chase so lightly… It’s not like him at all.”
The girl pressed her head against Tasha’s belly. “Everything’ll be alright… I liked your tales...”
In a minute, Tasha heard Amy snoring lightly. The witch sat closer to the fire, watching the flames and feeling the power come back to her.
* * *
Amalia crawled from under the warm blanket. The fire had gone out, but she didn’t feel the cold. Everything around was covered with snow that had fallen during the night. By the bike, Tasha was absorbed in drawing something in the snow with a stick. Her cat was circling around the diagram.
“Morning. What are you doing?” the girl wondered pulling the blanket tighter around her.
“We’re lost. I’m trying to find out the directions to the Sabbath.”
“It’s all gibberish.” The witch frowned, wiped a line in her drawing and drew a different one nearby. “I’ve never been so confused when reading my pentagrams! They tell me that the Sabbath location is either undefined or moving. Or is it us?… I just don’t get it.”
“Don’t witches use maps?”
“No, it’s either pentagrams or Tarot cards. Man-made maps cannot be relied upon. They show ordinary landmarks for ordinary people… Well, at least my Search yielded that we need to move further to the north. We’ll have to grope our way, making stops to adjust the course. So inconvenient...”
“I had a dream. I was falling into the darkness. And there were bony hands all around trying to catch me.” The girl shrugged. “And I saw my brother, and my mom, and my dad...”
“You’re now hanging between two worlds. Your soul still belongs to the Reaper, so he is eager to have it. When you fall asleep, the boundary between the worlds grows thinner, and the Reaper’s reflection is trying to grab you. Until we get to the Sabbath, you’re going to suffer from these nightmares.”
Tasha erased her drawing, threw away the stick and turned to Amy. “But there’s a bit of good news: the Pale Rider doesn’t have power in the dream-world, so he can only act as a bogeyman. We’re lucky he isn’t friends with the Sandman… Well, nevermind. You must be hungry, right?”
The girl nodded.
“Let’s rummage my saddle bags. There should be a tin of sardines somewhere. Remember to share with Felicia!”
The familiar started purring and rubbing against Amalia’s legs. Tasha went to her bike, opened the saddle bag, fumbled there for a short while and produced a tin.
“A-ha! Just as I said, there it is! Catch!” She tossed the tin to Amy.
“Um-m, Tasha… Are you… aren’t you cold?” the girl asked casting a sidelong glance at the naked witch.
Tasha looked surprised. “Why should I be? Ah, you’re looking at my… outfit. You see, witches are not fond of clothing, because… uh… it limits the magic potential and constrains movement. As soon as you’ve mastered some simple charms, you won’t need it anymore. Treat this as a tradition.”
“Why are you wearing a waistcoat, then?”
The witch turned her back to the girl. The worn waistcoat was adorned with a large patch that said “Hell’s Witches--Jacksonville”. Between the lettering, a naked winged woman was sitting cross-legged, with her arms behind her head--a grinning skull. The woman’s groin was covered by a pentagram.
“Logos were one of the first innovations introduced by Jacksonville witches,” Tasha explained. “Each of us wears the Sign that identifies the wearer as being one of the coven. It helped a lot with unification.”
“Shall I have to walk… uh... naked, too?”
Tasha turned to face Amy again. “No, unless you decide it yourself. But believe me, as soon as you let go of social conventions, you’ll see for yourself that it’s much easier to be this way. Okay, have your breakfast, and let’s leave. We’ve already stayed here for too long. From now on, we have to be constantly on the move.”
“What about you? Aren’t you hungry?”
“I had a bite earlier in the morning.”
Amy didn’t need to be told twice. Joined by Felicia, she started consuming tinned fish hungrily.
* * *
Powerful gusts of wind jerked the bike sweeping through the sky from side to side. Stormy clouds were gathering around.
“Why do we have to fly so high up?” Amy shouted, her voice barely heard over the wind.
“The farther from the ground we are, the less power the Reaper has!” Tasha replied. “The skies are not very much alive, and therefore there is no death. At such altitudes, he is practically blind and deaf!”
“I might as well become deaf myself!”
The clouds replied with a roll of thunder.
Some time later, Tasha saw a few black dots hovering behind them in the rear-view mirror.
“Seems we have company!” The witch nodded at them. Amy, still holding her around the waist, turned her head around. “Let’s ask them to show us the way!”
Tasha dropped the speed, and the dots caught up with them. Those were three witches; two riding broomsticks, and one in a mortar, wielding her broom like an oar, rowing through the air.
”Moon-night, sisters!” Tasha said, but was cut short by a flaming arrow flying by. “Son of a--”
The three witches hooted and started hurling balls of magic energy at the bike. One such ball burned Tasha’s left arm. Ignoring the searing pain, she dodged this storm of spells. Amy braced herself against her in fear; Felicia hid into the saddle bag.
“What the hell are you doing, you daughters of a bitch?!” Tasha shouted.
“Shut up, you Jacksonville whore!” A black-haired hag on her right retorted, pirouetting around Tasha. “Give the girl to us! The Reaper has offered a bounty for her head!”
“The one to bring him the wimp will receive the Crown of Immortality!” Added another witch, a red-headed one.
“And we will get it, whether you want it or not!” The third hag in the mortar croaked.
The attackers were not so much trying to down her bike, Tasha noticed, as cornering her, making her lose speed and altitude. Meaning, they were actually afraid of doing any serious harm, and thus bringing the wrath of their coven--or the Prince himself, for that matter--upon themselves...
Okay, you bitches, let me just reach the Sabbath!.. Tasha thought angrily while maneuvering between the witches.
And still, she had to go down, lest a stray lightning bolt or fireball hit Amalia. She had no time or strength to cast anything in return.
Through the parting clouds, she saw dark woods below. Between the trees, the Reaper was galloping on his ghost horse, wielding an enormous scythe. He was swirling the scythe above his head, and the weapon grew larger and longer with each swirl. Tasha’s fears were confirmed: the witches from other covens are trying to bring her and the girl to the Death directly without staining their hands with blood.
But with the Crown of Immortality at stake, they wouldn’t mind some bloodshed, if necessary.
“Damned magpies!” Tasha cried at the top of her voice. “Are you going to wear it in turns?!”
“Mind your own business, you bastard!” The ancient witch snapped. “It will be decided by seniority!”
“What seniority, you old hag?!” The red-headed witch flared up. The lightning bolt, that was ready to discharge from her fingers, died. “We‘ve agreed to cast lots!”
“You fools! The one who brings the girl to the Death will get the Crown!” The black-haired witch shouted. “While you are bickering, I’ll do it myself!”
Suddenly, she did a somersault transforming into a kite and lunged at the girl. But, a moment away from gripping Amy’s shoulder with its claws, the bird was hit by a fireball. Ablaze, the witch transformed back into her human self and with a piercing shriek tumbled down, along with her broken broomstick.
“Over my dead body, you tadpole!” The old hag cried after her. “The Crown will be mine!”
At the same moment, the red-headed witch caught her mid-air and pulled her out of the wooden mortar.
“Let me go, you bitch!” The hag, wriggling, tried to swing her broom at the opponent.
“As you wish!” The other witch laughed and released the hag. Cursing and flapping arms helplessly, she fell down into the woods.
Tasha knew she wasn’t yet strong enough to cast any serious spells. It didn’t mean she was completely helpless, though. Taking advantage of the quarrel between the attackers, she put her hand under the leather hood on Broomy’s fork and produced a sawed-off shotgun. In a nimble movement, she threw her leg of the tank and sat facing Amy.
She stirred the girl, who has shut her eyes in fear. “Amy, I need your help, now! Take my seat and try to keep Broomy steady! And try to gain altitude, if you can!”
Amy jerked her head in a nod and crawled to the handlebars, switching places with Tasha. When the witch was on the passenger seat, she cocked the hammer of the shotgun.
Having dealt with her competitors, the red-headed hag started the chase. Soon she caught up with the flying bike, and Tasha saw her fingers sparkling with magic.
Gripping the shotgun with both hands, Tasha aimed at her enemy.
As the hag was about to hurl her pulsating ball of black fire, Tasha pulled one of the two triggers. The shot boomed like a roll of thunder, and the black fireball burst right into the face of the red-headed witch.
The flame shrouded her hair and the broom’s tail. The witch shrieked and tried frantically to put out the blooming fiery flower from her head.
“Turn the bike towards her, Amy!”
Without a word, the girl put Broomy on one side, driving in a curve. The cat stuck its head out of the saddle bag. Between the teeth, it was holding an end of a slim chain.
“Good job, Felicia!” Tasha cried out with joy, catching the chain and drawing it out of the bag. “The silver lasso--just what I need right now!”
Choosing the right moment and swinging the chain in a wide motion, she threw the lasso at the burning witch. As soon as it closed around her neck, Tasha yanked the chain pulling the red-headed girl towards herself.
The witch was hanging, trying to tear apart the lasso cutting into her neck, but in vain. Without a rider, the burning broomstick plunged down into the dark woods.
Tasha lifted the witch that was wriggling like a fish on the line. Her bulging eyes were full of hatred and pain. Her now almost bald head was smoking, filling the air around with a vile odour of burnt hair.
In her left hand, Tasha held the chain, and in her right hand, there was a shotgun aimed at the witch she had caught.
“So, sister, shall we chat a bit?”
The red-headed girl hissed something in reply. Tasha weakened her grip on the magic lasso a bit, giving the victim some air.
“Don’t even dare to touch me, you slant-eyed bitch!” The witch croaked as soon as she found her voice again. “The Reaper himself is following you! You don’t stand a chance against him!”
“Spare me this rambling. I need only one thing from you: where does the Sabbath take place this year?”
“You’ll be killed before you reach it!”
With a distinct click, Tasha cocked the second hammer. The red-headed witch stared in horror into the gun muzzle.
“Answer me, and I’ll let go of the lasso. You’ll fall down. Your legs and arms will be broken, but you’ll survive, as far as I know our kin. If you keep wasting my time, I’lll blow your head off. And you know perfectly well that, as long as the silver lasso is around your neck, no spell can save you.”
“Close your eyes, Amy.”
“I don’t know! I don’t know! Last night, no one’s pentragrams made sense! See it for yourself!”
The witch’s mouth gaped, the eyes went dark; looking into them, Tasha saw she was telling the truth. And she saw something else, too.
“How many more after us?”
“Everyone from the Cats of Salem, Hellish Furies, and half the Serpents of Dunwich,” the red-headed witch said. “Lots have come from the Old World, but I don’t know their names. We were the first to track you down, but the others are close, too. Scores, maybe even a hundred of them. The rumour about the Crown has spread. You won’t escape. Give the girl back to the Reaper, or they’ll tear you apart!”
“Thanks for the tip. Give my regards to other ‘sisters’!” Tasha said and released the lasso. The magic chain slithered away from the witch’s neck, and with a yell she went down into the woods, where the huge ghostly rider with a scythe was roaming.
“Too bad,” Tasha said switching seats back with Amy. “We’re pursued by an army of witches, all of whom are craving immortality. They’ll gladly betray us to the Reaper, If we don’t reach the Sabbath in time to get Prince’s protection. Also, it seems I’m not the only one finding it hard to locate the Sabbath. Apparently, right now, no witch can say for sure where it is going to take place. However, for us this is a paramount issue.”
“Any good news?” the girl asked bleakly.
“Well, we’re still alive, aren’t we? Something to be amazed at, given the circumstances. I think, if we hadn’t dropped dead until now, we still have a fighting chance to survive the night.”
The girl gave her a weak smile.
“Trust me, Amy. Together, we’ll manage everything they’ll throw at us”, the witch said reassuringly.
Wish I believed that myself, she thought. And why could I see the Reaper without any charms, I wonder?..
Her ring finger was itching. To her surprise, Tasha noticed that the Tabby’s copper band had become hot and heavy.
* * *
Amy was holding the jerry can over the Broomy’s tank. Gas was dripping from the can into the filler hole. Tasha, sitting nearby, was frowning at a mess lying on the ground in front of her--bones, glass shards, and feathers of all sorts, concentrated around the copper band. Felicia was sitting on the witch’s shoulder, and the cat, too, seemed intent on the divination.
“Any luck?” the girl asked, putting the now empty can by the bike.
“It’s all so weird… Previously, the divination circle pointed at a vague direction. This time, however, the layout is crystal clear, like a moonlit night. I can see the specific location, where the Sabbath will take place, and it’s close by, but...”
The witch fell silent, lost in thought, and considered her layout again.
“So weird,” she repeated, and the continued: “I don’t like it. And now, the Tabby’s ring has awoken--or, rather, its magic has.”
“Wow, you didn’t tell me it was a magic ring!”
“As if I knew that myself!.. It’d take me a lot of time and effort to learn its functions properly, but at least we can be sure that it’s connected to the Reaper--somehow. It might as well be that it’s the ring that’s keeping Him from doing us any harm, and so He has to seek help from other witches. Unlikely, though...”
“Hadn’t Tabitha told you anything about this ring?”
“She had lots of trinkets in her possession, and I thought it was just one of them. But now it seems the band has some hidden powers… Well, let’s go. We shouldn’t stay in one place for long. If my latest calculations are right, we’ll reach the place right before midnight.”
The witch and the girl mounted the flying bike and went up into the evening sky. There were no more witches along the way, and Tasha felt increasingly worried. She knew the red-headed witch wasn’t lying. She was looking around her constantly, waiting that the sky will become dark with witches flocking to get them, but the crimson horizon was clear. There were no birds in sight, even.
“So far, so good,” Amy said from behind.
“Too good, I’d say,” Tasha observed. “I can’t believe other witches have dropped their pursuit… But where the hell are they?”
“You think, they’re up to something?”
“No doubt about it. But they have to catch us before we reach the Sabbath, because as soon as the Prince of Silence appears, all clashes would have to stop. And after you sign the Contract, your soul will be protected by the Prince, so the Reaper’s bounty will be useless.”
“How long will it take us to get there?”
“Several hours, I presume. They don’t have much time left, and that’s what makes me worried.”
“Can I help?”
“Stay vigilant. The sooner we notice them, the faster we can react.”
They flew on, but still didn’t encounter anyone.
* * *
Twilight started to give way to the night. Clouds gathered to cover the full-moon, forcing Tasha and Amy to fly in pitch darkness. Still, Tasha decided not to turn on the headlight, in order not to attract any unwanted attention.
A tiny glow appeared on the horizon. Some witch instinct told her that that was their destination. Thanks to the charms, both the young witch and the girl didn’t feel the cold wind that was making the bike sway from side to side.
The glow was growing nearer. Soon, they saw a clearing in the middle of the woods and a small campfire. The woods were so thick that the firelight hardly pierced its canopy. Somewhere far away, a lone wolf was howling.
Tasha landed her Broomy in the middle of the clearing, near the campfire. She stopped the engine, and nothing disturbed the silence around her, except for occasional crackling of twigs in the fire or metallic mufflers cooling down. Tasha looked around her nervously, but the clearing was empty. Suddenly, she realized that the dark silhouettes she had mistaken for unfallen leaves were in fact birds.They were crowding on the trees, silently watching the two intruders.
“Seems, we’re ahead of the others--”
At the very next moment, all birds plunged from the trees, suddenly transforming into witches on broomsticks.
“Run! To the bike!” Tasha cried, and then she was swept off her feet by a diving hag. Another hag caught Amy and whisked her up in the air.
Tasha jumped to her feet and ran for Broomy, while dodging other witches circling around her. One hag slashed Tasha’s arm with her claws, but the young witch didn’t even notice the pain or blood gushing from the wound. Swinging her leg over the bike, Tasha started her old sportster and soared away.
She happened to fall into an ordinary trap, an ambush, like a stupid rabbit. The directions were too clear, and Tasha was too quick to believe it! On the one hand, she had no idea that there were charms capable of confusing a witch seeking for the Sabbath. On the other hand, however, this meant only that she was still a gullible novice. Such self-loathing gave Tasha strength, and her bike pierced the crowd of Night Sisters like a growling arrow.
The Sisters blurring past her were tossing the girl around, like a game ball, taking her farther and farther away. Tasha wound her way between laughing hags, focusing on the kidnappers.
She drew back her arm and threw the lasso coiled around it. The chain snapped around the thin ankle of a blonde hag that was holding Amy by the collar of her dress. Tasha yanked the chain, dragging the hag from her broomstick and making her release the girl, but Amy was immediately caught by another witch. Before Tasha could draw the lasso back again, someone strong gripped her wrist. A powerful strike followed, almost driving Tasha out of the bike seat. Then she heard a blood-curling shriek; Felicia jumped from the saddle bag and at the attacker.
The hag had to let Tasha go and grabbed the cat, fending off its flurry of talons and teeth. Once free, Tasha took out her shotgun and smacked the woman at the back of her head with the butt. The hag went limp and took a nosedive.
Tasha lost the sight of the girl, but she had other things on her plate now. More witches were flying around her; they were kicking, pushing, and scratching. They dragged Tasha from her bike and started flaying her in the air, like a murder of crows. Tasha heard Broomy crashing on the clearing below her, but she couldn’t do anything--not with Night Sisters clawing and tearing at her. Soon, they’d turn her into mincemeat.
Through the cackling and howling, Tasha heard a rumble that was mounting by the second. Despite her pain and fear, she felt surprised: her Broomy should have been lying somewhere below, its engine dead. The noise was growing closer, and Tasha realized in a flash: It’s not one engine, but many!
The world around her was glowing bright. The witches hissed and dispersed, trying to shield their eyes from the glaring electric headlights. Tasha fell down, but someone caught her before she hit the ground. She lifted her head, and what she saw made her catch her breath.
A flock of Jacksonville witches cut into the swarm circling above the clearing. On flying bikes, they were chasing around hostile Night Sisters, pushing them from their broomsticks and hitting them with flaming arrows. The Sisters tried to mount a counter-offensive, but they lacked the teamwork and organization of the Hell’s Witches.
A teen broad zoomed past on her sportbike, dragging a wriggling hag from the Cats of Salem by the hair. Felicia was clawing at her arm furiously.
“Are you all right?” The woman who’d caught Tasha demanded. The young witch immediately recognized the bike--a Triumph--and the booming voice that belonged to Camarin, the Matron of her coven.
Tasha tried to reply, but only managed to spit a mouthful of blood. For the mighty redskin that was enough.
“Sorry for taking so long. We’ve only learnt that you’re being chased at the very last moment and immediately rushed to the rescue. Hell’s Witches don’t give up their own!” she proclaimed and with a sharp swerve pushed another Night Sister from her broomstick.
“The girl! We have to get her!” Tasha croaked, looking around her frantically. “Over there!”
She was pointing at the edge of the clearing, where she caught a glimpse of Amy’s white dress. Without slowing down, Camarin put Tasha behind her and sped downwards.
Taking advantage of the commotion, two witches from the Serpents of Dunwich caught the child, landed and started carrying out the AshkEnte to summon the Reaper. The rite was almost finished, when Tasha jumped from Camarin’s bike, tackling one of the witches. The second one tried to help her friend out, but the bike ran over her. The mighty Indian landed nearby on her feet. Having dealt with the enemy, Tasha caught Amy and lifted her. The girl, trembling with fear, pressed herself against the young witch.
The sloppy pentagram on the ground was glowing faintly. Too late, Tasha realized, her lips trembling. “All is… lost,” she said. “I… I failed you. The Reaper will be here any minute now, and we… we didn’t manage to reach the Sabbath.”
As if to confirm her words, the ground cracked. A graveyard chill was venting out of the rift.
The imposing Indian was surprisingly calm when she spoke. “We’re already at the Sabbath, Tasha.” And she put her hand on the witch’s shoulder.
Tasha turned to her, trying to blink tears from her eyes. “W-what?!”
‘’The Sabbath doesn’t have a fixed location, girl. It always takes place where the majority of active witches have gathered,” an unfamiliar male voice spoke from behind. Then, a man wearing a three-piece business suit emerged from the darkness. “And this place, I believe, fits this description just great… Ladies, can we all calm down a little?”
The stranger spoke softly, but his every word wound its way into the brains. The man was thin, slightly slouching, but extremely tall. Tasha couldn’t determine his age, as his face sporting a goatee seemed to shift from young to old and wrinkled. The most arresting feature, however, were his eyes that emanated tiredness, disappointment and some un-human melancholy. And they lacked pupils.
Witches of all covens immediately stopped their catfight and fawningly kneeled before the man in silence. Camarin also followed suit.
Tasha gasped. “It’s the Prince!” She wanted to prostrate herself, too, but the man stopped her with a slight movement of his hand. He turned to Tasha and Amy she was holding in her arms. Looking into the girl’s face, the Prince raised his right eyebrow.
“Such talent! Amalia, you could become a great witch, if you so wished. Alas, some of my followers among Night Sisters might have produced an unfavourable impression on you...”
His speech was interrupted by the growl of breaking earth and tearing roots. Then, a huge skeletal figure rose up from the rift in the ground. His ancient yellowed bones were enveloped in billowing darkness, and empty eye-sockets were blazing with hatred and green flames.
“I see. You’re being followed by the Reaper himself. Now I understand why Tabitha’s apprentice was so keen on bringing you here. But you have reached a dead-end, it seems.”
The Reaper snarled, but didn’t dare to approach the Prince.
“Yet,” the Prince continued, “I hate it when a person does not have any real alternative. It goes against my principles. So, in order to atone for the misdeeds of my witless servants, I wish to offer you a special deal. You have to sign only a half of the usual Contract. You commit your soul to my protection, but I do not demand you to follow other Commandments. You may return to an ordinary life with your aunt; you will live long and happily, I promise. Or, you may go with Him,” the Prince nodded at the Reaper. “Alas, I can’t give you time to think it over. You have to answer immediately.”
Amy was looking around helplessly, and then met Tasha’s gaze. Without saying a word, the witch embraced the girl and put her down.
Bracing herself up, Amy looked up at the Prince of Silence. “I want to be a witch,” she said.
The Death ground its teeth with terrible loudness. The Prince tilted his head slightly.
“This will only put more restrictions and obligations on you, do you understand that? You won’t be getting anything besides what I’ve offered you already.”
“I want to be a witch!”
“That’s the spirit!” The Prince laughed, producing an envelope from his jacket. “Here, read this and sign.”
Inside the envelope, there was an ordinary sheet of paper folded in half and an ordinary ballpoint pen. Amalia unfolded the paper. Across it, something was scrawled in simple handwriting:
“1. I shall commit my soul to the Prince of Silence.
2. I shall be obliged to attend the Sabbath every year.
3. I shall abide by the rules of my coven.
I, the undersigned, Amalia Nomad.”
Amy signed with an X near her last name and passed the paper and pen back to the Prince. He put those away into the inner pocket of his jacket.
“And as the final formality, child, you have to choose your coven. I believe, you don’t need to learn about each first, do you?”
“Yes, I’ve made up my mind already. It’s Hell’s Witches of Jacksonville!”
“So be it, then. From now on, you’re one of them and you have my protection. The Reaper has no dominion over your life and soul any more. And now, on to the second issue.”
The Prince’s voice suddenly grew deeper and louder. He laced his fingers together and glared at the witches cowering before him.
“I’m quite disappointed in you, ladies, I admit. Not only did you strike a dubious deal with the entity that you were so eager to escape in the first place--to me--but you’ve also turned our annual congregation into a farce. It seems to me that some of you decided to disregard my Commandments, forgetting their essential meaning.”
With a wave of his hand, he made three elderly witches stand up.
“Black Crow from Hellish Furies. Victoria Tornwood, Cats of Salem. Nameless Mother, Serpents of Dunwich,” the Prince declared. “Almost every coven took part in harassing Tasha and Amalia, but it were you who accepted the deal with the Reaper and started it all. So, the three of you will pay for that.
”My brother,” he said to the Reaper, who was standing still inside the summoning pentagram, “the child had to depart from the world of living, but now she belongs to me. Yet, I can’t disturb the balance. Therefore, I offer you the souls of these three servants of mine in Amalia Nomad’s stead. This, I believe, should be more than enough to compensate for your loss.”
The Prince of Silence offered his open palm to the Reaper. The blaze in the Death’s skull subsided somewhat, and a bony arm emerged from the billowing darkness. The Prince and the Reaper confirmed their deal by shaking hands.
“So be it.” The Prince nodded.
The earth under the three witches split apart, and they all, howling wildly, fell down into the abyss. With a roaring laughter, the huge skeleton started disintegrating. As soon as his last bone disappeared into the rift, it mended itself, leaving a subtle scar on the ground.
“And the last question,” said the master of the witches, and an unremarkable heather twig appeared in his hands. “Who is to become the Matriarch for this year? Which coven is to be considered first among equals? Traditionally, I’ve been choosing from older, well-established covens, but three of them have lost their leaders and others let me down immensely. Thus, it leaves me with the only option.
“Camarin”, he addressed the Indian absent-mindedly, twisting the twig in his fingers, “the head of Hell’s Witches of Jacksonville… For a long time, I’ve been watching your progress, with a great deal of doubt, I have to admit. But today you have proved that you, above everyone else, understand the essence of witchcraft. You understand that the very survival of witches is doomed without mutual support and assistance. You also honor Freedom and don’t follow the crowd blindly, which I also value high. Therefore, I grant this Branch to you, until the next Sabbath”, he gracefully offered the heather twig to the Indian. She bowed her head in silence. “You know what power it gives. Wield it wisely.
“And, as our tradition goes, you are also entitled to ask me one question.”
“My Master”, Camarin said, “I’m much ashamed to admit this, but I never expected that we, Hell’s Witches, would be bestowed with such an honor, so… I know, it’s stupid and arrogant on my part, but I haven’t got any appropriate question for you--”
On hearing this, Amalia stepped up. “May I? May I?”
Camarin cut herself short and glanced at the Prince fearfully, but he just nodded his head benevolently. “Ask your question, child.”
And so she did.