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A dusk red smudge in the western sky fades to a purplish bruise.
She is flying over Windale -- yet this is a Windale strange to her...smaller, divided by dirt roads with wagon-wheel ruts, as if she has flown into the town's past, more than a century gone. She banks to the left, swooping down across a tall field of corn, her night-adapted eyes attracted to movement.
A man in threadbare coveralls walks an unsteady line, pausing every few moments to take a swig from a jug. The whiskey dribbles down his chin. He wipes it away with the back of a sunburnt arm. Perhaps he had fallen asleep drunk in the fields, and is wandering homeward, careless of his surroundings, unaware of what is above.
She drops from the sky with the deadly grace of a hawk striking a rabbit, arms extended, her fingers flashing wicked claws.
The whiskey jug explodes with the sudden impact, bursting in the man's hand. Before he can react, both sets of claws have gouged into his flesh, crushing ribs and forcefully expelling the air from his lean torso.
She arcs upward with her burden, banking again, this time into the branches of an old oak tree. She wedges the stunned man into the Y-fork of a branch, and with one swipe of her powerful claws, savages his throat to prevent him from screaming.
Wide lips pull back from bristling rows of jagged teeth and her dark, leathery skinned head darts forward. Ravenous, she begins to feed...
...DECEMBER 31, 2001
Gasping, Kayla Zanella awoke, her eyes opening wide to darkness.
She tossed the blankets aside and swung her feet to the floor to counter her disorientation. The last image, so real and visceral, came back to her unbidden and she clamped a hand over her mouth, her gaze darting around in search of her trash can.
The hell with it, she thought, and raced to the bathroom. She flung back the toilet seat lid and dropped to her knees, breathless. "Gotta love the taste of bile in the morning," she whispered, her voice weak. Then, "What the hell was that?" But she knew what it was. Or rather, who it was. Wither. "Evil bitch."
Kayla splashed cold water on her face, fingers brushing against the sterling silver posts, which pierced the edge of each eyebrow like single quotation marks. At least they distracted from the recent bags she was sporting under each eye, as did the ring through the right side of her nose. Let's not be picky, she thought. My rat's nest of black hair pretty much steals the show.
In place of a nightgown or pajamas, she wore an oversized Animaniacs T-shirt, and had just arrived at the epiphanic realization that Yakko, Wakko and Dot looked too damn jolly at three o'clock in the morning. She was certain it was three o'clock or so, because that's when the nightmares usually woke her.
She whispered to her reflection in the mirror, "I'm still me, right?"
With no answer forthcoming, she shook her head and bumbled her way across the hall back to her bedroom, navigating by the amber glow of the hallway night-light. Back in her room, the unrelenting night sky pressed against her window like a dark, smothering hand, no hint of the dawn still hours away. The bedside digital clock radio confirmed her nightmarish appointment with blood-red numerals: 3:13. Major apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but consistency seems to be the little hobgoblin in my mind.
Before climbing under the tangled coils of sweat-damp bed sheets, she decided to pull the window shades, if only to blot out the oppressive darkness. As she turned on her heel toward the window, she froze with a gasp. An inhuman face leered in at her.
A heartbeat later and her frightened blink removed the staring face, though a hideous afterimage still cavorted on her retina in some kind of hallucinatory echo. She ran to the window and yanked the shade down, but not before glimpsing the skeletal silhouettes of bare trees, spattered with the clinging remnants of the last snowfall. Nothing human or inhuman out there, she thought. "Oh-kay," she told herself. "I'll prove it." With a snap of her wrist, she raised the blind to half-mast again and --
-- a ghostly woman stared in at her.
"Jesus!" Kayla screamed and yanked the blind down so hard the roller jangled in its brackets. Her hands trembled, her heart pounding and her mouth dry. In the look-on-the-bright-side column, at least I didn't wet myself. Then, a whispered refrain. "Just my imagination...just my imagination..."
But the image of the woman remained vivid in her memory. Dark hair gathered under a head rail and widow's peak, a hard face, brooding eyes and a thin, cruel mouth. Doublet under a riding cloak...clothing from the colonial period, over three hundred years past. "It's the bitch -- gotta be the bitch," Kayla whispered. "How she looked before she turned into a monster." Check that, Kayla amended. Elizabeth Wither had always been a monster. Even if she only looked the part in the last two centuries of her three-hundred-year life cycle. Because evil, despite all the seductive propaganda, does not age like a fine wine.
"Maybe I'm still dreaming," Kayla muttered. "What would Wendy call it, a false awakening?" She nodded to herself. "Sure. That's why I'm still seeing this crazy stuff." She ran her hands through her unruly hair, a nervous gesture denied her during the daytime when she sported stiff hair-gel spikes.
She pinched her forearm between red fingernails and yelped in pain. "Okay, so I'm awake now. Unless this is lucid dreaming, but...Stop! You're babbling and, if you don't mind my saying so, you're really starting to scare me."
Slipping a hand along the edge of the blind, she peeked out into the night -- and sighed. Nothing but trees and some Frosty-was-here melting clumps of snow. Satisfied? So go to sleep already.
Kayla climbed into bed, sitting with the pillows propped against the headboard, blankets pulled up to her underarms. And stared at the window. After a while, she envisioned shadows passing behind the pulled blind. And if I stare a little longer, I'll probably start to imagine fairies dancing around a Maypole -- not that I've studied fairy habits extensively, but the Maypole is a phallic symbol, so maybe.
One thing became obvious. Despite the early hour, as long as she stayed in her own room, sleep would elude her. With a weary sigh, Kayla climbed out of bed with a pillow tucked under her arm. She crossed the hall to her mother's bedroom, slipped into bed beside her and placed her right hand on her mother's shoulder.
Her mother, always a light sleeper, murmured, "Nightmares again?"
"Doozies," Kayla said, yawned, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Wendy Ward, twenty-year-old Wiccan and one-year-past college dropout, frowned in her sleep, spoke under her breath and sought control of her dream, a dream that was more memory than anything else...
The flames roar upward, engulfing Gina Thorne, most recent host to the ancient evil formerly known as Wither, an evil that has existed in dozens of human hosts over the thousands of years of its existence.
Wendy, in her protective magic sphere, is flung away from the inferno, untouched by the heat of the gas explosion but momentarily blinded by the flash.
Neither Gina nor the entity possessing her dies instantly. For tortured moments, she screams in agony, while inside her mind shrieks a curse on Wendy, a potent magical imprecation, searing the ether with utter loathing and vehemence, even as the flames sear Gina's flesh. The unspoken words are a compressed jumble of hate empowered by enchantment. Wendy attempts to untangle them in hope that, by decoding the curse, she may be able to neutralize it.
Too soon time reels out and Wendy spins away, out of control.
Gina's image is lost, her screams silenced moments after they began, and her mental imprecation, blasted away by cleansing fire and purifying light, returns vile echoes slow to die...but at last Gina herself is dead.
"She's dead," Wendy whispered as she opened her eyes. The fingers of her right hand strayed from her left wrist where, she knew, they'd been touching the amethyst on her multi-bead bracelet. She grabbed the pad and pen she'd left beside her on the table. Absenting her conscious self from the act, she let her hand write on the pad, in the dark, trusting in the subconscious direction. When her hand stopped moving, seemingly of its own accord, she dropped the pad and pen on the table and sat up in bed.
Well, sofa, if you want to get all technical about it.
Pushing aside the homemade quilt she'd been using as a blanket, Wendy switched on the lamp beside the sofa, scrunched up her eyes and leaned over the pad on the coffee table to examine her chicken scratch. Combining automatic writing with dream magic was an idea suggested a couple weeks ago by Tara, her host, a Winnipeg Wiccan. The results had been somewhat encouraging. Enough to stop Wendy from giving up hope she'd ever unravel Wither's curse. She frowned at the two lines she'd scrawled.
the dark shall come and blight her days
"Okay, so my subconscious isn't real particular about dotting i's and crossing t's," Wendy said. "Looks like, 'the dark shall come; and blight her days.'" She sighed. "Grim bit of free verse. But not telling me much I don't already know."
Wendy walked to the window of the garden apartment, beside the living Yule tree decorated with garlands of popcorn, tiny bags of fragrant spices, and crystal icicles. Tara had moved her altar to the bedroom of her small apartment to make room for the potted tree, otherwise they'd be tripping over themselves and each other.
Wendy adjusted the vertical blinds so she could watch the hypnotizing fall of snowflakes, perhaps to seek solace in the wintry beauty of nature. But all she felt was a vague uneasiness. Facing the night, she shuddered, a quick twist of her spine. Her cotton pajamas, patterned with a blue sky and puffy clouds more reminiscent of summer days than the dead of winter, should have kept her reasonably warm, but her bare feet on the hardwood floor seemed to connect her to the bitter cold that gripped the city. Might explain the chill in her bones, but it was far from the only explanation.
Wendy crossed and rubbed her arms.
"Good, you're awake," Tara Pepper said, startling Wendy more than she cared to admit.
Tara crossed from her bedroom, along the edge of the living room into the compact kitchen, where she switched on the soft white forty-watt bulb over the stove. She cinched the belt of her pink terrycloth robe before running the fingers of both hands through the tangles of her shoulder-length, medium brown hair. Snowball, her kitten, darted between and around her legs, a feline honor guard no doubt lamenting the lack of shoelaces on her mistress's bedroom slippers. "We'll have tea," Tara said, smiling as if it were midday instead of four in the morning. She filled a kettle, put it on a front burner, then removed two cups from the cupboard and two tea bags from a decorative tin featuring a Currier & Ives winter scene of a horse-drawn sleigh. "Don't worry, it's herbal decaf."
Tara suffered from chronic back pain, the result of an awkward rooftop escape from an overnight fire in her parents' home while she was still a teenager, and the continued discomfort was enough to prevent her from sleeping for any substantial length of time. She compensated by taking naps throughout the day, even during breaks at the dress shop she managed. Somehow she accumulated six or seven hours of shut-eye in most twenty-four hour-periods. Secretly and, as it turned out, futilely, Wendy had cast a magic spell to alleviate Tara's back pain. Wendy suspected the old injury might be somewhat psychosomatic at this point, a subconscious defense mechanism to guard Tara from another late-night fire. "You're awake already," Tara said. "C'mon."
Wendy nodded, shooed Snowball from the chair and sat opposite Tara at the small breakfast table. She rubbed sleep from her eyes.
"So why are you up at this wee hour?"
"Restless, I guess," Wendy said.
"Now, now. Remember, I'm your surrogate big sis. You must confide in me all your woes." Tara claimed to be twenty-eight, but admitted to Wendy she'd been making that same claim for a couple years running. "The dream again, right?"
Wendy nodded. "I just have this feeling the dream won't stop until I've figured it out."
Tara flipped open the lid of a white pastry box and pursed her lips as she considered her sugary choices. Snowball had jumped into her lap and was peering over the edge of the table. "Most dreams don't make a whole lotta sense. They're just subconscious...garage sales. Unloading all the psychic junk and clutter."
"I've pretty much lived this dream."
"Oh, yeah. Forgot that little detail."
Tara removed an oblong confection from the box, coated with powdered sugar, slathered with candied fruit and, no doubt, injected with a generous dollop of cream filling. Wendy figured it must be about ten thousand calories. Despite Tara's frequent mega-caloric indulgences, she had the bone-jutting physique of the chronically undernourished.
Wendy thought enviously, I eat that thing, it takes the express train to my hips.
Tara looked at her and indicated the contents of the box. "Want one?"
"Don't know what you're missing."
Oh, but I do!
Tara bit off a good third of the pastry, then licked powdered sugar from her upper lip. Her eye-rolling gaze of rapturous contentment was comical.
Wendy asked, "How can you -- ?"
"Can't sleep," Tara said. "Good thing I can eat."
"Who says life isn't fair?"
Snowball took a swing and a miss at the pastry.
"How about some milk for you, Furball?" Tara insisted cats in general and Snowball in particular never responded to their given names so she might as well subvert them. Wendy had heard Tara employ at least half a dozen playful variations on Snowball, including Furball, Snowflake, Fluff and Lump.
After filling the cat's dish with whole milk warmed a bit in the microwave, Tara returned to the table and worked her way, in peace, through the midpoint of her pre-breakfast treat. When the teakettle began to whistle, she turned off the flame and poured boiling water into both cups. With the tea steeping, she sat down and contemplated the remainder of her morsel. She pursed her lips. Wendy knew the look.
"What are you thinking?"
"That you should stick around, hang out with me and the girls at Donovan's, give the noisemakers a good workout tonight, get tipsy on bubbly and sleep in tomorrow?"
"Love to, but," Wendy said, clearing her throat, "places to go, people to see." The truth was, Wendy had been uncomfortable celebrating -- for lack of a better word -- sentimental holidays with anyone. For the past year, she'd made a point of being in transit during holidays. Not too difficult since she'd been sightseeing for a good part of that year. Still, she often thought of her parents, killed by Gina Thorne a year ago August. They'd spent so many wonderful holidays together as a family. Being an only child, Wendy had never had to share her parents' affections with siblings. Most of her childhood memories were of her being the focus of their love, feeling special whenever she was around them. But that exclusivity had its price in her current loneliness, in not having anyone close with whom to share her grief. The prospect of staying in Windale, of being the center of so much well-meaning sympathy from virtual strangers, had literally sent her packing, first emotionally and then physically. To stay would have been like putting all her grief under a microscope for public inspection. She couldn't bear the brunt of so much dutiful kindness. At the same time, she knew that avoiding her emotions wasn't exactly a healthy way of dealing with them.
Sometimes she thought ridding herself of the recurrent dream would allow her to accept their deaths, to move on with life, to regain her sense of balance. Then maybe holidays spent in the company of others wouldn't bring a fierce ache to her chest, an intense longing to be with those who had been taken away from her. For now, better to be alone and not even think about the holidays. Get away, and let the good times and good cheer happen without her, with no reminders of what she'd lost.
"I've imposed too long, Tara."
"Hon, you are not an imposition," Tara said prior to taking the final bite of her pastry. She licked a blob of cream filling from her index finger, then stood to finish preparing their tea. Wendy took herbal tea black and unsweetened but Tara, naturally, needed three scoops of sugar to make hers palatable. "Besides," Tara said, laughing, her back to Wendy, "if you're not here, who will I talk to at three in the morning?"
Wendy had put a temporary halt to her travels in Manitoba, after the Winnipeg Wiccans' Samhain Festival. In the company of such kindred spirits, she'd befriended Tara Pepper, who offered her a place to stay. Since Tara had repeatedly refused Wendy's offers to share the rent, Wendy picked up most of their restaurant checks and entertainment expenses. Otherwise, she would have felt like a complete freeloader. The arrangement had worked out well, weeks had turned into months and the weather -- but certainly not the companionship -- had become progressively more inhospitable. Recently, Wendy had been experiencing what she thought of as Wiccan intuition, telling her it was time to pack up and move on. More often than not, she tended to trust her inner voices. "Snowball's always around."
Tara squeezed the last hint of herbal flavor out of the tea bags. "Snowball only sits still if I tickle her belly."
"Never underestimate the power of a good belly-rub."
"Ah -- comes the light!" Tara said, smiling as she turned with a steaming cup in each hand. "Minneapolis beckons. Alex...Dunkirk, wasn't it?"
"I haven't seen Alex in months."
"My point exactly," Tara said. "You've got it bad, hon."
Wendy felt herself blushing. "I just meant that things aren't the way -- "
Tara screamed, eyes wide, both cups of tea slipping from her numb fingers.
Wendy jumped out of her chair, knocking it over. The ceramic cups hit the kitchen tiles first, spraying hot tea across the kitchen. Snowball was a bounding white blur of motion, then gone.
Tara gasped. "A g-ghost!"
Not a ghost, Wendy realized, and saw a split second later. "The Crone," she whispered.
Despite the past-through-tomorrow metaphysics of the Crone's appearances with which Wendy was familiar, she understood how someone might mistake the old woman's manifestations for a ghostly visitation. The Crone's image was white and translucent, hovering inches above the sodden floor. Framed by long white-gray hair, her face was her most well-defined feature, seemingly sculpted from mist, with a magical tint of blue to her eyes and a pale flush to her cheeks and lips. Maybe a bit of vanity there, Wendy thought. Well-formed hands disappeared into the voluminous sleeves of a gauzy robe whose folds became more indistinct the farther down one's gaze traveled, finally dissipating into thin air.
"Tara," Wendy said calmly, "it's okay."
"Okay? What do you mean it's okay? There's a ghost in my -- !"
"I know her," Wendy said. "She a friend -- a friendly spirit."
The Crone flashed a brief, reassuring smile to lend credence to Wendy's words, but to Wendy's eye the Crone seemed agitated, concerned about something. Wendy hadn't seen or spoken to the Crone in months, since before her long Winnipeg stay. Now, in addition to Wendy's own uneasy intuition, the appearance of the Crone did not bode well. She's dead, Wendy told herself for the thousandth time. Wither's dead.
"Wendy, something is happening here. You are the center of it."
With a quick glance at Tara, Wendy phrased her question carefully. "What can you tell me?"
"A turning point," the Crone said. "Divergent futures."
Oh, joy, Wendy thought. A fork in the temporal road. One way probably leads to disaster, the other to calamity. "You're here to tell me which path I should take?"
"I only know that you must be prepared." The Crone shimmered, her astral image losing some definition. "There is...other magic at work. Strong magic."
That hesitation in the Crone's statement made Wendy shudder. She's talking about evil. Doesn't want Tara to catch on. This has something to do with Wither's curse. And the dreams have been some sort of early warning system. But all I have to show for them are notebook pages filled with a lot of automatic writing gibberish. "I understand."
Tara spared Wendy an awed glance. "You do? How?"
"It's...complicated. I'll explain later."
"Be...ready, Wendy," the Crone said, her voice fading.
It always comes back to my magical training. "I'll try."
"Wendy, you must..." the Crone said, the edges of her image dissipating like smoke rings in a fitful breeze. "You must go. As soon as you are able, you must go..."
And with that warning, the Crone vanished.
Tara was shaking her head in disbelief. "I just -- did you see...?" she asked, pointing to where the Crone had hovered moments ago.
"Yes," Wendy said with a slight smile. "You weren't hallucinating."
"You've s-seen that -- her before?"
"Now and then."
"I heard -- you called her -- the Crone?" Tara asked, still trembling. "As in Maiden, Mother, Crone? That Crone?"
"Not really," Wendy said, mentally backpedaling. "Just something I call her."
The entity Wendy would always think of as the third and final aspect of the Wiccan Goddess was actually two-year-old Hannah Glazer's future-self, channeled -- or, maybe, astrally projected, Wendy wasn't really clear on the actual mechanism of the manifestations -- by the girl into the present, so far appearing only to Wendy and, by extension, anyone who happened to be in Wendy's immediate vicinity.
Tara plopped down in her chair, her bedroom slippers sending ripples of herbal tea across the kitchen floor. Wendy grabbed a roll of paper towels from the counter and began blotting up the mess. Although she'd spent some time around dedicated Wiccans, she had, with the exception of a few close friends, kept the details of her extreme magical experiences to herself. Because they were too hard to explain, would evoke disbelief or elicit a thousand questions. Instead, Wendy had traveled quietly and respectfully in the midst of her fellow Wiccans.
Tara was still trying to come to grips with what she had seen. "She's like...a guardian angel or something?"
"Close enough," Wendy said. Then she looked up from the wet clump of paper towels to where the Crone had appeared. "But it's been a while since she last..."
"Don't you think that's kind of amazing?"
"Yes," Wendy said, unable to suppress a grin at Tara's excitement. But the smile soon faltered. Amazement succumbed to fright because, in addition to her Wiccan intuition, the Crone's living spirit, relayed from the future, had now warned Wendy it was time for her to leave.
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA
" -- go! Wendy, go!" Hannah screamed as she thrashed in her bed, dislodging her blankets.
A moment later, Karen flicked on the light switch and sat down on the edge of Hannah's bed. "Hannah, wake up."
"Wendy -- go!"
"Hannah!" Karen yelled, shaking her daughter's shoulders.
A stranger would have guessed the little girl was six years old, but Karen had given birth to Hannah Nicole Glazer twenty-six months ago, a little over two years. Rebecca Cole -- one of the three murderous Windale witches, all of whom had survived hanging in 1699 and had endured long periods of hibernation, eventually transforming into vicious, demonic creatures -- had tried to possess Karen's baby before she was born. Rebecca Cole's malevolent taint had somehow changed Hannah. Despite having been born healthy and never having suffered from so much as a common cold or ear infection, Hannah had aged at an accelerated pace from the date of her birth, Halloween 1999. None of the pediatricians Karen consulted could explain her condition. Most of them wanted to keep Hannah in a lab and study her, but Karen refused to allow that. She had turned to Wendy Ward, a practicing witch -- a white witch -- for answers, mostly because Wendy had been targeted by Wither, the leader of the evil coven, and she seemed to have a good idea what had happened to all of them two long years ago. Unfortunately, in this respect, Wendy was as puzzled as the doctors were.
Karen lived in daily fear that something bad would happen to her little girl. More so, she imagined, than parents with normal children, children untouched by evil. The idea of staying in Windale, so close to the horror they had experienced, including the loss of Hannah's father, Paul, had been abhorrent. When Stanford offered her a position in their English department, she had taken it without hesitation or regrets. She, Hannah and Paul's brother, Art Leeson had begun to build a new life in California. Yet even on the opposite coast, three thousand miles from Windale, Karen still worried. No matter how far they ran, they could never escape what was inside Hannah.
Hannah's blue eyes flew open. "Momma!"
Karen hugged her, felt the young girl's body trembling in her arms. "Just a bad dream, honey." Oh, God, I pray that's all it is.
"No, Momma, it wasn't a dream. Not really."
"Right, a nightmare."
"No, Momma. It was something that's gonna happen."
"Wanna talk about it?" Karen couldn't discount the possibility of Hannah having another premonition. Her uncanny awareness of the Gina Thorne situation last year, of the mortal danger Wendy faced from the resurrected spirit of Wither, would have convinced anyone of the girl's psychic abilities. The last two years with Hannah had succeeded in purging Karen of supernatural skepticism.
Hannah frowned. "It's hard to remember..."
Karen held Hannah at arm's length, fussed with the little rosebud buttons on the girl's white flannel nightgown and then, with a resigned sigh, looked into her daughter's eyes. "You were screaming, baby. About Wendy. Telling her to run, to go somewhere."
"Don't remember Wendy in my dream -- I mean, in my..."
"What do you remember?"
"Snow...it was snowing...and there was something big and scary. A monster. All big and it had..." Hannah curled the fingers of both hands and stared at her fingernails. "It had claws and there was -- Momma, I think there was blood."
"Oh, baby," Karen said, hugging her daughter again, wishing she could pluck the horrible images right out of Hannah's mind. "I'm so sorry."
Hannah whispered against her mother's chest. "And I heard her voice."
"Whose voice? Wendy's?"
"No. That girl...Gina."
Karen shuddered. Hannah had never met Gina Thorne. The eighteen-year-old girl had died before their plane landed at Logan International. No way Hannah could know the sound of Gina's voice. No natural way...
"But it wasn't just Gina's voice, Momma," Hannah said. "It was her voice too. Wither's."
"I'm not sure what it means, Hannah," Karen said. "Maybe we should call Wendy in the morning. Would that be a good idea?" She waited for Hannah's response, maybe even just a simple nod. "Hannah?"
Hannah's body began to shake. At first Karen thought her daughter was sobbing, unable to maintain a brave face against overwhelming fear. Sometimes, it was more than Karen herself could handle. How could she expect Hannah to -- ?
Hannah's shaking became violent.
Karen held Hannah away from her and saw her daughter's eyes had rolled back in her head, only the whites showing. A thin line of drool ran down Hannah's chin as her body was wracked by the violent seizure. To prevent Hannah from swallowing her tongue and choking, Karen shoved two fingers into her daughter's mouth, then winced as Hannah bit down hard. Never the flu or a cold, but now this! What's happening to my baby? "Art! Oh, Jesus! Art! Call nine-one-one!" But with Hannah clutched in her arms, Karen was already running for the phone.
Christina Nottingham, wife of Windale's sheriff, was alone in the kitchen, making pancakes for breakfast, and lamenting the fact that the sheriff of a small town was not exempt from working holidays. Some adult company would have been pleasant for a change, but at least the house was quiet. All four children, accompanied by Rowdy, their chocolate Lab, were playing in the backyard while Christina labored over a hot griddle. Max and Ben had requested dinosaur-shaped pancakes, Erica wanted a princess or a kitty cat, while Abby, their adopted daughter, had specifically asked for a wolf. Not a nice, cute little doggie. A wolf. Christina managed as well as she could, her artistic acumen challenged by and limited to careful dollops of batter here and there to form legs, claws, tiaras, whatever. Brushing an errant strand of blond hair away from her eyes, she smiled and said to herself, "It's not the meal; it's the presentation."
Rowdy began barking.
A few moments later, Erica ran into the kitchen, eyes wide with alarm.
"Are your brothers upsetting the dog?" Christina asked. Erica wasn't exactly a tattletale, but she made sure her mother was apprised of all the little household dramas with the unabashed eagerness of a cub reporter.
"Not Max and Ben," Erica said, shaking her head. "It's Abby."
Christina's hand involuntarily jerked, slopping batter over the ladle, and the princess's tiara became a turban. Christina loved Abby, but always worried about the little girl, more than she fretted over her natural children.
Abby had already been through so much, and it seemed as if her trials never ended: first living with an abusive father, who'd later been murdered, then the car accident that had left Abby temporarily quadriplegic. She had inexplicably recovered the use of her limbs in the wake of a strange mutation of her bones, a mutation since healed as well. In the past year, she'd fallen victim to nocturnal wanderings -- or maybe it was just sleepwalking, a phase she would outgrow...But with Abby, who knew? Because Sarah Hutchins, one of the infamous Windale monster-witches in Elizabeth Wither's coven, had tried to take possession of Abby's body. Christina wanted to forget all that, to put it behind them, which was impossible. That unknown would always be there, an X factor in Abby's life, for as long as she lived.
"What about Abby?" Christina asked Erica, her throat tight. What's happened now?
"She's on the roof!"
Christina switched off the burner, scooped Erica up in her arms and ran out back.
Max and Ben were enjoying the show. Rowdy, a responsible minority of one, seemed to think Abby was putting herself at risk and, as family protector, was vocally displeased and making sure everyone within barking distance knew about it.
"Oh, my God," Christina whispered.
Even though their house was a rancher, seeing Abby standing on the roof, arms held out parallel to her shoulders as she turned in slow circles, eyes closed as her boots crunched in the covering of snow, put Christina's heart in her throat. "Abby! Get down here right now!"
Eyes still closed, Abby smiled and continued her slow rotation. A gusting breeze stirred the fine strands of her ash blond hair beneath her powder blue knit cap. "I just want to fly, Mrs. Nottingham. Just for a little while."
"I want you down from that roof this minute, young lady!"
Abby opened her eyes and frowned. "Oh, all right," she said, heaving a dramatic sigh.
Christina Nottingham walked toward the edge of the roof, intending to help her down, but Abby darted across the slanted roof tiles and leapt to the narrow deck railing without a moment's pause, never losing her balance as she spun on her heel and dropped to the deck with a kind of animal grace. The fearlessness of youth, Christina thought. But she couldn't shake a strange, nameless feeling that overcame her while watching Abby's descent. Something distracted her. "What's that in your hair?"
Abby reached behind her right ear and withdrew the long feather she had tucked there. "An eagle feather," Abby said, giving it an appreciative look. "I -- found it on the roof. Do you think eagles fly over our house?"
"They may," Christina said. "But you're not a bird, Abby. I forbid you to go on the roof. Understand?"
Abby looked down at her feet, the eagle feather clutched in her hand, and mumbled, "Yes, ma'am."
"Good," Christina said, then looked around to take in the other children and softened her tone. "Now, everyone inside for pancakes."
The boys cheered and ran into the house, Rowdy close on their heels. Erica started in, then returned to Abby's side, clutched her hand and tugged her into the house. For a moment, Christina stared after them and realized with shock that her nameless feeling had been something akin to fear.
Was it possible? When she wasn't afraid for Abby, was she afraid of Abby? Afraid of what the girl might become if the taint of Sarah Hutchins took control of her? Ridiculous, Christina knew. Sarah Hutchins was gone forever. Never-theless, as she returned to the comfort of her home, hands clasped before her, Christina couldn't help but shudder at the persistent thought.
Wendy jogged along Portage Avenue toward its intersection with Main Street, often referred to as the windiest corner in North America. While snowplows had made the street passable, the resulting mounds of snow piled everywhere else made foot travel treacherous. With utmost care, bundled lunchtime crowds made their plodding way along the busy street.
She'd dressed in layers, cotton below, a green-striped black jogging suit over that, and a waist-length, hooded Gore-Tex jacket. She tugged the hood strings tight, leaving only the oval of her face exposed to the numbing blast of wintry air. Unfortunately, at ground level the harsh weather was winning the battle of attrition, having already soaked through her Skechers, rendering her double layer of tube socks a cold, soggy mess.
Getting in her daily quota of jogged miles was always a matter of mind over matter. Whenever Wendy jogged, she tried to distance herself from the immediacy of the physical act, entering what she called her zone of disconnect, sort of a Zen state of disregard for minor discomforts. Usually she blocked out the early, false signs of exhaustion, her body's way of complaining that she was about to embark on this exercise business again. Later in the run, she tried not to think about the muscle fatigue, the ragged breath or the stitch in her side. Comfort meant lack of progress. She raised her heart rate by making the journey more difficult, either by jogging the same distance faster or by jogging farther than she had before. Of course, she wasn't about to run till she dropped, but she was aware of her real and imagined limits. As with most endeavors in life, progress followed effort. Despite her desire to enter the zone of disconnect while jogging, she always stayed alert to her surroundings. She'd been attacked once while jogging, and probably would have been raped and killed if Abby, in wolf form, hadn't come to her aid. Not an incident she was likely to forget. Consequently, she never jogged alone at night and confined her routes to public places. And though she struggled to become detached from her own discomfort, she remained aware of her surroundings...
...and noticed the change as soon as it happened.
The glass and steel monoliths of downtown Winnipeg shimmered and shifted across the skyline before her eyes. She blinked, eyes tearing in the cold, thinking she'd experienced some sort of optical illusion. But the change was permanent. She was no longer running down Portage Avenue. Now she was jogging along the tree-lined river walkway...alone. Everyone gone. And something else was wrong.
On either side of her, the skeletal deciduous trees and resilient evergreens clumped with snow were bathed in golden twilight. She'd changed location -- and slipped forward in time! Or backward, she thought. Anything's possible. But she had remained in The Forks, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. A place with a six-thousand-year-old history of hunting, trading and ceremonial rites. She recognized the area from her months spent in Winnipeg. So she hadn't moved all that far. Nevertheless...
It occurred to Wendy that she was dreaming. At the same time, she couldn't discount the altered state of consciousness. Important information had come to her before in the guise of dreams.
A man awaited her in the distance, wearing the red and black uniform of a Downtown Watch ambassador, one of Winnipeg's official tourist guides. Why here? she wondered. A dream guide?
Wendy sensed that she would find answers from the Downtown Watch ambassador. She tried to jog faster, to reach the man before he left or simply vanished, but her legs felt leaden, each step forward an ordeal of exertion. She looked down at her feet and saw them sinking into the snow, then deeper, into the concrete! Each time she raised a leg, the ground pulled up with her shoe, like warm taffy. Impeding progress further was the bitter wind, stinging her face, blurring her vision. To either side, the bare trees bent toward her, whipping branches at her face, stinging her flesh. Hands shielding her face, she lurched down the walkway, finally stumbling and falling to one knee.
Extricating herself from the sucking concrete was almost impossible, and sapped all her strength. She looked up, helpless, and gasped in exhaustion as the Downtown Watch ambassador looked down impassively at her. "Help me," she said. "Please!"
"You've come the wrong way," the old man said, his eyes a blind white under his black and red cap.
"Show me -- the right way."
"Wither's curse? This is about Wither's curse."
"It encircles your life."
"You're right," Wendy said. "I should know how to piece it together -- remember all of it."
The blind man turned, started to walk away, unimpeded.
Wendy tried to follow, but stumbled, one leg sinking up to her knee in the soft, clingy concrete. "Wait!"
"Can't wait," the man called over his shoulder. "No time left."
Wendy stretched forward, overbalanced and fell face- first onto and into the ground. With her face submerged in cold cement, she couldn't move, couldn't scream -- couldn't breathe!
Wendy gasped, rolling away from the blanket that had snagged around her legs and arms. She dropped to the floor, between the sofa and the coffee table, and tried to reorient herself. Although she'd packed her bags early in the morning, she'd decided to take a nap before the first leg of a long drive to Minneapolis, before New Year's Eve celebrations began in earnest.
Early-afternoon light streamed through the window near the Yule tree in Tara's apartment, enough illumination for Wendy to read the pages of her dream notebook without needing to turn on a lamp or light the two tea candles in ceramic cat holders at either end of the coffee table. She skimmed the automatic writing sessions, glancing at each page long enough for the words to register without comprehension, snapshots of fragments of thoughts, the ingredients of the curse, out of context.
Gradually, an image formed in her mind...
...and Wendy relives the memory of Wither's destruction.
Gina Thorne, Wither's final host, enveloped in the
flash and roar of white hot flames, flames she must know will, at last, destroy her. A soul-shattering scream, a desperate, demented wail until her human lungs are ruined. Yet inside Wendy's mind, Wither's thought-voice surges again and again, "I CURSE YOU...CURSE YOU...CURSE!"
Summoning the last of her dark-hearted will, Gina Thorne blasts Wendy's mind with the curse, a spell cobbled together in these dying moments of agony, a spell electrified with all her wild, chaotic magic. The sheer power of the spell buffets Wendy, even inside her protective sphere, covering her skin with gooseflesh.
Now, as the words flowed back and slipped through Wendy's lips, as if compelled by a distant ripple of that wild magic, she shivered again, and the hair at the nape of her neck rose.
"Creatures of chaos, rise! Rise and hear my call.
Come for this one -- this Wiccan Wendy Ward -- that
she may fall!
One by one -- and by one more -- seek her out,
Know her course and know her ways,
For the dark shall come and blight her days."
Both tea candle wicks burst into flame.
The walls of the apartment trembled and the floor beneath her feet seemed to rise and fall, as if the ground beneath the building had flinched.
"Magic," she whispered. The air seemed charged with electricity. Wendy had a premonition she was about to be struck by lightning...or something worse. "Okay," she said, attempting to calm herself. "What the hell just happened?"
Her gaze settled on the tea candles, the flames she'd somehow lit with magic, but not her own magic. Wither's magic, Wendy thought. I've been carrying it inside my head since that night in August. A spell -- with a time-release formula. Not a big guess, but something tells me I won't like her prescription.
HUDSON FALLS, MANITOBA
It rouses itself from the long, dreamless sleep.
Pushes its way up through shifting debris, shoves off the crumbling deadwood log that has concealed it for so long. Takes a deep breath of the frost-scented air.
Snow coats the forest floor and the branches of the trees in this quiet place. Above, the low gray sky hints at more snow to come. Over a year has passed since it first heard the demanding call of wild magic. And now a powerful echo has sounded, but this time in its season, in the time of cold and snow, its time to roam the land and sate its unending hunger for human flesh. Yet now it must do more than simply feed. It must find and destroy a particular victim. For the magical call is like a fever, driving it toward this particular prey. While its season lasts, it will know no rest until it has answered that call.
It shambles through the woods, its hunger awakening in stages. Before all else, it must find sustenance. Its large, toothy head sweeps back and forth on a powerful neck as long, narrow nostrils flare, scenting the air for prey. As expected, the immediate area is deserted but it knows much of patience and stalks through the pine forest, lumbering toward the remembered direction of water.
Around seven feet tall, broad across the chest but cadaverously thin from its long hibernation, it walks hunched over, deep-set yellow eyes glittering as it seeks any sign of movement. Covered with a ragged pelt, black across its muscular arms and legs, but white across its torso, it appears as much simian as human, but strides with a solemnity of dark intent more appropriate to the latter. Across the color-bleached landscape, under an overcast sky, its passage is like a rippling, repeating pattern of light and shadow.
It pauses at a break in the woods, staring far ahead at a solitary dwelling made of logs, amber light spilling from an upstairs window. In anticipation, its fingers twitch, powerful claws clicking together. Once human itself -- though the memories are more than a century or two distant -- it recognizes a human place...just as it knows it will soon feed.
Loping toward the dwelling, it hears a dog begin to bark and slowly gathers the cold around itself...
Earl Cady sat in his reading chair near the floor lamp, working his way through Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger. He had no intention of staying up to ring in the New Year. After decades spent as a night watchman, he'd enjoyed spending the last five years trooping up to bed at a decent hour. Amanda and he would have their champagne toast after dinner, maybe watch one of the old classics on television, then head up to bed long before most of the New Year's Eve parties had reached full volume. Tomorrow's just another day, he thought.
Amanda had a roast in the oven, and the mouthwatering aroma had just set Earl's stomach to anticipatory grumbling, when Cody began to bark. Cody had never been a casual barker, and this current canine tirade seemed damned purposeful, part warning, part threat. With a resigned sigh, Earl set his book down on the small table beside his chair and walked to the bay window, which looked out on their wide yard. The German shepherd was running back and forth, frantic, pulling at the end of his chain. Earl rapped on the window and shouted, "Cody! What is it, boy?"
The dog stopped in his tracks, stared at his master's face through the window for a moment, then barked even louder, transitioning into a full-fledged howl.
"Earl?" Amanda called from the kitchen. "What's wrong with the dog?"
"I don't -- " Earl's voice caught in his throat. Thick snowflakes were drifting down out of the overcast sky. "I'll be damned," he whispered. Snow hadn't been in the forecast. Earl looked back toward the kitchen. "It's snowing."
"Maybe he wants to be let in."
"Doesn't sound like -- "
Cody squealed, a tortured sound of abrupt pain, followed by a brief whimper, then silence.
Again Earl peered though the bay window, now rimed with frost, looking for the dog. His gaze followed the length of chain, stretched straight across the yard, all the way to the end, expecting...not knowing what to expect, but certainly not an empty collar. No sign of Cody. "Stay here!" he shouted to Amanda. "I'll be right back."
What happened to the damn fool dog? Earl thought as he shrugged on his mackinaw. "Probably hurt himself good pulling free of that collar," Earl muttered to himself without believing it. "Maybe a bear..." Earl chose not to finish that particular thought. More likely the dog had chased after a skunk or a raccoon that made the mistake of nosing around his yard.
"Probably all it is," Earl concluded. Nevertheless, he removed his double-barreled shotgun from the closet, along with a box of shells. He pushed a shell into each chamber and slipped a handful into the pockets of his mackinaw. Grabbing his keys from the peg by the front door, he hit the switch to turn on the exterior lights, then stepped outside and locked the door behind him. Not that he expected a hungry bear to open the front door while he was around back, and Hudson Falls wasn't exactly downtown Winnipeg, but Earl was cautious by nature. Snow swirled around him, melting when it made contact with the too-warm ground.
First he walked around the side of the house to examine the dog's chain and collar. Earl had decided that choke collars were inhumane, so Cody wore a tough leather collar. Had worn one, he corrected, up until a few minutes ago. Earl placed one knee on the damp ground -- his crouching days were a thing of the distant past -- and picked up the empty collar. Still intact, but...stained. Wet. He ran a finger along the dark patch and held his hand up to the exterior lights for close inspection. "Blood," he whispered. Cody's blood? Or the blood of the critter Cody chased after?
Earl stood and walked beyond the reach of the lights, in the direction Cody had pulled his chain, toward the line of trees and the gathering darkness. He hoisted the shotgun a little higher, bracing the barrel with his left hand, and stepped into the deep shadows cast by the coniferous trees. He stopped when he saw Cody lying on the ground, peeking out from under a spruce, staring back at him. "Hey, Cody! Why you hiding back here, boy?" Earl dropped to one knee again and extended his hand toward the dog, expecting the rough tongue to lap his fingers in canine contrition. But Cody remained still, eyes staring...but not at Earl. Cody was staring off into the distance, almost as if...
Earl's eyes had begun to adjust to the shadows, enough for him to notice something was wrong. Left hand trembling, he reached behind Cody's head and found nothing, nothing at all. "Dear Lord," he whispered. Almost absently, Earl placed the shotgun at his side and cradled Cody's head with both hands. Odd the way it came up, so easily, nothing attached to it but a few strands of gore and the pale gleam of spinal cord, violently severed. Earl began to shiver, gooseflesh covering his arms and legs. Mist plumed from his mouth and nostrils as snowflakes whirled around his face in dizzy abundance.
A twig snapped.
Earl dropped the dog's severed head, hoping Cody would forgive the disrespectful treatment, and snatched the shotgun from the ground as he climbed to his feet. The branch of a spruce tree swept aside with a blur of darkness and white, flowing toward him from his left.
A moment too late, Earl swung the barrel of the shotgun around. Something struck him low in the gut with tremendous force, knocking his left arm aside. His knees buckled and the shotgun dipped in his numb hands, but whatever held him wouldn't let him fall to the ground. Pressure moving upward -- tearing him open! -- like a handful of knives -- or claws!
His universe was reduced to agonizing, unendurable pain, but one last image rushed down at him, down into the vortex of darkness that swirled up to claim him: a large head, matted with white and gray fur, pointed, fur-tufted ears, deep-set, burning yellow eyes, long nostril slits and a maw bristling with long, pointed teeth. A maw stretching wide.
Amanda Cady had been puttering around the kitchen, checking her cabinets and making out a grocery list as she waited for the roast to finish. By the time she slipped on her oven mitts and removed the roast from the oven, she realized she hadn't heard from Earl in a while. Not since he'd left to check on Cody. She'd assumed he'd gone back to his book. But now she was worried and her concern rose by degrees when she found his chair empty.
The house seemed unnaturally quiet, expectant.
She had the odd sense that somebody was watching her. Ridiculous really. They were isolated in Hudson Falls, a good distance from their nearest neighbor. She pushed aside the bay window's gauzy white curtains and peered outside. Earl had turned on the exterior lights, and, even with the heavy snowfall, she had no trouble scanning their property. No shadows to conceal a potential intruder, and the bright lights would discourage anyone from prowling around outside. Nevertheless, the length of chain ending in an empty dog collar, combined with Earl's absence, was a little unnerving.
Already she felt alone, abandoned, and frightened in the quiet house. She fought the urge to turn on all the interior lights. With a fire roaring in the hearth, the relative darkness of a log cabin home was usually warm and inviting. Now it just seemed dark and foreboding. And cold. She walked nervously through the house, rubbing her shoulders over her sweater to ward off a sudden chill.
She had insisted on drywall in the kitchen so that the off-white paint and flower-trimmed wallpaper would provide a brighter kind of warmth in their home. Now she thought of returning to the kitchen, perhaps to call the police and report her husband missing. They'd probably think she was a silly old fool, but she was long past the point in her life where she cared much what others thought of her. Still, he hadn't been gone too long. And she imagined the police had more important matters to handle on New Year's Eve than finding an old man looking for his runaway dog.
She decided she could wait a while before making the call. She would sit in the bright kitchen, and try to shed her chill in the warm afterglow of the oven. Time enough for --
A strange pattern of movement outside the bay window caught her eye. A trick of the light or...
She returned to the window, slipped the curtain aside and her breath plumed in front of her face. She glimpsed sudden movement, racing toward the window. Then a terrible shriek unhinged her spine as --
-- the bay window exploded into the house, cutting her body with shards of glass and splinters of wood. Instinctively, she covered her face, but not before she saw a blur of shadow, a streak of white in a swirling torrent of snow, and a wrenching splash of red...
Sated on its feast of raw human flesh, it feels again the insistent pressure of the wild magic, the call to do its bidding, to seek the special one it must destroy.
It recalls her name, whispered to it so long ago. Yet the name alone is meaningless. Useless, if the strange magic had not also marked her, and provided a supernatural means to track her. Though she is far away, the wild magic reveals a blue-white psychic cord -- a thread of glowing light -- that leads to her. This glowing cord -- suspended in the air like a pulsing psychic vein -- is the path it must now follow. It senses she is young, so her raw flesh will be choice, worthy of a long hunt.
Yet, to find her, it will need to walk among men again, as it has before, which is but a small concern. When it stalks among men, its own magic provides a human guise, a predator's camouflage born of enchantment. Its true appearance will lie hidden until it strikes. It cannot be known. It cannot be stopped.
Soon it will find her. And to rid itself of the feverish witchery, to be free again, it will joyously feast upon the young flesh of the one called Wendy Ward.
Copyright © 2004 by John Passarella