This tale was inspired by someone looking and me and snarling “Why should we follow your laws?” This would be my answer, complete with a fair bit of body horror and ancient rituals. You have been warned.
And may you have a happy Hallow E’en.
The first thing Conny learned about Emily was that she was never comfortable in her own skin.
That’s what everyone said, when she was growing up. She went through a goth phase and an emo phase and a pop phase and a punk phase and a princess phase and a power phase and a panicked phase that lasted all the way through middle school.
He checked. He talked to her elementary teacher, an old friend, the high-school counselor, even managed to sneak a peek at a psych eval from the local J.C. and that wasn’t easy.
So it really wasn’t much of a surprise that when she stumbled across her family heritage, she joined a coven.
According to the plaque hanging outside the Millgrew House (scene of the infamous 1673 witch trials), Emily’s great, great grandmother had served the dark Master of the Hunt in exchange for belts of wolfskin. Her coven wore the belts for years, terrorizing the locals in the shape of wolves, until some brave soul hunted Emily’s ancestor down and shot her.
The belt Emily’s ancestor possessed had been part of a display in the Millgrew House until a few years back, when it was destroyed thanks to some teenage prank.
Conny believed otherwise. He thought Emily took it.
He had met her, briefly, in an online forum. Her coven had posted a dissertation on the hidden history of witchcraft in West Virginia. He had defended her ideas in the comments section and she had even thanked him in her reply. They chatted a bit back and forth. They had a connection. Enough to make him think of fates, entwining. Enough to make Conny follow up on her.
Tracking her down wasn’t easy. Witchcraft was a more tracked phenomenon in places like New England or maybe California. But in West Virginia? There were a few books written about hoodoo root traditions. Some local fringe cults and weird murders. Fewer news reports or conspiracy blogs. Still, they were out there. Conny was sure he could find them.
A reverse-image search on her picture. Keywords from the post. A whopping hundred dollars to secure some information about her family and Conny found his first big leads.
If you were to ask around, and Conny did, you’d probably get an earful from the neighbors about the house on the hill. It was bad for the neighborhood, low morals. Old mill house, probably a century old. Falling apart.
Bunch of older women up there, smoke out of the chimney, even on the hottest days and it stank. Youngsters visited it at all times of the day and night. Those brave or stupid enough to ask what they were doing up there got the answer that the women were making medicine.
Sure. Everybody knew what kind of medicine they were doling out. They were cooking meth. The local cops were well paid off and the operation wasn’t big enough to attract bigger attention.
The house was owned by Emily’s aunts. People who were already linked to coven activity. Conny had dug up some interesting deliveries to the place while researching it, stuff not necessarily connected to drug trafficking but probably linked to the occult. He had enough for a visit. Conny dropped everything he had onto his online server, opened up a folder for Emily, filed it under his /Mah_Bitches_;) directory and took off the next day.
The sun was just a scarlet slash on the horizon when Conny walked up to the house, another in a litany of strangers. Conny was taller than most, bit of a belly, big eyes. University boy (it showed in the clothes). He still hoped he would make a favorable impression.
His head was buzzing. He’d been three days without sleep, excited, and on caffeine pills. The world had taken on a slightly surreal and sloppy tone. The minute his feet touched the porch, Conny knew something was wrong. The silence told him. The door seemed unlocked. But he had come prepared.
Sacrament of the Temple of True Inner Light, the ‘flesh of god’ that produced revelations for the faithful.
DPT, dipropyltryptamine, clinical grade, mixed in with some other minor additions purloined from the School of Medicine to mitigate side effects.
He had dosed about thirty minutes after he met Emily at the front door and was coming up on the high now.
No. That wasn’t right.
He had dosed about thirty minutes ago and was waiting to meet Emily at the front door. Sometimes events in time got a little jumbled.
Old Death was here. He could feel her, in the house, squatting over her prey and nibbling up the unimportant bits. He knew the sack of souls she kept on her belt was far from filled.
Conny was unhappy. He couldn’t just walk in. Old Death would notice him. She’d react. He had to do something to take her attention away. Death needed to be fed.
He took out some candles he’d stolen from a small church. Couple of moon pies he’d bought. A small bottle of rum, snitched from a hotel mini-bar.
Conny set the candles up in a semi circle outside the door, opened up the moon pies and the bottle of rum and pulled out the lighter and pen knife he always kept in his jeans pocket. First, a thin slice on the thumb. A simple cross drawn on the floor, symbolizing a crossroads. Next the moon pies, a couple drops of blood on each to lure her with the scent. The rum didn’t need any extra oomph. Old Death smelled it the minute he opened it.
The moon pies and the rum went in the center of the cross and then the candles were lit. Conny thought he felt the presence in the house start to move. He waited a minute more, as a tremor raced through him, before he went over and broke a window so he could get in. He had a couple of hours, maybe a little more, while Death devoured the offering. Time enough.
Conny pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette, lit it up. Blew the tobacco out in front of him and plunged his face into it. Protection. Magic. With that, he went inside. Did he hear someone cry out? A brief flash of someone coming into the living room, shock on their face. An echo of the past.
The sight in the living room was one Conny wouldn’t easily forget. Roaches in the kitchen; light swarms of flies. Something had chewed its way through one of the windows, probably looking for something to feed on.
The layout of the house was big and rambling. Privacy was minimized in favor of being able to pack people in. From the front room, you could see the den, the kitchen, one of the bathrooms, a mud room, the entrance to the garage and the hall leading to the bedrooms.
Trying to understand what had happened, Conny assumed something had come out of the bedrooms, vented its anger around the house and then returned. There were imprints of someone’s head being rammed repeatedly into the wall. There were bodies everywhere, three in total; Conny was having a hard time keeping count. They kept multiplying as he watched them, echoes of violence that concentrated back into three corpses when he focused.
The body nearest him was no older than fourteen. Wounds on her body were ragged as if the killer shook while cutting her. With rage, he thought. It was obvious. Her eyes were open and unfocused.
Conny remembered the thing about the eyes. Old ways, 18th century: the last sight of a dying person was kept in their eyes. He’d need tools to collect it. Rosemary for memory. Fire to activate it; his lighter. Sacred smoke. He blew the smoke from the rosemary into the corpse’s face. So much blood. So young.
When the corpse moved, it startled him but it also told him the spell was working. He covered her mouth so she could not curse him and watched as she grew still again, silver light pooling around the corpse’s irises. He teased threads of it out with his fingertips. As enough emerged, it began to take shape and leapt right at Conny.
Instinctively, he almost fell over, trying to get away from it.
A wolf. A massive, huge, terrifying, beautiful wolf. Straight out of the descriptions at the Millgrew House. That’s what had killed her. Conny forced himself to breathe. This was not something he wanted to run into.
He closed the eyes of the dead girl and then quietly looked through what he’d brought with him. There was a salve he kept to reveal hidden things, based loosely on the same concoction witches used to empower their broomsticks. Some myrrh and a shell to burn it in, to summon or cheat death. Lighter, of course. Bit of charcoal to put the myrrh on.
He spread the salve under his eyes. Like kohl from the old days or the get-up of an over-enthusiastic football player. The thought made him smile. A little humor to keep sane. The myrrh went on the charcoal. A draft from the broken window gathered up smoke from the myrrh and it raced off, seeking the danger. One of the back bedrooms. Conny stood stock still, listened. Nothing moved, nothing breathed except him and the insects. Quietly, quickly, he followed the incense to its destination.
Emily was there. In the master bedroom, dead. Brunette, young. Early twenties. Recently pregnant. Each feature as distinct as her profile pic. Sharp jaw. A fighter, given the scars. She had come back here, after it was all done, and had collapsed in the corner after… after…
He had a hard time wrapping his head around the last bit.
It took him a moment to realize there were other things in the room. Of first importance, a spirit of agony had attached itself to the body. As he noticed it, it hid behind Emily’s eyes. Conny’s lips curled into a snarl and he leaned forward.
“I wear more than one skin too.” He lied.
The spirit fled.
There were two other corpses, too. The aunties who ran the house. Torn through like cotton, shredded and long dead. Conny turned his attention back to the woman in the corner. He had so wanted to meet Emily, but not like this.
Emily wasn’t pregnant anymore. He slid in front of the corpse and let the myrrh drift around her body. He listened to what the smoke brought him. There… the faintest of sounds. Jazz on a Saturday. Wreathed in cigarette smoke. Dancing under the moonlight. The burn of booze and crushing kisses. Emily’s spirit seemed to fill the room. A sibilant whisper from beyond the grave… help me.
“I will.” he reassured her. Then he split her skull open.
With a grisly load in hand, he went to the kitchen. A reasonably clean pot was easy to find; clean water, too. If he’d thought about it, he could have set this up earlier but it’s precisely because he didn’t want to think about it was why it wasn’t.
The brains had to soak for about an hour in cold water, letting the blood diffuse out so the brains would be clean. Conny took the time to collect all of the bodies save Emily’s in the living room.
The next step was to rinse the brains in a strainer, plucking out any stray bits of skull or skin, removing the odd hair and discarding it.
Connie had never done this before but he was familiar with the ritual from his studies and the cooking method he’d picked up from the internet. Apparently, it was a specialty in French cuisine.
Boiling was the simplest part. About a quarter of an hour on the stove until the brains were fork tender. Conny set them aside, covering them with a towel, to let them cool while he went looking for a pan and a knife.
The standards of any kitchen. Some butter. Some eggs. The brains now had the consistency of a cooked yam and sliced easily into quarter-inch cubes. Heat up the eggs in the butter and in went the brains.
The prayers started just as the brains began to sizzle. Prayers to spirits, to concepts, to gods long thought dead. Thoth among them, scribe of divinities and keeper of lost knowledge. Old Death, named as Anubis, of course, since she was on the porch. Conny’s given name was Khonshu; his parents named him after the god of moon and travelers. He hoped that made a difference now.
Some other gods of Death were added in as well, mostly as an apology. Conny knew he was treading on their sacred ground with this rite and he didn’t want to piss them off.
When it was done, it looked like a creamy scramble; the smell was palatable enough, even if it was fighting for space with the corpse smells in the other rooms. Eating it was perhaps the simplest part, if you didn’t think about it too hard. Conny wished he could salt it, but salt would disrupt the rite.
The meal hit his stomach with a silvery fire. He could feel it taking hold, seeking ways out of his stomach, back up his throat, out the other direction, some fibers finding where he wanted them to go — into his nervous system and towards his own memories.
He returned back to the bedroom, feeling powerful on what he’d ingested, stomach still roiling and he picked up the myrrh in the shell, blowing on it to start it smoking again.
Burning, desire, need. The lust was a surprise. Her feelings. Her wants. The rite was taking hold.
“As one.” He whispered. “As one.”
She was staring out his eyes; he was staring out hers. Looking down. His belly, her belly. Torn open. No. Her hands, bleeding. No. Bloody. No. Why? Why? WHY?!?
Childhood: stupid and useless, high school? A wreck. But now. Memory etched in argent: Emily was having the time of her life.
The covens find each other; maybe they’re compelled to. Sort of like an AA meeting for the terminally and supernaturally fucked up. They meet where they can; where normal people are the least likely to show up or be welcome. That old warehouse, the barbecue area at the edge of the park. That abandoned lot at the top of the hill.
Maybe it was a rave, or someone’s birthday, or a holiday, but whatever it was, they gathered from hundreds of miles around. Surrounded by people like herself, bound by the fact that magic ran through them, not trapped by human law or the rules of society. That was what tonight was about.
Bonfires outside and drinking. Meat and food in plenty. Laughing, wrestling, showing off, and pissing about. Nobody serious and nobody sad. That was the first time she saw him.
He’d come from somewhere up north of the border. Clean-cut close-cropped hair. Eyes that made you shiver and a full-lipped smile that drew you in with each breath.
Nice ass, too! She joked with the girls standing around her. He seemed to have that pull on all the young women. The older ones just looked disgusted. Emily proposed a toast to ongoing relations and with a deep-throated laugh, he seconded it. He’d team up with her anytime she wanted.
She definitely wanted.
But there were rules. There were always rules.
One of them was witches don’t play with warlocks.
There were exceptions, of course. Sacred sexuality during the Great Rites, arranged marriages and the like. But all of it had to be approved by the eldest of the covens. Otherwise ‘great tragedy’ could result. Some silly bullshit about the rules of magic and forces needing to be aligned. Blah, blah, blah.
You could screw normal humans but that was kind of like making it with a mannequin, right? How the hell could they understand what it was like to wield magic?
Stupid, medieval, conservative horse crap. Didn’t these covens know about birth control? Condoms? Feminism? Hell, even magic could probably conjure up a way to keep from getting pregnant.
His name was a proper legendary one. He was welcomed with open arms. Hero. He had a line of women waiting to claim him. He said he wasn’t interested. Not yet, at least.
But you could tell, just at the edges of that smile. While he was talking to those half-souled groupies with no magic, no destiny, he didn’t want them. They weren’t worthy. He needed something more.
It took about a year before Emily and her eye candy found themselves in each others arms. Under the moonlight, after raiding a church crypt, fighting off the ghosts and memories of dead saints to come out with powdered bones and secrets from beyond death. When he looked down at her, to check on her, she just grabbed him by the back of his neck and drew him into a kiss. To her delight, he kissed her right back.
Both of them knew they had problems if they wanted to keep going. Any hint of an unapproved affair would launch an investigation. At first, it would be prophylactic. The elders would warn them and find ways to keep them separate. If it was more serious, the local council would step in and punish them.
To get around this, they made pacts with unholy spirits and fed those spirits with their lust. They formed a new coven, one which overlooked the occasional indiscretion. And finally, they took on lovers, ‘proper lovers’ in the estimation of other covens. The key piece of camouflage to hide their activities.
The days were agony as Emily waited for the whole pattern to fit together. But then… but then… but then…
It happened. It all clicked. Shaking with desire, Emily found a place for them near the spot where they’d first kissed. That first night moved mountains.
The next morning, she was bruised and raw and beyond exhausted. He wasn’t in much better shape. She never knew anything could be so powerful. So astonishingly worth it.
It took them a week before either one of them dared to show up in public. But patience and hard work had paid off. No one noticed. No one cared. It worked. Their plan worked very, very well.
Things took off after that. Each time Emily got together with him, it just kept getting better. Their bodies were made for each other. Their relationship made them a formidable team.
Familiarity bred contempt.
She was certain that they’d been safe. Had it been just one night? Did they get a little carried away? All she knew was this. The older witches ferreted out the pregnancy before she did. She was never sure exactly how. They stalked the two lovers until they had direct and incontrovertible evidence of the crime. Emily’s life came unhinged.
The stronger men seized hold of her man and stripped him. Around his neck hung a small vial on a leather thong. She’d never seen him take it off but it never seemed to bother her. Now, though, it was ripped from him.
Something seemed to flee out of him at that moment. Like his godhood, his good looks, his easy manner just left. He changed. Bit of a paunch, limp hair and sad, sad eyes. And she understood why the older women were so repelled by him. And she understood why she felt so compelled to be with him. Emily wept. She wondered what devil he had dealt with to get that charm. She wondered what she really carried inside her.
They flayed him. She’d heard of the term before. Never expected to see it. A part of her screamed as it happened. Another relished in it. They released him to the mundane world of no magic and jobs and universities and empty promises. Maybe one day he’d seek her out, find out what he’d caused, deal with it. Maybe not.
Then they turned to her. She could swear there was sadness behind their eyes. They touched her belly, each one, in turn, and then they turned their back on her. Banishment. They didn’t even have to say it. She was dead to them. No coven would deal with her again.
She crawled back to her dull, stupid, useless, good-for-nothing family. They put her up in the master bedroom, wood floor stained and creaky. A cradle set up in the next room. Her mom begged her to abort the kid. Emily said she’d think about it but it was all she had left of that time. How could she give that up? Wouldn’t that be a betrayal of her feelings, even if they were partly from an enchantment?
She was keeping the kid. These decisions were hers to make, however hard. Not her mother’s. Not her aunties. With her magical powers, she represented life itself. The idea of staining her spirit with the murder of the unborn…
The first time it kicked, it all changed.
Like jagged glass tearing her up inside. Claws… she realized. The child had claws. Even as she watched her belly start to tear and felt blood well up in her throat, she was lurching over to her supplies, pulling on the wolfskin belt, taking another shape to survive.
Only exhaustion forced her back to her humanity. The pain became a cycle of agony. The baby would move and tear her up, she’d pull on the belt and the magic would heal it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Her mother, frantic, worked with the aunts on things to keep the baby calm and content. The days became bearable. The nights though…
Her body would drift off to sleep. The baby, also asleep, would drift close to the wall of her womb and one of those claws would catch. She’d wake, shrieking. Her sleep dropped from eight hours a night to six to four and then less.
Six months in and there was nothing even the aunts could do. The baby was stretching, moving, preparing. At night, maybe she could get an hour or two in a row? Less?
That night, this night—was it now?—she was sure she hadn’t slept for days. The herbal remedies were useless; the medicinals—valium, morphine, oxycontin—her body and the child’s had built a tolerance. Any more and it would kill her. The world had vanished into a red haze and all she needed was some quiet.
There… just a moment when she could taste sleep. Time suspended.
Its fist tore through her. The howl of pain was intense. Someone came in, tried to hold her. In her fury, she broke the person’s arm. Others came running and she tore into them, beating them. The belt was nearby, calling to her. Pulling it on was a matter of habit. Every single scrap that whined or cried or made noise she destroyed. The whole house reduced to a gruesome silence. And then she went back to curl in a corner. That corner. Far side of the room. Next to the bed.
Even then she couldn’t sleep.
Emotions drifted out of Emily. As she looked across the room, her mother’s eyes glassed over as the last of her life dripped from her. Emily sobbed, quietly, for a while. Maybe minutes. Maybe hours. Nuzzling her belly.
The thing inside her kicked in reply.
She couldn’t take it anymore.
It had to come out and she snarled and tore into herself. The belt came loose in her teeth as she batted at something that fell heavily to the floor out of reach and bounced.
Blood loss and shock hit her all at once. Too much. Too much. Even for her. Without sleep, beyond exhaustion, her body was past its limits. Emily slumped down, feeling the last of her time running out.
She heard its cry. Heard it flop around. There was a hint of a smile as her eyesight started to blur. It’s a survivor, she thought.
As if in response, it pulled its way back to her. Numb, she couldn’t feel where the claws dug in, where the ferocious will to live wouldn’t give in. With the instinct of any newborn, it made its way to her breast.
She felt it nuzzle against her and take a bite.
Conny came out of his trance, tears smearing the kohl. He got up and wandered the house. Opened the door to the nursery. The devil’s child, he thought. He closed the door and made sure it was fully shut.
He wandered outside to find a car. Siphoned out the gas, using a garden hose. Rosemary for memory, myrrh for the dead. A lit cigarette. He put the gas where it was most needed.
The flames burst from the living room like a flower into the sky. Conny closed his eyes. Death would not go hungry. Emily was in the doorway. Her ghost, at least. She smiled at him.
He was coming off the drugs now and he felt empty, washed out. He found he was holding a knife. He wondered where it had come from. Gently, he laid the knife on the porch, under the eaves just starting to catch above him, and backed away. There might have been the cry of a baby in the night. Or it might have been the wind.
Wiping the kohl from his face, Conny stuck his stained hands in his pockets. He pulled out his cell and, with a sigh, deleted their chat logs and her folder. Tragic that it hadn’t worked out but there would be other chances.
Conny started back on the long walk to the university. His studies were waiting for him. The night welcomed him with typical indifference and the moon would not divulge his secrets.