The Witch-Mother’s Charge
Serpent in the Water, Part II
Location: Franklin Mountains – El Paso, Texas
Time: 3 p.m., One Day Before Satellite Attacks
“Damn crazy locals,” Caroline cursed as she struggled to get comfortable again, fanning herself with her apron after momentary exposure to the heat.
“They like to throw their weight around once in awhile, but they’re mostly harmless.” ”He knew what you were?”
Marie asked with no shortage of concern.
“Most of the older folks around here do. Everyone up here in the valley knows, so does anyone in El Paso that’s lived here more than twenty years. They been dealing with me and my sister for a while. Especially hard to escape their notice with Josephine being the way she is.”
A common sight for witches of a certain age, especially in Europe where the cunning folk were more common. Whenever a community grows around a legend or something mysterious, it becomes so ingrained in their culture that, even if they know they shouldn’t stare at or touch it, they can’t help but keep it alive. Such was the way with Caroline and her sister, Marie assumed. After so many years of living and working with the residents of El Paso, they had become a staple of the city, whether anyone else knew it or not. ”What about the Hounds? Are you not worried they might turn up? I haven’t seen or heard much about Hound attacks in Texas.”
“There have been a few, to be sure. Ain’t much though, a couple of dead civilians here and there, a few dead witches in Austin last week but nothing that’ll make the news. Plus, with that token you’ve got there, shouldn’t be a problem for much longer.”
Marie nodded, moving the pouch from her lap to the table. She pulled the drawstring the reveal a plethora of small, metal disks engraved with the same symbol she’d seen before. On the other side was another symbol, rather a string of them, woven together to form something slightly geometric and entirely incomprehensible. Voces Magicae,
Holt thought to Marie, catching a glimpse of the tokens from his side of the table. Names of daemons, spirits, the mighty dead, and other words thought to invoke great power. I can make out only two names in the formula: Herodias and Soteria.
Marie took one out and examined it closer, unable to translate the inscriptions on the back. Caroline looked up, obviously taken with the talisman’s craftsmanship. She reached over the table with an open palm, bidding Marie release the token now rather than later. Marie did just that, placing it gently in Caroline’s shriveled hand, minding the potentially sharp edges. ”Genevieve didn’t provide any instructions for it. She only said it was part of the vessel she and the other Families were blessing sometime this evening. I assumed it would just siphon power from their ritual.”
“You drive a nail through it.” Caroline responded confidently, turning the disk over in her hands a few times before pocketing it in her apron. “Not the first time I’ve worked magic with Lydia, she likes the charms from the old world, ancient stuff and the like. You drive a nail through it to bind the magic. I’ll call the girls together at midnight. You ought to get one of them to Josephine soon.” ”Speaking of,”
Marie repositioned herself, shifting the conversation back onto Josephine and hoping that this time she wouldn’t be met with resistance. ”Why did that man think I worked with Josephine?”
“No offense, girlie, but you look her type. She’s more, uh . . . I guess what you’d call ‘eclectic’. She and hers run around dressed like that all the time, draped in black and gold and silver, more skin than cloth. Not what you might expect from a seventy-two year old witch, but she don’t exactly look it.”
Marie raised an eyebrow. ”How do you mean?”
she leaned closer as she asked.
“Well, whereas I take money and the odd favor from folks that come to see me, Josephine takes years, especially from the younger ones. A trick she picked up from a conjure man years ago. Anyone that comes into her caves and asks for her help has to give up years for it. They get older, she gets younger. She’s probably collected enough years to live for another hundred years or so, if not more. Probably why that boy looked so lost. He went pokin’ his nose where it didn’t belong and lost a few years for it. Told you she was wicked.” ”Powerful magic, that.”
Holt said aloud. ”We will have to proceed with caution to avoid a similar fate. Such magic usually requires a contract of sorts, but I doubt a witch of Josephine’s caliber will be forthcoming.”
“He’s a smart one,” Caroline nodded, agreeing with Holt’s sentiment. “Although, girl like you, she might let you in, especially since you have something she needs. Hell, might even get a favor out of her for it. Speakin’ of . . .”
Caroline stood up, walking over to the same cabinet as before. She pulled down the witches saddle with more ease than Marie thought her capable. It was deceptively light. Walking around the table, she presented Marie with the saddle, a finely crafted tool made of black leather, or what Marie assumed was leather, with faint inscriptions along the bottom.
“There’s somethin’ about you, Marie. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I sense a fire in there, something old. I can tell that you’ve got ambition. My girls and I have no more need of this, but you might. It’ll change a familiar just as it can change a man, but I’m guessing a spirit can handle the transformation much better.”
Marie’s eyes lit up. Holt’s many forms were gifts from the witches he’d served over the years. A cat, a dog, a goat, a hare, a raven, and now a horse. Not only would she be supplying Holt with another form, but she would be in position of a piece of magical history, a relic very few witches, or any magicians for that matter, could lay claim to. Marie graciously accepted the gift, lifting it above her head and marveling at how little it weighed. ”I don’t know what to say. Thank you, Caroline.”
“Bah,” Caroline replied, waving a hand. “I don’t give it to you just out of the kindness of my heart. I got ulterior motives like any other self respecting witch. When you head up to Josephine’s, and you will
be using this saddle to get there, I want you to tell her about Jeff Bayley and his boy. She can handle herself, but if he does intend to round some folks up and head out there, I want her to be prepared. Me and my girls will lay low until tonight. You do all that, you’ll leave here with my blessing.” ”It would be my pleasure.”
Marie smiled, holding the saddle at her side and reaching out to shake Caroline’s hand. To Marie’s surprise, Caroline pulled her in for a hug instead. She hadn’t thought of her as an affectionate woman, but the gesture was well received.
“Head up to the cave systems and wander around a bit, should be able to find them on just about any map. When you start hearing rattlesnakes, you’ll know Josephine’s place is close.”
Marie nodded, following Caroline out the back door. The sun had shifted quite a bit during their visit, a light breeze kicking up dust over the valley. Holt reverted to his true form, the strange spectral sight it was. He took the saddle from Marie’s hands, his dark claws fusing with the leather, as if possessing it. Shadows pooled out from beneath the saddle, melding and spinning to form the vague outline of a four-legged creature. Holt’s features shifted slowly until finally, he stood as a proud and noble beast, a great black horse with dark eyes, mane and tail like midnight tendrils, hints of his ethereal nature swirling around him now and again. ”A fine form,”
Holt commented, rearing up on his back legs and letting out a guttural whinny that left Marie in both awe and terror. She fastened her bags to the sides of the saddle and managed to strap her broom horizontally across the back before hopping on. Her experience with horses was limited, but Marie imagined that riding a spiritual familiar in the form of a horse was a much different experience to the real thing.
Holt inched forward, starting at a slow trot before galloping away from the small town at full speed with Marie sitting comfortably on his back. She turned to wave at Caroline as the two raced off into the mountains with supernatural speed and efficiency.
Time: 6 p.m., One Day Before Satellite Attacks
Josephine’s cabin in the desert was proving more difficult to locate than Marie had originally believed. Caroline’s instructions were vague, but by this point, Marie and Holt had passed the caves three different times and had still not seen nor heard sign of Josephine’s house, nor had they seen any witches in animal guise as before. It was a wonder that the locals found their way out here. Then again, this was probably by design.
Fortunately, the sun, though not fully set, had lowered enough for the mountains to become much cooler than upon Marie’s first arrival. Now, cool winds blew through winding slopes and whispering caves, making the whole experience far more scenic and relaxing. Even though she was technically on a mission, well, three different missions, Marie felt that this was one of the few times she’d actually been able to enjoy herself in the past month. Riding with the witch saddle was like nothing Marie had ever experienced. Flight was of course a novelty that she would never fully give up, but the speed at which she and Holt could move was astonishing.
It was then Marie hatched an idea. Hag riding wasn’t restricted to travel by land. Stories of the witches saddle told of its ability to not only transform unfortunate victims into horses, but to give them supernatural flight as well as speed. She had been so caught up in the joy of riding in the mountains that Marie hadn’t considered the possibility of flight. Holt . . .
Marie hatched the thought, but just as she did, the pair were lifted off the ground, ascending to a distance high enough to see over the smaller hills. I was beginning to wonder when you would figure it out.
Holt replied with as much sass as his voice was capable, moving onward toward a light in the distance that had been obscured by the mountains. Sure enough, a tall, electrical light stood near a modest cottage among the hills, positioned in perhaps the only level patch of land for miles.
As they drew nearer, moving closer to the ground but never fully touching down, Marie could hear the subtle song of rattlesnakes, surrounding her on all sides. When she looked down, however, she saw no sign of the scaly fiends. Instead, she noticed small stalks or posts of wood fitted with a snake’s rattle at the top, several rattles in fact. They shook violently as she and Holt moved close, either warning the trespassers to turn back, or alerting someone of their presence.
Holt landed on a stray patch of greenery just outside the lonely house, whose windows were fully illuminated but blinds drawn, except for the occasional slit or opening that spoke to their age and level of use. The hum of a large generator behind the house, as well as a standing AC unit, drowned out the fading rattle of Josephine’s wards.
Before Marie had a chance to dismount, the door opened. Out stepped a slender woman dressed similarly to Marie, in a flowy, low cut, black dress, with silver trinkets hanging from neck and wrist and long, crimson curls tied neatly atop her head. Her skin was beyond perfect, from what Marie could tell, and her eyes were striking, even at a distance, like yellowish amber beacons. She sauntered over, waving enthusiastically.
“Well now,” she spoke in a similar accent to Caroline, though her voice was much lighter, almost sing-songy or whimsical. “What have we got here? Who is this beauty you’ve ridden up to my humble abode, certainly not one of the townsfolk?””Josephine?”
Marie questioned as she stepped down, almost tripping due to the height of Holt’s back.
“The very same,” she replied, taking Marie into an awkward, domineering hug and kissing the air on either side of her cheeks. “But I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a disadvantage darlin’, I haven’t the slightest idea who you are.” ”Marie,”
she answered while removing herself from Josephine’s embrace, awkwardly stumbling backward and bumping into one of her bags. ”I came on Lydia Velis’s behalf, and on your sister’s.”
“Well I can see that you’ve met Caroline,” Josephine said as she walked around Holt, motioning to the saddle on his back. “Never thought she’d part with it, must’ve seen something special about you. But comin’ here for Lydia, I guess that qualifies. Go on then, what’s the news?”
Josephine was interesting to say the least. As Caroline had said, she looked just as young as Marie despite being over seventy. Her mannerisms were what Marie might have expected of a witch taken with grandeur and mischief, she was much like Puck in how she presented herself and how she spoke. And just like Puck, there was something sinister about her, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent. ”The witches of Nevada are putting on a ritual after the recent tragedy there; one of the Families was destroyed by the Hounds. I was asked to give out these tokens,”
Marie turned and removed the pouch from one of her bags, taking out one of the tokens and presenting it to Josephine, ”to each of the covens recognized by your regent. Caroline also wanted me to warn you about someone named Jeff Bayley. Apparently his son was in the caves near here earlier today. Jeff thinks you and your sister are planning something.”
“Well you’re thorough, aren’t you?” Josephine took the token and turned it over in her hand a few times before turning back to Marie. “Yes, Jeff’s youngest, Adam, came wandering through the hills about 5 a.m. lookin’ for me. Sweet boy, definitely doesn’t take after his daddy. Wanted somethin’ to get the attention of a certain someone he’s sweet on, a boy in his school. Didn’t want Jeff finding out about it, he’s one of them real ‘traditional’ types, you know the ones I mean.”
Marie was familiar with the average American conservative. Fortunately, she grew up in New England with fairly modern parents who taught her to be open to others, but she’d heard plenty of horror stories about kids, even adults, from the south who hadn’t been so lucky. When you live in a small town outside a major city in a red state, of course you’re more likely to go to a witch for help than look at home. ”But if he wanted a love spell, why did he look so lost? It’s like he didn’t know where or who he was.”
“That’s because I took his memory of it ever happening. Better for his daddy to think I witched him than to find out the truth. Though I’m guessing Jeff threw a fit in town?”
Marie nodded. ”He barged in while your sister and I were talking threatening her with the Hounds. She didn’t seem worried, but she wanted me to warn you regardless.”
Josephine smiled, taking Marie’s hands in hers.
“Well then, you’ve done us all a service. Jeff likes to blow steam, but he isn’t man enough to act on anything. Hell, even if he does round up the cavalry, I can hide this place from anyone I don’t want findin’ it.” ”Glad I could help,”
Marie turned as if to leave, readying to mount Holt’s saddle when, as if on cue.
“Wait,” Josephine placed a hand gently on Marie’s shouldering, turning her around, much to Marie’s amusement. “Y’know, maybe I ought to incentivize the Bayley’s to keep their distance. If you’d be so kind as to stay a little while longer, I’m sure I could make it worth your time.”
Marie smiled, following Josephine to the porch of her house, which held a small, standing swing and a couple wooden chairs. The two sat beside one another on the swing while Holt trotted over, maintaining his form as a horse if only for the novelty of it. ”What did you have in mind?”
“Jeff Bayley’s one of them oil field workers, well, he’s in the oil field cuz they put a drill on his land. He hasn’t done a day of work in his life. Inherited money from his granddad when he was little, bought the general store up in the valley a few years ago, and struck oil close to the caves in the mountains. More money than God and just as obnoxious. Where they put up the rig is where me and mine used to dance on the full moons, our stomping ground. Used to be a spring out there that they filled in to make room for the well.”
As they spoke, three cars pulled up to the house along a dirt road Marie had either missed upon arrival, or was simply unable to perceive. Men and women began pouring from the vehicles, nine in total, scantily clad in dark colors. They all looked around the same age, perhaps because of Josephine’s magic?
“Ah, here comes my cavalry.”
Josephine stood up to greet them, going around one by one and kissing them on the cheek.
“My loves,” she spoke up, standing on the steps of her porch like it were a stage, “this here is Marie. She comes bearing gifts. Marie has also agreed to join us tonight in our dance!”
The witches cheered, walking up to Marie and hugging her, kissing her, welcoming her in their night of revelry. It was a strange sensation, one Marie hadn’t felt in over a year. Her last Sabbath flight was with Joseph. Since then, she’d either been consumed by work for Puck, or consumed by her own ambitions. This was a welcome change, but she still didn’t know the part she was to play. ”What exactly were you planning?”
Marie tried to maintain an air of caution per Holt’s instruction.
“My dear,” Josephine responded, taking Marie’s hands in hers, “we’re gonna bring my spring back. All that oil they’ve dug up, all the land they’ve taken from me, we’re takin’ it back. If Jeff thinks he can threaten me and my sister, he needs to realize that I’m prepared to take everything
of his, startin’ with the pretty chunk of change he’s drawing from MY land. The best way to get to a man like him is through his pockets. We’re gonna make him beg for a deal. What do you say?”
Time: 12 a.m., Day of the Satellite Attacks
Up, up, the black steed climbed, atop his back a creature fierce. High above the mountains she wielded the flame, a beacon of hope for Night to follow, a disparaging sight to those in her wake. Shrouded in shadow, veiled and unseen, a midnight power summoned its minions. Beasts liken to men in size and splendor, but altogether more fearsome, rode upon a cursed wind. ‘Twas their time and hour, so spoke the Moon as she waned, to banish their enemies, crushed beneath hoof, and claw, and wing, and flame.
Witch! cried the maggots that crawled below, writhing in filth, death, and woe. What a mess they made of the Earth’s rich skin, clawing at a carcass, rotting her from the inside out. What wonders, they thought, might we construct to bleed her dry and fill our bellies with gold.
Atop their tower, that loathsome spire, vile in its intent and misguided in its aim, a fire burned as if enraged, a smoldering, whirling blaze of hot ash. This was the sign, the herald that foretold a wicked fate. A cursed man could see from afar what his hubris had wrought, woken in the night by cries of pain, a dream, a gift, a vision. Another near smiled ear to ear, the wild fox and her daughters who danced with delight.
The herald loomed ever closer, her fiery cloak cascading sparks onto the insect’s machinations. With torch in hand, she smote the fetid contraption, bending its beams until it leaked black bile. A serpent rose from beneath the sand, hissing as the acrid stench touched her tongue, and the first drop of crude retribution stained her land. Blood from the land, which sustains mortal whelps, turned to the blood of life, which sustains all; water.
With her venom, the strength of her malice, power and wealth were undone. The metal man fell, releasing not blood, but water and steam, sinking into ground, rotting to rust, turning to dust. A spring grew in its place, with crystalline mirror into the starry sky. Around it they flew, and galloped, and slithered, night’s black agents, as man’s corruption withered. From afar he watched their dance, entranced, bewitched, enraged yet defeated. His threat, his ire, all fell in mourning as the beasts roared, howled, and shrieked, and the horseback maiden laughed.
Witch! the beasts cried as they leapt, and danced, and sung, and made merry while the serpent swam in her spring of renewal. No man dared to draw near again. When the sun broke over the mountains they fled, away to the waking world once more. But something old awoke in the morning, a force unknown called by a voice always heard.
Time: Afternoon, After Satellite Attacks
Marie changed quickly, her mind still racing from the previous night’s procession. Such power they wielded, she and Josephine’s coven, such fun. Even Holt seemed to glow the next day, clearly having been deprived of the primal ecstasy that came from the witches dance. It was pure freedom.
News of their dance travelled quickly into town, the younger residents and travelers believing whatever fantasy reports had been written about an explosion caused by an electrical storm, but the older ones knew. They were fearful and distant, but they understood. Jeff Bayley overstepped, forgot his place, and was punished. Marie caught a glimpse of him as she rode past the valley, dejected and defeated. She thought that maybe, given the recent attacks launched by the Hounds, he might look a little more smug, but she and Josephine had done more than enough to crush his spirit.
Holt and Marie were weary as they made their ascent, fearing that the Hound attack might have put a wrench in their plans. Fortunately, none of the cities Genevieve mentioned were hit, no one Marie knew were in the affected areas, now craters, and her general apathy for the people there seem to win out. She was concerned, yes, but she was now more determined to complete Genevieve’s mission and continue the search for Gwyneth’s lost possessions.
Marie removed the cell given to her by the Ambassador, the little charm on the back dangling and glistening as she and Holt continued their climb. Is now the time?
Holt thought to Marie, galloping away from El Paso in no particular direction. The Hounds have shown their hand. It was only a matter of time until we enlisted her help again. Now more than ever, we need the Ambassador.
Marie dialed the only number on the phone, waiting to hear the line pick up. Once it did, she spoke first. ”Some things have changed. I’ve left my group in Las Vegas and I’m sure you’ve seen the news about the Hounds. Where can we meet?”