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Augury

Part 5


Location: Smithy’s Grocery Store – Las Vegas, Nevada
Time: Late Evening, Present Day




Phantom voices drowned out the screaming patrons of Smithy’s, the encroaching attack fading from vision. Smoke rose over their dimming visage, feint cries calling to Marie in a familiar fashion. The panic, the pain, the rage, all this and more come flooding back in an instant. Blind was she to her surroundings, deaf to the worried cries of Holt and the wolves, numb to the rumbling earth beneath. All that was ceased to be until there was nothing.

Marie closed her eyes, attempting to make sense of her fading world while riding a wave of dread and fear. This unknown, this illusion, it called to her minutes before, beckoning her ashore with invisible light and ethereal bells. It was like a dream, rather, the waking from one. The confusion, the longing, Marie felt them all intimately as she drifted on a silent sea.

And then she awoke to truth; and then she awoke to the past.

*****


Gwyneth sipped merrily her glass of wine, its floral bouquet and honeyed tang cutting through the bitterness she had come to expect. The savory scent of roasted game and sweet confectioneries filled the dining hall of her recent friends. Each platter was expertly presented on fine silver, the finest she had seen in her stay. The witches of London had become accustomed to finery. Truly they had spoiled her.

They were four in number, Gwyneth included, all seated at one end of a long table stained a few shades darker than actual wood. The others were well mannered yet wild, as they were want to be, while Gwyneth held a definitive air of mystery her peers could never hope to attain.

“Shall we dance tonight?” one of the witches spoke, a fair haired girl of 17 with elegant curls and striking eyes. “The moon is right for it.”

Gwyneth laughed along with the others, their jovial disposition an ironic betrayal of otherwise wicked and hedonic desires.

“We have danced for three moons, Miss,” a young man responded, hair similarly fair but eyes more dull. “Is there nothing more for us to do this night? Perhaps we should away to the west, see the country by cover of night.”

He turned to Gwyneth, taking a sip of his wine. “Would that be agreeable to you, Miss Owens? I would very much like to visit the home of our newest.”

“Oh let’s!” the first witch exclaimed.

Gwyneth shifted uncomfortably in her seat, sipping her wine for the duration of their conversation, sad at having reached the bottom of the glass. Her own flight to London was to escape the complications of home, if ever she had one.

“It is entirely uninteresting, I assure you. Perhaps a stroll through the back garden would be more fruitful?”

“Oh come now,” their last companion interjected, a portly woman with dark hair, “modesty doesn’t become you, Gwyneth. Let us see the forests of your home, hear their whispers and dance among them.”

Before Gwyneth had a chance to object, a loud crash sounded through the hall leading to the dining room. Two tall men in dark coats ominously lingered in the entryway, mouths covered by scarves, the rest of their faces obscured by the brims of their hats. They moved with purpose, brandishing swords with feint inscriptions at their waists. Their intent was clear.

The witches stood in unison as if communicating their strategy through a mental link. Each cast out their arm, sending their assailants soaring into the wall behind, paintings and other decor shaking and clattering to the floor in response. Gwyneth gestured for her friends to flee. They were reluctant to leave, but the seething rage in her eyes made them aware of her motive.

And darkness overcame her, world fading like a dream.

*****


Marie awoke from her memory, but her mind was set to one purpose. This world mirrored the other, this moment liken to another. The rage that filled her once before filled her now, the desire for freedom, to be rid of persecution, all pooled into Marie.

Two figures stood out among the destruction, Hounds dressed all in black, faces obscured, weapons raised and aimed at her companions. She could hear their berating, feel the sting of their presence. She hated them more than before. It was a simple motion, a single wave that sent them back into the wall near the entrance. Marie inched forward, stepping over the mangled forms of freshly dead Hounds.

”You will torment me no more,” her voice was her own, yet held the sound of something older, the hint of an accent, the ripple of power and something unnatural.

A single spark fell from her fingertips, and in response the Hounds were set aflame, fire creeping up their legs, engulfing their bodies, drowning their cries. She held them there for a time, relishing in their agony, the sound of it a familiar song, a well loved tune.

Her rage settled, her mind began to steady, and yet she was different. Not less herself, but more. And so the old became the new, a memory long lost returned in the heat of battle.
   
It wouldn’t be the last.

Witching Hour

Part IV


Location: Las Vegas, Nevada, The Witches Stronghold
Time: 3 a.m., Day after LHU Attack




”Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey,

Mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may.

Round, around, around, about, about,

All ill come running in, all good keep out.

Here's the blood of a bat.

Put in that, oh, put in that.

Here's libbard's bane.

Put in again.

The juice of toad, the oil of adder.

Those will make the younker madder.

Put in; there's all, and rid the stench.

Nay, here's three ounces of the red-hair'd wench.

Round, around, around, about, about,

All ill come running in, all good keep out.”


The Witching Hour heralds the arrival of malediction. Within the hour, when God’s light is driven from faithful hearts, stolen unto waiting arms by night’s black agents, and Heaven’s fire becomes the cunning flame, is when she, the Queen of Night, is at her peak.

And she is not alone.

And the mad dance begins.

The wheel turns sunwise, thrice about, invoking the ills of this world that lie dormant on the fringe of society, between the civilized and the unknown. Here the Great Sabbath yearns for attendees, feeds their fire and consumes their flame all at once, all at the command of the Witch-Mother, leader of this ungodly procession. At every corner the Guardians stand ready like points on a compass: The hare, the raven, the serpent, and the toad.

Gathered at the hour and place of their choosing are the most powerful of the Four remaining families of old, whose hold over Las Vegas and the state have begun to wane. The Four heads come together; Syrena Rowan, Aaron Wright, Cassandra Loyal, and Genevieve Lachance. In their shadow are four accompanying witches from their respective lines. Hekate, their queen, towers above them in full sorcerous glory, assuming her truest form. Beneath her, Medea, witch of Corinth, gathers the gifts brought forth by the Four Families, placing them delicately into the vessel, each adding to the potency of their charm.

Three seats remain, each filled by an effigy, a totem to draw power from the name etched onto its person. The first to Roman, who attends only in spirit, the force of his memory enough to conjure the Adessi flame. The second to Aradia, whose grieving presence is felt and whose willing aid is given. And the Third to the Witch-Father, known to most as Bucca, and to the Wright line as Baphomet or Qayin, whose wildness dances in the heart of every witch.

Thirteen is tradition. Thirteen gather to work a spell, to plot the end of a common enemy, to protect their own.

”Sing my beautiful children!” the Witch-Mother laughs, her wild dance encompassing all within her sanctuary, their ecstatic screams a baleful symphony.

”Sing your love and sing your hate! Sing your desires and let them fall upon you. We unravel the threads of fate to grant a wish. Let us weave a wicked web, my loves, one the impudent Hounds will dread to penetrate. Come, more gifts for our vessel, more thread for the knot, more fire for our spell!”

“Three hairs from my head and one for each son,”

“The ring from whence our line hath begun,”

“A promise issued by infernal father,”

“A branch from tree that gave me bother,”

“Piece and piece and piece and part, all ill come in, all good depart!”


The Four witches and their partners sang their part, each adding their own piece to the spell, coming together in unison for the final chant.

”Danger turn with haste by charm, from you to those who mean you harm. The spell is done!” Hekate concluded with a booming voice, the pool at the center of her temple, the acting vessel of their spell, spilling forth a pillar of black smog, lead by Medea into the Four heads, filling their nostrils and dissolving into their core. This act would not be without consequence, for all in attendance, save Medea and Hekate, would be exhausted for days to come. But they would be safe.

”Away, my children,” Hekate commanded her flock with the sterness of a mother, ”you need your rest. I will deliver proper instruction to each of you when the time has come. Now, away!”

Into shadows the witches fade, all but Medea and Hekate, who take to a bench opposite the scrying pool.

”Well done!” Medea congratulated her mistress, voice brimming with admiration. ”Tonight has seen the beginning to the end. As your plan unfolds, those disgusting Hounds will fall, and The Winter Court with them.”

Hekate smiled, pulling Medea in for a long embrace.

”Thank you, my dear, but I cannot assume full responsability for the task ahead. The glory shall go to us all!”

Medea’s eyes were bright with joyful tears and wide with venerate bliss.

”How humble of my lady to share her success! Tell me, what shall be my role in it? I am eager to know.”

Hekate let out a jovial laugh.

”Eager indeed. Well, let me tell you then. During his brief attendence at tonight’s revelry, my husband made me aware of a similar plot by his dearest brother, Robin Goodfellow. A fledgling witch he has taken in and gifted with the cunning flame, sending her in his stead to worm her way into the Hound’s ranks. I would ask that you guide her way, from near or far, and ensure her success.”

Medea’s expression turned sour, moving away from Hekate, brows furrowed in rage.

”Y-y-you would have me play the role of idle wife? I am to turn my gifts to the aid of another’s success rather than my own, as it was with that bastard Jason? No, you cannot ask this of me!”

Medea stood furiously, pacing the room with heavy steps.

”No, I’ll not play such a passive role, not again! Why, my lady? Why ask this of me?”

Hekate chased after Medea, placing a gentle hand on her chin.

”Fear not, my love.” she spoke in a matronly tone. ”This story shall not end as that one. This is your story, our story, not Jason’s, not the novice, ours. You will find glory in her success, and your feats shall be recognized thusly.”

”I . . . I suppose you’re right.” Medea conceded. ”Apologies, my lady. I meant no disrespect.”

Hekate embraced Medea once again, stroking her head and running her fingers through Medea’s auburn hair.

”There now. No reason for apologies, but we mustn’t delay any further. Each momentthe Hounds yet draw breath is a moment we must sieze. Away, Medea. Find the young witch in Goodfellow’s company, the door shall be open to you.”

Medea nodded, fading into a shadowy wisp, then into nothing.

”And when one door opens, another closes . . . or is it the other way around?” A mysterious voice echoed through the sanctuary. A woman’s voice, low and melodic, and entirely familiar.

Hekate stood erect, eyes wide with anticipation. She turned to face the voice’s origin with a wide grin.

”The Gods have truly blessed me this year if I know that voice by ear.”

The woman laughed.

”A blessing you may soon find a curse,” she joked. ”But for now, a blessing all the same. We have much to discuss, My Lady.”

The stranger stepped forward, bathed in sunlight absent the sun. Her skin was an ivory dream, crimson robes of finest silk shimmering on her delicate frame, golden curls weaving around rich jewels and bands befitting a queen.

Hekate was momentarily blinded, not by her companion’s divine glow, but by a flash of nostalgia.

”Indeed we do. But first, welcome home . . . Circe.”

Judge and Jury

Part III, Hopkins Man


Location: Shadow of the Moon Occult Curiosities – Chinatown, Lost Haven
Time: 2 p.m., Day After the Attack on LHU




Madalena held up the phone, displaying the message to Charlie and Puck, her trembling fingers shaking the screen such that it was only just legible. She couldn’t tell if it was fear or excitement, but either way, it was difficult to contain. Entirely unsure of what to expect from the Witchfinder General, Maddi began assessing potential dangers, mind racing with thoughts of imminent harm and failed reconnaissance. Her last encounter with the Hounds hadn’t ended quite as amicably as she would have liked. The was no assurance that this time would be any different . . . well, except that Puck had promised her safety, but such a promise did little to calm her quaking nerves.

”We don’t have long,” Maddi let out an anxious sigh, ”Ol’ Witchfinder has given us the hour to haul ass to this address. We need to get the plan straight, fast.”

Charlie squinted at the address. “This guy is expecting you to throw someone under the bus to save your own neck. Do we know anybody we can give them a solid lead on? Some shithead that we can toss to the dogs without a problem?” Charlie suggested, then coughed into her fist. “Playing judge and jury on behalf of the Hounds feels pretty slimy, but… it’s us versus them.

She shrugged, “They’ve made that painfully clear. That address though is for an old flower shop here in Chinatown, I don’t remember seeing it open for the longest time though.

”I believe I have just the scoundrel for the job . . .” Puck eerily chimed in, closing in on the pair and lowering his voice, as if a mere utterance of the name would summon the owner’s presence.

”The Red Devil has long been in my possession, but it hasn’t always had a seat in Lost Haven. Some time ago, when the tavern was introduced to the city’s underworld, I met a magician named Phoebus. A Goetic Sorcerer by trade, well learned in the Arts of King Solomon. The Solomonic tradition is a noble one, but Phoebus sought certain pleasures not found in the Legemeton. He revelled in death, cherished the thought of it, longed to bath in mortal blood . . . particularly children. He asked my protection in exchange for his underwhelming powers.

“I refused, of course. Though I’ve seen my fair share of infanticide, it wasn’t a profitable business decision at the time, and Phoebus had nothing of value. He ‘cursed’ The Red Devil, a pitiful jinx really, attempting to sap my wealth. I never got around to dealing with him, but I know he still calls Lost Haven home.”


Maddi shuddered at the thought. It was true that witchcraft and other systems of magic were littered with histories of human sacrifice and the slaughter of innocents. Such magic was generally considered taboo among most circles of magicians these days, but not all. She tried not to think about it.

”If a bastard like that is kicking around, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be reported, especially if he starts causing trouble for the city.” Madalena nodded in agreement, looking to Charlie for confirmation.

The alchemist made a face at the description, “Christ, he sounds like he’ll fit the bill just fine. Yeah I have no problem, let’s drop his name for the General to chase. With that in mind, I want to prep a few things just in case things go sideways. Can I see your trash can?



Location: Sweet Narcissus Flower Shop– Chinatown, Lost Haven
Time: 2:48 p.m., Day After the Attack on LHU




Sweet Narcissus had fallen into a state of disrepair after a string of Metahuman attacks along the street earlier in the year. In fact, many of the surrounding businesses had either moved to vacant locations elsewhere in Chinatown, or shutdown completely due to increased activity in meta crime; and the terroristic threats during Pax Metahumana didn’t help matters.

Charlie and Maddi ducked behind a bus stop across the street, Puck moving silently in tow, invisible to all, even those gifted with Sight. Now was their chance to strategize.

”The Witchfinder’s likely expecting me to come alone,” Madalena whispered, mostly in fear that the General had eyes and ears on the flower shop. Then again, he was likely watching their every move since they left the store.

”Should we risk fussing things up by having you come in with me? I don’t want him to target you.” Madalena looked at Charlie with genuine concern. She trusted in Charlie’s abilities, but Maddi was concealing a spell that could save her from death. She wished she would have had the foresight to make more than one poultice.

Charlie pursed her lips, having pulled a sweater to wear and hide everything she made inside it. Lining the sleeves were aluminum tubes full of salt, plastic shards, and copper. On the inside of the pockets she carried spools of magnesium and a borrowed packet of matches. She’d created a small face mask and pulled the hood up.

Charlie gripped her staff, feeling more confident with her pockets full. “I’m terrified, but... ” She squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s going to happen one way or another, I’m on their radar after yesterday. I can’t pretend because I wore a mask, they won’t see me with a staff and not put two and two together. So, I’m going with you.

Can’t turn back now.” She gestured with her staff at the flower shop.

Maddi nodded, hoping that Puck might have some encouraging words, but he was nowhere to be seen, observing from afar as usual.

With caution, Madalena and Charlie tiptoed into the abandoned flower shop, the door creaking loudly on rusty hinges. Low beams of light shone under long, black drapes that looked recently hung. Dust swirled around their feet as they shuffled through the store. It was barren, devoid of any signs of life; no dusty or broken flower pots, no watering cans or garden decor, no withered flowers or crisp seed packets, nothing to indicate the nature of this once bustling business. Was this the right place? No escort arrived upon entrance, no armed security, nothing to suggest the Hounds had ever occupied this location.

And then . . .

“Come in . . .” a muffled voice crept over the empty stone, beckoning the duo to the center of the store. It was a harsh, gravelly sound that grated on their eardrums, sending a chill up their spines.

Amidst a pile of shattered glass casing and fallen ceiling lie a walkie-talkie filtering the mysterious voice through layers of sharp static. Just as Madalena and Charlie leaned in to take a closer look, Hounds in dark body suits began to file through the front and back entrances, encircling the two, weapons held at attention. Soon after, a tall man in a long, draping coat and a wide brimmed hat entered, catching their attention.

“I see you’ve brought a friend,” the same deep voice echoed through the store, spilling from beneath the brim of the stranger’s hat.

“An unexpected turn of events. I thought it only fair to invite a few friends of my own.” He gestured to the crowd of Hounds, each roaring with laughter. It was yet unclear whether the General and his cohorts meant to harm Maddi and Charlie.

“I had hoped you’d be more cooperative, Ms. Hawthorne. Instead, you mock my hospitality by showing me an abomination my men failed to slay once before. Or perhaps you bring her as a gift?” A coarse smile peeked out above the collar of the General’s coat. Madalena could make out the remnants of a scar on his upper lip and a very faint European accent, though it was difficult to place.

Charlie straightened her shoulders, jutting her jaw out. Resorting to solid bravado, even at the sight of being surrounded, scared the living shit out of her. She rubbed the ground with the ball of her foot, slowly. “Talkin’ real tough for a bunch of cowards storming a university during the summer time where the volume of students was at its lowest.

Who am I to talk, we’re a wiley bunch of abominations. Able to ruin your day by fucking around with a few towers.” Charlie said, a tap of her foot and one from her staff. “Anyway, we’ve got bigger fish to fry than little ole me. Right, Maddi?

”R-right.” Madalena struggled to respond, clearing her throat and trying to latch on to Charlie’s brazen attitude. ”Right. You asked for information and I’ve got it, The Alchemyst is just an associate, an asset to you, just like me.”

The General’s hat obscured most of his face, but Maddi could make out another sly grin.

“Very well,” the Witchfinder amusedly acknowledged them. “I’ll allow this minor indiscretion if I deem your insights a productive use of my time. So, what have you found?”

Madalena could feel herself perking up. So far so good.

”A demonologist named Phoebus, nasty piece of work. He’s been skulking around Lost Haven for awhile now, responsible for a few missing kiddos late last year. He and a few of his lackies have been laying low on the waterfront. No clue what he’s been up to recently, but that doesn’t really matter to you, does it?”

The General shook his head.

“Very good, Ms. Hawthorne. If indeed this Phoebus is where you suggest, you’ll have proven your worth. But if not . . .”

”I know, you’ll burn me to a crisp.” Madalena interrupted, finally aware of the leverage she and Charlie held. The Hounds seemed to disapprove of her belligerence, murmuring to themselves, some moving in closer, but the General halted their advance.

“That’s quite enough for today.” The General stepped forward, pacing around Charlie and Maddi a few times before gesturing to the exit. “You are free to leave, and as you know, we’ll be in touch.”

Yessir, anything you say.” Charlie replied, sarcastically giving a mock salute. Another tap of her foot, restabilizing the ground where they stood. “After you, Maddi.

The pair moved quickly from the flower store, heading back in the direction of Shadow of the Moon.

”That was . . . exhilarating!” Madalena exclaimed as they walked, unsure if that was the best reaction to their current predicament. The information provided by Puck was legitimate, meaning both Madalena and Charlie were now even more entangled with the Hounds of Humanity than before. Still, Maddi wished to revel in her small victories.

”We actually got away with that, can you believe it? Did you see the look on their faces when you sassed the General?”

Charlie blushed considerably, moving the mask away from her mouth. “Terrifying, but I guess yeah a little shot of adrenaline without the gunfire. I really have no filter when I puff up my chest.” She replied sheepishly. “I’ll be taking some extra precautions to lose any assholes wanting to follow me home.

Rubbing her thumb across her staff she commented, “The General seems to be of a prideful sort, upset at my very presence reminding him he failed in some way. I’m surprised he showed himself at all, even though we didn’t see his face.

”And THAT is exactly how we’re gonna put that bastard six feet under. Hubris is an ugly color on pretty much everyone. The Witchfinder won’t be coasting on waxy wings for much longer.”

Returning to Shadow of the Moon, Madalena bid farewell to Charlie for the day, exchanging numbers to keep in touch and work out their plans for the next time the General knocked on their door. A strange business card also found its way into Charlie’s pocket upon departure, bearing a strange insignia and instructions for entering the demon tavern, The Red Devil.

Judge and Jury

Part II, A Friendly Fiend


Location: Shadow of the Moon Occult Curiosities – Chinatown, Lost Haven
Time: 2 p.m., Day After the Attack on LHU




Charlie leaned her head against the window staring out at the traffic around them, plenty of pedestrians carrying on about their days. Some hauled brown grocery bags overflowing with food in two arms, teenagers dodged people on their bikes and skateboards, street performers played their instruments for change. The routine of the city bustle as calming as the rhythm of a heart beat. The alchemist was never one for people watching, detail orientated in every sense of the word, aware of her surroundings that gave her an edge in scavenging whatever the city abandoned. She knew something deep in the marrow of bones was changed, but the city persisted with its normal.

Hey mom, drop me off a couple blocks away. Just to be safe.” Charlie said suddenly, there was no telling who had eyes on the shop. “I’ll walk from there.

Jules pulled off the street idling in front of a barber’s shop, she drummed her fingers across the steering wheel. Her expression difficult to read. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come?”

Charlie opened her door stepping out, “Nah, it’ll be alright mom. Just gotta catch up with Maddi. See how she’s doing after her shop got trashed.

“It was attacked by the Hounds though, so are you sure?” Jules asked, one more time.

Charlie nodded, grabbing her staff from the back. “I’m sure.” She said again.
Jules nodded then said, “Call me when you’re done, we’ll meet here.”

Charlie nodded then closed the door waving her off as she drove back into traffic. She jaywalked across the street, moving into the crowd avoiding curious eyes who caught her arm in a sling or her black eye. She walked on heading to Shadow of the Moon.

A few blocks away, Shadow of the Moon stood proud and polished. Like the phoenix rises from the ashes, this curious little brick and mortar sprang to life after its recent destruction by the Hounds, sporting new furnishings and displays that had been waiting in the stockroom for months. Inside, Madalena was hard at work.

Burning braziers filled the store with pungent fumes, an odd mixture of sweet and sour; every entrance, including the windows, were marked with discrete glyphs assumed to banish or ward against harm and lined with powdery streaks of black salt and red brick dust; talismans formed of bone, iron, and wood hung from wall mounts, light fixtures, and the air vents; and at the center of it all, Madalena loomed over a bubbling pot seated just above an open flame. Nearby were a collection of alchemical apparati filled with herbs and essences used in previous experiments.

Hearing the shrill ding of the door, Madalena cautiously arose to find, much to her relief, Charlie Croll. It had been two days since their introduction, but already Madalena felt close to her. Of course, that’s just how things went with Maddi. A minute alone and you’re going to each other’s wedding.

“Charlie!” Madalena exclaimed, voice rising as she reached the -lie in Charlie. Maddi ran from her station behind the counter to embrace her newest friend, but stopped once she’d taken a good look.

”Oh good lord, girl. What happened?” Madalena hastily inquired, at the time unaware of Charlie’s earlier ordeal.

The shop was something out of a story, the smells, the sights of a witch at her bubbling cauldron. If she hadn’t walked in from a hot summer day, she’d have guessed she waltzed into a Halloween special. Seeing the shop bouncing back in full force brightened Charlie’s disposition immensely. When Maddi asked what had happened she frowned glancing away, eyes examining the shop. “Hey Maddi. Uh- well. You’ve heard about what happened at the University right? The big scale shitstorm the Hounds were behind?

Madalena’s expression went grim as her eyes opened wider in realization. It hadn’t occurred to her that Charlie was active at LHU. She’d just escaped one run-in with the Hounds, and now her friends were being persecuted by them in greater numbers.

”I-I’m so sorry,” Maddi stuttered sympathetically. ”I, uh, I saw the headlines late last night. It’s . . .” Madalena could feel herself becoming emotional, but reigned in her tears. The Hounds wouldn’t turn her into a babbling child. Her sadness quickly turned to fierce determination.

Madalena placed a hand around Charlie’s good arm.

”Those bastards won’t keep getting away with this, we’ll make sure of that!”

Charlie would later find real appreciation for Maddi’s fervent sympathy but now Charlie just felt like it was all still happening to someone else. Her skin prickled under Maddi’s touch, she felt goosebumps rising over her arm. She smiled, largely for Maddi’s benefit. Charlie nodded, “Yeah, you bet. That’s why I’m here, we need to figure out how to take them down a few pegs in a real way. I stole some of their tech yesterday, whatever it is they used to hurt us with those shoddy towers.” She walked into the store looking around heading to take a closer look at the alchemy, taking a deep breath in wincing from her ribs. She snuck a peek at the cauldron. “You’ve got a witchy brew happening? What’re you making?

Madalena sighed, taking her position back over the concoction.

”It’s part of a poultice I’m working on but I can’t seem to get this part right.” Madalena produced a comically large, black, leather bound book from behind the counter, pointing to a series of illustrations detailing the creation of a herbal poultice. To the side were markings and instructions written in a nonhuman or otherwise long dead tongue.

”The eighth step calls for a ‘black pearl’, or I guess that’s what it wants. Doesn’t translate quite right. Anyhow, it’s like a little marble of congealed organic matter left over from animal bits, but I can’t get this slop to congeal.” Madalena gave Charlie a pouty look. She shouldn’t have expected this path to come easily, but had been lulled into a false sense of security by the string of witching successes she’d had up to now.

Charlie leaned over the book then looked into the cauldron, “I’m not any sort of expert where witchy woo is concerned but it sounds like your soup needs some starch.” She stared then amended, “Metaphorically, I mean. What have you got in there, right now, specifically? Maybe I can help thicken it up.

She stopped and laughed at herself, “Oh my god, add that to the list of things I never thought I’d hear myself saying. I mean - well  anything that I can do myself without interrupting the brew directly.
Charlie offered without really knowing what she’d be helping with. She often found herself lost where Carrie had needed help in any of her own magic deeds.

Madalena looked at Charlie for several moments before her face lit up.

”Wait!” Maddi exclaimed, gesturing toward a partially full retort opposite the small cauldron. ”I was supposed to collect some sort of red dust from the vapors that condensed in this thing, but most of what I collected was still very liquid. Maybe if I got that sorted, the dust would help the brew coagulate?” Madalena looked hopefully at Charlie, counting on her superior knowledge of alchemy and chemistry.

Charlie perked looking to where she pointed. “Now that is something I can help do. So we just need to dry this red dust liquid up. Easy.” She replied, confident. She laid her staff aside, reaching past Madalena for some paper and a pen. “Do you have any gloves? Or is it safe to touch directly?” She began scribbling her alchemic formula for changing of elemental state and isolation. What elements she was isolating would be the mystery.

Madalena moved in closer to watch Charlie’s process.

”The glass has gone cool now and the liquid feels warm and a little coarse, if that’s possible, but it ought to be safe.”

Glass, gotcha. Okay so we’ve got sodium carbonate, silicon dioxide. . .” Her tongue stuck out the side as she completed the formula, she often translated chemical composites into alchemical symbols. Her mother taught her daughters to use chemistry formulas while Nathaniel was a traditionalist in writing alchemy in the old way. Charlie used both interchangeably, irking both of her teachers.

Charlie leaned back to show Madalena, “How much do you think you’ll need? I can measure it out in ounces.

”Hmmm . . .” Madalena hummed, following the spell’s instructions back to a previous step. She had some trouble finding the exact measurements the first time around. ”I wanna say it’s three ounces. What do you think?” Maddi pointed to the instructions for producing the red dust, referred to as some complex arcane name on paper. The section was written in primarily alchemical text, some of the symbols appearing as their more archaic or uncommon cousins.

It says so right there, see that symbol?” She poked the page with her index finger, closer still, “It means a few things but within context of the rest of what it says here, I’ll safely say you’ll need at least five ounces. I’ll transmute a little bit more just in case.

Sound good?

Madalena nodded, lowering down behind the counter so as to be eye level with Charlie’s transmutation. She’d witnessed it before when Charlie and Carrie helped but that store back together, but this time it felt more involved. It was a skill Maddi hopped to one day acquire, or at least develop her own version of it.

Charlie swallowed shuffling her work overtop of the container, she felt a twinge of nerves. Not used to having an audience, Maddi’s attention was flattering but stage fright casted a little doubt. “Alright, here we go.

She stretched her hand forward dipping her fingers directly into the substance. It’s texture strange and cool, the alchemical symbols glowed across the paper from left to right. Charlie concentrated, transmuting it from it’s liquid state to solid. Before Maddi’s eyes the red dust shrivelled, rippling, collecting in a pile of it’s purer form. True dust.

Charlie removed her hand, it felt gritty between her fingers. “There we go, some starch.

Madalena jumped and applauded, rattling a few of the containers on the counter.

”Yes ma’am! Okay wait . . .” Madalena held up a finger, using her other hand to pour the collector full of dust into the cauldron. She stirred clockwise nine times as directed before small lumps began to form in the mixture.

”That’s it!” Maddi squealed, lighting a match and dropping it into the mixture, causing remaining liquid to instantly ignite and evaporate, sending a jet of hot air upwards into her and Charlie’s faces. At the bottom of the pot were six pearlescent black beads.

”We did it!” Madalena exclaimed once again, her exuberant outbursts lifting the ominous air of the store considerably.

The alchemist laughed heartily, brushing some of her hair back into place and out of her face. A blush had bloomed across her cheeks, “That was awesome!” She leaned over the cauldron looking at the little beads, “They’re so pretty and tiny. What’re they even for? Don’t tell me they’re fancy, like, tapioca pearls.” She joked, beaming at Madalena.

Madalena fished the pearls from the cauldron and set them on a square of cloth.  ”From what I’ve read, black pearls retain little pieces of life essence. They’re fairly rare nowadays, but they’ve got a few nifty uses.”

Madalena pulled another book from behind the counter, this one much smaller than the last and, instead of being hand written, was clearly printed, likely a later copy of a much older original work. The pages were ratty and worn and the cover was falling apart. Madalena skimmed the pages, looking for the section she’d read earlier that day.

”Here we go,” she said aloud, finding the page near the end of the book. ”Black pearls, or blood jewels as they are less commonly known, can be used to provide sustenance to the dead. Shattering one in the presence of a spirit will grant it strength and the ability to manifest for long periods of time . . . useful.” Madalena nodded, looking further down the page. Her eyes lit up when she read the next passage.

Then, she closed the book, no speaking another word. Instead, she took a stuffed crow a decorative display next to the register and set it on the counter between them. She’d stolen at a flea market when she was twelve, whom she named Edgar for obvious reasons, and kept it as a trophy of her nimble hands for years.

”They can also be used to do this.” Madalena tucked the pearl inside Edgar’s mouth and set him back down. For a moment, all was the same. But slowly, his waxy feathers and glossy eyes were filled with life. The crow loosened himself from the stand he’d sat perched on for decades, looking up at Madalena and Charlie with a cheerful expression, cawing his approval.

Charlie blinked down at the revived bird, she looked back up to Madalena then said, quite dryly, “That is creepy, ridiculously weird and fucking awesome.

She reached out petting the crow’s head, scratching around his head, the feathers were soft and vibrant as ever. Like it hadn’t been sitting pretty for any length of time. It was incredible. “So weird. . .” She mumbled, smiling.

”Ah, the wonders of comradery,” a sinister voice echoed through Shadow of the Moon, pouring from the shadows in the smallest crevices, filling the air with a thick, black haze.

Shadows and embers from now dim braziers began to coalesce, burning brighter until a fiendish giant emerged, skin pale and bathed in ghastly luminescence, angular features beautifully sculpted, sharp, protrusive antlers the color of night, and hands that stretched into lengthy, ashen claws.

”I see you’ve found an ally to our cause, Madalena. Well done,” the creature congratulated Maddi, sporting an eerie smile that evoked feelings of unease in all who did not know it.

”Oh, it was nothing!” Madalena blushed, taking note of Charlie’s visible discomfort. ”Charlie, I introduce you to the one, the only, Robin Goodfellow, or as he’s more affectionately known, Puck.”

At the illustrious emergence of Puck filtered through the light and shadows of the occult shop, what felt like warmth was sucked out of the atmosphere for the alchemist. She flinched back with a start, eyes tracking up the towering figure of Puck. Her sight blurred at the edges, fear sharpening every detail. Her throat squeezed dry. Skin prickling with goosebumps.

Calm, calm, calm…! Charlie thought but her heart thundered on. She reached for her staff with her free hand eyes glued to the demonic figure. While Maddi had assured Charlie this was Puck, the very same spirit that gave Maddi her magic awakening, this drawn out fear was instinctual. It felt like it was spiraling out of control, a reaction surprising even herself.

H-h-...” She clasped her staff, white knuckling it. She gulped down air, “C-can I get s-s-s…” Her teeth clattered, “S-some space. Please.” She tore her eyes away, squeezing them shut.

Puck distanced himself from Charlie, bowing in both an introductory and apologetic fashion.

”Forgive me, love.” Puck’s voice held less weight but carried an eerie air nonetheless. ”I meant no offense. Indeed, ‘twas quite the frightening entrance for the unsuspecting bystander. Perhaps I can redeem myself with a gesture of good faith?”

Puck brought up a hand, dark claws elegantly rising through the air, his palm facing Charlie. A warmth would fall over the frightened girl, traveling up through the spine, spreading to each extremity one at a time, washing over her wounds, the sore ribs, the bum arm, the black eye, all fading as his arm came down to its resting position.

Charlie moved her arm testing it patting her ribs feeling no pain. She turned to look to Madalena, shocked. She took a deep breath in and let out a sigh of pain free relief. Fear dissipated. A smirk tugged at her lips, “Thank you, Robin Goodfellow. I’m usually not this easy to scare, had a bad day yesterday. My name is Charlie Croll.” She said sticking her hand out, “I only heard about you the other day.

Puck let show his impish grin once more, the name Croll fresh on his mind.

”Croll, eh? No doubt a descendant of Nathaniel Croll? I know the work of your family well; it has brought much business to my tavern from aspiring alchemists and nascent witches looking for alchemical formulas and rare reagents travelling through channels established by Nathaniel. Give him my thanks when next you meet.”

Puck repositioned himself, moving closer to the duo and staring amusedly at the reanimated crow, Edgar.  

Charlie’s expression brightened, “Yeah, that’s my grandpa. He’s my mentor, along with my mom.” She turned to Madalena for clarification and more than happy to talk about her family. “My grandfather, Nathaniel Croll is the first real prodigy in my family for, probably before we immigrated to America. Established us here in Lost Haven, immigrated my entire family from Germany including,” Charlie said with a grin gesturing with her staff, “All the history that we thought we lost after World War 2. Like Puck said, er Robin Goodfellow, sorry. He helped make Lost Haven accessible to alchemists.

She added, “And the best damn cook on the block.” Charlie grinned.

Maddi smiled. ”Well he’s done wonders with you, Charlie. Wish I could say the same about my family. I think my twice great grandmother was a medium in New Orleans . . . or maybe she saw a medium in New Orleans?” Madalena trailed off as she was often want to do, trying to recall details about her family history, but finding no useful information to add.

”You bear the witches mark,” Puck interrupted, stepping behind the counter and peering down at the pearls sat atop it, only five left after Madalena’s demonstration. ”You are the first of your kind, Madalena, the beginning of your legacy. I have set you on a path of great success . . . but what I have seen will not come to pass until our plans are complete, and I fear we have a great deal more worrying to do. Have you crafted the poultice I mentioned?” Puck’s tone was almost fatherly, a sharp contrast to that at his arrival.

”It’s nearly done,” Madalena replied, pushing the cauldron to the side and replacing it with a mesh bag prefilled with poisons and herbs. She dropped in three black pearls, sealing the contents with a neat ribbon. She whispered a short incantation into the poultice, something strange and unnatural sounding, each word passing her lips like the cry of a raven or the dissonant ringing of a bell.

”There, all done.” Madalena said proudly, looking to Charlie with some admiration for her part in the matter.

Charlie’s cheeks turned red and she looked away from the pair of them. Taking sudden interest in her staff, wondering if Maddi would translate what she said in her spell later. “So what’s it for? It seemed like a pretty complex brew and you didn’t use all the beads. Does it have anything to do with the Hounds of Humanity?

”Unfortunately,” Puck responded, voice lower and more grim. ”It is the product of necessity, a poultice that can bring one back from the brink of death and heal whatever fatal ailment or injury that would have resulted in death. I had not thought such a trinket necessary before, but now . . .”

Puck leaned against the counter, dark eyes glowing with a hint of worry, perhaps even fear.

”Those injuries you sustained,” Puck turned to Charlie, ”They came from the Hounds, yes? I saw the fight for your University from afar, bore witness to the strange contraptions and machinations used by the Hounds to weaken your comrades. That is troublesome, yes, but the Hounds are mobilizing more deadly weapons, resurrecting a long dead foe and its vile agents. The Winter Court rises anew, and this New World is powerless to stop it.”

The glowy red in her cheeks faded as she nodded, her fingers rubbed together while she thought. She removed the chip that she stole yesterday and held it up for both of them to see, “As far as deadly weapons go, those towers will hopefully be out of commission and out of the picture. I’m really hoping this was their only prototype.” She placed the chip on the counter. “What’s the Winter Court? Like a sub group being formed by the Hounds themselves? Or of their own, ‘inspired’ by what the Hounds are doing?” She tapped the chip with a forefinger, “I guess what I’m trying to ask is if we chase the Hounds of Humanity out of Lost Haven will these Winter Court assholes go with them?

Puck shook his head.

”The Winter Court were a notorious order of witch-hunters in the 15th century. Not much is remembered due in large to the efforts from powerful entities who had their order destroyed, but there are those of us who still feel the sting of loss caused by the Court’s hand.” Puck moved in closer, beckoning Madalena and Charlie to do the same, telling the Court’s tale in hushed voices, as if speaking the name aloud would invite their presence.

”The Winter Court,” Puck began, ”originated in Western Germany where they were a humble mercenary’s guild. They had no name, no face, no worth at the time. But the men of their guild were renowned for their brutish strength and lack of remorse, a valuable asset for any underhanded politician, noble, or church official. In time, as the witch-craze swept Europe, the Catholic Church in Germany sought alternative means of punishing heretics, and so a rowdy band of mercenaries came to be the hounds of the church, their swords for hire.

“The witches in Germany were especially insidious, at least, that was the belief of the Church. In time, their numbers grew from clergymen and mercenaries to noteable sorcerers and occult scientists, whose aid was enlisted for their understanding of God’s mysteries. Indeed, many of the clergy practiced some form of magic, and with time, developed powerful methods for detecting witches, faeries, and other unnatural creatures of concern to the church, as well as the means for their destruction. Over the next century, their techniques were mastered, the men armed with charms and idols that repelled witchcraft and glamoury, bullets that pierced enchantments and poisoned those touched by the witch-fire, shackles that bound a witch’s powers when placed around the wrists, ‘holy’ rites that forced witches to confess their sins and speak only the truth. It was an era of bloodshed.”


Puck let out a heavy sigh, remembering the lives lost, those of friends and colleagues, of prominent witches, faery nobles, even lesser demons and dukes of Hell who were branded by the Court and bound to its service.

Charlie frowned, looking up to Puck. She experienced that hatred and violence first hand yesterday, to have seen it all rise again in prominence after centuries... She empathized with him a little, as terrified as she was only a handful of minutes ago it took only a little imagination to understand how Puck must of felt. “I know this must sound weird coming from someone like me, born way after the fact. I’m sorry you had to live through that.” She hesitated but reached out, patting his arm comfortingly.

It was an interesting gesture, to try to comfort one such as he. Puck was unaccustomed to such attempts at empathy from humans. Most wished only to have their own needs satisfied, a trait on which he he had long capitalized. A refreshing change of pace. Puck allowed Charlie’s arm to stay, letting slip the softest smile before continuing his story.

”In time, these practices and their practitioners spread to other parts of Europe, notably France where the witch-hunts had gained traction. The mercenaries sought to undermine the beliefs of the common folk, relieve them of the fear of the supernatural and magical. They stole their title, The Winter Court, from a neighbouring High Court of Faerie, from the folk customs brought over by the Bretons. Their arrogance and might were unmatched, but such hubris would not go unpunished. The Witch-Mother herself, and her greatest allies, challenged the authority of The Court, using their superior Craft to destroy all remnants of their order.

“Some apologists yet remained, but all their knowledge, their strongholds, their weapons, they were all thought destroyed . . . until now. It would seem that this Witchfinder General of the Hounds, another stolen title, has somehow gained access to this lost knowledge. As we speak, he uses the arts of The Court to undermine powerful witches and destroy their lines. If this knowledge were to spread to the rest of the Hounds, it would end in catastrophe from which this world could never recover.”


The alchemist stared, fear running anew through her for different reasons now. “Fuck… He, the Witchfinder General has his eyes on Maddi right now. How the hell are we supposed to take down someone like that? Who knows how to get past our defenses, maneuver around our tricks? This is so much bigger than I thought.” Charlie replied her hand found Madalena’s shoulder, she held a fire in her eyes. “But I’m not going anywhere.

Madalena’s cheeks went flush as a wide smile spread across her rosy face, taking Charlie’s hand in hers. In only three days the two of them had grown closer than Maddi had ever been with another, not even Marie was as affectionate a friend. She wished to seize the moment and revel in her newly found friendship, but a light buzzing gave her pause. The burner given to her by the Hounds was gently vibrating, signaling an incoming call.

”H-hello?” Madalena answered sheepishly, voice holding a slight tremble.

“Madalena Hawthorne,” the voice at the other end was deep and gravelly with clear signs of age. “Your services are needed. Find yourself at the following address within the hour, lest that heretical shop of yours be burnt to the ground and you with it.” The call ended.

Madalena received a message with a street address only a few blocks from her store. She turned to Charlie, who looked naturally inquisitive, then to Puck who wore a grim expression.

”Looks like we’d better get a move on with the plan; the Witchfinder General’s just asked for my help.”

Witching Hour

Part III


Location: Las Vegas, Nevada, The Witches Stronghold
Time: 11:59 p.m., Present Day




A sharp chill ran through the Earth, the blood of lost brothers staining hearts with visceral remorse. Tears collected in the eyes of the unknown, threatening to make these dry lands completely barren. The once lively halls of the Witch-Mother’s Stronghold, a deep temple of elegant marble and golden brandishing, was reduced to ash and rot, visibly in mourning of the lives it had lost. There Medea lie in wait for her mistress’s return, plotting and scheming her revenge on the Hounds.

Soon enough, a dark mist overtook the grand halls, coalescing into a feminine mass just above the scrying pool at the room’s center. Hekate’s pale features emerged from the shadows, arms wide in a welcoming embrace to her beautiful daughter.

”My love,” Hekate beckoned to Medea, drawing her into her arms, their warmth a momentary reprieve from the cold depths of sorrow.

”My Lady,” Medea leapt into her arms, head nestled against Hekate’s neck. They were truly like mother and child. ”I thought you might not return to this pit of waste. How dare Barron call you away in our time of need, the fool.”

Hekate smiled, cupping Medea’s head in her left hand, the right wiping away slow tears and running through her auburn hair.

”Now now, Medea. I have placed myself at Mr. Vanderbilt’s disposal, and given our most recent tragedy, he was right to call upon me. There is much he and I have left to discuss, but worry not. You and I will not soon be parted, there is far too much work to be done.”

Leaving Medea’s side, Hekate waltzed over to the farthest corner of the temple room. This was the inner workings of the Five Families of Las Vegas, A central stronghold meant to house their combined secrets, the greatest of which happened to be Hekate, the Witch-Mother. Inside her dwelling, Hekate possessed all manner of witchly artefacts and curios relating to the Five and their long histories. A sprawling library of magical literature, both practical and theoretical, a collection altars dedicated to the Craft and its many forms, a station for alchemical experimentation and ritual conjurations, and a central pool used for divinatory purposes.

In this corner, however, there lay a large desk filled with papers and random knick-knacks obtained from Hekate and Barron’s informants. At the top of a stack of files, Hekate found a field report detailing the damages caused in the recent Hound attacks on Pixy Stix and the Adessi clan. Next to these were two items of import: a broken iron cross with esoteric engravings, and two dented bullet casings set in silver, each producing a faint glint of something Otherworldly.

”A mage from the Wyrdhouse delivered those while you were away.” Medea joined Hekate, staring down at the upsetting configuration of death, reduced to names on a sheet of paper. ”I told her that you were busy, but she seemed quite adamant that you see these right away.”

Hekate held a ghastly expression, mouth agape, hands quivering, a mixture of fear and rage pooling in her core.

”My Lady?” Medea spoke sheepishly, taking note of Hekate’s stance.

”H-H-How?” Hekate spoke in a whisper, voice beginning to shake. ”I thought they had been destroyed, no, I made sure of it . . . How in the name of Zeus did those impudent, disgusting worms manage to slither their way out of Tartarus to defy me again!”

Hekate flew into a rage, tossing her arm over the table, sending everything sprawling onto the floor. When she caught the glint of the cross and the silver bullets, she made a fist, causing the items to spark violently before reducing them to ash.

”My Lady, what is it? What’s wrong, who are you talking about?” Medea confusedly reacted to Hekate’s enraged display of emotion.

Hekate calmed herself, reigning in her rage and fear. This wasn’t the time for an outburst. Swift action was required lest more lives be taken. She took Medea by the shoulders and led her to the scrying pool, sitting both of them down on its ledge.

”Very few remember the tales, for few who met their gaze survived,” Hekate began, her tone low and serious. ”They were a plague forgotten by history, one which I helped to eradicate myself. They swept over the land with great efficiency, dwindling our numbers in the Old World by the hundreds. I had thought their order long dead . . .”

Medea looked into Hekate’s eyes, recognizing the sheer terror therein, something she had never seen in those eyes before. It mimicked the fear and panic she’d felt from her days in Corinth. .

”I have scarcely seen you like this, My Lady. Of whom do you speak?”

Hekate’s voice remained low and grim.

”The most notorious band of witch-hunters to ever curse this Earth . . . The Winter Court.”

Augury

Part 4


Location: Smithy’s Grocery Store, Meat Isle – Las Vegas, Nevada
Time: Late Evening, Present Day




How much could Marie possibly endure? How overwhelmed must she be in the pursuit of her lost memories? What other difficulties need present themselves, and why, before she had achieved her goals? These questions filtered through her mind as her already unstable environment slowly unraveled and devolved into pure chaos. It felt more than she could take.

A searing pain shot through her skull, sending her vision into a flash of hot red and flashing lights. Among the fading sights and sounds of Smithy’s were a collection of figures she hadn’t seen before; men in strange dress holding dated instruments of war. They chanted and bellowed, their screams melding with the unruly wolves and deafening whispers of the Gentry, creating some infernal cacophony that sent Marie spiraling into madness. She placed both hands on her head, trying desperately to will away the invading apparitions.

Holt made an attempt to pull Marie back, to calm her with his presence and cooling words, but to no avail. Everything she had known was gone, all that she had worked for was in jeopardy, and absolutely nothing made sense anymore. The more she dwelled on it, and she had no choice but to entertain these intrusive thoughts, the more pain she felt, the more rage boiled inside her until suddenly the world seemed to melt away. And then . . .

”ENOUGH!”

Her cry sent the world into violent motion, the word dripping with an old, familiar magic. It washed over the store and all its visitors, lashing out wherever it could. The glass casing behind the meat aisle shattered, jagged shards falling with quickened pace. Shelves and their contents fell to the floor. Lights flashed with momentary light before bursting, bathing all in dull sparks. The floor beneath their collection of bodies began to crack, threatening to give at the slightest step. But after this outburst, once the rage had been allowed to escape, Marie seemed her old self once more.

”Marie . . .” Holt said allowed in a raspy voice, conveying shock and surprise in his emotionless way. Assuming the form of a large black dog, not dissimilar from the shapes taken by Marie’s wolf companions, he padded over to her side, soulless eyes staring deep into hers.

Marie did not look at Holt, instead turning her attention to the Ambassador.

”I accept your offer.” she uttered plainly and resolutely.

Holt moved between them to show his disapproval.

”Marie, I implore you to think . . .”

”I already have.” Marie interrupted, turning to face Holt, eyes red and heavy with tears and desperation.

”She’s right, Holt. We have devoted too much time to this for it to fall apart now. I’ve done so much to get to this point, and to think that Gwyneth is so close . . . I can’t throw that away, not now. This isn’t a game anymore or some fanciful dream. I need this. I thought you would understand . . .”

Before Holt could respond, Marie stepped around him, closing the distance between she and the Ambassador, choosing to address her directly. Now only a few steps between them, Marie did something strange. She removed the charm around her neck, her features now clear to all around. Her eyes met the Ambassador’s as she spoke.

”You’re right. Even if it hurts me to say it, you’re right. What happened with J . . . Joseph,” Marie struggled to say his name, voice heavy with a mixture of anger, guilt, and sorrow, ”that was on him. He should have known the consequences of meddling and conjuring something he had no hope to control. You were more cunning in the end, you bested him. It still stings, but I can accept that. Just as I can accept that we’re connected. I have to see this through and if you’re the only way to do that, so be it. I’ll try to make it as pleasant an experience as possible.

“But this,”
Marie gestured to the mess around them, to the Dover twins readying for a fight, to the wolves locked in a struggle against Mandate, to the whispering Fey who watched in amusement, ”This has to stop. All the fighting, the threats, the murderous looks, the creepy comments, all of it. And it has to come from all of us.” Marie turned to her comrades, addressing each of them with a look before placing herself between Ben and Mandate.

She knelt down, peering deep into Ben’s eyes as she had done before, bidding him listen to her but speaking loudly enough for all to hear.

”You promised to help me if I helped you in return. I know it must seem like I’m digging a bigger hole for myself, choosing to trust someone who has threatened people you care about, who’s killed someone I once cared for. It doesn’t make much sense, but i need this. I have to know about my past and as it stands, you two are the only ones who can help with that. We can make this work, I promise.”

Marie leaned to place a hand on the side of Ben’s head, trying to use her emotion to send him a mental message like he had sent her the first time they met. She was clearly distraught and filled to the brim with longing. She hoped that he would receive her message well, for everything about her now, her posture, her words, her touch, they all conveyed a single word.

Please.

Augury

Part 3


Location: Smithy’s Grocery Store, Meat Isle – Las Vegas, Nevada
Time: Late Evening, Present Day




Marie chuckled as she watched Benjamin eagerly huff the packages of meat, his eyes widening in hunger and anticipation with each stride past a different succulent cut. It was a little macabre, she admitted to herself, but it was equally amusing seeing a young wolf so enamored with an otherwise mundane sight.

The three of them, Ben, Katarina, and Marie, or maybe four counting Holt, engaged in small talk during the brief ride to Smithy’s, Marie taking in the lights of the Vegas strip the entire way, Ben being stoic as ever, and Katarina curiously commenting on every building and billboard they passed, acclimating to the modern world a little more with every observance.

Not long after their arrival, the trio was met by the group of siblings, Yeong and Ji striding quickly ahead of two strangers. Marie caught a few glares from Yeong while cautiously greeting the hired help, a pair known as the Dover twins. They were metas, unlike the rest of the group, each of whom possessed some supernatural talent or affliction, and their presence reminded Marie of her time in West Virginia. It had been some months since her last meeting with a metahuman, let alone two. She only hoped that her time on this “team” would fare better than her last.

And then it all fell apart.

The first body to fall was a woman picking up assorted cheeses just behind Marie, then a janitor putting down a wet floor sign. One by one, every normal denizen of Smithy’s was rendered unconscious by an eerily familiar ethereal mist.

Marie, Holt spoke from Marie’s shoulder in an incorporeal form, I know this magic . . .

Before he could finish, the place went dark, emergency lighting quickly buzzing to life in the wake of the blackout. The soft light falling from the ceiling was just enough to illuminate the tops of shelves and cast a pale glow on the laminate floors, but shadows crept up in corners, collecting in pools that shifted unnaturally.

The Fey, Marie thought, looking around, allowing her vision to shift focus that she might see beyond the illusion of darkness. As a witch of great skill, the Sight came naturally to her, but it hadn’t been trained in some time. For now, all she could make out in the dark were pale apparitions of varying sizes, all gathering around a central figure.

Bonsoir, ladies and gentlemen.”

The voice rang like falling nails to Holt and Marie. They knew this woman’s identity long before she introduced herself, the touch of her magic carrying a familiar sting to Holt, her presence sending shivers down Marie’s spine. This was she; the vile harpy, the fetid wench, the loathsome bitch that took Joseph from them.

Marie burned with seething rage, The Ambassador’s words adding fuel to her fire. She ignored the sorceress’s comments, engaging in a mental debate with Holt while she and her minion spoke.

She felt the touch of witches fire the last time we met. Even with her new toys, I doubt she’s a match for us.

Hold fast, Marie. You are not the first to underestimate the Ambassador. Joseph believed himself invincible when last they fought . . . and it was his end.

He was alone, Marie’s thoughts were heavy and sharp, cutting at whatever sensitivities Holt possessed, but I’m not. I possess Gwyneth’s power, I have you at my side, along with three wolves, an elder vampire, and two metahumans. What can she . . .

Hubris. Holt interrupted. You hold a portion of Gwyneth’s true power and are accompanied by two strangers whose strengths you do not yet know, a vampire with no knowledge of the modern world, two temperamental young wolves who care not for you, and one fledgling wolf whose transformations are brought on by any amount of strenuous activity. In fact.

Holt pointed a wispy claw at Ben, who had doubled over in pain much like before in the museum. All these sights and smells, the strange appearance of the attending fey, creatures he had likely never seen before, as well as a giant magical construct and the sudden mystically induced sleep of dozens of humans; it was all clearly too much for him to handle so early in his transformations.

Marie looked at him, wincing at his screams and contortions.

You . . .you’re right. Marie quietly responded, attention shifting between the Ambassador’s slow approach, Ben’s ongoing transformation, and the female Dover going over some half-assed plan of attack. We’re not ready for this . . . but I can’t let get away with what she’s done. Put some distance between us, surround the Ambassador in flames like before.

Holt nodded, floating down from Marie’s shoulder and charging through the ragtag group towards the Ambassador, ignoring the fey at her aid. But as soon as Holt reached their group, as he felt the flames of Marie’s rage engulf him, ready to envelop the enemy in enchanted fire, he stopped, staring down the Ambassador and her faery familiar, unable to advance.

Holt! Marie issued another mental command, but the result was the same.

I-I cannot. Holt responded in frustration, stuck between the opposing groups, his only choice to retreat. Something stands in my way . . . I can do nothing against her. I sense no barrier or ward that hinders my path, I can do nothing.

What the hell is going on? Marie wondered. She lifted her left hand, casting it in the Ambassador’s direction with a small flourish, small sparks falling from her fingertips meant to spout flames that would entrap she and her comrades. But as they neared the faery entourage, they vanished, withered away in the air.

It was the same as Holt, Marie’s magic hadn’t failed, it just couldn’t touch the Ambassador. If there were a ward or some other protective magic in place, Marie would know, Holt would see it, they could find some way through it or around it, but this wasn’t the case. What was stopping them?

And then she felt it. A familiar pull, a silent song that called to her in a faint voice like her own. A piece of Gwyneth was near. Then she remembered, the smallest fragment of a memory drawn forth, a meeting that she had attended with the Ambassador, yet this was only their second time seeing one another. How had she known where to find Marie? How could she protect herself without detection? Why . . .

”That bastard,” Marie spoke aloud, moving around the Dover twins, filing in front of a kneeled over Ben. She was acting on a hunch.

”What did you give him?” Marie questioned the Ambassador, words coated in venom. ”How did you manage it, huh? What could possibly . . . it doesn’t matter. If what I think is true, then you can’t hurt me either, none of you can.” Marie gestured to the Ambassador, Bach, Mandate, and the fey surrounding them. ”Not if she orders it.”

Marie spoke loudly and slowly enough for the others to hear, hoping that this revelation, if proven true, would halt her compatriots from acting on impulse and engaging in a fruitless battle.

As much as Marie wished to end the Ambassador for her past transgressions, other things were at stake.

Puck’s Ward

Part III


Location: Shadow of the Moon Occult Curiosities – Chinatown, Lost Haven
Time: 1 p.m., One Day after Present




Horse and Hattock, Horse and go,
Horse and Pellatis, Ho! Ho!


The words echoed through the shop, followed by the low howling of wind through crevices in the wooden frame.

Tout tout, a tout tout,
Throughout and about,
Here and there, hence and thence!


A dull ring sounded like the tiny jingle of chimes or twinkling of bells, heralding the arrival of some faerie creature or the beginning of a work of the Arte.

Fair is foul and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air!


Each charm added to the potency of the last, the long string of trasnvection formulae weaved together to invoke the witch’s powers of flight.

Madalena sat astride an alder branch fitted with dark bristles recently collected. In the storage space behind Shadow of the Moon, she watched as her feet began to slowly lift from the ground. She had done it! With some luck, Madalena had achieved full levitation. Her sense of wonder was quickly interrupted, however, by a sharp bump on the head and a heavy plop on the concrete floor.

”GAAH, Goddamiit!” she cried, rubbing her head and setting herself upright. She examined the broom to make sure it wasn’t broken, then her leg to search for a sprain. Her priorities were a little mixed up, but she had taken hours to fasten all those twigs into bristles and she didn’t want to go through the trouble a second time in less than twenty-four hours.

That’s what I get for flying in doors . . . and on the clock. Madalena mentally scolded herself, propping the broom against an empty shelf and making her way into the main store.

Her bargain with Puck had gone over well. After signing his book, she was given a stack of books related to Old World witchery and magical lore, as well as a splitting headache from the knowledge Puck had imparted directly. It wasn’t much and she would certainly need to do her research to fill in the blanks, but it was enough to give her some extra leverage over the Hounds when they came knocking.

Of course, Madalena did what any other aspiring witch would do first, or so she imagined, and went straight to the flying ointments. She’d seen too many stills of the White Witch not to want to experience such a thing first hand. It had taken her only a day and a half to induce complete levitation, but actual flight was a different matter entirely. Madalena hadn’t the courage to attempt full flight. With the threat of the Hounds still looming, she thought it best to practice such magic in private . . . or at least behind a locked door.

Madalena positioned herself behind the register, thumbing through a few small journals Puck had left. Most were written, at least in part, in some foreign or mystical language with which she was now familiar, but it was still exhausting trying to mentally translate everything. Instead, she looked for pages and titles that stuck out. Her skimming was interrupted, however, by the familiar ding of the bell on the entrance and heavy footsteps.

Madalena was confronted by the sight of five darkly clad, armed men barging into the store and moving hastily to her place behind the counter.

This is it, she thought anxiously, this is what Puck prepared me for. I have to stay calm, I have to hold my ground.

Madalena continued to coach herself as she stepped out from behind the counter to meet the leader of the small group, much to his surprise. She stood with her arms tucked behind her back, legs straight, sporting a welcoming smile.

”Well met!” she greeted the Hounds as she would any other customer, with as much enthusiasm as she could muster despite how internally distressed she was. ”What can I do for you gentlemen today?”

The men positioned themselves strategically about the store, stopping when Madalena greeted them. They looked at each other and laughed, the leader, a tall man in slightly bulkier body armor and face fully obscured, stepped forward, mere inches away from Madalena.

“Well now, what’s this? Hospitality?” the man’s muffled voice shook Madalena to her core. She knew that she shouldn’t be intimidated given all the protections the Puck had promised, but she couldn’t help herself. Knowing that she had the means to defend herself wasn’t enough to rid her of the fear of confrontation.

”Of course, you’re my guests aren’t you? What kind of owner would I be if I didn’t warmly greet my customers. Speaking of, isn’t it a little hot to be walking around in all that black? A moon and star print skirt or black mesh blouse is one thing, but you’re all decked out head to toe. Do those chafe?” Madalena rambled. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be overly chatty, though her nerves were likely driving this conversation.

“You picked the wrong day to come into work, little miss. It’s about to be a lot hotter in here than in this armor.” The man readied his weapon, signalling for his men to complete their mission. One by one they began turning over displays, smashing statues and trinkets, dousing tapestries, rugs, and robes in accelerant.

Their leader backed Madalena into the counter.

“Must be sad to watch all your hard work go up in flames. Maybe you should stay here and go down with the ship.”

He tripped Madalena and fastened a cuffed her left hand to a heavy display case by the register. She gasped as the wind was knocked out of her.

W-what do I do? her mind raced, searching for an answer. They had been more forceful than she anticipated. She wanted to believe that they would go easy on her if she cooperated early on, but now she could see that Puck was right. They didn’t care if she posed a true threat, she was just in the way.

”WAIT!” Madalena cried as one of the men took out a lighter. He lit it without looking over to her. She would have to show more conviction. ”I can help you, you know! I can’t do any magic myself, but it’s my job to know about it! If-if you let me go, I-I-I can give you information! Yeah, I’ve heard some things from customers, I’ve read about magic for years, I could b-be an asset, please!”

Madalena was genuinely pleading for her life. Puck’s promises did little to comfort her despite knowing that he would hold up his end of their bargain. Fortunately, Madalena’s desperate cries were to her advantage.

The Hound leader ordered his men to halt their destruction, turning to Madalena and kneeling down in front of her. He held her head level with his, staring into her eyes through thick goggles that hid his own, then dropping her chin and turning back to his men.

“What do we think boys?” He convened with his group.

“You can’t trust the bitch, she’ll say anything,” one replied.

“Yeah,” another agreed.

“I don’t know, the General told us she was harmless,” the third member spoke up.

“And he has been lookin’ for informants . . .” the last member chimed in.

“Well then,” the leader said, walking over to Madalena. “I guess today’s your lucky day. It just so happens that the Witchfinder General needs the lowdown on bitches like you.”

He unfastened her restraints, then shoved a simple, black, flip phone into her hand before signalling his men to leave the shop.

“We’ll be in touch. Oh, and I wouldn’t leave town if I were you . . . he’ll know.”

He slammed the door with enough force to shatter the lower glass pane. The few shelves that remained relinquished the last of their displays onto the floor, shattering them instantly. Shadow of the Moon was a mess, but it was still standing and Madalena was still alive.

She slumped down onto the floor and let out a long sigh, fighting back tears. If ever there was a time to cry, to let out her frustration, now seemed most appropriate. But Madalena was tired of crying, she was tired of being taken by surprise. It may not have gone the way she wanted, but she had succeeded and was mostly unharmed.

”I did it.” Madalena whispered to herself, head turned up at the ceiling, lost in thought.

Phase one was complete, but she dared not think of what was yet to come.

Puck’s Ward

Part II


Location: Shadow of the Moon Occult Curiosities – Chinatown, Lost Haven
Time: 11 a.m., One Day after the HoH Broadcast




”I have a proposition for you.” The words rang ominously through the shop.

Puck stood over Madalena, who was as backed into the counter as possible, hands covering her mouth to hold in the ear shattering scream that followed Puck’s sudden appearance. He kneeled down, pulling a handkerchief from his suit jacket and softly wiping away the tears streaming down Madalena’s face.

She wasn’t sure how to respond. This creature, whatever he was, seemed amicable enough, but Madalena wasn’t an idiot. She’d read plenty of old folktales on the subject of strange spirits offering aid to humans, and the name Goodfellow stuck out to her, but she couldn’t place it.

”W-w-what d-do you want-t?” Madalena stuttered between quiet sobs. This wasn’t like her. She was normally far more boisterous and hardened, but she wasn’t normally confronted with strange men with horns barging into her store and demanding her aid . . . well, not since last Samhain, and those men were at the very least human.

Puck continued wiping away stray tears, placing his other hand on her shoulder to calm her. Perhaps it was the fear of the unknown that caused her to sit still and not object or pull away from Puck, but Madalena slowly but surely ceased her sobbing.

”There now,” Puck uttered softly, putting away the kerchief and helping Madalena to her feet. ”Forgive me, love. I did not mean to frighten you. I forget sometimes that your kind are not accustomed to my entrances, and with all that has transpired as of late, I can only imagine what horrors you expected to befall you, but fear not.”

Puck took a step back, giving Madalena plenty of room to move. He gave a formal bow, showing his regret and respect.

”It’s a-alright,” Madalena sniffled. ”Who . . . who did you say you were again?” Madalena asked more as a courtesy than anything. She remembered the name he had given her but hoped that hearing him speak it again might jog her memory of it.

”Robin Goodfellow,” Puck was quick to reply, ”but perhaps you know me by my more informal alias, Puck.”

That did it. Immediately, Madalena recalled the stories she’d read of Puck under the name Goodfellow. He was regarded an elder spirit among medieval witches, a witching god from the ancient world. His reputation has a trickster and a faery were well known to those witches, but these stories weren’t made popular until Shakespeare wrote him into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He looked different to the wood carvings and New Age illustrations Madalena had seen of him, but perhaps this was the modern guise he wore.

Madalena, recognizing Puck as a powerful and important entity, clumsily bowed in return.

”It’s an honor, Mr. Goodfellow. B-but, I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer.” Madalena looked at him in confusion, gesturing to the contents of her store. ”I’m sure this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, and I’m not really any sort of witch so I’m no. . .”

”That’s precisely why I’ve come, Madalena,” Puck interrupted, ”to ignite that cunning flame and invite you into the true witching world.”

Madalena was stunned. Years ago she dreamt of such a fate, but the idea hadn’t crossed her mind in almost ten years. Back then, when she first took an interest in the craft, she dreamed of doing the impossible, of wielding powers held by the witches and sorcerers of legend. She even favored the witches of old Disney films just because they had the power to do what they want. But as she grew older, she met many new age spirituals and Wiccan authors who turned her mind away from such flights of fancy. She gave up on being a practicing witch, opting instead for the more attainable goal of daily enlightenment and invoked positivity. She saw the old craft as her peers did, an antiquated and often violent means of shaping the world. Until recently, she wanted nothing to do with it, but everything changed once she met Marie . . .

Madalena let that thought be taken over by another one: Why me? To her knowledge, she had done nothing of note in the past few months, no acts of magic, no strange dreams, no dragon slaying. So why had she, of all people, been chosen by Puck to receive such a gift?

”Well, that’s very kind of you, Mr. Goodfellow,” Madalena replied hesitantly, speaking slowly in case her words made Puck angry. ”But can I ask, why? And not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but in exchange for what . . . sir.” she threw on the last bit of her reply to show her respect.

Puck grinned, sending a chill down Madalena’s spine.

”Ah, I love it when the mortals are self aware. Makes things more interesting.” he said, moving around to the other side of the counter across from Madalena and placing his elbows on top, leaning forward slightly.

”The truth, my dear, and it is a harsh truth, is that you were not my first choice.”

Madalena tried not to be hurt. She hadn’t expected something like this to happen to her at any point in her life, why should it bother her if she were only second or third in line for some grand mystery?

”However,” Puck continued, ”you came highly recommended by a mutual friend and an employee of mine, the person I would have chosen for this task in your stead had she not been busy. A certain Marie Hartford.”

It all made sense.

Madalena had known for months now that Marie was the White Witch. A failed robbery on Shadow of the Moon some time ago revealed Marie’s secret. She used her magic on the intruders, confirming Madalena’s suspicions. The two proceeded to have a conversation about Marie’s time as the White Witch, leading to her eventual hiatus from Shadow of the Moon. Madalena wouldn’t fire Marie for being absent, nor would she let Marie flat out quit. Madalena stubbornly and with as much sass as she could said to Marie on her final night “you’ll be back.”

The two rarely spoke after that, and now it made sense why. If Marie had been doing god knows what for Puck this whole time, and under the mantle of the White Witch no doubt, she wouldn’t have the time to work for or speak with Madalena. She felt as though she should be grateful to Marie for mentioning her to Puck.

”So if Marie told you about me, and you’re only just now showing up, I’m guessing it has to do with the Hounds of Humanity, right? Only other reason I can think of that you’d be desperate enough to recruit someone like me.”

Madalena was feeling a little more brazen now that the connection to Marie had been established. She didn’t imagine that Puck would her if Marie were involved.

Puck’s grin grew wider.

”Indeed, that’s quite the detective work there,” Puck responded sarcastically. ”But don’t sell yourself too short, my dear. Even without my gifts, you would be involved. As we speak, the Hounds are planning an attack on your little store on the morrow. But this should come as no surprise. Given your reaction to my appearance, I’d say you were expecting them.”

Madalena could feel herself becoming emotional again. What could she do about the Hounds?

”Why would they want to attack me?” she exclaimed, crashing her fists into the countertop. ”I haven’t done them any harm, I can’t even do magic! I don’t understand . . .”

Madalena turned her head down, but Puck caught her chin and gently held her eyes level with his.

”It does not matter what you have or haven’t done, my dear. It’s what they think you could do that frightens them. The Hounds are terrorists, and terrorists, no matter their origin or creed, are thieves and cowards. They take what they believe they are owed, they claim superiority, they destroy their opposition not to send a message, but because they are afraid of what will come if their enemies are allowed to live. I have lived in the world of man long enough to read their fragile minds, I recognize their goals and ambitions, I see them for what they are.”

Puck leaned in closer, his face almost touching Madalena’s.

”And that, my dear, is why I need you. Because for all my intuition and all my powers of foresight, something about them eludes me. I can see the destruction they will leave in their wake, but I cannot see what causes it, nor if there is a way to end it. So I need someone to be my eyes and ears, someone to who can move freely among them, someone who they won’t see coming. I need you, Madalena, because you pose them no threat, only their image.”

Madalena move back slightly, a puzzled look crossing her face.

”Wait, I don’t understand. If they’re gonna kill me regardless of whether I’m an actual threat or not, how can I do anything for you? And if I don’t have any actual power to stop them, how do I keep myself alive?”

”It is as you’ve said. You’ve done them no harm, you have no power. The Hounds will know this upon arrival. As random and indiscriminate as their attacks appear, they are more targeted than the public realizes. You, to them, are no real witch. You service and supply witches with your wares, which is enough for them to turn you into a monster in their narrative. All of this,” Puck motioned to the entire store, ”is an affront to everything they stand for. They will destroy it on principle, but they will know that you possess no real power, and that will be to your advantage.

“If you plead your case to the Hounds when they enter, offer them your knowledge of the occult in exchange for your life, they will have no choice but to accept. For all their efforts, there are some things one cannot know about the world unseen unless one is intimately involved with it, and that is where I come in. I shall grant you greater knowledge and true power, powers the Hounds will not know of because you did not possess them until now, that can be used to deceive the Hounds once you have infiltrated their ranks. It is a dangerous gamble, I admit, but know that you would have my full protection should you agree.”


Madalena fell to the wall behind her, slumping down onto the floor in thought. This was too much to take in at once. Puck seemed confident that he knew the Hounds well enough for his plan to work, but Madalena didn’t share this sentiment. But even if she didn’t, did it matter? If she agreed, she would have power like Marie, and with all that she had read about Puck, she imagined that whatever defenses he could offer would likely be more than enough to keep her safe from the Hounds long enough for her to get away from a dangerous situation. Another worry crossed her mind, what happened after all of this was over?

”I don’t know,” Madalena voiced her concern, ”I mean, assuming all of this goes down how you’ve said, then what? I can only get so close before they realize something’s up. What happens then?”

”A reasonable doubt,” Puck responded cooly, moving around to the other side of the counter and kneeling down to her level. ”It is true, the powers I offer come at a price. A bargain must be made, but upon the completion of this task, however far to completion it comes, you will not lose your power nor your place in the witching world. To be initiated into the great witchcraft is to be forever changed, my dear. There is no turning back. It is a bond I cannot break, nor would I wish it broken.”

”And if I say yes, do we shake hands, does lightning strike me and I fall into a deep sleep? How does this work?” Madalena questioned, her old sense of humor finally surfacing.

Puck chuckled as he stood up, holding out his arm to help Madalena up a second time. He lead her over to the counter and wave a hand over the top, an oversized, tattered, black-leather bound book manifesting from a spout of flames and dark smoke with a flash that left Madalena momentarily dazed. Puck flipped through its pages, landing on a blank page near the middle.

”If you agree, you need but sign your name here . . . then all the world shall be yours in return.”
The Fall of The Five


Location: Las Vegas, Nevada, Temple of Aradia
Time: 5p.m., Present Day




Roman Adessi waltzed through the entrance of Erodiade, the original restaurant in the chain that had spread all across Nevada, with plans to expand into the west coast. Erodiade was a hit the moment the foundation was laid, catering to a wide audience of folk from all walks of life. By day, this location served authentic, quality Italian fare from Roman’s family cookbook, even sourcing out a few of its imported ingredients to artisanal chefs for a modest price. But by night, this Erodiade was home to one of the largest covens in the western United States, a member of The Five Families of Las Vegas, witches of the Adessi line, loyal followers of Aradia one and all.

As the last few patrons passed by, Roman was sure to shake as many hands as he could, modestly accepting the many compliments given by satisfied customers. The restaurant was usually open until nine, but tonight was special, and Roman needed time to prepare. Once the last person had left, the store was closed up for the night, the day staff graciously sent home for the evening with compensation for their lost hours. With the final click of the employee exit came an ethereal wind, sweeping over every inch of Erodiade, carrying subtle sighs and giggles from unseen visitors.

Roman smiled as the daemons danced about the restaurant, acting as the night staff, taking dirty dishes and silverware to be washed, sweeping and mopping the tables and floors just by placing an elegant foot or hand on their surfaces. A tall, darkly clad woman stepped out from the kitchen, a large platter in hand. On it were a variety of sweet and savoury treats, freshly baked for the attending spirits. As soon as the dish was placed, the household spirits greedily whisked away the luscious breads, pastries, and goblets of wine. They danced with merriment, bidding Roman to retreat to the temple housed below the store to begin the night’s devotions, and so he did.

Opposite the kitchen and the main dining hall was a small office where Roman often sat and performed administrative work. Inside were all of the usual decorations, a couch, a desk with chairs on both sides, table lights and other shelf top clutter. But behind the desk sat a large, ornate painting of a woman holding a star. Roman walked over to the painting, bowed his head, and uttered the soft prayer.

”Saluti, Erodiade. Il tuo fedele servitore, Roman Adessi, cerca rifugio nel tuo tempio.”

A low rumble sounded through the office, followed by a loud creak. Roman looked up, the painting of Aradia sliding over the wall to reveal a hidden door, a passageway that led into a cavernous, marble temple below with witching tools strewn all about and a large, rectangular altar at the center which held a magnificent statue of Aradia.

Walking freely around the temple were witches dressed in ritual garb, some moving sunwise about the altar with censures in hand, fumigating the area for ritual work, others tracing the markings on the floor around the altar with swords and staves, invoking the elements and the attending spirits. It wasn’t often that old world witches performed such elaborate workings, but Roman needed the ceremony for such an occasion.

“I trust that everything is ready?” He questioned a young man, no older than sixteen, who stood near a supporting marble pillar.

The boy turned and nodded.

“Y-yes, Mr. Adessi,” he stuttered, nerves shot both by being in the presence of his coven’s leader and by the responsibility that had been placed on him. “The last of the wards are being placed as we speak, and the initiates are being dressed after their ritual baths.”

“Excellent,” Roman responded, placing a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder, “I’m proud of you, Dustin. This ceremony is perhaps our most important, I knew I’d left the preparations in capable hands.”

Dustin smiled brightly before turning to review a list of his duties. His part in this ritual was a test, one that he had passed with flying colors.

Just as their conversation ended, a string of men and women were led into the altar room, all dressed in white and blindfolded. There were twenty in total, each being placed in a specific space before the altar. Roman walked over to the group, standing on a raised platform that sat opposite the statue of Aradia. He motioned for each of their blindfolds to be removed, then proceeded with the ceremony.

“Greetings, initiates.” He greeted them in a booming voice that echoed through the temple. “All who stand before me have been issued a number of harrowing trials to be where they are now. You are the best of the best, the most promising, most devoted individuals from a long list of hopeful recruits. You will make fine witches. And tonight, witches you shall become, witches of the Adessi line, witches in service of the great mother, Aradia!”

“Erodiade!” the surrounding witches cried out in response.

“Now is the moment of your awakening,” Roman continued, motioning for a chalice to be offered to the initiates from the altar. “Drink of this elixir and receive Aradia’s blessing, become one with the Adessi line.”

As soon as the first initiate took up the chalice, a loud scream sounded from upstairs, closely followed by the cries of dozens of ethereal voices.

Roman turned to see a host of spirits flocking to the temple, fleeing from some unknown assailant.

“What is the meaning of this?” He demanded.

Before the spirits could answer, a thunderous explosion tore through the temple, shattering the wall between the upstairs restaurant and temple below. Droves of men in black body suits came rushing down into the temple. Gunfire followed their arrival.

The witches retaliated the best the could, those closest to the intruders vaulting behind pillars and statues, bidding the flames from surrounding torches to leap from their sconces and block the assailants’ path. The witches seeing to the initiation joined hands and began a low chant, the air around the altar faintly shimmering. Witches ran into the arms of the ward, some with minor scrapes, some bleeding profusely from deep wounds. Meanwhile, the gunmen continued their attack, bullets bouncing off the barrier around the altar.

Roman moved to the front of the barrier and forcefully raised both arms, the front group of assailants being thrown upwards in response. He then turned to the statue of Aradia and incanted:

”Erodiade, essere con me!”

The statue of Aradia responded, marble limbs and features moving with grace and fluidity. Her body turned in the direction of the masked gunmen, outstretching her arms in an elegant pose. The assailants who had been knocked to the ground began to writhe in pain and thick boils and pustules erupted onto their skin. A few others seemed stricken by the curse, but still they marched toward the barrier.

A tall man in heavier armor stepped forward from the crowd, pulling out a large rifle. He fired a single shot into the barrier and watched as it passed right through, piercing Roman’s left shoulder and sending him sprawling onto the floor.

“They work!” he yelled to his team, who all seemed to pull out a separate magazine for their weapons. By this time, none of the remaining gunmen were affected by Roman’s curse, protected by some unseen force. They fired into the barrier once more, this time each bullet passing through, taking down lines of witches with ease.

Roman cried in pain, slowly moving behind the altar trying to seek refuge in another part of the temple. Unfortunately, the gunmen’s bullets managed to damage the circle around the altar, weakening the warding spell enough to allow them access. They began beating down the defenseless witches, many they killed instantly, some they injured and knocked out. Roman look up at the larger gunman, the last thing he saw was the underside of the man’s boot before he fell unconscious.

When he came to, Roman was tied to a large stake hastily built atop the restaurant. He and the initiates were crowded around the large wooden beam, bits of wood and straw piled up at their feet. He and the others had been gagged as well, and all far too injured to concentrate on some act of witchery.

“I hear you were some sort of celebrity,” the tall gunman stepped forward, holding Roman’s chin and forcing their eyes to meet. “Guess that’s how we found you so easily. It’s a shame too. Your food was pretty damn good.”

The man dropped Roman’s head which fell instantly. He was too weak to look up, too weak to make even a whimper.

A crowd of men poured accelerant over Roman and the initiates, then over the splinters at their feet. They stepped back as their leader pulled out a lighter.

“Burn, witch.” He said dryly, tossing the lighter into the fray.

Immediately their bodies caught fire, as did the ground beneath them. The restaurant was soon to follow, men filing down from the roof and throughout the building, throwing burning lighters and makeshift torches into the gasoline lined walls and floors.

On the street outside the restaurant the men left their mark, a name scorched into the pavement, the only fiends capable of such heartless murder and destruction:

The Hounds of Humanity.
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