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The Darkest Night - Part Six

Not all tales can be found in books, but all myths are born of truth.

“Nooo… what are you doing?” Mary called out, panic gripping her as she watched the scene before her unfold.

The woman turned slowly to face her, her expression blank as she observed Mary with curiosity. She raised one hand toward Mary – the one that was not buried in the other girl’s blood-soaked chest – fingers curling slowly shut as she continued to study the girl who had interrupted her macabre ritual.

Mary’s hand flew up as she felt fingers wrap around her throat, gasping as the pressure increased and her airflow was cut off. Her eyes widened as a sudden realisation hit her – it was the woman, she was the one trying to squeeze the life out of Mary, even though she was four large strides away from her. Mary did what anyone in her current position would do – she panicked. Her hands clawed at her own neck trying to push off the invisible hand crushing her windpipe, only realising that the woman had lifted her off the ground when her legs kicked frantically against nothing but air.

“Who are you?” the woman asked in a melodious voice as she sniffed the air delicately. “Your scent is familiar, yet… hmm…”

The woman’s fingers unfurled and Mary gasped with relief, breathing in the cool night air before falling to the forest floor. She gasped for air as she scrambled away from the woman whose gaze was still locked on her. Mary’s eyes lifted toward the other girl who was standing directly in front of the woman, the girl whom Mary had foolishly assumed was dead, since the woman had her hand buried in the girl’s chest to well beyond her wrist. The girl’s head turned, pleading eyes meeting Mary’s as her mouth moved but no sound came forth. Mary screamed.

*

Mary jolted upright, her throat feeling raw as she drew in a deep breath of relief upon finding herself in her own bed. Could it have been a dream? Why then was her neck feeling tender to even her slightest touch and why did her throat feel like it was on fire with every breath she took?

“Arwyn?”

She turned to find Yllanys sitting in the chair by the window, her brow creased in obvious concern.

“Oh. I’m not awake, am I?” she asked.

“No, not yet. Your body has endured much, it needs rest,” Yllanys said.

“So it was real? The woman… the girl… the…” Mary said in a small voice.

“I haven’t told you about her, I was hoping you would never encounter her… at least not until you’re ready.” Yllanys walked over and knelt in front of the bed, taking Mary’s hands in hers. “I think the time has come for you to be ready.”

“The girls that vanish… the ones like Lizzie?” Mary was young, but she was not naïve. What she’d unintentionally happened upon had been a horror beyond most horrors she’d ever imagined, but she was not about to shy away from it like a frightened child, she needed to understand it if she were to survive out there by herself. Which begged the question, how did she survive the encounter with the red-haired woman?

Yllanys nodded.

“How did I come to be in my own bed, Yllanys?” Mary asked. “I try, but I have no memory beyond…” She could not utter the words; they had somehow become lodged inside of her, feeling like dry twigs scraping roughly against her sore throat. She remembered screaming as the girl’s pleading eyes met hers, she remembered the sweet sound of the woman’s voice as she spoke words that made no sense to Mary, but what she remembered most was the sound of the woman ripping the girl’s still beating heart from her chest and watching the girl’s eyes die before she fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.

“You witnessed something horrific, you lost consciousness, so I was able to help you back here.” Yllanys’ usually serene face looked troubled as she stared down at her own hands. “Arwyn, she will be back and… she is the worst of the terrors you will ever encounter here.”

Days after Mary had met Yllanys for the first time she had been schooled about the dangers of the forest, so she was well aware of the fiends that dwell within its confines. That was nearly a year ago and while Mary had encountered things she could not explain, very few things scared her quite as much as the woman in white she’d seen the night before, on her birthday. Yllanys had taught her small spells to ward off the restless spirits that haunt the forest – while they were harmless; there were far too many of them for comfort. She’d been taught to cast protection spells around herself and her home, amongst other things. Mary was a natural, learning so fast that within a few months she was writing her own spells and mixing her own brews. Living in the dark forest by herself no longer scared her. Why then did the faintest thought of the woman in white send a chill down Mary’s spine?

***

“Now now… pray tell… why are you hiding in my forest, child?” Serafina said in a sing-song voice as she looked down into the pool of water. She continued to watch as the young girl stooped to pick berries, then stop to watch a rabbit as it moved closer to her. Serafina’s eyes narrowed as the rabbit rubbed up against the girl’s calve before looking up at her. “Now if that’s not the strangest thing ever… who are you?”

Why was there a girl in the dark forest? And why was she unaffected by the spell cast over the place? She’d just watched the girl squat down to talk to the rabbit, something that should by all laws of nature not be happening with skittish critters. Stranger still, why had she suddenly lost sight of both the girl and the bunny after they walked between rows of cherry laurels? She couldn’t explain the restless fluttering in the pit of her stomach, but something about that girl did not feel right.

“Where have you gone, child?” She recast her spell, but still the pool only showed the cherry laurels. “Show her to me. Now!” Serafina hissed at the rock pool set into the floor of the room. The pool continued to reflect only trees. “Impossible…” she mumbled as she continued to recast the spell. While it was only possible for her to view the past, since even a sorceress as powerful as herself couldn’t call things up in real time, she had never lost sight of anyone before. How was the girl managing to hide from the Eye of Scuracai?

***

“Most of the things you will encounter here are being true to their nature. We can no more hate them for being who they were created to be than we can hate a wolf for preying on sheep, Arwyn. Other things, like the woman you encountered are an unnatural kind of evil. Their motivation is self-serving, and in that-“ Yllanys’ head snapped up in mid sentence, a look of alarm on her usually serene face. “You have to strengthen the spell on the alcove and the cottage, Arwyn.”

Mary swung her legs off the bed and looked down at her mother. “Yllanys?”

“She is scrolling for you. She won’t find you here unless she senses the magic that hides you, child.” Yllanys got up and walked over to the window, looking out into the night. “You have to redo all the spells that hide you, strengthen them.”  She turned to look at Mary, her eyes unable to mask the panic she was feeling. “Do not dally, child. Time is of the essence. She will not relent until she’s found you.”

***

“Where are you little girl?” Serafina’s eyes glowed red as she touched her finger to the water, absorbing some of its power as she tried to connect to the girl she’d seen in the forest telepathically. “Who are you? And how are you able to hide from me…”

“You seem troubled.”

She didn’t turn to look at the man who’d walked in on her, her mind focused on one thing alone – the girl in white. “There’s a girl in the forest. I need to find her.” She shooed him away with one hand. “Go bake a cake or whatever it is you do that serves a purpose.”

“There are many girls in there, most you put there yourself.” He walked over to the pool and looked into its dark water.

“When I need your counsel, I will ask for it, Merek.” She turned and walked over to the podium at the other end of the room and leafed through the book resting on it. “Is there a divination spell that counters white magic?” She frowned down at the book. “I feel like there should be.”

“Tell me what you’re looking for, perhaps I can help.” Merek looked over at the woman whose family he’d served for three generations. He felt like he knew her better than she knew herself, for he’d watched her grow up, as he did her mother before her.

“I saw a girl in there last night. A girl who didn’t belong.” She shut the book and growled lowly. “Why can’t I see her now? Her energy was familiar.”

“She was real?”

“How daft are you? Of course she was real?” She shot him an incredulous look. “Why would I need a spell to find her if she was not a ghastly human thing?” She waved her hand dramatically at the grimoire in front of her. “Have you heard anything about a new girl?”

“All talk of girls who’ve gone lead back to you. This you know.” He looked down into the pool, his brow creased as he tried to recollect old gossip he’d heard from his mistress in town. “There was one girl who went missing that wasn’t you. But it’s impossible. That was over a year ago, there is no way she could’ve survived in there without you noticing her.”

“Why have you not shared this with me before?” She turned to eye him with annoyance.

“It was of no significance. She was a runaway.” He shrugged. “Mary. The old pastor’s child. Odd young thing.”

Her head snapped around at the mention of Mary’s name. “It’s her.” She rushed back to the pool and looked down into its dark waters, calling up what she needed to see. “One year you say…”

Merek walked up and stood beside her, his sharp eyes taking in every detail as the water rippled lightly before showing them a new scene. It was a view of the pastor’s cottage. “That’s clever thinking.”

“When did she disappear?”

“The day after the pastor’s death.”

“That was right during Samhain...” Serafina remembered it all too well; the entire town of Starling Glen was in a tailspin about old Pastor John’s untimely demise. She touched her finger to the water and the scene changed to the moment Mary stepped out of her home for the last time and headed toward the forest edge carrying a small bag. She tilted her head this way and that, her hawk-like eyes following the girl’s journey into the dark forest with adept fascination. “Bravery or foolishness? Who dares step into my forest during the dark days?”

“She seems lost. Afraid.” Merek watched as the girl jumped every so often, likely at every sound or movement around her. “Children do not ascribe to common sense, Serafina. How else are you able to lure them out every year?”

“She isn’t like the others.” She looked up at him briefly, before looking back at the girl venturing deeper into the forest. “Have I ever told you about the first time I saw this one? I was at the forest edge and I sensed something, I cannot describe it. I saw a young version of this dark haired child and my curiosity was piqued.” Her brow furrowed as she recalled the incident she’d brushed off at the time. “She knew I was there. She sensed me. And she pushed me back.” Her head whipped up as the veil lifted from her eyes. “She pushed back. She’s no regular girl, Merek.”

“She’s one of us?” He shook his head. “Not possible. We had the last druid family in these parts wiped out over a decade ago. They were murdered and their homestead razed to the ground, at your behest.”

“We shall soon find out.” She looked back down, watching as Mary made her way through the dark woods. The pool’s eye paused as she passed among a line of cherry laurels. “The cherry trees again. It’s enchanted.” She leaned in closer to look at the even line of trees. “Why didn’t I see it before?” She threw her head back and laughed, yet there was no merriment in the sound. “It’s a masked spell. Those aren’t cherry laurels. How clever… how utterly ingenious.” She looked back down into the dark water, both fascination and alarm flooding her.

“How can you be sure? Those look like cherry laurels. Animals are eating the berries.” Merek looked from the water to his mistress and back again.

Serafina shook her head. “Rowans. Cherries can’t protect them from me. Rowans can. Those are rowans masked as cherries. How can such trickery go unnoticed in my forest for this long?” She slapped her hand through the water, eyes shining red with anger. “Do you know how long it takes for a tree to grow, Merek? It’s been there all this time.”

Merek looked up at her, unfazed by the glowing red eyes and the anger building inside of her, he had seen worse from her. “You are certain of this? Rowans in your forest?”

“Not for much longer.” She stared down at the row of trees the pool was showing her.

***

The day felt dark, despite the watery winter sun pouring its weak rays down through the branches of the surrounding trees. How did this come to be? In all the time Yllanys had been teaching her to protect herself, never once before had she been taught a spell that could harm another. Mary’s soul felt heavy, even while remembering the darkness in the woman’s eyes as she ripped the child’s still beating heart from her chest.

“Are you certain there is no other way?”

“I wish there were, Arwyn. If I still walked in the mortal realm, I would not be asking you to burden your soul this way.” She looked up at the trees surrounding their druid sanctuary. “Only pure light can fight darkness, anything less will get consumed. None is purer than you, my child.”

“I’m not sure I have the strength to do this, Yllanys.” Mary looked down at the rope in her hand, then toward the other things Yllanys had asked her to gather.

“There is no shame in being unsure, my child.” She reached out to touch Mary’s hand. ”The only true certainty in this life is that death will come for all of us. The outcome of every other thing will remain a mystery, Arwyn.”

She closed her eyes, gripping the rope loosely in both hands as she cleared her mind.

”With this rope a symbol of your crimes
I now shall bind your evil three by three times”

She tied the first knot in the rope, chanting the words as taught to her by Yllanys. With each successive knot she chanted, enchanting the once regular rope as her power flowed into it.

“I bind you from behind
I bind you from afore
I bind you from the left
I bind you from the right
I bind you from below
I bind you from above
I bind you by day
I bind you by night
I bind you with love
So mote it be”

As she tied the last knot Mary fell to her knees, feeling drained after pouring herself into the spell.

“You done well, child.” Yllanys looked up at the surrounding trees, her earlier sense of foreboding passed. She knew that the binding spell would not hold off the powerful sorceress for long.“The spell should hold her for a short while, until we can complete the ritual.”

Mary looked down at the hex bag containing yarrow, wintergreen and thistle, as well as the sharp splinters she’d had to gather, then back up at her mother. “Do no harm, Yllanys. That is what you taught me.” She shook her head slowly. “I cannot do this.”

Yllanys looked down at her daughter and nodded. She would never force her into something she wasn’t ready for, but it troubled her that the binding spell alone wasn’t enough to protect the alcove once the sorceress sensed it was enchanted. She looked up at the sky, dark clouds moving in to block the sun. “As you wish, Arwyn.”

“You are not disappointed in me?” Mary looked down at her hands, the knotted rope feeling a lot heavier than it did before.

“When I was a young girl I believed in the wonder of the world. I marvelled at the beauty of everything the light touched. Because I never saw the dark, it was never real to me.” She smiled wistfully. “Never once in all the plans I made did I know that I would never see twenty… none of us can truly know our end or what will guide us toward it. The only part of ourselves we control is how we live… the path our souls choose to travel.” She looked over at Mary. “Always choose the path of your heart, Arwyn, for it is the only part of you that will always remain true.”

***

Serafina hummed quietly as she ground the pomegranate seeds with the pestle, before adding it to the already bubbling cauldron. “A touch of squill, a dash of mugwort and mace to bind… that should do it.”

“You’re especially smelly today.” Merek wrinkled his nose as he came down the stone steps. “Is there a live skunk in there?”

“It will be ready soon.” She peered into the cauldron before walking back to the grimoire. “What brings you back down here?”

“Your husband has arrived back home.”

She looked up at her advisor. “He’s not due back for two more days.”

“You want me to go upstairs and remind him of that?”

“Cook him a meal. Ask him about his quest or whatever it is he calls it.” She flipped the page and focused on the next one. “Make sure he sleeps.”

“For how long?” Merek sighed, the husband was always his job and he did not enjoy the man’s company. All he could speak of was justice and equality. Justice was for those too weak to take what’s theirs and equality was a myth fed to the weak to placate them into believing justice existed.

“I instruct you. This is why I am the mistress of this home. The minor details do not concern me. Get it done. Is that too much to ask? ” Serafina said in her usual sweet voice. “Do not expect me to think for you, Merek. Or shall I start earning your keep now as well as my own?”

“I will keep him out of your way.” He looked over at the book and frowned. “This isn’t what you were looking for.”

“It seems I’ve misjudged our little waif. She is not a child.”

Merek looked up from the book, his confusion clear. “The missing girl was no older than 14 when she ran away.”

“You know, Merek, I’ve lost count of the amount of young girls I’ve fed on,” she said absently.

“The mark is at sixteen since we moved to this place, Serafina.”

“Yes yes… I’m impressed, you can count higher than the amount of fingers on your hands… that was not the point I was attempting to make.” She peered into the cauldron to check on the brew. “Point I am making is no girl ever resisted before. She was still a tiny thing when I first saw her and she resisted.” She turned to face him. “Do you know how hard it is to resist me?”

Merek continued to look at her, refusing to reply and inflate her already overinflated sense of self-worth.

“Not only could this little bitch push me back, she is hiding from me.” Her eyes flashed red as she paced the small space between the cauldron and the podium. “And it gets better. The little bitch tried to bind me. Bind me?” Serafina screeched.

“She did what?”

“You heard what I said. She did a spell to bind my powers. I felt it the moment she started to invoke her pitiful ancestors.” She laughed. “Damn fool thought her innocent white magic could stop me.”

“Her spell didn’t work?”

“You insult me.” She looked back down into her dark brown brew. “All her spell did was fuel my rage.”

She lifted the rope hanging down the side of the cauldron and pulled out the bag it was attached to, dark liquid dripping a gooey trail as she carried it over to the large stone altar. She opened the bag and emptied it, spreading the divining bones out across the table. Serafina looked down at the bones before her, studying them in detail before lighting the black candles placed around them and starting to chant.

“Bones of anger draw on my hate
Bring mine enemy to this fate
Sacred candles black as night
Bring her pains of flesh tonight
For three nights bring her Hell
Afflict her in the place she dwells
And when three nights have passed
Let mine eyes rest on her at last
Prince of the darkest night
Bring this hex now to flight”

“Is it done?” Merek raised a curious eyebrow. “I have cakes to bake and a husband to turn into a bird in a gilded cage for a few hours.”

“Make that a few days.” She shooed him off with a wave of her hand. “I need to be alone.”

***

Mary stood by the creek with her eyes closed, a serene look on her face. She’d been standing by the water’s edge for a while listening to the forest as it prepared for winter. It was her favourite time of year, she loved how nature fit into itself like pieces of a jigsaw, every piece knowing where to find its place.

Her eyes flew open as stabbing pains attacked her stomach, making her double over in pain. She cried out as the sharp pain that had come out of nowhere drove her to her knees. Breathing through the pain she tried to crawl back to the cottage, the cottage that seemed to move further away with each attempt she made to get closer. A host of woodland creatures gathered to stand sentry around Mary as she lay passed out on the forest floor.

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