The conversation went as well as one might expect. There was lots of shouting, and plenty of expletives and name-calling. Knight’s hair was sleep tousled, which was the only difference in his appearance, and it didn’t help that he was consistently running his hands through it. His suit was just as wrinkled, and I wasn’t sure if this was his usual state of dress, or if I kept meeting him under rushed circumstances. I sat there, taking it all in, and when Knight paused to breathe I interjected:
“Don’t you want to know what I found out?”
His face resembled a teapot close to boiling over. “No! I do not! Stop with the interfering before you get killed.”
There was a moment where I thought his head might actually explode, but then he just stormed out of the sphinx’s office, muttering under his breath.
“Well, that was incredibly entertaining,” Thea said from her perch on the desk. Her legs hung over the side, swinging back and forth, and a manic smile donned her face. Well, I wasn’t actually sure she had many other expressions, but it suited her, somehow.
“Yes, Knight has always had a way with people,” the sphynx observed. He turned his attention to me. “We were never properly introduced, what with you telling me I should die and all, but my name is Dymas.”
I cringed, and held out my hand. “Holly.” We shook, and everything drained from me at once. “And I think I’m ready to go home now.”
“Understandable,” Dymas said. He motioned toward the doorway, and Krot lumbered into the room.
“Wotcher, Squawker?” Krot said, and stopped not too far from me, and laughed another big-bellied laugh.
“Krot,” Dymas said, half in reprimand and half to get his attention.
“Escort Ms. Holly out to her car, and keep your hands to yourself, if you please,” Dymas said, and held out a hand to help me to my feet.
When I stood, Thea hopped off the desk. “Which way ya headed?” she asked, her orange cat eyes bright with typical cat mischief and amusement.
“Uh, back toward town. The—,” and I stopped. I wasn’t sure what all I was getting into, or who these people might be affiliated with, but I didn’t want to just outright tell them where I lived. “Yeah. Back toward town.”
“Excellent! Mind if I get a ride?”
“Sure,” I said slowly, and glanced at Dymas. He gave a small nod, which I hoped meant she wouldn’t murder me en route to my apartment.
“Thanks!” she said brightly, and exited the office.
“Well, I guess that’s my cue. Th—“
“Don’t thank me,” he said, but not in a, ‘I’m politely declining your thanks as most people do,’ kind of way.
I reared back a bit at his conviction.
He dipped his head. “There are those who consider it an insult. Beings as old as time. While still others take it to mean you owe them a debt. It’s best if you simply find another way to express your gratitude,” he cautioned.
I nodded, still not sure. It went against just about every single thing I was taught by my parents regarding manners, but what could I do? “Then, the way you handled the situation was exceptional?”
He nodded again. “That will do. Compliments are never a bad way to go.” Then he paused for a moment. “Usually, anyway. Rest well,” he said, and walked back around his desk. He sat down and straightened the papers knocked askew by Thea sitting on it, getting the already tidy desk back in perfect order.
I took this as my cue to leave, and headed out through the tavern, while Krot shuffled along behind me. It was now mostly empty with only a few hangers-on; my co-workers who hadn’t tried to slit my throat had shuffled by the office to bid me farewell and apologize for Celinwel’s behavior. When I went outside, Thea was next to my car but thankfully not sitting on it.
I pulled my keys out from my purse, which someone had retrieved from the table for me while I was in his office, trying to smooth out my frayed nerves.
“Watcha self, Squawker. Hate ta see ya die,” he said, and laughed. Then he shuffled away without waiting for my witty reply. Which was good, since I didn’t think I could muster enough brain power to do that if my life depended on it.
“So, Thea. Where am I taking you to?” I asked, and unlocked the car. I tossed my purse in the back while she climbed in the passenger seat, and then I got in as well and we were off.
“Just start heading toward town. I’ll tell you when to stop,” she said, watching the landscape go by as I drove.
O-kay. She’s a bit of an odd duck, Primal Brain observed.
More like an odd cat. I wonder what she is…Rational Brain wondered.
The drive from The Salty Wench was uneventful and silent. I wasn’t much of a jabberjaw with people I knew, let alone a complete stranger. Not to mention, I’d stuck my foot in my mouth enough for the last couple of days without doing so with one more supernatural.
We passed the woods by, their darkness almost a living, breathing thing that could reach out to snatch us right from the road. Despite the lightening of the pre-dawn sky, the threat of the shadows had me on edge. There hadn’t been much time to process everything I’d gone through so far. With Celinwel’s attack, I’d gone from thinking it was a little scary but somewhat cool, to just being terrified. It also might be the fact I was tired, and hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep the night before.
Add that to all the everything else going on, and, well, I couldn’t say I was coping terribly well.
A giant yawn cracked my jaw, and I did my best to keep my eyes open.
“Tired, huh?” Thea asked.
I nodded, keeping my eyes on the road.
“No worries, we’re almost there. Just stop at the road past The Tree, and you can drop me off there.”
Have you ever seen one of those moments where a television or movie character slams on the brakes when another character reveals something shocking? Well, that’s not what I did, because my brakes were on the sphincter-tightening side of reliability. However, it was a moment that certainly called for such a reaction.
“The Tree as in The Tree. The one in all the local legends?”
“One and the same!”
“Uh, are you sure you want me to drop you off there? I’ve heard…stories,” I finished lamely.
I know someone mentioned the witch older than the town itself, but not all the stories revolved around the Witch of the Wood. Some of them had to do with creatures, or even the trees themselves coming to life and killing unsuspecting humans. Not to mention, this stretch of road had more car accidents than any other in this county or the ones bordering ours—combined.
“Those stories are nothing more than humans trying to deny human cruelty. Just because the woods are a favorite spot for body dumps and suicides doesn’t mean there are monsters about,” my father grumped. He’d said this to me after I’d rushed home with another story told by a gaggle of teenage girls, trying to scare the nerdy outcast.
Now I knew better, though.
She waved me off. “Don’t worry about it. Of course,” she added slyly, “you could always come home with me, and you can hear the stories first hand from the Witch herself.”
I chuckled nervously. “I think I’ll pass this time.”
She shrugged. “Here it is.”
I pulled over across the oncoming lane, but tried to stay as close to the road as I could without someone swapping paint with me. I put the car in park, and peered out the window like a child peeking out from underneath the covers on their bed. People tend to feel invincible in their cars—look at all the road rage you’ve encountered that turned to fear once the other person gets out of their car—much like a child feels safe beneath their blanket. Watching the darkness that refused to shrink back from the lightening of the sky, and seemed to say, ‘Come into my parlor…”, all while licking its chops, it sent a shiver through my core.
No, Primal Brain said, the authority here, because that was what that the pitch black was: primal. It was the presence that made cavemen huddle close to their fires at night, though they knew no physical predator was near. What was in this dark wouldn’t hurt you physically—it would steal your soul.
Then there was the tree itself: a towering, old-growth evergreen, with ridges so deep in the wood they were like thousands of canyons, forged by the weather and time. It had a beauty all its own, like the whisper of the devil on your shoulder, convincing you to do what you know you shouldn’t. It was more subtle, but the more I stayed here on the side of the road, the more insistent it became. In combination with the darkness it was a one-two punch for my human mind.
If the darkness was the monster under my bed, the tree was the bully in high school that drove you over the edge of your ability to cope. Supernatural versus human.
I shuddered, a chill settling in my spirit. “Why would anyone live here?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, my voice sounding as though I’d spent the last hour screaming for dear life.
“Certain bits of land hold power for various reasons: death, belief, sacrifice, and so on. If someone knows how to tap into that, they can be very powerful indeed,” she said, though her voice was a distant droning despite being in the car with me.
Come to me…
A searing pain across my hand broke whatever hold the edge of the road had on me.
“What the fuck?” I shrieked, and looked down at my right hand. Four thin, bloody scratches raced in angry lines across the back of it. I looked over to Thea, who was shaking her hand as though it were sore. “Was that–?”
“Well, I couldn’t very well let you get out of the car and kill yourself, now could I? Pain was the fastest way to snap you out of it,” she said, far too chipper for what nearly just transpired.
“And what, besides the obvious, just happened?” I growled. I wasn’t too keen on the fact I’d nearly just killed myself because some tree wanted to get its jollies by watching me die.
Thea paused in thought, as though considering not only the question, but her words, and how much she could reveal.
“As I said, some land holds power and some people can tap into that power. When this is done, the forest becomes as much a manifestation of the being using it, as the person can take on the traits of the forest. Of course, like attracts like. A forest with dark power born of blood, black magic, battle, and so on, will attract beings with similar power. They…hunger for each other, the way two psychopaths in a relationship will feed off each other’s psychopathy.” She paused, making sure I was following her words.
I nodded. “The way people of similar natures congregate with each other, or how the mob mentality can take over.”
“Precisely. My Mistress has never been mistaken for a nice person, nor would you count her among the more altruistic witches living near Seattle. If she does something that seems nice, or helpful, it is only to further some plan that will benefit her.”
There was another long pause. “Why are you telling me all this? Won’t she be angry?”
Thea shrugged. “I am her servant, or what people today know as a familiar, and we are so bound that if she did not want the words to leave my lips, they would not. Such is her power over me. The fact I am able to tell you, either means she does not care that you know, or more likely that you haven’t enough power to do anything with the information,” she said, then added; “There will come a time when this information is useful to you. The Mistress chose me when I was human for my ability to See the future, or what we call a seer. You’ve landed in a large tangle of a supernatural mess, and you’ll have to pay the Mistress a visit. These are both words of caution and wisdom I offer you.”
I absorbed her words, and the implication that someday I would be taking a walk in those deep, dark woods. I shuddered, and the icy claws of fear gripped my heart.
She smiled a small, understanding smile that held all the cheer of someone watching the start of an execution. When the person being executed finally understood the doom looming over their heads, and terror shone bright in their eyes while they choked on their panic.
“If she’s so powerful, why isn’t she in charge around here?” I asked in a whisper, silently thanking the fact she wasn’t inclined, whatever the reason. Just the vibe from the forest told me this was not a person you’d want running the show.
This time, Thea’s smile was fiendish, as though she relished her next words. “Land will call to a witch, and they need it the way humans need water to survive. The more powerful the land, the more powerful the witch it attracts, like moths to a flame. The longer a witch remains with her piece of land, the more powerful she and the land become. She has been here so long, the Native Americans in this region have stories of my Mistress dating back to the first time they settled this land.
“That being said, there is always a price for magic. The more powerful the magic, the bigger the price. When a witch binds with her land, she has a limited area and time she can leave that land. The weaker the witch, the larger the range and longer the time she can be away from it. Covens circumvent this by pooling their power in their piece of land, the way the Seattle Coven does. Of course, this also means they cannot work magic of any magnitude without the cooperation of the others.”
“So it hobbles them,” I said.
I looked toward the forest again, then quickly back to Thea. “What of your Mistress?”
“The last time the Mistress left her forest was to steal me from my parents, but she didn’t have to go far. A few steps at the most. I…don’t remember much. She stole those memories from me, and keeps them somewhere safe, and away from me. I do remember my parents were explorers, foolishly coming too close to her territory, and I’m around 150-200 years old. It was right on the edge of the forest she took me, wooing me away from the safety of our camp. She knew what I was, though I hadn’t come into my powers yet.” She stopped, and looked at the tree. Ghosts and shadows moved through her eyes, and her youthful appearance suddenly took on an older, wearier image.
“My mother and father searched the woods for me, despite their fear and the words of caution from the others they traveled with. When their group found them three days later, my father was dead, murdered by my mother who’d been driven mad by her grief. ‘What have I done?’ she’d asked. Before they could stop her, she scrambled up to the highest branches of a nearby tree, and threw herself to her death. The Tree is her tree, and my parents aren’t buried far from it, their souls trapped inside the Evergreen by their anguish and grief.”
Her sorrowful words hung in the air like the musty smell of a long-abandoned house. When you’re a kid, magic is something amazing, and in stories it seems to do so much good. So far, from what I’d heard tonight from Odella and Thea, it brings nothing but pain and anguish.
“Any way,” she said, taking on her usual bright, cheerful tone, “thank you for the ride. Go home and get some sleep, if you can. From what I’ve Seen, you’re going to need all the rest you can get,” she said, and winked.
Before I could ask just what my future held, she got out of the car and walked around the front of it. Between one blink and the next, a larger than normal black, shorthair, rumpy Manx cat took her place. It stared at me for a moment, bright orange eyes taking me in, and then she turned and disappeared into the gloom.