26 of March 2021 – 4:03 PM
I had the engine running by the time Zander slid into the passenger seat with a huff. Cari and the girls were buckled up in the back, and I could feel their eyes dart between my brother and me. The vehicle was filled with an uncomfortable bout of dead air as I pulled out of our spot and drove out of the parking lot. Whitney’s Tesla was up ahead, speeding down the street.
If I could drive away from this awkwardness then I would, too. Clearing my throat, I glanced up at the rearview mirror and caught Cari’s eyes. “The same café as last time, right?”
“Yeah, my sis is waiting there.”
I noticed Zan frown beside me. “Your sister? The one who’s a professor at AOA?”
I nearly missed Cari cock an eyebrow. “I only have the one.”
“Does she know about the party?”
I chuckled. “Dude, c’mon–”
My eyes were bugging out of my head as we slowed to a stop at a red light, and I took advantage of traffic’s usual patterns to glare over my shoulder at the witch. “Professor de Ardo knows about the party?!”
“I think?” she shrugged, confused by my reaction. “She won’t be home, though. She works nights–when she isn’t at AOA, I mean.”
My eyes flew across every other teenager in the car. “What… Why is no one else freaking out about a professor at our school knowing about our secret party?!”
“Okay, one: it’s not so secret anymore,” Lilly began.
“Thanks to Oreste…” whispered Helena.
“Also, it’s better if an adult does know,” my stepbrother pointed out. “Especially one who lives at the residence where the party will be held–”
“And who’s as strong as Val is,” Lilly chimed in.
“–Because that means that she can show up if any trappers come around,” finished Zander.
The light changed to green; we crossed the intersection, and a peek in the rearview told me there wasn’t anyone behind us. I slowed to a crawl as we passed the café. “I don’t think I can turn into oncoming traffic here.”
“That’s cool, we can cross,” Cari remarked. The girls had kept their belongings on their laps, so she and Lilly were already opening the doors when Helena beamed at me from the center seat.
“Thank you!” she exclaimed. Her smile reached her walnut brown gaze, giving them a golden twinkle. “See you tonight!”
“Can’t wait!” I told her as she slid out of the backseat. The doors shut, and I waved goodbye to the witches as they bolted across the road. Then I turned back to the wheel and drove off, my eyes peeled.
A couple of minutes passed before the tension got to me. I tore my eyes from the road ahead and peeked over to the passenger seat, where I found Zander staring at me with a weird look on his face. “What?”
He was frowning. “I thought you liked Estelle.”
“I–” I caught myself and sighed. “You heard me and Whit talking in homeroom.”
“Okay, yeah,” I admitted. “I like Elle. So?”
“So,” he began. “I didn’t think you’d be interested in anyone else.”
It was my turn to frown. “What are you talking about?”
Zander opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, but stopped himself and shook his head. “Nah, never mind. Tell me about last night.”
Oh, yeah. I had really been hoping that he had forgotten all about that. “Uh, well… I don’t know how much I’m allowed to reveal.”
“If you’re involved, then I need to know everything you took part in,” insisted Zander. “We won’t be taking any of this to my dad. It stays between us.”
I took a deep, steadying breath and steered us toward the direction of home. We’d be there in a little over six minutes, and it was likely that we would arrive at an empty house. Zan’s smart and doesn’t ask too many questions, though, so we should be able to finish this before we get there.
“You remember how I go out on patrol?”
“That’s kind of a hard detail to forget,” critiqued my stepbrother.
“Well… While I was out, I heard a noise that I couldn’t place,” I explained. “I followed it out to a field in Middleton–turns out it was Cari who had flown out there with a glamour on.”
“Did she say why?”
“I, uh, didn’t get the chance to ask,” I alluded. “When I got there, she had thrown up a barrier and was facing off against a hellhound.”
Zander’s head snapped over to stare at me. “A hellhound? Are you sure?”
“That’s what Cari called her.”
“What’d she look like?”
“Huge–like twice my size. Black fur, white eyes…” I tore my eyes from the road to throw him a wary glance. “I watched her turn into shadows, man. She fuckin’ disappeared right before us.”
“Did she say anything before she teleported?”
My eyes were wide. “That’s what she did?”
“Sorry. The hellhound basically ignored me and told Cari that her luck would run out, and to enjoy her guardian because I can’t protect her forever.”
Zan was quiet for a short spell when I added, “Oh, and she said something about someone smiling on Cari like she was talking about a god blessing her or some shit.”
“What were her exact words?”
“Uh…” I thought back to the night before. “ ‘Hilargi smiles on you tonight, mee-klree mah-jih-sah.’ ”
I could feel Zander’s eyes on me as I pulled into our neighborhood. “You’re sure?”
“Positive. You know what that means?”
“Man, I don’t even know what language you just spoke,” he grumbled. “But Hilargi is a demon, the mother of hellhounds, and the grandmother of all werebeasts. Witches worship her on full moons.”
“M–” My expression contorted into what I could only imagine was noticeable bafflement. “Demons are real? Is God real?”
Zander let out a sort of chuckle. “I mean, they all are. Every god that humans have worship can be traced back to the deities that witches worship to this day.”
My stunned silence was more than enough for my stepbrother to take the reins. “Listen, I’ll send you a link later that’ll answer all that, but for now: gods, goddesses, demi-gods, demons–they all exist, but not in the way that you think. And a hellhound telling a witch that the infernal avatar and creator of hellhounds and werewolves ‘smiles upon her’ was a warning.”
“Okay,” I shrugged as I pulled into our home’s long driveway. My car–a 2009 Audi A4–was the only vehicle in the driveway, so I breathed a little easier knowing that neither of our parents had returned from work. “Warning her about what? That she’d keep going after her?”
“Maybe,” Zander admitted before letting out a groan. “That’s what that shit about Cari keeping the berserker stone was about, wasn’t it? You were telling her to hold onto it to protect herself from the hellhound.”
“Oh, you caught that?” I chuckled nervously as I parked the Jetta behind my car.
“You weren’t exactly covert about it.”
We exited the vehicle–I made sure Zan was able to stand and grab his backpack on his own, which he was–and entered the house. The cold, lifeless, two-story dwelling didn’t feel as alien on that day; Zander and I were speaking openly and casually, and we weren’t tiptoeing around one another or our parents. It was a nice change, a welcome development that I had hoped would lead to better communication–and perhaps even a sibling relationship–in the future.
Zander had left for his room, presumably to set down his backpack, and I ventured to the basement for the same reason when I got a notification for a new message in our pack’s Enchat group.
(Sent at 4:18 PM) zanderwoods: We’re home. Everyone make it back safe?
My phone dinged a few times as others responded:
(Sent at 4:18 PM) phineaspiper: home! 🙂 (Sent at 4:18 PM) sarinajimenez: yessir (Sent at 4:18 PM) danivynnorwood: im w/ @lucashoward but ill b home tmrw (Sent at 4:19 PM) beckettrose: safe and sound boss (Sent at 4:19 PM) whitneyshepard: Elle and I are home.
Just as I got done reading through everyone’s responses, my phone dinged once more, and I was notified of a private message.
(Sent at 4:19 PM) whitneyshepard: Hey can you talk?
Before I could reply, I heard the heavy thuds of footsteps descending the basement stairs.
(Sent at 4:20 PM) jettsondanvers: Yeah gimme a few mins
My smartphone was locked and back in my pocket by the time I left my bedroom. I found Zander going through the refrigerator; Derrick had the housekeeper stock the basement kitchen with snacks and drinks “in case I had company.”
If Zan really moves down here like he said, then I guess we’ll be roommates. It kind of felt like it already, what with Ma always at the station and Derrick doing… Whatever he did.
As I entered the kitchen to join him, I asked, “Hey, I was wondering–what’s your dad do?”
“He’s the delegate for district six twenty-two,” he answered plainly, swiping two sodas from the fridge and offering me one. Upon seeing the confusion on my face as I accepted the drink he added, “You know, like a senator or representative. He oversees all legislature in his territory, and advocates for district-wide changes that benefit Hunters.”
“So he’s a politician?”
Zander nodded, popped the tab off his soda, and took a sip as I asked, “Oh, cool. So, what’s district six twenty-two? Salem?”
“Nah, all of Massachusetts.”
I nearly spat out my soda. “The whole state?!”
“Yeah, man–pretty sure that’s how senators work,” he chuckled, grabbed a bag of chips from the pantry, and walked past me out to the open living space of the basement. There was a pool table at the center of the room and exercise machines off to one side, but to the far left was an entertainment center and sitting area. “You really didn’t know what he did?”
I shook my head and followed him with my own bag of chips, curious. He’s normally so weird and unemotional. I can’t even begin to imagine what he watches for fun. Documentaries? C-SPAN?
Then he logged into Flixio, chose his profile, and rows of anime recommendations popped up. “See anything you like?” he asked, settling into the sofa.
I joined him, claiming the opposite end of the couch and weighing my options, grateful to have found something in common with my stepbrother.
26 of March 2021 – 8:51 PM
“You cannot be serious,” Lilly finally scoffed in a low tone.
I had music playing from a portable speaker stationed by the entrance to my suite. The three of us were in my living room, lounging on my pull-out couch. It was a contemporary take on the traditional futon, an L-shaped sectional sofa upholstered with creamy white fabric. Its back was reclined halfway, and we had pulled out the bottom of the short side until it matched the length of the attached chaise, making its setup not unlike that of a day bed. The chaise also doubled as storage, so we had pulled every pillow and blanket out of there to adorn our makeshift bed for the weekend. It faced my wall-length entertainment center, so our movie night was going off without a hitch when we decided to take a moment in between movies to discuss the events of the past twenty-four hours. The music granted us cover from any eavesdroppers, namely Val or Clarence. I knew it wouldn’t stop Ax from listening in, but that didn’t bother me.
He already knows about the dangerous parts, anyway. “Have you ever known me to not be serious?”
“The Duel of Ardor is a death sentence for freshmen this early in the year!” she shrieked. Her wide hazel eyes were like shadowy pools as she chided me. “Val’s the only heir to defeat every coven member attending AOA during her first year, and she didn’t have to duel five opponents back to back! And because your family created that custom, every witch that attends and works at AOA will be there to watch–shit, between you being the second heir, you having gotten in that fight on Monday, and you confirming the rumor that your dad is Alfonso Quercini, I wouldn’t be surprised if most witch heads go, too. Even Max waited ‘til his sophomore year to invoke the duel since by then he’d been training in advanced magick. What the hell makes you think that you’ll have a better chance than either of them–?”
I thought my eye was twitching after that. “Are you saying that I’m not as good as my older siblings?”
We stared one another down for several breaths. Seated to my right was Helena, who at that moment got up, crawled over the futon, and sat between my and Lilly’s legs. The two of us regarded her defiant expression with bewildered looks before she loudly demanded:
“I invoke the truth circle.”
Lilly groaned. “Jeez, what are we, fuckin’ ten?”
“Hel,” I began. “I get what you’re trying to do, but–”
My words caught in my throat as our quiet friend’s brown eyes darkened. “I invoke. The truth circle. Now.”
With no shortage of whines and swears under our breaths, Lilly and I sat cross-legged on the sofa, forming a triangle with Helena. She held out her hands, one for each of us, and we took them easily; then she nodded at the space between us, silently urging us to join hands as well, which we did begrudgingly.
“There,” she said with a short huff. “Cleansing breaths: five.”
“We normally do three–”
“That’s fuckin’ pushing it–”
“CLEANSING BREATHS: FIVE!” Helena shouted, her cheeks pink. It was rare for our reserved friend to raise her voice, but we knew she wouldn’t dream of it without reason. Following her lead, the three of us began to breathe in deeply for three seconds and breath out for five, which we repeated four times. By the fifth count, my shoulders had slumped, and the side of my face had stopped twitching.
“Good,” Helena smiled genuinely. “Doesn’t that feel better?”
We answered her somewhat embittered, but she did not seem to mind. Her head was bowed, and her woodsy pools were unfocused as she muttered an incantation invoking Zuzen, the deity of truth and peace, in revived Massachusett. Once her plea was complete, Helena raised her head to acknowledge us.
“Alright,” she began. “Cari, why do you feel as if you need to go through with the Duel of Ardor?”
Between the influence of a supreme primordial celestial being and my friend’s aura sight, I felt compelled to answer truthfully. “I want to prove that I’m good enough.”
“Good enough to lead the coven instead of Val?”
Is that what I think? I wracked my brain for the answer, but I didn’t need to ponder the question for long. “Good enough to just… Exist.”
Lilly frowned, a doleful look in her eyes. “You’re more than good enough, Car. You’re strong and smart–and even though you don’t think it, you’re also cool and kind. You don’t need to prove your existence–you’re here. You exist. And that’s enough.”
My eyes began to water involuntarily as I contended, “I still don’t feel good enough.”
Lilly’s hand squeezed mine, prompting me to meet her desperate gaze. “Why do you even want to lead your coven? It’s just a bunch of traditions and rituals and responsibilities. I’m glad that Gunnar’s stuck with that and not me, because that means that I get to have a normal high school experience. There’s no burden on my shoulders–just like there isn’t any on yours. You can relax–”
“I can’t!” I snapped. My emotions, which I had left bottled up, were beginning to mix and bubble over, shifting between melancholy and rage. “As long as there are people who think my existence is a mistake or a threat, then I can’t just sit back and enjoy life. I need to prove to them that I’m not what they think I am. I’m good enough to walk beside them, and this will make them see that!”
My friends, who were taken aback by my outburst, exchanged a swift glance of concern before Lilly said, “So this is about what happened in botany last night.”
“I…” Though I hesitated briefly, I recovered with a hasty sigh. “I get why neither of you said anything. All I talk about is how I want to look independent and strong in the witch community, and if either of you had come to my defense, then you would have undermined that. You were doing me a favor by not speaking up.”
Lilly shook her head. “That might be why we didn’t say anything, but it sounds like we should have. You’re not alone in this, Car. You don’t have to take on the world by yourself–you have us, and Ax, and Nanny & Val…”
“And all the new friends you made!” Helena affirmed. “Gal, Sage, Renette, Angel, Sofia–and he’s kind of bossy, but Max cares about you, too. They all do.”
“We all do,” clarified Lilly.
My tears were overflowing, streaking down my cheeks as my quivering lips fought to form words. “Th-Thanks… Thank you.”
Then, much to my surprise, Lilly sighed almost comically. “And if it’ll help you in your duels, then I guess I can teach you some shadow magick.”
Helena and I gasped, and for good reason–the Naismith Coven refused to teach outsiders how to wield their affinity. It was a closely guarded secret passed down through the generations; Lilly had even mentioned at one point that there were no scrolls or tomes on the magick and that they learned by word of mouth and seeing the magick up close. “A-Are you sure?”
“Won’t you get in trouble?” cautioned Helena.
“Only a little,” admitted the Naismith heir. “I don’t really care, though. It’ll be worth it to see the look on Wihn’s face when you bust out something that strong.”
“Do you think it’ll be enough?”
“Not for all five duels,” I told Helena. “I’ll ask around for some help tonight from other witches… But I think that’s the extent of what I can share with you, Hel.”
She paled. “Oh, r-right… I’m your first opponent.”
“You know, Wihn’s gonna try to make her spill everything she knows about your plans for the duels,” Lilly grumbled, a dark sheen in her eyes.
I sighed and rolled up my sleeves, not wanting to stain them with blood. “I know.”