Written by Woodclaw :: [Sunday, 30 October 2016 20:54] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 13 November 2016 17:09]
It was cold, much colder than any Halloween I remembered. A chill breeze was coming up from the river. Not a proper wind, just that slight movement in the air that lowered the perceived temperature by a few degrees and makes everyone put on an extra shirt.
There was something else in the wind, the sweet and pungent smell of fresh caramel mixed with other, even less healthy ingredients. I stopped at a corner, right under a streetlight and closed my eyes, appreciating all the different flavors in the wind.
My stomach gurgled.
‘Sorry, no deal.’ I thought patting my – sigh – ever so round tummy. I have no problem admitting that I have a weight problem. I’ve had it since I was 10: I like to eat and I make no excuses for it. That doesn’t mean that I have to be in love with my tummy though, I simply accept it.
In more than one way this was torture: I could sense all these amazing candies. I could probably pinpoint each type by smell from three blocks away and I couldn’t partake them. Not tonight at least … tonight I was walking my beat for the first time.
I moved on and made haste toward the campus – the college was a big, green island in the middle of the suburbs. With hindsight the place always seemed strange and I’m not talking about some crazy fraternity running around. Everything – and I do mean everything – around the campus seemed to thrive no matter how oppressive the town around became and then there were the …
“Hey Andy!” a familiar high-pitched voice called over my shoulder.
“Hi Sophie.” I answered, glad for the interruption in my internal monologue.
I had just a second to look at her dark dress before she jumped me. Lucky for me I’m a pretty strong gal: short, yes; fat; quite; built; definitely. In contrast Sophie is thin and trim without going into anorexia territory. Pretty much all of our friends thought she should take a shot at being a model, but she’s way too smart for that.
She kissed me on both cheeks before letting me go and taking two steps back. This gave me time to appreciate her costume: shiny black medium heeled shoes with a strap around her thin ankles; dark green fishnets highlighting her legs; a dark miniskirt dress with extra long hanging sleeves; poisonous green makeup and a black pointy hat. In short a typical ‘sexy witch’ costume, which should have looked slutty as hell (you have no idea how true that is), but she managed to wear it in a way that made it look classy. That was a thing about my brunette friend: she was a natural class act and she knew it.
She tilted her head to the left, rested her left elbow on her right palm and started tapping her cheek with a long finger, while her lips pursed in a bit.
“Is something wrong?” I asked innocently.
“You bet!” she quipped, straightening her posture, “Where’s your costume?”
I tightened my lips, trying not to laugh in her face, but I felt the tips curling up. “I’m in costume.” I replied adjusting my thick rimmed glasses.
“A pair of glasses?” she asked raising her eyebrows and twisting her mouth in a sardonic grin, “What, are you Clark Kent?”
“Not quite.” I answered unzipping the top of my brown leather jacket and showing the blue fabric decorated with the red symbol that took me two days to sew properly, “Kara Danvers, nice to meet you.” I added extending my hand.
Sophie burst out in a minute long laugh and I snorted hard trying not to follow, but to no avail. “Okay, okay” she said whipping out the hint of a tear, “You got me this time.”
“So, I guess you got yourself an invitation to a really nice party.”
“Nope.” she replied with a bit of a glint in her eye, “This Halloween’s going to be something different.”
“Mike and Cherry are setting up something really special tonight. Or so they said.”
I felt goosebumps on the back of my neck and had to push a low growl down my throat. I had been close to Mike and Cherry for years – heck, I was there when he asked her out for the first time – but around two years ago we drifted apart. We never had an argument, but I grew uncomfortable with their attitude. Cherry introduced Mike to witchery, filling a void in his life he had ever since he showed the finger to his old parish. For a while it seemed to work, but combine a guy with a controlling personality and a crisis of faith with an amateur witch with no self confidence and you got a recipe for a human disaster. Over the course of five years I watched them growing ever more cocksure and self-entitled, believing that they had discovered some kind of universal truth and they had to share with everyone else.
“So, are you coming?” Sophie asked with puppy eyes.
I sighed: “I … I really can’t … you kno—”
“Oh, come on!” she shouted happily hooking her arm under mine, “When’ll you have the chance to see a real witches’ sabbath again?”
‘You might be surprised’ I thought, trying to figure out a good way to weasel out of it, but a blaring horn distracted me and I saw Mike’s blue Ford pick-up at the end of the road ‘No way out now. Thank you very very much Sophie.’
He pulled up next to us and waved: “Hello Sophie and … Andy. Nice to see you again.”
I glared at him and he was the same. Same disheveled beard, same clean shaved scalp, same mediterranean-turned-pale skin and same hint of bags around the eyes – meaning he dropped the meds for his insomnia problem again – all-in-all he didn’t look any different from two years ago.
“Hey Mike.” I answered trying to keep the hitching I felt out of my voice.
I probably failed, because he wrinkled his nose a bit, like he had just discovered a piece of moldy bread in the breadbox. “Do you mind riding in the back? I …”
“No!” I spit out quickly. Over the many years I’d hung out with him he’d never asked me to ride shogun, unless it was just the two of us.
As I approached the back of the truck, Sophie looked at me with a puzzled look, then straightened her spine, walked to the passenger door and tossed her witch hat in. “I just want to enjoy the breeze.” she said before hopping on the truck bed with me and a half-full jerrycan.
I didn’t need my enhanced hearing to imagine Mike grinding his teeth, but the sound made me feel a bit sorry for him. Just a bit.
As he revved the engine, Sophie sat right next to me and I felt the sudden urge to shift away. Her smell was very nice, a bit too much for me. I’ve never been into girls, but Sophie has always been a good friend and she was just so … so nice.
“What’s the deal with you, Mike and Cherry?” she asked over the wind.
“We just drifted apart.” I answered.
“Don’t bull me.”
I looked down at my knees, trying and failing at shutting off my nose and the hormonal response I was getting. “I … I just don’t want to say bad things about them tonight, okay?” I blurted.
“Okay” Sophie sighed, “But you’ll have to say something sooner or later.”
We just sat down on the truck for another fifteen minute – Sophie trying to keep her hair off her face, me trying to keep my instincts steady – before Mike turned right on a dirt track.
“Oh hell on a stick!” I swore under my breath. There were very few places this road could lead to and all of them spelled bad news with a couple of arrogant witchlings around – not to mention Sophie and an unknown number of bystanders. My first beat was sliding from bad to worst. I pulled out my cell to get in contact with some backup, but had zero bars … just great.
Mike pulled over next to a trail leading into the woods and we climbed out, continuing on foot dragging a box of beers to a picnic table in the middle of clearing covered with a dark blue towel and a collections of items organized according to the worst case of OCD this side of sanity: Cherry.
As was often the case on this type of occasion, she was dressed in a skin-tight long black dress held in place by several laps of a thin white rope belt – the final effect made her look like a piece of salami. Luckily she’d changed hairstyle from the old ponytail to an uneven head of wavy hair. Otherwise I would have thought I had time-travelled.
She saw me and we locked eyes for a second. Her nostrils flared slightly and her eyes grew wider. She wasn’t happy to see me.
She grabbed Mike by the arm and I heard her hissing in a low voice: “What is she doing here?”
“She was with Sophie, what could I do? We can’t delay any longer.”
“She is a negative, she would fuck up the ritual.”
“Maybe she won’t participate.”
Oh hell on a stick! What were they up to?
I walked up to Cherry. “Hello kid.” I stiffly embraced her. She seemed to notice and her reply was equally wooden.
The three of us stood there, none looked the others in the eyes, until Sophie gleefully interrupted: “So, where is the beer?”
Forty minutes and several beers later Sophie was in full reminiscing mode, telling us about a weird accident involving her grandmother and a bottle of purple hair dye. My metabolism can burn through any toxin pretty damn fast – at least since the Change – so I was … pretty much rushing through all the steps of being drunk at ludicrous speed. Mike was wobbly, but otherwise unaffected, while Cherry alternated between moments of full clarity and full drunkenness.
The Moon appeared over the treetops, casting a eerie glow that made my skin hitch and my teeth ache. ‘Not now, you idiot’ I hissed in my mind.
Cherry rose, taking a deep breath that made her bust rise and fall like a tidal wave: “The time is right. We can commence.” then she turned over to me, “Are you going to be part of the rite?”
“I’m going to sit out on this one.” I smiled back, “I might fuck things up.”
She took half a step back, but she didn’t comment. Meanwhile, Mike was pulling out an arsenal of candles, packs of rock salt, a big metal washbowl and few other items from the “Junior Witch Set” – nothing dangerous so far – and started to arrange their standard magic circle: workable, but not very effective.
As promised I stayed out of it, while Cherry and Sophie – who looked very disappointed in me – stepped in. They started the usual counterclockwise turn starting north-ish to close the circle. I felt, rather than heard, a bit of a buzz prickling my eardrums. Nothing substantial enough to put my finger on it, but it was definitely there.
The three of them joined hands and Cherry started to hum in a low tone and started chanting – I have to give her credit, she had a great singing voice and she still does. The prickling didn’t go away, in fact it became stronger by the second to the point that I ground my teeth. Between that and the moonlight washing over the scene, giving everything a dream-like aura, I wasn’t even sure I was awake anymore. And that right there almost caused me to fuck up on my very first night!
Cherry opened her mouth to scream and the world hit the slow motion button for me: the ground at their feet had turn into a mass of bubbling black sludge and they were sinking. I got up on my feet and felt the adrenaline in my system burning through the last fumes of the alcohol. I leapt forward as the the first sounds of Cherry’s scream left her lips and … I hit something face first. I rebound backward and tried to get on my very undignified feet. ‘What the hell was that?’
I really couldn’t believe that Cherry and Mike could manage a proper circle barrier. A threshold, sure. A barrier, not a milion years. Even if they knew how to do that they were like AA batteries in terms of supernatural power. Magic is like taking a particle of raw chaos and hammering it into shape through pure force of will, making the impossible possible. If one can do this on command, then it’s not impossible at all. That’s why no real practitioner will ever be able to perform miracles on demand and why people who are convinced they’re smarter than everyone else in at the art tend to produce the meager results. That was what – thankfully – kept Cherry and Mike back for all those years.
The revelation hit me like a falling elephant: what are the traits of the best, non-sacrificial Sources? Optimistic … intelligent … cheerful … in short: Sophie. And we were on Halloween night … when the veil between the realms got way too thin for comfort. ‘Nice going Andy …’
I looked at my friends being sucked down by the sludge and – to Hell and back with being subtle – I let my other half out. I sprung forward while all of my bones were pulled like strings of licorice. My spine stretched and changed shape. My arms got longer. The sinews all over my body roared with power. My teeth ached like crazy as my face changed shape and I pierced the tip of my tongue on one of my pointy canines. Most of my Halloween costume exploded into shreds and I felt the sudden need to get a full body wax … twice.
I snarled as I slammed my big and clawed hand-paw against the barrier and felt it collapsing. Barriers are tough, almost impervious to magic or physical offensive, but people like me aren’t “just” flesh and blood on one side and magic and spirit on the other. Our squishy and spiritual bits are one and the same. So, being hit by one of us means being mauled on both the physical and spiritual level.
Sophie howled with pain as the barrier exploded under my assault and Cherry’s scream got one octave higher as she saw me.
“Stop … rrroowwwll … Screaming!” I managed to form the words through teeth meant for biting as I grabbed the three of them and pulled with all the strength of my gorilla-like arms, but their feet weren’t just stuck into the ground. I felt something else weighting them down as I hauled them back inch by inch. Before I could formulate a coherent idea my friends’ feet popped out of the ground and the four of us tumbled across the clearing.
I got up and felt the scratches and bruises on my back healing with a funny sucking feeling. The black sludge was bubbling like crazy and my instincts started howling for blood as a mass of darkness rose from that literal hellhole. It wasn’t nice, it had nothing of glamourous evil that some people associated with the netherworld powers: it was a dark mass of the most basic malice, the excrement of the lowest common denominator and it slammed into me like an eighteen-wheeler.
My head exploded with pain as several of my ribs cracked and the regeneration kicked in. I bit back in self-defense and my fang shredded through the layers of peccadillos and low-end human malice, leaving a taste of burnt rubber and crocodile tears in my mouth.
The netherworld behemoth didn’t back down. It wasn’t meant to. As far as I knew its instincts were just to smash and feed without any regard for those who lived around it. Just like the feelings that created it in the first place.
I clawed and bit again, trying to get the mass off me, but only managed to inconvenience the thing. The pressure kept building and I felt my barely healing rib cage cracking again. Some part of my brain managed to think: ‘… what a fucking stupid way to die: crushed to death by the weight of sin on Halloween night …’
Something exploded in the vicinity, shaking my brain and ringing my eardrums. The pressure was gone and the thing reared and bucked like crazy. I rolled away from it and caught my breath. Mike and Cherry were standing next to the pick-up with their faces covered in black smoke, she had a still lit lighter in her hand. They had made a fire-bomb with the jerrycan.
Apparently fire had power over the thing. So I took advantage of it and embraced its wormlike body. I’m pretty damn strong as a human, which makes me crazy strong when I turn into two and half meters of monster. I put all it into bodyslaming the hellspawn. Then I pounced on it, shredding and tearing with claws and fangs looking for something vital inside of it.
I have no real memory of what happened next. Maybe I smashed the thing’s heart to a pulp, maybe the fire got it, maybe it went back to where it came. Whatever the case the next thing I remember was Sophie’s voice calling: “Andy! Andy stop it!”
I woke up from my rage and found myself clawing at the ground. The adrenaline started to fade and I was able to transform back. It felt like trying to get into an old and worn pair of jeans that you used to love 10 kilos ago.
“Are you …?” Cherry started with her lips trembling and her eyes wide with fear.
“Very, very angry? You can bet on it.” I was naked and still pretty damn pissed, “What the hell were you doing? Opening a portal to the lower realms?”
“That’s right ‘you didn’t’ … and you were very lucky I was here tonight.” I lashed, leaning forward. That was perhaps unfair, but I had all this frustration I’d accumulated over the years, “You always thought me to be ‘the negative’ because I want to play it safe. Guess what ‘mother-witch-of-my-ass’? You needed little ‘Andy-the-negative’ to fix your fuck-up!”
“Hey!” Mike interrupted taking a protective step forward in front of Cherry, “That’s mean, we saved your life.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but got nothing. All in all he was right, and maybe this was a good time to start anew with these two assholes. The old calendar said that tonight is the last day of summer and you need some friends to share the long winter nights with.
“Andy” Sophie ventured, “What are you?”
For the first time in a month I stopped and actually considered what I was. Discovering my heritage. Training. Taking in the idea that magic is real. I never had time to understand how much of me had changed since … the ‘Change’, as my family called it. I was a skinchanger, like my grandmother and many others down the line. A woman, a beast and something more all rolled up in a pot bellied package. But I until then I never stopped to think about it.
“Magic is real, guys, and it can be awesome. But sometimes shit happens. Someone has deal with it. And I happen to be one to call.” I answered in my best Clint Eastwood voice. Just before the breeze reminded me I was naked and I turned red as a beet.