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vol vi, issue 1 < ToC
A Provincial Exorcism
by
Joshua Grasso
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Through theOccult Red
Garden, Unseen
A Provincial Exorcism
by
Joshua Grasso
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Through the
Garden, Unseen




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Occult Red
A Provincial Exorcism
by
Joshua Grasso
previous next

Through the Occult Red
Garden, Unseen
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Through the
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Occult Red
A Provincial Exorcism
 by Joshua Grasso
A Provincial Exorcism
 by Joshua Grasso
I: The Arrival

Turold arrived late at the Duke of Boxwood’s estate, nestled deep in the tangled woods of this forgotten part of the country. The coach had nearly split a wheel negotiating the pockmarked roads, and the horses had to be threatened and cajoled to go any further (though they were particularly stubborn, obnoxious creatures). Finally, as the sky faded into twilight and the stars began twinkling in earnest, he made out the tell-tale ruins that marked the beginning of the estate. All that remained of an old castle that had been ransacked in ages long past, built by nobody-knows-who and certain to stand until no one remembered a sorcerer named Turold ever existed.

Normally, he would have already turned back. The money wasn’t sufficient to offset the loss of coach and horses, and if you had met one of these down-at-the-heel dukes you had met them all. What brought him here was something else entirely ... that whispering, conniving lust known as curiosity. Not for this area of the country, which he could scarcely find on a map; no, it was the duke’s letter, and more specifically, a single passage that decided the matter at once. Toward the bottom of the second page, the duke wrote, as a sorcerer, perhaps you can translate? These are the only words my daughter has spoken to me for three weeks, though I know not if they be words or rabid nonsense:

Vek’yatin yekahmoos, vek’yatin ethrasil.


His request, which had been written in a long-winded, poorly expressed letter of three pages, was to help him exorcise his daughter. She had become possessed by spirits and would no longer eat, dress, or behave like a sensible young woman. At first he dismissed this as simple rebellion—she refused to marry the local dimwit, or her father wouldn’t spring for the finest dresses from Belladonna or Paris. Yet as the letter rambled on, Turold could pick out details that pointed to a true possession: loss of appetite, spotted flesh, walking backwards, and most telling of all, speaking in tongues.

And not just tongues of nonsense, as some girls did; he knew this language. It was a message he had heard before, had written down in his long and desperate search to speak to those who had passed beyond. To those who might have seen his Master. Sometimes, especially on nights like this, he felt he was close ... that one day they would find each other.

The coachman pulled up to the gates and gave a “halloo,” several times. Eventually, a servant ran up with a lantern and unlocked them, signaling them forward. As they approached the house, Turold noticed signs of a once-great estate now fallen into casual disgrace. It must be difficult to keep an estate so off the beaten path up-and-running. Perhaps he had fallen out of the king’s favor? Lost an heir? Or made too many? Whatever it was, his daughter’s possession was merely the latest in a long line of disappointments to this Royal House. And it might not survive the night.

The servant waited patiently for the coach to reach the courtyard and the sorcerer to dismount. Behind him, an older, heavyset woman quivered nervously. He felt he recognized her from somewhere, but her face suggested too many faces. However, the look in her eye confirmed it; she knew him, too. As he stepped down, he noticed her whisper something into the servant’s ear, who nodded and dashed into the house. Then she inched forward, her hands clasping each other, lips frantic to speak.

“Master Turold, a thousand thanks—you do great honor to our household,” she said, with a deep curtsey.

“I came as soon as I could, though it wasn’t easy to find,” he said, approaching her.

“You might remember me, if you take a long look backward. I was Lady Borowski, before my marriage. You were yet an apprentice with your master, Hildigrim Blackbeard. You cured my father of his most unfortunate ailment.”

Oh, so she was from that family. He suddenly eyed his surroundings with a deeper layer of scrutiny.

“Ah yes, I do remember—such a pleasure to see you again,” he said, kissing her hand. “I didn’t realize you had become the Duchess of Boxwood.”

“Oh—no, as to that, I’m not the duchess,” she said, with a slight blush. “I’m widowed these twenty years, Master Turold. I came to stay here with my cousin, a near-relative of the Duke, and became attached to the young mistress; I became her guardian, so to speak. As there was no duchess the duke didn’t mind. I’m just Anja now.”

She led him into the house, which despite a number of candles and torches, retained its gloomy demeanor. Shadows seemed to sit at every table and glower in every hall. He followed her to the Grand Foyer, a roomy if dark expanse which reeked of mud and rotting foxglove (he discreetly held a cloth to his nose when she wasn’t looking).

Taking a seat on an ottoman and gratefully accepting a warm cup of tea, he asked about the duke’s daughter, Lady Alexandra. Anja grew tense, her frown threatening to overflow in tears.

“I can’t explain it, Master Turold. I’ve known her since she was this high,” she said, gesturing to her knees. “In perfect health. Overflowing with kindness, sharp as a whip. But all of a sudden, she turned on me. On all of us!”

“Can you tell me about these words she said to her father,” he said, unfurling the letter. “Vek’yatin yekahmoos, vek’yatin ethrasil?”

“Yes, those very words!” she nodded, taking the letter. “She stopped speaking to us a few weeks ago, but in her worst moments, she would mutter these words, sometimes shout them to the ceiling. Always these words, and always in the same order. Do you know what they mean?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do,” he said, taking a long sip of his tea (it was very good). “An invocation to the dead. To allow them passage into our world.”

He heard a series of crashes down the hallway. Anja gasped, then tried to divert his attention, asking about the health of his Master. He saw this tactic for what it was and leapt up, demanding to see the young mistress.

“I beg you to wait till morning, when she’s rested. She’s always more difficult at night,” she urged.

A woman’s scream swept through the hallway and made Anja leap out of her skin. Several screams—each one louder, more desperate than the last. Turold dropped his cup and swept through the hallway with Anja close behind, the screams growing closer and more coherent: something about stop her—close the door, followed by a crescendo of no’s. He reached a closed door with two servants stationed, grim-faced, to meet them.

“Let me inside at once!” Turold demanded.

The servants traded panicked glances, since their orders were to let no one through until she calmed down—if she calmed down. Yet the master had also mentioned something about a diminutive fellow with a prodigious beard who might be able to help. Hoping this was the man himself, they thrust open the doors. Turold pushed them aside and flung himself into the room.

A great bowl smashed against the wall, hurled by a red-faced sixteen-year-old girl. Her hair flew wildly about her face, some of it plastered to her head with sweat and grime. An older man, perhaps the duke himself, attempted to wrestle her to the ground. She quickly jerked to one side and made him stumble to his knees. Turold ran over to assist him. When she saw him she convulsed with rage or fear, her teeth clenched tight. He made a gesture of command: at first it rooted her to the spot, but she quickly shook it off and grabbed the nearest object—in this case, a wooden globe. With incredible strength she ripped it out of its cradle and tossed it madly. Turold ducked and it smashed to pieces against the wall, a few fragments striking him as he watched in confusion. He picked off a sliver of a foreign coastline and tucked it into his sleeve for a keepsake.

“Distract her!” he shouted to the duke.

The duke nodded and waved his hands frantically, drawing her wrath; she picked up several books and hurled them, quite accurately, at his nose.

Meanwhile, Turold ran across the room and cast a spell of holding. Smoke whistled around the girl’s body and formed a circle around her feet. She gave a hellish shout and thrust twisted fingers in his direction: his feet leapt from the ground and planted themselves on the ceiling, where he hung like a confused chandelier, coins from his pockets raining on chairs and tables. The spell proved effective even so: she couldn’t move and began flailing in a frantic attempt to flee.

“When I count to three, get ready to catch her,” he said.

The duke nodded, rubbing his bleeding nose.

One ... two ...

Vek’yatin yekahmoos! Vek’yatin ethrasil!” she howled.

Three!

Her eyes closed and her head fell lifelessly against her breast. She fell forward and into her father’s arms, who gave a deep sigh of relief.

“Quickly, to her bedchamber,” Turold ordered.

“Yes, right away!” the duke nodded, then with a look up, “and you ...?”

“Ah ... I’ll be right behind you,” he said, tugging at his feet.

But try as he might, he was stuck. He had no idea what spell she hurled at him or what fiend dreamed it up to torment him. After a few attempts, one of his feet came loose, but the other one held fast. If he had to spend the whole night flailing like a lunatic up here ...

“Master Turold, may I be of assistance?” Anja asked.

“Yes, perhaps. If you could find ... hmm, some mandrake root? Or tormentil. Either one. That would be lovely.”

Anja dashed off to fetch them, leaving him swaying like a bat in the darkness.



II: The Confession

The next morning, Anja reported that the young mistress had rested well and was remarkably chipper. She even said “good morning” and wolfed down her breakfast, the first she had eaten in days. The duke invited him for tea and cakes in her bedroom, since she was eager to meet the magician who had saved her life. Turold, for his part, had not slept well, as he had spent no less than three hours on the ceiling. By the time he finally got down (crashing head-first on the table, no less) he couldn’t escape the feeling that he had only been told enough (what the duke himself knew) but not what the girl (or Anja) knew was the truth.

When he entered Lady Alexandra’s bedroom, he found the duke hovering over her bed, offering her more of this and that, and peppering her with kisses. She seemed like a completely different person from their encounter last night: hair neatly braided and pulled aside, her face bright and eyes dazzling, flashing from one object to another before picking him out.

“Oh, is that him? The sorcerer?” she asked; then in a whisper to Anja, “But he’s so short!”

“Ah yes, this is Master Turold, the magician I spoke of. He came straight from Belladonna to see you,” the duke nodded, as if proud of his own achievement.

“Please, dear Master Turold, forgive my conduct last night,” she said, offering her hand. “I don’t remember a thing, naturally (I never do), but papa told me everything. Did I really hurl a globe at your head? And books at papa’s?”

“Possession is a strange thing, my lady; it endows people with strength far beyond their own. The personality, too, suffers a sea change, verging on the monomaniacal.”

“Was I really mono-whatever?” she said, with a slight giggle. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have really ... you know, killed anyone. Certainly not you or papa. I’ve never done that before, have I? Just broken a few bones, though I did push that one servant out a window ... but I’m sure he didn’t mind.”

The duke traded glances with Turold, as if to say, “I’ve never seen her like this. Is she well?” Turold had no idea. To say nothing but dead-speak for days, and now to ramble on in this giggling fashion seemed disturbed, to say the least. He would have to try to draw her out, but without upsetting her prematurely. Some memories might be too fresh for her to confront in the morning.

“Tell me, Lady Alexandra, do you remember anything? The words you spoke, your visions?”

“Anja, dearest, could you bring me more tea? And some jam? But not the strawberry—I think it’s turned. The peach? There’s a dear,” she said, cutting him off. “Now what were you saying? Something about last night?”

“We don’t mean to upset you, darling,” the duke said, pouring more tea. “If this is too much for you—”

“Nonsense, I’m only too happy to oblige!” she said, accepting the cup. “Though now you mention it, perhaps you had best leave me alone with the sorcerer, so we can confer in private. I might have to say things which might sound, how should I say ... somewhat vulgar to your ears. I am your only child, after all.”

“Yes, of course, just call me if you need anything. I leave her in your capable hands, Master Turold,” the duke said, giving him another look.

Anja quickly darted in with the tea and the jam, then fluttered away, though not without giving Turold a little tug on the sleeve by way of encouragement. Turold waited for the girl to begin, but she seemed quite content with drinking her tea and spreading jam over the crumbled remains of her scones. After demolishing what was left, she finally looked up at him and smiled, talking with her mouth full.

“You’re quite sure they can’t hear us?”

He nodded.

“Do go and check.”

Reluctantly, he ran to the door and listened; not a sound, no whispered breathing behind the keyhole. He returned and assured her they were completely alone.

She immediately flung down the scones and upset her teacup to grab his arm. The fingers seized on his wrist and her face turned white, eyes bulging in terror.

“Master Turold, you have to help me! I fall at your mercy! Promise you’ll help me—promise you won’t go home!”

“Yes, yes, I promise, of course,” he said, patting her arm. “But tell me everything.”

“You have to promise not to think ill of me, you of all people, Master Turold!” she said, still grabbing his arm. “It’s hideous, shameful what I’ve done. Papa will never forgive me.”

“Of course not, I wouldn’t dare—”

“But you don’t know what I’ve done! If you knew, you couldn’t look me in the eyes; you wouldn’t speak to me in public!”

“I’m sure you’re exaggerating—”

“No, if you told me you had done such a thing, I would spit on you, walk on the other side of the road. Disgusting, degenerate—that’s what I would say in your presence.”

“Indeed? Then why not tell me—”

“I can’t, it’s too hideous!” she said, dissolving into tears. “You’ll never forgive me!”

“By all the gods and devils, just tell me what you’ve done! Out with it!” he demanded, giving her a good shake.

Composing herself, and wiping away a few tears, she narrated her story. There was something that lived at the bottom of the nearby lake. She didn’t know what it was, not at first, but it seemed to call to her; at night, when the stars shone bright, she could hear its voice. Like the sirens. It frightened her at first, but gradually, it became familiar, even comforting. Finally, she felt bold enough to ask the presence what it wanted. For several visits it merely cooed in her thoughts, telling her nothing but begging her to return the following night. Then, after days of teasing replies, it finally spoke to her: come to my arms, child, and drink deep of my moonlit kisses!

So she did. She waded into the lake beneath the full moon and felt it sweep through her toes, her body, her throat. As she sank down and let the water close over her head, she saw a shape approach. Not a man, as she expected, but something soft and delicate—almost feminine. What followed was both love and drowning, comfort and terror; she sank ever deeper and only looked up to see the moon shimmering, broken in a thousand pieces. And then, with a final gasp of life, she let herself go.

“I drowned, Master Turold. I let her kill me!”

Her?” he asked.

“Yes, she’s a spirit, a woman who once drowned herself, who now leads others to their doom,” she said, clutching her head. “And she took me as her prize. And I ... I let her do it, I wanted her more than anything I’ve ever wanted, more than going to the city, or wearing my mother’s jewels.”

“But Lady Alexandra, you’re here, you’re not dead,” he said, patting her gently. “And you’re safe. Whatever she’s done, I can protect you, just as I did last night.”

“No, she let me go—she wanted me to find you,” she said, frantically. “You see, I couldn’t help her, I wasn’t strong enough. But she thinks you might be. She wants you so desperately to help her!”

“Help her ... how?” he asked.

“I don’t know if I should tell you ...”

Lady Alexandra found the strength to continue, though it cost her considerable shame. The Woman had been poisoned long ago by her malicious stepmother, a witch who had designs on her father’s wealth. She dumped the Woman’s body in this lake, an enchanted lake which harbored powers of the ancient earth. It brought her back as a creature of vengeance, eager to find her stepmother and drown her in the stygian depths.

Which she almost did, luring her stepmother to the edge of the lake and seizing her by both ankles. The stepmother escaped—minus a toe, ripped off by the Woman—and fled into the woods. There, she became a comely young milkmaid and began her career anew, moving from boy to boy, and girl to girl, to evade the Woman’s eye. And since the Woman couldn’t haunt the innocent, she needed a go-between to abduct potential suspects and enact her timeless revenge.

“And that’s how she found me,” Alexandra continued, sobbing faintly. “I was so willing, so lonely. And though I don’t remember agreeing, I performed her will to the letter. I’ve lured young women of the village to the lake ... and drowned them. With my own hands. But each time, when the Woman seized them, it wasn’t her ... just another poor innocent. I fear we’ll never find her, and I’ll have to keep killing, night after night, until there’s no one left!”

Knocks at the door. The duke cried out, “My dear, is everything all right in there? You’ve been so terribly silent! I couldn’t hear—er, that is, I couldn’t tell if you needed anything or not.”

“Yes, I’m fine, the sorcerer has been most helpful,” she called out. “We’re nearly done!”

Then, to Turold in a whisper, “I haven’t found a woman in days—she’ll be furious! Please help me ... come to my chambers this evening. There you will find her. Make her listen to you! Make her abandon her quest!”

“Not to worry,” he assured her. “Go about your day, be cheerful. I’ll compose some spells and plan a course of action. Rest assured, my lady, your deliverance is close at hand.”

“Yes, I knew you wouldn’t forsake me,” she said, smiling gratefully. “Now, could you pass me that jam? I could do with another spoonful.”



III: The Assistant

Parasha asked everyone in the household about the sorcerer. Some said he was short, almost child-height. Others, that you didn’t notice his height from the color of his unkempt beard (jet-black—or almost blue; though some said he was clean-shaven). Obviously she could never see for herself, as a lower servant had no business in that part of the house. But she had to see him at once—before nightfall. He didn’t know the secrets of this place, what could happen to him here; what had happened to the others.

Her only chance was to trade duties with Maryusha, who fetched laundry from the young mistress’ room. Then she could pass him a note or whisper something in his ear when Anja wasn’t looking (but she was always looking). The only trouble with that was that Maryusha lorded her position over the rest of them and would never, not for a month’s salary, forgo a single day of strolling into the grand apartments—or being seen to do so.

But even Maryusha had a weakness. Parasha found her mending stockings by the meager fireplace, every now and then removing a flea from her blouse and chucking it in the flames. When she saw Parasha, she merely hissed through her teeth, as if to say “wrong day, wrong room.”

“Maryusha, dearest, let me take the laundry for you to the Grand Apartments. I really wouldn’t mind.”

“No, I don’t imagine you would,” she scoffed. “But as it happens, neither would I. It’s the only blessed thing I look forward to in this flea-bitten life. So piss off.”

“Not so hasty. Maybe you haven’t heard about the sorcerer who arrived last night.”

“I heard about him,” she said, snapping a flea between her fingernails. “Mostly that he’s not much to look at.”

“Yes, I heard that, too. But you do know why he’s here?”

“Because of the young mistress, I imagine,” she said, with a rolling of her eyes. “Why else would he come?”

“That’s not what I heard,” she said, leaning forward in a whisper. “I hear that Anja caught wind that someone on the staff was pregnant again. And she’s tired of trying to get rid of the bastards. So she told the sorcerer he could come and take it off their hands. This very night.”

Maryusha dropped the stocking and almost leapt backwards into the fire.

“What do you mean, this very night? Wouldn’t he have to wait until ... well, the moment of birth?”

Parasha shook her head meaningfully. No, these sorcerers had ways of removing the child. Not that it was exactly healthy for the mother, mind you, but Anja didn’t seem too concerned for that. Teach the little slut a lesson!

“Ah, now that you mention it, I could use the rest ... that is, if you wouldn’t mind fetching the laundry, my dearest,” she said, wiping her brow.

Parasha didn’t torture her any further, merely taking the basket from her hands and scurrying toward the great house to find Anja. Surprisingly, she found her crossing the courtyard with the sorcerer at her heels, yammering away about something important (which is how she always talked). Parasha ducked behind a cart and held up the basket for good measure. Then she peeked out and listened:

“Tell me, Anja, before your mistress fell under this spell, what kind of girl was she? You said she was smart. Anything else?” Turold asked.

“Oh, she was everything else,” she said, with a laugh. “Clever, saucy, kind, observant. One in a thousand in this kingdom. I took to her at once.”

“And she’s devoted to you as well?”

“Oh my, yes, we’re like sisters ... she tells me everything,” she said, with a solemn nod.

“And her father?”

“She adores him, and of course she’s the apple of his eye. His only daughter ... and the mother dead.”

“Yes, how did she die? Did you know her?”

“Only briefly, Master Turold. She died from a long illness a few months after my arrival. I’ve done what I can to be useful.”

Parasha had to scamper out now, since they were getting beyond earshot. Luckily, they paused just before entering the house, as the sorcerer had something in his shoe. As he shook it out, Anja continued in her most piteous vein (hypocrite!).

“I do hope you can help her, Master Turold. If there’s anything I can do ...”

“In fact, there might be,” he said, slipping his shoe back on. “Can you recommend a servant I could use for the night?”

“Oh?” she said, with a cough. “Master Turold, forgive me, but the duke runs a respectable household ...”

“Ah, no—I mean as an assistant for my spellcraft, to assist in the exorcism. Someone serious and mature, but not prone to ask questions.”

“Yes, of course, Master Turold. Forgive me for not asking sooner,” she said, with a shamefaced grin.

At that moment, either because Parasha made a gasp or Anja had sensed her all along, she looked over at the cart and they locked eyes. It wasn’t a pleasant look.

“Now I think of it, I know just the girl. Come with me, I’ll introduce you. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, just tell her what to do and she’ll do it. And if she doesn’t, I’ll give her what for!”

Parasha froze; lifted the empty laundry basket; lowered it; dropped it behind her.

“I didn’t know you were allowed in the grand apartments, Parasha. A recent promotion?” she said, glowering.

“Oh, yes—I mean no, forgive me ... Maryusha ... didn’t feel well, asked me to take over.”

“You needn’t worry about that. Instead, you can assist Master Turold for as long as he needs you. Follow his commands to the letter, and if I hear that you’ve been slacking, child ...”

She swore and promised and ducked her head until Anja stalked off in search of grander prey. Once she was out of earshot, Parasha looked down at the sorcerer and decided to be as forthright as possible. Sorcerers respected that (or so she had read in a third-rate novel).

“Now Master Turold, there are three things I absolutely won’t do: I won’t steal anything, I won’t tell lies, and I won’t eat anything with nutmeg. It gives me gas.”

“Oh, ah, shouldn’t be a problem. I won’t ask you to steal, lie, or eat anything you don’t want,” he said, offering his hand. “But I might ask you to help me exorcise a spirit, cast ungodly magic, and assist in the capture and execution of a malicious witch. Is that acceptable?”

“Oh, I don’t mind witches and magic—my own grandmother cast spells,” she said, with a shrug. “When do we start?”

“This very minute. But first, I need you to tell me everything you know about the young mistress. If we’re going to cure her, I need to know everything the family won’t tell me.”

“Begging your pardon, Master Turold ... but what’s in it for me? If Anja caught wind of my gossip, I would lose my position.”

“Naturally, I wouldn’t expect you to risk something for nothing. What can I offer you?”

“Well, just between you and me, I could do with a book,” she whispered, with a grin. “The late mistress taught me, though since she died, the library’s been locked up tight. I’d take anything, though I do prefer something frightful. Gothic stories, if you have them.”

“If we survive this, I can take you to a small bookseller in the very heart of Belladonna. He has the latest editions from abroad. You can pick whatever you like,” he said, still gesturing for her to shake his hand.

She finally shook it, clearly astounded by his offer.

The newest editions! She had never read anything that wasn’t at least a decade old—or older. With a little curtsey, she took him aside and whispered, “I’ll tell you one thing they haven’t told you. But I’m afraid you won’t like it.”

And when she told him, his face went pale and his eyes grew large. She was right: he didn’t like it at all. But now, at least, he understood.



IV: The Trick

Turold instructed the Duke to lock him in Alexandra’s bedchamber and post guards at the door. No one was to enter or leave the room without his approval. If anything happened to him, they were on no account to listen to anything Alexandra told them, no matter how she begged, pleaded, or assured them. The duke reluctantly agreed, though even Turold could tell that he would renege at the first “please, papa, open the door!” In fact, he was counting on it.

Once locked in, Turold instructed Parasha how to arrange the room: all mirrors taken down, nothing silver in sight. All furniture had to be placed at an angle from the bed, and the bed itself had to be pointing north. Alexandra, dressed in her nightgown and sitting with her legs tucked beneath her, watched with interest, but kept silent. Almost as if she had seen these preparations before.

“You know what to do?” he asked Parasha in a whisper.

“Act terrified. Act nervous. Draw all their attention to me,” she said.

“Exactly. And don’t be alarmed, whatever happens. I have a plan.”

“Be careful, the young mistress is crafty. Mind what I told you.”

He nodded. Parasha noticed that Lady Alexandra was watching them closely. But she quickly laughed it off, and said they might as well get comfortable—it could be a very long night. The Woman never came when expected.

“How can you tell when she’s coming?” he asked.

“It’s always different; sometimes I feel dizzy, or my heart starts beating rapidly,” she said, laying across the bed and kicking up her feet. “But other times, I just hear her voice, calling me from a distance. Though I don’t hear anything now.”

“Master Turold, I’m frightened,” Parasha said, glancing at the door. “Are you sure you want me to stay? You seem to have everything well in hand ... I should probably get back to work.”

“Nonsense, don’t be alarmed. Just follow my orders and you’ll be fine,” he said, patting her shoulder.

“Perhaps you should let her go,” Alexandra said. “If I threw books at papa goodness knows what I might toss at her.”

“But this time I have you in a circle of holding,” he gestured. “You won’t be able to leave the bed or throw anything outside it.”

“In that case, I’m so relieved,” Alexandra replied, cracking her knuckles.

As the sun went down and the shadows from the candles lengthened, Parasha waited, listening. She knew something was off, that the possession wasn’t as straightforward as it might appear. No, they weren’t waiting for the Woman to call her; Alexandra seemed too relaxed, or impatient, for a girl about to be invaded by a foreign presence. It suddenly occurred to her that the Woman might be under her command ... that she was the one giving orders.

“Master Turold, did you hear that?” Parasha whispered.

He had. Not a footstep or a window opening, but something deeper, as if beneath the room itself. Alexandra seemed unconcerned, lying down with her arms crossed, as if waiting—or repulsing—sleep. Turold reached out with his senses to every corner of the room and felt its approach. The Woman? No, not her ... but something else, coming closer.

A vase smashed over his head and he staggered forward, trying to steady himself. But other objects appeared out of nowhere: candlesticks, bedpans (he dodged those) and an ornate mirror (he wasn’t so lucky). The glass shattered against his skull and fell alongside him like a glittering rain. Parasha screamed and drew back, but Alexandra pounced from the bed and caught her.

“I have her, mother! The little fool, I told her what would happen!”

Slowly, a presence materialized just behind Turold, the cracked mirror still in her hands.

“Anja!” Parasha gasped.

The old woman spit on the floor, motioning for Alexandra to bring her closer.

“You were always too observant—that’s why I wanted rid of you tonight,” she said, grabbing her face. “I don’t know what you told him, but it wasn’t enough. I’ll drain his magic as I did the others’—but unlike them, he’ll give me so much more. A student of Hildigrim Blackbeard! Alexandra—take her to the lake. Feed her to the Woman. I’ll be along presently.”

“Are you sure he’s such a prize?” she asked, looking down at him. “He said he cast a spell of holding, but I danced right out of it. And the other night, when I tossed him on the ceiling ... he seems weak, mother.”

“He underestimated us, that’s all. He didn’t see a young girl and an old woman as much of a threat. His mistake!”

“Please, you can’t do this, I beg of you, mistress! I did nothing wrong!” Parasha wept.

“Silly fool, you’re a snoop and a gossip,” she snapped. “We’re well rid of you. You almost alerted the last sorcerer, and I saw you make eyes at this one. No, you’re better off at the bottom of the lake with the Woman. Now go!”

Alexandra marched her to the door and began crying at the keyhole: “Papa, come save me!” Not surprisingly, the duke was waiting just a few feet beyond, desperate to hear the good news. At her first cry he ran for the door, but cautioned himself not to unlock it: remember what Turold told you! It wasn’t her asking, after all, but that evil sorceress. Give the sorcerer time, he told himself, and don’t give in to Alexandra’s wiles. Not this time.

“Papa, please! I’m better now—he’s cured me! But he’s fighting with the Woman and I don’t want to get hurt! Let me and Parasha escape! Save us, papa!”

He spent a frantic minute warring with himself before he relented and opened the door. As soon as he saw her he threw open his arms to receive her—only to draw back in terror. She looked pale, her eyes vacant and looking past him, not recognizing him at all. Parasha struggled, but Alexandra clutched her hair like a bridle and pressed forward.

“My child! What’s wrong ... has he done something to hurt you?”

“Get back to your room!” she shouted.

With a sigh he backed away, feeling for the darkened stairwell behind him. He had such high hopes for Turold, but in the end they were all the same. Six sorcerers now, each one buried clandestinely in the wilds of his estate. Thank goodness he had Anja to help him in these matters; he would be lost without her. He whispered good-night to his daughter and vanished up the stairwell.

Alexandra marched Parasha outside and along a moonlit path into the surrounding forest. The servant made frantic attempts to struggle and cry out, though it was only for show. While the sorcerer seemed surprised and vanquished, she knew it was all part of his plan. At least, she hoped this was all part of his plan ... or that he even had a plan.

“Where are you taking me?” she cried out, so Turold could follow her voice.

“Where do you think? To the cold embrace of the Woman, who hungers for human flesh,” she said, jerking her along. “She drives me day and night to find her stepmother, knowing good and well she’ll never find her. Tonight, you’ll have to do. At least you won’t be missed. I’ve killed a few people I almost regret, like my best friend, Irina. You’ll see her bones at the bottom of the lake.”

Soon the enchanted lake glittered between the silhouettes of branches and leaves. Not an insect stirred or a frog croaked near its banks; yet the entire forest seemed to watch, breathlessly, for the waters to part. Alexandra pushed Parasha toward the lake and shouted with full-throated gusto:

Vek’yatin yekahmoos, vek’yatin ethrasil!

Parasha crawled away from the water’s edge, expecting a tentacle to splash out of the depths and lay hold of her. But nothing happened. The waters remained still, the night continued to sleep. She looked back at Alexandra, who stared blankly into its depths, looking, waiting ...

“I’ve brought her to you! Don’t you want her? I think this is the one!” she cried.

Parasha scanned the shore for any sign of the Woman, her breath as still as the water. She also listened for some sign of Turold, expecting him to come crashing through the brush—or even out of the water itself, to surprise them. But only deathly silence invaded the lake. Alexandra paced back and forth, repeating the invocation under her breath and stamping her feet. Where was she? She always came when called, especially when she had a tempting sacrifice in hand!

“There’s something wrong ... I can’t hear her, or she’s been silenced. We’re going back,” she said, reaching for Parasha.

But Parasha evaded her, running behind a tree and ready to fight her off with whatever was at hand—a rock, a branch, her teeth, if necessary. Alexandra howled with rage and lunged at her, but stumbled at the last minute and crashed against the tree. She drew back, dazed and bleeding, enraged at the servant’s insolence.

“There’s nowhere to run! The Woman will find you! You can’t escape!”

Apparently, she could; Parasha raced through the brush and darkness back to the estate. She stole glances behind her, but Alexandra was nowhere to be seen. So she continued into the house and made her way through the halls and stairwells to Alexandra’s room, grabbing a knife from the pantry for good measure. She had never killed before, but if she saw Anja—especially that grim, haughty look she often gave—she wouldn’t think twice.

She paused outside the door, listening. Someone was still in the room, though there were no voices. Yet she could hear a faint hum, the sound of breathing, or gasping, just beyond. Parasha cracked open the door, knife at the ready. She would strike at the first thing that moved.

Inside, she saw Turold standing in the corner, arms crossed, looking pensive. Across the room, which required opening the door a crack further, she beheld Anja on her knees, clutching and clawing at her throat. The old woman finally staggered up and tried to run to the door, but came short, losing her balance. Anja crashed against the wall and snatched at the curtains, which brutally tore in her grasp as she sank down.

“Never! I won’t let you!” she gasped.

All the while, Turold stared on, clearly disturbed by the proceedings but unwilling to help. Parasha instinctively opened the door, her eyes wide, as if under a spell. Turold saw her and motioned her to stop.

“Stay where you are!” he called. “Don’t confuse her. She’s found her prey.”

She wanted to ask questions, but she couldn’t lift her gaze from the sight of Anja on her knees, howling and snorting with every ounce of her strength. Then, like the transition of night to day, she stopped struggling and stood bolt upright. Inhumanly upright, as if something had pulled her taught, breaking her spine to do so. That’s when Parasha saw she was levitating just above the floor, her slippers hanging down, the left one slipping off. Exposing a foot without a toe.

Anja’s head turned to Turold and grinned in a lifeless, mirthless, manner.

“I thank you, sorcerer, for locating the witch. She has much to answer for ... and all eternity to pay the price.”

“You’ll release your hold on the girl?” he asked.

“She is free. Her mind will be wiped clean ... she will only remember what you choose to tell her.”

With that, Anja hovered to the window and unbolted it. The panes swung open and filled the room with the moist chill of midnight. As the moonlight fell on the old woman’s face, she said the familiar phrase once more, but this time like a lullaby: vek’yatin yekahmoos ... vek’yatin ethrasil. Then she hurled herself out of the window and plunged into the darkness below.

Parasha gasped and ran to the window, though there was nothing to see, no sign of the body. She never heard it land, either; it seemed to boil away on the night air, settling like mist in the treetops. Turold came up behind her and clasped her shoulder.

“I don’t understand ... what happened to her?” she asked.

“The Woman found her witch. It was Anja all along.”

“But that’s not possible ... I was here when she arrived,” Parasha objected. “I saw her come from far away—she knew nothing about these lands.”

She didn’t, because the witch was already here,” he explained, closing the window. “She’d been hiding in the estate for years, now as a cook, now as a servant. But when Madame Borowski arrived, the witch took possession of her. It was the perfect disguise, since the witch typically preferred young men and women. And as Anja she had access to Alexandra, who became her willing—or perhaps unwilling—accomplice.”

“Then why was she after you?”

“Her ultimate objective was to exorcise the Woman herself. But she wasn’t strong enough. She needed powerful magic—mine, the other sorcerers’. She knew me by reputation, or more specifically, my master. She hoped with his magic she could finish the job.”

Parasha reflected on the strange relationship between Anja and Alexandra, which did indeed seem to be more like master and servant—just the wrong way around. Alexandra revered her, and a few times had let the word “mother” slip when addressing her. Alexandra’s late mother was a saint, the kindest soul imaginable; the severity of the comparison repulsed her.

“And how did you know? Was this your plan all along?”

“Regrettably, no ... not until you told me about the other sorcerers,” he said, with a laugh. “When I realized I was the sixth one to arrive, I knew it was more than a run-of-the-mill possession. But once I solved that, the rest started falling into place, particularly as I watched Anja—her movements, her speech.”

“But how did you summon the Woman here? I thought she could only move through Alexandra?”

“No, and that’s why I had to get her out of the way, which is where you came in,” he said, sheepishly. “I cast a spell to teleport her directly to the room, directly into Anja’s body. Or whoever she was.”

They both looked at the window again, half-expecting to see Anja clawing her way back into the room, howling for revenge. Yet nothing appeared, and the night softened, thick clouds obscuring the face of the moon.

“I suppose we should find Alexandra and return her to her father,” Turold said, dusting his hands. “I certainly wouldn’t mind getting paid.”

“And she’s ... back to normal? Even after all she’s done?”

“She won’t remember a thing,” he nodded. “Whether that’s just, given the extent of her crimes, I can’t say. Others will have to stand in judgment.”

“Anja corrupted her, I saw the change,” Parasha said, following him out of the room. “Though I’m not sure she needed much persuasion. She was always ... a willful child.”

“Then maybe I’ll have to return someday? If so, I’ll need an assistant. Magicians work best in pairs.”

He looked at her meaningfully, though she didn’t catch his meaning at once.

“What—me? A magician?” she said, with a piercing laugh. “But I couldn’t! I’ve spent my entire life on this estate, cleaning, doing laundry.”

“And reading books—you said so,” he reminded her. “Your preference for gothic novels is as good a preparation as any. Witches, possessions, dark magic ... you’re already familiar with the landscape.”

“Hmm, you did promise me some new books,” she said, twirling her hair thoughtfully. “I always felt I was meant for more than this place, though it sounds foolish when I say it now.”

“On the contrary, maybe that’s why I’m here,” he said, pausing in the shadows. “I came here to find my Master ... but maybe I was meant to find my apprentice? Maybe this is fate’s way of telling me to move on, to stop waiting for the dead to speak?”

“Could you tell me about him? Your Master?”

“Ah, that might take some time. But I suppose we have a long ride back to Belladonna. You are coming, aren’t you?”

In response, she toppled a vase from an antique stand—priceless, from long before the Insurrection—and watched it shatter. Turold gasped.

“I’ve always wanted to do that ... these old heirlooms glaring at me day and night. And all they needed is a good push.”

“As a magician, you might be tempted to shatter a lot of vases. You’ll have to work on that.”

“Then let’s hope I have a good teacher,” she said, taking his arm.

(next)
Occult Red