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The Coven's Crucible

The Covens Crucible

They met about noon on a drizzly December day sometime between the catfish skinning, and the crawdad shucking. Matt was the newest resident of the little Plaquemines Parish town of Venice, Louisiana, about 80 miles south of New Orleans. He had seen the signs around town advertising the fair, and felt compulsively drawn to see this slice of local life. He’d only been working in the area for about a week when the annual Orange Festival took place a few miles up the road in Buris at the historic site of Fort Jackson on that cool wet day.

Built by slave labor in 1822 to guard the mouth of the Mississippi the fort was named after Andrew Jackson, and saw a bloody action during the American Civil War. During its only battle it had been bombarded for twelve days by Union ships before its soldiers finally mutinied and slaughtered their officers. Their surrender opened the way for the North to finally capture the all-important city of New Orleans, and hastened the end of the Confederacy. Constructed out of native stone and designed in the shape of a pentagram it held the mantra of blood and betrayal for almost 200 years.

Knowing nothing about its dark history the young man from California quickly grew bored watching catfish lose their skins, and left the forts exposed parade ground. Wearing only a light jacket he sought refuge from the rain he went into its musty interior checking out a few of the festivals other attractions. It was there he ended up meeting a witch named Abigail.

She was a very attractive twenty five year old southern belle, who seemed as normal as the second grade school teacher that she also was. With long flowing waves of chestnut brown hair, vibrant blue eyes, and very tight jeans, he was immediately enchanted.

Their eyes met over the souvenir counter she was volunteering at, and playfully introduced herself by asking, “You’re not from around here are you?”

Instantly drawn to her covert flirting and seemingly unimpressed demeanor Matt approached her counter having no idea that his life would never be the same. “Why do you say that?”

“Have you looked in a mirror lately?

“Of course, I looked at one a week or two ago.”

She squinted suspiciously at him and said, “Perhaps I was wrong. What’re you doing here?”

“It’s raining outside.” He innocently answered.

“No, I meant…never mind.” She said smiling coquettishly, as a jolt of electricity seemed to spark between them.

To Matt her smile lit up the gloomy interior of the fort and he was suddenly struck with an inability to think of anything else to say to this beautiful young woman. So he just looked at her, smiled back, and finally managed an inept attempt to keep the conversation going. “What’re you doing here?” Pure genius.

“I grew up in Buras, and volunteer here every year.”

“Oh, so, you’re a local girl?”

“Well yeah, kind of, but I live in New Orleans now, and teach school.”

“You mean you’re actually out of school?”

“Cute.” She said dryly, “You really know how to charm a girl.”

Suddenly feeling embarrassed and a little self-conscious Matt decided to cut his losses and make a quick exit. He quickly told her to have a nice day, and made his way back outside to watch the speed at which crawdads can have their shells removed. After a few minutes of silently standing at the back of the cheering crowd he was beginning to feel completely out of place, and started thinking about leaving altogether. As he turned to leave he almost bumped into the girl from the souvenir counter standing next to him like she didn’t even notice he was there.

She happily saw that he seemed pleasantly shocked that she was standing there, but feigned surprise and said, “Oh, it’s you. You’re still here?”

“Um yeah. I was just about to head out.” More brilliance.

“Well, in that case I think that I’d better escort you out to your car.”

This got his attention, and he seemed slightly confused for a moment before finally telling her, “I appreciate that. Really, but I can probably find my way.”

“It’s not your car I’m concerned about.”

“You’re concerned?” He asked hopefully.

“It’s not what you think,” she dryly told him, “I know you can find your car, but you’ll have to walk past all the constables hanging out at the entrance.”

“Cops?”

“Local cops.”

“But I haven’t done anything remotely wrong.” He said slightly defensively.

“That proves it,” she said conclusively, “you definitely aren’t from around here.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, I need to escort you to your car.” She told him as she grabbed his arm and began to lead him out of the fort’s gate.

“By the way, my names Matt. What’s yours?”

Before she had a chance to answer they walked out, and just like she had told him there were about a dozen local constables having a barbecue directly on the outside of the forts main gate. She instantly stopped them dead in their tracks.

As soon as the police saw them the oldest looking man in uniform stopped what he was doing, walked over to where Matt was being escorted, and stopped in directly in front of him. Without taking his eyes off Matt, the older man said to the girl, “Bon jour Abigail. Leaving so soon?”

“Marshall Thibodaux,” she deferentially answered the older cop, “I’d like to introduce you to…”

“Mister Mathew Spears.” The Marshall interrupted. “Just recently arrived in Venice from California. How do you do young man?”

A cold chill suddenly ran up Matt’s spine, as he was barely able to answer the badge now standing directly in front of him. “Just fine sir. Do I know you?” He politely asked knowing full well he had never laid eyes on this man before.

“No Mister Spears,” the Marshall told him without even a hint of a smile, “but it’s my job to know everyone who comes to my parish. Welcome to Plaquemines.” He touched the brim of his constable’s cap, and stepped back away from Matt’s path. “You two have a nice day now. Ya hear?”

“Thank you Marshall.” Said Abigail as she quickly guided the shocked to silence young man away from the group of cops and to his car. “That went better than I thought it would.” She whispered as he unlocked the car door.

“Better? Really? Well thanks, I guess.” He said absently minded, and still in shock from the encounter. He quickly recovered his composure, turned to back Abigail, then realizing the opportunity that was standing right in front of him asked her. “How can I repay the favor?”

She handed him a small slip of paper and whispered in his ear, “The next time you come to New Orleans, buy me lunch.”

He leaned slightly towards her and asked, “How about dinner instead?”

She stopped his forward movement with a hand on his chest and told him, “First lunch, then we’ll see about dinner.”

***

Abigail stood in the drizzle and watched the young man drive away. Even before she turned to go back into the fort she felt the presence. She could always feel its presence. His presence. Even when she was in far away New Orleans, he was never far away. No place was ever going to be far enough away. She felt those eyes burning into her spine, her soul, and knew what those eyes could do. As the car disappeared into the rainy day, she slowly turned to go back in the fort and heard the low growl of his words as he confronted her. As she knew he would. “Careful little one. He be dangerous that one, and he don’t even know it. N’est pas?”

Hanging her head in submission she blankly stared at the Marshal’s mud splattered boots and quietly answered, “Oui, je comprends, maître.” She slowly raised her eyes until they met the glowing red of his. “It’s just that I-I immediately felt the strength of his power, and was drawn to it. Excusez-moi, if I have displeased you.”

“Drawn!” The Marshal hissed harshly, then immediately softened his glare, tempered his tone, and continued, “Like a moth eh? Ah, très bon, mon petit chat. Make sure this flame that draws you in does not burn you as well. You know how we hate fire.” He smiled for the first time that day, and felt a sense of satisfaction as he saw her recoil at the sight of his pitch-black teeth. “As always, you will be watched. This ends now Mademoiselle Latour, à bientôt.” With an ever so slight bow he turned quickly to go back to his deputies and left her rooted in the mud.

Oh my God! What have I done? She thought, as she finally broke free of the sucking mud and started hurrying back to the festival, back to the relative safety of being surrounded by humans once again. Why do I always come back here? Will I never break the spell of the swamp? She felt a small amount of remorse about drawing in the young man, but ultimately knew that no matter what she did or didn’t do about him, the coven was now fully aware of his existence. A growing sense of dread began to take root, as the only question in her mind was, what would they do about him?

***

As Matt drove back to his hotel he was convinced that he had just had the strangest set of encounters of his life. Thinking, Did all that really just happen? He shut the car off, opened the door, and immediately stepped into a mud puddle. Well, that’s about par, then realized he needed to write her phone number down in his logbook before he lost it the paper and hurried into his room to do just that.

He knew that he would have to wait at least twenty-four hours before he finally called her. Only desperate assholes call right away. He also knew that it would be the longest twenty-four hours he’d had in many years. Who was this young lady who had so flawlessly entered his life? Oh shit, he thought, I didn’t even get her last name.

With an air of trepidation Matt went to bed that night with a full plate on his troubled mind. Every attempt to think of the blue-eyed angel he had met that day at the old fort quickly melted into a visage of something else, something decidedly not angelic, but the exact opposite. Something dark. Something old. Something evil. As sleep began to overtake him he found it impossible to concentrate on her. His mind kept slipping beyond the boundaries of his control. It wasn’t the image of soft chestnut brown hair he had hoped to fill his dreams with. It was a nightmare of horror that seeped into them instead.

He was standing waist deep in a moonless swamp of rancid mud covered by three feet of swamp water that was as still and silent as fresh corpse. It was hot, humid, and stunk of rot. The creatures that made the darkness their home filled the night with their screeching, croaking, and hungry cries. A paralysis suddenly overtook him, and rendered him unable to move out of the sucking mud. He felt something with multiple legs crawl onto his ankle, and into his pants leg from under the water. It then move upwards till it made its way past his crotch and inside his shirt. He could feel every footfall of the tiny legs as they worked their way up his belly, onto his neck, and after stopping to probe an ear, it moved onto his face where it bit him just below his left eye drawing blood. Terror gripped him as he felt every slither of some kind of a macabre swamp eel with legs as it continued crawling, and biting as it explored his body. A scream began to build in his throat, but he was unable to utter a sound.

He heard a large splash very close to him, but instead of the expected water his face was splattered with globs of stinking mud. That sent the biting pest scurrying for cover back down inside his shirt, and Matt’s fear became palpable when he felt something large brush past his submerged leg. Still unable to move anything but his eyes he looked as far to the right as he could and in his peripheral vision he saw a pair of red glowing eyes silently approach him through the gloom of the swamp.

The glowing eyes approached to within inches of his face and Matt smelled the vile breath of whatever was now standing directly in front of him. It smelled of something long dead. Raspy breathing of whatever was snow standing in front of him filled his ears. The rasp quickly turned into an unnatural clicking sound. As the sound grew so did the brightness of the glowing red eyes. As the eyes grew brighter an image of a man slowly grew out of the total darkness. He wore a hooded cloak that covered a gaunt pale face, but soon the facial features had become slightly legible. There was something bizarrely familiar about that skeletal face, and within a few seconds Matt realized that this was the old Marshall he had met outside the fort.

They were now so close their noses almost touched. The old man’s tongue flicked out, and Matt felt the thin forks of a serpent lick across his trembling lips. He tried to recoil at the slimy touch, but was still unable to move a muscle. The specter then brushed its nose around Matt’s face breathing deep as if to smell his fear.

Finally the hooded man spoke to him in an ancient language that Matt was somehow able to understand. He didn’t know the words, but somehow he fully understood their meaning, “You are not the strongest warlock in this swamp, and you will never leave it again. Your soul be drowning here long beyond le jour de jugement.”

The eyes began to glow extremely bright, too bright for Matt to look at. He tightly squeezed his eyes shut to block out the harsh red light, and was suddenly unable to breath. It was as if he had become submerged under the thick dark water. Quickly the lack of air began to suffocate him as his heart pounded erratically in his chest, and he sucked filthy swamp water up through his nostrils and into his lungs. He quickly sank deeper into the fetid water. Bubbles of precious air seeped out from the lips so recently kissed by the serpent, and as he receded from the life giving surface the red glow began to dim until once again; all was black.

Suddenly he started to gasp for life giving breath as his mouth opened, and he screamed. He screamed loud, and long, and in abject terror. He then opened his eyes and saw that he was actually lying in his bed. Kicking wildly he flailed the soaked sheets off him, and stumbled into the bathroom to wash the cold sweat off his face and body. When he got to the sink he looked up to the mirror and stared in horror at the small puncture wound underneath his left eye, and wet dark mud still stuck in his hair.

***

Matt was so shaken by the nightmare that he waited fully two days before calling Abigail, and making the lunch date. She seemed distant and a little standoffish at first, but agreed to the lunch date that she had originally suggested. He left early for their first date and drove the 80 miles from Venice to New Orleans.

They met at a French Quarter restaurant near Jackson Square. She was a little shocked when he approached her with his left eye still purple and swollen. She said nothing about it until after they were seated then decided his eye was a good subject to start with, “Did you get into a bar fight recently? I guess I should see the other guy, huh?”

His answer sucked the air right out of her lungs; “This happened that first night after we met. I went to bed fine, and woke up with this.” He gave her a probing look before continuing; “I had a nightmare where I was standing in a swamp when something bit me under my eye. Oh, and while I was there I met the old Marshall. He licked me with a serpents tongue, and spoke to me in a language that I’d never heard before, but I still understood him. Crazy, huh?”

The blood drained away from her face as she struggled to find the right words to say next. It took a moment before she could speak, “Are you sure that you didn’t fall out of bed and hit your eye?”

“Some kind of eel bit me. Here, look at the puncture.” He touched a finger to his cheek and pulled the skin down to better show her the bite mark. “It’s still there. I couldn’t have done that falling out of bed.”

“Have you had any more nightmares like that?”

“I haven’t really slept since.”

She was now thoroughly concerned about him, but knew she couldn’t say too much, but one question burned in her mind, and in spite of her reservations she couldn’t but ask him, “Do you remember what the Marshall said to you?”

“Not all of it. All I can really recall is that he said my soul would drown in that swamp.”

Abigail audibly gasped and looked down at her at the gumbo that had just arrived. Her appetite was completely gone. She managed to recover enough to turn the conversation to a less ominous subject., and they continued with their meal with no more mention of his nightmare.

She barely touched her food, and once it was obvious that lunch was over they left the restaurant and slowly walked through Jackson Square. The square was full of street vendors and had a carnival like atmosphere. As they moved through the crowd Abigail noticed a woman standing stark still, following them with her eyes. She was at the area of the square where slaves had been auctioned off for hundreds of years. Abigail hurried them through the park, and as they approached her car Matt asked if he could see her again.

Part of her wanted to tell him that she couldn’t ever see him again, but another, more convincing part of her, knew that she had to see this through. She wasn’t sure if either of them was really in any danger, but felt he deserved more than a brush off. She had, after all, been responsible for what was happening to him now. I really do like this guy, she thought, but instead just said, “Call me, and we’ll see.” She gave him a small hug, got into her car, and saw him in the mirror just standing on the sidewalk watching her drive away.

***

Matt wasn’t sure what their first date meant. She seemed distant, and not overly enthusiastic about seeing him again. In spite of that he waited a couple days before calling her again. He had had no more nightmares since that first night.

Their second date was dinner in a rotating restaurant on the 33rd floor of a building at the end of Canal Street next to the river. There was no talk of nightmares, swamps, or insect bites. They simply enjoyed each other’s company, and it was obvious to both of them that they very much liked each other. The night ended with another hug, but this time he got a kiss on the cheek as well.

On their third date he took them to the House of Blues in the French Quarter. They danced to jazz, drank red wine, and during a slow dance she whispered in his ear and informed him that she was a witch.

“I know some witches, and they’re nothing like you.” He joked with her.

“No, I mean I’m really a witch, as in Wicca witch. Understand?”

“Not really. So, are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”

“How original. A Wicked Witch of the West joke.” She gave him a suspicious look and asked, “Do you believe me?”

“Is this a test?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, of course I believe you.”

“Liar.”

“No really, I believe you, and I’m a warlock.”

“I know.”

“I was kidding.”

“I’m not.”

“Um, ok. The dance is over. Can we just go back to our table and change the subject?”

They stayed and talked about other things until after mid-night. This time when he walked her to her car she kissed him on the lips and asked if he’d like to follow her home. He did, and as soon as he walked into her apartment he discovered that she was, in fact, a witch.

Her bookshelves were full of books about Wicca, and her apartment was full of wards. Some of the books were new paperbacks, and some were obviously very old. She sat down on the couch with him, and opened up a very old looking book with a leather cover, and no name on the outside. Inside the title page simply said: the Bible of Shadows. She began to explain about the world of Wicca, but they soon ended up in each other’s arms, and eventually ended up in her bed.

The next morning Matt got up early, and prepared to return back to Venice. Abigail also got up, made coffee, and as they sat at her table silently drinking the black brew his mind was a swirling tornado of questions. Finally Matt broke the silence and asked the question that had been burning in his chest since the night before. “What did you mean when you hinted at me being some kind of witch?”

“Not witch. Warlock.”

“Yeah, that. So, what did you mean?”

She gave him a stern look that quickly turned thoughtful as she tried to think of a way to tell him what he needed to know without scaring him off. “Matt, have you ever experienced events in your life that couldn’t explain?”

“Of course. Everyone does. There’s nothing preternatural about that.”

She reached over and took his hands in hers, looked him deep in the eyes, and asked, “How about something you’ve felt excessively strong about that soon happens just the way it formed in your thoughts?”

“Well…yeah, but what do you mean by ‘excessively?”

“It means that perhaps some of the things that happen when you think about them, happen because you caused them to.”

“That crazy.” He said pulling his hands away from her and waving one in front of him as if to ward off her explanation. “It’s just coincidence.” He insisted.

“No Matt. It’s power,” she told him, then went on to completely disorient his perception of everything he had ever thought about the world around him, “and it’s why I approached you at the fair.”

Saying nothing in response he slightly shook his head as he gave her a slight frown, but incomprehension was written all over his face. She quickly realized that if she didn’t explain it all he would soon bolt out the door. “Matt, I instantly saw who, or rather what you are, and felt drawn to meet you.”

“And here all this time I thought it was my charming wit that attracted you. Now I find it’s because I should be riding a broomstick.” He managed to say sarcastically.

“You need to take this seriously, because by me paying attention to you that day at the fair, I inadvertently exposed you to the coven.”

“Exposed me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” He demanded.

Knowing she had gone too far not to tell him the rest, she tried to calm him down by placing her arms around his neck. It instantly had the desired effect, but he was still confused, and suspicious. “The Marshall is the covens Grand Maître…”

“The Grand what?”

“Grand Master, and I knew that he would see you walk past, know what you are, and who knows what would have happened. As it turns out he did come see you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your nightmare in the swamp,” she told him, “was actually a visitation. From him.”

“But why would I be of interest?” Matt dubiously asked, “There’s nothing special about me.”

She laid her head against his chest and softly told him the one thing she had been fearing to expose, but knew he needed to be armed with the knowledge that he obviously had no clue to, “That’s where you’re wrong Matt. You are special. You have the Gift, and it’s very strong in you.”

“No! You’re wrong. I’m just a normal guy who stumbled into something weird here, but I’ve got no spell casting ability.” He insisted unconvincingly.

“No Matt. You’re the one who’s wrong.” She fired back, “You do have power, but just aren’t aware of it, or more importantly; how to control it. That’s what makes you seem dangerous to the Master…and the coven. That’s why you’re in danger. He see’s you as an uncontrollable force to be dealt with.”

“This is just nuts, Abigail.” He pushed her away, and pressed his hands against his ears not wanting to hear any more, “I can’t believe I’m actually listening to this. I’m a witch, you’re a witch…wait a second.” He took his hands down, and gave her a hard scrutinizing look. “Just where exactly, do you fit onto all this? Are you part of this coven too?”

“Yes Matt,” she stepped back and folded her arms across her chest as she spoke, ”I’m both a witch and a member of the coven. Through heredity.”

“So, you’re born into it?” He asked with un-concealable skepticism.

“As were you,” she answered defensively, “it’s just that my family was aware, and has embraced this culture for hundreds of years. Yours obviously, has not.”

“Yeah, grandma must’ve left out that part of our family’s history lessons.”

“That’s why you need to go back to California Matt, and never come back.” She reluctantly told him.

“I don’t understand. Why should I have to leave?”

“Because they see you as an outsider. A strong force for which they have no control over, and fear you for it.” Seeing the incredulity on his face she tried to make it clear to him, “That’s why you’re in danger.”

Matt started walking towards the door in a daze. As he placed his hand on the doorknob he stood still for a second, and without turning towards her said, “This is the strangest way I’ve ever been dumped. Don’t worry, I won’t bother you again.” He opened the door, and began walking to his car. As he started the car he looked over at her front door, and saw her still standing there watching him leave. She seemed small, and vulnerable. He was just numb.

She gave him a small wave that he didn’t look back to see, and then stood there watching until his car was out of sight. She was convinced that she had done the right thing, but hated herself for doing it. As she closed the door and turned around a small scream escaped from her throat, because sitting on her couch sat the Grand Maître, and his eyes glowed angrily red.

***

He was wearing his Marshall’s uniform, but that didn’t make him seem any less frightening to Abigail then did the blood red cloak that he wore to the gatherings. He had always had that effect on her. Every since she was a little girl he had dominated, not only her own family, but all of the thirteen families who contributed to the coven community. The fingers of his domination spread far and wide through out the parish and centered on the old fort. No one could even remember a time when Beltran Thibodaux wasn’t the Grand Maître. Coven lore was full of whispered rumors that he had actually led the mutinous uprising in the fort that had resulted in the slaughter of the Confederate officers 154 years before. He was ancient, he unmerciful, and his grasp on power was undisputed. Now he sat on Abigail’s couch glaring at her with murderous contempt.

“What have you done little one?” he asked with an unconvincing gentleness in his voice, and then answered his own question. “You have consummated that which you were told to abandon, and now your actions have forced my hand.”

With her knees about to buckle Abigail was barely able to ask, “What will you do Maître?” Tears began forming in her eyes as she fell to her knees and looked away from his disapproving scowl.

“What must be done!” He shouted at her. “Those will do you no good,” he said indicating the tears streaming down her face, “I believe you already know that there be no mercy here.” He suddenly stood up towering over her trembling form now kneeling by the door. “Bring the young man to the fort in six days hence.”

“W-why?”

“I am convening a Shadow of the Moon ceremony at the next full moon. Both you and he will be there, and you will be judged.” He stopped at the door, and without looking down at her crumpled form he spoke the words that sent a chill down her spine. “He will be tried by a Crucible by Five at the ceremony. Do not fail to bring him Abigail. He will surely be convicted if you fail in this, and you know what a conviction means. Mais oui?”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Très bon.” He said as he walked out the door, then stopped as if he had forgotten something, and growled, “You know of course that your relationship would never have been allowed to continue.” It was a statement, not a question.

Abigail sat slumped forward with her hair covering her face, and heard his footfalls as they grew steadily more distant, but did not look up.

I’m too late. Oh my God, when will this curse end? She thought, and then limped back to her bed, crawled in, curled up a fetal position, and cried until there were no more tears left.

***

As he drove away from Abigail’s house Matt’s hands were shaking as he gripped the wheel of the car. It wasn’t her dumping him that had upset him so much. It was what she had told him about his own life that had virtually torn his soul right out of his chest. It’s because her assessment of him explained much of what had troubled him his practically his whole life.

He had to admit that there had been many times in his past that were completely unexplainable, and completely disturbing, but it wasn’t the almost benign way she had described it. It was far worse.

Since he was a little boy anyone who had threatened him met a bad end, and it continued until this day. Time and time again those who had trespassed against him had experienced bad accidents, deadly disease, or done some injury to their own self. In fact it had become obvious to him that whenever this had happened it had always been self-inflicted. However, knowing this helped not at all. It became anger management in the extreme. It had gotten to the point that if he had a problem with anyone he would try his best to forgive, and forget the injury in order to avoid yet another victim to what he simply had no explanation for. Now perhaps, he did. Was witchcraft really the answer? He wondered. Was that the explanation that had always eluded him? Am I really responsible?

On the outside it seemed absolutely crazy, but this seemingly smart and well-grounded woman believed it out right. Of that it was absolutely sure. She believed everything she told him, and in that he really couldn’t discount her convictions even though he really wanted to.

He decided that he would follow her advice and leave the area. He had grown very fond of her, and before this morning, had even begun to dream of being in a real relationship with her. Now those dreams were shattered, and she would become just a pleasant memory. He looked around the room, and realized that it wouldn’t take long to pack. He hardly had anything, but a few clothes to take. His baggage would be light. He would stop by the plant in the morning where he worked and give his two weeks notice. Two weeks to dwell on his time here.

Later that evening, as he lay on the bed contemplating his next move, it was with utter surprise that her number appeared when his cell phone rang. He had thought that she had totally dismissed him from her life. It was with complete uncertainty that he answered the phone, “Hello Abigail. Did I leave something at your house?”

“More than you could know.” Came the meek response, then silence.

She expects me to say something now? He thought, and then said coolly, “What do you want?”

“Matt…I’m so sorry, but I need to see you again.” She said as she tried to keep her tears in check. “It’s important. You know that right? Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you again.”

“Why?” That one word cut like a scalpel.

Without really answering his quietly question she told him “In a few days I’ll call again, and then come down to see you. Will you see me?” She asked, afraid that he would refuse, but actually wanting him to do so.

“Call me, and we’ll talk then,” he told her, “and we’ll see. That’s the best I can do right now.”

“Matt, this is important. You know that right?”

“Yeah, well. So was last night.” He said, and then hung up.

***

Five days later she called him. He let his phone ring six times before he finally answered her call, and when he did answer he was torn between wanting to hear her voice again, and wanting to just let it ring. In the end he caved in and answered. “Hello stranger. What’s up?”

“Hi Matt. How’re doing?”

“Ok. What’s up?” Repeating his earlier question.

“I understand that you must hate me now…”

“I don’t hate you Abigail. Why would you even think that?”

“It’s just that I would understand if you did.” She said forlornly, “I need to see you tomorrow night. I’ll come down there. Is that alright?”

After a moment of silence he finally spoke, “Fine Abigail. Where and what time?”

“I-I’ll pick you up at your hotel about 10:00 PM.”

“Why so late?”

“It’s the soonest I can get there. I teach night school till 8:30, and this is the quickest I can get there,” she lied to him, and followed up again with, “it’s really important Matt.”

“So, you keep saying. What’s so important about this meeting Abigail?”

“It just is…” She said, and then hung up.

On Friday night at 10:08 PM there was a soft knock at his door. Matt stood in front of the door debating for a moment before opening it, and was a bit shocked at what he saw. It was Abigail, but she was dressed in a scarlet hooded robe. Her eyes had the darkest mascara he had ever seen on anyone outside of a Vampire movie. “You taught class in that?” Was the first thing that came to his mind, and then followed up with, “What do you teach? Halloween costumes?”

She just looked at him without smiling, and asked, “Are you ready to go?”

“No, not really. I thought you were just coming over to talk?”

“We can talk on the way.” She said as she turned around and walked back towards her car. When it became evident that he was not following her, she stopped and turned back to face him, “I need you to come with me Matt.”

“First you need to explain what this is all about Abigail, and then we’ll see if I’m coming or not.” He said resolutely not budging from his spot.

She didn’t want to tell him what was planned, because she was too scared of the consequences if he didn’t go with her, but not telling him meant that those consequences were sure to happen, so in the end she had no choice. “There’s a gathering tonight Matt. It was demanded of me to bring you to it.”

“Who demanded it, and why? He demanded of her.

“The Grand Maître did.” When Matt’s eyebrows rose, she answered the unspoken question. “You’ve met him already. At the festival the day you and I met. He’s the parish Marshall.”

“And the stuff of nightmares.” He countered with.

“Yes, exactly that,” she said, “and he’s called for a trail of five.”

He gave her a scrupulous look, and said, “I gather that I’m to be the defendant?”

“Yes, exactly that.” She repeated.

“And if I refuse to be led to the slaughter?” He demanded harshly.

“You will be found guilty. Then they will sentence you in absentia,” she answered while looking at the ground, “and there is only one punishment.”

“Why the Hell are you involved in this? Was this your plan all along?”

“No Matt,” she practically pleaded, “of course not. I simply have no choice, and neither do you.” A sob gripped her as she tried to explain, “Y-you have to believe me; I never w-wanted any of this.”

“Believing isn’t high on my list of abilities right now.” He told her, “That’s like the executioner telling the condemned man how sorry he is to slip the noose around their neck.” He relented just a little seeing her so distraught, “Perhaps not, and yet, here we are.”

“Matt, listen to me. There’s a chance, admittedly small, but a chance that the council finds you innocent, but if you don’t go they will convict you, and hunt you down,” Her voice cracked somewhat, but she found the strength to continue, “and that’s the only reason why I agreed to this. It’s your only chance.”

Matt shook his head in disbelief, but his intuition was beginning to sway him to go with her. He knew that she would be in as much danger as he was if he ran, and that whatever fate awaited him, awaited her as well. Finally with air of acquiescence he told her, “Fine, then lead the way. I’ll go with you.” He gave her a look of disappointment, and got his coat. “Will you at least speak up for me at the gathering?”

“I wish I could Matt, but only the Crucible by Five can speak, or make a decision.”

“Great. So, should we say our goodbyes now, or does it matter?” He asked her.

“I’m so sorry. I wish I could do something, but this is my curse as well.

“Yeah? Me too. Let’s go.” He said as he grabbed a heavy jacket, walked out the door brushing past her, and went to her car.

***

They drove in silence the ten minutes it took to get to the old fort. When she pulled into the driveway to the grassy area outside the forts walls that served as a parking lot the entrance had a sheriff’s on both sides. There were about twenty cars in the dark lot, including several more sheriffs’ cars.

They got out of the car and Abigail led the way towards the front gate of the fort. The same gate she had escorted him out of a few weeks before. When they got into the fort she led them to the center of the parade ground. All was quiet. All was dark. However, once they reached the center of the fort Matt heard the gate doors slam shut. He could feel the presence of others. Many others. As his eyes became adjusted to the darkness he could make out dozens of people all standing on every side of the side of the parade ground. They were encircled.

Suddenly thirteen torches were lit with each equidistant from the other. It was a circle of thirteen points, and Matt’s skin began to crawl like it did in his nightmare in the swamp.

Out of the gloom walked a tall hooded man, and then another, and another until he was being approached by five hooded figures. Once they got to within three meters of him they all stopped, and aligned themselves with each of the five corners of the fort to form a perfect pentagram.

One of the figures continued much closer. It was the tall one that Matt had seen first. He walked up to him, but spoke to Abigail in a voice that was out of his nightmare. “Très bon. You have done well child. Now go back and stand with the gathering. Your work is done here.”

“He came of his own volition.” Abigail said in Matt’s defense, “I told him the truth, and he came anyway. That should count for something,” she begged the Grand Maître, “doesn’t it?”

“What counts is that he’s here, and that you did as directed.” The elder told her, “Now go back as I command.”

“Who are you to command anyone?” Demanded Matt glaring at the Maître. “I know why you want me here.” He said defiantly, “You’re scared of me.”

“Matt, you’re not helping your case. Please be quiet.” Pled Abigail.

“You will stand there and keep your mouth shut.” Ordered the Grand Maître.

“What have I got to lose by talking to him, huh?” Ignoring the old man Matt spoke to Abigail, “He’s going to convict me regardless of what I say.” He turned back to the cloaked figure, and practically spat out his next words, “You continue down this road old man, and you really will have something to fear from me.”

The Grand Maître also turned to Abigail, and shouted, “Go!” and watched as she practically ran from the center of the parade ground to circle of hooded figures standing at the edge of the torchlight. Once she was gone he turned back to Matt, and growled, “You should heed the girl young man. This will go much easier for you if you cooperate.”

“Cooperate with the likes of you,” Matt was growing more impatient and had not backed his tone down one bit, “a sociopath?”

“Silence usurper!” Shouted the hooded man. He stepped back to become part of the five points, and bellowed, “Let the Shadow of the Moon begin!” And raised his hands to the moon, and began to chant.

The chant was taken up by the rest of the coven standing in a perfect circle around the edge of the parade ground. It remained low and continuous as the council of five began their deliberations. Matt recognized the chant was spoken in the same strange language as the hooded figure spoke from his nightmare. However, unlike that nightmare, he didn’t understand a word of it, but haunting tones had a familiar ring to it. It was actually a soothing sound, and he began to calm somewhat.

The Grand Maître voice then split the darkness as he shouted at Matt with a voice borne from undisputed authority. “You stand accused of trespassing into this community uninvited, and unwanted. You have brought corruption into our midst, and we sanction the right to remove this corruption.” He turned in a circle shouting these last words to the ring of witches who then increased the volume of their chanting. As they became louder, so did he as he turned back to Matt, “We will now conduct a trial by the Shadow of the Moon, and you will be judged by the Crucible by Five.”

Matt looked at the four other witches who made up this council of five, and was immediately aware of each of their emotional states of mind. Two of them were filled with hate for him, while the other two had only sympathy, and wished him no ill will. As good as this made him feel to have allies, he knew that he still fell short in the count. The Grand Maître would surely vote against him, and put the count at two against three. He had to somehow turn the hate of at least one witch into understanding. How the Hell do I do that? He thought, and then it hit him. The Grand Maître ruled by fear and that fear was instilled by power. I’ve got to show that I have power to be feared too. Abigail said I had it, and I’ve seen for myself what happens when people try to hurt me. It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got. Matt had to simply show the council, and indeed the entire coven that he was more powerful. It seemed like a slim hope at best, but it was all he could think of.

The Grand Maître then began speaking in that strange language to the rest of the five witches, and one by one they gave him a three-word answer, “Yava iy yin.” Each one bowed as they said it. He then turned back to Matt, pointed a skeletal finger at him, and said, “Yava nai yin.” As soon as he said this, his eyes began to glow red. Just like in the nightmare. As his eyes glowed red the other four members of the crucible began to chant in rhythm with the rest of the gathering.

As soon as the crucible members began their chanting Matt began to slip into a trancelike state. It was like falling somewhere deep and dark, and when he became conscious of his surroundings again he realized that he was now standing waist deep in a swamp: the swamp from his nightmares.

This time however, he wasn’t paralyzed, and joining him in the swamp was the entire coven: the crucible of five, and those still standing in the outer circle. Still chanting. Everyone was standing exactly where they were before, except now the fort was gone, and they were standing in the swamp. Matt felt the biting little creature try to work its way up his pants leg again. Exactly as it did before it bit him in the nightmare. Using only his strength of will, and an intense desire not to let this creature have its way with him again, his mind shouted out a silent command, Go away you insignificant pest! Go away and leave me alone! The creature immediately backed out of his pants leg, and fled.

So, thought Matt, that’s how it’s done. He looked over at the hooded figure with the red glowing eyes, and used the same intensity against the Marshall as he did the swamp pest. And even though the ancient warlock was a creature of the swamp, he was not so easily defeated, but had never before encountered a preternatural push back like this. He had been the undisputed all-powerful Grand Maître of the coven for 154 years, and this usurper was no match for him. Or was he?

The harder Matt allowed the hate of the old warlock to overtake him, the stronger he was able to push back against it. Until at last the two men, young and old, had reached an impasse, and neither could exert their will against the other. The stalemate became intensely powerful, and soon Matt felt himself being submerging down into the swamp again. Only this time he wasn’t alone. Through the murky, but full moon illuminated water he could see the old warlock had followed him down.

Matt was unable to breath and knew he was drowning, but as he looked over at the warlock he saw that he was struggling for breath as well. They had drug each other down under the top of the swamp, and were both drowning in the fetid water. Knowing he had to out last the old warlock Matt realized that he had only one chance: allow the warlocks hate to penetrate deep into his soul. The more it penetrated the stronger Matt became, until with a final gasp of desperation he closed his eyes he pictured the old mans hate as a tool to be used against him. He used this impulse and pushed back along this feeling. Suddenly hundreds of the same kind of swamp pests that had attacked him appeared out of the murkiness of the swamp, and attacked the old warlock with an intensity bordering on the same hate that the warlock had used against Matt.

Within moments the Grand Maître had been dragged to the bottom of the swamp enveloped by a seething mass of biting attacking creatures. The same creatures that he had used against Matt were now being used against him, and he had no defense against them. As bit into his ancient flesh they tore off small pieces out of the warlocks body. Soon their bites produced a flow of blood that immediately attracted hundreds more of the swamp creatures. The last Matt saw of the dying warlock’s body was it being pulled down into the mud obscured by the tools of his own hate now tearing him apart.

As Matt fought to get to the waters surface he caught a last glimpse of the death struggle still going on beneath him in the mud. He finally broke the surface and took a huge gulp of air filling his lungs with life. He closed his eyes, and shook his head free of the muddy water still clinging to him. When he opened his eyes again he was back inside the fort, standing exactly where had been before. The chanting had stopped, and the entire coven was now staring in deathly silence at his dripping wet body, the entire coven except for one member. Instead of the Crucible of Five there were only four hooded figures standing near him. The Grand Maître was gone.

One of the remaining four hooded figures walked up to Matt. She had been one of the two to have felt sympathy for him prior at the beginning. “I am Delia, Queen of the Sabbat, second in authority of the community, and by virtue of the Shadow of the Moon crucible, you are free to go. You’ve won your freedom Mister Spears. Tell me if you please, what are your intentions now?”

“To change into some dry clothes Madame.”

Betraying no emotion in her voice she asked him, “Tell me something, if you please.”

“What would you have of me now?” Matt answered curtly, not overly willing to give this woman anything easily.

“I understand your hard feelings towards us Mister Spears, but what I would like to know is: where was he the last moment you saw him?” There was no doubt as to whom she was talking about.

Matt just looked at her for a moment trying to decide whether or not she deserved the knowledge. In the end he decided that like Abigail, and probably most of the coven, this woman had no choice in coven matters. All had been slave to an evil man’s ancient tyranny. “He was being eaten by creatures he had previously dominated. The last I saw of him he was being dragged into the mud. I believe that’s where he will remain.” He was thoughtful for a moment, and in parting said to her, “You say that I am free to go. I believe that the same applies to you as well.” Matt then turned and began walking out of the fort.

He hadn’t quite reached the main gate when he heard a pair of small feet approaching him from behind. He kept walking until he heard the voice he knew was coming to see him.

“Matt, stop please. Can we talk?” It was Abigail.

He stopped walking, but didn’t turn around. “What Abigail? What do you want from me?”

“Just to talk,” she said as she stopped in front of him blocking his path, “and to see if you need a ride back to your hotel.”

“Yes, I need a ride, but I’m not in much of a mood to talk right now.”

***

She drove him the few miles back to Venice in silence. It had started to rain. Just like the day they had met. Fitting thought Matt as he got out of the car.

Before he could close the car door she told him, “He was right to fear you Matt.” She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and looked ahead as she kept speaking, “In four generations he ruled this coven…this town with complete impunity, because no one was ever strong enough to defeat him. Until you came to town, and I accidentally brought you to his attention. I knew you had the gift, that’s why I was so attracted to you, but I had no idea how strong it is. He knew the moment he saw you.”

“Accidentally?” Matt just shook his head, “He could have left me alone Abigail. I had no idea of what I was…am, and frankly, I’m still not convinced.”

Her voice became very small as she told him, “He could never have let go Matt. You are stronger, and even if you remain unaware of it, you would always be a threat to him, and he could not allow that. Especially after the coven all saw you and I together at the festival. I’m so sorry. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Matt just stood silently in the rain for a moment before answering her, “There’s nothing to forgive Abigail. Please drive careful on your way home.” He shut the door to her car, and walked to his room without looking back.


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