On Gloria’s request, Beth had followed Wilbur from the frilly dollhouse that was the Wangshaft Manor. The geriatric gent was incredibly paranoid so tailing him had to be subtle. Thankfully, Beth was skilled at avoiding detection.
She, like Gloria, hadn’t expected Wilbur to actually go where he said was going. An incident involving an unattended pool and a burst pool float in his youth had seen Wilbur perpetually terrified of all bodies of water his whole life. She wasn’t surprised when he drove past the sailing club and headed towards the bright lights of the city.
The old geezer instructed his taxi to a poorly-lit part of town, renowned for drug deals and dogging. Beth was only marginally surprised that the wealthy man had ended up here. Since being initiated into the Wangshafts inner circle, she had been privy to a lot of information and nothing about this family was straight.
She was prepared to call it quits here – it was just some dodgy deal that he didn’t want his wife involved in, and Beth had places to be – but when Wilbur stepped out of the car, she immediately realised there was more to it than she thought.
Wilbur was dressed as casually as he ever was; his silver hair was falling loose around the slightly dishevelled fuzz on his face, and he was wearing so much natural musk that Beth was surprised he wasn’t being stalked by a herd of deer.
Well, chase her down and screw her sideways; Gloria was right. He was meeting a woman.
Intrigued to see who it might be, Beth followed him into the body of the city, to the romance festival of all places. He made his way over to a woman who was about forty years his junior and rigid with silicone.
The whole family, for generations, were rotten. Entitled. Wangshafts had built their name and fortune by terrorising this region, instilling fear of the supernatural in all the residents and massaging hate and division. They hunted and exploited ‘filthy, traitorous witches’ throughout the centuries. All because one of them had been left at the altar by a witch somewhere in their history.
Beth had been slowly chipping away at the Wangshafts since her arrival in Windenburg, looking for a way in. A way that became clear when the boisterous bearded arse rocked up at her bar one night.
He leered at her and made crude remarks for her whole shift, and then offered her a ride home in his truck.
The romance festival. It was surreal. Wilbur, like his son, didn’t have a romantic bone in his body, unless throwing a bag of chips at you and telling you that you’d gotten fat was considered romantic.
Beth hated her husband, but she hadn’t entered into this marriage for her own needs. She’d had to achieve it with the help of a few enhanced beers and a mutilated condom – Will was as paranoid as his dad when it came to some things – but she was certain that, when it came to light, she would be forgiven.
It had been foretold.
Their downfall would be from a power within and Beth had taken this message literally.
But marrying Will was not enough to cement her place, not if Wilbur’s number of former spouses was anything to go by.
Beth needed a solid claim to the Wangshaft name.
Beth needed to give them an heir.
She pulled her phone out to take some incriminating pictures of the lovelorn fool and his blow-up doll. She wouldn’t confront him, not yet, she’d give him some time to come to his senses.
She knew the saggy octogenarian well enough to know when he was hurting, and Will’s disappearance, as well as Ralf’s eternal silence, had stabbed him right in his most tender place – his pride. He’d be looking for any way to build himself up again and mystery woman was it, for now.
Besides, he’d never divorce Gloria. She knew too much. He’d simply make her disappear – or make Beth do it.
Satisfied that she’d gotten all she could from this evening, Beth checked her watch. Crap. She was really late.
She sprinted off down an alleyway in her squeaky trainers and glanced around to make sure no one would see her. Fortunately, spinning into the requisite black outfit was something that even a non-witch could do, so on the tail of this she could quickly recast.
She threw her hand into the air, summoning a wave of energy readily from the space around her and picturing the quaint little clearing that she should have been in an hour ago.
The strangest thing about transportalate was how your awareness of space materialised before your body did. You’d think it would be the other way around, but Beth had always been grateful that she could scope her surroundings before she landed there.
For the briefest second, she was a fly on the wall, watching newly-fledged coven member, Wyatt Harper, pout and moan that Beth’s absence was so unfair as his mother tutted and told him to grow up.
“Sorry I’m late,” Beth offered as her voice box become something tangible. “Family issues.”
Beth didn’t have to apologise for lateness, nor offer an excuse; as High Priestess, the coven followed her lead and trusting her was a given, but that didn’t mean she had to be arse about everything. She watched as the other members of the coven turned to face her and slowly bowed their heads; a greeting and a confirmation.
“Have you cleared the area?” she asked of Sage, who gently nodded. “Very well. Let’s begin.”
The witches gathered in a circle around the fire and Beth took a position on the outside, facing north. Without a word the trees stilled, the birds stopped singing; she could feel the thrum of energy in the soft ground beneath her feet and the collective sighs of her kindred spirits.
Tomorrow she would resume her worrying about how Wilbur’s affair and Will’s absence might mess up her plans. Tonight, she needed to be present. She reached her hands towards the brightness of the moon and prepared to cast her circle.
The blackness had closed in around Jessica.
Every tiny sound was amplified and all of her depth perception and her awareness was lost to the stillness of the night. They had a rhythm, these background noises that the word was usually too busy to hear; the movement of the breeze, the crackle of the fire…
…the guttural growl that rang out and seemed to surround her.
Jessica waited, frozen to the spot, trying to pinpoint the source of this sound. There weren’t any wild bears in the part of the world, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be one that had escaped, perhaps from the travelling circus. But then, would it be tame? She doubted it would be friendly, having been chained and expected to perform tricks for its whole life. Maybe it had killed its circus family and was rampaging, seeking revenge. But then, what would it be doing all the way out here? And did bears growl like that? Did bears growl at all? Jessica couldn’t think as the fringes of her ignited with panic.
The growl came again. Lower, slower.
It sounded almost canine, but bigger than your average dog. The locals claimed there were wolves, even though the local wildlife trust dismissed it. Could it be a wolf? What were you supposed to do when faced with an angry wolf? Run? Probably not as it would instinctually chase, wouldn’t it? Should she lie down? Play dead? Would it fear the fire?
Maybe she could distract it with food. What food did she have? Wolves were scavengers, weren’t they? Would it appreciate her offering of celery sticks and houmous? Probably not.
Jessica could hear a solitary male voice, a new one. He sounded like he was cracking jokes, but she couldn’t make out any of the words. She got to her feet, facing the direction of this voice. It is just a man, she assured herself, a man walking his dog.
In the middle of the woods. In the middle of the night. Totally normal.
The bushes before her rustled.
“Hello?” she dared herself to whisper. “Nice night for a walk, isn’t it?”
Was it just her imagination, or did everything get a little quieter? The stick in her hand snapped as she clenched it hard in her sweaty palms. She swallowed. Whoever, or whatever it was knew she was here now. She might as well do what she did best: talk.
“I guess it depends who you ask, I suppose, as to whether you’d agree it was a nice night. On the one hand, it’s dry and pretty warm, but on the other it’s just too dark to see the stars. I was watching the moon a while ago, but even that seems to be hidden by clouds now—”
Jessica stopped abruptly as the male voice whispered, “You shouldn’t be here. None of you should be here.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” she repeated, the dread weighing her down like a lead balloon. “Wait, none of us should be here?”
“Too damn right, we shouldn’t!” Pixie announced, leaping from the bushes.
All these colours emerging from the pitch black took a minute for Jessica to fully comprehend.
“W-what are you doing here?” she managed. “I thought I had to spend the night alone.”
Morag laughed and shook her head. “Oh my gawd, Jess! We weren’t really going to let you camp out here alone!”
“No way! This place is full of danger,” Pixie agreed. “You need to be in the presence of at least two fully qualified GliTS members at all times. This was just a test, to see if you were really serious about wanting to join us. We get a lot of people claiming they want to be one of us, but we can’t risk admitting any old passing loon; it would ruin our integrity!”
“We’ve been watching you the whole time!” Yibbo smiled. “You are so funny when you’re freaked out, you little scaredy-cat, you!”
“But I… there was a growl.”
Yibbo winked and emitted a growl very similar to the one Jessica had previously heard. “That was me, I couldn’t resist. Convincing, isn’t it? I think I might be part werewolf!”
“Alas, that one we have proven; werewolves don’t exist,” Morag sighed.
“And doesn’t the Watcher know it,” Yibbo lamented. “Anyway, come on now Jessica. There’s a shiny hat with your name on it back at base – let’s get out of here!”
“Yeah, Jess,” came that male voice again with a mocking lilt “Let’s get out of here! I wish I could get out of here. This place gives me the creeps but, y’know, I did die here.”
Jessica didn’t usually pay a lot of attention to her inner voices, unless they were her own one. Maybe it was because this somewhat flippant one was the only one she had right now, it was clearer than those she usually heard or because it had mentioned dying, but Jessica found herself looking around for whom the voice belonged to, willing it to belong to someone external.
And, for once it appeared, it was.
Jessica was mildly startled by the appearance of this pale man wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts and a lazy smile, but then he was standing next to four of the most oddly-dressed folk. If anything, he seemed to blend in.
“Hey there, Poodle Skirt,” he crooned to Jessica as he rubbed his hands down his pasty, naked torso in an exaggerated ‘come and get me’ way. “You single?”
“Um, sorry do I know you?”
The three behatted GliTS looks puzzled.
“Are you winding us up, Jess?” Morag asked. “Of course you know us.”
“No, I’m obviously not talking to you three,” Jessica clarified, gesturing to Yibbo’s left. The three girls looked around, as did almost-naked and deathly pale guy.
“Then… then who are you talking to?” Pixie asked quietly.
“Yeah, Jess, who are talking to?” boxer shorts guy asked mockingly before the penny dropped and his face lit up. “Wait a second… are you talking to me?”
“Yes, of course I’m talking to you,” Jessica said, exasperated. “I’m talking to him. The guy behind Yibbo; in the boxer shorts.”
“T-there’s a guy behind me in b-boxer shorts?” Yibbo asked frantically. “Where?!”
“There’s no one there,” Morag said softly. “Jess, are you OK?”
Jessica laughed, finally understanding. “Yeah, good one! Is this the real initiation? Dress up your buddy up and see how I react to a ‘ghost’? You got me again!”
“A g-ghost?” Yibbo squeaked. “There’s a g-g-ghost here?!”
The whole quartet before Jessica broke into various squeals, screams and shouts. Three of them were terrified, but one was definitely not.
“You can really see me?” boxer shorts guy asked again with effervescent glee, to which Jessica could only nod as it dawned on her what might be happening.
“Finally!” he shouted, hopping up and down. Jessica noticed then, for the first time, how his limbs moved through the branches of the shrub he was stood in without disturbing them; how his landing made no sound.
No. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t. Jessica’s mother had always claimed that she could talk to dead people and now it appeared that Jessica had developed the same delusions.
“Someone can see me!” the guy shouted over the GliTS panicky wails. “Hey! Jess, right? I’m Paul! Sorry for all the flirting – it gets real boring out here now I can’t pick up a chainsaw. Oh my god, it’s been so long since I spoke to someone. Or at least since they spoke back. Finally. FINALLY. Jess – you owe me nothing but you might be my only chance – will do you me a huge favour?”