“It’s been almost 700 years, Laurie. Do you really think they’re still looking for us?” I ask, noticing a slight tremor in my own voice.
A faint click from the cast-iron latch of the graveyard gate permeates the silence. Laurie pushes it open and slips through to the other side. I roll my eyes – she’s always been good with locks. That’s why I keep my Book of Shadows hidden. I don’t need her snooping through my dream interpretations.
“Come on, Alita. Stop whining," whispers Laurie through the gate’s iron rod. “You and I drew the short straw, so we’ve got guard duty this year. It’s just one night.”
Scowling, I follow Laurie’s lead and run to catch up with her bobbing blonde curls.
“But Laurie,” I whisper, keeping my voice low to avoid attracting the spirits from their nearby resting places, “why do we still have to do this? I mean, do you ever wonder if it’s all just a story? A myth?”
Laurie stops, causing me to run into her, nearly knocking us both to the wet, muddy ground. Spinning around, she stares at me with flames in her clover eyes.
“You know it’s not a myth.”
“But how can we be sure?”
Turning her back to me, Laurie continues down the oppressively dark graveyard path. Scurrying behind her, we stick close to the tree-lined edge to avoid being seen.
“Just because it’s in the Grimoire doesn’t mean it’s true, Laurie."
“Name one thing in the Grimoire that’s ever turned out not to be true.”
Taken aback by her challenge, I think for a moment. She’s right. The Grimoire has been passed down in our family for generations, its leather cover scarred by hundreds of years of familial magick, its pages creased and withered from the many hands that have caressed its contents and added lifetimes of knowledge and experience. We rely on the Grimoire for the knowledge of our Craft. I’ve never known it to lie.
“Fine,” I say, “but I hate the graveyard. And the in-between makes me uncomfortable.”
“The in-between makes you uncomfortable because you haven’t taken the time to understand it, Alita. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Laurie," I scoff, "the veil between our world and the Realm is at its thinnest right now. Every spirit, faerie and sprite could pull us in without a trace!”
“Just hurry up, Alita,” Laurie sighs, pushing on. “We’re running late as it is."
It's as if the spirits can hear Laurie’s warning, as suddenly a bell from the church nearby began to toll, its somber melody floating out across the graveyard in eleven long, uniform strokes. I have no choice but to follow her into the sea of headstones that wash over these 800 acres of land. This has been our family’s hiding place for generations, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy.
Shivering, I speed up to get closer to Laurie, reaching out and grabbing on lightly to the blue strap of her backpack. Even as cousins from the same bloodline, we are very different witches. At only 23, Laurie is much more powerful than me, despite being only two years older. But she has always been dedicated to the Craft, and specializes in spells and incantations. The Goddesses blessed her with a strong connection to the Fifth Element - "Spirit", or more often just called "energy" - the source of our magick.
I, on the other hand, have never been blessed with such gifts. Even after years of training, I've only just mastered basic energy summoning, and although my grandmother tells me that she can sense that my connection to the Fifth Element is strong, a single incantation drains my energy. Some days I wish I wasn't a Keller. But I can’t tell mother that I'd rather live among the Outsiders; it’d break her heart. So here I am, stuck spending Samhain in the graveyard to (allegedly) keep a vengeful spirit from returning from the Realm to kill our family Matron, who I suppose right now is my grandma.
“Alita, get back!” hisses Laurie.
Pulled from my thoughts, I feel her cold hand grab my wrist as she drags me back into the trees that line the edge of the graveyard. Thickets claw at my bare ankles as I stumble back into the brush, blindly grabbing at the low-hanging tree branches to stop my fall.
“What are you doing?” I gasp, regaining my balance. “Are you crazy?”
“Look,” she murmurs, pointing at a bobbing lantern in the distance, drawing nearer.
Squinting, I can make out the security guard making his rounds. His footfalls grow closer with every step. I hold my breath and close my eyes, afraid that he’ll be able to hear how loud my heart is beating. Just as I believe we’ve been discovered, the edges of light from his lamp skip across the dry leaves that still cling to the tree branches, and we stay sheltered in the shadows of the coppice until he passes. I cringe as I hear him begin whistling on his way. A bad omen.
“Come on, let’s go. We’re almost there,” Laurie says after a several long minutes, stepping quietly from the underbrush.
Soon, we pass the massive Sullivan Family Mausoleum, and the distant sounds of children trick-or-treating fades completely into a deathly quiet. That’s how I know we’re getting close. I have always found the mausoleum's silence, and the way its white marble breathes in the moonlight disconcerting. For a home of the dead, it is certainly the most alive thing in the graveyard.
Scurrying past the mausoleum, we reach a tall row of primrose hedges. The groundskeepers maintain them to keep kids from sneaking into the Cremation Garden. Local high schoolers like to try and spend the night here on Samhain - an incredibly stupid thing to do. It is pure luck that the spirits here are docile. For the most part.
“Alita, help me with this.”
Laurie is pointing to the break in the hedges that our family uses each year to avoid walking past the guard shack. But the greenery is thorny, and it takes one person to hold back the prickles while the other steps through. Grabbing my gardening gloves from my back pocket, I slip them on and reach into the shrub until my hand finds the edge of the branch inside. Pulling back the greenery reveals a small path for Laurie to slip through. She repeats this for me as I follow her into the garden.
“Ugh, this place is the worst,” Laurie says with a shudder. I can’t help but chuckle, feeling a sense of relief in leaving the looming gargoyles and overbearing Mausoleum behind. I like the Cremation Garden, with its orange roses and decorative stones that glimmer like geodes. I don’t know why Laurie prefers the gloom of the headstones.
“We’re almost at the cave,” I giggle. “Come on.”
Grabbing her hand, I interlace our gloved fingers and pull her behind me, feeling a new and unexpected surge of bravado as I guide us through the garden and towards the small lake in the distance. On the other side is a set of natural caves. Leveling the ground would require a massive disturbance to the surrounding graves, so maintenance and landscapers leave it well enough alone. That’s where my family has hidden the remains of Petronilla de Meath for the last 300 years or so, ever since our family immigrated to the States, bringing her with us.
Nearing the caves’ entrances, Laurie pulls her hand from mine as she slips trash bags over her sneakers. I do the same, using them to wade through several inches of water until we reach the larger of the two caves. A sense of relief spreads through my chest knowing we made it without being discovered. I look to Laurie and jerk my head towards the pitch-black depths of the cavern. My temporary bravado has faded. There’s no way I’m going first.
Laurie huffs and grabs a flashlight from her backpack, allowing its beam to pass over the cracks and crevices of the stalactites hanging a few feet above us. As kids, this place felt enormous, but now I could reach up and touch the ceiling – although I never would; too many spiders and cave crawlers.
We wind through the cave until we reach the back, which widens into a small, natural chamber. Laurie passes her beam of light over the middle and I see that the ring of candles circling the buried remains of Petronilla de Meath are undisturbed. Good – no one has been here since last Samhain.
“Help me set up Alita. Start by lighting the candles.”
Laurie tosses me a box of matches. Lighting all thirteen candles in the ring, a faint, warm glow settles over the cavern. Casting a glance back at Laurie, my eyes widen as I notice several vials of my own potions that she has laid out on the ground. I can’t help but feel an uncomfortable heaviness start to form once more in the pit of my stomach.
“Laurie…did you empty out my stockroom?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I hope you don’t mind. You’re much better at potions than I am. And, well, I don’t know. I just have a bad feeling this year.”
My palms start to feel clammy and the color drains from my cheeks. The Goddesses also blessed Laurie with the gift of premonition, and although she’s still honing her skill, whenever she has a bad feeling it’s usually spot on.
“What do you mean a bad feeling, Laurie? Should I call my dad?”
Laurie frowns and pours a warding potion on the ground around her feet, then around mine, before pouring the rest of it in a wide circle around the ring of candles while muttering an incantation. The circle begins to glow, filling the cave with an incredibly bright, white light, before fading. Staring at her open mouthed, I replay the events of the evening. I can't remember her performing a summoning ritual at any point.
"Laurie...did you summon before we left?"
Maintaining her silence, Laurie grabs two more vials – one of my more potent banishing potions and a strong toxin – and slides them into her back pocket. That scares me.
“Laurie, what’s going on?"
“Okay, don’t freak out, but I had a dream last night."
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I realize she's had a full-blown premonition. That was how they came to her, in dreams.
Laurie hesitates, rolling a vial full of regeneration potion around her fingers. “I’m not sure. But I saw a big, black bird standing right here in the middle of the ring of candles.”
“And you didn’t tell anyone?!”
“Calm down, Alita. I also took a lucid dreaming potion last night, so it could mean anything.”
“I think we should call my dad.”
“No, Samhain is already underway. Let’s just focus on setting up."
My thoughts are racing. A voice inside screams at me, begging me to call dad. But I know Laurie would get in trouble for taking a premonition potion on the eve of Samhain. During this time of year our powers are already enhanced; it’s dangerous to further escalate them without letting anyone know.
“Okay, fine,” I relent. “I won’t call my dad. But you have to promise me you’ll tell them what you saw when the boys get here to relieve us.”
Laurie extends her hand, and we hook our pinkies, kissing our thumbs – the way we did when we were little – the promise was made.
“Let’s begin,” Laurie says. She scatters a few handfuls of dry Rosemary and Rue in a wide circle around the ring of candles. Following behind her, I grab a small pouch of black salt and Alder ash allowing the grains to fall in a neat, tight pattern.
Once the ring is complete, Laurie kneels beside the candles. I take my seat opposite her, reaching across and taking both of her hands. Silently, we both begin our own private grounding rituals and cast our spheres of protection. After a moment, I look up and find her gaze. She cocks her eyebrow, and I nod, indicating I have completed my ritual.
"Goddesses Three, I call to thee."
Upon her summoning, I feel the air around us thicken. Laurie is drawing more power than usual tonight. I can feel her body filling with the energy she pulls from the Fifth Element. It spills into me through our connected hands. Once she has summoned enough, she begins casting.
“Beings of light far and wide, protect this spell and keep it tied. With Rosemary, Rue, Ash and Light I banish evil from my sight.”
The sizzling electricity from her incantation fills the space with energy as the ground begins to vibrate, and the circle of ash, herbs and salt around us begins to give off a faint green glow. Keeping my eyes closed, I focus, and urge my own vitality into her body, amplifying the power of her spell. In the distance, I can hear the faint tolling of the church bells once more. She needs to hurry.
“By Air and Earth and Water and Fire I bind these remains to my desire. By hers and mine, these remains I bind, to keep their spirit far from mine.”
“By Moon and Sun, my will be done. By Sky and Sea keep harm from me.”
“Cord go round, your power be bound. Our light revealed, you shall be sealed. From Samhain till –- !”
As Laurie shouts the end of the incantation, a strange wind blows through the empty cave, extinguishing each candle as an unfamiliar force pushes me back, tearing Laurie’s hands from mine as I hit the side of the cavern wall.
“Laurie!” I scream, crawling back to her. “What happened?!”
Plunged into darkness once more, only the moonlight seeping in from the cave entrance illuminates the eerily still silhouettes of the three figures standing in the mouth of the cavern. Laurie reaches into my backpack and pulls out the camping lanterns I brought, quickly flicking their switches and tossing them on the ground, once more bathing the cave in light. Above us stand two women and a man, all three dressed in black, the symbol of a raven embroidered on their chests.
"No --" whispers Laurie. My blood runs cold.
They found us. The Night Raven Coven.
Frozen on the ground, the woman, clearly their leader, advances while snarling down at us. Suddenly, my cellphone begins vibrating from the inside of my backpack. The woman's eyes narrow, and she steps forward, violently grabbing my bag and digging around for a moment before pulling out my cell and storing it in her own pocket, giving me a triumphant smirk as she does so. Finally, she speaks in a sickeningly sweet voice tainted with a strong Irish lilt.
“After all these years, how nice to finally meet the Kytelers.”
My mind is blank as I begin to panic. Laurie and I are alone and outnumbered. And this sadistic woman seems to be enjoying herself.
“But you don’t go by that name anymore do you? No, you’re the Keller family now. How American,” she sneers in disgust.
“Riona, focus,” says the man in the middle with a similarly strong Celtic inflection. I look up at him, unable to stop myself before making eye contact. His viridescent gaze locks with mine, and I feel my heart stop. Something about him feels...familiar?
“You’re both lucky that Shay here has more patience than I do."
"She's there, Riona," he says, tearing his gaze from mine and gesturing towards the ring of candles. His voice causes my stomach to twist itself into a knot.
Laurie lets out a laugh. “You may have found us, but you’re too late. I’ve already bound your traitorous Coven Sister to the Realm. She’s not going to make it to the party this year.”
“Traitorous?! Why you –-” growls the second woman, who Shay stops from advancing by holding out his arm.
A wretched smile crawls across Riona's wicked face as she crosses the cavern. Shay and the second woman watch her intently as she kneels, muttering a quiet incantation over the remains.
“Laurie,” I whisper as the three are distracted, “what are you doing? Stop antagonizing them.” She shoots me a meaningful look.
“No,” I whisper.
Laurie’s eyes widen as she makes a subtle gesture to her back pocket.
“No, Laurie, please,” I whimper. “I’m not leaving here without you.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
A sudden, pained hiss from Riona startles me as I glance up to see her quickly pull her hand away from the dirt covering the remains.
“That bitch!” Riona cries, cradling her hand and turning back to her associates, “she’s poured some sort of warding potion over the remains.”
“NOW!” Laurie screams. She pulls both potions from her back pocket and throws them at Riona’s feet. All three Night Ravens recoil as my potions attack their senses, temporarily turning the air around them toxic. Riona falls to her knees, coughing and gasping for air. Shay and the other woman begin choking out a shielding spell. Laurie begins casting once more, and the ground around the three Night Ravens begins to sink, turning into liquid sand. But I can feel her energy fading - she's running out of magick.
“GO ALITA, get your dad!”
I have no choice. Jumping over the loose earth and pushing past the three Night Ravens as they struggle to crawl away from the earth morphing beneath their feet, I don’t turn back as I hear a terrible scream from Laurie.
Running as fast as I can, I focus on nothing but the feeling of the pavement beneath my feet as I run back towards town, praying to the God I know doesn’t exist that I get back in time to find help.