“Mama, Mama!” the little girl says. Her dark curls pile over her chubby toddler cheeks, splaying over her mother’s chest. “Tell me Nana’s story, please?”
“Rhi, I’ve told you that one so many times,” her mother replies wearily. “Don’t you want to hear something else?”
“No, Mama,” the little girl insists, sticking out her bottom lip in a pout. “Nana’s story is the coolest! Please, Mama!”
“Oh, alright,” comes the reply. “Let’s take you to bed first, mm-kay?”
“Okay!” Rhi’s enthusiastic response is choreographed with hops, twirls, and spins until she reaches her bedroom door. She climbs into bed and waits earnestly as her mother begins tucking her in. “Mama…” she pleads. Her mother smiles gently. “Always the impatient one, aren’t you, darling?”
The room soon fills with the melody of Rúna Sterling’s light voice. “Many, many years ago, back when Nana was just a small girl like you, there were some who came for certain people. These people were not ordinary people, though. They could talk to things no normal person could converse with. They —”
“What things? And what does 'converse' mean?” Rhiannon asks sleepily, her gray eyes drifting shut.
“Oh, magical things, my little one. And converse means to talk to. They could see things no one else could, and some bad people wanted that power for themselves. They were scared, you see, and wanted to consume all the magic in the world.”
"Mama, stop using big words! What does that mean?"
A smile makes its way onto her mother's face. "Darling, consume means to take away. To gobble up." She pauses her tale to attack her daughter with tickles, making Rhi laugh and squirm away.
Gasping for breath, the five-year-old snuggles into her mother once again. “That’s terrible! Oh, Mama, what happened then? Did the bad guys get destroyed?”
Rúna chuckles. “No, they did not get ‘destroyed,’ as you so nicely put it. They were merely outsmarted, and sometimes, that is the worst punishment of all. It never occurred to them that magic could not be contained. It could never be taken away from someone. Magic is something entirely different from what our world can control, and it was what helped our ancestors to flee and settle here.”
Rhi yawns. “Mama, did I ever meet our asentor?”
“Ancestor, sweetheart. And no, you didn’t. She passed long ago. But her magic didn’t, as you already know. Her magic has passed on from generation to generation. It has remained in our blood for centuries, and it will allow you to do wonderful things when you grow older.”
“How much older?”
“A few more years, Rhi. When you’re fourteen. But you know that this story cannot be told to anyone else. Our family has to hide this forever, alright? Now, it’s time to say good night.” She leans over to kiss her young daughter. “G’night, angel,” she whispers.
“Good night, Mama.” And with the whisper of magic on her lips, she surrenders to dreams.
“Dad, guess what? I made a new friend today!” the fourth-grader bounds into the room where his father lounges. “And she’s so cool!”
“Is that so? And may I ask what her name is?”
“Rhiannon. Isn’t that a pretty name?”
His father straightens immediately, his blue eyes piercing his son’s matching ones. “Rhiannon? Rhiannon what, exactly?”
Asher carries on unperturbed. “Rhiannon Sterling. Oh, Dad, we did this thing today where we pretended there was a dragon and then it—”
Lucien Cromwell’s attention changes focus. “Ash, go to your room. I’ll come by later and you can tell me the rest of your story then, okay?”
The young boy’s eyes dim slightly, but his smile remains unhindered. “Okay.”
He runs up the stairs but pauses when he hears his father walking toward his study while muttering curse words under his breath. Curiosity piqued, the scrawny boy stands quietly at the threshold of his father’s office and listens intently as he sorts through the files.
“Let’s see. Witchhunt records, current suspects, qualities needed, Mission-G6059, ah, here it is!” The governor brandishes a thin file labeled “Sterling.” As he sorts through the papers within it, a smaller piece falls out.
Name: Rhiannon Honora Sterling
Parents: Rúna Candace Sterling, Audric Kyle Sterling
Criteria: Next in line to alleged “witch title.” Unsure if Sterlings are descendants or not, but suspicion remains strong. Meets almost all criteria for Mission-G6059. Too young, for now. When older, a definite candidate for the mission.
Rings of booming laughter roll from Lucien's lips, leaving his son puzzled. “Finally, the Sterling heir is in my grasp!” the old man rasps. “All I need to do now is wait. Then I’ll get Asher involved, and everything is set!”
Asher’s eyes widen. What did he have to do with anything? And Rhi?
As his father’s footsteps near, he darts to the living room across the hall. “Oh, hey, Dad. I finished my work. Can you listen to my story now?”
“Ah, yes, of course. Wait for me here, I’ll be back.”
As soon as the old man is out of sight, Asher scrambles into the office and fishes for the Sterling file. After ensuring the documents his father had been reading were still there, he runs to his room and hastily crams it into his “Box of Mysteries.” Smoothing down the edges of his deed, he sits back, bobbing his knee anxiously while waiting for his father.
“Ash, there you are. Tell me, what did you do with your new friend?”
Asher’s eyes brighten, mysterious file forgotten. “Oh, Dad, we made up this game…”
“Mom! I’m home!” Rhiannon dumps her bag onto the stone floor of the entryway. “Mom?”
“In here, darling!” Rúna calls back. Rhi bolts to the meeting hall where her mother awaits her.
“Mom, can you believe it? I’m finally going to do magic!”
“I know, love. It’s hard to think that you’re already of age. Fifteen already? I remember when you were five and would always beg me for—”
“Mom! Not now! I want to learn!”
“Rhi, it’s going to take a while to —”
“I know! That’s why I want to start right away!”
Rúna shakes her head, hiding an amused smile. “I’m not surprised. It’s a miracle you went to school today. Never the patient one. Well, we’ll start with the basics and then we’ll progress to the more advanced subjects. I’m sure you’ll go through it all much faster than usual, given the strength of your magical core — not to mention that fierce stubbornness of yours — but whatever it is, you need to start off with connecting to the forces around you. Like this...”
That was the first of many long days of trial-and-error. One thing remained the same, however: Rhiannon Honora Sterling was not to be deterred in the slightest, and within the span of a mere six months, she was on her way to becoming the most powerful witch in over three centuries.
“Ugh, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! You’re so frustrating!” the sixteen-year-old yells. His mother had been pressuring him to clean out his room for weeks now, and he was at his limit.
He slams his closet open and wrenches out heaps of clothes. “This thing is going to take years,” he grumbles. “Why does it matter that my room is messy? Nobody but me comes here anyway.”
Clothes, books, and other artifacts from his childhood make their way all around his room. When he gets to a small cardboard box covered in bright blue glitter, he pauses. “
What on earth?” he mutters. “This thing looks gross. When did I ever…”
His bad mood accelerates as he takes in the contents of the box. A conch shell. A gold coin from the state treasury. A bunch of knick-knacks from all the places he had traveled to. A teddy bear with one ear. A torn notebook. A glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. A pack of stickers. A file labeled “Sterling.” A baseball cap. A —
He freezes and pulls the file out. He remembers the day he took it from his father’s study, and he remembers his father’s temperament once he discovered it was missing. As he looks through it and catches glimpses of the information inside, his blood turns cold.
Leaving the mess behind him, he runs out and grabs his bike. The cleaning would have to wait.
Rhiannon’s betrayal was more important to assess.
Her eyes remain closed, content, as her thoughts lazily play around with the flame she had built in the hearth. Dancing shadows form on the wall across from her. After a few moments, she lets the embers die out and turns to her glass of water. A prickle of thrill runs down her spine, and she shivers. The sea was her refuge, and she loved engaging herself in the world of water and crystals. It’s unpredictability matched her wild style, and it was only when she gave herself in submission to it that she found a worthy challenge of her abilities.
With her fingers outstretched ahead of her, she loses herself in the gold threads of the hidden magical realm, parallel to the mortal world. Light behind her, in front of her, underneath her, and above her — she is now a girl spun of liquid gold, power bubbling in her stomach, crawling over her body, making its way to the crystalline liquid she is now melded to. Power hums lost notes of magic through her singing nerves. Her eyes lose focus, and all she can see is a sea of gold. Gold, purer than any metal of this world. Gold, with the strength to—
Her door opens with a bang and Asher storms in. She freezes and quickly removes herself from her escape, but the damage is done.
He had seen.
And now they will find her.
“So it’s true,” he says, voice clipped. “You’re a witch.”
He practically spits out the last word. Pain crosses her features. “Ash, I—”
He raises a hand. “Don’t. I don’t want to hear it. We’ve been friends for how long, exactly? Seven years? Going on eight? I can’t believe you’d keep this from me.”
Gray eyes flash with stormy thunder. “I was supposed to just tell you? Do you know how big this is? My entire family’s life depends on this. And, I’m sorry to break it to you, but your father is the one behind the mass grouping of people like me. Your father, Ash. I knew who you’d choose when it would come down to this.”
He glares at her. “So?”
Her nostrils flare. “So?! How dare you? My family has been hunted for years. We had to change our surname to protect ourselves, and even then, your father insisted on hunting us. Weeding us out from the population. Or do you not know what Mission-G6059 is?”
“Yes, I do. So what? You guys have magic that could help us, so there.”
Her voice rises to a high-pitched shriek. “Do you have any idea what you sound like?” Doing a terrible impression of him, she continues, “‘Oh, you guys have magic. Who cares if we hunted you for years before this? You guys are going to help us with this thing no matter what. And who cares if it’s practically a suicide mission? You guys have magic, you should be able to protect yourselves.’”
He shrugs. “Precisely.”
Her eyes glisten with malice and crackle with power. “Oh? Well, how would you like a taste of my magic?”
He looks at her, stricken. “I— no, that’s not what — I didn’t mean — you wouldn’t—”
“Oh, wouldn’t I? If I could go on a suicide mission, why wouldn’t I do this?”
He gulps. “Please, I—”
“No,” she hisses, eyes dark with resentment. “You were my friend. And still, you let this get between us. I knew it would, but I still trusted you. Now, you’ll pay.”
And that is the last thing he remembers before he loses all ability to move, see, or feel; the last thing he processes before his mind is torn from his body and left crawling at the mercy of the fierce young woman he had once considered his best friend.
His unfocused eyes make her cackle with glee. Oh, she had never controlled a live human. Her mother had warned her that she could lose herself completely, but that woman had always underestimated her. She was powerful enough. She had been for months.
"I can sense your thoughts. I know what you're feeling. I know you're scared, and..." she tilts his chin toward her and their eyes meet. Where fear clouds his blue eyes, her gray pools are steely. Resolved. Confident. Powerful. "Rightfully so. I am infinitely times more powerful than you, and you know it. Why wouldn't you? After all, your father is the one herding us all."
She scoffs and continues. "Like cattle. As if. We are unworldly beings, and thinking that he can control us? Once again, as if. One simple flick of our minds can have him at our command, can either kill him or give him all the beautiful things of this world." She pauses and lets him go. Pulling back, she eyes him head to toe. "Like I have with you. Like I" — here she draws him close again. With her long nails digging into his shoulders, she hisses — "will always have with you. And all of your kind."
She shoves him into the wall, hard. The pain on his face has her falter for a moment, but the growing fire of power within her allows no mercy to break her facade. "I wish this didn't have to end this way," she murmurs. "But I have no choice. My entire family has had to suffer for centuries because of people like your father." A disgusted look appears on her face at the governor's mention. "I'm so sorry, darling, I love you, but the circumstances offer us no choice."
And with that, she flicks her wrist, channeling all the power within her to envelop the whimpering boy on the ground. A glazed look appears in his eyes, and she quickly incinerates the wretched file and discards all remaining evidence of what just happened.
"Wha - what's going on?" he mumbles as his eyes come back into focus.
"Nothing," she replies cheerily, as she helps him up. "Nothing at all. Tea?"