Of the 26 in the forest clearing, only half were there of their own volition.
Two rings of people surrounded the cauldron, which bubbled with pleasure. A ladle, half-submerged in the liquid, leant to one side. Steam and mist poured over the lip, thick and viscous. It pooled in the soil around the great, black pot.
The first circle knelt in the dirt, hands bound behind backs, mouths gagged. The second circle stood behind, each with a knife and a chalice in hand. Of the outer group, all were female, and all wore black.
As was usual, Cordelia was the one to start the proceedings — being the oldest of the three elders, and all. She raised her hand for silence, although she needn’t have. All were silent and watched the ancient crone with bated breaths. All, that was, except for the bound and gagged ones. They struggled and screamed into their restraints.
She dragged the blade across the neck of the man in front of her and caught his lifeblood in the cup. His severed artery spurted its blood, bright-red and vital. The liquid pattered against the metal of the container. “Come, Sisters, hither,” said Cordelia. At the sight and sound of the man’s demise, the rest of the prisoners intensified their fight. Their screams, although muffled, grew in volume.
Phoebe was the second. She cut the neck of the person on the ground — also a man, rather overweight — and drained his blood into her cup. Everyone in the glade recognised his face. His lifeless body slumped to the ground all the same. “Let us gather round.”
Julia, the youngest of the three elders, killed the woman on the ground with a stab into the neck. Unconventional, but it got the job done. She pulled the blade free and tilted the woman’s head down so that the jet splattered into her cup. “‘Neath trees that wither.”
The witches went round in a circle, from oldest to youngest. Necks cut open, arteries punctured, crimson drained from pale bodies, chalices filled. They completed the rest of the rhyme with every taken life.
“Stand on hallowed ground
In the dead of night,
Hear the ghostly sounds.”
A further piece of the puzzle, an ingredient of the recipe. Each recited their line of the poem, the words known off by heart.
“Do not take a fright,
For these are our friends,
Warm hearts with this sight.”
The bodies now used slumped to the ground with a thump. The last trickles of blood dyed the floor of the clearing. Although, the stains wouldn’t be visible until daybreak, which was many hours away.
“As we plot the end
Of all the Earth’s weeds
Our magics we spend.”
And, at last, they arrived at the newest addition to their coven, their 13th member — Sara Price. The woman who kneeled in the mud was quite a bit older than her, and her eyes begged for freedom. Something in that wide, watery gaze indicated recognition of her assailant. But that was nothing new, for the witches.
Sara did not comply with her victim’s nonverbal pleas. She grimaced and sliced the blade across the woman’s neck, clean and quick. She caught the spurts of blood with grace. The fountain pattered against the chalice, raindrops against glass. The elders exchanged a smile. For a first-timer, she had done well. It was always a bit tricky. “Here we sow the seed,” said Sara. She looked from blade to cup, from blood to corpse. The woman twitched once, twice, thrice, and then was still.
Together, the witches chanted the final line in unison: “And so, Sisters, feed.”
Cordelia held her chalice high, a rivulet of maroon down the side. She strode towards the cauldron. Her gait strong and true despite her age and withered appearance. “Sexist pigs!” she said. Her words dripped with anger. She poured the essence of the man into the pot. The liquid within, which had bubbled clear and misty, now flashed an eerie green. Once done, the oldest witch stepped back and motioned for her fellow elders. A few of the witches cheered.
Phoebe followed. The flash of green was brighter with the addition of the second life. “Billionaires. Capitalist scum!” A few of the other witches exchanged a grin and an eye roll.
Julia threw her collected blood into the pot, the green that flared now dazzled. “Racists!” Her words hissed with sibilance, and several of her contemporaries nodded with approval. “Xenophobes! Caveman-headed ignoramuses!”
The rest of the witches followed suit, after their elders. Each declared their reason, and none judged the other. With each splash from a cup, the green glow grew, much to the pleasure of the witches. The unnatural light washed their features. Their captives screamed violence upon seeing them.
“Sticky children! Screeching voices, constantly screaming and crying!”
“Karens! That I-want-to-speak-with-your-manager haircut, that attitude…”
“Hypocritical church leaders!”
“Conservatives, right-wing nutjobs!”
“People who cut in the queue!”
“People who block up the pavement and don’t move over to the side! Give me some goddamn space.”
“Bad drivers — no, you can’t race through before the light!”
Onwards, the circle progressed, the flashes of sickly light higher and higher. The green glow reached above the trees, the firmament itself painted with the spell.
And then Sara added her cup of blood. “Irritating mothers-in-law,” she whispered. That got a few chuckles out of the other witches. “Just no.” The explosion of light from the cauldron was enough to stagger those who remained — all 13 of them. Sara resumed her place in the ring of witches.
Cordelia, the mistress of ceremony, once more called for an unneeded silence. Old habits are like old witches — they die hard. The crone licked her bloody knife clean and then sheathed it. With patience, she stepped once more to the cauldron. The liquid that frothed within was now in a permanent state of neon green.
The witch reached forward and grasped the ladle. She stirred the pot a few times, for good measure. After which, she ladled a good dollop into her cup. The liquid slopped into the vessel, whisps and eddies of smoke tailed away. The youngsters of the coven oohed and aahed whilst the elders grinned.
Cordelia raised her once-again-filled cup into the air. “Sisters! Let us feed!” She brought the chalice to her lips and took a delicate swig. “Mmm.” She sighed, mouth coated in the vibrant green. “Just right.” She gestured the others to come and step forward, and they all came at once — the elders were, of course, served first.
“Perfect for an autumn’s evening, eh, Sisters?” Cordelia said as she divvied up the cauldron’s contents.
“Just like Mama used to make.”