The car ride back to Stephanie’s house was full of awkward silence, each witch contemplating the path taken, the dark deeds already done, and the uncertain future where even more bloodshed might become necessary. Or at least, the girls were trying to ruminate, if it weren’t for Brian’s incessant yammering.
“…so Stephanie’s all like, yeah, I can see some serious potential in you, y’know, magically speaking. Only she didn’t say y’know.” he clarified, heedless of the fact no one was looking at him. “And I’m all, yeah girl, I can help you out with what you need.” He wagged his eyebrows at them. The only one who responded was the mindless Chief Mason, with a vague “Hmmm.” Undaunted, he continued.
“So I’m all, I’m down with that, and that’s how I joined up with you guys. Which turns out, of course, to be one of the best ideas in the history of ever, ‘cause Scott’s acting all, hey, I’m so much better than you, I’m working for the cops now on a top-secret mission, there’s no time to look down on you anymore. I was all, oh that ain’t right, didn’t Stephanie say someone was going around, looking for her peeps? And so then I-”
“Here, mistresses.” Chief Mason said dully, to all the girls’ welcome relief.
“YES! Uhm. I mean, thank you Mr. Mason.” Bess said, practically jumping out of the car. “Wait outside so you can take us home.”
“Yes, mistress.” was all he could say. They piled out of the car and walked up the gravel driveway.
“Anyway, so I knew you guys could be in trouble, so I’m all like hey Steph, there’s this little bitch running around trying to take you down, you gotta put him down like now.” At this, Courtney lost her admittedly short and very frayed temper. She grabbed him by the collar and yanked him closer, staring down into his glasses.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough with your stupid talking. You are going to shut up. Right now. Or I am going to shove my knife up your rectum and turn it into a snake. And command it to start biting. Understand?”
“Heh. Got it.” He smiled nervously. She growled and pushed him away.
They went in and saw Stephanie’s mother on the couch, staring blankly at the wall. Since nobody needed her for anything at the moment, she was in “off” mode.
They found Stephanie in the attic, perusing the Libris Malefactorum Arcana while Carla greeted them. Bess quickly took her aside and whispered to her, and after a few moments Carla nodded. Ivory eyed the summoning circle carved into the floor warily; she’d seen what popped out last time, and since her scare at the cemetery she didn’t want anything else spooky jumping out.
“’Sup, babe.” Brian said, bounding up to her seat. Stephanie held up a finger, and they waited until she finished reading.
“So, everyone.” she said, closing the book with a snap. “How did it go? Is Scott on our side now?” The other girls glanced at each other.
“No.” Bess put forth. “He…disagreed. Violently. And managed to get away.” Stephanie pouted at that.
“Such a shame.”
“Aw, forget that loser, babe!” Brian butted in. “I’m twice the man he is. So kinda speaking of which, when do you think you’ll finally start teaching me all those cool spells like the girls have. Y’know? Like you promised?” he said hopefully. Stephanie blinked.
“Ah, right, right, right.” Never let it be said I don’t hold up a bargain. Now’s a good a time as any.” she said, gesturing to the floor in front of her chair. “Please, kneel.” He eagerly did so, and Stephanie turned through the pages until she found the spell she was looking for. “Now, I’m afraid with everything going on, I simply don’t have the time to teach you everything you need to know.” His face fell, and she chuckled. “Don’t worry, that means I’m going to expedite the process. This spell will allow the transfer of knowledge directly from the book to you, all downloaded into your brain. Voila! Instant magical knowledge and powers. Sound good?” He broke out into a wide grin.
“Whoa! No training needed? Sign me up!”
“Excellent. Let’s begin.” She began chanting strange words from the Arcana. “Xaxeemun cokthalqua. At em hoscht. Zivaa, zivaa, zivaa tum ahuels comzibsjimon. Atha. Kag’ghta uhn cathortus.” She held up her finger, sparking with purple light. She pressed it to his forehead and it sunk in. “There we go. How’s that?”
“Huh. It kinda tingles.” he said, scratching his forehead. “I don’t really feel anything, though. I…” A strange blue tint came over his vision. Plaid starbursts floated in front of his eyes. He began to feel his individual atoms disassemble and reassemble in synchronization with the heartbeat of time, flowing from one space to another on the revolving planet.
“Well? How do you feel?” he heard her say, or maybe smelled her say, he couldn’t tell anymore. Time lost meaning, concepts lost meaning; he could feel the burning rays of Betelgeuse and the mad, enlightened dancers around it. The icy, solid oceans of Neptune where unspeakable scribes lurked in darkness. He saw the infinite void, into dimensions beyond the perceived three. He saw the truth.
His eyes rolled back into his head as he started seizing violently, falling backwards and foaming at the mouth. He lay mostly still, save for an occasional twitch.
“Now then,” Stephanie said primly. What did you want to talk about?”
“Is…is he going to be okay?” Carla said nervously. Ivory was dry-heaving, Bess rubbing her back and muttering soothing words. Stephanie shrugged.
“Eh, maybe. I shoved an entire tome of magic into his mind. He may recover, he may not. Courtney, be a dear and slap a control spell on him, will you? He’ll make a fantastic living reference if he ever wakes up.”
“R-Right.” Courtney said, moving to do as the witch commanded.
“Now. It doesn’t take all of you to deliver a debriefing. What’s up?” she said cheerfully. Bess stepped forward.
"Well, Stephanie. I-the girls and I-have been doing a lot of thinking, and had a talk with each other, and we're in agreement. We...lately, we've been having some problems with..." She coughed into her hand. "We've been having some issues with some of the decisions you've been making recently."
"Issues? Really? What sort of issues have you been having?" Stephanie said, tilting her head quizzically.
"Well...there's the issue of just letting that guy go tonight. I mean, he only does necromancy, I know we have a wider magical base to work with. But don't you think that just letting him go isn't a good idea? What if he manages to get out of town and warn someone?" she said. Stephanie smiled, bemused.
"Bess, you worry too much! So what if he does? They'll never believe him, and even if they do, it'll be too late to matter, and we'll be long gone. Remember, one little town isn't enough. If I am to rule, and you are to rule as my lieutenants, we have to spread our influence as far as possible."
"I know, I know. But what if he and that detective manage to cook something up that'll screw up the plan?" she asked worriedly, but Stephanie just laughed.
"And what could he do? Throw some zombies at us? Make some spooky faces? Ooh, I'm shivering in fright." she mocked, dismissing Bess's concerns with a wave of her hand.
"Easy for you to say. You didn't have one attacking you." Ivory muttered, shuddering at the memory. Stephanie gave her a sharp look, then turned back to Bess.
"A zombie isn't strong enough to stop us. You managed to cut it down easily enough, I believe? I wanted him in the coven, but it honestly makes no difference to the sacrifice whether he is or not."
"Yeah, uh, about that." Bess cleared her throat, wincing. This wasn't going to be easy. "The plan. With the...daemons. I know we said we'd support you, and I know I brought this up before...but are you sure this's a good idea? I mean, I'm all for ruling the world, but having that thing around makes me uneasy."
"Come now, that's rude. Brxthilas has a name, you know." Stephanie chided. Bess glowered.
"Yes. I know. I don't care. He gives me the creeps, and I wish we'd never summoned him. I don't like how he looks at us." She felt her skin crawl at even the memory of that predatory yellow gaze, even as small as he was, like he was eyeing up a juicy steak that he couldn't wait to sink his teeth into. "And the ritual? With the hearts? Don't you find that creepy?"
"I suppose. But what would you have me do? Aligning with the daemons, getting at least one powerful one on our side, was the only way to proceed." Stephanie said smiling helplessly, shrugging as if to say what-can-you-do?
"The actual hell!? What are you talking about?" Bess exploded, and the other girls shifted nervously as the conversation was approaching the heart of the matter. "We came up with the mind control plan! We're the ones who formed the coven! We have the book! We have the power! We have the right to decide what happens next, not that thing! And I've decided I don't like this ritual! It's indecent, insane, and unnecessary. Sure, we won't have as much raw power, but who cares? Our magical knowledge individually makes us untouchable, combined we could topple the world!"
"Oh, Bess. It's not that simple. Sure, we could do that. In...well, how long do you think that'll take? Ten? Twenty years?" Stephanie asked. Bess snorted.
"And what about after that? What happens in the twenty years after that, when we finally work up the power to enact the plan? Take over the town, then move around to do so to other places? How long will that take? Say we spend forty years building up the power and performing perfectly. How many years does that leave us to rule and enjoy it? Thirty? At most. During which we'll still be vulnerable to the perils of age and disease. This book may have many things to teach us-" she held up the Arcana "-but immortality isn't one of them. A contract with a daemon, however? That's another story. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to go through all this trouble, I want a little more out of it than thirty years of queen of the world." Stephanie finished. The rest of the coven shared a look; her reasoning made sense, if she was able to pull it off. And she had been right so far.
"Well, I don't care." Bess said, straightening up. “It’s not right and it’s not safe. I mean, haven’t you read any fairy tales? Heard of Faust? Humans tend to get screwed over when dealing with daemons, and I’m not willing to take that chance.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Brxthilas would never consider it.” Stephanie chuckled. That little laugh was the last straw.
“Stop laughing! I’m serious!” Bess shouted, stomping the floor and flashing with orange magical energy. “If this is really what you want, I will have no part of it! Look at what you’re doing! Before this, you and Amber were inseparable, even despite the coven! And a few weeks ago, you murdered her in cold blood!” She started to tremble. “I’m scared! You’ve changed! Nothing used to be this…horrible! And I’m worried about what will happen next. That’s why…I’m asking you to step down as leader of the coven.” Stephanie blinked, then smiled softly.
“And if I say no?”
“Then I’ll have to remove you. By force, if necessary.” She chanted in a strange tongue, and orange slime began to cover her body, growing eyes and sprouting tentacles that ended in red sucking mouths. “The rest of the coven is in agreement on this.” Bess said simply. Stephanie looked over to the others, who all nodded reluctantly.
“I see. Well, if you really all feel that way, I suppose I’m in no position to argue. I’m a woman of my word, after all, and I said before I won’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to.” she sighed, as if mildly disappointed. Bess was taken aback, although greatly relieved and slightly confused there hadn’t been a fight.
“Really? Well, okay. I’m, uh, glad we could reason with-” Stephanie snapped her fingers. Bess’s throat exploded, preventing her from breathing or pronouncing incantations. Bess collapsed, the others frozen in fear, as Stephanie pulled out her knife and with three quick incisions took out Bess’s heart, heedless of her feeble struggles, which soon stopped.
“And there we have number seven. Just in time. Now then.” She turned to the girls, who flinched and tried to back away. “Come now, there’s no need to worry. The problem has been taken care of. I’m never going to make someone do something they don’t want to, but by that same token no one can force me to do something I don’t want, like step down. Now, who wants to join me tomorrow morning, say, around ten, to begin the final preparations?” The girls looked at one another.
“Excellent!” Stephanie chirped happily. “Now go home and get some rest, we’ve only got a day and a half until showtime. I’ll clean up here, so go on.” The girls clamored over each other to reach the door and fled like the devil was after them. Stephanie turned back to the room and sighed. “Such a shame. She had such promise.” She snapped her fingers and Bess’s body turned to ash. With a wave of her hand, Brian was swept into the corner, still twitching. She left to put the heart with the others and go to bed for the night, as if any other.
Stephanie yawned and stretched as she made her way to bed. She had carefully sealed and labeled the jar that now contained Bess's heart and placed it securely with the others in her basement. The ritual would work with the hearts consumed in any order, of course, but for maximum effectiveness they should be eaten in the order they were taken. She entered and closed the door to her room.
"Heh heh, did'ja see their faces? Priceless! I couldn't stop laughing! That's some grade-A work, boss lady." A leering, grinning yellow-eyed face emerged from the darkness, turning on her bedside light. She smiled softly.
"Brxthilas. Peering into our private affairs again?"
"Of course!" the daemon chuckled, hands holding hi sides. Only about the size of a milk jug, flapping wings that couldn't possibly support his own weight, Brxthilas resembled nothing more than a common depiction of an imp. Black, backwards curving horns, deep red skin, sharp white teeth and long nails with a forked tail. At least until he grew bored and shifted to a black-skinned, wide faced, skinnier, more lizardlike version with horns that pointed forward. Those were the shapes he wore the most, although by no means the only ones Stephanie had seen him become. "I get so bored just waiting for showtime, and you guys are way better than any TV show. And hoo boy-you were great tonight!"
"Why thank you." she accepted with a curtsey. "Now that I've properly motivated them, I don't think we'll have another repeat of Bess anytime soon."
"Now that you got 'em crapping their pants! Ha ha! Ah man, that'd change in a hurry if they knew your real plans for 'em!" The beast guffawed again. Stephanie, as always, smiled serenely.
"Come now, Brxthilas. I'm sure I have no idea what you mean. AS long as they follow and obey me completely until the end of time and beyond, they may live. It's hardly my fault that the girls are considerably more...expendable than they believe themselves to be." she sniffed, making Brxthilas break out into peals of unholy laughter again.
"The hell it ain't! You're the one who tricked 'em into joining this 'coven' in the first place. Coven! Ha! Like that motley crew's a real coven. It's just that sort of twisted thinking that makes me love ya, boss lady."
"Well, my dear imp." she said, giving him a grin. "If they didn't take it upon themselves to do some research and discover that a true coven is made up of thirteen witches I can hardly be blamed for it, rather than the five we have now."
"Four," he corrected. "And speaking of which, gimme gimme!" he said, fluttering around her and drooling. "Where are the hearts? We finally got all seven!" She playfully swatted him away.
"Good things come to those who wait. In less than two days we'll have a full moon on the Samhain, where the barriers of reality are at their weakest. You'll feast then, and thus absorb the most magical energy you can get."
"Hoo-ee! And I can't wait!" he exclaimed, wheeling through the air, turning a variety of colors. Stephanie climbed into bed and checked the clock.
"Ahh. It's after one and I'm still not sleepy. Brxthilas? Can you do it again tonight? Tell me how it will be when we are ascended, until I fall asleep?"
"Certainly, boss lady!" He sat on the air and cleared his throat, settling into the routine. "On Samhain, one night hence, all your darkest dreams and desires shall come true. I shall consume the hearts of seven fair young maidens in a ceremony older than Egypt, a forbidden act handed down in the shadows away from righteous eyes. I shall grow and become as the greatest fiendish charnel archlords to ever exist, and the skies will burn and the seas shall turn red, the stars themselves screaming with the pain of the tortured innocent. I will unleash a thousand of my daemon brethren upon this wretched place, and Armageddon shall begin! Lo, the human scum shall be erased and replaced with others of my kin, and we shall come to rid the planet of all those that oppose us, and those who embrace us shall become as us, as is the right destiny."
"And me, Brxthilas? What of me?" Stephanie said sleepily, eyes half-closed.
"You, noble princess, as our god-queen who gives us the key to the world, I will honor our pact and give you your heart's desire."
"Anything?" she said drowsily.
"Everything! Tell, and it shall be yours, by right and by conquest. You shall become ruler of this throne, sister-daemon, and a thousand glittering cities of platinum and gold shall be naught but baubles in your..." he trailed off as he saw she was asleep. He chuckled. "Sleep well, boss lady. May the sweetest of your dreams bring a calamitous nightmare to this world." he said as he faded into the shadows once again.