Chapter 1: Summer
She longed for Autumn.
It had been weeks since the death of the coven, and the heavy lingering of those yet living was almost too much to bear. The children were scattered throughout the Spellman home, sleeping in makeshift chambers temporarily magicked on to the back of the house. Few adults had survived, and those that had were either unwilling or unable to lead. Hilda had naturally taken to the nurturing of the newly orphaned, while Zelda had developed a migraine that hadn’t abated since the whole business started.
She sat on the porch with the newspaper in her lap and a cigarette in her hand and watched as the sun slowly made its way through the trees. The sunlight slanted along the meadow until it reached the house, where it rose up along the walls until it reached the shingles on the roof. All was quiet, save for the distant birdsongs in the forests. Eventually, there came the unmistakable sound of Hilda’s footsteps, and the roar of the oven coming to life, and then the meandering scent of bread and coffee drifting out through the open window.
By the time Hilda brought her a cup, the sun was clear of the treeline.
“Oh dear,” Hilda worried, as she placed Zelda’s coffee on the table beside her. “Seems like it’ll be another scorcher.”
Zelda hummed in agreement as she picked up her coffee. It had been unseasonably hot in Greendale, and the air was already warm despite the early hour. The children had taken to running through the forest, delighting in the shade of the trees and the cool waters of the streams. The heat this year was almost unbearable, and Zelda had been tempted more than once to call the man from town to come and place an air conditioner. However, they prevailed, with Hilda’s cool lemonade and a few of Ambrose’s cooling spells.
The morning heat had already started to settle in, though it was barely gone 8 o’clock. The cloudless sky was a smooth blue, and the sun’s rays had already soaked through the walls and Zelda knew that by noon it would feel as if hellfire itself was rising up from the floor.
In the summer, the days were long, stretching into each other until each unbearable day felt like it lasted years. There still was no school organized for the children, and Zelda felt as if everything was still, and yet happening all at once. September seemed centuries off, and Zelda had done nothing all summer but wait for summer to be over. When it was Autumn she would be herself again.
The only truly good thing about summer were the twilights. There were golden hours, where magic seemed to burst out of every golden fragment of sunlight and every green blade of grass. When the sun was low, and the heat had dissipated, Zelda would throw open her window to the glorious evenings. The sound of crickets and the smell of honeysuckle would come in through the haze, and Zelda would sigh. She would lean out and drink in the cool night air with its moon and stars. The children on the lawn would be chasing fireflies and Zelda would whisper a spell that would slow the insects down, so that for a moment, a child could hold one in their eagerly cupped hands.
It was strange to be surrounded by children again. She thought Hilda and her had quite finished raising children, what with Ambrose fully grown and Sabrina finally baptized. And yet, here they were once more, a halfway house for witches.
Besides opening up their home to the coven, nothing had really happened this summer. Of course, many of the children had lost their families, Satan had been dethroned, and the coven had quietly become The Church of Lilith. But besides all that, nothing had happened in the empty weekends filled with stuffy car rides to the local grocery store. Young Sally had a severe allergy to peanuts, two warlock brothers were vegetarians, and one of Sabrina’s classmates was vegan. It made for a complicated grocery list that seemed to grow longer every week.
The drive up to the house was covered in chalk, pinks and blues and greens. There were large suns with faces, landscapes and hopscotch, flowers and runes that curved their way along the black pavement. The drawings stayed for weeks between rainfalls.
Several children had been sunburnt while playing in the woods, and Hilda had treated them with aloe from the conservatory, and a few hushed words of comfort. Zelda’s remedy was to mutter “chop-chop” and shoo them into the house any time a child lingered in the sun for too long and their shoulder blades turned red.
The saturated months felt otherworldly, a bit out of time. Zelda felt as if she had been dipped into a thick, glittering river of magnified time, where everything was slow and hot and awful.
The children had nightmares. Some were still afraid of Sabrina’s shadow. To them, her eyes were still white and the story of her flying had added to the myth of summer. They played with Dorcas and Agatha, followed Ambrose around like ducklings trailing after their mother, and adored Hilda and her baking. They still didn’t quite know what to make of Zelda.
There were still iron spikes scattered along the border of their land, and Hilda had found a few of the children tucking onions into their pockets.
“Just in case The Dark Lord comes back,” one of the young lads had said, his eyes wide with worry.
Hilda had nodded and Zelda had said nothing when the next week’s trip to the shops included seven pounds of onions.
To grieve was to be hurt in waves, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that the world was changed and nothing would ever make it the way it was. The children were grieving, for their friends and their parents, for the world that had always seemed stable and shielded. The coven was cloistered, protected by tradition and ritual. Zelda wondered what it must be like, to have the door of the world flung open. The experience of seeing beyond their small lives, to be thrust into the vast and disorienting mortal realm must be overwhelming.
And yet, all the children wanted was to catch a firefly between their palms, and to sing the songs they’d known since before they understood the words. Perhaps grief was more easily borne when one was a child.
To Zelda, grief had an almost terrible beauty. Everything felt charged, teeming with significance, and the world that had once felt so solid and unbreakable, was now translucent. The barriers between life and death were stripped down, until one could almost see the other side. She had caught a glimpse behind the curtain, at the gates of Hell. The fires had been blinding, and the smoke had made it impossible to see beyond Lilith’s quickly disappearing figure. And then the gates had shut behind her, and the world had changed.
It felt almost unnatural to be grieving in the summer, when the days were so bright it almost hurt to look. Despite the heat, Zelda continued to stubbornly wear all black, and she brought her black parasol with her everywhere to shield her pale skin from the sun.
“You look ridiculous,” Hilda said under her breath, as they walked through the car park to the local bakery.
“It’s called standards, my dear sister,” Zelda huffed, as she adjusted her sunglasses.
“Delusion and heat stroke more like,” Hilda muttered, and Zelda pretended not to hear.
The children feared a new wickedness would come, and so Hilda taught them how to hex suspicious strangers. Ambrose buried silver coins at the forest fence, and Zelda walked along the road with salt in her hands and the children following a little way behind. She said the words a little louder than necessary and smiled when she could hear the children quietly repeating the words to each other, as if trying to learn them by heart.
The barriers were thin, and yet that which kept a witch tied to the land of the living was fierce. Everything that held them here reached out and snared at the heart when one least expected it. Salem had taken to sleeping at the foot of the beds of children who had nightmares the most, and Zelda had become fond of the pile of tiny shoes in the mudroom.
The waves of grief had yet to swallow her up.
And yet, in spite of everything, she felt drawn to the rifts and cracks. There were trees in the heart of the forest that had bark stripped away, and she placed her palm against the trunks as prayers to Lilith dripped from her lips. The great trees, which had been shrunken and bare in the earlier months, were now bursting with life and health and green. They stretched out their arms, and cast a pleasant shade along the forest floor. It was a mantle of brightest green, and Zelda searched for the rot beneath all the flourishing.
She looked for signs, messages in the wind, or a pattern in the tap tap tap of the rain on the roof. But nothing came. She spoke to birds, and reached out to the wildflowers, and watched warily as dragonflies swarmed around her. The pine trees swayed in the breeze but did not answer her, and the few clouds that drifted across the sky held no shape.
Something was wrong, Zelda knew. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but the sharp heat of August was unyielding and felt like a curse upon the town of Greendale. If she heard one more weather broadcast on the radio about a heatwave she would scream. The shade of the forest was like a balm against the relentless summer, and she wandered barefoot through the trees.
She knew Sabrina had been going down into the mines. Over and over she made her way back to the tunnels with Theo and Harvey and Roz. They too were trying to find the cracks, trying to break down the doors. But the way was shut, and Hell could not get out, nor could Sabrina and her friends get in.
Praise Lilith for small mercies.
Zelda knew little of heartbreak. True love was such a mortal concept. Their lives were short, and soulmates meant something altogether different when one lived less than a century. Sabrina was pining, heartbroken again, though this time it was for the handsome Mr. Scratch.
Zelda didn’t know what to say to her. She could heal almost any wound, and Hilda could always find the right words to make Sabrina smile. And once, almost a lifetime ago, Zelda had been there to pick up the pieces left in the wake of Harvey Kinkle. But now there seemed to be a distance between Sabrina and her aunts. Perhaps it was the presence of the other children, or the happy chaos of the house during the summer holidays, or perhaps it was the bloody heat. Whatever the cause, Zelda was troubled by Sabrina’s silence. Sabrina was many things, but never quiet.
Zelda and Hilda had yet to comment on the almost daily pilgrimages to the old gates in the mines. Perhaps that was why the three of them had not argued for at least a month. Must be a record.
There had been so many bodies to bury.
Their neighbors, their friends, witches and warlocks who had lived much longer than Zelda. Poisoned by their own High Priest. It was a bitter end, and it was a bitter task to place them all in a row in the ground. The pet cemetery was a small plot beside the garden, much too small for the coven. And it felt too mauldin to bury them at the desecrated church. So they had buried them in the woods, as was the ancient tradition, far away from prying mortal eyes.
There hadn’t been a funeral, beyond bringing the children to the meadow deep in the woods and whispering softly that this was the place, should they ever have need to find it. Sniffles and runny noses, and shuffled steps along the ground, and a few tears from Hilda, and that had been that. An entire community laid to rest.
And the thing was, Zelda had nightmares too. The chime of a music box haunted her, and she dreamed that she twirled and twirled until her arms were tangled up in string. She dreamed of Faustus hovering above her with eyes full of hatred, and her helpless beneath him.
She’d been halfway across the world when Sabrina had died and risen from the dead. The children were still frightened by Sabrina floating above the air, and Zelda was frightened that she hadn't been there to stop it all. She dreamed of Sabrina’s body crumpled and broken on the floor of the church.
She’d been stripped and torn apart, and Zelda was still putting herself back together again. She grieved for her school and for her coven, and for those left behind. She grieved for Sabrina, who seemed all hollowed out. She grieved for her brother and his wife, and she grieved for the person she had been before she married.
She wanted to weep, to be comforted. She was so tried of being strong. She wished she could turn to Hilda and be the one who was frightened for once. Just for a moment, for an hour. But she was The High Priestess now, and so she came to the forest and looked for her god in the fields.
She prayed to Lilith to help ease the pain.
Hilda had the four winds kept in jars on the top shelf of the pantry. She had starlight bottled up and kept safe with a stopper. She had rabbit’s feet and wool of bat, and dried lavender tied up with string and dangling on the wall. She had foxglove that she slipped into Zelda’s evening brandy, and a dash of sugar for her morning coffee.
The one thing she did not have was lightning.
Thunder storms were rare in Greendale, and wild lighting was a coveted item that any respectable witch should keep in her pantry. One morning, near the end of August, Zelda woke to a yellow dawn that reeked of rain. All morning the children wandered around the garden, looking up at the darkening sky with squinty eyes.
Afternoon came, and the sky was all but black, and the clouds were rumbling. Armed with their lightning stick and mason jars, they headed for high ground. Prudence had never seen lightning caught, and so she came too, following Hilda and Zelda as they made their was up the mountain. Ambrose was left to tend to the children at the house, and Sabrina had disappeared sometime in the morning.
Thunder rolled along the fields and rumbled louder and louder, until Zelda felt the vibrations in her chest. She smiled at the thrill of it as they reached the stony peak of the nearest mountain. She looked south and could see the chimney of their house far below them, just peeking up above the trees. The wind was whipping through her hair and the air was filled with electricity. A loud crack, dry and light sounded out in the valley. The storm was almost upon them.
The black clouds approached and looked ready to burst. Then, all of the sudden, a soft curtain of rain descended from the sky and began to march across the valley.
“Stand back,” she warned Prudence, who nodded and moved farther away down the side of the rock.
They waited for the rain, and then the first drop fell. It felt as if all the hot months evaporated and disappeared. A white flash lit up the sky, no more than a mile off, and Hilda turned to smile at Zelda. She smiled back and opened her jar and held it high in the air. Hilda braced herself and raised the lightning stick, and they said the words together.
They felt the pressure of the air drop, and suddenly, for the first time in weeks Zelda was cold. She shivered as the rain came down in earnest. It poured down her arms and through her hair, across her brow and soaked her skirts. She leaned back and let out a witch’s cackle, and looked at the sky as the lighting sparked and made its way down from the clouds and into her jar.
She laughed as the whole world flashed white hot and the boom of thunder seemed to shake the ground beneath their feet. Her heart yearned for the storms of her youth, when the whole world seemed to be ending because the sky had become so terribly dark that the sun couldn't possibly ever shine through them.
She wanted to feel, wanted to reach out and put the lightning in her veins, she wanted to be the storm, cold and furious. Trees swayed with the wind, and branches snapped off and flew away. Dead leafs swirled and the sky rumbled again and again, until Zelda wanted to scream right back.
They filled up seven mason jars that shimmered with their treasure, and then they waited for the storm to pass.
When they got back to the house the storm was over, and the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle. They were shivering and cold but Zelda felt wild and unhinged, and she wanted to stay in the forests and find a pack of wolves to run with. But Hilda had said something about catching her death, and Zelda couldn’t bring herself to worry her sister, and so she sat in the kitchen and watched as Hilda put the kettle on.
The lightning jars were placed in the pantry, side by side with sugar and eye of newt, and Hilda smiled proudly at the little glimmering display.
“That was quite a storm, wasn’t it sister?” she clucked mindlessly as she flitted about the kitchen. She was cleaning and preparing the evening meal, and sorting the berries from the garden all at once, and suddenly a cup of steaming peppermint tea was placed in front of Zelda. As if by magic.
“The best one in decades,” Zelda agreed. She picked up the cup and saucer and blew onto the hot tea, and took a sip. The peppermint was fresh from the garden, along with the blueberries and raspberries that were in little quart sized baskets on the table. The children had taken to picking them for Hilda, though half of the crop seemed to disappear during the harvest, with the remnants only seen in blue lips and red-stained teeth.
“The berries look wonderful this year, Hilda.”
“Yes, they’re coming along nicely,” she said as she popped a shepherd’s pie in the oven. “Although my Pomegranate tree might be the star of the show.”
Zelda hummed and looked out the window for a little longer until the rain stopped. “I’ll set the table and go and find Ambrose,” she said as she placed her teacup in the sink.
“Hmm, lovely,” Hilda murmured.
Hilda had already dried her hair and clothes with a quick drying spell. Zelda was still dripping as she went into the dining room. She mindlessly picked up a pomegranate and put it in her pocket. She forgot about it until long after supper when she was undressing for bed. She took it out of her pocket and placed it on the nightstand and hummed to herself as she put moisturizer on her neck and arms. She rubbed a night mask under her eyes, and whispered a curling incantation to hold her curls in place for the morning.
Then, she sat on the edge of her bed. She felt a sense of time slipping away and life becoming unreal, unrecognizable. She felt as if she would vanish, like all the witches who had come before, and the world would go on, unaware of all the magic that was fading. She picked up the pomegranate and turned it over in her hand again and again. It was a beautiful deep red, and yet it looked sickly sweet. So she placed it on the ledge beneath her window and opened the window to let in the evening air.
Magic was a bit like wine, and if one wasn’t used to it, one could get quite drunk on it. Zelda had not had lightning magic in her hands in years, and she felt as if she was hazy with the hum and crackle. She looked out at the sky and sighed. The scent of after-rain still lingered, and the night was thick with fog.
She got on her knees, as she did every night, and prayed to Lilith, The Queen of Hell. She prayed for a good harvest for Hilda, and for the swift return of Autumn. She prayed devoutly to her queen alone, and asked for knowledge and honor, and guidance in this time of uncertainty. She asked for good familiars for the lost children, and for Sabrina to be made well again.
“I bind myself to you, as your High Priestess. I bind us together, now and forever. Hail Lilith.”
When she opened her eyes, the fruit on the windowsill was gone.
Chapter 2: Autumn
The fog of Autumn came and everything felt a little better.
The pumpkins in the garden grew and turned color, the trees followed suit, and all of Greendale felt right again. September had arrived, and Zelda felt a thrill when each morning was heavy with a dewy chill.
Hilda was brewing coffee in the kitchen and humming to herself, and Zelda was buried behind a Japanese newspaper. A cigarette in her hand, an espresso cup on the table waiting to be filled, and the world seemed almost perfect again.
There were still too many people in the house. The halls were positively teeming with children, and the merriness of it all had worn thin. A few houses had been built in the forests for the older children. Elspbeth and Melvin had built a small cottage out of sticks and moss, magicked together with mortar and mud from the river. It would look like nothing to a mortal, but smoke rose from the chimney and a few of the children had wandered out one afternoon and decided to stay there too.
It was like they were returning to the old ways, rather by accident. Dwelling in the forests beside the rivers, beneath the trees. One house became two, and then three, and then suddenly there were nearly ten little witch houses scattered throughout the forest. They had bonfires deep in the woods to welcome The Autumn, and a few of the students who were fifteen wondered if they too would have a dark baptism. What were their traditions now that they were The Church of Lilith?
Was she really watching over them?
For centuries Zelda had worshiped Satan, yet before this time last year she had rarely felt his presence, beyond the odd visits to the members of the coven for the annual supper. She had never seen him, had only heard second-hand accounts of his horns and hoofs, his slithering voice. He had always appeared omnipotent, if not absent.
Zelda kept praying for her to appear, to give a sign, to give this new life a meaning.
She did not come, and Sabrina kept disappearing into the mines.
Hilda had finally talked some sense into her, telling her that Mr. Scratch would not want her to linger at the gates. “He would want you to live, my love,” Hilda had encouraged gently. “And to help what remains of The Church of Night.”
It seemed to have shaken Sabrina out of whatever mournful trance she had been in, at least for the moment. She had gathered the children of the coven and introduced them to her mortal friends. They had all looked warily at each other, the small warlocks and witches sitting cross-legged on the thick rug on the floor, and Harvey and Theo and Roz sitting pressed together on the sofa. Sabrina sitting in an armchair, eagerly hoping for the best.
There was talk of a trip to the Greendale Bowling Alley. It was better than a demonstrative leap from the roof, and it was a start at least. Blending in with mortals might become vital for survival, and Sabrina’s mortal friends were kind, which was all Zelda could ask for these days. Kindness, and a little patience.
Hilda had always seemed to be a softer witch and the more patient sister, and it was Hilda who always appeared to put things back together in the end. Her magic was all charms and whispered spells, remedies for broken hearts and anecdotes to curses. She dispensed treatments with a kiss on the forehead, and a faux-stern voice to take a salt bath and to burn reversing candles for a month. She had always seemed so soft to Zelda.
When they hadn’t found Sister Jackson among the dead, the whole thing had come out. Hilda had told her, matter of factly, about the tea and almond cookies. “Kill them with kindness,” she dismissed cheerfully, as she kneaded the dough for rosemary bread. The coffee was nearly done percolating on the counter.
“Kill them with cyanide more like, my dear sister,” Zelda said fondly as she walked over to fill her espresso cup.
Hilda smiled and Zelda turned to leave the kitchen. She turned back and Hilda looked up at her questioningly as she lingered. Zelda felt, in that moment, that no one ever really knew another person, at least not entirely. There were always hidden things, just beneath the surface. Hilda slept in the other bed beside her at night, folded her laundry, cooked her meals. And beneath all that she had claws and razor teeth and a penchant for murder. Zelda promised herself that she would try not to underestimate her sister again.
“Thank you, Hilda” she said finally, with an uncertain wave of her hand, before it came to rest by her hip, the Japanese newspaper crumpled and creased.
“You’re welcome,” Hilda beamed with that infuriatingly infectious smile of hers.
Zelda rolled her eyes and promptly left the room.
They were at Baxter High for Sabrina’s senior Parent-Teacher Conference. It was a tradition for Hilda and Zelda to go together, strength in numbers, and all that. They met the maths teacher, the gym teacher, the English teacher, and a few others whom Zelda had zoned out. The final meeting was with Miss Wardwell, who was also currently the interim Principal, what with Principal Hawthorne still missing.
Zelda had been unnerved by the sight of her, sitting all prim and proper behind a large wooden desk. Hilda had hesitated momentarily at the door, but had recovered and gone to sit in one of the two swivel chairs in the center of the office. They discussed Sabrina, her plans for university next year, and Hilda answered all of Miss Wardwell’s questions with a kind, polite smile. Zelda kept fidgeting, glancing at the clock and then down at her gold wristwatch, over and over until the meeting had gone two minutes past its allotted time.
Miss Wardwell paused, and it seemed the whole business was through, until she took in a deep breath and turned to Hilda with a pointed look.
“And I suppose I should tell you that I know you’re witches.”
“Pardon,” Hilda sputtered after a beat of awkward silence.
Miss Wardwell sighed and leaned forward to place her elbows on her desk. Her hands came up together gracefully and her fingers wound together. “I am known to be somewhat of a historian, specifically Greendale’s unofficial town historian, and I know about the 13 witches who were hung in the forest in 1692.”
Hilda chuckled nervously, and Zelda narrowed her eyes.
Miss Wardwell cleared her throat. “I also know that the hanging tree still stands. And your niece was kind enough to explain to me a bit of what happened to my body while I was… absent.”
Hilda’s smile faded. “Oh dear,” she muttered.
“Yes,” Miss Wardwell said softly. “Now, I have no interest in exposing you or your...community.”
“Community?” Hilda repeated breathlessly.
“She means coven,” Zelda huffed as she crossed her legs and leaned back in the chair. She looked at the schoolteacher cooly.
“Coven, community, whatever you call it. I’m not interested in a witch hunt,” Miss Wardwell assured. “Only to inform you... that I know, and if you ever need anything that I am at your service.”
“That’s lovely,” Hilda smiled after a moment. “Isn’t that lovely, Zelds.”
“Marvelous,” Zelda said sarcastically. The meeting should have been over five minutes ago and she wanted to leave the stuffy air of the mortal school. She stood and gathered her coat off the back of the chair. “We should be going Hilda.”
Hilda looked up at her, still with that big smile on her face, she always did like making new friends. “Right, of course” she said, and stood up quickly. “Oh,” she said, as if suddenly remembering, “before we leave Zelds I must speak to the other members of the PTA. The menu for the Fall dance is awful!” And with that she was out the door before Miss Wardwell or Zelda could say anything more.
Zelda paused, suddenly alone with the Acting Principal of Baxter High. She turned to look at the other woman, and found herself searching for some spark of recognition, something, anything.
Miss Wardwell noticed.
“Forgive me,” she said kindly, when the silence between them stretched and grew. Their eyes locked and Zelda’s breath hitched. “Forgive me,” she said again, “but I’m not her.”
Zelda looked at her sharply as she felt shame stab into her ribs. Miss Wardwell’s hair was tightly coiled in a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore spectacles with thick glass that made her eyes look a bit too large for her face. They were the eyes Zelda remembered, blue and impossibly bright. And yet, it was not the same face, nor the same eyes. The tartan skirt was too severe, the loafers peeking out beneath the desk were too sensible, the oxford shirt beneath the wool sweater made her look, well, like a schoolteacher. Even her voice was wrong.
“No,” Zelda agreed softly. “You’re not.”
She had meant it to sound like a dismissal, as if she was unaffected by the stranger with the face of her God. But Zelda’s voice sounded sad even to her own ears, and she turned and left, furious at the pity in Miss Wardwell’s eyes.
When she got home Zelda was restless. Hilda saw, and made her sit in the conservatory with a cup of tea and honey. A crisis with some of the children called Hilda away, and Zelda was left alone with her thoughts. The Autumn nights were chilly and darkness came earlier and earlier. It was only half five, but the light outside was dim, and the first evening stars were peeking through. Zelda took a sip, and then another, and felt the warm liquid glide down her throat and settle in her stomach.
The cold must have made the stars sharper, because they seemed to glow brighter tonight. Zelda sat beneath the glass, and watched the night drift across the ceiling, until it was black with spattered specks of starlight. She stayed until the world tilted toward the sleepiness of evening time, and Hilda called her in to dinner.
The meal was a quick affair, lentil soup and salad with lettuce and tomatoes from the garden. Rosemary bread, sherry wine for the aunts, and hot cider for the children. Then, the long line for the toilet, children knocking elbows as they teetered on footstools and brushed their teeth. They leaned over precariously to spit into the sink and grinned as they wrote spells with their fingertips into the fogged-up mirror.
And then Hilda making the rounds, tucking the little ones into bed, singing softly or reading a story, a murmured kind word, a kiss to the forehead. She made her way down the magicked hall, each room one by one, until she wound her way back to the original house. She always saved Sabrina’s room for last. “Snug as a bug in a rug,” said with a smile. Sabrina was kind enough to give a small smile back.
They had taken to sharing a room again, even though sometimes Hilda would disappear to Dr. Cee’s for an evening, once or twice a week. Tonight she stayed, and she slipped into the little bed at the other side of the room, read a few chapters of her latest romance novel, leaned over to turn off the lamp, and slipped into sleep.
Zelda was still restless.
The stars had been so bright.
She wanted to see them again.
So she slipped into her silk robe, the black one that billowed behind her when she walked swiftly. She padded barefoot along the wooden panels of the floor, through the hall and down the stairs, and before she knew it, out the door.
It was a starry night, dark and deep and empty of moonlight. September clung to the trees and the autumn wind slipped through Zelda’s hair like a gentle caress as she walked across the garden, past the sundial, through the cobwebs of Hilda’s familiars, and to the meadow behind the house. She glided past the laundry hanging on the clothesline, the linens drifting in the wind like momentarily tethered ghosts. She made her way to the forest fence, disappearing between the first few trees, until suddenly, she was gone.
It felt like a night for shooting stars, but the stars remained decidedly fixed, as Zelda went further into the woods. Here, at the heart of the forest, the trees were taller than cathedrals. The trunks were thick and Zelda knew if she were to cut one down, the rings would be too numerous to count. The further one went in, the more ancient the trees became.
Zelda remembered the stories Edward used to tell when they were little, how they were spellbound by his words and tall tales of the woods beyond. “There are goblinmen in the woods,” he would whisper. “And the trees go walking. The forest changes, and no path is set in stone.” Hilda always shivered at that part.
“No path is set in stone,” Edward would repeat dramatically, “and the way back may not be there when you turn around to go homeward.”
But those were stories, told by children as they huddled by the hearth, comforted by the crackling of firelight, and with the front door of the house firmly charmed shut. The woods were far more dangerous than all that. Even a witch as powerful as Zelda should take care when walking alone in the woods, for there were monsters living in the ground, in burrowed holes, and between the rock. They hunted at night and stalked their prey with glinting eyes and gleaming teeth. Sometimes they were beautiful, with thick coats of fur and a regal bearing. Other times their faces were too long, their bodies misshapen, and when they spoke their words were garbled and spat out in an incoherent sing-song mess.
There were fairies in little houses made of twigs and lichen, sitting merrily by the riverbed. They would pull mortals in with charming smiles, and bring them to feast at their table. And if the mortal should eat their food, or tell a fairy their name, they would be bound to the fae realm for all eternity.
Even the cool waters, drifting through the trees were not safe. River-kelpies would appear on the banks of the river, appearing like large black horses. They lured unsuspecting travelers into riding them across where the current was too strong. But once a rider was astride the creatures, their skin became stuck to the saddle, and they were taken into the deep, swirling pools of water to be devoured.
The darkness of the night was only softened by the white fire of the distant stars, and Zelda walked until she heard the howling of wolves in the distance. She smiled at the call, and resisted the urge to howl back. Zelda felt as if she was always returning to the forest. The dark pockets between the trees comforted her, and she had always felt as if the wild places beyond the reach of men was the rightful kingdom. The dark, untamed Earth was the birthright of witches, and it was where Zelda returned whenever she went looking for the girl she once was.
She felt herself pulled further and further, until she was in a place she could not remember. The way behind her was lost in a luminous haze, and the winding path back to the house petered out into a faded game trail. Then, she tripped over a thick root and stumbled into a clearing surrounded by pines so tall that Zelda could not see the treetops.
She stilled. It was a moonless night, and a powerful wind embraced the ancient pines. Zelda breathed in the night air, and felt her bare feet glide along the forest floor, until she stood in the center of the clearing. She looked up at the stars, tilting her head back as far as it would go. Her robe drifted in the wind, and the cold seeped into her ribs, into her hips, into her outstretched fingers. She raised her hands as if to snatch a star from the sky, as if she would find the answer to her questions etched in the darkness like a message from the cosmos.
How could she build a religion based on nothing more than rumors of Lilith’s life? Her story was old and twisted from retelling, transformed and translated until it hardly even sounded familiar. She had survived the wilderness, and perhaps this limbo between the death of The Church of Night and becoming The Church of Lilith was Zelda’s own kind of wilderness.
“Are you here?” she asked Lilith.
Only the wind answered, and even the wolves were silent now. But as she looked to the stars, she felt it in her bones, that this was the perfect place for flying.
“Where have you been Zelds?” Hilda fretted, as Zelda came in through the back door. The night was fading, and the pale light of morning was making its way through the trees. “I looked everywhere for you. I was about to wake Ambrose and send him into the woods with a lantern.”
Zelda shook her head. “I’m sorry Hilda,” she apologized. “I’ve been in the woods.”
“Obviously,” Hilda huffed affectionately, taking Zelda’s damp robe and placing it near the hearth to dry. “I’ll put the kettle on and you can warm up. Honestly Zelda, it’s freezing out there.”
Zelda sat in her usual seat, waiting for the kettle to boil. Her newspapers were already placed neatly in a pile on the kitchen table.
I went running with the wolves, she thought. And I have found us a home where no one goes.
But is it enough?
Later, after a hot bath, Zelda dressed herself in a satin gown of severe Victorian black. She placed a diamond brooch on her chest, and a string of pearls around her neck. When was the last time she had really, truly looked at the sky? She felt as if the months behind her had blinded her with sadness, with loss and grief. They had lost their religion, the rock their life was built on. Last night had been magnified, crystal clear and burning bright with a sky full of stars. Zelda had vanished into the woods and come out feeling as if the path before her was a little clearer, and a realization clung to her.
There would be no more dark baptisms.
“No more dark baptisms?” Hilda asked. “Some of the young ones may be upset about that Hilda. It’s tradition.”
“We’re going to make new traditions,” Zelda dismissed, disappearing behind her newspaper.
“And what will these grand new traditions be?”
Zelda smiled behind the paper. “Why, my dear sister, we’re going flying.”
Somewhere, deep in the old ways was a clause buried in the contract one made with the devil. Essentially, one promised to die for Satan. To fall, just as he fell, into damnation.
But Lilith? Lilith had wandered the wilderness beyond the walled-up garden and had survived. And perhaps that was the truth Zelda had been looking for, that it was enough to survive.
All her life she had been saying she would die for Satan. She praised his name in the hopes that when she left this life she would go to her great reward. But what she was going to do now was live.
She would live.
She would live for Lilith, and baptize the coven, not with blood, but with the freedom of stars in their hair, and the ground far below their feet.
Chapter 3: Samhain
Before it was Halloween, the last night of October had been All Hallow’s Eve or Allhallowtide. And before that it had been Samhain or Sauin. It was a night for fire and feasting, visits from dead kin, and masked dances around the forests. It was a liminal time, when the boundaries between the realms were fluid, malleable and easy to cross. Fairies came in droves, and nature spirits walked out from the fog and into sleepy villages. Demons took possession of unsuspecting mortals, monsters demanded offerings, and dragons were seen on hilltops.
To be born in the forest was considered lucky. To be born in the month of October was considered a blessing. To be born on the night of Samhain? That was a sign of greatness indeed. Sabrina had been born in a clearing in the heart of the forest on the feast of Samhain, and she was the daughter of a High Priest. Her birthday was blessed, and was a sign of things yet to pass.
This year, they would celebrate with fire.
Zelda awoke early that morning and went to the bathroom to wash her face. The pink stained glass of the bathroom cast a warm glow throughout the room, and the tiles seemed to shimmer in the morning light. A claw foot tub sat in the center of the room, and Zelda remembered when Sabrina was little, how they used to charm the bubbles into schooners. Her little screams of delight would echo throughout the bathroom, and her hair would stick up in odd places as Zelda tried to wash it. The ocean was at the bottom of a bathtub, if one knew the right words to trick the waters, and their entire world was water and dreamy dreams, and soft light- especially at bath times.
Zelda missed when Sabrina had been small. Everything had seemed easier then, and the last sixteen years had flown by. She missed Letitica and her little chubby knees too. Her soft coos, and her bright eyes. She’d only had her for a little while, had only given her a handful of baths.
It was one of her newest regrets- that she could not protect Leticia from her own father. She was trying her best to protect the coven, to forge a new way of life. And yet, the ever present threat of Faustus loomed. He was somewhere, perhaps no further than the next town, cowering in the shadows of Riverdale. Who knows what his next move would be. But it was unlikely that he would leave them be.
Prudence and Ambrose had asked the aunts to go hunting. They had approached them, with swords in their hands and the taste of revenge on their tongues, and Hilda had calmed them, soothing them into staying.
“Soon,” Hilda had promised. “For now we must rally together.”
But as the months passed, their thirst for the world beyond the borders of Greendale became more prevalent. They would huddle together in the attic, whispering plans of where to look first. Hilda caught them making a list of magical relics to take, just in case. And Zelda had seen them looking at her books, the ancient and dusty ones she kept to the back of the bookshelves for a reason.
She knew they would leave eventually, permission from the aunts or no. Zelda supposed there was no stopping them. She understood Prudence’s anger. The hurt and betrayal that could eat one up slowly until there was nothing left.
Contrary to her niece's belief, her aunts hadn’t always lived in Greendale. They had been born and raised here, but they had been worldly before they’d settled here again to help Ambrose through his house arrest. Zelda used to travel, and had lived abroad in Paris, in Oslo, in Casablanca. All over really. She still had newspaper subscriptions to certain places, certain old neighborhoods and countries that had burrowed their way into her heart.
She’d lived in Texas for a brief time in the 60’s, when a few months spent in the desert seemed like a few days. She missed the little occult shops peppered along the highways, shacks and broken down cars, the sand that seemed to get everywhere. She’d traded with a few mystics in the desert, who all had long matted hair and turquoise rings on every finger. They’d lived in houses made out of the bones of long-dead animals they’d found in the middle of nowhere. Skulls of horses, horns of cattle, femurs of a drug deal gone wrong, discovered half buried in the sand.
There were Witch Boarding Houses disguised as motels with neon lights. A sense of gloom emanated out of the office, and the fluorescent lights always seemed to be flickering. An ancient warlock perched on a metal stool waited to greet weary travelers.
She’d been wandering for a while, here and there and everywhere. Up and down the highways in a car that drove much better than any hearse. She’d liked the freedom, the openness of unfurling hot days with no real purpose other than to enjoy the hours before her. The only bad thing was the heat, and she found herself dreaming of foggy mornings and the cold relief of rain.
Greendale had a way of keeping people in it, and she felt the old familiar tug of going home. Hilda had resisted it for centuries, and had an English accent to prove it.
The thing that sent her back to Greendale was a gathering on a moonless night at a nameless motel Zelda had stayed at for a few weeks. A group of young men came at midnight, just as the warlock was closing the office. The neon lights had flickered from ‘Open’ to ‘Close’, and they’d pulled up in their dusty cars and busted up ford trucks. The roar of the engines had woken Zelda, and she watched from her window as the men slowly approached the office.
She had seen the glint of a gun in the leader’s hand and immediately opened her door. She walked swiftly to meet them, her bare feet padding quietly on the sand. There was that old familiar anger in their eyes, and she knew that when they aimed their guns at her and the warlock, they were really shooting at the demons that haunted them.
They had come to kill the old man and take whatever cash was in the till.
Zelda had scoffed at them. Pathetic men and their pathetic anger. She killed them all with a flick of her wrist and a shouted curse. The warlock had trembled and stuttered through a thank you and after a few moments, he’d wondered what they should do with their bodies.
“Leave it to me,” she had said. And then she had levitated them behind her like a train of the dead, following her into the darkness and floating across the desert floor. She knew all about the dead. She ran a mortuary didn’t she?
She had burned their corpses, far out in the middle of nowhere. She let the fire rage until not even their bones were left. The smoke billowed up like a pillar, up and up until it evaporated out among the stars. She’d headed north a few days after that, homeward bound and back to Edward and Hilda. The evening news on the radio had crackled with static, but she’d heard about the missing men, and they died again and again on every car radio in Texas. She drove until the local news was far behind her. Until it was just her and the headlights driving across the desert sky.
She used to travel everywhere. She had attended university a couple of times, back in the days when she had looked barely twenty. She had studied history, literature, painting, and anatomy. Anatomy was always her favorite, and she became a great healer, earning several degrees under various aliases. Eventually she settled into midwifery. She buried herself in her work, studying with a witch in the far east.
She delivered many babies, mostly witches. Some werewolves and fae ones too, although those were few and far between. There was a powerful magic in birth, in the breaching of the barriers between the womb and the world. Zelda was the guide, urging little lungs to breath and for the cries to ring out into the night. She would hold a newborn, and look into their eyes as they opened for the first time. It was a heady kind of magic, earthy and ancient and bloody. Her body would hum and her heart would pound, and she felt herself grow more powerful every time she brought new life.
She traveled to Prussia and made her way through India. She sailed around the world, picking up languages, attending parties and soirees, taking on lovers for a night or a year or two. Her life had been colorful and strange, and she had worshiped Satan with some of the most famous magicfolk of the day. She wore beautiful gowns, led pilgrimages to the old stones in the forests, drank virgin blood, and frequented opium dens. Her heart was dark and belonged to no one.
And perhaps her heart was bitter too, for she was a brilliant and accomplished witch with great powers. Yet she would never rise above her current rank. She would never be made High Priestess. She had always wanted power, the ability to enact change, but even covens had their limits.
Well, if she couldn’t be High Priestess, then at least she could be the sister of one. She had supported Edward, of course. Even if his ideas were unorthodox and entirely too romantic. She’d understood where he wanted to go, and had a vague idea of where he wanted to steer The Church of Night. But he had died before he could spread his teachings, and he was remembered as an intellectual and idealist, and not the revolutionary he had wanted to be.
It was a natural thought, that the approach of winter should drive the ghosts from the empty fields and the barren woodlands into the shelter of warm dwellings. Perhaps Edward would come into the house tonight, looking for one of Hilda’s scones. Witches were often aware of ghosts coming in to look for warmth by the fire and food on the table. Thankful ancestors could wander in, especially on Samhain. However, wronged persons could just as easily return seeking revenge.
When the fires had burned out, and the worshiping was over, warlocks and witches would take flames from the great fire. The torches were brought back to their homes and placed in the hearth. The hearths were then solemnly relit from the center bonfire, and so each household of the coven was fueled by the same flame.
It had always been this way, long before the druids and the pagans.
Just as Autumn was the border to Winter, so too was Samhain the threshold to other worlds. The veil between the realms was at its thinnest, and even the stars seemed closer tonight.
Zelda and Hilda gathered up the children and the rest of the coven. The twisted Sisters led the way with Sabrina, and they all walked from the house and through the garden, across the lawn, and to the forest. They made a long line of lanterns that slithered up the hillside, weaving through the trees, then up and up.
Mortal children were Trick or Treating in the village of Greendale, and a bowl of candy had been left on their front door, along with a stern note to only take one piece. The children of the coven were quiet, and they clutched tiny bundles of kindling close to them. They wore hats that Hilda had knitted, and little mittens Zelda had found in storage that had once belonged to Sabrina. The night was damp and cold, and November was just on the other side of morning.
It was almost black beneath the trees, and the silver moonlight did not quite reach the forest floor. There was the crunch of dead leaves underfoot, the snapping of twigs on the path, the rustling of the wind through empty branches. They walked further into the Greendale Woods, all the way until they reached the clearing of pine trees.
“Place your kindling in a pile, my dears,” Hilda said.
The children dutifully made a small heap of kindling, pinecones and twigs and small branches. Ambrose went into the trees and came back with a few bigger logs and placed them neatly to the side. Then, Zelda snapped her fingers, and the pile was lit.
She loved firelight. There was something about the flames, the warmth, the raging heat. They didn’t have a stone table. Nor did they have a book of names written in blood by trembling, frightened hands. Instead, their hands were clasped together, and they formed a ring around the fire.
Zelda began to chant, an old spell of gravity. She bent the pull of the Earth beneath her feet, made it buoyant and loose, until she floated a few centimeters off the ground. The coven repeated the words, hesitantly at first, and then louder each time they repeated it. Sabrina and Ambrose were levitating almost instantly. Others took a bit longer, a few tumbled words, a few mispronounced syllables. But then they were all together, a little ways up.
Suddenly, they were high up where the flames faded and the smoke billowed. The ground was far away, and they were all still connected, gripping each other's hands closely. With encouragement, and Zelda still chanting, they let go, and began to fly.
“Steady on,” Ambrose encouraged with a proud smile, as the children giggled and grew more confident. They flew around the clearing in circles, and then upwards towards the treetops. Up and up, until they cleared the forest ceiling, and there was nothing above them but the stars and moon. The town lights of Greendale glimmered in the distance behind them, and the darkness of the forest loomed before.
They laughed, and played, tumbling and somersaulting and flitting to and fro. The fire grew stronger, and roared, turning from yellow to white to blue. Werewolves were howling at the moon somewhere, and goblins had gathered near the edge of the clearing to watch them. Fairy lights appeared far below them, flickering near the treetops. Bats flew across the night sky, and vampires were certainly among their numbers. Winged creatures in flocks passed over them, and Zelda was certain she saw a griffin momentarily fly across the moon.
The woods were teeming, alive and screaming with the feast of Samhain. Zelda felt wild and free, and could almost feel lightning-magic in her fingertips. Her magic felt full to the brim, as if it was spilling out of her. She felt as if her whole body was on fire, and she threw back her head and spread her arms wide and basked in the wildness of magic. She had worried that with Satan imprisoned the magic would fade. Yet here it still was, in the deep wilderness, in the hands of her coven, in the silver gleam of moonlight.
Magic was still here.
They were still here.
It wasn’t anything like a dark baptism, nor was it a rebirth for the coven. It wasn’t even a coronation, although Lilith had placed a golden crown on her own head and declared herself the new Queen of hell. It had simply been a beautiful place for flying, and the children had reveled in it.
Zelda had not conjured a blade nor had she made any of the children lay out their palms. No one had cut into their flesh, and no one was offered up to be devoured. They flew and were free, and their hands were clasped together as they made the long walk home. Fists came up to rub at sleepy eyes, and children yawned and longed for their beds.
The moon had set, and Halloween was almost over. Zelda shivered at the wind, and she felt the coldness of the night seep through her. Hilda led the way, holding up a lantern against the darkness. They made their way back along the path, winding through the trees, over tree roots, and across hidden bridges, past stony ruins, and back to the meadow.
The children were placed into their beds, or wandered back to the little houses at the edge of the woods. The hearths were lit from the great fire, and the coven slowly, one by one went to sleep.
“Happy birthday, my darling,” Zelda murmured to Sabrina, as they tucked her into bed. Perhaps it was silly to do, she was seventeen after all. But Zelda yearned to do it, and Hilda watched from the doorway.
“Thank you, Aunt Zelda,” Sabrina said through a yawn. The morning was not far off, and they had been awake for far too long.
“Blessed dreams,” Zelda whispered, and she leaned down to give Sabrina a kiss on the forehead. She quickly cleaned the spot with her thumb, wiping away the remnants of her lipstick.
Sabrina was already asleep by the time the door clicked shut.
“That went well, don’t you think Zelds?” Hilda asked cheerfully.
They were each in their beds, tucked up and waiting for sleep.
“Hmm,” Zelda hummed in agreement. She crossed her hands and placed them on her belly, clasping her fingers together. She still felt the heat of the fire on her face, and on the soles of her feet. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to sleep tonight.
“A good start, I think.” Hilda chuckled to herself, and then pulled her duvet a little higher and turned on her side. She was sleeping in a few moments.
Zelda waited for sleep to come. The night was almost over, and the air outside was almost black with it. It was always darkest just before the dawn and the last of the creatures would be slipping back, retreating to their holes in the ground, returning through the gateways in tree trunks, traveling back to the portals of other realms.
However, one creature was not retreating. Rather, it was flying out of the wood, and it came to rest on the pomegranate tree in Hilda’s garden. It settled on the highest branch, ruffled its feathers, and then looked up at The Witch House. Zelda felt its gaze, and went to the window to look out.
It was a large white owl, with shining eyes and black talons. It seemed to glow in the predawn light, and Zelda sighed as she quietly left her bedroom. She padded down the stairs and knelt by the hearth to pick up a torch. She lit it from the flame, then walked past sleeping Vinegar Tom and the Grandfather clock ticking its way towards morning.
She quietly closed the door and went round the house to the garden. The owl was gone from its perch, and was now circling above her in the air. It called to her, and circled one final time, before it flew back into the forest.
Zelda squared her shoulders and followed, holding the torch aloft against the darkness. They walked down the familiar path. The sky was still black, and Zelda felt as if she was wading through a black sea. The earth was damp beneath her feet, and the moon had just dipped below the horizon. The wind was bitterly cold, yet Zelda felt unafraid. It was as if the woods were holding her close, cradling her through the night and to the mouth of the cave.
Zelda had no memory of this place. The veins of the forest, with its rivers and streams and ancient trees, were as familiar to her as her own hand. The cave had not been there before.
It was in between two giant rocks that were covered with thick moss. The blackness between the stones looked like a crack in the fabric of the earth, like a tear in the tapestry. The owl flew and came to rest on the nearest tree. It settled, and looked out at the cave, and then back to Zelda.
She remembered the way Sabrina had described Limbo, like a yawning abyss filled with fog, cropping out of the cloth of the realms. But Zelda had no red string to guide her way back, only a friendly looking owl. She stood at the mouth of the dark cave armed with only a flickering torch.
The owl screeched in annoyance when she didn’t move, and flapped its wings, as if urging her onward.
“To Hell with it,” Zelda glared at the bird. She took a deep breath and marched into the unknown black. She heard the owl screech one last time, just as she slipped behind the veil.
Chapter 4: Hell
It was dark inside the cave.
Zelda had felt the rip, the tearing of the membrane as she crossed over the realms. It still looked like a cave or a rocky tunnel, and it went down before her at a steep slope. Down and down and down. Zelda had to watch her step so she wouldn’t trip and plummet to the bottom.
She ached all over. Her ribs were sore and her head felt as if someone had hit her with a shovel. She was working her jaw back and forth, anxious to reach whatever was at the end of the darkness.
Her lungs hurt too. The air was all wrong, acrid and sharp. Every breath felt like she was filling her body with a chemical fog, and her gums felt gritty and full of ash. She wanted to spit it out, to get the foul taste of sulfur out of her mouth, but when she tried it only made it worse.
She staggered on through the ragged cave, making her way around heaps of rubble, broken glass and gravel. Large columns of toppled stone blocked the path, and she carefully stepped over them while gripping the torch tightly in her hand. If she dropped it the flame would go out, and she would surely lose her way in the darkness.
It seemed to take hours, but she finally reached the end, and the way seemed to open into a cavern. She left the mouth of the tunnel and stepped into the space. She looked up and held the torch above her head, trying to see the ceiling of the cavern. She couldn’t make out the top, and all she saw were shadows. Nothing made sense in the darkness, and she began to panic. She whirled around to look behind her for the tunnel, but it was gone. She swallowed thickly, and tried to swallow the suffocating sense of terror.
She turned slowly and looked out into the chasm.
At first all she saw was the familiar emptiness. But then she saw a light far away in the distance. She squinted, trying to see it better. It was coming from the center of the cavern, and it looked as if it was floating. It drew steadily nearer. When it was much closer Zelda saw that it was a lantern in the stern of a small wooden rowboat. She realized that the blackness before her was a lake of perfectly still water, not empty at all.
There was a cloaked figure holding the lantern, and the boat seemed to move forwards on its own. It made no noise, and the only sign that it was moving was the light drawing near, and the silent ripples of the water behind it. The boat came to the shore, and slipped onto the rock. The cloaked figure stepped out, graceful as a wraith. It looked up at Zelda and held out its bony hand in greeting.
“Charon,” she heard herself say thickly. Her ears were ringing, and her body felt as if it was humming. It was too loud inside her brain.
Charon bowed his head and then turned to gesture to the boat, indicating she should climb in, no doubt.
Zelda shook her head. “I have no obol to give you,” she explained. Her voice cut off as she coughed at the air. “I’m not dead,” she wheezed. She gripped the torch as the faceless creature watched her. She couldn’t see the other side of the lake, and she couldn’t see the way back to Greendale. So she stood motionless on the shore.
“You are yet living, and no payment is required,” Charon hissed, his voice slithering out from beneath his hood. He seemed irritated by her stillness, and when she did not move he made a noise deep in his throat. It sounded like a laugh. With that, he climbed back in the boat, and Zelda watched as it rocked back and forth in the water. He settled in the stern and once again took up the lantern. He looked up at her and Zelda could just make out a pair of shining eyes that glowed in the dark. They looked like the eyes of a cat on the side of the road at midnight, reflecting headlights back at travelers.
“The Queen doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” he sneered, agitated.
Zelda looked at him warily, and tried one final time to look across the lake and make out what was on the other side. But it was no use. She saw nothing.
She sighed and turned back to the Ferryman. “Let’s not keep her waiting then,” she managed.
She teetered into the boat, careful not to step foot into the water, and gripping the gunnels on either side, slowly sank and sat on the wooden seat. She held fast to the boat as it silently slipped from the shore, and made its way across the waters.
It was hard to think through her headache. The ringing in her ears was still there, like alarms going off inside her. It was like her entire being was screaming she did not belong here.
As the boat traveled across the black, Zelda became aware of dreadful bodies slumped in the shallows. They looked like dark husks, pressed together and moist. She shuddered at the sight of them. Then, some of them stood, as if awakened by the light of the boat. They jolted and shook, and the bodies gasped and tried to wade their way to the boat. Their hands were outstretched, desperate and rotten and broken. They wailed and moaned and called to her, asking in garbled voices to help them get into the boat too.
“Pay them no mind,” Charon muttered behind her.
Zelda shivered as they left the lost souls in their wake, their cries echoing eerily off the walls.
She kept her eyes trained on the way before them, and waited for something to appear. The journey seemed to last an eternity, but finally, she began to see a light in the smoky distance.
She felt the Pit before she saw it, like a wave of heat in the air as they drew closer to the boundary of Hell. The landscape appeared suddenly, as if appearing out of a fog. It was a dark mountainous range, with a red sky and deep fiery sun behind it. The black sea came to a halt on a stony shore with black cliffs plunging upwards. A castle sat on the top of the cliffs looking out to the sea, and gargoyles and demons were guarding the battlements.
Zelda rubbed her eyes at the sudden brightness. The sun was like a fire burning in the sky, almost too close to the ground below. The heat was unbearable and the black stone of the castle glistened in the light.
Her heart was pounding and before she knew it, the boat quietly slid onto the rocks. She stepped out onto the black sandy beach, and looked up at the castle high above her head. A path wound its way back and forth up the cliff in switchbacks, and seemed to end at the castle gates.
“She’s waiting,” Charon wheezed.
Zelda turned to thank him, but the boat was already gone from the shore, and slipping back into the void. She watched as he made it to the barrier. The boat shimmered for a moment, warped and out of focus like a mirage, and then it vanished.
“Right,” Zelda muttered.
She turned and walked up the path, winding her way to the gates. She was out of breath when she reached the summit of the cliffs, and paused to look out at the mountains. They stretched out as far as she could see, a rocky wasteland of dust and fire. No trees grew along the peaks, only dust and ash. The ash looked like a kind of dirty snow, black and white and blue.
A few winged creatures sneered at her as they flew circles around the castle, and some of the gargoyles moved and growled. The gates groaned open and she walked through them and into the keep.
The distance between her world and Lilith’s grew smaller, here in the cavernous silent place of fire. The distance was full of everything Lilith had hidden from her while they’d both been in Greendale. Lilith had lived in the same realm for months, doing things in the shadows where Zelda couldn’t see. She’d led Sabrina down the primrose path of miracles to her doom, tricked them all with a glamour and slight of hand. She’d tried to deliver Sabrina to Satan on a platter, and when Zelda had been frozen and paralyzed by Faustus’ spell she had prayed to Satan to set her free. He hadn’t answered her prayer, and Zelda realized she’d never truly thought he would. But she had also prayed to Lilith, the woman who’d left the bondage of the first marriage and had taken her own freedom. She hadn’t answered either.
Empty promises and unanswered prayers and ash in her mouth.
When she was small Zelda had kept a copy of the sacred Satanic texts on her bedside table. She’d read it voraciously, over and over, long after her mother had told her to go to sleep. She would enchant a candle to burn safely beneath her duvet, and she’d huddled close and read the passages over and over. The Book of Lilith was dog eared, filled with underlined passages, and faded pages. She carried the book everywhere, tucked into her school bag, or at the bottom of her purse. She loved Lilith’s story in particular, and was enchanted by the first witch, the first woman . A survivalist and a God’s beloved, the most powerful witch in history.
It was a heady thing. Zelda loved it, was attracted to it. She’d married Faustus for it. She’d followed the owl and gone into the cave and down the tunnel, across the lake and up the cliffs- for power.
She came to Hell to seek the blessing of The Queen. She would not leave empty handed.
The great hall was a large chamber in the shape of a five point star. A throne sat at the furthest point from the threshold, and Zelda crossed the floor swiftly. Her footsteps echoed against the walls and columns of stone.
Lilith was slouched in the throne, her legs gracefully crossed, and her lips turned up in a wry grin.
“My dear Zelda,” she called out as Zelda approached.
She came to a halt in front of the dais. Lilith’s crown was slightly askew on her head. She wore a black dress and her lips were red and bright. Her hair swirled around her in the wind drifting through the windows. Zelda noticed that the hem of her dress was slightly scorched, as if she had been on fire. She held a sword in one hand, and the blade was covered with something that looked like black blood. Demon’s blood.
“Welcome to Hell,” she declared with a flourish of her hand and a wry grin.
Zelda smiled back and hoped that Lilith didn’t notice that she was trembling. She lowered her head in a bow before the Queen of the Great Below.
Zelda had always dreamed of meeting Lilith face to face. She had imagined it over and over, Lilith holding Zelda’s heart in the palm of her hand, Zelda holding Lilith’s secrets in her heart. She had dreamed of Lilith being a tired and unsung hero of witches. She had dreamed of holding her close, easing the weariness in the way only women could do for other women. She’d never thought their meeting would be in the foyer of the mortuary, or that she’d try and get Lilith out of the house as quickly as possible. Lilith had been in disguise of course, wearing another’s face. Yet Zelda was still disappointed that she hadn’t been able to see through the disguise.
She shivered as she waited for Lilith to say something. The great long hall seemed to loom above them, and Zelda suddenly felt rather small.
“I felt you worshiping in the forest last night,” Lilith hummed. She stood up from her throne and leaned the sword against it. She gracefully stepped down the stairs and walked up to Zelda. She reached out her right hand and placed a finger underneath Zelda’s chin. She raised it slightly, until they were eye to eye.
“It gave me great strength,” she said softly. “I thank you.”
Zelda swallowed and nodded. When Lilith was this close it was almost hard to look at her. She still had the same glamour on, still looked like Sabrina’s history teacher. Yet queendom had changed her, and she was shining with it, almost too brightly.
“Now,” Lilith tutted. “What is it you want of me?”
Zelda cleared her throat. There was a low rumble in the deep and the air smelled of brimstone. There were pillars of smoke outside the window, and hellfires burned in the distance.
“Power,” she said.
“What kind of power?” Lilith asked, her head cocked slightly to the side. She watched Zelda with a gaze that seemed hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
“Knowledge,” Zelda said as she stood up to her full height and took in a deep breath of the thick smoky air. “Knowledge of magic, of the realms.” She paused and thought for a moment. “Knowledge of you.”
“Me?” Lilith seemed surprised by that.
“Yes,” Zelda said softly. “You.”
When it came to Priesthood, Zelda did not want to repeat any of Faustus’ mistakes. And when it came to worship, she didn’t want to repeat any of her own. This time she would worship a god and know them for what they were. For the mortuary was still crowded with children and her head was still crowded with doubts and questions and anger. She wanted Lilith to be a better God, wanted her to do better than Satan. Please, be something more than a creature of the cosmos claiming to be a deity.
Do not take and take, until there was nothing left.
“Well then,” Lilith murmured. “What would you like to know?”
“Everything,” Zelda said before she could stop herself.
Lilith chuckled. She walked back to the dais and sat on the highest step. She crossed her ankles and leaned back on her hands. “Everything,” she repeated, rolling the word around on her tongue. “Now that would be an awfully long story.”
Zelda smiled. “We have time.”
“Not that much time,” Lilith dismissed abruptly. She tilted her head to the side and looked again at Zelda. Her gaze swept up and down, and Zelda felt herself blush. “I suppose you could come here when the moon is full,” Lilith said thoughtfully. “Not in your body, of course. I don’t think Charon would like a second trip without payment.” She hummed for a moment.
“Perhaps on each night of the full moon you could come to me?”
“Spirit walk?” Zelda asked worriedly. “I have never even attempted-”
“The owl will help you,” Lilith interrupted kindly. “The new familiar I sent you,” she continued. “She will guide you to me.”
Zelda took in a little breath. “Marvelous,” she said, though her voice sounded uncertain even to her ears.
Lilith grinned and Zelda shivered at the sight of her bared teeth.
“That’s settled then,” Lilith smiled. “Now then, come and sit with me, and ask me your questions.” She gently patted the stone beside her, and leaned back on her hands again. Her smile was almost like a challenge, and Zelda felt something inside her stir.
She nodded, and walked up the three steps, and gracefully sat on the stair just below Lilith. She turned, took in a deep breath, and they began.
They spoke for days, although Zelda was sure that in Greendale the morning was still not even creeping its way across the sky. Time stood still, and Lilith answered her questions, told her stories of the wasteland, of when she first saw Satan. She talked about the beginning.
It was a start.
Then they reached the point where Lilith seemed sad from the talking. Pauses grew between sentences, and the space between them yawned with ancient sadness.
“I think that will be all for now, High Priestess.”
Zelda nodded and stood up from the stone floor. She glided her hands over her nightgown, trying to smooth out invisible wrinkles in the silk.
“Will- will you show me the way out?” Zelda hesitated. Lilith was still sat on the steps and she slowly stood to stand in front of her. Zelda wondered if Lilith would conjure her a way out of the dark, some hidden tunnel or underpass to Greendale, or better yet right to the mortuary. She didn’t relish the idea of having to crawl on her hands and knees back home.
She imagined herself stumbling in through the back door, blinking and filthy and changed. For of course the journey would change her. She had been to Hell and back, and she would come out the other side a different witch. Perhaps the whole universe would be changed, and she would exit Hell under stranger stars and find the mortuary on strange lands.
Lilith stepped even closer, and Zelda remembered suddenly that she didn’t quite trust the other witch. This demon. Her queen.
Lilith reached out again, and her hand came to play with a wayward curl of Zelda’s hair. Zelda felt a shift, a change at the touch. It felt like things sliding into place, just like after she had signed her name in the Book of the Beast. Her own hair had been mousy brown all her childhood. Just as Sabrina’s had gone from blonde to white, Zelda’s had gone from brown to vibrant red.
“Do I click my heels three times and think of home?” Zelda asked, trying to ground herself as Lilith twirled the lock of her hair around her index finger. She felt breathless and wild all of the sudden.
Lilith chuckled and shook her head. “The fastest way to leave is simply to say goodbye,” she answered cryptically.
“And how do I say goodbye?” Zelda asked breathlessly.
Lilith grinned and leaned down to murmur against her lips.
“With a kiss of course,” and before Zelda could say anything Lilith brought their lips together in a chaste, gentle kiss.
Zelda felt herself melt into the embrace- until she slid right back into place and staggered as she found herself suddenly in the Greendale forest again. She steadied herself against the trunk of a tree, and leaned back against the bark.
The owl screeched.
Zelda brought up her fingertips to trace her lips and she smiled as the owl silently left the tree and flew towards home.
Chapter 5: Winter
November was bitterly cold. The ground hardened early with frost, and soon it was impossible for mortals to bury their dead. The basement of the mortuary slowly filled up with bodies carefully tucked in to their temporary metal tombs. There they would stay until the ground grew soft with spring and the shovels could dig deep enough.
Most of the families wanted closed caskets, since the burials would be delayed by the winter. So they harvested organs, blood, and fingers, and Zelda tried to keep Ambrose as busy as possible. She knew he and Prudence still planned to leave, but she hoped the winter would keep them in Greendale. Let them stay, at least until the spring.
The first snow came just as November blurred into December. The children were in their lessons, scattered about the parlor. Some were sitting in armchairs, some were in groups on the floor surrounded by tomes, and a few were in the reading nook by the windows at the side of the house.
“Look,” one small voice said. “It’s snowing.”
They all rushed to the window, lessons quite forgotten, and pressed their noses eagerly against the glass. Those who were furthest away nudged at the others, elbowing and pushing, trying to see outside.
Then, they rushed to the mudroom that led out the backdoor. They frantically put on boots and coats, mittens Hilda had knitted for them, and the hats that matched. The door was flung open, and the first deep breath of chill air drifted in, mingling with the warm air of the kitchen. Scrambling merrily over the threshold, across the porch, down the steps, and into the field behind the house. They flung their heads back and looked up at the pale, cloudy sky. The flat light of a winter afternoon greeted them, and the first snowflakes drifted down softly to land on their stuck-out tongues.
There wasn’t enough snow to make snowballs, and the snow was light and fluffy. It wouldn’t stick, and it wouldn't be there come morning. But they tried anyway, kneeling down to gather a few handfuls and flinging it at each other. Squealing in delight and running around, creating zigzags of tracks all along the garden. The drive was nearly covered after a few minutes, and a few children shuffled their feet along the pavement, trying to see their chalk runes beneath the dusting.
Flecks of snow rested on their scarves, and the weak, fading sunlight faded until it was dark. The chill of the evening nipped at their ankles and exposed wrists, and their noses turned red. It became too cold to stay outside, and they came in to find the hearth lit and hot chocolate on the table.
Hilda beamed as they pulled their sweaters tightly around them and settled by the fire to warm up. It was cold on the ground floor, and the house creaked as the winter wind picked up outside. A few lips were chapped, and Hilda went to find a soothing balm. Zelda stood at the back of the parlor, hands on hips and looked at them all.
“We’ve got our hands full with you lot,” she said fondly to no child in particular.
A few of them looked up, hot chocolate smeared all over their mouths and grinned.
Zelda couldn’t help but smile back.
It occurred to Hilda and Zelda quite suddenly, that they would have a full house of orphans for Christmas. Yule. The Winter Solstice.
“We’ll have to do a lot of shopping,” Zelda said thoughtfully, rummaging for gift ideas in the ads of her morning paper.
“Shall we put in a call to the toy maker in Sweden?” Hilda asked. “She can do big orders.”
“Don’t be so baroque,” Zelda scoffed. “We’ll use the internet.”
“Ah, black Friday.”
“I think they call it cyber Monday,” Zelda said, already returning to her paper.
“Right,” Hilda muttered. “I’ll ask Sabrina what they call it.”
“You do that,” Zelda dismissed and turned the page with finality.
“Is there… is there anything you want to tell me Zelds?”
Zelda sighed. “There’s nothing to tell.”
Hilda raised her eyebrows in part annoyance and part disbelief.
Zelda turned away and promptly disappeared behind her newspaper.
They managed the shopping just fine in the end. Deliveries came in on broomsticks, magicked parcels appeared on the doorstep, and shipments came from Amazon. The UPS truck driver became a familiar face, stopping by nearly every day. He always walked up the drive with a smile as Vinegar Tom waddled down the lane to greet him with a wagging tail.
“Traitor,” Zelda muttered, as her familiar sat when asked and eagerly gobbled up a dog treat offered by the mortal mailman.
“Just needs a signature ma’am,” he said cheerfully as he handed her a small tablet.
She took the pen and scribbled her signature, a big Z and an elegant, swooping S followed by a series of illegible letters. She handed the tablet back, taking the day’s delivery of presents, and scolding Vinegar Tom as he tried to follow the friendly mortal back to the truck.
“Silly dog,” she huffed under her breath, as she warily watched as Vinegar Tom trotted back into the mudroom and onto his little cot on the floor. “You’d think you were his familiar, not mine,” she grumbled. “Anything for a treat,” she said, but the dog was already chomping down on his new bone treat.
Zelda shook her head.
She walked up the stairs, levitating the presents behind her, and she put them in a pile in her bedroom, tucked in on the floor in the closet. Hilda would unpack them and label them later, and then they would wrap them together tonight. It was a little hectic, ensuring each child had at least one present for the winter solstice. But Hilda had managed it nicely, and Zelda hoped this yuletide would be more successful than last year’s celebrations.
This year there would be no seances, no secret readings of the Book of the Dead, and no visits from Gryla and her malevolent children.
The Yule log would remain lit, and all the children who were living in witch houses in the woods would have to spend the night in the mortuary. They would tell ghost stories, watch Christmas films, and Ambrose would do his annual reading of A Christmas Carol.
There would be fresh baked solstice cookies, that happened to be in the shape of reindeer. Mince pies, a roast in the oven, along with Yorkshire pudding, tea cakes, jammy dodgers, and custards. It would be a marvelous evening, and Zelda hoped the children wouldn’t be too sad.
They had been warned about Gryla and had been given a mantra if she were to find them and ask her infamous question.
Child, are you alone in the world?
No, I live with my coven in the house at the end of the woods.
They were told again and again, that the coven was their family now. They huddled in their beds and tightly gripped their stuffed animals. A few familiars had taken up residence in the house, making friends with Salem and Hilda’s spiders. The children had their own mugs, haphazardly shoved into the mug cabinet in the kitchen. Each had their own place at the table, and slowly, with time, it had become their home.
Zelda knew that it might not stay this way. Rome could descend upon them and place the orphans with other magic families. Distant relatives in far-flung covens could arrive and demand to see their nieces and nephews. The Witch Council could send a messenger with a decree of excommunication for what remained of The Church of Night, or the mortals of Greendale could become suspicious of the sudden increase in children at the mortuary.
Faustus could come back and try to kill them all.
Any number of things could happen. But for now, it was winter, and the world was dark and cold, and the solstice was upon them.
“It will be alright,” Hilda comforted, when she woke for the third night in a row to see Zelda pacing back and forth in their bedroom.
“Your blood pressure,” she chided quietly. “You mustn’t work yourself up like this.”
Zelda pushed her hair back and rubbed her palm against her sternum. The owl was outside sitting sentry on the tree closest to their bedroom window. It peered in at them with glowing eyes, and Zelda looked away and back at Hilda.
She ignored Hilda’s concern and abruptly asked a question instead. “Will you stay here on Thursday night?”
“Of course,” Hilda agreed immediately. “Anything you need.”
Zelda nodded, all but collapsing back onto her bed. Hilda settled as well, pulling up the duvet and lying back down.
“It’s the full moon on Thursday,” Zelda murmured to herself.
“Does that matter?” Hilda mumbled sleepily.
“No,” Zelda answered softly. “It doesn’t matter.”
She remained on her bed, and her stillness seemed to lull Hilda back to sleep. After a while, the room seemed to grow brighter, and Zelda looked up to see the nearly-full moon rising above the trees. The owl turned to look too, and they stayed awake together until the moon was high in the sky.
Thursday came, and Hilda did not go to Doctor Cee’s little apartment above his shop. She made a mushroom soup, baked three loaves of bread, and cared for the children. She oversaw the washing up after supper, gently scolding as the suds overflowed and sloshed onto the floor. The children always filled the apron-front sink with scalding hot water, and bubbles of soup would get all over the counter. The drying rack was always precariously stacked, but the plates were magicked to not shatter, should they plummet towards collision with the kitchen floor tiles.
Eventually they were all herded to bed, merrily chattering away. The night closed around them and warding candles were lit. The windows were shut firmly against the cold, and frost crept along the bottom of the glass. It grew quiet, and the cold seemed to make the night sky sharper, more insistent.
The fields in the farms neighboring the mortuary were empty from the autumn harvest. The hills were dark, and the trees had shed their autumn leaves. Cows were sleeping in their barns, and horses were beside them, their breath coming out in clouds that lingered in the air. Salem was asleep on Sabrina’s bed, and Vinegar Tom was snoring in his corner of Zelda’s bedroom. All was quiet and still.
Zelda laid on her back and waited. She tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable. There was no spell or incantation for spirit walking. At least, none that she could find. Any documentation of it was purely anecdotal and hardly reliable. Apparently, one simply went out of one’s body, and went walking. It was rumored magic, and some witch historians and academics scoffed at its existence. They believed it was mere delusions, or a bad opium trip. Too much absinthe and imagination mixed together in a cauldron, leading witches and warlocks to think they had left their bodies behind for a spell.
Zelda threw off a blanket from the bed and placed her bare feet on the cold floor. She shivered and mumbled to herself. Perhaps Hilda was right, and she should have more practical taste in pajamas. The silk did little to keep her warm, and she went to the chest in the corner and took out a heavy, thick blanket that would do the job. She settled back onto the bed, glancing over at Hilda fast asleep, and tossed and turned for a while longer.
Then, she tried to be still. She waited, and watched the night revealing itself. The moon was glowing, full and bright, and it seemed so close that Zelda could reach out and touch it. Snow had finally stuck to the ground, and it covered the fields and trees, and the whole world seemed to gleam white and silver.
Zelda felt her eyes grow heavy, and she thought for a moment she heard the owl at the window. She opened her eyes, and felt the stone of the cave in the forest roll away.
She was outside.
Her bare feet were on the frozen ground, but she was not cold. She brought up her hands and saw that they were silvery and translucent, just like the moon in the sky. She looked up at the mortuary and realized her body was still inside it, quietly sleeping in her bed. The owl flew to meet her, and she raised her arm to create a perch. The creature settled on her forearm, and the talons did not pierce her shining skin. They looked at one another, and everything was awash with moonlight and the coldness of winter.
Zelda turned and made her way to Hell.
It seemed hotter this time, in contrast with the cold air of Greendale. It was hard to breathe, though Zelda assumed she probably didn’t have to breathe. She was just a spirit passing through the realms. Lilith greeted her in the throne room again, grand and beautiful and terrifying.
Zelda still hadn’t forgiven her for the daisy-chain of miracles. And yet, she was beautiful and powerful, and Zelda felt pulled to her. Like a moth to a flame. Like a black hole, tempting anything around it into its sphere and crushing it into nothingness. Into oblivion.
There were fewer demons scattered about, and Zelda presumed that the regime change had come as quite a shock for this realm. The fires were still raging, and the mountains rumbled in the distance. It was still a smoggy, black wasteland. Lilith still had her crown.
“You look exhausted,” Lilith said.
“I live with children,” Zelda shrugged.
Lilith smiled and Zelda felt her chest tighten.
“Come,” Lilith invited with an outstretched arm. “Let us talk.”
They didn’t stay on the steps of the throne room this time. They wandered through the empty corridors of the citadel, through the courtyards and halls. Then, beyond and onto the small plateau that led to the cliffs at the edge of the black sea. Though Zelda knew now it was a river, still and impossible and wide.
They sat together looking out into the black, shadowy mountains and Lilith spoke. It seemed easier for her this time, and she looked out at nothing as she talked about Mesopotamia, Egypt, and lost kingdoms of sand and ancient secrets. Zelda had had a month to form her questions, and she listened and watched warily as Lilith spoke.
After a while, a group of hell-hounds came running up the cliffs. They had black mangled fur and red glowing eyes, and they padded over towards the Queen. They were almost as large as a horse, and Zelda grew nervous as they approached.
“Don’t be afraid,” Lilith said. “They are loyal to me.”
The leader of the pack came to sit just in front of the two of them, and he panted in the heat. His black tongue slipped out to the side, and Zelda could see his razor sharp teeth. Their eyes up close were still red and glowing, but they looked like a warm fire, almost comforting and kind. Lilith reached out to pet its head, and the hound whined in pleasure. His enormous tail thumped against the ground, and Lilith chuckled.
“Go on,” Lilith encouraged. “He won’t bite.”
Zelda reached out hesitantly and touched the hell-hound. The mangled fur was perhaps knotted, but the coat itself was silky and thick. She ran her hand through its hair and petted it softly, feeling the warmth of the dog in her fingertips.
The rest of the pack had settled, lying in a heap a small distance away. But the leader seemed more interested in attention, and settled beside Zelda and placed its head in her lap. They stayed like that until Zelda had run out of questions.
“Are you through interrogating me?” Lilith asked good naturedly.
“For now,” Zelda answered with a smile.
“Time to say goodbye then.” Lilith leaned over, graceful and distant and cold. Her hand came up to cup Zelda’s jaw, and Zelda swallowed nervously. Lilith’s hand was impossibly soft, impossibly gentle. She had anticipated many things from the new Queen of Hell, but she had never expected tenderness.
Their heads came together, and for a moment Zelda was tempted to rest her forehead against Lilith’s. But the moment was over before it began, and Lilith kissed her softly and sent her back.
Greendale was a nexus, at least according to Sabrina. There was something in the air, in the ground and in the water. It had a hazy, almost timeless feeling, and it seemed to keep most mortals away. Very few cars every took the Greendale exit from the interstate, and the small number of mortal families that did live here tended to stay for many sleepy generations. It seemed Greendale had a way of keeping people in it, just as it had a way of keeping people out.
Yet, there were always a few travelers who came every year, especially in winter. Traveling warlock salesman with their suitcases of horrors. Peddlers and witch doctors, fortune tellers and dealers from the black magic market. Friendly vampires on their way to Romania, to the old country, or simply to Las Vegas. They came in the night and were gone by morning, but they often stopped in to pay the Spellman Mortuary a visit.
Edward had been dead for nearly twenty years, but he was still remembered. And magic folk still came to pay their respects, and to see what remained of the Spellman family.
Salty Sal the sea-witch, who had wronged some mermaids- although the circumstances of the dispute changed depending on who was telling the story- always came when it was least convenient. She’d been cursed to wander back and forth between oceans, never allowed to so much as dip her toe in saltwater. Whenever she came through Greendale she stopped by the sister’s mortuary, and she and Zelda tended to get quite drunk together. They both loved gin, and Salty Sal always had the best stored in brightly colored bottles inside her coat. She had a flask with a skull on it too, but Zelda had only had the courage to drink from it once. She’d woken up three days later, completely unaware of what had happened, and Hilda had refused to look at her for a week. All Hilda would say was that they had had “quite a good time at the nearest shipyard.”
Whatever that meant.
Salty Sal was there when Zelda’s spirit slipped back from Hell. Her skin was still glowing, and the owl was flying ahead, and the stars were fading one by one. The sea-witch was sitting on the steps leading up to the front door, as if waiting for Zelda to return.
“Well I’ll be damned,” she croaked in her old hag’s voice. “You’re spirit walkin’ Zelda.”
Zelda stilled and looked up at the old crone in her doorway.
She sighed, and wondered how she could explain it. The owl was no help, and had already flown to its tree. Dawn was approaching and the moon was already gone. She needed to get back into her body.
“I suppose you better come in then,” she said, and walked over the threshold, holding the door for the sea-witch to follow.
Zelda knew that word would eventually have gotten out. An entire coven killed off with poisoned communion wine was news indeed, and the magic community was already dwindling in size. The world had once been full of wonders, almost crackling with magic and possibility. But the Earth belonged to mortals now, and the creatures of the night had all but disappeared. Demons were cast down into Hell, witches lived on the fringes of society, vampires no longer held their infamous parties, and giants rarely strayed beyond their dwellings in the mountains. Those who were out in the world hid in plain sight, uneasy and hidden behind carefully constructed masks.
The world seemed to be closing in, getting smaller and smaller.
Even traveling could be dangerous. And yet, like clockwork every winter, Salty Sal came. She was no doubt on her way to the stony coast in Maine, where her wife owned a decommissioned lighthouse. Zelda had only seen photographs, but like all things steeped in saltwater it looked haunted and strange and beautiful.
She made her way up the stairs and to her bedroom at the end of the hall. She opened the door and walked to her sleeping form. She reached out, as if to shake herself awake. And just when her fingers were about to touch her own shoulder, she woke up.
Salty Sal was in the parlor, her feet on the coffee table, and her coat haphazardly placed on the back of an armchair. Her navy blue captain’s hat was in her lap, and she was smoking her long pipe. Zelda watched from the door as she blew out a smoke ring. Then, she took another deep breath, and puffed out a ship. It sailed halfway across the parlor before vanishing into vapor.
“Show off,” Zelda chided lightly.
Sal turned to look at her and grinned. Her teeth were chipped and one was gold. Her skin was weathered from centuries at sea, and her hands were gnarled. She had wrinkles near her eyes from grinning too often, and her face was one of a hardened traveler. She had never been beautiful, but possessed a certain magnetism. A charisma that led witches and warlocks alike to follow her out to sea, back when she had been allowed in international waters.
“You always enjoyed a good smoke,” Sal smiled. “And a stiff drink too.”
Zelda settled down in the armchair opposite and pulled out a cigarette. She cradled the holder gracefully between her fingers and lit it with a murmured spell. She inhaled and let the smoke fill her lungs, fill the room, fill the house.
Hilda wouldn’t be pleased about the smoke, but it was too bloody cold to smoke outside. And it would be rude to ask her guest to get up, especially now that she looked so comfortable. An easy silence stretched between them, and Zelda was grateful for their unconventional friendship that spanned centuries.
“I stopped by the desecrated church on my way here,” Sal murmured. The embers of her pipe were glowing, and Zelda watched as they flickered. For a moment they looked like the fires of Hell, burning in the distance.
“Did you?” Zelda asked, attempting to sound nonchalant.
Sal puffed out a little cloud, and soon the air around her was thick with smoke. Her face was hazy, but Zelda could still make out the wariness in her eyes.
“It looks as if no one has been there for months,” Sal said slowly. “Like it's been abandoned.”
Zelda brought her cigarette to her lips and blew out a smoke ring of her own. It was getting brighter outside and dawn was not far off. She sighed and looked over at the sea-witch.
“There is ivy growing up the side of it,” Sal continued. “And tree roots have already wound their way through the open windows.”
Zelda exhaled and watched, as things slowly clicked into place. Sal put down her pipe.
“It’s like the forest is taking it back.”
Zelda sighed. Her cigarette was almost out.
“Something has happened,” Sal said carefully. “Hasn’t it Zelda?”
Zelda took one last puff of her cigarette, then extinguished it in the crystal ashtray on the coffee table. She gracefully crossed her legs and settled back in the velvet armchair. She folded her hands in her lap and eyed the sea-witch one more time. The smoke from her pipe had evaporated, and the air between them was clear.
Zelda knew that eventually whispers of the death of The Church of Night would reach other covens. And what better way to spread the word, then by telling Salty Sal? She was making her way to the east, and would stop at nearly every coven along the way. She may be a sailor cursed to dry land, but she was a reliable source of information. She could be the crier that spread the news. The great trickster has been tricked, the devil is caught, and a new Queen sits on the throne.
All religions start with a story.
“It’s a long tale,” Zelda warned.
Sal grinned and pulled out her flask from the pocket of her coat. She settled into her chair as well, and put her feet back on the coffee table. “I was a sailor Zelda,” she said merrily. “I love a long tale.”
Zelda began at the beginning, on the night of Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday.
Outside, it started to snow.
Chapter 6: Yule
Greendale was magical this time of year. The trees lining the main road were wrapped up with white lights that wound their way up the trunks. Little tiny villages with a train that went round and round were glowing cheerfully in the storefront windows. A few carolers even braved the long walk up to the mortuary, and Hilda gleefully let them into the foyer.
In spite of all the anticipation and the months leading up to it, Yule always seemed to arrive quite suddenly and without warning. There were the incessant Christmas songs that always got stuck in Zelda’s head, echoed in Ambrose's humming as he worked on the dead, reverberating around the house like a pleasant ear worm as Hilda hummed it too.
There were the films on the television, silvery and beautiful and oozing with charm. There were stories and hot chocolate and glorious food and the children eagerly counting down the days until suddenly, it was the longest night of winter.
“Happy Solstice,” Hilda said to the children huddled by the Yule tree in the parlor.
It was merry and beautiful and nothing at all like last year. Sabrina was still in the corner, morose and dramatic. Zelda rolled her eyes and Hilda encouraged her, and Ambrose was probably a little bit too generous with the rum in the Solstice punch. The Twisted Sisters got a little drunk and were very enthusiastic during the annual reading of A Christmas Carol.
The children loved Amborse’s funny voices and Hilda got a little teary, and Zelda gently stroked Vinegar Tom as he slumbered in her lap.
And then it was time for the Yule log to be lit.
“Remember the Yule log is not a decoration,” Zelda reminded as she bent to light the ceremonial log. “It is a protection. It must burn continuously from now until the end of the longest night. So let's keep the log lit, shall we?” She glanced over to Sabrina and The Twisted Sisters. “No repeat performances of last year?”
Sabrina gave a slight nod, her chin arched up in teenage defiance. Zelda decided she would have to be satisfied with that.
“And now, the Yule Blessing,” Hilda said merrily. They all joined hands.
May the log burn, may the wheel turn, may the evil spurn, may the sun return.
“Praise Lilith”, Zelda said quietly.
“Praise Lilith,” the coven echoed back.
As the longest night stretched out before them, Zelda huddled for warmth in her bed, shivering in the cold of the house. It seemed like the upper floors of the mortuary would always be frigid, no matter how many warming spells she muttered under her breath. She sat up in bed and cupped her hands, breathing down into them. She shivered again and looked over at Hilda, slumbering on as if their room wasn’t the temperature of the Arctic.
The wind whipped around the house, and the walls seemed to bend with it. A high pitched whistle whizzed by the window glass and the trees in the garden swayed. There was a new moon tonight, and so the night was dark and deep and cold.
The Yule log supposedly kept malevolent forces from coming down the chimney. But tonight, like Samhain, was a night where the portals were laid bare, so all of the children were in the house, safe and tucked up in bed. A Happy Solstice indeed. And yet, Zelda hated how much she missed Leticia. She was over a year now, had perhaps even begun to walk and speak. A witch’s first word was a powerful thing, often considered a sign of things to come, and there was a time when Zelda had thought she would be the one to hear it.
She had thought about using a location spell, had even gotten out the map and her crystals. She had laid out her spying glass and opened the book to the dog eared page when Hilda had found her and told her it was no use.
Even if they did know where the twins were being held, what good was it? They couldn’t very well abandon the coven for days, most likely weeks to go on a wild goose chase to find a pair of infants. There were nearly two dozen children here, in their home, desperate for direction and guidance. They couldn’t leave them, and a transportation spell was far too risky and out of the question.
“We need you here,” Hilda had said kindly.
Hilda had been right.
Zelda hated it when Hilda was right.
And now it was Leticia’s second Winter Solstice, and she was far out of reach. Perhaps Ambrose and Prudence would find her, if they ever plucked up the courage to tell the Aunts they were leaving. Going off to find Faustus and his children. Going hunting by the looks of things, by the not-so-secret stash of weapons Ambrose had in the attic. Maybe there were waiting until after the Solstice? Waiting until the longest night was over. The portals were laid bare, and strange things go walking on such nights.
Zelda longed for conversation, anything to distract her. She could call the owl and have it take her to the cave, even if it wasn’t a full moon. The veil between worlds was thin, so why not?
She shook her head. Tonight was an important night for all realms, and Lilith was probably busy-probably in the midst of a night of debauchery and mayhem and who knows what.
Last year the log had gone out, and Gryla’s children had got in. No, she would have to stay in this realm, at least until Yule was over.
She sighed, and decided to warm up by the fire. She gathered her silk robe around her tightly, padded down the stairs, and went into the parlor where the yule log was still burning. She settled onto the sofa and pulled a throw over her lap. The air down here was much warmer than her bedroom, and the fire quietly crackling was a pleasant, soothing sound.
She didn’t mean to fall asleep, but she felt her eyelids go heavy, and her head nodded, and soon she was asleep. Zelda dreamed of Hell most nights, of a great hall with pillars of ancient rock. She dreamed of a chair and a dias and a crown of gold. Lilith’s lips, soft and warm and fleeting.
But it was only a dream.
Sabrina was still close with her mortal friends.
Hilda kept Zelda abreast of all the latest gossip, whether she wanted to be be updated or not. Zelda worried the connection between Sabrina and the mortal world would still be too strong. Of course it was the same argument they had had a thousand times. And it was an argument Hilda and Zelda had had ever since Sabrina came into their care.
She wasn’t worried about the mortal world having an influence on Sabrina, that was very much a worry of the past. No, now she was worried about how much the mortal world would hurt Sabrina. That it would hurt too much, when the time came to lose them.
Of course Sabrina’s teenage rebellion of becoming close with mortals was nothing compared to Zelda’s own rebellion. She had positively run wild just before her dark baptism, and for weeks after she had been uncontrollable. She had run away to Paris, gone to parties in the catacombs, dabbled in hypnotism, and gotten high with a bunch of vampires.
Sometimes she saw some of her old self reflected back in Sabrina. The same curiosity, the same passion, the same love for the sound of wind blowing through tree branches.
When Sabrina had been little she had been so eager to learn about magic. She had been anxious and excited about her dark baptism, asking question after question, driving both her and Hilda mad. Time had flown by. She remembered when the two forlorn warlocks had come to their door to tell them Edward and Diana were dead. They wore all black and had shiny boots and freshly-ironed ties. Her knees had nearly given out, and the only thing that had kept her from collapsing to the floor were Hilda’s strong hands holding her up. How ironic, Zelda had thought as Hilda guided her to a chair, coming to a mortuary for a death knock.
It still felt like yesterday.
Zelda knew that in a hundred years, it would still feel like yesterday. Sabrina loved her friends, and one day she would lose them. The loss always came sooner than expected, and always haunted one longer than one expected it to, especially since mortals wore their ancestors’ faces.
Sometimes Zelda would meet a woman with the face of an old friend, several hundred years after. A great granddaughter or a great niece with the same cheekbones, the same lips. It was like looking into a warped mirror or a window into the past, like the rings inside trees. Mortals lived and died so quickly that there were a thousand of them for every one Witch lifetime. Their lives were over in a few short decades, and the ripples of time were on the surface of their skin.
Greendale was full of ghosts, descendents that looked like shoddy imposters of the people who came before them. It was best not to get attached, because in a few short decades they would be dead anyway. It was a fact of life, albeit a harsh one. Zelda wished she could spare Sabrina the pain.
Perhaps that’s why witches rarely fell in love. Perhaps magicfolk knew loss better than any other kind of creature. They lived in the shadows, watching the rise and fall of mortal kings, knowing that any love, no matter how great, could end.
Zelda wondered if Lilith was lonely.
Lilith had been the first witch. Maybe she would be the last witch too, doomed to watch as witches lived and died. What was a few centuries when compared to everlasting life? Maybe Lilith knew loss better than anyone. When Zelda had been in Hell, she had looked into the face of eternity and had seen the years and years spent loving a master that would never love her back.
Maybe witches knew how to love better than any other creature, and maybe that was why it hurt so much.
In the dreams, Zelda felt herself blur into Lilith, as if the margins of their beings mingled and intertwined, until there was no telling where she ended and Lilith began. It didn’t hurt when she dreamed, but when she woke up, she always felt a sharp pain. She always felt a pull to go to the trees, to be somewhere beyond the din of children squabbling and running up and down the stairs.
The pain would dull as the day went on, but it was still there. An ever present hollow ache in her chest.
It took her several weeks, long after her third trip to Hell, for her to realize that the ache meant she missed Lilith.
Yule ended and it was safe for the fire to go out.
Ambrose and Prudence told Hilda and Zelda their plan to leave.
“My father is out there,” Prudence said sternly. “And we intend to hunt him down.”
Zelda crossed her arms and tilted her head. She knew she couldn’t ask them to stay. “What will you do when you find him?” she asked instead.
“Bring him back here, I should think-” Ambrose started to say.
“Kill him,” Prudence interrupted.
Her eyes were cold and determined. Ambrose looked at the kitchen floor and put his hands in his pockets.
“Perhaps you should agree on a plan before you go hmm?” Hilda pointed out.
“I agree, sister,” Zelda said.
She sighed. As much as she loathed the idea of seeing Faustus again, she could hardly expect Ambrose and Prudence to be judge, jury, and executioner.
“If you find him, bring him here,” Zelda ordered firmly. “Alive.” she clarified. Ambrose glanced up, and Prudence looked as if she would protest. “That’s my word as High Priestess,” she said, holding up a finger.
Ambrose nodded and Prudence scoffed.
Zelda hoped they would listen.
They were packing up the last of the food Hilda had prepared for them. Ambrose had his crossbow, and Prudence had two swords on her back. She looked regal and ready for battle. She looked angry. Zelda watched as she leaned against the sink.
Hilda and Ambrose were in the library somewhere, going over ancient maps and roadways, places to hide if things got hairy.
It was just her and Prudence alone in the kitchen.
“You know,” Zelda said quietly, as she lit a cigarette. “Technically you’re still my stepdaughter.”
Prudence huffed. “What, do you want me to call you step-mother now?”
“No,” Zelda smiled and shook her head. She took in a deep breath and looked at the younger witch. “It’s just...you asked me something.”
Prudence stopped packing and looked at her.
“When Faustus and I first married, you asked me for a boon, a favor.”
Prudence nodded. “I wanted to have the Blackwood name.” She looked down at her hands folded together.
Zelda took in another breath.
“He’ll never give it to you,” she said kindly.
“I know,” Prudence said. Suddenly she didn’t look quite so formidable. She looked small. “I’ll never have a family.”
“Foolish girl,” Zelda chided softly.
Prudence looked up, startled.
“We are your family.” She reached out and placed a hand on Prudence’s shoulder. “And if you’ll have me, I’ll still be your evil step-mother.”
Prudence lips quirked up in an almost-smile. “I suppose… I suppose that would be alright.”
Zelda ran her hand up and down Prudence’s arm. Soothing and gentle. “And I know it’s not tradition, and its by no means Blackwood, but you could always take my name.”
Prudence stilled. As if rolling the words around in her mind.
“Prudence… Spellman?” she said uncertainty.
Zelda nodded. “It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
Prudence smiled softly. “May I think about it?”
“Of course,” Zelda assured. “Take all the time you need.”
She stepped away and headed toward the back door to go outside and finish her cigarette. Technically, she wasn’t even supposed to be smoking in the house. Hilda’s new rules, what with the children about and all. She opened the door a crack and felt the chill of the winter air creep in.
“I still have to leave.” Prudence said firmly.
Zelda glanced behind. Prudence had squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I still have to go and find him.”
“I know,” Zelda said gently. “Just giving you a reason to come back.”
Prudence’s mouth opened slightly, but when she didn’t say anything Zelda just smiled reassuringly and quietly shut the door behind her.
Ambrose and Prudence left an hour later.
The first visitors came in the form of spinning witches. There was another coven two states over. Their town was similar to Greendale, but had been part of the textile industry. They had a factory where Greendale had mines, and these spinning witches appeared on their brooms, circled the mortuary, then landed on the side of the road. They marched up the drive and pounded on the door.
Zelda opened it and greeted them with a chilly smile. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” she asked.
The witch who appeared to be the leader tilted her head. “We’ve come to see the godmaker,” she declared carefully.
Hilda gasped behind her and Zelda had to fight not to roll her eyes.
“And who is this godmaker you speak of?”
The three witches looked at each other nervously. The leader nodded, as if to reassure the other two, then leaned forward, and whispered as if was a great secret. “Salty Sal says the devil has been dethroned.”
Zelda felt the ache in her chest roar to life.
“She says there’s a new god in Hell,” the second spinning witch murmured nervously.
“Oh dear,” Zelda heard Hilda mutter.
“We’ve come to meet the new High Priestess, the godmaker,” the third spinning witch trembled.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Hilda said, and disappeared into the house.
Zelda stood a little taller and nervously tucked her hair behind her ear. “Spinning witches, if I give you entrance to this house will you abide by its rules and customs?”
They looked at each other again, and nodded to the leader. “We will,” she said.
“Come in then.” Zelda stepped aside and greeted the first disciples of The Church of Lilith.
They had questions, some Zelda couldn’t answer. They didn’t seem to like the few answers she did give them. They sat in the parlor and drank Hilda’s tea, and the children wandered in and out, wary of the strangers in the house.
“The entire coven was poisoned?” they asked.
“Most of it,” Zelda answered, her voice clipped, aware of the children who could be listening.
“And the man who killed them was your husband?”
“Yes,” Zelda said. “His name is Faustus Blackwood.”
The witches nodded and sipped their tea. “Where is he now?”
Zelda smiled. “He’s being hunted.”
The witches grinned at that. “Happy hunting to those who hunt him.”
Zelda lowered her head gracefully in thanks. She was grateful that the first visitors had been witches. Their story would be a hard sell to anyone, but outside of the covens it would be nigh on impossible to gather support without already establishing ranks within their own community.
There were always stories about witches. Tall tales for men to tell each other when they were lost in the woods, or marooned on an island and stranded far from home. Tales of enchantment and wicked women, tricks of the light, and shadows that creeped across the mind. Floorboards that creaked only when a stranger stepped on it, traps and paths that led always and only to the front door of a witch house. Deep in the sea or deep in the forest, or down the lane after one too many wrong turns in an unfamiliar part of a city.
But these witches looked kind, and the only thing a spinning witch loved more than her spinning wheel was gossip. They left with bellies full of Hilda's famous cookies and their heads full of Zelda’s words.
Zelda and Hilda and all the children waved to them from the lawn as they got on their brooms and flew away. Their story, flying away across the sky.
It was starting, spreading. Zelda couldn't stop it now. Soon most of the covens on the Eastern Seaboard would know that Lilith was the new Queen of Hell. It had seemed simpler, when it was just them against the world. But the world was creeping in, and The Church of Lilith was growing.
That night it snowed, heavy and white and beautiful. In the morning the trees and rooftops were covered with it, sugar-coated and perfect. The pomegranate tree looked nearly like a white birch tree, its branches were almost dyed white with the snow. The owl watched from the window as the mortuary slept and Zelda dreamed.
“What’s in the valley?” Zelda asked, peering over the cliff and into the gap between mountains.
“Nothing much,” Lilith dismissed. “Lost souls wandering, a few horrors.”
Zelda nodded. But just as she turned to look back at the castle, she spotted a black branch rising out of the hazy smoke that seemed to bank the foot of the mountains. It almost looked like fog, but it was red and thick with soot.
“Look,” she pointed. “There’s a tree.”
She turned to look at Lilith, who seemed almost surprised at the sight of it.
Zelda slowly lowered her hand and turned back to the valley. The smoke had risen again, and the branch had been swallowed up in it. “I didn’t know that trees could grow in Hell,” she said thoughtfully.
“They don’t,” Lilith said sharply.
Zelda glanced back and saw that Lilith was still staring down into the deep. She waited, but an explanation didn’t come. When Lilith didn’t speak Zelda took a gamble.
“Can I see it?” she asked carefully.
Lilith looked at her, startled, as if she’d forgotten that Zelda was standing beside her. “There’s nothing to see,” she said thickly. “It’s dead.”
“So is everything else in this realm,” Zelda pointed out.
Lilith raised an eyebrow at that, and seemed to mull it over for a moment. “Fine,” she clipped. “But stay close.”
They walked down the side of the cliff, winding their way down the switchbacks. This road was more rugged than the one from the river. It meandered and wandered off, and sometimes vanished in a field of boulders. Zelda gingerly made her way through the rocks and shale, following Lilith who never seemed to tire or falter. The rocks slipped beneath their feet, and sometimes a pebble would go flying down the mountain, rolling and rolling, getting faster and faster, until it disappeared into the smoke.
The only way to know that they had reached the valley floor was that the road was suddenly flat. The smoke was thick here, and Zelda could only see a few meters ahead of her. She could barely make out Lilith’s form, and she struggled to stay close.
“Keep up,” Lilith muttered.
Zelda rolled her eyes. She didn’t know how long they walked but suddenly they were there.
The black tree rose out of the smog like a monolith, black and rotting and dead. It was tall and spindly, but looked withered. A few smaller trees had collapsed around it, ruined by age or sickness, Zelda couldn’t tell. It looked like it had been a garden. A few trees and raised beds. The soil was black, but there were echoes of a harvest, or at least an attempt at one.
“It was one of his many lessons,” Lilith spat. She was standing beneath the tree, looking up at the empty branches. “I told him I missed the garden.”
Zelda’s heart went cold.
“He gave me seeds, and told me to plant them in the valley. And I came every day with water from the river.”
Zelda looked around at the ruins. They had calcified and turned to stone. The trees were there as a mockery, a reminder of what was impossible.
“I came every day, and for a time the trees grew. But then they died, and he told me to forget such things.”
Lilith turned to look back at Zelda. She knew it was most likely a trick of the light, or the smoke of distant fires drifting between them, but it looked as if there were tears in her eyes.
“All things die, he told me. It does no good to plant seeds.”
They never discussed him directly. It was the conversation they were always on the verge of having. The ghost in every story, the shadow that walked beside them. He was everywhere and nowhere. He haunted them.
Where is Lucifer Morningstar?
Where is Mr. Scratch?
The words were on the tip of her tongue. They were questions she longed to ask, for at least it would bring some comfort to Sabrina. But she never did ask, for she was certain she wouldn't like the answers. Instead, she remained quiet and bent down until her knees were in the dirt. She spread out both hands, her fingers splayed wide, and sank her nails into the soil. She closed her eyes.
The devil had told Lilith that nothing would grow. But the ground was soft and gave way to her hands. It took her in, moving aside, as if it remembered the feeling of roots taking hold.
“Hilda has a garden, you know,” she said. When Lilith didn’t answer she opened her eyes and glanced up. She looked wild, her eyes sad and sparkling. She looked ancient and sinister. She looked beautiful.
“I know,” Lilith said with a smile that made Zelda shiver. “I stole your pomegranate.”
Zelda smiled back.
It must be terribly difficult, Zelda thought, as they walked back up the mountain. It must be difficult to carry such anguish, such despair, and not let it ever come out. Zelda imagined that if Lilith were to ever let her in, all of the darkness of the past would come pouring out. All those feelings of a million life times. The regrets rendered unstoppable, like a flood tearing through a crack in a dam. It must be so heavy, carrying it around with her everywhere.
The false god lied to Eve, because he desired to keep her naked and ignorant in his garden.
The devil lied to Lilith, because he feared what she could grow when given seeds.
“Time to wake up,” Lilith murmured, and kissed her quick.
Chapter 7: Imbolc
Zelda still wasn’t sure what it meant to be high priestess.
Yet the flock grew, and her second visitors were a pack of werewolves that arrived, quite unexpectedly, halfway through January.
It was a small pack, though all werewolf packs were small these days. They didn’t say where they’d come from, and Zelda had the courtesy not to ask. These were strange times, and a little anonymity went a long way. All they’d really came to do was to look into her eyes and to ask if it was true.
“Can you really spirit walk by the light of the full moon?”
It was a kindred feeling, these creatures with their slightly yellow-tinged eyes and too-strong hands. They too were wont to walk and wander and change form, to slip out of their skin and into something else altogether. Zelda had read that it was painful, full of bones twisting and turning and growing. She had read about it at school, but she’d never actually seen a werewolf transform.
They didn’t quite believe her in the end.
The story was too far fetched, a little too ridiculous and convenient. The pack had felt no change in the moon, no different scents in the wind, no shift of the earth. To them, things were the same as they ever were. And yet there were whispers growing stronger every day.
A new queen in Hell.
A high priestess in Greendale.
The seven werewolf guests tracked mud and melted snow all over the parlor, and only then did Zelda realize that they were barefoot. She tried not to be put off by it, tried not to grip her pearls and demand decorum. There were werewolves! In her parlor! If only Edward could see her now.
“Entertaining all sorts these days,” Hilda said cheerfully, after the visitors had left in a huff. She was baking again, and Sabrina was in the corner pretending to help, but really just lost in thought and mindlessly mixing some kind of batter.
“So it would seem,” Zelda agreed.
She hadn’t anticipated werewolves. Witches of course, perhaps from covens as far as California, or maybe even the old world. They were isolated in Greendale, but not impossible to reach. She’d underestimated Salty Sal’s gift of the gab.
“I wonder who will come next?” Sabrina said thoughtfully.
Zelda rolled her eyes. “It would do no good to speculate,” she dismissed. “These are uncertain times, niece.”
Sabria sighed melodramatically and went back to her pitiful excuse of stirring.
Hilda began to hum, and Zelda picked up her latest newspaper.
Imbolc, like Samhain, was a festival of fire. Although Imbolc was held in the heart of winter, when all the world was still in darkness. It was more hearth and home, and less tromping through the moors, running into old ghosts and familiar ghouls. Hilda always made sticky buns to raise Sabrina’s spirits, and a hearty stew to fortify during the long winter months. It was a time of divination, of ominous omens in the soles of one’s shoes, and in the patterns of tea leaves left at the bottom of cups. Warding candles were lit, and a bonfire too if there was enough firewood to go around. Fire and purification, and the looking forward to Spring as the days grew longer and longer. They were halfway through the dark.
In the old country, some witches claimed they would see Cailleach at the edge of the forest, gathering firewood for the remaining winter. Sometimes she was tall and slim, with dark hair and shining eyes. Other times she was an old hag, with a stooped back and a hooded cloak that hid her face. But she was always carrying firewood, or a wicker basket full of rocks. She was the mountain maker, the goddess of winter, carrying a hammer to shape the hills and valleys, and promising a long winter for those who couldn’t bear the heat of summer.
Zelda never saw her, but she liked the story. She told it to the children as she sipped from a Glencairn glass of whiskey and the fire crackled in the hearth. It was strange to think that none of them had ever been to the homeland. Perhaps being high priestess meant keeping the traditions alive, telling the stories over and over, lighting the fires to keep out the dark.
They made crosses in honor of Brigid, using old rushes and weaving them into four-armed shapes. Then the children hung them over their bedroom doors, and one big one for the front door.
“It will keep out the evil spirits,” they said proudly and beamed at Hilda’s proud grin.
A few Brigid crosses were left at the windows for protection against wildfire, illness, and visitors with malicious intent. Zelda and Hilda wound their way around the house and murmured a blessing over each one.
Winter in Greendale always seemed to dawdle, persisting almost until March. April rarely saw green ground, and the streets were almost always muddy and thick. The road into town was lined with blackness that was spat on the few remaining, shrinking snowbanks. There was always a sadness that came with Spring.
But it was still January, and tomorrow would be February. Time kept hurtling forward, no matter how much Zelda wished it to slow down. Sabrina had sent off applications to universities and they were all in far flung places. England and Scotland, New York and Berkley. She wanted to study politics, Lilith help them.
Zelda missed Ambrose. She even missed Prudence.
There had been a few letters, a couple phone calls. They were somewhere in Europe, far out of her reach. It was the first Imbolc without Ambrose in seventy five years. He hadn't been there to chop firewood, and Sabrina had invited Harvey, Roz, and Theo to help. It was a kindness, but the house had been Ambrose’s prison for so long, that in Zelda’s mind he had almost become a part of it. It felt emptier, even with the clamoring, cheerful presence of children, and the warmth of firelight, and the owl keeping watch from its perch. The house still felt different.
His music didn’t wake her up in the middle of the night, and the bodies in the basement all had to be handled by her or Hilda. His favorite teacup sat unused in the cupboard, gathering dust. And the only person who still went up to the attic was Hilda, who dusted and tidied his room every Sunday afternoon.
Sabrina missed him too. Zelda supposed that people were always leaving Sabrina. Her parents died when she was small, her mortal boyfriend left her, and her warlock boyfriend was somewhere in another realm. And now Ambrose. Salem kept watch, following Sabrina around like a shadow. Even Vinegar Tom seemed more than happy to trot behind her through the hallways of the house.
It would be hard to let her go. She prayed to Lilith that Sabrina would eventually choose New York, and not somewhere too far. Please let her choose a university that was only a train ride away.
“Do you think she’ll actually want to go to Oxford,” Hilda asked.
Zelda shrugged. “Who knows what goes on in that girl’s head these days.”
Hilda hummed in agreement as she watered her plants in the conservatory.
Zelda wandered over to the wooden box in the corner of the room. There were packets of seeds filed neatly in a row, faded and lovely, with hand painted illustrations on the front. She looked through them, leafing through them slowly. There were mainly vegetables, a few flowers and herbs. Garlic marked to be planted in the fall, onions and courgettes, pumpkins and tomatoes.
“You're welcome to them, you know,” Hilda said kindly, glancing over at Zelda in the corner.
“Thank you sister,” she murmured, distracted by the lilacs and sunflowers and the knowledge that their whole garden came from this box. “I think I’ll take one packet, if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” Hilda said distractedly, as she reached a few problem plants in the back that looked a bit wilted.
Zelda slipped the seeds into her pocket.
There was a stillness in winter, especially on clear nights when the moon was bright and everything was a bluish-silver. The trees almost gleamed dark blue, and the snow sparkled in the moonlight. It was a cold beauty, strange and sinister and seductive. For if one stood too long looking out at it, the cold could creep in and lull one into an endless sleep.
The owl was shining tonight, and Zelda gleamed too. She held up her hand, shimmery and spirit-like, and arrived on the bank of the river before she even reached the mouth of the cave. The journey was getting easier and easier, and every time she slipped between worlds, Zelda felt the fabric between them fray at the edges. Like a hem of a dress, unraveling with every wear.
Lilith was standing in the throne room, but she wasn’t wearing her crown, and the sword lay discarded on the ground near one of the smashed-in windows. She wasn’t even wearing the glamour, and Zelda stilled at the sight.
She had never seen this form before.
“Is it the full moon again already?” Lilith asked. Her voice was different and foreign. But it was still her.
Zelda nodded. “It's Imbolc, actually.”
“Ah,” Lilith said. “And how is the winter way up there?”
Zelda stepped a little closer. “Cold,” she answered.
Lilith scoffed. “It’s never cold here.”
Zelda smiled. “No,” she said. “It isn’t.”
Then Zelda turned and walked out of the throne room. Lilith followed.
“I brought a present for you,” she explained, as she retraced their steps.
“Lucky me,” Lilith muttered. But she followed anyway, down and down into the valley.
It was still there, the cemetery of trees.
Zelda took out the packet of seeds and knelt to the ground. It felt strange that every time she knelt in front of her god it was to touch the unholy ground, and not to confess or swear fealty or offer up a sacrifice. She dug at the ground with her fingertips, digging deep, until dirt was lodged underneath her fingernails and the soil changed to a darker shade. She placed a seed in the first little hole, then covered it up gently, until the ground was level again. Then, she placed her hands over where she had buried the seed, and murmured a charm to help it grow.
Lilith watched her, perplexed, if not a little amused.
“Nothing will grow here,” she repeated. She said it kindly, like she was speaking to a slightly confused child. It was a gentle dismissal, but a dismissal all the same.
Zelda sighed, and shuffled over a little ways and began to dig another small hole. “These are Hilda’s seeds, and if anything can grow here, it’ll be Hilda’s plants.”
She heard Lilith sigh.
Zelda paused, and looked up at Lilith, who was standing with both hands on her hips. “At least humor me,” she said. “What harm could it do?”
Lilith sighed in exasperation. “Fine,” she muttered. “One.”
Zelda grinned, and watched her god kneel beside her. They dug and dug and planted the seeds all in a row. They were both muddied after a little while. Lilith's skirts were caked with it, and her hair, which seemed to grow thinner with each visit was covered with it. Zelda kept glancing over at her, mesmerized by the sight of her without Mary’s face. There was mud on her cheek, and she was dirty and raw and ugly.
Zelda supposed that she must have been a great beauty once, if all the folklore was to be believed. Time was all over her though, just like the mud. Her skin was black and cracked in places, her eyes were dull and sunken in, her hands were gnarled, and her face was a fright. She was no longer beautiful. And yet, she was magnetic and hypnotizing. Alluring. Spellbinding.
Zelda kept looking at her, pulled to her, again and again. And then there were no more seeds left in the packet.
“It’s useless, you know,” Lilith said when they were finished.
Zelda shook her head, looking down at the little mounds of dirt. “Well, Hilda’s always saying that life is what you make it.”
Zelda reached for Lilith’s hand and took it in her own. It was cold and clammy, almost just a skeleton’s hand. The skin was paper thin, but Zelda squeezed it tightly anyway.
“Perhaps Hell is what you make it too.”
Lilith sighed again, but her lips twitched up in an almost-smile. She squeezed Zelda’s hand back, and leaned forward as if to kiss her goodbye.
Zelda shook her head and tried to smile too, but everything here in Hell was broken and dark, and the Hell-hounds in the distance were standing sentry on the cliffs. She wanted to stay beside her a little longer. The last person to kiss her before Lilith was her husband. His poison was still in her lips, but she felt it lessen with every farewell Lilith gave her.
“Don’t send me back yet,” she pleaded softly.
Lilith looked at her, and Zelda felt herself tremble. Lilith shook her head. “Not yet,” she agreed, and then leaned in to kiss her sweetly.
Her lips were nothing like her husband’s. They left an almost burning feeling in their wake, as she trailed kisses up her neck. Zelda sank into the feeling of Lilith’s lips urgent at her ear, at her temple, at the corner of her jaw. Lilith’s fingers and voice, her hips and teeth, and the dark skin that had always been underneath the illusion of Mary Wardwell. The ancient darkling skin, almost as black as the void just beyond the river out of Hell.
It felt wonderful to be held, unholy and good to be kissed, but there were horrors just beneath it all.
There was Lilith’s emptiness, yawning between them.
And Zelda’s bruises in the shape of Faustus’ hands.
Hilda had faded them, made them heal far quicker than they would have naturally. A healing balm rubbed into her neck, the inside of her thighs, her back. Soft words tinged with tears, a spell and a prayer mingling together as Hilda had willed her back together again.
The bruises were long gone. But the ache was still there, echoing and echoing, until the echo stopped and went silent as Lilith traced her fingertips along her skin.
Lilith’s weight wasn’t crushing, but comforting, and the poison of Faustus’ touch began to fade a little more. Lilith’s hands were not cruel but gentle, almost hesitant. Her unfamiliar face hovered above Zelda, and she reached out to place her palm on her god’s cheek. Lilith turned to kiss her palm and then took Zelda’s hand in her own and locked their fingers together tightly. She leaned down to kiss her soundly, and Zelda felt herself turn breathless. It occurred to her that she should be frightened, having a god take her and make her something else. But Lilith’s hands felt right, and they held her down firmly and gently.
She whimpered and pleaded, moaned and begged, until Lilith tore her apart completely. It was bright and loud and she sobbed as she pressed her face into the side of Lilith’s neck. She clung to her, trying to calm her breathing as her heartbeat raged in her head. Lilith was murmuring something softly in her ear, and Zelda kept her eyes shut and tried to listen to her voice. The words were slithering and soothing, meandering and soft. Zelda’s breathing slowed, until she was breathing deeply in and out.
Zelda released her grip on Lilith’s shoulders and watched as Lilith slowly got off her.
Then they lay there for a long time, side by side, together in the quiet.
“What kind of seeds were they?” Lilith asked after a while.
Zelda never did like vampires. At least the kind of vampires who constantly name-dropped, insisted on still living in crumbling castles or dilapidated Victorians, and every few decades declared art dead. These were the vampires who were still living in the past. Why read poetry, when Byron was dead and gone? Why go to art museums, when all the good pieces were simply forgeries, cleverly switched by an infamous changeling in the 1970’s? They were sanguine about the rise and fall of entire civilizations, and scoffed at the memory of the black plague as they marinated in their own sorrowful, opaque existence. They were morose, melancholy and brooding. Like teenagers.
They chain smoked and drank blood out of goblets, and claimed to hate Twilight but always seemed to have a copy or two on their bookshelves. They were a vain bunch, especially for creatures that couldn’t even see their own reflection. Often they were cloistered away somewhere, out of reach of even other magicfolk. Vampires were perhaps more obscure than witches. Their diet was a difficult one to maintain, and the blood supply was growing ever more polluted.
Locals would get suspicious, people would walk quickly past the seemingly abandoned haunted house at the end of the lane, and only so many census-takers could disappear before someone would notice. And of course the sun kept them hidden during the day time.
Zelda knew they must be lonely. Witches only lived a few centuries, but vampires could live forever, or so the story went. She’d met a vampire once at a party, who told her the story of when he’d almost turned a human.
He had paused, almost as he was done drinking a beautiful man he had followed out of a nightclub in Florence. And he thought, he should just wait, and let him turn. Sometimes the blood could turn sour at the end, just as they died, and the taste was bitter no matter how hungry one was. But if he let him live, let the venom circulate, it could give him immortality.
And then maybe, he wouldn’t be alone anymore. But the vampire had been too hungry, and drank the human dry instead.
Vampires were like that, driven by appetite.
A vampire came to the mortuary and waited to be invited in. He was tall and thin and his accent was thick. He was handsome and Hilda giggled when he smiled at her. But his smile was empty and cold, and his eyes were calculating, and Zelda shivered as they sat in the parlor.
She told him the story of Lilith and he was silent until the very end. Before everything, before witches and vampires and werewolves, there were stories. A creature at a fire conjuring a world with nothing but it’s voice and the imagination of the others round the fire. And now Zelda, thousands of years later, doing the same for weary travelers desperate for an explanation and a story to tell the others when they got back home. Zelda supposed that after the fires go out, after her death and whatever happens after, there will still be creatures left, spinning tales of Lilith in the dark.
Hell is no longer a land of Kings.
Perhaps this is what it meant to be High Priestess, to be Lilith’s herald on Earth.
The vampire said little, and thanked her with a few murmured words in his broken English. Then he set out into the night, changing into a bat, and flying off into the darkness.
What was it to die? Rather, what was it not to die?
Perhaps that was why humans were so fascinated with vampires. What were humans without the inevitability of death, without the hooded spectre following them until their very last day?
Hell was just another place, and souls were ferried across the border in a boat.
An elder witch was dying in a coven in the north. A letter had come by raven, and the old woman had requested last rites from a high priest. So Zelda kissed Hilda goodbye on the cheek, and got in the hearse. She drove to the highway and got on the interstate, and went all night until she reached the dying witch's house.
The woman was old and frail, a phantom of her former self, according to her daughters. Her back was hunched, and her bones were brittle, and her daughters said that she was declining fast.
“She’s started to carry on conversations when no one else is in the room,” one of them fretted quietly.
“She’s insisted on last rites from you,” the other explained. “She’s heard the rumors about Greendale.”
“Sometimes she doesn't recognize us,” the third one said mournfully.
Zelda nodded, and walked over to the little old woman in the bed. She had long white hair, wrinkled skin, and some purple beneath her eyes.
She would be the first witch to die since Lilith’s ascension.
“I knew you were coming,” the old woman rasped.
“Did you?” Zelda asked kindly. She knelt by the side of the bed, and placed her hand gently on top of the old woman’s.
“I know it’s coming,” the woman said. “My time.”
Zelda nodded. It would do no good to deny it. She hadn't come here as a healer, but rather as a witness, a priestess performing her first last rites.
“Are you ready?” she asked softly.
“Is anyone?” the woman laughed, though it dissipated into a harsh wheeze.
Zelda knew the words by heart, though she’d never said them herself. They were a few short passages from the satanic texts. A farewell and good luck for the short journey across the water.
And perhaps this is what it meant to be high priestess, to live with one foot in this world, and one foot in Lilith’s country. The big divide that cracked open every time a creature took its last breath. To see the souls on the boats gliding across the distance, looking up at the horizon as the air shifted and changed, and then they changed too. The black water, and the current of the river washing over the ancient stones. The current so strong and frightening, that it felt like it would wash over her head, and maybe she would drown in that murky water between. And it felt like terror and hope, as she gathered the water in her hand, and placed it gently over the pomegranate seeds buried beneath a dead tree.
This is what it meant to be high priestess; to know the beginning and the ending, to have been to the bottom of all the worlds, and to know that Lilith would be there to greet them on the shore.
“I’m not afraid you know,” the woman said, after the last rites were finished. “My mother grew me in her belly, and I have no memory of that. But I think she’ll be there, wherever I’m going.”
Her daughters were gathered round her, and one reached out to hold her hand. The old woman smiled and held on as tightly as she could. “I think that I have had enough of sadness for now.” she huffed, and turned to look out the window. Outside it was getting brighter.
“I’ll stay for the sunrise,” she said softly. “It will be here soon.”
Zelda nodded, and leaned back in her chair and stretched out her legs. “Until the sunrise,” she agreed.
The darkness of the night became deep blue, and then the grey light of dawn creeped into the room.
“Here it comes,” Zelda whispered.
“Here it is,” the woman said, and turned to watch Zelda’s hair burn bright red in the sunlight.
Chapter 8: Spring
The world was waking up. Spring was round the corner, and almost all of the snow had melted and gone. The streets were muddy and wet, and the only signs of winter that lingered were brown patches of snow on the side of the road. Soon the plants in the garden would begin to poke through, and green would return to the earth. Soon the ground would be soft enough to dig through, and all the mortal bodies in their basement could be laid to rest.
Zelda dreamed of the world waking up, of bird-songs in the morning, and of Hilda’s flowers blooming. She dreamed, and found herself at the mouth of the cave, the owl watching from a tree at the edge of the clearing. She sighed, and walked through into the darkness.
Hell was even more chaotic than usual, with demons flying to and fro across the skies. A few wraiths lined the side of the road leading up to the castle and looked at her as if she was the ghost. They tilted their heads, as if shocked to see a living creature in the depths. A screech from above made her look up, and she saw a fell-beast make its way towards the mountains. The fires were hot on her face before she reached the throne room and for the first time, Lilith was not there to greet her. She lingered for a moment, feeling all like a lost schoolgirl. But it was the full moon and perhaps Lilith had forgotten, so she turned and walked out of the keep.
She marched down into the valley and weaved her way through the switchbacks. Down and down she went, into the smog and permanent cloud of misery. She made her way to the dead garden, and looked for any progress on the seeds they had planted the last time she was in Hell.
It was Spring after all.
She peered down into the dirt and gingerly walked over the soil. She paused at the sight of a small plant peeking out of the ground.
She grinned, and knelt down to look at the tiny pomegranate tree.
“It’s remarkable, isn’t it?”
Zelda looked up, startled.
Lilith stood above her, almost on top of her. Zelda had not heard her approach.
Lilith looked away from her gaze and down to the small plant at their feet. It was still strange to see her with her true face.
“Nothing has ever grown here without magical intervention,” Lilith explained. “Not even I fully understand it,” she murmured.
Zelda smiled. “It’s good to see things grow,” she murmured softly, looking back at the stem.
“Hmm,” Lilith hummed. Then, she knelt down beside Zelda and they looked at the plant together.
It struck Zelda that it was odd, that the only time she had kneeled in the presence of Lilith, the queen of Hell had been right there beside her, on her own knees too, and digging into the dirt.
“How goes the conquering of Hell?” Zelda asked offhandedly, as if she was asking about the weather.
Lilith turned to her, and their faces were suddenly quite close. Lilith grinned and bared her sharp teeth, and her eyes sparkled in the distant firelight.
Zelda shivered at the warm, intimate grin on her god’s lips and she smiled back, although she feared it looked a little grim. It was strange to see it, the ancient anger and trickery in Lilith’s face. She’d never seen it in Greendale, and worried about how much she had missed. She saw the plans laid out before her, battles and alliances and betrayals all ordered into little pawns like on a chessboard. Sometimes she worried she was just another pawn. Another piece in a large game she couldn’t see.
But it was intoxicating, enchanting even, to sit next to Lilith, to be kneeling side by side at the bottom of Hell. And so she smiled back, and tried not to be frightened by the creature beside her.
“Shall I walk you through it?” Lilith asked softly.
Zelda nodded, and curled her legs around her until her skirts were in a small circle. The hem was just touching Lilith’s knee. “Walk me through it,” she said.
Lilith’s grin sharpened, and she looked like a panther who had just caught the scent of blood in the wind. Like a shark in bloodied waters. Zelda felt her heart start to clamor, and could feel the drumbeat of her heart in her ears. She felt a chill creep down her spine, and she tried not to shiver as Lilith talked her through her plans. Only one King of Hell remained, the other two had been destroyed. A few battles had been lost, and alliances struck amongst the enemy camps. But all was going well, and soon Lilith would have an ironclad grip on the throne. She still had her crown, and more and more of the legions of Hell had come to her and kneeled.
“It’s all going as I expected,” she said proudly, and Zelda smiled softly.
Lilith looked at her and said abruptly, “I want you here.”
Lilith cleared her throat and quickly looked away before glancing back at her.
“I want you here,” she stated again, enunciating every syllable, as if explaining a lesson to a wayward pupil.
Zelda shook her head in confusion and furrowed her brow. She brought up her hand to push back a lock of hair behind her year. “I don’t…”
Lilith sighed in exasperation. “I want you here,” she interrupted. “Not in Greendale. Not on Earth. Here.”
“You said that you would bind yourself to me,” Lilith interrupted again, her voice rising in thinly-veiled frustration.
Zelda felt her eyes grow big. Suddenly she was very aware of how far away she was from the river and the way back to Greendale.
“You said that you had bound us together, now and forever,” Lilith said triumphantly as she threw Zelda’s prayer back in her face.
“I want you here, with me, in Hell.”
Zelda shook her head. She took a quick breath and tried to make her voice as soft and gentle as she could “You must know that is impossible.”
Lilith shook her head. “Nothing is impossible for me.”
Zelda frowned and looked back at the stem. She looked up at the mountains and the fires, and the dead tree. She looked at the destruction of Hell and looked back at its destroyer.
“You have your demons,” she said carefully. “They are loyal to you-”
“I don’t want blind loyalty,” Lilith dismissed sharply. Her eyes were cold and calculating, and Zelda tried to remember what they had looked like when they had made love.
Zelda shook her head. “I am your High Priestess. In order to do that, I must be on Earth.” She reached out and placed her hand on Lilith’s knee. She squeezed gently, hoping that Lilith would understand. She did not yet belong in this realm.
She closed her eyes, and felt Lilith place a hand on top of her own. She sighed and let her head droop a bit. Lilith clenched tightly, and she sighed too. Lilith’s hand lingered, and Zelda did not dare open her eyes, lest the spell be broken.
“It is strange,” Lilith murmured. Her voice was calmer than before, and thick, as if she couldn’t quite believe her own words. “I missed you, while you were away.”
Zelda smiled and opened her eyes. Lilith’s face look haunted and grim. She looked embarrassed by how close to begging she had almost gotten. Zelda squeezed Lilith’s knee.
“You first brought me to Hell to give me power, to make me something more than a witch,” she reminded gently.
Lilith nodded. “I know.”
“So you must see… I cannot stay here.”
Lilith looked away, and Zelda shuffled closer, until their knees were touching. She brought up her other hand to clasp Lilith’s, until both her hands were fondly holding Lilith’s. “And I have Hilda and Sabrina, and your coven,” she continued. “I cannot simply abandon them.”
Lilith stiffened, but continued to let Zelda hold her hand. She closed her eyes too, and Zelda took the opportunity to look at her. She must be so very lonely, Zelda thought.
Lilith’s very existence was in the balance, and her throne was still not secured. Zelda let her eyes follow the sharp edge of her jaw, the soft curve of her lips, the dark skin of her neck and throat. She watched Lilith in the firelight, and wondered if she ever slept. She looked peaceful like this with her eyes closed, one hand in Zelda’s and the other buried in the dirt, as if looking for something to ground her.
They were sitting so close that she could hear Lilith breathing in and out. It was an unsettling, yet welcome wound. She wondered if Lilith found her presence disarming. If having a disciple all of a sudden was as strange to her as Zelda throwing over Satan simply to protect her niece. She wondered what Lilith meant when she said she missed her. She wondered what Lilith missed.
She knew that Lilith was powerful, but she hadn’t realized how small she made Faustus seem. He had been withering for years now, but his scheming and short-sightedness seemed glaring when compared to Lilith. He hadn’t changed in years, and Zelda supposed she gambled when they married, and through with wilting had come weakness. Instead it had only brought malice and bitterness, and misguided ambition.
He was like most men in the end, disappointing.
He had tried to control her through their marriage. And when she wouldn’t be controlled he had ensnared her in enchantment and made her body a prison. He was handsome, but his soul was ugly and cruel and he had tried to possess her in the most despicable way.
She wondered if Lilith would try to possess her too.
Zelda glanced back up at Lilith’s face. She was not beautiful in her true form, but Zelda felt privileged to see it. It was a heady thing, to sit beside her without masks or magicked glamour, and she felt her thumb begin to make small comforting circles across the back of Lilith’s hand.
Lilith was distant and otherworldly, possibly unknowable. Zelda felt devoured by her curiosity, and wondered how many centuries it would take to unravel the mystery of her.
Lilith tilted her head, as if she could hear what Zelda was thinking. “Did you bring any cigarettes?” She asked suddenly.
Zelda laughed at the strange question. She was a spectre traveling through worlds. Of course she didn’t have cigarettes.
“It’s just that you think better when you have a cigarette,” Lilith continued.
Zelda shook her head but paused when Lilith opened her eyes. The hand that was half buried in the soil lifted, and she snapped her fingers. A packet of cigarettes appeared, and Lilith gracefully offered them to her.
Zelda took one and held it between her fingertips, and Lilith gently reached over and touched the end of it. A small flame erupted from her hand, and the cigarette began to burn.
Zelda chuckled at the absurdity, and brought the cigarette to her lips. She leaned back and dragged in a deep breath, keenly aware of Lilith watching her. Their knees were still touching.
After a moment, she offered it to Lilith, and the god seemed surprised at the offer. But she took it and began to smoke too. Zelda had never shared a cigarette with a god, but the scent of it was thick, and the smoke curled between them, and the intimacy of passing it back and forth drew them closer together.
Cigarettes had always seemed to Zelda like a small pleasure. Like a shared breakfast in bed, like the sound of rain on a tin roof, or the feeling of lightning slipping past her hand and into an outstretched jar.
Their hands brushed as Lilith handed Zelda the cigarette, and she breathed it in, knowing that Lilith’s lips had just been where her lips were now. She could feel Lilith’s eyes on her lips, and she took in a long, slow drag, and looked off into the distance. She didn’t look over as she returned it, but she knew Lilith was grinning, her bared teeth glistened in the firelight.
“I have a compromise.”
Zelda looked at her. She seemed positively pleased with herself, and Zelda tried not to look nervous as she put the cigarette out in the dirt by her feet.
“This tree will be full grown by the next moon,” Lilith said quietly, gesturing over to the tiny pomegranate plant. “And if you should eat of its fruit, you would belong to this realm.”
Zelda took in a breath to speak but Lilith held up a hand to silence her.
“But it would only be for half a year, through autumn and winter,” she said quickly. “That is the compromise. Only half of the year.”
Zelda furrowed her brow. It wasn’t much of a compromise.
She didn’t think she could leave the new coven. She didn’t think she could leave her home. Hilda and the children, and the forests and the sky, and the sun and the moon. To be beneath the earth for half the year. To miss every Yule. To be missing while the world was asleep.
Zelda looked over at Lilith, who was looking at her with a haunted, desperate look.
“May I think about it?” she asked slowly.
Lilith looked at her for a long moment, and then nodded. She let go of Zelda’s hand and seemed spellbound by Zelda’s lips again.
Zelda leaned forward, until their lips were almost touching.
“You have until the next full moon,” Lilith said curtly. And then she wound her hand in Zelda’s elegantly curled hair and threaded her fingers in the locks. She gripped a handful, and forced Zelda’s head gently back. She kissed along Zelda’s throat, and up to her ear. Zelda was breathless and panting, and moaned as Lilith took her earlobe between her teeth. She clutched at Lilith’s shoulders, and sighed as Lilith gently guided them both to the ground.
Magic was beautiful, but fleeting. It could not be immortalized like music or poetry or art. It could not grow old in a museum or a Satanic chapel. It lived in the present, in a single moment. It was against Satanic law to capture spells on film, and often enchantments were grand and strange, and looked different depending on where one was standing in the room.
Spells were fleeting too, in that some had been passed down from generation to generation through words alone. Witchcraft had a mostly oral history, despite the many books tucked away in the Academy’s library. So much had been lost, to time, to misinterpretation, or to the systematic silencing of outlier witches. The old ways were the ways of witches living on the fringe of society. Faustus claiming the old ways were the ways of warlocks lording over witches had left a bitter taste in her mouth, and it had been the final nail on the coffin of her letting him live if they ever captured him.
She couldn’t rest until he was dead and buried. No, not buried. He did not deserve a proper burial. She wanted no monuments where his remaining followers could flock to. No tomb or gravestone. No pyre or hillside with a stone door.
She closed her eyes and tried to sense where Ambrose and Prudence had gone. She killed a squirrel and cut it open with one of Hilda’s carving knives, and tried to divine their location. But they had listened to her and Hilda, and were using some sort of cloaking spell. She was proud, but she could not find them, and went for a drive in the hearse to clear her head.
She drove past the stone walls lining the roads that wound their way around the outer limits of Greendale. She meandered the countryside and followed the sunlight for awhile. The clouds drifted and the sunlight streamed down through the sky in curtains of splintered brightness. The early spring evenings were still cold, and the frost that came at night made the ground hard. Black ice could be an issue, and the hearse did not have the best snow tires. Hilda had tried a myriad of things to make the tires not skid as easily, but all that seemed to work was vigilance, and Zelda kept her eyes firmly fixed to the road. The music on the radio was old and kept being interrupted by static as Zelda drove further and further from town. Eventually there was no music left, only white noise.
Zelda had a hymn stuck in her head. The one about the cornerstone of a witch’s home. A hopeful song of flying through the sky and returning safely to a house of stone. She couldn’t quite remember the words, but hummed the tune, and tried to remember to ask Hilda the name of it when she got home.
Everything she had held dear her whole life long had crumbled. The church of night was no more, and the entire foundation of her life was shattered. She was trying to build a new life from the rubble, and then a god went and offered her a new one.
Could Hell be her home? she wondered. It seemed impossible. It seemed like half a life. But what was increasingly clear to her, in all of this nonsense, was that there was life before Lilith, and life after Lilith. Surely there could be no life with Lilith.
When they had finished Zelda had reached up and taken Lilith’s face in her hands. She had cradled it gently and the feeling had knocked her breathless. To hold her lover, and to feel their power emanating between her palms. It was too much.
She wanted to belong to Lilith, she wanted Lilith to belong to her. It surprised Zelda, that she had wanted to stay, at least for a little while. It was delicious to feel Lilith beneath her, to move together in the dark. She hadn’t been sure her body could withstand it, but she had survived the crossing back, and had woken up in Greendale as if nothing had happened. She had felt changed, even more so than the first return from Hell. She felt her power grow each time she tore through the realms, and it made her feel unhinged when her hands shook as she opened the backdoor of the Mortuary to slip inside.
Lilith’s words echoed in her head as she drove further away from Greendale. Stay with me, she had pleaded. Stay.
But Zelda had left with a kiss, and Lilith’s voice was still ringing in her ears.
She wondered what the pomegranate would taste like. She tried to imagine the feeling of the fruit in her hand, while Sabrina and Hilda were bickering at the dinner table. Zelda let her mind wander as the din of the children and domestic nothings filled the room. To eat a fruit was to know it, to understand the seeds and the trees they grew into. She remembered when they were small, she and Hilda and Edward had loved to share oranges in the summer months. They had peeled them and piled the skins on the ground and leaned back against a tree trunk to look up at the shapes of the passing clouds.The juices had dripped down their chins and the taste was sweet and wonderful. Their fingers were always sticky afterwards, and their hands smelled of citrus for hours.
Hilda had always loved to share food. She was always bringing Zelda tea, or something to nibble on.
Zelda supposed that it was a kind of magic. To brew something in the kitchen, to make something out of nothing, and have it be able to sustain the ones you love. To give sustenance and life force in the form of warm bread and chamomile tea.
Hilda carried her love around her like it was easy, and she gave it away so simply and freely, tucking it into recipes and small everyday acts of kindness.
How could Zelda leave her sister?
When Hilda loved she loved openly, unashamed. She fed all the children and cleaned Ambrose’s room even though he had been gone for weeks. She fretted and worried, and hovered. She brought Zelda her morning coffee, and sat with her and knitted as Zelda read her newspapers. And tonight Hilda looked across the long table and watched, and made sure that Zelda ate her supper.
It was soup, hearty and delicious, and Zelda was certain her sister had used that squirrel carcass she’d abandoned after being unable to find Prudence and Ambrose. It was good no matter, and Zelda ate all of it, and couldn’t help but be pleased when Hilda smiled at her empty bowl.
Sabrina was still moping around the house, and Zelda felt ashamed that she had not remembered to ask Lilith about Mr. Scratch. She had all but forgotten about the boy the moment she had seen Lilith standing over her. Although Mr. Scratch was a much better alternative than the alarmingly mortal Mr. Kinkle, Zelda still had her doubts. But his fate was uncertain, and she tried to think of ways to reach out to Lilith and to ask.
She could summon her with a doll of straw. She could sit at a table and light a black candle, and burn some incense. She could take a length of twine and wind it around the doll, until it was tightly bound. She could place it inside a small bag of brown cloth, tie it shut, and hold it with her right hand and speak the words to bring the Queen of Hell to her bedroom. But it would be unwise to do so, for no doubt Lilith would want an answer to her proposition too.
Zelda shook her head and tried to remember what it had been like to be sixteen. She remembered her first spell, whispered over a bowl of unholy water. The full moon had slanted through the window, and the spell had been done in secret. She had tried to divine the future, to see it in the water. She wanted to know if she would be powerful, what lofty station did her future have in store?
The spell hadn’t quite worked and the waters had remained murky and unclear. She’d long forgotten the whispered words, but remembered closing her eyes later, and feeling wild and untamed at the dream of being all-powerful.
She used to dream more often, especially in the years right after her dark baptism. She had dreamed often of the pine trees surrounding the mortuary, and of England, and of the scraped knees and bruises of childhood. The dreams of childhood were always so bright, so full of color and feeling and magic. She always felt happy on the morning after a childhood dream, because everything had been ahead of her then, everything had still been possible, and Edward had still been alive.
This time it was harder to get Lilith out of her head. She couldn’t shake the feeling, as if Lilith was someone she had always known, only recently returned to her. In a way she was, although she’d only been a story.
The first woman, and the first one to kneel at Satan’s feet. Zelda had longed admired the Book of Lilith, although it wasn’t considered a true part of the Satanic Bible.
She couldn’t shake the feeling of cradling Lilith’s cheek, or of holding her face between both her palms. It had been like she was holding the whole world, and there were no words for how that felt. Overwhelming and terrifying and startling familiar, but no real words. Nothing real.
But she was real, more real than the story in her book. It was a sad story, but Zelda had read it over and over again because even though she knew it ended sadly, she was always certain that this time it would have turned out differently. This time she would slay Adam where he stood, and she would walk freely through the wasteland and make a home in the desert.
Zelda found herself daydreaming of pomegranates. She longed for them the way she longed for darkness. The way she longed for Lilith’s voice to sound in her ear. Perhaps one day she would write Lilith an epic, a poem, or a new book. Perhaps they could rewrite history, and make their own book.
She found herself dreaming too, of Lilith’s hands and her neck and her breathless sounds when she came undone. She wanted her in a primal, almost feral way and she woke up in a sweat, panting and hungry. She longed to call out to her then, to summon her to bed, only for an hour or two.
She would go to the window and look out at the owl in the tree, but he would be sleeping, and the world was too still for such movement. So she would huff and try and force herself back to sleep.
Hideous nonsense, she would mutter to herself, yanking at her duvet and mindlessly fluffing her pillows. You’re utterly ridiculous Zelda Spellman. A witch at your age, yearning.
And yet she did yearn and after a while she slipped into a dream-filled sleep.
She woke to Hilda shaking her awake.
“Zelds,” Hilda said sharply. “Zelds wake up!”
Zelda sat up and brought up her hand to rub at her eyes. They were thick with sleep and she had a headache. It was not light outside and the moon was long gone. It must be very early.
“Why are you waking me?” she asked in a sour voice. “I’m very tired Hilda please-”
“Ambrose and Prudence are back,” Hilda sputtered.
Zelda looked up sharply and she felt her blood run cold.
“And they’ve got Father Blackwood.”
Zelda swallowed thickly.
“They’ve got him in the garden. They won’t bring him into the house.”
Zelda nodded and looked down at her hands. “Thank you for waking me," she whispered. She took in a deep breath and slowly stood. She tugged on her black satin night dress, suddenly aware of all the wrinkles. She didn’t feel like a high priestess. She felt rather small.
She reached out for her shawl embroidered with silver stars and half-crescent moons, and wrapped it tightly around her shoulders. Hilda reached out too, and tucked the shall ever more tighter. She grasped Zelda’s hands and squeezed tightly and Zelda felt a little braver at the touch.
“Shall I go and wake Sabrina?” she whispered.
Zelda nodded. “Have her join us in the garden.”
They went their separate ways in the corridor, Hilda quietly disappearing into Sabrina’s room, and Zelda padding barefoot down the stairs. She avoided the step that creaked, and made her way into the pantry and out the back door. The night was cold, and she pulled her shawl closer at the chill that settled in her bones as she stepped outside. Her feet glided across the cold, dewy grass and she went around the house and into the garden.
He was on his knees. Bound. And gagged, no doubt by Prudence. His eyes were dark and glinting and Zelda shivered at the sight.
She came to stand in front of him and waited for Sabrina and Hilda to come out of the house.
Prudence came to stand by her, both swords still slung behind her back, and Zelda mindlessly reached out to wrap her arms around her. Prudence startled at the movement, but slowly sank into the embrace, as if melting into her. Zelda held her tightly, and looked over Prudence’s shoulder at her husband on the ground.
Ambrose watched them from the shadows and Zelda looked over at him. She shot him a look of gratitude. For bringing Prudence back. For the two small babes, swaddled and sleeping in baskets tucked under Hilda’s pomegranate tree. For bringing Faustus to her. For bringing himself back to her.
She let Prudence go when she heard the back door close. Sabrina and all her fury came round the corner and she immediately launched into a speech. Hilda tried to shush her, gently reminding her of the children asleep in the mortuary upstairs, but their niece seemed to neither care nor hear her. Zelda was only half listening, because Faustus was looking right at her.
He was looking at her like he owned her. Like she was his for the taking all over again. She had daydreamed of this moment. Of what she would say and how she would deal with the former high priest. She’d imagined dozens of scenarios, but she never imagined this. That she would be struck with fear at the look in his eyes. The hatred there, and the possessive angry look, the knowingness that echoed their wedding night when he had put her under the Caligari spell.
She felt frozen.
Sabrina’s voice seemed very far away and muted, as if they were all underwater. Prudence and Ambrose were glaring at Faustus, and Hilda was trying and failing to calm Sabrina.
He was still looking at her.
She couldn’t move.
She gripped her shawl ever tighter, and looked right back, and called out to her.
Suddenly, she was there. Although it was only a feeling. Her voice was in her ear, and the flat of her palm was on the small of Zelda’s back, making soothing circles that grounded and warmed her.
“I’m with you,” Lilith’s voice whispered lovingly into her ear. It was gentle and soft and infinitely tender.
Zelda let her eyes close and felt her lips turn up in a small smile. She turned her head towards the voice and leaned into it.
“Summon the hounds,” Lilith’s voice whispered in her head. “They are loyal to you too now, and they will take him from this place.”
Zelda nodded and opened her eyes, and Lilith’s voice was gone.
Sabrina was still shouting, but Faustus was still looking at her, and his face was scrunched up in confusion when she straightened and stood tall. Unafraid.
She supposed she should stick to tradition and respect decorum. She was only a high priestess. She was not judge, jury and executioner. But he didn’t deserve a trial. He had framed Ambrose for murder, intended to marry his daughter to her brother, and he had raped Zelda on their wedding night.
He didn’t get a trial.
She had dreamed of breaking his neck, or pushing him off a cliff. She had dreamed of marching all the way down the winding path on the side of the cliff to where the waves crashed on the rocks. She had dreamed of kneeling beside him, and watching him take his last, shuddering, painful breath. She had dreamed of setting his broken body on fire, just to watch it burn.
But this was as satisfying an end as any, so she brought her hands up and snapped her fingers.
The click was so loud and sharp that Sabrina stopped mid sentence to turn back and look at her. Then the wind howled, and they heard far off in the distance, the sound of a hound braying.
Faustus suddenly looked very afraid.
“Auntie, what did you do?” Ambrose asked worriedly.
The howling of the wind became a lonely howl of one hound. And then many voices joined and suddenly the whole of the Greendale woods seemed filled with them.
“Zelds?” Hilda asked nervously. “You’re shaking.” She reached out and placed her hands on Zelda’s shoulder, and Zelda realized she was trembling. She was shaking all over, trying to look at anything but the man looking at her.
The braying grew closer.
It grew louder and louder, and Faustus began to tear at his bindings. His eyes were as big as saucers and he was screaming behind the cloth shoved into his mouth.
“What’s happening?” Hilda asked.
The sound of the approaching hounds was so loud that she had to almost shout.
They were getting closer and closer.
The very ground seemed to quake with their approach, and Zelda shook with it. She realized she was crying as tears streaked down her face. Hilda wiped them away with her thumbs and moved to stand between her and Faustus so that he could no longer see her.
Zelda buried her face into Hilda’s shoulder and did not see the red-eyed beasts emerge from the trees.
She didn’t see them sniff at the air, or see how they looked at Faustus, but she heard the crunch as they sank their fangs into his legs, tearing into his flesh. And she heard the sounds of the realms tearing open as the hounds dragged him down to Hell.
Then the braying grow softer and softer, until all the sound that was left in the world was the sound of Hilda murmuring to her.
Hilda reminding her to breathe.
Hilda telling her over and over that she loved her.
Hilda telling her again and again, that soon the sun would rise.
Chapter 9: Hell and back again
The march back into Hell hadn’t gone quite as expected. She had carried the boy imprisoning Lucifer down into the depths, and placed him in a cage. He had still been asleep, and he made no noise as she locked the gate and boarded up the long forgotten cavern. The dirt beneath her fingernails lingered long after she reached the surface of Hell, where the Kings and aristocracy were waiting.
They must have heard of her untimely return, and their numbers were vast and spread out into the plains. There were princes and courtiers, jesters, and minions. Jackals bayed at the gathering at the foothills leading up to the mountain. The road to the burning citadel gleamed in the far distance, but the courts of Hell stood in her way. The Three Plague Kings were at the front, side by side. They grinned, and Lilith grinned back.
“Asmodeus, Purson, Beelzebub. How nice of you to welcome me home,” she said sweetly.
They sneered at her and Beelzebub stepped forward. Flies were swarming him, creating a small dark cloud above his rotted crown.
“You have no power here, concubine,” he said. “Give us the crown.” He pointed to the golden diadem on her head, and she tilted her head back and laughed.
“Have you not heard, my dear false Kings?” She turned and opened her arms and gestured to the demons that were coming out of the Fire Bogs to the West. She looked to the sky, just as a giant owl flew beyond the clouds and settled on top of the dead weeping willow. She looked further to the Forests of Souls, and saw devils and fallen angels, hell-spawn, and all manner of creatures coming out from the deep dark woods.
She looked upon her people, her enemies, her children, and the loyal hounds that had come to greet her.
“The King is dead,” she declared, with arms outstretched and her crown on her head.
They did not kneel.
The silence roared, and the ancients looked around at one another. The three Kings stepped away and broke ranks, the werewolves dug their claws into the dirt, and the gargoyles flapped their wings nervously. The vampires bared their fangs, the banshees held their breath, and the goblins slowly bent to pick up the stones at their feet. The line was drawn, and they waited for the first arrow to be flung. The mountains rumbled, the winds blew, and she waited for their answer.
“Long live the Queen,” screeched the owl.
And then all Hell broke loose.
The course of true ascension never did run smooth, but an all out war? It seemed a bit dramatic. Lilith scoffed at the battlements as her generals grumbled over maps and reports from the front. Age old rivalries had come forth, and old wounds were being pressed into again. Lines were broken and old treaties ignored, and Lilith still had the crown.
She had given up the skin of Mary Wardwell, and had sent it back to the mortal realm. She’d been in that skin suit for far too long. She had almost forgotten that there used to be a real Mary Wardwell. A woman she’d killed in her own parlor, stripped and skinned. She’d been conjuring and casting with a dead woman’s lips, so she brought the woman back to life, stuffed the soul back into its cage and let it go.
She stood tall and gleamed in the shadows and was herself again. It drove her troops mad, and they would scream to the sky and shout “Hail Lilith” at the terrible sight of her on the mountaintop.
The lesser Kings of course were against her, but they were also against each other. Factions and divisions and new accords had been created, and brother was against brother, vampire against werewolf. Hell was almost unrecognizable, for it had never occurred to anyone that Lucifer Morningstar would ever really be defeated. There had always been squabbles, disagreements over territories and titles, but nothing like this. The throne was empty, and only about a third of Hell stood behind Lilith. The rest looked to stand in her way.
The war had been waging for days, which seemed like an eternity. They had already vanquished many creatures, banished many to the Shadowlands, and burned out entire cities. She would forge her Queendom in fire, and build anew. The rivers were on fire, the sky was dark red, and she was smoking her enemies out from hiding.
Some had already surrendered and sworn fealty. Some were genuine, others were not. But her children were nothing if not a reflection of her, and she welcomed them into the camp and walked amongst them after the battle. Her soldiers were weary from the day, and they huddled around the small campfires that peppered the valley. The fires numbered as many as the stars in the night sky, and she wound her way through the crowds and spoke to them of a future they had never envisioned.
“Tell us of Earth?” some asked. “Tell us of sunlight. We have never seen the sun.” They listened to her tales of magic, and of the powers Satan had withheld from them. She spoke of freedom, and starlight, and of the pale light of dawn.
“But who gives you power, who has made you a god?” It was an innocent enough question, for they knew nothing beyond The Pit. She smiled as she looked out upon the ravages of war, and saw the haunted faces of creatures that had never been loved.
“A High Priestess with hair the colour of fire.”
They smiled and grinned and armed with the story, marched once more into the breach.
On the hundredth night of the War for Hell, Lilith heard the sound of a coven celebrating the feast of Samhain. Their prayers echoed in her head, as if saying over and over again that they were with her. They were still with her. With the prayer she felt a strange tugging sensation. It was a quiet, earnest pull, and she closed her eyes and sent her familiar through the realms, past the minutiae and the dust and shadow, through the barriers and right into the Greendale Woods.
When the owl came back she brought Zelda with her.
Lilith did not have time to change, and so she met Zelda in her scorched dress with her bloodied sword still in hand. Her crown was hastily put back on her head, and she welcomed Zelda to Hell with a flourish of her hand and a toothy grin. She thanked her for the worship, and for the strength it gave her. Zelda asked for power, and Lilith gave her the gift to become a spirit.
They spoke for a long time, but Lilith had stretched it a litte. She created a little universe around the throne and the two of them, until everything around them slowed down. Ash hung in the air, and the world whirled slower and slower, and then stopped altogether. They sat together in the pocket out of time and spoke about the wasteland, of Satan, and of her beginning. It hurt to travel back there, even in the form of a story.
“I think that will be all for now, High Priestess,” she said after a long silence.
“Will- will you show me the way out?” Zelda asked.
And then the bubble burst, and the fires seemed to burn even brighter, and Zelda’s hair glowed with it. Lilith reached out, and her hand came to play with a wayward curl of Zelda’s hair. It was so very soft, and she wanted to ask her to stay a little while longer.
"Do I click my heels three times and think of home?” Zelda’s question seemed to shake her out of whatever trance she’d been in, and she smiled at the notion of Zelda clicking her heels together. She chuckled and shook her head. “The fastest way to leave is simply to say goodbye.”
“And how do I say goodbye?” Zelda asked breathlessly.
Lilith grinned and leaned down to murmur against her lips. “With a kiss of course,” and before Zelda could say anything Lilith brought their lips together in a chaste, gentle kiss.
Thunder rolled across the plains, and Lilith’s host made ready for the return to the valley. The weary rested, and the hurt were healed. Some had fought valiantly, and others had fallen under the sword. The fortress still loomed on the horizon, just glimmering at the edge of the world. The distant pavilions mocked them, and the roar of the armies rang out as the day ended. In the midst of them stood one of the Kings, who entered the gates with the rising of his shield. But then, an arrow came from the clouds, and struck him through the heart. He stooped, and roared his last. And like the rain of fire and ash, the first of the three King’s fell, and his flies dropped to the ground one by one.
In the end, she did not have to kill Purson. His brother the Rat King sent a single shadow in the lull between battles, and when the time came, the bats screamed and flew above the masses, swirling together in a storm of wings and fury. The vampires bared their fangs and screamed for the loss of their father, and they unfurled their other form and took to the skies to be with their kind one last time. The cloud of bats raged, and then split asunder, and their bodies were turned to dust as the poison given to Purson faded him into nothing.
Lilith watched from afar, glad to see brother against brother. It would make the final push through the plains all the easier. There was only one enemy left then, Asmodeus and his army of rats.
Some of Purson’s forces had joined her. They had made the long, winding journey through the canyons to meet her, and they had kneeled before her and swore loyalty as she looked down from her throne. Their faces were grim and haunted, but she accepted them. Others had defected to Asmodeus, and others had dropped their swords and spears, their shields and daggers, and had wandered off into the bogs and the forests. Lilith doubted they would be seen again.
She laid down on the bed in her chamber and looked up at the darkness. Her soldiers were resting, weary from toil and battle. The castle sat on an outcrop on the side of a cliff. The walls of the castle fell away to a thousand foot drop that led all the way to the waters and the stony beach. The wind was blowing softly through the open window, and the heat of the fiery mountain to the east meandered with it.
All was quiet at the front as the tribes of Hell waited. All was quiet, for he was no longer whispering in her ear. It had been an eternity since her mind was her own, a thousand centuries since he was not slithering between her broken thoughts, walking through her memories, and yanking her secrets out of her. The silence was deafening at times, and she half expected him to arrive, summoned by the mere thought of him.
But he did not come.
He was still confined to the flesh prison, and Lilith visited him often. She talked to what remained of Nicholas Scratch, although he rarely answered. There were a few scant words, and the one he said the most was Sabrina . She would stay with him until his body started to shake and quiver, until his shoulders changed and rolled, as if Lucifer was trying to find a way to shed the skin that kept him.
The tethers were strong, and so was the young warlock, and so was the cage that Lilith had put him in. It was Iron clad and enchanted and cursed, fashioned from Damascus steel and contained by a circle of salt. He would not easily be freed. She would hold him well, for he would hardly be caught a second time.
When Nicholas drifted and Lucifer’s eyes glowed, Lilith would turn her back and leave before the screams began. She pulled a large boulder in front of the entrance to the cave, and she tucked him in as a widow tucking her dead husband into his untimely tomb.
No one suspected that Lucifer might still be living. The mere fact that he had not arrived to contradict Lilith’s declaration of his death, demonstrated that he must be truly gone. No one had ever expected the devil to be defeated, but no one had had the courage to ask her. Where was his body? Where were his horns? Where was his pyre so that we may burn him?
And perhaps it was because he was a leader who was unloved, that they did not seek out what remained of him. They did not pause to say his name before they raised their bows and arrows, and they did not mourn. They simply turned to her with forsaken eyes, and marched when she told them to march. They followed her because she brought thunderstorms and hail, fire and brimstone. She brought the end.
For if there was one lesson she had learned in all her life long, it was this; nothing is eternal. Cities that stood for a thousand years eventually crumbled and were forgotten. Their stony ruins were overgrown with moss and hidden by green grasses. Only a few remnants of columns peeked out, like stains of time on the Earth. Civilizations rose and fell, dynasties began and ended, and worlds fell apart over and over again.
Satan himself was not eternal, for he had once been Lucifer Morningstar. He had been beautiful and kind, but now he was someone else. He had been polluted and contorted, until he was grotesque and unrecognizable. He had traveled far from where they started, but Lilith was still right here. The fires of Gehenna still roared, but he was not here to see it. Their world was burning, and she would see it to its end. After all, it was not so terrible being a monster. She felt like a divine messenger of catastrophe, like the herald of her own apocalypse. She was a hybrid signal, like the flame in a lighthouse. And yet, she was also the storm. The centaurs were by her side in battle, and the griffins flew before her. Some of the dead had come too, though their eyes were empty. They wore the armor of medieval knights, the battle garb from the first crusades, and the uniforms from The Great War. They moved silently and drifted after their former tormentors, but they seemed eager for a purpose, eager for one last battle.
She watched them, and felt herself drift as she gripped the sword in her hand. Time in Hell was different than on Earth. A day on Earth could be a mere few seconds in Hell. Time was steady and consistent in the mortal realm, but here it was tricky. It warped and bent, like a river weaving its way into the ground. Zelda had visited a few times, and they spoke of many things.
She looked beautiful and tired every time they spoke, and Lilith tried to give her the things she wanted. Her story was her own, and for so long she had kept it in the shadows of her own heart. To bare it so freely felt strange, and like a betrayal. To what, she was not sure. But she spoke and Zelda listened as she looked into her eyes.
And if she had thought she would miss Lucifer’s voice in her head, she was mistaken. The silence was not so very lonely, for Zelda was there to listen. The ground was still beneath her feet, and the glowing mountains were still on the horizon.
Unlike the ghosts, the legions of Hell had never seen Earth. There were rumors and stories, myths and legends. They talked among themselves of fairies and angels, of a sun and moon, and of a sea that did not burn.
What was a hellspawn, other than a tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and time again? They could not die, unless they were killed by another of their own kind. They did not age, and they were wretched in their stillness. They were neither dead nor living, but something that seemed to remain. Their skin was peeling, and their jaws were unhinged, and they had bones that were exposed and broken. They were suspended in time like a blurred moment, like an insect in amber.
Lilith pitied them the way she pitied all the demons she had created. They were like the Sabrina mandrake, created just to die.
One day a small group of them came to her, and they had their hands outstretched. They wanted to see her magic, and she asked them what trick they would see.
“Show us snow,” they begged, like eager children looking for something to delight them. Their black eyes were too large, and they looked both childlike and ancient at once.
It occurred to her that they had never felt cold before, had never felt a true winter. So she closed her eyes and brought snow to Hell. They looked up with eyes full of wonder as the first few flakes fell upon their faces. It drifted down softly, and the whiteness wrapped itself around her multitudes like a silent embrace. They sat and watched, as the crystals piled up, and they held out their arms to catch it.
Lilith realized she missed the cold. She missed the air changing with the seasons. It was always hot and fiery and endlessly roaring in Hell.
It's never cold here.
She longed for a change from the monotonous, hellish climate.
She longed for autumn.
She watched as a wraith bent and placed its hand in the cold, and gathered a small fistful of snow. It held the snow aloft, and it gleamed in the firelight as the wraith tried to understand. When the snow melted and dripped down to the ground, the wraith stood and looked up into the darkness. It stood there long after the snow had ceased, looking up- as if waiting for the snow to come back again.
What was the price of devotion?
Sometimes the price was too much, and it came in the form of time spent on one’s knees, either in prayer, in servitude, or in giving unholy pleasure. What was the cure for such devotion? What could soothe her soul and make her forget the centuries she spent on her knees before him? She wasn’t even sure if she still had a soul.
She had never seen Heaven, nor had she ever met her maker. God was silent the way Lucifer was silent now. Perhaps God too was in a prison, trapped by his angels and heavenly host. Or worse, he watched on in abject apathy, unmoved by his own creations.
All reason and order were gone, and no prayers were said in Hell. Who was there left to pray to? A prayer to herself felt like a parody, like a fool’s errand. She had not prayed to God since Adam pushed her to the ground and took parts of her she could never get back.
She did not feel like a God, but they looked to her as if she was, and Zelda looked to her through the rift of the worlds as if she was the answer to all her questions. The school was gone, the coven was half dead, and the religion upon which their entire culture relied upon was destroyed. All within the span of a few months. Zelda’s entire life was in upheaval, and she had been a willing participant, clutching a dagger from Meddigio in her hand.
Zelda didn’t do it for Lilith. She had done it for Sabrina, for her sister and her nephew. She had done it for the students in the school, and for herself. Because the price of devotion was too much, and if it came in the form of her niece with a crown, Zelda was not willing to pay it. Lilith had watched from behind a tree as the Spellman Sisters had attempted to kill him, and she had wondered what it would be like to love someone so much that one would kill a God to save them.
Zelda was curious, endlessly fascinated by the brief glimpses of Hell that Lilith allowed her to see. She asked questions, posed hypothetical situations, and knelt in the dust as she planted seeds into the unholy ground. She was curious and fascinated by Lilith, but she was not devoted, and Lilith found it harder and harder to say goodbye every time they spoke.
There was not a great deal of opportunity for conversation in Hell, and she longed for company. She longed to hear him whisper in her ear again, for at least then she wouldn’t be alone. She felt isolated in her victories, and she realized with every battle she won that she did not want to rule alone. So she offered a compromise, although she felt the echoes of patterns from the past. Lucifer loving her in such a way that he turned her from a beloved into a possession. She did not want to love that way, but every time she kissed Zelda goodbye she wondered what it would be like to have her stay. She knew the witch would never want to dwell in Hell forever, but perhaps for only half a year. Perhaps for a little while, while the autumn and winter swept through Zelda’s precious Greendale.
“I want you here, with me, in Hell.” She said it desperately and loathed the sound of her voice pleading for a mere witch to stay and keep her company. She wanted to tell her.
I think I love you.
But what did she know of love? All she knew was that the enormity of her devotion alarmed her. It felt foreign and bitter and as big as any kind of religious fervor. It was big, but it wasn’t heavy. It was light and warm and it made her feel strange and breathless whenever Zelda came on her moonlit pilgrimages.
She had thought she was hungry for the throne, for power and absolute freedom. But the crown felt hollow, and the war made her feel nothing but enormously weary. She hungered for something more, and felt that the gnawing hunger was a curse. How cruel that the throne she had longed desired left her feeling nothing but empty.
She wanted to call to Zelda across the worlds and beg her to stay, to be with her always. She would promise to take any form, haunt her in any shape or specter Zelda desired. Nothing seemed to matter, in the resounding solitude and echoing eternity that seemed to yawn before her. The first time Zelda had kissed her and stayed, Lilith had worried the witch would burn. Lilith had roared white hot, and felt her body turn to fire. But Zelda had kissed her and pulled her closer, and neither one of them had been consumed.
The Pomegranate tree grew, like a miracle sprung up from the dead ground. Up and up it went, until it stood tall and strange and alone. Lilith came almost every day to watch it grow, tended to it in the way Zelda had instructed. She magicked water from the river to come to the soil, tended to it gently with inexperienced hands, and waited.
The fruit appeared one day, all of a sudden. It was bright reddish purple, and it shined. She reached out to touch it, careful not to let it fall. She walked around the tree, looking up as she went, and gathered that it must be nearly thirty feet high. It towered above her, and she wondered how high it would grow if left to flourish. She hoped Zelda would be pleased by what they had sown into the ground. She missed Zelda. Every day.
It felt as if the High Priestess was everywhere and nowhere. And then, one day when a battle had been won, she heard Zelda cry out to her in terror.
She closed her eyes and astral projected, grimacing at the effort.
“I’m with you,” she whispered into Zelda’s ear. She held Zelda up, and turned to look at the warlock on the ground. “Summon the hounds,” she said softly. She reached out to touch her, trying to soothe with a ghostly touch. Trying to give her strength, to take away her fear. Zelda nodded, and Lilith opened her eyes once more.
She whistled for the hounds and they came to sniff briefly at her outstretched hands and at the hem of her skirts. They looked up at her eagerly, and she murmured to them gently until Zelda summoned them and they roared and vanished into the ether.
They dragged Faustus Blackwood all the way back to the dais, and she knelt to look at his terrified eyes. His legs were broken and bloody, his hands were tied behind his back, and his face was covered in scratches from the rocks on the journey down. He had never seen her true face before and seemed alarmed at the sight of her green skin and at the hole where a nose should be. She had only spoken to him a handful of times, but one thing she had told him with a menacing smile on her lips, was that she feasted on male flesh.
Ancient creatures have odd appetites after all, and she was ever so hungry.
The hounds waited patiently for the bones, and watched her from the corner of the throne room with rapt attention as she unhinged her jaw and began to feast.
Her loneliness meant her freedom, and she hated that she yearned. A god should not yearn, a Queen should not yearn. And yet, she found her thoughts wandering to the mortal realm as she hacked at a goblin in the fray. They were halfway across the moors, and Asmodeus’s host had met them in full force. It was hard to tell how the battle was faring, as she was in the thick of it. Her heart was pounding, and her teeth were gnashing, and she reveled in the clanging sound of steel against steel.
But then, high above in the battle in the sky, a terrible sound roared.
She looked up and saw her owl, screaming and flapping its wings. An arrow had lodged itself in her chest, and blood fell onto the fields below like a red rain. Lilith opened her mouth to scream in horror and grief, but her breath left her as a sharp pain lodged itself into her side.
She stilled, and the sounds of the battle faded, until it was muted and far away. She heard nothing but the sound of her breath, wheezing in and out. She turned, and saw the last King in his black cloak standing beside her. His hood hid his face, and he loomed over her as he slowly took his long sword out of her side.
She fell to her knees, and the pain ripped through her and she clutched at the weeping wound and looked up at the sky. The owl was not there and she couldn’t hear anything beyond the roaring in her ears. She looked down at her hand and saw the blood spilling out along her fingers and she smiled at the thought.
Powerfully ageless, but I’ve seen him bleed.
She wanted to laugh, she wanted to cry. She wanted to breathe, but it hurt too much, and she looked to see the last King raise his sword once more and she closed her eyes and thought of all the things that brought her here to the end of all things.
God had made her, or so the story went. Adam had betrayed her, and Satan had enslaved her. The world was a terrible place, but she wanted it to last forever. She wanted to last forever, but nothing is eternal.
What happens when she dies? Is there another story after Hell? Is there really a fabled shadowland, or only oblivion. Will she finally have peace, finally lay down her weary head? There was a heartless immensity to eternity, and yet she had lived so long and seen so much, she was not ready to let it all go.
She longed for childhood. Perhaps at the end one thought of the beginning, and she had never been a child. She had never run through fields with grass stains on her dress, had never made a daisy crown with careful, delicate knots. She had never climbed a tree just for the sake of it, nor had she ever felt unabashedly wild and hearty and free. She had never felt the fullness of love, of innocence, and she couldn’t remember the garden or it’s sunlight.
She felt time stretch forever and she heard Zelda’s voice in her head.
Magic is still here. We are still here.
Perhaps their story was a prophecy that had yet to be written, for there was no prophesy of Lilith’s ascension, and there were no mosaics of her face hidden in the passageways beneath the Earth. There were no guarded portals that heralded her Queendom, nor were there cursed creatures in the tunnels and mine shafts, in the forgotten corridors leading to freedom. There were no secret symbols in the caved in caverns, nor were there any whispers left to rot in the stagnant air. There was only the hope that there could be something better.
“Fear not old prophecies,” Zelda said softly in Lilith’s head. “We defy them, and we make our own fate.”
Lilith smiled and then grimaced as she tasted iron in her mouth. The sword came down, swift and deadly. But her head was not there, and the sword swiped through empty air.
She traveled through space until she was back at the Pomegranate tree, far behind her army. But the pomegranate tree was not really a tree, just like the sky of Hell was not really a window to the heavens. Just like she was not a god, simply a creature who had been fighting for a very long time, and she bled and bled and bled.
Teleporting while wounded was hard work, the magic was taxing and she screamed in pain at the effort and at the wound in her side. She shouted until her voice was hoarse and she couldn’t find the strength to heal herself. Her hands were shaking and she called out to the voices in her head. And then she was there, summoned across the realms and beyond the gates between them. She loomed above Lilith as she lay gasping and clutching at her side. She leaned down and raised one eyebrow and shook her head, clicking her tongue in mild concern.
“You look awful,” Zelda said with a small smile.
Lilith smiled back, but her vision grew fuzzy, then black, and then she slept.
Chapter 10: Beltane
People needed to believe in gods, if only because it was quite difficult to put faith in anything else. It was why myths and stories endured. People wanted to believe. And they kept coming to Greendale with outstretched hands, wandering up the drive and hesitantly knocking at the door.
Zelda couldn’t get out of bed for three days after Faustus.
It had been difficult to meet with the coven leaders from China. They’d flown all this way, but everything was heavy and terrible. She’d wandered halfway through the tale before Hilda had taken over, and Ambrose had filled in the gaps. Prudence had gently guided her up to bed, and sat in the armchair by the window until she fell asleep.
The leaders had left a few hours later, and Hilda had said they seemed at least somewhat satisfied by their explanation. They had blessed the house and thanked Hilda and Ambrose, and had promised to begin worshiping in Lilith’s name.
Zelda slept through all of it.
She drifted during the day, only really waking when Letitica or her brother stirred. They were so much bigger than she remembered, over a year old at this point. They didn’t speak yet, and Hilda encouraged her to start talking to them, trying to make up for lost time. They did have a Showing though, and their magic almost teemed from them. Objects that were just out of their reach would suddenly and gently levitate towards them, and they would giggle at the sight. They were joyful babies, smiling and grinning and constantly reaching out to play with Zelda’s curls. Twirling and twirling the locks with their little chubby fingers. Cooing and messily eating everything Hilda fed them.
Agatha and Dorcas had already started to spoil them, and even Prudence seemed enchanted. But Hilda had the babies stay in little cots in their bedroom, as if trying to give Zelda some kind of distraction.
She had meant to have things ready for the babies. Something more substantial then just two cots and the corner they were shoved into. She’d wanted to magic a nursery with wallpaper and magical mobiles, books and toys and blankets. She’d meant to be ready, but time had gotten away from them. And now that they were here Zelda couldn’t seem to manage much. She had been worried she wouldn’t love them. That the sight of the babies would just remind her of their father. But they were nothing like him, praise Lilith, and each day she spent beside them she felt a bit lighter.
Hilda worked on the nursery, and all the children helped with the meals and the whole house kept humming and living, even while Zelda slept.
Sabrina came to sit beside her, and read to her for a time. Ambrose came in at the end of the evenings to murmur goodnight and give her a soft kiss to her cheek. Hilda said goodnight to Dr. Cee on the telephone in the kitchen, and then stayed every night in her bed. She’d hum and knit and talk when Zelda asked her to. And the children slept in their cots and eventually Hilda would start to snore and Zelda would be lulled to sleep by the old comforting sound.
Eventually she was able to slowly climb down the stairs. She made it to the kitchen for tea, but drank it in her room. And then she was at breakfast the next day. The following week she made an appearance at dinner, and then soon she was in the parlor again, listening to the children play the piano and telling stories to the gaggle of children sitting at her feet looking up at her earnestly and with wide, curious eyes. Sabrina watched her and Hilda hovered, Ambrose brought her books and sat beside her on the porch as the sun rose. Prudence followed her when they went on walks, and they talked of many things.
The owl was always there, looming and graceful and lovely.
Zelda opened her eyes every night, just as she was about to fall asleep. She sat up in bed and peered out the window to make sure the owl was still there. The owl peered right back, and Zelda smiled and settled back into bed, pulling the duvet up and around her shoulders. She slept and had no dreams.
Another coven came, this time from India.
Mystics were always spewing delusions and making religion out of lies. False prophets made rituals from hatred and demanded sacrifice from their followers.
A feast of feasts.
The horror of ritualistic sacrifice rendered mundane with time as terror became tradition. “A coven that eats itself is no coven at all,” Edward had said. They’d been fed lies for centuries, until Edward had put a stop to it. Faustus had brought it back, saying over and over, that without blood for blood, the coven would perish.
But they were not dead. Witches lived on, in the mortal cities and in the hidden places of the Earth. They did not perish when Satan vanished, and their magic did not fade. The covens did not ask Zelda and Hilda for proof because magic did not need proof. The pilgrims who came to Greendale simply asked for a story. They believed Zelda’s tale, and thus they believed in Lilith.
The darkness of winter had all but faded, and the dawn came earlier and earlier every morning. The smell of fog hung in the air, and the soft rain of spring came down almost every afternoon. Brown grass turned pale green, and then lush and thick and gorgeous. Flowers sprung up on the side of the road, and birds began to sing in the mornings. It grew warmer every day, and the garden began to bloom.
Soon it was Beltane.
Two months had passed. Two full moons, but each time Zelda couldn’t quite make herself go into Hell. Lilith had understood and the owl had taken to perching on the back of the rocking chair on the porch. It came closer and closer, until one morning Zelda reached out and it settled on her forearm. She’d thought Vinegar Tom would resent the competition of an additional familiar, but the two of them seemed rather unimpressed with the other, and the three of them would sit together on the porch as Zelda smoked her morning cigarette.
The owl would doze and vinegar Tom would snore at her feet, and eventually Hilda would come and sit with her too.
“Blessed Beltane, sister” Hilda chirped merrily. She set Zelda’s coffee down on the little side table between their two rocking chairs.
“Blessed Beltane, sister,” she murmured back. The owl ruffled her feathers at the interruption but was soon sleeping again. The sun rose a little higher.
Beltane meant it was summer. Soon the mornings would be hot and blistering, and the pleasant fog would be a warm, soggy haze.
But today it was still a comfortable temperature and soon they would make their annual trek through the various farms that surrounded Greendale. Of course the farmers did not know that they would stop along the road, climb out and call out to the cattle. Beltane was the beginning of the summer season, and traditionally it meant the livestock were to be driven out of the valleys and into the highlands. This was a new country, however, and the cattle usually stayed in one field year round. Most Greendale farmers did not know the old traditions, so the Spellman sisters secretly did the blessings for them.
The rituals were done to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. It had always seemed a green day, full of flowers and grass stains and the quiet clanging of cowbells as the animals came up to the fence to look at them.
They also visited the wells and leach fields, blessing the water and ensuring no pollution had come trickling down from the factories of other towns. Yellow flowers were placed in mailboxes at the end of the drive, or tucked behind a cow’s ear, or left by the water pump. Primrose and hawthorn, rowan and hazel and marigold. Loose flowers, strewn along the roads that crisscrossed along the countryside just out of town. Asphalt that turned to stone roads that turned to dirt roads that petered off into foot trails disappearing into the hills. Bouquets and garlands were fastened to the fence of the mortuary garden, and buttermilk was left as offerings to the fairies so that no cows would be spirited away to the fae realm.
The children carefully carried little saucers of buttermilk into the forest, weaving through the trees until they found little fairy houses. They pricked their fingers and let their blood drip into the milk, so that the fairies would be satisfied. It ensured they wouldn't be stolen either, for The Spellman Mortuary was their home now.
They called out to goats and chickens in farmyards, barn cats and sheep and working dogs. The coven led a small procession around the boundary of all the farms. They carried their flowers and seeds of grain, and unholy water. They sprinkled each offering in the four corners of Greendale, North and South, East and West. The procession ended at Theo’s farm, and Sabrina murmured an extra prayer to keep his family safe.
Traditionally the farmers and their cattle would walk around and between bonfires. Sometimes they would even leap over the flames or the dying embers. These had faded with time, and Zelda couldn’t remember the last time a mortal came to Beltane.
Instead they had a campfire at the back of the house. It was a warm evening, and Dr. Cee had brought fixings for s’mores. Hilda was in the thick of it, ensuring that none of the children accidentally set themselves on fire. Zelda watched with a small smile on her face and sat a little ways away. It was warm enough to be outside with bare feet, and she marveled at the simple pleasure of having her toes in the wet grass.
Prudence sat with her, and Salem was in her lap. The first star appeared, and it grew dark, until the brightest thing was the campfire, and the lights in the window of the mortuary.
“It’s summer,” Prudence murmured quietly. Salem was purring and the firelight glimmered in his eyes.
“So it is,” Zelda agreed.
“Will we go lightning collecting again?” Prudence asked.
Zelda turned to her and raised her eyebrows. “Would you like to?”
Prudence nodded. She looked older than she had this time a year ago. She seemed less angry, a little softer.
The seven jars they’d filled up last summer were almost out. Time to go storm-walking.
“Then we’ll go,” Zelda said.
They sat in silence for a long time, until Hilda and Dr. Cee were herding the children up to bed, and the owl was flying high above them, circling lazily back and forth. Sabrina had disappeared to go visit her mortal friends at the Baxter High May Day dance. Ambrose was stoking the fire, and the stars were shining.
“Do you really think I could ever truly be a Spellman?” Prudence asked. Her voice was small and uncertain, and Zelda felt her heart clench.
She leaned closer, until their arms were touching from their shoulders down to their elbows. Salem meowed and switched over to Zelda’s lap and licked at her fingers. The owl settled back down on the pomegranate tree, and the crescent moon slivered through the tree branches.
“You already are,” she said firmly. She reached out and tangled her fingers with Prudence’s and held fast.
“You already are.”
It was summer again, and Zelda longed for autumn. The war in Hell must still be raging, because Lilith had not reached out since she’d dragged Faustus down to his doom. They’d spoken in dreams, in images and feelings, shared memories and stories. Zelda always woke from these dreams a little drunk on magic, on power and time and on the feeling of Lilith’s hand in her own. But she had not been back since before.
Zelda had come into town for groceries. She had a list tucked into her purse, and Sabrina had driven the hearse and had wandered into Dr. Cee’s store with the car keys in her pocket.
Zelda had magicked open the boot to put the groceries in, but wasn’t entirely comfortable roaring the engine to life with a simple incantation. Especially since it was Saturday and town was quite busy. So she walked the few blocks, crossed the street, and entered the little shop, smiling a little at the charming ringing of the bell above the door.
Hilda wasn’t working today, but she had stopped by to say hello, and Sabrina was in the teen section, her nose buried in a book with a large apple tree painted on the cover. Dr. Cee was helping a customer, and Hilda was rummaging around and Zelda sighed and walked over to Sabrina. She held out her hand and Sabrina absentmindedly handed her the keys.
Zelda rolled her eyes.
“Teen angst,” she muttered.
“Heard that,” Sabrina called out, not looking up at all.
“Good,” Zelda scoffed.
The bookstore was quiet for a Saturday, but suddenly Zelda heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed.
She looked around but saw nothing out of order. A few mortals wandered in, and Sabrina turned the page of her book. The customer Dr. Cee was helping walked over to the register, and Hilda looked over and gave Zelda a little wave.
It was too hot.
For a moment, Zelda thought she could hear the sounds of battle, and she faded away for a moment.
She saw a hooded figure standing next to her, just out of the corner of her eye. She whirled around, but there was nothing there.
“You alright Zelds?” Hilda asked from behind the counter.
The mortals were looking at her from across the way, standing in the fantasy section. One was clutching a copy of Harry Potter and looking at her most peculiarly.
“I’m fine,” Zelda dismissed. She quickly backed out of the store, but she didn’t quite hear the sound of the bell as the door swung shut.
She staggered down the main road back to the hearse, and she vaguely heard Hilda following her.
She thought she heard Lilith’s voice, and she looked across the street, as if she’d somehow be here of all places.
Then, a sharp pain in her side.
She gasped, and clutched at it, and felt skin tear from her bones.
Zelda stumbled across the busy street, gripping at her side. She tried to compose herself enough to walk the few blocks to the hearse, but she couldn’t go another step, and rounded the corner into a small alley between the bowling alley and the cinema. She inhaled sharply at the pain, and turned to Hilda as she caught up with her.
“Hilda,” she gasped when they were finally out of sight of Dr. Cee’s shop.
Hilda held her up at the elbows, and they stepped to the side, leaning against the cold concrete in the alleyway.
“What is it Zelds?” she murmured. Her face was all scrunched up with worry and her hands were running up and down Zelda’s arms, trying to find the wound.
Zelda hunched over, and her hand gripped her rib where the pain emanated.
“Something’s wrong,” she said through gritted teeth. “I don’t think I can walk any farther.”
Hilda nodded, not fully understanding. She stepped away to look back towards the shop, and Zelda leaned all of her weight against the building behind her. She needed a drink.
“Let me go fetch the hearse and we’ll get you home,” Hilda fretted, before disappearing round the corner.
Zelda couldn’t teleport like this, and it was broad daylight so they couldn’t possibly fly, lest the whole of Greendale see them. The damp air of Spring was clawing at her, and she wanted to reach out and call to Lilith from across the cosmos. But it would not do, here on the street, so she fished out a packet of cigarettes instead and lit the flame with trembling fingers. The embers reminded her of something, perhaps of the gate she had seen in the mines. Her world was water and rain and snow. Lilith’s world was all fire and brimstone. The flame in the cigarette warmed her, and she reveled in the feeling of smoke in her lungs. She breathed in and out against the pain, and felt the throb ebb as the cigarette grew smaller and smaller.
It began to rain.
The cigarette was nearly out by the time Hilda came back, but when she turned to help Zelda into the hearse, the pull was too strong. The voice in her head was too insistent, and she felt herself slip into the ether, and the light of the cigarette fell to the ground and was extinguished by the rain.
Perhaps Zelda was a prophet. And her prophecy was this; Just as Lucifer fell, so too will Lilith rise. Women were always rising. They passed what they knew down to their daughters, who in turn passed knowledge down to their daughters. Remedies for broken bones, kind words of encouragement for earnest tears, spells to ward off evil men, and the courage to kill them where they stood. Women were always rising, where men would see them fall.
The very first woman was not cast out. She did not fall from grace, nor did she accept the fate of servitude. She turned up her chin at the thought of dominion, and wandered the wasteland instead. She was a survivalist, a creature unto herself, a warrior in an army of one. A queen long before she ever wore a crown or ruled a kingdom.
Zelda took a deep breath and let herself fall through the ether and all the way to the darkness.
And suddenly it was warm and red and the pain was gone. Lilith was lying beneath the pomegranate tree, clutching her side. Her hands were stained red, and her eyes were half closed. Zelda hurried over to her, and leaned down to see.
“You look awful,” she said without thinking.
Lilith chuckled. She tried to speak but blood began to drip from her lips and she grew limp and slept.
In the kitchen, Hilda had always appeared to Zelda as some kind of alchemist. She spun warmth and comfort out of flour and sugar, instilled heartiness out of vegetables from the garden. The antidote to heartache was in the bottom of a cup of tea, a soothing balm for nightmares in her mug of hot chocolate with a dash of cinnamon. And when Zelda felt lonely, Hilda and her would sit together side by side, as the fire crackled and the winter swaddled the house up in a white blanket.
It was always Hilda who broke the curse of melancholy as she broke a few eggs and let them simmer on the hob. Hilda was the one who brought Zelda cure after cure, until she was well enough to claim she had never been out of sorts at all. Hilda had always been the one to heal, to put other people back together again.
But she was not soft, as so many people were wrong to assume. She was strong and good, and full of so much love. She was fierce and protective, brilliant and kind. She had a smile on her face when she murdered with almond cookies, and cared not one fig when she was excommunicated. She dreamt of setting the Greendale woods on fire in the height of the dry season, and now here they were, in the ashes of their former life.
Hilda was the healer, and yet Zelda was the one crouched above the crumpled figure of Lilith. There was a pool of blood beneath her and she was still.
Magic was different here. She could feel it in the air, in the ash in her lungs, in the pads of her fingertips. Zelda did not belong here. She was untimely brought to this realm, and her body was trembling.
Her hands were shaking as she knelt to the ground and she placed them on the wound beneath Lilith’s bloodied armor. Her ornate sword and dagger were by her side, and the orangeness of the sky glinted on the steel.
She was without her cauldron, her elixirs and mud. She did not have her books and incantations, and she did not have her sister. She was no healer. Give her a weeping woman with a swollen belly and a baby on the way and she would know what to do. Give her a body to embalm, a corpse to harvest and tuck into the dirt. Give her the beginning and the end, but not this precipice.
She did not know how to change the certain, how to take the river of blood at her feet and put it back. Her hands were still shaking, and her dress was now caked in dust, and the wind was raging and her hair was in her eyes. She reached up to place it in a coil, tucking it in messily at the nape of her neck.
She knelt over Lilith and placed her hands into Lilith’s side.
She gasped at the heaviness of brimstone, hot like a great fire at the heart of the volcano. She felt the weight of Lilith’s heartbeat, slowing and growing fainter with each moment. She felt the broken ribs, the jagged splinter of bones and dried up marrow.
Zelda closed her eyes and mapped the wound in her mind. She saw a body broken, torn open with a long sword. She saw the emptiness, and tried to put Lilith back together. She gathered the black blood of Lilith and put it back. She saw the sinew of muscle and stitched it together again. She felt the clamor of a pulse and willed it stronger, and she knelt and prayed to her dead god.
“Where did you go?” she asked Lilith. Her voice was thick and full of tears, and she smiled through the pain. Her magic was wild and unchecked in this realm, and she was exhausted. Her shoulders drooped and her chest heaved, and she placed her forehead on what remained of Lilith’s forehead.
The crown was askew and half on the ground, and Zelda had not the courage to reach out and touch it.
Lilith was still, and her wound was dried up, and Zelda wondered if she was like Sabrina, filled with the powers of a herald, of a heretic, of something not quite known. Her fingers were black from the blood, and Zelda wanted to scream. She wanted to roar and tear everything apart.
She opened her eyes and looked down at Lilith. “Where did you go?” she asked again, though her voice was splintered and anguished. Lilith was out of her reach, out of this realm, torn from her. She had been extinguished in a rush of howling winds and driving rain of fire. The death had arrived, hot with steel and drafts of smoke.
“Don’t go where I cannot follow,” she pleaded with a whisper.
Her fingers fisted in the cloth around Lilith’s shoulders and she let the tears fall. She gathered Lilith’s hand in hers, and she caressed the gnarled fingers with her own. Then, she leaned down to kiss the scaly skin. She cradled Lilith’s hand to her cheek.
Lilith had no ancestors. She was the first, and Zelda had thought for some time she would be doomed to be the last. For it seemed that the first rule of magic, or the first lesson learned to young witches and warlocks, was that you cannot bring back the dead. And perhaps it was the most earnest thing that one felt as a child, that death should be temporary. That the things that loved one another should be kept together and not ripped apart. That it was not how things should be.
“It isn't fair!” Sabrina used to shout as she stomped her feet and ran up the stairs. “Everyone else has parents.” She would glare down from the balcony and right into Hilda’s eyes. “And all I have are Aunties.”
It used to hurt, to hear those words flung at her whenever her niece had a particularly nasty tantrum. Truth be told, it still hurt, but she could hardly blame Sabrina for missing her mother and father. Zelda missed Edward too, and would do anything to give him back to Sabrina, and somehow give Sabrina back to Edward. Edward had been gone over sixteen years, yet Zelda still looked for signs of him in his daughter. She saw him in the way Sabrina shrugged, in the curve of her smile.
Zelda used to kill Hilda and bury her in the Cain pit. She used to wait in the house with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey, looking out into the graveyard and waiting for Hilda’s hand to spring out of the ground. But as the years passed it took longer and longer for Hilda to resurrect herself. The wait grew from minutes to hours, and each second was like a million needles of loneliness lodging into her skin. Perhaps one day Hilda would stay dead. Batibat’s nightmare haunted her, and after that she never killed her sister again.
Mourners came to the mortuary almost every day, and the spectre of death was always with them. Their whole world shattered by a new emptiness. The world hurt because they could remember those they had lost. The fire in Zelda’s fingertips burned, and she wanted to hurt the world back. Supposedly on the other side of loss was salvation. But what if it was only this? This hellscape. What if the great reward after a long life was an empty promise. There must be something better.
“It would have been easy to make me stay,” Zelda muttered. It would have been so easy for Lilith to keep her prisoner, here in this realm where she was not yet meant to be. And perhaps she would never come here, for death was certain for all things, but what happens after? Alas, that was still a mystery. Perhaps Heaven was real, and all the stories were true and the pearly gates really hovered at some secret elevation in the skies. Or perhaps it was a pearly prison, and God still had his true believers on their knees.
Valhalla could be true, and the Elysian fields could be real and beautiful, just like the Fae world, and the Shadowlands. Hell was true, and Lilith was true, even though her story had been long forgotten.
So little was certain, and all the muddled myths of the world were murky and mingled together.
What happens when one dies? Where does one go? Zelda wasn’t quite sure. Death seemed inescapable, and yet the only thing that was certain in the days after death was this: That the ones who loved the dead would miss them. Love was certain.
The first act of magic had been a woman trying to heal a man. Yet those wounds would never heal, and perhaps it was because Satan did not want them to heal. Magic comes with a price, and Zelda was finished paying for it.
She could have so easily made Zelda stay. She would have persuaded her with soft kisses and softer words. She could have made her a Princess of the dead, given her rubies and sapphires and fashioned her a crown of her own. She could have seduced her with shiny things and power beyond imagining. She could have done to Zelda what Satan did to her.
Satan had loved her, but like a wolf loved a dead thing it could feast upon. She had sustained him all this time, gave him life again and again. Zelda thought perhaps she could give Lilith life too.
She cradled Lilith’s head in her lap and looked up at the Pomegranate tree. The hordes were still fighting, somewhere off in the distance there were pale wolves and riders on dead beasts. Zelda closed her eyes and she could see them. The wind howled and the world seemed full of nothing but anguish.
She opened her eyes and looked away from the battle and down at Lilith sleeping beneath her. She stroked her hair and hummed to her softly. It was the hymn she couldn’t quite name. It was a song for weary travelers, a hopeful hymn of the skies and of returning once more to the homeland. She had always loved to sing, and it seemed fitting to sing even now, when everything seemed hopeless.
So she sang and waited for Lilith to come back.
Then, as if summoned by the music, the clouds parted, and a long dead firedrake roared out of the sky. She was as big as a hillside, and her flames were the blue of hellfire. She crashed to the ground in a storm of dust and ash and she turned to the last king and grinned. Her smile brought death, and she breathed out flames and brought down the warriors of old in one fell swoop. They perished where they stood as the dragon laid waste to the battleground. The Last of the Demon Kings became nothing but dust, and the world seemed a little smaller.
The dragon roared again, and her roar was the battle cry. Lilith’s army followed her out into the far off distance, and it seemed as if Hell itself was casting out and emptying.
Zelda clutched Lilith to her, and realized she had stopped singing. She was so very tired. She wanted to lay down beside her, and drift off for a spell.
She wondered if she would have made a great warrior. She had no use for swords and armor, though she could use a dagger when pressed. She looked down at Lilith and sighed. She wearily wiped at the tears on her face and took in a shaky, tearful breath.
“Now is not your time Lilith,” she murmured. She had tried to sound firm, but her voice sounded wobbly and teary even to her own ears. “Your pyre will not be built for many ages,” she continued. “And there will be no tombs for you today, and no songs of mourning.”
The dragon was still burning and gleaming across the lands. She was swooping down and clawing at the last legions who stood against them. The dark foes were retreating, and those who stood their ground became ash that floated away like confetti. The time of kings was ending. Now was the time for queens.
“If I can’t be your warrior,” Zelda cried gently, “then perhaps I can be the lamb.”
A sacrifice, a life giver, a prophet. She bowed her head and kissed the cracked lips, and gave a new life with a soft, gentle kiss. The kiss said, come back.
And just as Lucifer fell, so too did Lilith rise.
Chapter 11: For All Seasons
When she woke, she could feel Zelda’s lips on hers, and her whole body burned with the taste. She felt herself rise, up and up until she was levitating far above the ground. The flames in her hand burned hot white, and her eyes were glowing white too. Her hair blew behind her, and her voice was dark and changed. She spread her arms wide and looked out into the battlefield that stretched out and away.
She burned bright and cast Hellfire into the pits, and burned her enemies into nothing. She saw the last of them and she reached out her hand and smote them with a thought. The firedrake roared and Lilith roared back, and she flew above the legions. Zelda covered her eyes at the sight of her, and Lilith wondered what she looked like in witch eyes. She wanted to turn and try and explain, but the urge to fly was too strong, and so she turned away and let herself go.
Lilith remembered the first time she had learned to fly. She had seen clouds from above, puffy white and full of rain. The world had seemed so small, and the rivers and streams had become nothing but blue streaks in a green canvas. The silver moon, almost close enough to touch had taunted her with perfect moonlight, and the stars had glimmered so close it hurt to look at them. In the air she felt whole, up in the sky where the great sorrows of the world count not reach her. She had understood then, why Lucifer missed his wings so much.
She had been flying for eons now, and yet the sight of things growing smaller and smaller beneath her still had that same thrill. She flew down upon the remaining forces and smote them into the dust.
The plains were full of horses and chariots of fire, and she burned and burned until there was nothing of the enemy but ash. She hovered there, looking to the sea that gleamed like a morning star.
At last, there was nothing left between her and the throne, only the long, winding walk up the steps to the door.
She turned back and watched as the firedrake whipped its tail and flew beyond her. The beast’s scales were gleaming in the firelight, and her belly was still red with her own unspent breath. She looked out at Lilith for a fleeting moment, and the rage and ruin they had created simmered beneath them. When the moment passed, the beast flew away, beyond the mountains and beyond Lilith’s sight. Lilith let her go, for she had known the taste of Zelda’s lips, and had tasted freedom for the first time in her whole long life. And perhaps freedom was a gift she could bestow willingly. Perhaps freedom could be enough. The firedrake disappeared, and the smoke rose like pillars into the sky.
Lilith turned and flew towards the castle. She went down and down, into the caves beneath the keep. Through dark tunnels and long forgotten corridors. Empty cells and dungeons, lost souls, and the stink of death and carnage.
If godhood meant she would be loved by Zelda, then by all the magic of the cosmos, she would let herself become a god.
She had promised never to betray him, and he had believed her because she was corrupt and full of wickedness. She was evil, and when he looked inside of her he could find no goodness. There was none.
Then the coven prayed to her. And Zelda loved her. And she loved Zelda.
Where did this love come from? It had come to her like a thief in the night, and now it hurt so much it felt as if she would die from it. Her crimes were so monstrous, and her life so full of bitterness, how could this love possibly change all that? And yet a pomegranate tree was growing in the heart of Hell, and she was about to betray the devil.
She was all alone in the catacomb, looking like she had always belonged to darkness. The whole world was above her, far up through the rock. He was there, still chained where she had left him to rot.
It was a dangerous thing, getting what one wants. And in the end the throne was not as she’d expected. Her whole life had been violence, lashing out with magic and hatred. Being eaten up by the gnawing fear that she wasn’t capable of love or goodness, incapable of letting things grow. She had been in the dark for so long that she had embraced it and had become the very heart of darkness. She’d thought she was only capable of destruction. But Sabrina helped her trick him, and the coven’s prayers gave her strength, and Zelda gave her new life. So she was reaching into the dark for something. She had goodness inside of her, but knew not how to get it all out. For years she had wandered the wasteland. Perhaps she was still wandering.
It was black in the deep, but the best and worst things happened in the shadows. There was barely a hint of poor Mr. Scratch, and the acheron was warped and grotesque.
“How far you have strayed from your purpose, morning star, son of the dawn,” she cried.
“You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” she shouted.
“You were brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit,” she bellowed.
She called out with a loud, clear voice. She had the voice of a god, and it sounded through the cavern like a many-throated choir. It rose higher and higher, and the ground shook with it. Rocks fell from high places, the mountain rumbled, and the whole world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The cavern was like a cathedral being torn down, the ancient place being buried by sound and fury.
She reached out and dragged Lucifer Morningstar out of the boy, pulling him out into the stagnant air. He collapsed to the ground, wet and cold and broken. He was back in his old shape, hoofs and horns and matted fur. Lilith had never noticed how small he was.
“And now I will vanish you,” she said to the fallen angel as he lay gasping on the ground. She leaned down to look at him, one last time. She looked into his eyes, and he looked back. He was weak from his toil in the acheron, his muscles withered and atrophied from disuse. His body was weak, but his eyes were full of hate and Lilith remembered all the things he had done to her with that look in his eyes. Fear choked her, like invisible hands tearing at her throat.
“You are a false god,” she said as he panted and tried to change back into his angelic form. He was too weak to change, and his magic was almost out. “You are nothing,” she declared. “I can see the beginning and the end, and you will be forgotten.”
He screamed in anger, in frustration. He tried to cast a spell out but he was very frail and was fading fast.
“I do not need your praise to survive,” she spat. “I was here first, and I had wandered the wasteland long before you ever fell.”
He tried to call out one last incantation but it came to nothing, and she placed both hands on the ground beside him and felt the fire return to her palms.
“And I’ll be here long after any memory of you has been lost to time. You are come to death.”
He grinned at that, terrible and cruel. “I cannot die,” he laughed.
Lilith grinned back. “All things die, or so you once told me.” She leaned in close and whispered the last words he ever heard. “It does no good to plant seeds.”
She was the mother of demons, the dawn of doom. Zelda’s beloved. She was Lilith, the true queen of Hell.
She reached out and saw him and she collapsed his entire being.
He was not of mortal flesh, and though he was robbed of his angelic shape he still remained. She reached out and destroyed the remnants, so that he could never appear again in this realm or any other. She scattered him to the winds, and his spirit was torn asunder. For a moment he was a shadow, but that faded too, and when Lilith looked again there was nothing.
The worlds cracked open and the foundations of everything that had come before finally slid into place as the false god of Hell vanished into nothingness. The dark lord disappeared, and all her wrath that had blazed in consuming fire suddenly flickered, and faded to a small flame.
“I shall linger,” she murmured to the empty cavern and to the sleeping form of Nicholas Scratch. “And I shall remain until the last of the stars burn out.”
She flew back to the Pomegranate tree with the sleeping boy in her arms, and gently set him down on the ground. She felt herself extinguish as her bare feet touched the ground. Her hair fell to her shoulders, and her eyes stopped their unnatural glow. She padded quietly over to Zelda, who was still looking away, as if it hurt to look upon her.
“You saved me,” Lilith murmured after a moment. Before she could stop herself, Lilith reached out to touch Zelda’s hair. She placed a bony hand on the soft curls, and hesitantly ran her fingers through Zelda’s fiery hair. At the gentle touch, Zelda looked up and gasped.
“You are changed,” she said with a trembling voice. She sounded frightened, and yet leaned into her hand when Lilith cupped the side of her cheek. She looked not quite afraid of Lilith, but perhaps afraid for her.
“So are you,” Lilith replied. For the witch was in Hell, and the air was changing her the longer she stayed. She looked younger and perhaps even taller. Her hair was glowing, and a few of the wrinkles around her eyes had smoothed over. Her veins were shimmering with blue, and Lilith wanted to reach out and smooth the winding path from Zelda’s wrists all the way to her heart.
She leaned down to help the witch stand, until they were face to face. Lilith’s hand lingered on Zelda’s cheek, and she couldn’t bear to take it away. She let her thumb trace Zelda’s cheekbone, and watched as Zelda’s eyes slipped shut. Her mouth opened slightly, and Lilith’s gaze dropped to her soft, supple lips.
It was all too much, and Lilith felt her new powers screaming through every part of her, so she leaned down to gently place her forehead against Zelda’s and let her eyes close too.
“Fear not” she whispered, and let her other hand come up so that both her hands were cradling Zelda’s face to hers. “I am the first and the last.” She felt Zelda’s hands settle on her elbows, and they stayed like that for an eternity, until Zelda turned and kissed the palm of Lilith’s right hand. “I am she that liveth, and was dead.” She took one of Zelda’s hands and placed it over her heart. “And behold, I am alive for evermore.”
Lilth placed her hand over Zelda’s and held it to her own chest. “I have the keys of hell and of death,” she whispered against Zelda’s cheek. “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.”
She kissed Zelda’s cheek and realized the witch was still shaking. She kissed Zedlda’s forehead, her other cheek, and then brought one hand to her lips. The other hand she left over her heart.
“I love you,” Zelda said after a moment. She was shaking, but her voice was clear and strong, and she opened her eyes to look directly at Lilith
The pomegranate tree loomed behind them.
“I will do as you ask,” she said softly. “I will be your herald, and your high priestess.”
“But- I… please,” she whispered. “I wish to remain on Earth.”
Zelda swallowed, and pressed her hand against Lilith’s heart, as if trying to make amends.
"Even in the autumn and winter," she pleaded. Zelda was begging her to understand, begging her to not take her from her life.
Lilith smiled sadly and bent to kiss her. It was soft and gentle and full of sorrow, but Zelda leaned into her and Lilith held her close. When the kiss was over they rested their foreheads together, and Lilith heaved a great sigh. She would let her go. Lilith had been in a cage for so very long, she would never in turn become a jailer. Zelda's life was her own, and her choice was made.
“Then you shall only dwell on Earth,” she said and felt her heart clench at Zelda’s relief.
“I bind myself to you, Zelda Spellman,” Lilith promised in an echo of Zelda’s first prayer. “I bind us together, now and forever.”
“Now and forever,” Zelda repeated with a small, tender smile.
Lilith sighed at the tenderness. She felt as if she had woken from a dream, that Zelda’s lips had lifted a curse and she was now wide awake. She felt herself filled to the brim with something terribly wonderful, and her heart sank to know that it would not last long.
“I have to send you back,” she said regretfully. Zelda did not belong here, not truly. And it was time to put her and Mr. Scratch back in the land of the living.
“So soon?” Zelda asked, and her voice was soft and muffled from kissing Lilith’s fingers. She pressed one last kiss to the back of Lilith's hand, and then looked up into her face. It must be easier to see her, now that she was no longer burning, and Zelda smiled sadly. “I thought I would stay a little longer.”
Lilith shook her head. “You must go.”
Zelda leaned up to kiss her again, earnestly and deeply.
“You must go,” Lilith repeated gently against Zelda’s lips.
“Will I return with the full moon?” she asked in a soft, pleading voice.
“As long as our familiar is with you, and you desire to cross the realms,” she promised. “But you shall not dwell in Hell, and will only be a passing spirit on the night of the full moon.”
“A spirit for one night,” Zelda said curiously.
“Yes,” Lilith nodded. “A spirit for one night, and a witch for all seasons.”
Zelda shook her head and squeezed Lilith’s hand tightly. It looked as if she was fighting off tears, and Lilith leaned down to kiss her one last time. Zelda’s lips tasted like the fractured golden sunlight through green leafs. She tasted like the earth after rain. Lilith sent her across the realms with a kiss, and when Lilith opened her eyes she was alone once more.
The day after Zelda went back, Charon came in with a ship of souls. They wailed and worried, beat their breasts and looked to the shores of doom with terror. Lilith waded into the water, until her skirts were soaked and the stones cut her feet. She reached out to them and touched them, and took their fear away. She guided them away from the river, past the castle and down into the valley. They followed quietly, a long winding caravan of the dead, zig zagging down and down into the green place.
For the valley was turning green. The ground of Hell had always been a rusty brown, red with blood and black with death. It was polluted and stained and ugly with suffering.
But in the middle of the valley stood a tree covered in pomegranate. And from its roots sprung life, deep and lush and green. The grass had sprung up, and was spreading everywhere, and the whole of the valley was changing. Hell was becoming a garden.
She led them further to the border where green gave way to dust, and they followed, weary for peace and to finally rest. They wandered, and looked out at the green country and were comforted. Droves of the souls came, and then they stilled. Their stillness changed them. Moss grew on their hands and feet, and they held up their arms and became trees. They were grand and beautiful and strong, and they intertwined as their feet became roots that went deep into the ground and their hands became branches that went up and up. Oaks and linden, weeping willows and ash, sequoias and sycamores, beech and blackthorn, apple and white birch. Whatever tree that the soul resembled in life, they grew into in death. And the garden held them, until they were the garden too and were themselves no longer.
It was a kindness Lilith had never been given. A peaceful after.
If Zelda was a godmaker then Lilith had determined to make herself a worthy god. A god that could hold all of the love given to them, and give it back with life and in what came after the crossing of the water. She would give them peace, and help them stand on the edge of the valley and be able to look out at the black river and not be afraid. She would stand on the shores of death with them, and help them to greet the ending like an old friend.
In her many years of serving Lucifer she had thought that with each act of destruction she was becoming more herself. But before she had been a slave, and before she had been a witch, and before she had been a wanderer, she had been a gardener. Her story was a familiar one, one told over and over again throughout history.
It was simply the story of anyone who tried to make a garden in the plot of time given to them.
Growing things out of seeds, giving purpose to the ground beneath them and marveling at the simple changing of the seasons. And each day Charon came, and she guided them gently. She stood and watched as the souls on the boats glided across the unknowable distance. They looked out at the horizon as the air shifted and changed, and the veil pulled back to reveal the green mountains. The black water and the current of the river washed over the ancient stones, and all the fires of hell flickered and went out. The garden grew and the woods were thick, and the green spilled out of the valley and over the mountains, across the moors and the bogs and former wasteland. The pit became nothing but a valley too, and her hellspawn became shepherds for the souls.
She walked on the plains and through the forest of souls. The pale horses with their phantom riders led the dead, the dragon soared high above them and they looked up in wonder. The owl was healed and she sat on Lilith’s shoulder as she walked through the trees. She sat beneath them, and her palms were printed with pine needles. She looked up at their branches, and at the thick forest roof, and felt something grow within her too. She thought it could be love. Love for Zelda, love for magic and for the tall grasses that newly grew along the hillsides. Love for the green and the simple pleasure of growing things. Love for her realm.
Love for herself.
The owl settled on Lilith's shoulder and they sat together on the hillside. The wind was warm and pleasant, and Lilith looked out with her familiar. It had been strange, knowing that such a thing was possible. That a familiar could exist in two places, half with Zelda and half here with her. It was a new kind of magic, one that Lilith didn’t fully understand. She and Zelda were bound to one another, a soul on Earth and a soul in the after, and the owl that served them both.
Beneath the watchful eye of the owl, Lilith slept. She slept for the first time in a thousand years, and she dreamed of Zelda swimming in a moonlit sea. The dream was always the same. Zelda was in the water, and Lilith was waiting on the shore. She would sit in the sand and watch the ripples emanate from Zelda’s movements. The water was being changed as Zelda moved through it, its very shape taking hold of her and keeping her aloft. And then Zelda would turn and walk out of the water. Her bare shoulders appeared as she walked through the shallows, and they were silver and shiny with moonlight and water. She moved out of the water and across the sand, approaching Lilith. Then she would bend down as if to kiss her, but Lilith always woke up just before their lips touched.
If the forest hadn’t been there she would wonder if she’d made it all up. That it was all a dream, and Zelda had never been there. But the pomegranate tasted sweet, and the trees were still there, and she wondered if Zelda missed her. The dream came every time she slept, and she took it to be a promise of things to come. A far flung ending, many many eons off.
Lilith smiled at the thought.
Until then, she would wait for the full moon to rise.
Chapter 12: Summer
The first thing she heard was Hilda scolding her.
“Zelda Spellman, how dare you disappear like that!”
They were in the meadow behind the mortuary, right by the laundry that was blowing softly in the breeze. She looked up at Hilda stomping over towards her, although she looked more frightened than angry.
Zelda felt her legs give out, and she was suddenly kneeling in the grass. Nicholas Scratch was asleep on the ground next to her, both arms gracefully tucked in at his sides. He was wearing his own clothes again, and he looked almost peaceful.
Hilda came to a halt in front of them.
“Where have you been?” she demanded. She stopped short when she saw the boy on the ground. “Oh my word,” she fretted, her face scrunched up with worry as she came down to kneel in the grass too. Her hand came to rest on Mr. Scratch’s forehead, and she felt for fever, looking him over for any wounds. When she was satisfied that he was well and only sleeping she turned to Zelda. “You disappeared on the street Zelds,” she accused sharply.
Zelda swallowed thickly, and leaned her hands on her thighs. Her dress would be grass stained where her knees were pressing into the ground. “Hildy-”
“Don’t you Hildy me,” she interrupted sharply. “You disappeared, in the middle of the street, without so much as an incantation.”
Zelda looked at the ground and tried to wait out Hilda’s anger. She found she couldn’t and she looked up when the silence stretched between them.
“I thought you’d died,” Hilda said sadly. Her eyes were filled with tears, and her hands were shaking as she left Mr. Scratch and shuffled over on her knees to be next to Zelda. She placed her hands over Zelda’s and squeezed tightly. “Promise to never do that again.”
“Promise,” Hilda urged quietly.
“Promise,” Zelda murmured, and let her eyes slip shut as Hilda leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead.
Zelda could just hear the sounds of children laughing in the house, and she wondered how long this journey to Hell had taken. The sun was still high in the sky, but the rain seemed to have passed, and all the clouds were white and puffy and empty.
“When you vanished I assumed you’d reappear her,” Hilda explained when she saw Zelda’s confusion. “Nearly wrecked the hearse twice on the drive back.”
“I didn’t intend to leave you like that,” she apologized.
“I knew that,” Hilda said. “I knew it must have been important, otherwise Lilith would have waited for the full moon.”
Zelda sucked in a quick breath. “You know about that?”
“Of course I do, Zelds. You really think I wouldn’t notice my sister leaving her body every full moon to go gallivanting about the forest with a random new owl spirit that appeared out of nowhere?”
Zelda smiled and Hilda chuckled.
“Some things don’t need saying,” Hilda forgave with a dismissive flick of her wrist. “Although I would like to know what its like to spirit-walk,” she grinned.
Zelda sighed, and before she could talk further Sabrina came running up to her. She collapsed on the ground and promptly began to cry over the sleeping form of Mr. Scratch.
“Oh dear,” Hilda muttered.
Zelda simply raised an eyebrow, and with the help of her sister, stood up, and went into the house.
When all was said and done, the drowsy numbness of summer took hold once more. Mr. Scratch woke up, the coven kept praying, and Zelda kept getting a migraine every time the children played too loudly.
Salty Sal came back. She enchanted the whole horde of children with tales of the sea. Pirates and humpback whales, orcas and dolphins. Hidden treasures and trickster mermaids, and the lighthouse that meant home. Her captain’s coat was flung over the armchair, and she puffed on her pipe as she spun her tales, and waved her hands about whenever the story called for a bit of flair. The fire in the parlor cast long shadows, and she whispered a spell to make two shadow figures duel to the death on the wall. Then the flames roared and she puffed out a ship from the smoke of her pipe, and she let all the children take turns wearing her big boots and her captain’s hat. The brim covered nearly all of each child’s head, but they pushed back the brim and grinned, and Salty Sal cackled and called each of them seaworthy.
Then they all went to bed, and Hilda and Zelda and Sal talked of the old days. And then Salty Sal turned to Zelda and suddenly looked very old.
“I have wandered land for long enough,” she told them sadly. “If you truly do have the power of a godmaker, please’” She heaved in a sigh and looked at the fire. Her face was withered and tired, a sailor’s face. “Lift this curse, and let me sail again.”
Zelda felt her weariness. She could almost see the long years of standing upon the seashore, watching ship after ship sail off into the distance. The blue ocean calling out, and being unable to answer. She knew the feeling of watching the ships grow smaller and smaller, until at last they were but a speck of white on the horizon where the sea and sky mingled together. It was a haunting feeling, to be half on the shore and half in the sea, but the mermaid curse had served its purpose, and time spent on land had changed Salty Sal.
She’d seen a thousand ships leave the safe harbor and vanish from her sight. The mast and the hull and the jibs, vanishing into the blue as if they’d never even existed. It was time to let her cross the waters too.
Zelda set her whiskey down on the table beside her chair and stood. She pushed back her hair that was curling gracefully over her shoulders, and walked over to the old sea hag. The woman smelled of the sea, mysterious and salty and something altogether green and blue. Zelda placed a hand on Sal’s and closed her eyes.
She prayed to Lilith and the curse was lifted.
When Zelda sat back down again she looked over at Salty Sal and was startled to see how much lighter she looked. She seemed impossibly younger and her hair was no longer grey but a startlingly beautiful white. The gold buttons on her navy captain’s jacket were shining, as if they’d just been polished. And when Zelda looked carefully, it seemed as if the entire room was glowing in the firelight.
In the morning the children almost tripped over each other in their haste to run out the door to play. They forged swords from sticks they found on the ground in the garden outside. Epic battles were waged in the parlor, standing atop the rickety old armchairs. Bed sheets from the clothesline were used as ship’s sails, and small scratches on arms became mortal wounds. Children lay strewn about the garden, dying again and again as mutiny after mutiny left the little heathens aimless and thirsty for lemonade.
They buried treasure in the little witch houses in the forest, performed duels and took hostages, and pretended to sail off into the distance with Salty Sal at the helm.
They followed Salty Sal all the way down the lane, singing the sea shanty she’d taught them the night before. She waved goodbye, and the children cried out “Tally-ho!” and soon she was gone from sight, swallowed up by the forest and the path that led away from Greendale and all the way down to the sea.
In the end, Hilda and Dr. Cee did get engaged. He went down on one knee, Hilda cried, and Zelda tried not to show how scared she was. But Hilda couldn’t leave her garden, nor could she leave her kitchen and her big oven. The kitchen in Dr. Ce’’s flat was awfully small, and the smoke alarm went off every time Hilda baked, no matter how many curses she threw at it. So Hilda moved out of Zelda’s bedroom and Dr. Cee moved into a large new suite at the end of the hall. He took to Spellman life grandly, and was good with the children and understanding of Zelda’s moods. Even Salem seemed to approve, and the bottom of Dr. Cee’s trousers were always covered in cat hair.
The children grew and summer came, and Zelda watched as Letitica and her brother took their first steps, said their first words, and looked up at Zelda adoringly.
“He needs a new name,” Sabrina said one day, as the twins were down for their nap.
Zelda looked up at her niece sitting in the window seat. “I agree,” she said. They never called him Judas, mostly “sweetheart”, “darling”, or “baby.” Never Judas.
“Any ideas?” Zelda asked gently.
Prudence looked up from her book. She was sitting cross legged on the floor in the corner reading her little brother and sister a story as they slept. Although Zelda wondered at the choice of reading an almanac of advanced witch gardening to toddlers.
“How about Edward?” Prudence suggested.
Sabrina put her book down and straightened her shoulders, turning to look over at the little cot.
“Edward Spellman,” Sabrina said softly, as if trying to see what the name sounded like when given to someone other than a ghost.
“Eddie for short,” Prudence amended.
“Eddie,” Sabrina repeated softly. She smiled. “Eddie Spellman,” she said more firmly.
“It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” Zelda asked.
“Letitia and Eddie,” Prudence said gently to her sleeping siblings.
“I like the sound of that,” Sabrina whispered as she tiptoed over to stand next to Prudence to watch the toddlers sleep.
To heal an ancient wound, one needs to leave it be. Let the wounds breathe, do not let it fester, and stop touching it. Let go of the things that would tear the wound open again. Put salves on it, be kind to the body and to the mind. Drink tea, and go for walks on sunny afternoons. Rise early, tidy often, eat strawberry jam, and put an extra dash of sugar in the coffee.
“Speak kindly, love me, and mend,” Lilith whispered against Zelda’s eyelids as she kissed her face over and over before saying goodbye.
The way back was a long one, and yet the journey was always easier when one walked it with others.
“Speak kindly, serve Lilith, and mend.” Zelda murmured over the children with summer colds and hay fever and those who missed their mothers. She said the prayer to Mr. Scratch’s bedroom door, said it over his breakfast that Hilda brought to him every day. Said it right to him, and helped him say the words too.
“Speak kindly, serve Lilith, and mend,” he said the words haltingly. He still wasn’t used to talking. His body was healed, but his mind was muddled, and he looked ill suited to this form. As if he was the uninvited guest in his own body.
After several days of silence, Sabrina finally got the message and left him alone. Only then did he begin to drink, and then he ate, and then he met Zelda’s eyes, and repeated the healing prayer. He stayed in his own room for a long time, for silence was like a balm to the endless days of Satan slithering around his mind.
“She used to come and talk to me,” he said out of nowhere one day while they were sitting together in the kitchen, long before any of the other members of the household would rise.
Zelda lowered her newspaper to look at him. She arched an eyebrow and took a quick puff of her cigarette.
“Did she?” she asked, urging him to continue.
Mr. Scratch nodded. “She would come into the cell and tell me that Satan used to read her mind too, and she told me I’d survive it.”
Zelda put the newspaper down, folding it gracefully in quarters. A little picture of a statue in The Faroe Islands looked up at her. “You did survive it,” she reminded gently.
“I’m not so sure,” he whispered, looking down at his hands in his lap.
“It’s alright,” Zelda reassured. “To not be sure, I mean.”
Outside it was still dark, and the predawn light hadn’t even begun to fade the black of night into a cool blue. The owl was somewhere sleeping, and Vinegar Tom was snoring beneath the table. Her faithful and ever present factotums. She remembered her first prayer to Lilith. She had prayed for a good harvest, and for the swift return of Autumn, as well as good familiars for the lost children. She sent a quick, silent prayer to Lilith for Mr. Scratch to be made well again.
“Thank you,” he said softly, although he still seemed rather uncertain.
Zelda tilted her head and watched him carefully. “Silence can be hard, even if it's the one thing you longed for,” she said.
Mr. Scratch smiled. “He was in my head for months, and now… It’s strange- I feel lonely with just my thoughts.”
Zelda nodded. “If you ever need a person to speak to, not just about this-” Zelda waved her hand between them.
“I know,” he interrupted quietly.
Zelda paused and looked at him. She felt proud of him, and yet great sadness for the months of toil in the darkness. It was a lovely and awful kind of feeling. All she could do in the face of it was to be kind.
“Shall we go watch the sunrise, Mr. Scratch?”
He nodded, and they went out to meet the day, and were silent together.
The first thunderstorm of the year blew in on a sunny afternoon. Clouds loomed out of nowhere in the far corner of the sky, and the wind picked up and blew a little harder than it had in the morning. Prudence gathered the coven, handing out mason jars as she went. She tucked the lightning rod under her arm, and came to fetch Zelda when the clouds were almost upon them.
Zelda and Hilda took up the rear as the children followed Ambrose and Prudence up the mountain. Sabrina walked just behind them, prattling on and on about college and all the things she had to do before she left.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the air grew cool as they climbed higher and higher. Zelda smiled at the sight of Prudence looking back every few minutes. As if to make sure they were all still following her. Zelda raised her eyebrows when Prudence caught her eye, and gave her a reassuring smile. Prudence smiled back.
The wind was picking up now, and her hair was a little messy, slightly undone from the tight coil at the nape of her neck. Hilda shuffled along and muttered about just teleporting to the summit, but it was all part of the tradition, walking up together. Sometimes it was nice to take the long way.
When they reached the summit, Zelda turned back to look at the town far below and a few miles to the south. She could see the chimney of the mortuary, and the town beyond it. And even further the rest of the forest that stretched out and away to the horizon. The air was filled with possibility, and she could feel static electricity building in the air.
Then, the first flashing call of lighting, and the answering thunder a few moments later. The thunder rolled along the fields, becoming louder and louder as the storm grew close. They formed a circle, with Prudence and Sabrina in the middle.
The black clouds approached and looked ready to burst. Then, all of the sudden, a soft curtain of rain descended from the sky and began to march across the valley.
“Stand back,” Prudence warned, and a few of the children nodded and stepped a little further from the very peak.
A white flash lit up the sky, no more than a mile off, and Prudence turned to smile at Zelda and Hilda. Zelda nodded and Sabrina opened her jar and held it high in the air. Prudence braced herself and raised the lightning stick, and they said the words together.
They felt the pressure of the air drop, and suddenly, it was cold. She longed for Lilith to see it, for the storm was beautiful. So she looked to the west where the storm was coming from, and called her in.
Lilith answered the call and was there beside her and Zelda felt her hand on the small of her back. It began to rain. It was a soft drizzle, and then it poured. Zelda shivered as the rain came down in torrents. It poured down her face and through her hair, across her brow and soaked her skirts. She leaned back into Lilith’s touch and let out a deep sigh. She looked at the sky as the lighting sparked and made its way down from the clouds and into Sabrina’s jar.
The whole world flashed white hot and the boom of thunder seemed to shake the ground beneath their feet. Trees were creaking and moaning and the wind was whistling as small branches snapped off and flew away. The tall grasses in the meadow far below by the mortuary swayed and looked like a green sea rippling in the wind. The storm broke and they raised their hands to meet it.
On the night that marked a year after the death of the coven, Zelda and Hilda gathered the coven at the front of the mortuary. They wore all black, and they each carried a paper lantern with them. They walked into the forest, weaving through the trees and up the mountain. The trees grew thinner and thinner, until quite suddenly they were clear of them. The field of boulders was tricky in the darkness, but they enchanted a blue ball of flame to levitate a little ways in front of them, and they followed the light until they reached the summit. Then the light flickered, and went out.
Zelda leaned her head back to look at the sky. There was no moon on this night, and it seemed fitting, for the world to be cloaked in darkness. The stars were twinkling far off, and Zelda remembered when she was little and had wandered around the garden looking up, trying to see all the stars at once. She’d become dizzy and had fallen, and had lain on the ground instead, looking up into the black.
The children looked up too and waited.
It seemed rather morbid, to visit the little plot in the forest where the rest of the coven was tucked in and sleeping forever more. But here on the mountain the night was clear, and the air was invigorating, and the wind was gentle. Zelda lit the first paper lantern, and whispered a prayer to Lilith that the ghosts of the coven had found peace. She held it steady until her words were done, and she raised it above her head and let go. It floated above them for a moment, hovering just above their raised heads. Then the wind came, and gently swept it away. Hilda and Dr. Cee lit the next one, and it followed Zelda’s lantern. Sabrina and Ambrose, Prudence and her sisters. And then all the children, murmuring soft prayers and a few tears, blessing the flames. The lights were glowing in a scattered line across the high rock of the mountain and the woods, and the wind raised them up and up. The lanterns with the whispered prayers flew over the valley, over the roof of the mortuary, and then beyond to fly over the steeples and turrets of Greendale. Onward they went, until the lights faded and disappeared out of sight and the night was dark again.
Somewhere in the distance a lone wolf howled and the coven began to sing. A song of the earth and of the mythic crossing into eternal life. A song of magic and of the feeling of roots taking hold.
Sabrina left Greendale at the end of August. She and her friends had all been accepted to university, and Sabrina had chosen NYU. The big city would certainly be a change from the sleepy existence of Greendale, and Zelda was curious how Sabrina would handle it. Her niece had always been a big fish in a small pond, she hoped Sabrina would navigate college life with the grace and poise worthy of the Spellman name.
It seemed like an age since a Spellman had lived outside of Greendale town limits. It would do the family and the coven good, to have someone way out there. The world was vast, and it was a reminder that magic existed beyond the highway exit leading into town. The Church of Lilith had traveled across the seas and back again, and they were stronger than ever. Still, it felt strange to have the coven scattered, even if Sabrina was only a train ride away.
Hilda helped Sabrina pack, checking items off the university “move-in” list, and Zelda gave many lectures in the days leading up to her departure. Lectures about magic and mortals and the mixing of the two. Things to avoid, such as enchanted absinthe and the fortune teller on 43rd street.
“Never seek council from a witch wearing a witch’s hat,” she said firmly. “And never reveal your full witch name to a mortal.”
Sabrina nodded solemnly, but Zelda wasn’t sure if her niece was actually listening.
“Keep rosemary on your windowsill,” she muttered, shoving a small potted plant of it into Sabrina’s surprised hands. “And call your Aunt Hilda every Sunday afternoon or she’ll be a nightmare to live with.”
“Yes, Auntie,” Sabrina promised.
“Good,” Zelda huffed, leaving the room in a flurry before Sabrina saw her tears.
Zelda always did hate to say goodbye.
Hilda gave Sabrina a plant too, this time of mint to keep in her dorm room.
“To make tea,” Hilda explained. “Mint tea for stress when exams come up.” Sabrina kept the plant close, and Zelda saw it poking out of her satchel, the little green leaves peeking out in a sea of clothes and spell books and more clothes. Really, Sabrina did have far too many clothes.
Traveling with plants was an old tradition, one all witches still tended to do, although perhaps out of habit rather than anything else. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere, especially when leaving a home for another.
“Study hard,” Zelda murmured against Sabrina’s cheek as they kissed farewell.
“I promise Auntie,” Sabrina murmured back. “I’ll be home for Samhain and my birthday,” she said.
“You’d better,” Zelda huffed, although she couldn’t help the smile at the thought of Sabrina returning, even as she was leaving.
Ambrose climbed into the driver’s seat of the hearse, and promptly began blasting music, and Sabrina shut the door and looked back. All of the children ran after the hearse, waving and shouting goodbye over and over. Sabrina laughed and waved back, and Salem leaned his head out the window. The tires went over the runes drawn in chalk by the children, smearing the symbols slightly. The children chased the car all along the road, until it was too far away and Sabrina had turned around to look at the road ahead. Then the car rounded the corner and she was out of sight.
“Lilith protect her,” Zelda said to the empty road.
“Lilith protect her,” Hilda repeated tearfully.
“When shall we meet again?” Lilith asked cheekily on the next full moon. “In thunder, lighting, or in rain?”
“When the war is done, when the battle’s lost and won,” Zelda played along. “Come, let us wander the green country for a spell.”
All the fires of Hell had gone out and from the ash and dust grew trees and new life. They wandered past maple and hickory trees, chestnut and aspens and pines. Zelda looked across the valley and saw a circle of white birches, far off in the distance. The owl flew ahead of them, and the peaceful feeling of a cool summer evening settled in her bones.
Zelda remembered when she had been young, when she used to wake up in the middle of the night and the whole world seemed full of possibility. She’d sit with a book, or sometimes just her thoughts, and look out the open window at the night outside. She’d listen to the symphony of crickets and fireflies, and look up at the stars shining brightly, and smile at the fairies flitting about in the trees on the forest fence. The mortuary even then had been dusty and warm, and it felt on those nights like no one else existed. Like the entire universe was that unwitnessed, peaceful moment.
She told Lilith about the feeling and Lilith reached for her, and it felt like the entire universe was that too.
Every time she left the garden it felt like she was splinting herself in two. Yet she did not truly belong in that realm, and every time she left she returned home. Zelda thought there must be poetry in it, starting and ending one’s life in a mortuary. Although this didn’t feel like an ending. Rather, a new chapter, or a new book altogether. There was still magic and romance, loss and adventure. There was still hope and kindness and the promise of autumn just around the corner.
There was still so much yet to come. There were dishes in the sink that needed to be washed, and the south side of the mortuary needed to be repainted. The seventh step still creaked, and they would need wood for the winter fires. And Sabrina would need to be picked up from the train station when she made the journey home for Samhain. Zelda and Hilda would probably make Sabrina drive the hearse home, just so they could look at her for the whole journey back.
Every morning Zelda would wake to the sound of Hilda humming downstairs, and when the full moon rose, Lilith would be there to greet her on the other side.
In the town of Greendale, where it always feels like Halloween, there lived a witch who had to choose between two worlds: the witch world of her family, and the netherworld of her lover. Her name was Zelda Spellman and her coven dwelled in a house for the dead.
Travelers would drive quickly past the Witch House at the end of the lane, and would hold their breath as they passed. The villagers used to say that even the waters from the witch land were cursed, and that the cheerful babbling brooks led all the way to Hell. Local legend said that the trees of the forest would move if one was still enough, and there were fairy sightings at least twice a year. It seemed the old ways were still breathing, as if the seeds planted long ago were still growing.
Just as the church bells tolled, so too did the moon rise, calling those that worship out into the night.
Kindly villagers used to warn travelers not to speak to stranger owls, and fervently reminded newcomers to toss spilled salt over the left shoulder. The people of Greendale were always kind, but always a little hasty in urging travelers back onto the interstate. And if strange things were seen, especially on the night of the full moon, when all the forest waited for the gates to momentarily slip open, they went unnoticed. Strange things were always happening in the Greendale woods. It did no good to talk to wayward moonlit spirits, or to look too closely at a silhouette of a woman on a broomstick in the night sky.
All one could do was grow rosemary in the garden to ward off evil intentions, keep the fire warm, be kind, and wait for autumn to come.