There are times when the barriers between worlds become thin, and Halloween is the most potent of those days. Kurt is excited to reunite with his family from another world, but when an evil witch passes over to Earth, they must race to stop her before she spills yet more blood across countless places and times.
There is magic in a bolt of lightning, and memory in each tree that it strikes. When a bolt splits the sky, it offers a glimpse to another world. And when a tree is struck by such unfathomable power, that tree remembers those other worlds and stores that memory forever.
Kurt took deep, measured breaths as he listened to the distant sounds of thunder. A cold breeze blew, hinting at rain to come, but the storm hadn’t reached him yet. All about him in his sacred grove, trees bore the marks of lightning storms long past. Some were nothing more than blackened stumps or fragments, chunks of wood that had burst apart under a storm’s fury. Others were strong and healthy, save the jagged scars of death that marred their trunks. All the trees swayed in the wind, and Kurt knew it was not just the wind of Earth that they felt.
He felt the world around him slow, then still, as if all the universe were holding its breath. Time and space blurred, becoming one, and all reality hung on a pin. For that moment, Kurt felt a sudden weightlessness, and he knew that the grove was in two worlds at once, disfigured lightning-trees mingling and becoming one with other sacred trees as the veil between worlds faded. He felt hot wind and abrasive sand on his skin, and he breathed deeply of the night air of Seghuel, his home world. But he held himself firm and did not allow himself to go over completely. Soon, the time between spaces faded, and he knew he was back on Earth.
All was still, and when Kurt opened his eyes, he gave a wide grin. Seated before him on the grass was Denchu, his older brother, and Denchu’s son Magden, a tall youth just entering into manhood. Their flowing robes and muscled, tanned physiques were as familiar to Kurt as the long knives they carried at their sides.
Kurt rose to his feet, but his smile faltered as he realized there were no others. Only the two grim-faced men before him. Denchu stood and embraced Kurt, then pulled away and shook his head at the unanswered question.
“It is good to see you, brother, but we are not here for merriment tonight. A witch killed two men before fleeing to Earth. We have come to slay her.”
Kurt stared at his brother for a moment, then nodded. “Very well then. Let’s be on our way, and you can tell me all about her. For what better night to hunt a witch than Halloween?”
They made the short walk from the orchard up to Kurt’s home – an old homestead hidden among the surrounding forest. Kurt changed into a matching set of robes, then retrieved a long knife from above his fireplace. It was an ancient blade, forged by people who abhorred magic, and given to him when he became a man on Seghuel. If anything could slay a witch, it would be that blade.
They all clambered into his old Chevy pickup and drove towards town. Magden was crammed into the center, but the lad didn’t seem to mind; he watched everything around them eagerly, drinking in the sights of Earth. As they rattled along the gravel road, Denchu told him about the witch.
“She arrived a few weeks ago in Fealdstown. When Magden and I arrived, the townsfolk said they’d thought her strange, but she had done nothing wrong, so they had tolerated her. That very night, we awoke to terrible screams and the noxious green firelight of a summoning ritual.” Denchu clenched his fist. “By the time we arrived, she’d already built a balefire in the town square and sacrificed two townspeople on that unnatural flame.”
“What happened?” Kurt asked.
Denchu’s voice was icy. “We fought her, along with some of the men of Fealdstown, but she was too powerful. She couldn’t finish her ritual, but she was able to hold us back until she fled. We pursued, and she passed through the veil to Earth, but not before strengthening the veil so that we could not follow. It was only tonight, when the veil is thinnest, that we were able to break through.”
“Do you think we can find her?”
“I don’t know,” Denchu growled. “This witch is a shapeshifter, and her appearance changed rapidly as we fought her. From old woman to young, and from young woman to…something different. It’s hard to describe, but she may not even be from Seghuel. In fact, I’m not sure she’s even human, Kurt.”
Kurt sighed. “That makes it difficult, but we have to try. I think we should search the town first. There will be a big crowd at the downtown Halloween festivities tonight; if she wants to perform another ritual, that’s the perfect place to do so.”
Magden spoke up. “We can’t count on assistance from the locals, can we?”
Kurt shook his head. “No. Magic is very uncommon here, and the ability to fight it is even rarer. We’re on our own.”
They lapsed into thoughtful silence until Magden pointed at the steering wheel. “Is that what makes it move?”
“Eh? What?” Kurt looked at his nephew. “What do you mean?”
“The wheel. Is that what makes it move? The…” Magden paused as he searched for the word, “ah, truck! Yes, the pickup truck, this thing we are sitting in. I know you put that key in by the wheel to start it, but then does the wheel make it move?”
Kurt smiled. “Not quite. This directs where it should go. See how I turn it a bit to the left, and the truck goes left? It’s called a steering wheel. These little pedals at my feet make it go.” He pointed to the various pedals and explained how they worked. “Why do you want to know?”
Magden shrugged and stared out the windshield. “I just want to know. I’ve missed visiting Earth since Aunt Sandra died. I’d like to learn as much about your home as I can, Uncle Kurt.”
Denchu looked over at them. “Magden has often discussed coming here now that he’s established his own tent. I’ve…tried to warn him about the struggles you’ve faced, Kurt, but he believes Earth’s wonders offer more to him than Seghuel. What do you make of that?”
Kurt drove silently for a moment, weighing his words with a sad smile.
“Magden, it was not the land that drew my heart here, but your Aunt Sandra. And here my heart has stayed, even after she passed away. I can’t tell you where your heart should take you, that’s for you to decide. Do you have a woman on Earth you’re eyeing?”
The boy at least had the good sense to blush, and he shook his head wildly. “No. I just…I like it here.”
“Ah. Well, it’s a good place, but so is Seghuel.”
“That’s right,” Denchu interjected. “Seghuel was good enough for countless generations of our ancestors, and it’s good enough for us. I still don’t know what possessed you to run off to another world and abandon your family, Kurt.”
Kurt sighed. “I don’t wish to dredge up the past again. I did not mean to abandon you, but the past is the past, and we can’t change it now.” He looked at his nephew. “Magden, you can make your home wherever you choose, but every world has its own blessings and curses. You’ll never find perfection until the second life.”
They drove in uncomfortable silence, and as they entered the outskirts of town, they saw plentiful Halloween decorations in yards and houses. Magden pointed at an imitation graveyard on one lawn, then a grinning pumpkin on another.
“Many people celebrate this time, but there also seems to be an edge of fear to their celebrations. Why?”
Kurt laughed. “Because this is a time when the barriers between Earth and other worlds are thinnest. Many people and creatures have crossed those thresholds over the centuries, some good, some evil. Some cultures have known nothing but fear and sorrow during this time, while in other places, it’s been a time of celebration and reunion. Just look at us! Our family is reunited today, but evil has arrived as well.”
Magden nodded thoughtfully as he stared at a cluster of children dressed in bedsheets. “I see.”
It only took them another minute to reach the center of the little town. There were more people on the streets, and Kurt turned aside when a barrier blocked their way. He parked in front of a pharmacy and shut the engine off, then spoke quietly.
“I might’ve felt a hint of something just a moment ago, but I can’t be sure. Maybe magic, maybe not. Keep your senses sharp.”
The sun was setting behind dark clouds, and the three men joined the growing crowds of costumed families and children streaming towards the area of downtown reserved for the holiday celebrations. Kurt looked around, eyeing the people that thronged the streets. Half of them wore masks, and if the witch could shapeshift, searching faces was useless. He stopped and leaned against a brick building, closing his eyes and stretching out his senses.
He felt the crowds of people around him, tangled threads of golden life thrumming in his mind’s eye. Some threads were strong and healthy, but others were sick and nearing the end of their days. The lives of plants and animals mingled among them, muted though they were by the overwhelming presence of humanity.
He felt a slight change, a sense of something different. Something wrong. Kurt opened his eyes and looked at his brother and his nephew.
“Magic. Just a few streets over. It’s faint, I can only feel it because I know this land so well. It’s foreign though, something I haven’t felt before. I think you’re right, she isn’t from Seghuel.”
Denchu grunted. “Well, let’s hope our usual methods of dealing with magic will still work. Nothing we can do but try.”
They moved off, cutting against the crowds. Kurt led them through side streets and back alleys until he suddenly held up a hand.
“There, around that corner. She’s down that alley.”
They paused, surveying their surroundings. Nobody else was near, although they could see a few people farther down the street. Kurt felt the blood start pumping through his body, preparing him for a fight. He shook his head and rolled his shoulders, loosening his muscles.
“I’ll go around to the other side. Wait for my whistle, then we’ll all three attack at once. Agreed?” Denchu and Magden nodded, so Kurt turned and ran down a parallel street. He looped around a few buildings, slowing down as he realized he was drawing attention. He walked casually to the end of the alley, then peered around the corner.
She was there. Her back was to him, but she had a strange, black cloak that flapped unnaturally in the air, as if carried on the currents of some foreign wind. He felt that sense of magic grow stronger, and he knew with a sinking feeling that she was extremely powerful. He could sense the waves of sorcery coming off her, as if she was preparing another spell. This would not be an easy fight.
Kurt whistled once, then again, and as soon as he heard a faint answering whistle, he started sprinting down the alley, trying to be as silent as possible. It wasn’t enough. The witch straightened and whirled around before he was halfway to her, and his steps faltered for a moment as he beheld her face.
It could have been a mask – but it wasn’t. Those hideous folds of melted skin and oozing sores were all too real. Apparently, the journey between worlds had not been kind to her body.
The witch shrieked and raised her hands, and an invisible wall of power rushed down the alley towards Kurt, hurtling debris in the air. He ducked under a brick, then put his wrists together and slammed up a ward just in time to block another projectile. He gritted his teeth and glared at the witch over his trembling fists.
“You are not welcome here. This is my home, I will not permit you to hurt it.”
Behind her, he could see Denchu and Magden fighting their way down the alley, but a stiff force resisted them. He saw the shimmering air created by their wards and could only hope they held until they reached the witch.
The horrid creature laughed, and Kurt wanted to do nothing more than hold his hands over his ears to block out that grating shriek, but he ignored it, forcing himself to take another step towards her. She pointed a finger at him, almost as deformed and damaged as her face by the passage between worlds and times.
“I may not belong here, but neither do you! I can smell it in your blood! How come you here, all the way from Seghuel? Chasing me? Go back to your hovel, and leave this world to its misery.”
“Not…going to happen.” Kurt forced out. He took another step, and the witch screamed in frustration. He could see her arms trembling from the force of holding all three of them back. Suddenly, she reached into her cloak and pulled out a glass vial. With another shriek, she threw it to the ground, and there was a blinding light.
“Uncle Kurt! Uncle Kurt, wake up! Uncle Kurt!” The frantic shouts gradually wormed through the darkness, and Kurt snapped awake, shaking his head blearily as he tried to sit up. Everything was blurry. He heard screams, and as his vision slowly came into focus, he realized that the witch had corralled some of the townspeople with a containment spell. They were pressed against a building in a tight mass, unable to get past her invisible bonds. Kurt stumbled to his feet and felt a reassuring hand on his arm. Denchu helped him upright and handed Kurt his knife.
“She blew us away, but I’ve kept her from capturing us. We can’t take her. She’s too strong.”
Kurt steadied himself. “But we can slow her down, maybe buy these people time to escape. Magden, you have to go and find help. Find a grove, or wait until other hunters come through. One of us has to survive and warn the others.”
The youth started to protest, but Kurt put a bloodied hand on his shoulder. “Go, Magden. This isn’t cowardice, this is preservation. If one of us survives, we have a chance of defeating her another day.”
Magden eyed the witch, swallowed, then squared his shoulders. “Very well. Father, I…I love you. And you too, Uncle Kurt. Stay safe. Please. I’ll be back with help as soon as I can.” He hugged his father, then Kurt, before racing away.
Kurt turned and faced the witch. Her back was to them, but he could see the shimmering light of a ward surrounding her. It would not be easy to get through. He gripped his knife tightly and nodded to Denchu.
“This is an honorable way to die.”
“Aye.” Denchu’s jaw was clenched, and Kurt knew he was suppressing tears. “It’s the right way to go. On your feet, brother.”
They stumbled towards the witch, and she must have felt them coming, for she turned to face them with a cruel grin.
“Come to face your deaths? Good. I have need of strong blood like yours. Come, let me drink, and you may die quickly.”
Both men held their knives steady before them and began reciting the oaths they had learned as children. Their blades began to glow and smoke, but the witch just laughed.
“Ah, the Bondsman’s Oath! That is unexpected. Long has it been since I have heard those pitiful words. Well, this shall be all the sweeter. Come, Bondsmen, fulfill your Oaths.”
Kurt and Denchu took a step forward, then another. Facing their deaths as brothers, side by side once more. Kurt reached deep within the earth, drawing power and forming it into one last shield about him. Perhaps it would give him enough strength to land one blow before death. He heard the squealing of tires, but it barely registered in his mind as he faced down the fearsome horror before him.
Suddenly, Kurt’s old pickup careened around the corner, barely in control. He stared in shock as it fishtailed, tires smoking, then straightened and zeroed in on the witch. She seemed frozen as well, unable to comprehend this strange machine. Kurt had a sudden glimpse of Magden, teeth bared in an excited snarl, as the truck raced forward and slammed into the witch. Magden must have forgotten how to stop, because even as her body flew through the air, the truck whipped around sideways, narrowly avoiding the scattering crowd before it skidded to slam into a telephone pole.
Kurt raced forward as soon as he saw the truck crash into the witch. But as he reached her body, her crumpled form began to fade, like mist under rays of sunlight. In moments, she had disappeared completely. Kurt straightened tiredly and hurried back to the truck, but Magden had already crawled out of the smoking wreck. Denchu was holding his son tight, but Magden grinned over his father’s shoulder at Kurt.
“I’m sorry, Uncle, I stole the keys from you when you sent me away. But I think I did good at driving it! Can I try again sometime?”
Kurt laughed and pulled the two of them into an embrace. “You know what? That’s not a bad idea. But there’s one rule we have on Earth before you can drive anything.”
Kurt pointed to his mangled truck. “If you’re going to learn how to drive a car, you have to learn how to fix it too!”