(The Scarab Eater’s Daughter is the 3rd instalment of the Sister Witches Urban Fantasy series. Told from the point of view of Alderose Brodeur, oldest of the three sisters, it releases on May 21, 2020. )
Magic. Mine had shattered into millions of brittle, misshapen flakes. My legs moved on autopilot as I stumbled down the interior stairwell of the Hotel Northampton, leaving rust-colored prints on the industrial carpet.
I exited the side door into the blue-black dusk and veered to the outer edge of the sidewalk. Every step felt stilted and off-kilter. I was hyper-aware of headlights glowing like oversize fireflies, and the clicks and jangles of shop and restaurant doors opening and closing as I moved against pedestrian traffic. A few humans with vaguely familiar faces paused, started to raise an arm or say something, then kept going when I didn’t slow down.
Only one person’s voice would bring me to a full stop, but he belonged to the newly dead. When a random man’s fatherly admonishment sounded at my back, I faltered. The weight of the duffel bag slung across one shoulder pulled me off center. I landed hard against a metal bike rack, tamped down a string of fucks, and waved away the father-and-son duo who offered to help straighten the tipsy bicycles.
I didn’t need help. I needed to do penance.
Much earlier in the day, when I realized my father was being attacked by the three-faced fae, I’d hollered at him to move. My sisters had yelled. Everyone gathered with us high above the abandoned quarry had yelled, screamed, while our bodies froze in disbelief.
And in that prolonged, surreal moment, Dad said nothing.
His face registered his utter surprise. He flailed one arm in the air and tried to swat away the cluster of slender blades protruding from one side of his ribs. He opened and closed and opened his mouth and said…nothing. Not help. Not good-bye. Not I love you. Nothing.
I set the bicycles to right, inserted myself into the flow of oblivious humans, and snapped every one of my emotions tight against my chest. Grief compounded by guilt was a much heavier load than the knives and daggers in the duffel, and public Alderose aimed for self-containment.
Digging the heel of my palm into the side of my tender hip, I limped the remaining four blocks to the building that housed my mother’s shuttered shop. Behind windows recently refreshed with magical wards that blocked the truth from curious humans, I could make out carousels of faded paperbacks and a haphazard arrangement of shabby chairs. I knocked the sides of my boots against the granite half wall and dug into my pocket for the worn brass key. Flickering streetlights made it hard to see the lock plate.
This is what happens when you neglect your training. You dropped your guard, Alderose, and you must never, ever drop your guard on the field of battle.
The last thing I wanted dredged up from a lifetime of lectures were my father’s impromptu thoughts on battle strategy. Not when he’d been dead less than twelve hours. Not when I blamed myself for paving the way for his murder. I should have manacled the fae we captured with…something. Anything. Instead, I left her on the ground, unconscious and unshackled, while I turned my attention to those we had rescued. My thigh muscles tensed at the memory of my sister Clementine shouting, of looking over my shoulder as the resurrected fae triumphantly lifted my father until his feet dangled above the ground and dark red blossomed across his waterlogged jacket.
I knew I would replay that scene in my head over and over and over. And that no matter how many times I relived those moments, nothing I could do would change the outcome.
Because you know what happens when you let down your guard? People get hurt. People die.
“Shake it off, Alderose.” I choked back a sob as I crossed the threshold into Needles and Sins and bolted the door. My voice, scratchy and unconvincing, dissolved within the unlit space. I leaned against the door jamb and fidgeted with the emerald ring weighing down my middle finger.
I’d come here for solace, and for inspiration. If I had any hope of getting through the coming hours and days without falling to pieces, I would need more than reflexive rage to fuel me. Going through the process of re-forging and restoring my magic would help. There had to be abundant supplies here; my parents were both witches, for Goddess sake. Shuffling toward the checkout counter, I plopped onto a stool, hugged my bag to my chest, and took the weight off my shaky legs.
From the moment my father planted his hands on his hips in the middle of our backyard and announced he was going to train me, he’d insisted on sessions where I wasn’t allowed to call on my magic. Which didn’t seem all that weird to a seven-year-old kid who barely knew she had magic.
Those sessions got really hard once Dad deemed me old enough and big enough to smack the grips of real weapons into my little-girl-sized hands. Whether it was swords or knives—or later, in hand-to-hand combat—he pounded into me the importance of knowing how to wield my weapons without the help of spells and other enhancements.
Because magic could be blocked.
Magic could be countermanded.
Magic could be drained.
Tonight, with callouses and random bruises affirming I continued to train hard, I would make a ritual circle and charge my body and my blades. Surely Mom had a stash of the things I’d need. I could unlock the doors to her underground potions laboratory and her sewing room on the third floor with the help of the ring she bequeathed me. And if I put the right tools and ingredients into my hands and let kinesthetic memories flood my body, I would remember what to do.
How to cast a circle.
How to call on my power.
How to recharge my blades.
If my mother had a dedicated ritual space, my sisters and I hadn’t come across it. And keeping my ass on the stool wasn’t getting me any closer to making room on the floor in front of me. I slid off the stool. Dirty plates and cups from Friday night’s pizza and champagne dinner rattled against the surface of the first cutting table as I dragged it to the side wall. I shoved the other table toward the back of the shop then scanned the shelves and racks.
Salt was the standard material for circle-making, but my mother didn’t sell salt at her shop. She sold sewing supplies and there, at the bottom of a pegboard display, was a selection of tailor’s chalk. I poked my finger through a square plastic bag and removed one of the small rectangles. This compressed version was too waxy for drawing a circle, but it could come in handy for making runes or sigils. I pocketed the package and rifled through the other choices.
I found what I needed hanging on a lower rack and pulled bags of the pourable, powdered talc used to mark skirt hems off a hook.
Candles and matches were next.
The three stubby beeswax candles we’d used during Friday night’s dinner sat on a porcelain saucer in the middle of one of the tables. I had a lighter somewhere. I crouched by my bag and unzipped the main compartment. Stuffed on top of a pair of leather pants was a smattering of knives and daggers and random pieces of soft armor. I shoved aside gauntlets, shin guards, and a long vest with flexible metal inserts that protected my internal organs, located my favorite hip pouch, and found the lighter.
Before you begin any journey of importance, Alderose, know your starting point.
I faced the interior of the shop and hoped the compass my father had set into a floorboard was still intact. He’d installed it as a symbolic gesture, a reminder about the value of home and family. At least, that’s what he said. I tapped on my phone’s flashlight and swept the beam across the slugs of dust and forgotten sewing pins filling the spaces between warped boards.
The sight of a pancake-sized, tarnished brass disc made my heart thud extra hard. I dropped my duffel nearby and rubbed a fingertip across the compass’s surface. I could barely see the lines of the rose.
Do it right the first time. A worthy opponent rarely hands you a second chance.
The compass deserved to shine. I grabbed a canister of powdered cleanser and a dampened rag from the bathroom and attacked the dulled surface.
The metal gleamed when I finished. I rinsed my hands in the sink and looked up to where Clementine had ripped the medicine cabinet out of the wall. Four hemp ropes as thick as my fists hung behind the gaping hole in the horsehair plaster. I turned my mother’s ring so the emerald was flush with my palm, swept my hand across the wall, and heard the same portentous click as before. Facing the door, I braced my hip against the sink and waited for the pulley system hidden in the wall to activate, transforming the bathroom into a one-stop elevator going down.
Had my father known this room existed? Mom kept secrets from her daughters—did she keep secrets from him too? They’d sold the family home while Clementine was in college and had turned this building’s second floor apartments into one big living space for themselves.
The tiny elevator creaked to a stop. I waved my hand across the mottled surface of a corroded metal door, unlocking the entrance to the lab. It had been so long since I’d seen my parents together that the whole dynamic of their relationship was about as clear as the inky darkness that greeted me. Coaxing a flame out of my lighter, I held it to the stubby candle in the nearest wall sconce and whispered lucerna lumen. Beryl had used the phrase a lot over the weekend. I waited for the rest of the candles to light for me as they had for her.
They didn’t. The continuing darkness was a harsh reminder that spell casting required more than simply mouthing specific words. Intent was essential, as was rote practice. Beryl had been drawn early on to using a wand as a tool for her spell-based magic. Me, not so much. I liked my pointy tools to come with a molded grip and at least one sharpened edge.
I used the lighter on two more candles and set one on the ground, then ventured deeper into the room to gather dirt. Bits of my mother’s excess magic would have seeped into the soil through all the years of her working and living here. That magic had had nowhere to go, and no one to extract it, for at least seven years.
Also, this room had gifted Clementine with tubes of magical mascara she’d put to good use over the weekend. The mascara had enhanced her ability to see moments from the past. I wanted the room to offer something similar to me. Rifling through a pile of magical implements, eyes open for the glint of possible treasure, I palmed a pair of rusted scissors and grabbed a wide-mouthed beaker. Crouching, I hacked at the oily-textured soil with the scissors’ dulled tips and stopped collecting the loosened clumps when the beaker was two-thirds full.
The tip of the scissors came in handy again. I used them to pry a squat red candle off the worktable’s uneven surface, plucked another candle from the wall, and paused to scan the room. The pressure to set up the circle and get this done was entirely mine, not some memory of one of my father’s training sessions. I took a deep breath. Closed my eyes. Half-heartedly hoped that if I asked for something reasonable, the building would respond.
Help me out a little here. Please?
I waited in silence until the musty odor made me sneeze into the crook of my elbow. It seemed the laboratory had nothing more to offer beyond what I’d already chosen. I palmed the scissors and a similarly rusted athame, along with the filled beaker, then blew out the remaining candles, stepped into the bathroom, and closed the door. The room shuddered to a start and returned me to the ground floor.
After depositing my haul on the floor near the compass, I collected the plate of beeswax stubs and removed my boots. The daggers strapped to my lower calves went into a neat pile near the duffel. I was ready to begin.
There is beauty in displaying an economy of movement, Alderose. Every word, every object, every gesture in its place.
“I know, Dad. I know,” I muttered, carefully snipping a corner on the first bag of powdered talc and rising to stand. I measured out four feet from the compass, then another foot for good measure, and reaffirmed the locations of the cardinal directions. I started at East, spreading an unbroken circle of talc in a clockwise direction. Once I finished and set four candles at the cardinal points, I opened a fresh bag of the powder and began to draw the pentagram. This time I started at Spirit.
As each point of the star met the circle, something inside me clicked into place. And as I was about to draw the fifth line of the pentacle, joining Fire to Spirit, I could swear I felt a tug on my leg.
Clothes. Right. I stripped off my pants, shirt, and bra, and quickly folded everything. The floor was cold and unclean—socks and underwear would stay on. Going skyclad was a variation I’d learned in college, where a slip of the tongue revealed my friend Eleanor was also a witch. During the casting of our first circle, she taught me to work naked, and it was within the sacred confines of that circle that we went from friends to friends-with-benefits. One night with Ellie confirmed I liked guys and girls.
“No lovers here, Rosey.” I shivered. I’d neglected to turn up the thermostat before going to the cellar. I’d also neglected to update my new-ish girlfriend on what had happened over the weekend. Once I had completed the ritual of replenishment, I would get in touch with Sidan and tell her everything.
Because honesty was going to be one tenet of my new relationship policy. Honesty and transparency. Plus, Sid was fae. And I was going to need her help to enter the fae lands and go after my father’s killer.
Read Chapter TWO here