Witches at the Gate
Chapter One – Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Nothing but worms, cancer, and maggots. I told them to fix it.
Amos Solomon, Brother Superior within the Order of Chaos, frowned and glanced at the flickering overhead lights. The bulb’s dull glow wasn’t bright enough to let him study the old, weathered parchment carefully rolled flat against the makeshift architect-style easel.
He reached for the retracting desk lamp, switched it on, and returned his focus to the ancient manuscript. The sacrificial rituals needed to be performed in a precise manner. They would only have one opportunity to get it right, and he wasn’t leaving anything to chance. As he poured over the pages to commit them to memory, his foot tapped in time to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 in G major. A smile graced his lips, and he gave in to the serene calm enveloping him like a warm blanket.
Since childhood, music had calmed him. With each melodic note, he was swept away, imagining a future promised to the Order since the dawn of time. Music was the tool that allowed him to concentrate, and right now, he needed it more than ever. The incompetence of others weighed heavily on him to the point where he was ready to explode.
He’d spent the better part of his life devoted to fulfilling the prophecy of the Master’s return. But every time they took a step closer, one of the Acolytes fucked it up.
He let out a sigh. He needed to stop killing the incompetents or there’d be no Order left. He cricked his neck and arched his back. Too many hours hunched over the ancient text had taken their toll.
Nothing the Master won’t remedy.
He returned to reading the parchment, confident that a youthful body would be one of the first gifts bestowed. After all, he will have succeeded where all others have failed. He was humming the third movement when an Initiate scurried into the room and tripped over his own robes. The Initiate halted and bowed nervously.
Amos shook his head and narrowed his eyes. So much for peace and quiet.
“Yes?” he snapped. “What is it?”
The Initiate gulped, not once making eye contact. “I beg your forgiveness, Your Grace, but the Second Councilor is here. He’s requesting an audience with you.”
A surge of hope rushed through Amos. There was only one reason Noel would be here at this time of day.
Amos entered his plush study a short time later. “I trust you have good news.”
Noel, the heavily pockmarked man staring out the window, turned and bowed. “Your Grace—”
Amos brushed off the remainder of the greeting. Formalities and tradition held a time and place. This wasn’t it. He waved his hands in a sweeping motion at Noel. “You took a risk coming here dressed like that. What if someone saw you?”
Noel glanced down at his attire. “Couldn’t be helped. It was the first chance I’ve had, and I knew I couldn’t trust anyone else to deliver the information.”
The councilor’s words had his attention. “Well?”
Noel let out a sly smile. “I have seven new names. And we now have four confirmed with the correct blood type.”
Amos rocked back and forth on his heels. Perhaps this day wasn’t a complete disaster after all?
“When did you want them?” Noel asked.
Amos’ pulse beat faster, and anticipation surged through his veins. This was their chance. The astrological charts and scriptures gave them until the next full moon, or his plan wouldn’t be possible for another hundred years. Finally, their Master would rise again.
“Tonight. They die tonight.”
Chapter Two – Harbinger of death
The last time she looked, only one head rested on her shoulders. But from the way her students were staring at her, you’d think she suddenly sprouted another one.
Dr. Keira Wynter scanned the full auditorium, a frown on her face as she raised an eyebrow. “No one? No one can tell me the name of the law that laid the foundation for the mass Witch trials in Europe?”
An awkward shuffle echoed across the theater as students flipped through their textbooks with expressions of confusion mixed with something akin to panic. Marcus, her teaching assistant, rolled his eyes in their direction, and she suppressed a smile. She didn’t need to use magic to pick out the rattled thoughts running through the crowded room of grad students. Their expressions were priceless. She had sprung a topic on her anthropology class that wasn’t scheduled for three weeks.
She was about to put them out of their misery when the back of her neck prickled, and an icy chill raced across her arms. She shivered involuntarily. This was the second time today a strange sensation had come out of nowhere. A few minutes before her lecture began, the temperature plummeted, and a sense of foreboding rippled through the air. She had ignored it. Now it was back. And it seemed to be back with a vengeance.
Not wanting the class to know anything was amiss, she forced a smile onto her lips. “If it’s any help, the law was agreed on in 1530 at the Diet of Augsburg under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.”
The sensation pulsated in her chest and increased in intensity until it became too distracting to ignore. She tapped into her magic and branched out her senses to feel for what caused the disturbance. Careful to keep her expression neutral, she made it appear as though she were scanning her students, waiting for an answer.
To the rest of the world, she was a regular, run-of-the-mill anthropology professor at Berkeley. Only a select number of people knew there was much more to Dr. Keira Wynter than what she let the world see. Keira, and her sister, Dayna, were the last of the Ragnhild line of witches. A line that could be traced back to the Viking age.
Unable to detect anything magical that could’ve caused the feeling of doom, she double-tapped her clicker, and a new image appeared on the screen. “The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, sometimes shortened to Carolina, is recognized as the first body of German criminal law. It specified that those found guilty of causing harm through witchcraft would be executed with fire. A—”
Without warning, the ground beneath her feet shook. Wild vibrations shot up the length of her body in spurts of energy. She became dizzy and reached out to hold onto the lectern in case she fell. Her pulse skyrocketed, and a bead of sweat erupted across her forehead. A high-pitched buzzing vibrated in her ears, and she flinched. Just as quickly, the chaos evaporated, and she was left disoriented.
What the hell was going on?
She blinked rapidly and looked over the sea of students, expecting panic and disarray. The auditorium was intact, and the students were silently waiting for her to continue. As with the students, Marcus’ expression was one of confusion.
Her chest tightened. Had she just imagined the world shaking? Was she losing her mind? Puzzled she glanced to Marcus. One of the skills that marked him as Gifted was empathy. Why was he confused? Surely he detected her fear?
She ripped her gaze from Marcus and scanned the room once more. There was no magic she’d encountered that could cause this disturbance.
Whatever it was, it had affected her physically, and that scared her. But she wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. Her classroom full of students would think she was certifiable if she declared she was a Witch and needed to cast a few spells because some invisible force unnerved her. It may be the twenty-first century, but coming out as a Witch probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Things could get messy as it would invariably lead to outing Vampires, Gifted and other Supernaturals as well as the existence of Witches. Supernaturals walked a fine line living alongside Naturals, careful to never risk exposure. Mainly because history had shown Naturals didn’t react well to the unknown.
Keira shrugged off her misgivings.She’d deal with the disturbance after class.
Her equilibrium fully recovered, she turned back to the students, stepped away from her lectern, and moved to the edge of the dais. Every student followed her path, their gazes riveted on her. With any luck they were assuming she had paused for affect, rather than was becoming as mad as a March hare.
“So….” She cleared her throat. “So, we have a Church that is losing its power base, the Protestants have just pulled away, and we have an entire class of citizens the Church can’t control. A class who openly practices rituals against Church doctrine. Healing, midwifery, potions, animal husbandry, the list goes on.”
She paused, looked into the nosebleed section of the room, and nodded to one of the few students she knew by name. “Mr. Collins, over fifty thousand people were put to death between 1450 and 1650. If you lived back then, what do you think your chances of not being charged with Witchcraft would be?”
The student she put on the spot slumped in his chair, clearly not expecting to be called on. He fidgeted with his pen. “Um … I’d say pretty high … I guess.”
“And why would that be Mr. Collins?”
From the repeated clearing of his throat, she didn’t hold out much hope for a correct answer.
He winced. “Because my family is Protestant?”
A small chuckle escaped her lips. “I’m afraid even the Protestants couldn’t escape the laws set out in the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina.”
She studied the sea of faces and opened her Witches sight.
An almost indiscernible shimmer radiated from a single student in the back of the class. A telltale sign of a Gifted. A Witch’s shimmer would have manifested itself as a soft pale white, while red indicated a Vampire. “Can anyone tell us why Mr. Collins would have a more than reasonable chance of not being charged with Witchcraft during that period?”
Hands shot up around the room. She pointed to a young woman in the second row.
“Because he’s a he,” the student said.
Keira nodded and made her way to the far end of the dais. “That is correct. Over eighty percent of those tortured and burnt at the stake as a Witch were women.”
She tapped her clicker, and the image changed to a macabre medieval drawing of three women with elongated chins and noses gathered around a demonic figure. “One of the major inventions around this time was the printing press. The Church used this medium extremely well to depict and scare the uneducated masses. We are looking at a woodcut from one of the Witch trial pamphlets that explained who these iniquitous Witches were and how to identify them. In our stereotypical example, we have three Witches supplicating the Devil. The key thing to notice is that they’re all women.”
As she continued her lecture, her rapt audience remained silent. Her classes in anthropology and folklore at Berkeley University were at capacity. And today’s class was no different. As much as it pained her, the packed lecture wasn’t because she was an inspirational teacher. She’d recently worked with the FBI on a high-profile abduction case related to a satanic cult. Her students were more than eager to see if she would give them any more information than had already been played over the news channels.
Mid-speech, she faltered. The burning sensation returned and was building to a crescendo. She tried to ignore it, choosing to get through the lecture rather than show weakness. “Early modern Germany was one of the most active hotbeds of Witch persecu—”
The air rushed out of her lungs, and she clutched her stomach. A wave of terror washed over her as a thousand voices screamed in pain. Each one more tortured than the next. Her body shook, and the ground jolted in violent spasms. Then it stopped just as abruptly as it began.
Her gaze darted around the room to find the source, only to realize that, as with the earlier incident, nothing had changed. Disaster hadn’t struck. No one was running for their lives, and the earth wasn’t moving. She touched a hand to her face. Had her glamor spell held? How the hell would she explain to the class how their middle-aged professor suddenly appeared twenty years younger?
She opened her mouth to speak, and the chaos erupted in full force. This time, its magnitude was one hundredfold. Voices shrieked in her head and overloaded her senses until she was blinded. A cold hand clenched her throat and restricted her ability to breathe.
The next moment the chaos stilled and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of loss. Grief ripped through her body and spread in a fiery inferno that threatened to burn her in its wake. In her confusion, she spun toward Marcus. Her eyesight hadn’t returned, but she took a step forward and held out her hand in his direction.
Her throat was parched and raw, as if a million shards of glass had cut it. She managed to rip out a single tortured word before the darkness overtook her.
Chapter Three – 10-54
Mystery Hill, New Hampshire
“Adam twelve, code four.”
Ryker slipped the police radio off its cradle and pressed the call button. “Twelve, go ahead.”
“Hey, sheriff, is Deputy Kolby with you? Another fight’s broken out at the Rusty Chain, and I can’t raise him.”
“Copy that, base. Flying solo, just chasing up a reported disturbance at Mystery Hill. Keep trying. His radio is probably on the fritz again.”
Ryker shook his head. For a bright kid, Kolby sure was stupid. How many times had he told Kolby to get his radio checked out?
“Copy that, Adam twelve. Will see if I can reroute Lima seven.”
A muscle twitched down the side of his neck. Jonie would be livid if her bar was destroyed by a bunch of drunk, rowdy tourists. Again.
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel, itching to turn the car around and head back into town. He was on a wild goose chase anyway. The hiker who’d reported the scream was probably on a Molly trip and had mistaken the shriek of a barn owl for a woman. He’d been called out to Mystery Hill more than once by some paranoid delusional who didn’t know the difference between a bird call and a woman’s screech. Instead of taking a breather to let some common sense sink in, the hiker bolted from the woods and dialed 911.
Policy meant someone had to investigate, despite knowing the scream was a hiker’s overactive imagination. He cursed. This was his night off. But Kamal had called in sick, and he was two deputies down, so he had to take the extra shift.
Ryker let rip a few more choice curses. He had several things he’d rather be doing. His lips curved. Brenda, Reba, or even better, the Tracey twins. The things they could do with their …
Driving out to Mystery Hill to look at a bunch of old rocks and trees didn’t compare. He sighed. This evening should’ve been spent in more pleasurable pursuits.
Ryker turned onto a side road and stopped in front of a closed chain link gate that led to one of the many tourist attractions around Salem. “Adam twelve to base. Have arrived. About to check out the report.”
“Copy that, Adam twelve.”
He exited the car, jumped the chain link fence, and strode toward the trees. If he checked the altar stones first, then the museum, he could be back on the road again in five.
As he walked down the well-worn dirt path, he scanned the area. Despite the limited light, this close to the main road, someone might note his unnatural speed as he raced the half mile to the Mystery Hill altar stones in less than thirty seconds. He cocked his head and listened to see if the hiker had grown a pair and returned.
No one was around. He sped up, dust billowing at his heels. The sooner he confirmed nothing was going on, the sooner he’d get to the Rusty Chain and sort out a real problem. A grin spread across his face. The Tracey twins hung out at the Rusty Chain. Maybe he still had time to recover what was left of the night.
Four hundred yards up the hill, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. His boot struck a small rock, which zipped across the dirt as his steps faltered. Something wasn’t right. He stopped dead. The faint metallic scent of blood nudged his nostrils. Murky shadows lurked in the woods. The lack of light would have been an issue if he was still Human. Not so much for a Vampire who’d seen more than he cared to admit in his two hundred and fifty years. He scanned the trees using his enhanced vision and hearing.
Apart from insects’ nocturnal scratching as they scurried under fallen leaves, and occasional hoots and warbles from birds in the canopy, everything was as it should be. So why was his gut knotted? He inhaled, his chest tightening. Death had stalked these woods.
He raced along the path and broke through the tree line into the clearing that contained the Mystery Hill stone formations. Any thoughts the hiker had been hearing things evaporated.
Three bodies lay across the neolithic stone slabs around the center altar. In an instant, he was at the body nearest him. He crouched to take a closer look. The woman’s arm hung limp, her fingertips almost touching the ground. His brow furrowed. The smooth, exposed skin of her limbs was far paler than it should be. Disheveled blonde hair covered her face, which was turned away from him.
Careful not to disturb the crime scene, he moved around to the other side of the raised stone slab to get a better view of her. His breath caught in his throat. It was Sarah, the eldest of the Tracey twins. The unusual tattoos down her limp left arm gave her away.
The long jagged open wound across her neck caught his attention. “Christ.”
Her throat had been slit from ear to ear. The cut deep enough to sever the jugular veins and carotid artery but not severe enough to damage the larynx and trachea. His head jerked back. There should be more blood. And a lot more of it. He leaned closer to the wound and sniffed. Apart from the congealed blood around the cut, very little was left in her body. That explained her ashen skin tone and why the scent of blood was so faint.
He inspected the corpse. Sarah’s feet were tied together with thick cable ties. Bloody red marks were etched into the skin around her ankles where she’d struggled to free herself, and when he pulled her hair away from her face, he discovered a massive bruise and cut on her forehead.
After checking the rest of her body for clues, and finding none, he made his way to the second body. A man, mid-forties, wearing a worn Def Leopard t-shirt, had met the same fate as Sarah. While his face was familiar, the man’s name eluded him. As with Sarah, his feet were also tied, and his forehead sported the same cut. Ryker’s eyes caught on the man’s face again.
“Zac Cole, Haverhill High’s football coach.”
Zac had come into the station to dispute a parking ticket a few months back. Mitos, one of Ryker’s deputies and the one who gave him the most headaches, had issued a ticket because he didn’t like the man’s Prius.
“The lack of blood tells me you weren’t killed here.” His gaze scanned the clearing. “So how did someone kill three people and cart them to this neck of the woods without being seen?”
And by someone, he meant more than one someone.
He took his sheriff’s cap off and ran a hand through his short hair. This nightmare was the last thing he needed. He cursed under his breath, straightened his shoulders, and headed to the third body. The Rusty Chain would have to fend for itself tonight. It was going to take all his deputies to keep the crazies away from this crime scene. Considering its mythical history, the moment news leaked about three dead bodies on the altar at Mystery Hill, they’d be swamped by all manner of press, kooks, and conspiracy theorists.
He drew closer to the third corpse, a teenage girl. His heart seized, and all the air left his lungs. A crushing weight pushed him down to his knees.
The only noise capable of escaping his lips was a tortured “No.”
He was unable to look away from her broken body. Like the other two, her throat had been viciously slit. The deep laceration churned his stomach. Familiar brown eyes stared up at him. He struggled to raise his hand, his arm leaden.
How was this possible? He had just seen her yesterday. Laughing. Full of life, full of endless possibilities. He gulped and forced his hand to cup her face. Holding back an anguished cry, he gently closed her eyelids. Even in death, she had the uncanny ability to make him feel Human.
“Annie,” he said in a broken whisper. “What did they do to you?”
A tsunami of grief crashed over him, paralyzing him in its wake. She was the bright light that gave him passage to a world he’d shied away from for two hundred years. A world he now embraced, along with the bonds he had given himself permission to forge. How could she be gone? She was supposed to be old and gray before her life was over. Not be slaughtered just as her life was beginning.
After an eternity, he clenched his jaw and stood, careful not to disturb the scene. A flurry of wind raced across the clearing, throwing up a spray of dirt in its wake. He took a series of long breaths. White-hot rage swelled from the pit of his stomach, and he struggled to hold it back. Someone, or something, had taken the lives of three innocent people. People he’d vowed to protect.
Annie was only eighteen. How was he going to break this news to Zayne and Maize? Her parents were his closest friends. Would they still feel the same way about him after he ripped out their hearts?
He reached for his police two-way radio and took another couple of breaths before pressing the button. “Adam twelve to base. I have multiple ten fifty-fours out at Mystery Hill.”
What he didn’t report spoke volumes. Even had he not recognized them, he would still have known what they were by their scent. All three victims were Witches.
He scoured the area, but found nothing, so he sat next to Annie’s body while he waited for his deputies and the coroner to arrive. It nearly killed him to not reach out and tidy her hair. Maize and Zayne didn’t need to see her like this. But disturbing anything would compromise the evidence, and he wasn’t about to let the killers get away on a technicality.
He snorted. Who was he kidding? If he had his way, whoever did this to her wouldn’t live to see the trial.
Forty-five minutes inched by like hours. Helpless and unable to will her back to life—not for lack of trying—he kept asking the same questions over and over.
Why her? Why them? Why leave their bodies here?
Ryker was relieved when the cavalry arrived. At least now he could start searching for answers.
Just as the team finished setting up mobile lighting, Deacon Hunter, Salem’s mayor, and the Vampire Ryker considered his father, strode through the chaos and systematically took in the scene. They stood a short distance away from the team sorting out the logistics of the investigation about to commence.
“I came as soon as I heard,” Deacon said. “Any idea who did this?”
“Not a clue. I haven’t got the heart to tell the crime scene investigators they’re wasting their time. I’ve looked. The killers didn’t leave a trace.” Ryker stared at a pile of dead leaves on the ground and his voice broke. “How am I going to tell Zayne and Maize?”
Deacon rested a hand on Ryker’s shoulder. “Do you want me to?”
Ryker shook his head. “No. It’s my responsibility.”
Deacon’s hand dropped away. “This is going to be hard on you. That carefree, reprobate persona you hide behind like a mask doesn’t work on me. Your fierce need to protect everyone is admirable. Noble, even. But this one will be hurting more than you’ll let on. Don’t blame yourself. This is not on you.”
Pain shredded Ryker’s chest. Of course, it was on him. It was his job to protect everyone. How had he missed a group of killers on the prowl?
“We Vampires can do many things. Reading minds is not one of them,” Deacon said.
Ryker cast a sideways glance at his mentor. What’d given away his thoughts? He was sure his expression hadn’t changed.
“What do you think happened?” Deacon asked.
If only Ryker had a crystal ball. For now, his instincts and experience would have to do. “Whatever it was, there are no signs of a struggle at the scene. No scuffed footprints on the ground. No pools of blood. I can’t even tell from which direction they brought the bodies into the clearing or which way they left.”
Deacon nodded at the victims. “But from the marks on the bodies, all three put up a good fight.”
Ryker winced. Annie must have been terrified. “This is a nightmare. I already have my hands full with a missing Witch. Now I’ve got three dead Witches.” He rubbed his forehead. “And what’s with the missing blood? If someone were trying to blame Vampires, they screwed up royally. Slitting throats is a waste of good blood.”
Deacon let out a deep breath. “Four.”
Ryker raised a brow. “What?”
“Four dead Witches. A body was found at Proctor’s Ledge two days ago. It was Oggie Truscott. I didn’t think anything of it at the time and just assumed his heart had finally given out. But considering the significance of the location and who he was, I’m not so sure now.”
Ryker rubbed the back of his neck. “There’s going to be a panic the moment this gets out. Not only are we going to have a grand exodus of tourists, but the publicity from a ritual killing at a historic site will have the FBI sniffing at our door.”
No matter which way he looked at it, the deaths fell into the hate crime bucket. The FBI would demand to spearhead the investigation. His muscles twitched. He couldn’t let that happen.
To the outside world, they were a normal town in a normal county. Tourists spent a pretty penny to be scared out of their skin by Vampires, Witches, and anything else that went bump in the night. But Salem was a town of Supernaturals who pretended to be Humans pretending to be Supernaturals. They didn’t need anyone poking their noses around to discover the truth.
He turned back to Deacon. “We can do without a repeat performance of the Roswell two incident of ninety-four.”
Deacon grunted. “Don’t remind me. Mass hysteria in a town of Supernaturals isn’t a pretty sight. Especially when they think aliens are about to invade.”
“We need to keep a lid on this,” Ryker said “The local Supernatural population can’t get caught up in conspiracy theories again. They already live on a razor’s edge. They’ll go into panic mode. Not only will we have people getting hurt again, but now, with the internet and social media, we won’t survive the fallout. We need to keep everyone calm and keep outsiders from digging into our business.”
Deacon’s phone buzzed. He pulled his cell from his inside jacket pocket. “The governor, I can deal with, but we need to find a way to keep the Feds off our backs.”
Ryker nodded toward the small crowd of reporters who had gotten wind of the crime. The deputies had erected cordons and were stopping the press from taking photos.
“That’s not going to be easy, considering it’s probably gone viral already.”
“Then we have to find someone we can trust,” Deacon said.
Ryker stared at Annie’s body, silhouetted in the forensic team’s lights. He’d failed to protect her in life, but he would certainly make sure he did so in death. His pulse quickened as a dormant memory hit him.
“There might be someone we can trust.” Ryker reached for his phone. “A couple of seasons back, I spent some time with a Witch from California. She was out here from UCLA Berkeley for spring break. If I recall correctly, she couldn’t stop talking about one of her professors who was some sort of hotshot with the FBI.”
Deacon’s brows drew together. “How is that going to help us?” “The professor’s a Witch.”
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