The Witch's Mirror

The Witch’s Mirror

By Branwen Gillen

“Werewolves suck,” Andrew moaned as he scooped up all his cards.

“What happened?” I asked with a smile and lightly taunting note. “This morning you were going to wreck me.”

“Fucking life steal,” he muttered under his breath.

Bill, the store owner, chuckled from behind the counter. “I think you’ll find that it’s vampires, technically, who suck. And don’t feel bad, Andrew, I know how much Sam spent on his deck.”

I winced at the mention of how much I’d spent on a children’s card game. “I can’t help it,” I whined in protest, “I love vampires.”

Cramped inside Bridleigh’s local gaming store, the Double Sixes, we huddled amongst shelving stacked high with board games, roleplaying games, card games, deck boxes, miniatures and every other possible gaming accessory. We were the only customers. Bill was an aging, overweight man with greying dark brown hair, one of the staples of the Bridleigh gaming scene. His store had been fuelling the needs of college kids and teenagers for forty years. Unlike the majority of gaming stores, Bill kept it clean and well ventilated so that it didn’t smell like ass. This fact alone made it my favourite secluded hangout outside of the university library.

Andrew was ten years my junior, a college kid majoring in mathematics. His scruffy blonde hair, thick glasses and pocket protector made him endearing in a lost puppy kind of way. I’d met him at a local convention, discovered we had similar interests and hit it off. Luckily, he didn’t share my anxiety issues.

“Twenty minutes to closing, fellas,” Bill informed us after glancing at his watch. “Sorry, I’m shutting the doors early, got a party to take my kids to.”

“Not enough time for another game,” Andrew sighed as he began the process of squeezing his deck into its box.

“You’re not doing anything tonight?” I asked.

“Yeah, I am,” he admitted sheepishly. “My girlfriend and I are going to see a horror movie.”

“Nice, try not to scream,” I teased, indulging my jealousy.

He chuckled. “Yeah, you know how much I hate horror movies. Are you doing anything tonight? I know how much you love Halloween.”

I shook my head. “No, no invites to any parties, no family to visit or much of anything really. I don’t have enough money for candy this month either. Probably have to hide indoors with the lights off, maybe sleep it away or go for a walk or work on my book or something.”

“You could see the movie marathon at the theatre with us,” he suggested. I unmercifully watched him regret what he’d said the moment his lips stopped flapping. “I-I don’t mean with us, like with us,” he said, trying to backpedal furiously, “I mean on your own, like, at the other end of the theatre nowhere near my girlfriend and I…”

“Relax, Andrew,” I interrupted, feeling guilty at letting him dig his own hole. “I’m not going to come spoil your date by watching you snog each other in the back row. Besides, it’s probably sold out. Also, no money, remember? I spent it all on this vampire deck.” That was a joke, the deck hadn’t cost that much. Andrew was a nice kid, just coltishly awkward.

He laughed, standing up and collecting his deck box to give himself some time to calm down. “Well, I hope you find something to do. Happy Halloween, my friend.”

“I’m sure I’ll find something,” I lied to spare his feelings, “Happy Halloween, Andrew. And thanks for the offer anyway.” He smiled and gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder before he left. Putting away my own cards, I waved goodbye to Bill as I walked out into the street.

I do love Halloween, even though I’d never celebrated it as a kid thanks to overly religious parents. Then when I was old enough to make my own decisions, I felt like I was too old to be running around in costume, begging for candy. I know a lot of adults get dressed up for parties, but none of them are in my circle of friends. The decorations around town brought a smile to my face every time. Every storefront that I passed had at least a token carved pumpkin or hanging skeleton.

It was only four in the afternoon but I had a long walk back to my granny flat. Bridleigh was a small town at the bottom of a lake valley, tall mountains towering around us. The sky was a bleak grey, rumbles of thunder threatening rain. Perfect Halloween weather. Crescent Lake lay to the east of town, extending long arms around houses huddled on a high hill like a mother shielding frightened children from the world. Today, the water was the same iron grey as the sky, choppy in the buffeting winds. It was always easy to tell where you were in Bridleigh thanks to the looming canyon-sided mouth of the Riddle River which flowed into the north end of the lake.

Storefronts of the business district gave way to the suburbs as I navigated west towards the twisted streets by heart, crossing the old Eldred Suspension Bridge to make my way home. Bridleigh was a maze, having grown with little thought to urban planning. Age was part of the town’s charm, though the buildings were all well maintained thanks to the steady influx of money through visiting students. Most days it was quiet but tonight was special. People who usually stayed indoors roamed the streets, chatting with neighbours while their kids played in costume.

The busy streets were a mixed blessing for me. I love Halloween but the crowds and strangers made me nervous. I counted every step, every heartbeat and every long, slow, breath I took to stop my hands from trembling. It’s hard to explain crippling social anxiety to anyone. I’m not paranoid, I don’t think everyone is out to hurt me. The truth is that I’m afraid that one of them will stop me for a chat, that I’ll have to make pleasantries and lie. I’m a liar from my crown to the tips of my toes. The truest statements I ever make, I make when I’m writing. I write fiction. I’ve gone through my entire life with a fake smile, pretending like everything was ok when nothing was ok, and I hate it.

Halfway home, a four-foot-tall vampire chased a sheet ghost and a magical girl past me on the footpath as a scarecrow watched me from a nearby front porch. Their delighted squeals distracted me from my self-recriminating thoughts. I stopped and watched them run off, smiling wistfully, imagining a childhood I’d never had.

When I turned back to continue my walk, I found a black cat standing in my path. Startled, I recovered quickly and gave it a smile. It looked up at me with gorgeous blue eyes and mewed curiously, so I knelt and held out my hand for it to sniff at. “Hey, kitty, aren’t you gorgeous?” I asked. It agreed with another mewing noise before headbutting my palm to demand pats. Chuckling, I complied, which earned me a satisfied purr.

“Artemis!” I heard a young woman call out as she opened the gate and stalked onto the footpath through a nearby iron gate. “There you are,” she sighed in relief, turning to walk towards us. She looked to be in her twenties, with midnight black hair in a bob that reached her shoulders, wearing a witch’s costume. She hadn’t gone for the ‘hag’ look, instead going for a pale sexy goth style with black lips and nails, including her toe nails which I could see as her long dress swished around her bare feet. “Thank you for finding her,” she said, holding out her hands so that the cat could leap into her arms. “She’s not supposed to be outside, she’s an indoor cat aren’t you Artemis?”

The cat meowed reluctantly in agreement, giving her cheek a few small licks of apology.

Rising to my feet, I clenched my hands into fists to stop them from shaking. “Uh, no problem ma’am,” I mumbled, concentrating again on slow, deep, breaths. “I love cats and she’s particularly adorable and affectionate.” Part of me wanted to bolt but something about her kept me rooted in place. A cynical part of me commented that she was a hot goth girl and I wanted her number. Though it was true, that had never stopped me from embarrassing myself by running away from girls before.

“That’s unusual,” she murmured speculatively, “usually she’s very skittish around strangers. I’m Meredith, Meredith Blackwood.”

I nodded. “Sam Grey,” I introduced myself. She smiled, melting my knees but I couldn’t tell if it was out of fear or lust. Probably both. “Pleasure to meet you,” she said. “I’ve seen you walking this way before, haven’t I?”

“I-I walk this way into town all the time,” I stammered, “for shopping and such. I don’t really know many people around here, I’m usually busy.”

“Oh? Doing what?”

“Writing,” I confessed, wondering why I was still talking to her, “or trying to anyway. I make ends meet most months.” My laugh sounded a little weak to my own ears.

“Not going anywhere tonight?” she asked, pointedly looking down at my t-shirt and jeans. My concession for Halloween was a black shirt with feminine lips parted to reveal vampire fangs. “Or are you on the way to change?”

“Ah, actually I’m probably going to go home and hide from the trick or treaters,” I admitted sheepishly, surprising myself at my honesty. “Money’s a bit tight this month and everyone I know is busy, so I’m on my own tonight.” The moment I stopped speaking, my heartrate spiked and I could feel the colour draining from my face. Why was I telling this stranger the truth? If she kept asking questions, what was I going to tell her next? Scared, I started babbling rapidly, “Um, sorry, I should get going and stop disturbing you while you’re busy getting ready for your friends and family.”

I tried to escape but she stepped in my path. Artemis mewed at me plaintively, which made me want to apologise. What stopped me from babbling any more was her voice. “You seem thirsty,” she stated firmly, looking me in the eye, “at least let me invite you in for a drink.”

The strange thing was, I wasn’t thirsty until she suggested it but in the moment, I didn’t care. A drink sounded like a wonderful idea, my mouth was dry anyway. What was I panicking about? If anything, she was taking a bigger risk inviting a stranger into her house. Even so, I couldn’t stop my hands from trembling. “Ok, sure,” I agreed despite myself, giving in a little to lust.

She gave me a broad grin as she held the cast iron gate open and led me around the side of her home, a two story American gothic house in excellent repair. It was the kind of house I’d give a limb to live in, much less celebrate Halloween. We entered through a door that led into an amazing modernized kitchen. It was a long, rectangular, room with stone benchtops and rich, varnished, hardwood cupboards. A well-used cutting board lay next to the sink with freshly cut leeks resting on it next to a small kitchen knife. Other herbs hung from the ceiling near the door next to a fridge covered in notes held on by magnets. The room smelt of wood and spices, the scent of an idealized home kitchen. The fridge stood between the side door we’d entered through and the door that led into the house at one end of the room. The rest of the walls were taken up by bench space, cupboards and appliances.

Meredith let Artemis drop to the floor and the cat immediately ran for their food bowl to begin chowing down. “Silly thing,” she said, opening the fridge, “she knows she’s an indoor cat, barely ever even tries to sneak outside. Sorry for not taking you though the front, it’s all set up for Halloween.”

“Not at all, you have a wonderful kitchen,” I complimented her awkwardly, my fears momentarily forgotten.

“Thank you, it took me years to put together,” she replied, closing the fridge door to reveal that she was holding what appeared to be a blood bag. On close inspection, I could see the branding proclaiming that is was ‘strawberry burst’ flavour. “Sorry, all I’ve got at the moment is gag Halloween stuff.”

“No, no!” I said, taking the blood bag eagerly despite my shaking hands. “Really, this is great! I’ve always wanted to try one of these!” She watched me with a smirk on her face, leaning against the fridge as I opened the cap on the drinking straw and took a sip. It tasted like fresh, cold, strawberries, my favourite. “Wow, that’s nice!”

“You do love vampires,” she observed, glancing at my shirt.

“Um, yeah,” I admitted, fears all but forgotten, “all my life. I-I’m trying to write a novel about them but it’s hard to get a different angle that hasn’t been done to death.”

“Really?” she asked rhetorically. “Do you mind waiting here for a minute or two? I have something I’d like to show you.” She paused once she’d heard the words in her own ears. “Wow, that did not come out right. I mean, I have a book I’d like to show you, if you have a few minutes.”

I laughed, surprised to find that it was genuine and not a social token to set her at ease. It was always reassuring to know you’re not the only awkward person in the room. “Oh, now you have my interest piqued.”

Smiling, she swished deeper into the house, leaving me to my blood bag which I slurped on happily.

A minute or two later, I heard a meow from the next room. Curious and hoping that I wasn’t being too intrusive, I poked my head through the door. It was a living room bedecked in old brown carpet, leather lounges sat on the wall nearest the door and under the window on the wall beyond. A big screen tv sat against the opposite wall atop a low cabinet with a stereo system and niches for CDs and DVDs alongside a fireplace. In the middle of the room, currently blocking the view of the tv from the lounge, sat a tall, thin, object covered by a red satin drape. Artemis meowed at me again over her shoulder and pawed at the edge of the drape.

Screwing the cap back on the blood bag to make sure I didn’t spill any of the syrupy liquid on the carpet, I walked over and knelt beside the cat, who looked at me expectantly and meowed. “I don’t think you should do that,” I told her earnestly, “if it falls you might be buried under it.”

She huffed at me, sniffed at my hand and licked it a few times before folding her ears back. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t help but notice the row of videos under Meredith’s television, spelling out ‘Sailor Moon’ across their bindings. “Ooooh, you’re named after the cat in the anime,” I taunted her, “that makes sense.”

I laughed when she hissed at me in response. Maybe she knew that Artemis in Sailor Moon was the white, male, cat? Doubtful, I decided, after all she was just a cat.

Standing up, curiosity hit me again. What was under the drape, anyway? Halloween decoration? Some sort of scary trick? Despite my trembling hands, I reached out to grab the edge of the drape, needing to know. The satin was soft to my touch as I slowly moved it aside. The first thing I noticed was the frame, dark wood carved to give the impression of entwined serpents. The frame connected to a stand, which immediately put me in mind of a full-length free-standing mirror. Inside the frame, I could see the distinct patina of an antique mirror darkening the glass, confirming that assumption. Pulling the drape further aside, I peeked around it.

The room was dark but even then, the background in the mirror was shadowy, blurred and indistinct. What made me gasp was the vivid blue of the single distinct eye that looked back at me as I stared into it. The face that peeked at me in the reflection wasn’t mine, it was a young girl with porcelain white skin. Curly crimson locks framed her pretty face. Full red lips opened, mirroring my startled surprise to reveal that her canines and lower cuspids were longer and sharper than the other teeth.

“It’s a trick mirror.”

I jumped, the drape slipping from my fingers back into place as I span around to find Meredith standing right behind me, grinning. Holding my hand over my heart, we both chuckled. “Wow,” I gasped between breaths, “you got me good, that was awesome. How does it work?”

She tutted me, tapping a pen on the book in her hands. “A witch never tells her secrets,” she joked. At least, I thought she was joking. Looking down at the book, I felt my heartrate spike again. The Path Less Travelled, the title read over a picture of an overgrown, misty, forest, by Sam Grey.

“Oh, wow,” I said, taking the pen and the book to sign it, “you knew who I was.”

“It’s one of my favourites,” she told me. “If I realized you lived in Bridleigh, I might have tracked you down. It’s an astounding novel, I’ve recommended it to all my friends.”

“Thank you,” I sighed, “but I fear it didn’t do so well with the world at large.”

“I wish I could say I’m surprised,” she said. “I doubt it would resonate with most people.”

I wrote ‘To Meredith, in thanks for her transfusion and a good scare, Sam Grey’ and handed it back to her. It felt good to see her smile and I was comfortable around her. “I have to admit,” she continued, “the way you write women I always thought ‘Sam’ was short for ‘Samantha’.”

“I-It could be,” I stuttered, my hands starting to tremble again. “I’m t-transgendered b-but I haven’t p-picked out a n-new name o-or anything like that. S-sorry, I g-get nervous.” I mentally kicked myself. Why did I spill that out to a complete stranger? Nobody knew, not even Andrew or my family. It was my biggest lie, a lie I told with my entire body. I’d lied to myself about it for so long, it was liberating to speak the words aloud. I found myself caught between fear and relief, but when I looked into her deep green eyes, relief won out. I was glad I was able to be honest with her.

The look in her eyes was pure sympathy. “It’s ok,” she told me in motherly tones, reaching out to stroke my arm, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

“N-nobody does,” I nodded, feeling childish and stupid, “I haven’t told anyone else.” We stood there in awkward silence for what felt like minutes before I was finally able to say something. “Well I-I should get going. Y-you’ll have guests t-tonight a-and I-I…” I paused, closing my eyes to concentrate on my breathing for a few moments to get myself under control. “I’m sorry, the truth is I’m not good with crowds and strangers.”

“That’s ok, I understand,” she told me earnestly. “Maybe I can invite you over some other time?”

I smiled, wanting to stay and panicked at how much I wanted to. “Thank you, you’re awfully kind. I mean, I could have been a serial killer or anything,” I joked weakly.

She grinned. “A serial killer wouldn’t be more scared of me that I am of her. Besides, I could have been a real witch.”

We laughed and I felt a little better as I made my way out the door with Artemis rubbing against my legs. “Thank you for your autograph,” she said, “it really is one of my favourite books.” “Always nice to meet a fan,” I told her as I walked off, sipping my blood bag as I resumed my journey home. I felt more into the Halloween spirit than when I’d left Double Sixes, even though my heart hammered against my chest.

It got darker as I walked the streets but I barely noticed, filled with a mix of fear and regret. The further I walked, the more I sipped the sweet fluid from the blood bag, the more I obsessed over Meredith and her mirror. It’s a trick mirror, I heard her say again in my head. But how did it do that? How could a mirror show a completely different reflection? Unless it wasn’t a mirror but some kind of rear-screen projection? But if that was the case, how would it know I was only peeking around the drape? Had I fallen right into the trick by chance? Was it some kind of psychological influence? Advanced experimental technology? All the possible explanations seemed improbable.

I wanted to turn around and go back to her house. To ask, no, demand to see the mirror again. To pull off the drape, see what was beyond and understand how I’d been tricked. If it actually was a trick, a small voice said in the back of my head. I squashed it immediately. It had to be a trick. It couldn’t be real magic, real magic doesn’t exist, like miracles. Years of hope and loss as a teenager had taught me that. Years of praying to a god that never answered taught me that.

As I walked, the sidewalk petered out into a dirt track as I approached the outskirts of town, forcing me to wander along on the road’s shoulder rather than a designated pedestrian footpath. I was so obsessed that I barely heard the screaming and hollering coming closer, or the screech of tires. Stopping to turn around, I saw a sky blue pickup truck swerving violently on the road, a bunch of kids laughing and screaming, thrown around in the back. In the space of a blink, they lurched towards me. My brain didn’t have enough time to register the blur of motion as the wheels slipped on the loose gravel and the driver lost control.

He winged me with his rear-view mirror. I heard a distinct ‘foonk’ as it folded against the side of the truck. I was spinning as I fell, the world around me devolving into streaks of light and darkness as I hit the pavement and skidded along on my back. The truck screeched to a halt, the occupants screaming and cursing in horror. Vaguely, I wondered if any of the passengers had been hurt. “Shit! Go, go, go, Rod! Fuck!” someone shouted as the pickup changed gear, tires screeching as it sped away.

The blood bag lay crushed and empty in my grip. Blinking, I stared up at the overcast sky and waited for the pain to come, to tell me if I was dying. I breathed slowly, wondering if a rib had punctured a lung and I was slowly drowning in my own blood. Or maybe my skull had been cracked open and I didn’t know that my brain was leaking out onto the grass. Was I nothing but a twisted pile of limbs and blood, lying on the side of the road like any other roadkill? Would the crows come to pick at my intestines soon or would they wait for me to die first?

Despite millions of morbid questions running through my head, no pain came, which was a surprise. I blinked several times, not daring to move a muscle. Finally mustering every remaining shred of courage, I raised my head to look down at myself. I could see and feel the enormous stain covering my shirt, sugar from the syrupy soda adhering the cloth to my skin as it evaporated, freezing the skin underneath. There was a hole in the shirt where the side mirror had hit me in the chest. It reached from my sternum across my left shoulder. The skin revealed underneath was pristine and white, no redness or even a bruise showing. Raising my hands, I patted my chest, then continued to explore the rest of my body. For a moment, I couldn’t believe it. I was whole, there was no pain and I could move.

Turning my head, I found a young girl about ten or eleven dressed as red riding hood watching me quietly from a few feet away. She was carrying a basket of apples in the crook of her left elbow. A ragged fringe of black hair fell over her eyes, with longer bangs flowing around her face out of her hood. Her dress was short enough to expose her knees, long socks reaching to mid-shin with shiny buckled pilgrim shoes on her feet. She was slender and petite, the very image of a wolfman’s dinner. “You’re not hurt,” she observed in a disappointed tone, “that was lucky.”

Lucky? That was fucking impossible, I thought. Out loud, I said, “You saw that?”

She nodded as I sat up, coming closer as I experimentally prodded my chest. “Your shirt’s all ripped at the back and there are leaves in your hair,” she told me, “it looks like a costume. There are spatters of red on your face; you look like a murder victim. Not an axe murder, obviously, you’d need big, deep scars for that. Oh, maybe you’re the murderer and the tears are defensive wounds from your victims! Though why would your back be all torn up? Hmmm… No, that doesn’t make sense, I’d stick with the victim angle.”

I stared at her stupidly for a few moments. “You’re morbid for a ten-year-old,” I informed her, deadpan. I absently concluded that I must be in shock.

She giggled like I’d given her a compliment. Reaching under the tartan blanket covering her basket, she withdrew a rich, red, apple from within and held it out to me. “Here, sorry you lost your blood bag.”

“Thank you,” I said, still stunned as I took the apple from her, the empty blood bag still clutched in my other hand. Looking around, there was no-one else on the street. “Did you call an ambulance?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t have a phone and besides, you look fine. Well, the shirt’s ruined but you know what I mean.”

Blinking stupidly, I stood up to test my legs. They were fine. She was right, I looked fine and I felt fine, all my joints were working as I tested each in turn. It was like nothing even happened. “I… I shouldn’t be fine,” I told her, feeling like I was stating the obvious.

“Very, very, lucky,” she agreed. “I’ve read about how people survive shooting themselves in the head. One in a million.”

I revised my assessment, she was the most morbid ten-year-old in the world. Looking around the otherwise quiet, deserted, street I wondered if I’d imagined it. The smell of burning rubber and the tire marks on the asphalt told me otherwise. The cold air on my exposed skin added to the evidence but the entire situation felt surreal. “I guess I should be grateful I don’t need a hospital visit,” I said huskily, still rattled. “Thanks for the apple, kid.”

“That’s ok,” she said, skipping off, “welcome to the family!”

It took me several seconds to register what she said. “What?” I called after her, but she was already hopping around a corner. I thought about running after her but I couldn’t think of what to do or say to her that wouldn’t make me look like a paedophile or a kidnapper. Resuming my walk towards home, putting what she said down to Halloween weirdness, I felt like a zombie wandering the streets. I knew the neighbourhood well but everything looked different after my brush with death and I got lost a few times. Shadows lengthened fast as the sun descended below the peaks of the western mountains, plunging Bridleigh into the town’s familiar early twilight.

Still dazed, I finally staggered up the driveway to my tiny flat through the door under the front stairwell that led up to my landlord’s house. I only ever saw Mrs. Pea when my rent was due, she lived a reclusive life only punctuated by sporadic visits from her kids and their family. We got along well, I never bothered her and she never bothered me, in fact she told me that I was her favourite tenant. I don’t smoke, I don’t play loud music and I don’t have any pets, three things she couldn’t abide. I’d always wanted a cat but when you’re reliant on the rental market and with limited income, pets were an unaffordable luxury. The stray thought made me miss Artemis.

I was fumbling with my keys when I noticed the corner of a black envelope poking out from under the doormat. Kneeling, I pulled it out and turned it over in my hands. There was writing on the front in red ink, rendered by brush in a neat calligraphic hand. To Ms. Grey, it read. Unable to wait, I bit into the apple to hold it in my mouth while I stuffed the empty blood bag into my pocket. With my hands free, I tore open the envelope to get at the contents inside. A single stiff piece of black card fell out, decorated with thorny green vines, bright red roses and orange pumpkins with white writing in the same calligraphic hand. Ms. Grey, it read, you are cordially invited to the Bridleigh Grand Halloween Ball tonight, the 31st of October, at 101 Hollow Drive, Bridleigh. Come as you are, no costume required. The fun begins at dusk.

I turned the invitation over in my hands several times, reading and re-reading it again and again. Only one person could have written it but I’d literally only opened my heart to her less than an hour ago. Could she have written and delivered this in that amount of time? How did she know where I lived?

Hearing the window above me open, I looked up to find Mrs. Pea peering down at me through bottle-thick glasses perched at the end of a hooked nose. She was a wrinkled old lady that reminded me of barbed wire, thin but tough and dangerous. She was sweet enough as long as you didn’t get on her bad side and she loved me because I never missed a rental payment despite my money problems. Her husband had passed away decades ago, though her children and grandkids visited from the big city often enough. “Oh, hello Sam! Happy Halloween! Very nice costume, dear, are you going out?”

Tucking the invitation into my bag, I took a bite out of the apple and gulped it down. “Uh, thanks Mrs. Pea,” I said, my voice warbling a little. Coughing, I gulped a few times to sort out whatever was wrong with my throat. “Sorry I was eating an apple. Um, I… Maybe? I don’t know. I was going to stay in tonight but…”

“Nonsense, a young man like you should go out and do something,” she said, making shooing motions with her hands. “Go find a nice girl.”

Glancing at the letter again, I thought about it. Was Meredith a nice girl? Maybe, maybe not but I was curious enough to find out. “That…” I paused, coughing as the words caught in my throat. “Sorry, that might be a good idea. Thanks, happy Halloween to you too. Did someone deliver anything for me while I was gone?”

“Oh, no, not that I noticed, dear.”

Biting my lip, I looked at the invitation then back up at her. “That’s ok, I think I will be going out tonight after all. Do you need anything?”

“Oh no, dear,” she said, smiling, “I’ve got a good book, some hot cocoa and plenty of candy for the little ones. I’m set.”

“Ok, thanks again, Mrs. Pea.”

Giving her a wave as she pulled her head in and gently closed the window, I took another bite out of the apple as I unlocked and opened my door. The apartment was small but serviceable. The front door led right into my bedroom, with a closet-sized bathroom and an adjoining kitchen. My computer sat next to my bed, where I wrote day after day. Dropping my bag onto the bed, I took more bites out of the apple, savouring the bursts of sweet flavour in my mouth as I mulled over everything that had happened on the walk home.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” I told myself. Looking at the invitation again, I knew it had to be Meredith. If the mirror was a trick, how difficult could be finding my address once she knew I lived in town? I had a landline after all, all she’d need is the internet or a phone book. So she’d quickly written the invitation, hopped into a car, took a roundabout route to avoid me seeing her on the way and tucked it under my doormat before I got home. That was the logical explanation but why? That was a lot of effort to go to, particularly if you’re in the middle of party preparations. Was she stalking me now? Nothing made sense but I still had to know.

Opening my bag, I took out my phone and immediately swore. A spiderweb pattern of cracked glass marred the screen. When I tried to turn it on, I got nothing but crazy artefacts and static. Several hundred dollars down the drain. Casting it aside, I wolfed down the apple, threw the core in the bin, sat at my computer and woke it from sleep mode, opening my web browser to type in the address on the invitation. The map of Bridleigh that popped up on screen confirmed my assumption that the house belonged to Meredith Blackwood. A quick search from there got me her phone number. Rather than reach immediately for the landline phone on my desk, I stared at it. Should I call? She’d stalked me, was it ok to turn the tables on her? Curiosity burned in my chest and my palms itched from worry. Giving in to temptation, I reached for the receiver.

The phone rang, startling me before I’d even picked it up. Sighing, I answered it. “Meredith?” I asked, banking on a sudden premonition.

“Meredith? Samuel, this is your mother.”

I felt a chill down my spine. “Hi,” I greeted noncommittally, struggling to keep an even tone.

“That’s all you have to say? Who’s Meredith?”

“No-one,” I lied, falling into old, well-practiced, habits. “I was expecting a call, that’s all. I’m sorry, I thought you made it clear the last time we spoke that you didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.”

I could hear her gnawing her own lip next to the receiver as she struggled to be civil. “Father John has been arrested.”

“Paedophilia?” I asked, coughing a little when my voice warbled again.


“Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” she accused.

“He did tell you both to disown me,” I reminded her, my hands beginning to tremble again. “I have a party to go to, Jane,” I said, using her name rather than the familial title she’d never earned, “it’s Halloween.”

“Why did you assume he was a paedophile?”

I blinked. “He’s a priest.”

“Did he ever touch you?”

“What? No! I mean, why would you care if he did now?” I asked indignantly.

There was a long pause. “What if he did?”

The trembling was crawling up my arms, my shoulders began to shake and I was getting hot. I couldn’t tell if it was rage or fear. My knees felt weak despite the fact I was still sitting down. “You’re not suggesting…”

“He’s already disgraced,” she said, desperately racing through the words, “and you know how bad your Dad’s back’s been and with all our medical bills…”

“No,” I snapped, cutting her off, my voice breaking as I held back tears.

“Why not? You hate him!”

For a few moments, I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t explain to her that I didn’t want to lie anymore. I didn’t want to pretend to be someone I wasn’t anymore. I didn’t want to do her dirty work for her. I didn’t want her to ruin my life anymore. Even so, I had to force the words out. “Don’t call me again.”

I hung up before she could speak again, weeping. An ache crawled up my spinal column and into my skull. For the first time in months I had the thought, I don’t want to be here anymore. I pushed it aside like I did every single time crept into my consciousness. I didn’t want to die but at the same time, I didn’t want to be me anymore. Sometimes I felt that so strongly that all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball under the covers and sleep forever, feeling nothing ever again. Blowing my nose several times, I closed my eyes and began my meditations, counting up to four on each slow inhale before exhaling on the count of three to calm myself down. Once I’d finally composed myself, I picked up the handset again and dialled Meredith’s number.

She picked up immediately. “Hello?”

“Meredith, it’s Sam Grey,” I said, my voice only slightly croaky.

“Oh, you got the invitation then,” she said gleefully. “No need to RSVP, dear, you’re welcome anytime.”

“Thank you, but I… I’m sorry, the invitation startled me so I looked up your address and phone number.”

“That’s understandable,” she said, “I have rather put you on the spot as well. You better get over here, everyone’s dying to meet you and the night is still young.”

“Huh,” I mumbled, “but it’s only six.”

“Actually, it’s seven Sam,” she told me.

I looked at the clock on my computer. She was right. “Shit,” I swore, regretting it almost immediately. “Sorry, I don’t usually swear. It’s been a weird evening.”

“I can imagine,” she replied, sounding amused. “See you in about an hour, then?”

“Sure,” I agreed far too readily, “but...” I trailed off when she hung up on me. Looking dumbly at the receiver, I slammed it down on the cradle and cursed myself. “Damn it! What the fuck am I doing? See you in an hour, Sam,” I said, mimicking Meredith’s voice with accuracy that surprised even me.

My throat was dry and I could feel the pangs of thirst creeping in as I realized I hadn’t had a drink since lunchtime. Feeling parched, I got up and filled a glass with water and drained it. Then I had another. When the second barely helped, I set the glass down on the countertop and stuck my head under the faucet, gulping the stream down. I drank until I couldn’t stand any more but I was still thirsty, drinking until I thought I could burst. When I finally pulled myself away, I immediately retched, water spewing from my throat in a steady stream as I spat and vomited down the drain until my stomach was empty. Shutting off the tap, I stood gripping the edge of the bench, white-knuckled, my eyes screwed shut as I fought down the rage and frustration building inside. Thrusting myself away from the sink, I grabbed my bag and stormed out of the house, keeping enough presence of mind to lock the door behind me.

It was dark out but the sky was clearing to reveal the stars as I stalked as fast as I could back to Meredith’s. The streets were full of trick or treaters as I staggered from lamppost to lamppost, sticking to the well-lit, paved, footpaths as much as possible. My hands were trembling again, my mouth was dry and I was desperate for something to drink, my heartbeat thumping in my ears. Crowds of strangers passed by barely giving me a glance, groups of adults nattering with each other while they looked over their kids, those same kids screaming and running from house to house in their costumes. I had to stop occasionally to close my eyes and breathe, the noise and the glare of lights shaking me to the core every time a car passed on the road. It didn’t help, so I kept staggering along, reading every street sign partly to distract myself and partly to keep track of where I was. Without the reassurance of my smartphone, the twisted streets of Bridleigh were more frightening to navigate in the dark.

I was getting close to Meredith’s house when I paused to lean against a lamppost with a flickering light that buzzed overhead, moths dancing beneath it. It was a momentary bubble of quiet in the storm around me, with only a few people sporadically walking past. In the relative peace, I managed to get my breathing under control. I must have looked a mess because one of the people walking past stopped to say, “Hey, you ok?”

Forcing a smile, I nodded to them. “Yeah, just catching my breath, kids are running me ragged,” I lied with practiced smoothness, though it made me feel sick, “thanks for asking, though.” I really was grateful that someone had finally asked and yet I hated myself for hiding behind a pleasant mask.

He laughed and grinned back. “Don’t I know it. Happy Halloween, ma’am!”

“Happy Halloween,” I called and waved back. I don’t need to burden a total stranger with my problems, I told myself. Even so, the random kindness made me feel like something was right in the world. I finally stood up straight, feeling a smile come unbidden. Then realization hit me, had he called me ma’am? I looked down at myself and breathed a sigh of mixed relief and disappointment. A quick hand check affirmed that nothing was different. Chuckling at my own stupidity, I shook my head. He must have mistaken me for a girl in the dark, which was satisfying and elating in its own way.

Sitting next to me, parked on the curb, was a shiny new four-wheel drive polished to a mirror sheen. I was still smiling then the light flickered on overhead and I glanced at my reflection in the glass. What I saw made me scream, thrusting myself back, catching my heels against the lip of the pavement and hitting my back against the shale retaining wall that separated the nearby house from the footpath. There wasn’t any pain, I felt nothing as I slid down the sharp rocks into a sitting position, eyes wide as I stared at my warped reflection.

What I’d seen wasn’t my own reflection, it was that of a girl with curly red hair and ice blue eyes.

Looking around, I saw a group of people staring at me from the far corner down the street. After a moment of eye contact, they burst out laughing. “Oh my God!” a lady called out to me and waved. “You really did get us! Happy Halloween!” A few of them echoed the sentiment before walking off chuckling.

Huffing and puffing, I scrambled up and crawled to the side of the car on my hands and knees like an animal. Rising onto my knees, I slowly peeked into the side mirror. She was still there peeking back at me, clear as day. Vibrant crimson hair immaculately curled, flawless pale skin luminous in the lamplight. Her beautiful almond eyes managed to burn like blue flame while being as cold as ice pressed against the skin. Deliberately peeling back my lips, I watched her echo my movement with her own luscious red mouth, revealing the same long fangs that I’d seen before, taking the place of her canines and cuspids.

My heart felt like it was bouncing around inside my ribcage in an unwinnable game of Pong. Holding up my right hand in front of the mirror, I saw long, sharp, black nails tipping slender fingers on a tiny hand. But there was something new that I hadn’t seen before, a tattoo on her wrist of the phases of the moon entwined with snakes. One of them glanced at me, narrowing its ice blue eyes as it hissed threateningly. I fell back away from the mirror, clawing at my wrist, but there was nothing there. Yelling incoherently, I dragged myself to my feet and ran, everything else forgotten but a single thought: get to Meredith’s house.

It was easy even for my fear-addled brain to find. It was the only house festooned with immaculately carved pumpkins, grinning mockingly with sharp teeth and evil eyes. On the scale of my current terror, they didn’t even register as I kicked open the gate and stumbled up the path to the front door, puffing. When I finally arrived, the last of my energy drained out of me and I felt weak, like my knees were about to give way. I meant to pound on the door and demand to know what was going on, to make a scene, but I didn’t. I couldn’t be that impolite, even now. My knocks were half-hearted as I wondered if what I was doing was a good idea. What if I’d finally gone mad and everything that had happened since leaving Meredith’s house was just in my head? I tried glancing in the window near the front door but the lights were on inside, so my reflection was far too faint to make out.

The door opened to reveal Meredith’s infectious grin. Something about her smile immediately made me feel better, though it reminded me of the mouth of a shark. The thought occurred to me that it might be that very quality that attracted me. The thought was dispelled when she spontaneously hugged me. “Sam! You made it! It was getting so late, I thought you weren’t coming!”

I usually don’t like being touched but something about her made me want to hug her back, so I did. She felt welcoming in a way no other person I’d ever met made me feel. She was also wearing her witch’s costume and I had at least enough sexuality left that I wasn’t about to let a freely offered opportunity slip through my fingers. “Sorry,” I croaked the apology, my throat so dry it was amazing I could talk at all. “I don’t have a watch and I broke my phone on the way home and a lot has happened that I don’t understand.”

She shushed me, putting her finger on my lips. “It’s ok, let’s get you something to quench that thirst of yours before we introduce you around. Sound good?”

Beyond speech, I nodded furiously. She gave me a bright, welcoming, smile and took my hand, leading me into the warmth of her hearth. The foyer had a staircase leading up to the second floor to the left of the front door, upon which two teenagers, a boy and a girl, in goth attire watched me as we entered. The girl was absently rubbing her ankh necklace as she stared at me. In the adjoining formal lounge there were more people. A seven-foot-tall, rake-thin bald man in a pinstripe suit covered in dust and cobwebs was talking to a dark-haired lady whose bare arms were covered in scars. The décor was both festive and frightening, with spiders, skulls, more carved pumpkins, skeletons and other Halloween favourites. The difference between this party and every other I’d even glimpsed at was the quality, none of the decorations were cheap plastic crap from dollar stores. The bones looked like real bone, the pumpkins were fresh and skilfully cut.

“Hans and Greta,” Meredith introduced the goths to me on our way past, “this is Sam Grey.”

Hans gave me a respectful nod. “We love your books,” he said in a thick German accent, “it’s pleasant to read someone who manages to subvert the expectations we have of what is monstrous.”

“Thank you,” I said, returning his nod and giving one to Greta. She seemed surprised by that, at least enough to stop rubbing her ankh.

“Sam Grey!” the nearby bald man said, interrupting his own sentence when he realized who I was. Walking over stiffly, he reached out and took my hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you! I love The Path Less Travelled, I’ve read it three times already!” His voice was raspy, like someone who had drunk too much alcohol all their lives.

Despite his unusual appearance, my smile was genuine as I shook his hand back. “Always nice to meet a fan,” I told him truthfully, though my voice was getting hoarser by the second.

“I think you’ll find quite you’re a bit of a celebrity here, darling,” the woman he’d been talking to said as she joined us. I hadn’t been able to see it with her turned away from be before, but a massive burn scar covered the right side of her face.

“Adam Turner and Livia Grace,” Meredith introduced us, hooking her arm into mine to pull me away. “Apologies, I really need to get Sam her drink.”

“Absolutely,” Adam said, neither so much as blinking at Meredith’s pronoun usage. Shooing us off with his long-fingered hands, he grinned knowingly. “We can chat later.”

Being dragged away down a hallway, I lowered my voice to mutter, “What sort of subculture is this? Nobody anywhere I’ve ever been has even heard of my work!”

“Relax,” she whispered back, “we’re your sort of people. You’re with us now, we can help.”

Turning a corner, I realized I could smell her kitchen already. The earthy scent of home filled my nostrils, wafting from ahead of us. What made me pause was the ten-year-old girl sitting in the lounge room where the mirror had once stood. It was gone now, but she was shockingly familiar, playing knucklebones on the floor in her red riding hood costume with a basket sitting next to her. “You!” I gasped, stopping dead in my tracks.

“Oh? You’ve met Lily?” Meredith asked, the question directed more to the girl than to me.

“She had an accident while I was walking,” she said absently as she skilfully threw the jack in the air to quickly grab another knucklebone before catching it. There was hardly any left on the floor and her hand was so full I could barely understand how she was managing to pick up more. “A bunch of idiot kids in a pickup winged her and ran for it.”

Glaring at Meredith, I snarled. “Did you tell everyone about me?”

“She didn’t have to,” Lily said before she could answer. “We all know.”

“How?” I barely managed to gasp the question.

“We just do,” Lily answered, looking up at me as she grabbed the last knucklebone. Her fringe fell over her eyes but her smirk was clearly visible. “You really sound like you need a drink.”

Meredith pulled me away into the kitchen and returned to the fridge. “Sorry about that, Lily’s a bit antisocial.”

“So am I,” I rasped, feeling faint enough that I collapsed into a chair before I fell.

Extracting another blood bag from the fridge, she walked past me and threw it into the microwave rather than handing it to me like I expected. Musing over the timer for a few moments, she eventually decided to punch one minute into the machine before pressing start.

“What are you doing?” I asked, perplexed. “That wasn’t frozen.”

“Trust me,” she said, “it’ll take the edge off for now.”

“Edge off?”

Turning to me, she bent over and placed one hand on each armrest of the chair, looking me in the eyes as she loomed over me. “You’re thirsty no matter how much you drink. You get angry and sad and frightened all at the same time. You feel weak and confused, you can barely stand. Your throat’s so dry you that it feels like a miracle you can even speak.”

“I always feel that way,” I interrupted her, forcing out the words.

“But tonight, it’s worse,” she observed. “Far, far worse than ever before.”

I nodded, giving in when I realized that I was unable to lie to her like I did to so many others. I slumped, resigned to my helplessness under the gaze of this woman without the faintest inkling of why she held this power over me. There was no panic, only calm acceptance. It felt good to finally give up lying. I felt lighter, handing my trust over to this stranger I hardly knew.

She smirked at me like she knew what I was thinking, standing there silently, her face shadowed with a halo of light illuminating the edges of her hair from the kitchen light behind her, until the microwaved beeped. She walked over to the appliance and retrieved the blood bag. I looked at it. It wasn’t like the last one. There weren’t any logos or branding on it, no ‘strawberry burst’ or legal disclaimers, just a big white square in which was written pertinent information like ‘Blood Type O’ and ‘Whole Blood’ in big, bold, capital letters. The fluid inside was a dark, opaque, red, more like soup than soda. It didn’t have a tube that doubled as a straw, just four plastic bulges at the top.

“N-now, hang on, I don’t think…” She interrupted my stammering by ripping open one of the bulges. The smell hit me from across the room. I could taste the tangy, metallic, scent on my tongue as I breathed in. Raw need gripped me, every muscle contracting as my body prepared to pounce. I didn’t have to, she held out the bag and I ripped it from her hands, stuffing the open end into my mouth and sucking for all I was worth.

The blood was wet and dry on my tongue at the same time, like drinking liquid powder as paradoxical as that seems. It didn’t matter, it was still wet enough to soothe my parched throat. It was a rush, like a sugar high combined with good sex, lighting up my entire body. I moaned in delight, rolling the blood across my tongue. Meredith stroked my hair comfortingly as I drank and I could feel warmth and care emanating from her. She was soft and warm, I could feel her pulse through her fingertips. I continued to suck as the bag crinkled up, completely drained, but I couldn’t help licking the last drops from the ragged tear.

“Feeling better?” she asked.

“Yes… No…” I answered absently, confused. Did I feel better? Yes. Should I feel better? No. I should have been sick and wanted to vomit. Instead, I wanted more. “That was… Good.”

She grinned, playing with my hair, winding it around her fingers. “So I’ve heard. I’ve also heard it’s much, much better straight from the vein for your people.”

For a moment, I was tempted to grab her wrist and sink my teeth in just to see if it was true. The thought horrified me and tantalized me at the same time, part of me screaming that something was very, very wrong while another was crying loudly in ecstasy. “My people?” I asked, my voice cracking a little but otherwise normal.

Meredith pulled out a chair and sat opposite me, taking the empty bag out of my hands and dropping it on the table Giving me her full attention, she took my hands in hers and looked me in the eye. “You looked in the mirror that I had in my lounge room this afternoon,” she stated.

I nodded. “I-I’m sorry…”

“Shhhh,” she said softly, “it’s ok, you did nothing wrong. I’m not angry, in fact I’m ecstatic.”

“I thought,” I began, then paused, trying to sort through my conflicting emotions. “I thought I saw a girl with ice blue eyes, red hair and fangs instead of my reflection. You said it was a trick but I saw her again tonight in a car window and freaked out. I could see her in the side mirror too. I feel like I’m going mad.”

She smiled. “You’re further along than I thought. It’s ok, I know this is traumatic for you but please trust me, everything is going to be fine. Better than ever, in fact.”

Desperation set in. “Please, tell me what’s happening,” I begged, “I-I need to know.”

She drew in a breath to say something when Artemis, completely silent, leapt up into my lap. We both jumped, hands parting as she insistently headbutted my hands. Instead of replying to me, Meredith laughed as I gave the cat the petting it demanded. “She really, really likes you. I guess that makes a lot more sense now.”

“Well if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have met you,” I murmured absently.

“Oh, so you just noticed that,” Artemis said sarcastically in a feminine voice. “Now stop talking and concentrate on petting me.”

I blinked rapidly, staring at the cat as I performed as ordered, scratching the scruff of her neck. She began purring. “Ooooooh, yessss,” that cat purred, “I like this one, she’s good.”

“She talks,” I said, knowing I was stating the obvious but too dumbfounded to care.

“She’s a demanding little poop,” Meredith said, laughing as she joined in on the petting, “but she’s adorable and wise when she wants to be. My best friend.”

“Enough,” Artemis said, reaching out to place a paw on my hand to bat it off her head, “she needs to see the mirror. A proper look this time.”

She hopped off my lap and looked over her shoulder expectantly. Meredith immediately got up and helped me to my feet. “How are you feeling?”

“B-better,” I stuttered, “still nervous. Knees aren’t quite as weak.”

“She’s missing pieces of herself,” Artemis muttered as she led us back towards the formal living area, “and has been for far too long.”

“What’s she talking about?” I asked Meredith.

“I’ll explain, I promise,” she answered, “just bear with us a moment, there are protocols we have to observe. Don’t worry, you’re not going mad. Artemis talks and you did see a girl when you looked at your reflection.”

It unnerved me to find that the people we passed by began to follow us through the house. We moved back through the foyer and passed by the formal lounge into the dining room. It was a large, long, room with a polished wooden floor, a bay window at one end and a fireplace at the other that I deduced shared a chimney with the one in the lounge room. The dining table had been moved to against the wall to make space. The guests were milling about quietly but they’d made a path for us from the door, curving around toward the window. Sitting at the end of the room, inside the alcove made by the bay windows, was the mirror still covered by the red satin drape.

Artemis trotted over to sit by the mirror but Meredith held me back. “I lied to you today,” she confessed, “and I beg your forgiveness. I lied to you for good reasons, not knowing who or what you were. You came to me unexpectedly and I wasn’t prepared.”

“We don’t always get to prepare,” Adam said from the sidelines.

“I forgive you,” I said quickly. “I’m the liar, my whole life is a lie. I shouldn’t have intruded into your home. I just… I was curious and scared and… I needed to know. I need to know what’s happening to me.”

“I know, that’s how it works,” she said with a smile. Several others around me chuckled, nodding absently in agreement. Leading me towards the mirror, she continued. “This is Medusa’s Mirror. There are several magical mirrors in the world but this one is passed from mother to daughter through the matrilineal line. Admittedly, I hedged the wording with you a bit when I told you it was a ‘trick’. From a certain perspective, there’s a trick to writing or art or science or even real magic. Still a lie, but a little one. Before Perseus brutally murdered Medusa for her power, she enjoyed staring into this mirror. It shows the viewer their true selves.”

My hands started trembling again as I was gripped by a mixture of fear and anticipation. I was fully aware that every eye in the room was on me but I forced myself to stand there, rooted to the spot. I wasn’t going to run from the truth. “B-but I saw the same reflection in another mirror.”

“Once it shows you the truth, you can see nothing else,” Meredith explained, stopping once I was directly in front of the mirror. “And eventually, that truth becomes reality.”

Looking around, her words started to sink in. “No costumes needed,” I said, repeating Meredith’s words from her invitation. I looked at Adam, who smiled back at me. “Nobody here is in costume,” I said, looking to Meredith, “you’re a real witch.”

She shrugged. “So-called ‘monsters’ aren’t what the movies make us out to be. Everything you likely ‘know’ about us, you can probably throw out the door.”

“Though I dare say she might already understand more than we might think or assume,” Adam interrupted. “We’ve all read The Path Less Travelled. I doubt this development that Sam is one of us comes as a surprise to anyone here.”

Lily stepped forward, looking up at me as she pulled back her hood and brushed her fringe out of her face. Cat-like ears sprang from her head and her slitted eyes were luminous gold in the light. “I’m curious what she is, really. I saw her survive a hit-and-run that should have killed her.”

“It only winged me,” I protested.

“Oh, no,” Lily laughed, “that bastard side-swiped you and used you as a speed bump. Roadkill city, population you.”

Meredith’s face darkened. “Yes, we’ll have to deal with that later.”

“H-how?” I asked trepidatiously.

A strange being in a hooded cloak and featureless mask growled. “We’re a family, we take care of each other.”

“More than that,” Meredith added, “we exist to remind people that there are lines one does not cross. We are primal reminders of fear and humility. But we’re getting side-tracked, I’d say everyone here is waiting for this but none more than Sam herself.”

Turning, she grabbed the satin drape and pulled, letting it fall at our feet. The mirror itself was dark and cracked, ancient. The frame was a tangle of carved wooden snakes, like the hair of the famous monster from which it took its name. The glimpses I’d received of the girl in the mirror hadn’t done her beauty justice. She was wearing my ripped clothes which sagged on her slender frame, revealing more flawless white skin than what I was showing. Turning my head, I saw that the tips of her ears came to a delicate point. I reached up, expecting to feel the change but my body was still the same, no matter how she echoed my movements. The reflections of everyone around me looked as they did, like normal reflections, nothing more. Tentatively opening my mouth, I drew my lips back over my teeth and her… No, my fangs.

“Vampire,” one of the women in the crowd around me whispered in hushed wonderment as the crowd began muttering amongst themselves.

Meredith seemed less surprised by my appearance, I assumed because she’d caught a glimpse while I was peeking at the mirror earlier this afternoon. But her expression changed when her gaze strayed to the tattoo on my reflection’s right wrist. Turning to me, she grabbed my hand and held it up to call attention to the reflection of it in the mirror. I tried to take my hand away as the snakes on the tattoo writhed and hissed but she held my hand fast, apparently unconcerned. “The Mother’s Mark!” she exclaimed, looking between me and my reflection.

The murmuring rose in volume to panicked chatter. I began to feel faint again, my sight blurring as I was unable to focus on any single conversation. “Please stop,” I begged in a voice too low for anyone to hear over the hubbub. “Please stop!” I repeated, louder and more desperately this time. Meredith looked at me and took the hint, shouting for everyone to quiet down but nobody was listening. Clutching my head, I felt darkness pressing in as my veins turned to ice inside my flesh. From the corner of my eye, I saw Lily and Artemis leap for the satin drape, burying their heads in the folds like they knew what was about to happen.

Unable to control myself, I clutched my ears and screamed. It was loud and high pitched, grating like nails dragged down a chalkboard. Meredith stumbled as wind whipped around the gathering and I fell to my knees, digging my fingers into my skull as if I was trying to stop my brain from bursting. Finally, I let out one last gasp, weeping on my knees in front of the mirror as I looked at my true self. Meredith recovered first, shaking her head as if to clear it as she knelt beside me and hugged me. “It’s ok,” she told me, “I’m sorry. You’re safe.”

The others shrank away from me as they stared, some of them at me while others stared at my reflection. Brushing herself off, Lily glared back at them. “Shame on you all,” she snapped. “You know how distressing this is! Shoo! Out! Until you can control yourselves!” Looking sheepishly at each other, the gathering began to move back into the formal lounge to talk, some taking food and drink from the dining table, others saying a quick apology before fleeing. One woman stayed but Lily didn’t even look in her direction, like she was somehow exempt from her bullying.

Artemis removed herself from the drape with more struggle, sighed, then hopped up on my shoulders and licked my face. “This isn’t going to be easy,” she said to Meredith, “it’s a big change.”

“What happened?” I asked, at least feeling a little better.

Meredith glanced at the woman who was still leaning against the wall. “You know the stereotype of vampires being aristocrats? In a way, your people are the aristocracy of monsters. Minus the castles and all that bull.”

“What she’s trying to say is that vampires are very powerful,” Lily said, “even fledglings like yourself. That power will explode when you get stressed.”

Looking into the mirror, I held up my right hand again, running my fingers over where the mark should be. “And this?”

“The Mother’s Mark,” Artemis explained. “It means you’re pledged to the Nyx, the Goddess of Night.”

“Like a marriage,” the woman waiting in the background added, stepping away from the wall to join us. The light revealed blonde hair, pretty features and an athletic build with dustings of scales on her skin. She was dressed practically, in jeans, t-shirt and a Bridleigh University hoodie, like she’d just come off campus. She had her jeans tucked into high leather boots that I envied immediately.

“Sam, this is Phyllis,” Meredith introduced her, “she’s a mermaid.”

“I prefer siren,” she corrected, sitting beside me cross-legged. Lily immediately skipped up behind her and began licking her cheek until she got annoyed and pushed her away.

“Awwwww,” Lily pouted, “but you taste like fish!”

Phyllis rolled her eyes.

“I notice Lily didn’t mind you staying around,” I said, “I’m guessing it’s not because of the way you taste.”

She smiled. “Observant, I like that. No, Lily kept me here because I’ve been around a lot longer than anybody else.”

“Sirens are one of the true immortal races,” Artemis explained.

Reaching down, Phyllis pulled a knife from her boot, showing me the blade for a moment before stabbing it into her forearm. Meredith flinched, “Crap, Phyllis, warn me if you’re going to do that! Eww!”

The smell hit me harder than when Meredith had ripped the bag open. I stared at the blood that oozed from her wound, my vision tunnelling until that was all I could see. When she pulled the blade out, however, I was treated to the sight of her blood crawling back into the wound of its own accord before the skin melted together, leaving her flesh flawless. Phyllis smiled through the whole procedure.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked in wonder.

“Sure it does,” she admitted, “just not as bad as it is for humans. For them, pain is ‘oh shit, I’m dying’, for immortals it’s a minor inconvenience. You get used to it. But that’s the other point to me sticking around your fledgling butt, if you lose yourself to the bloodlust you can drink from me without worrying about killing me. Besides, it’s good for immortals to make friends, we’re both going to have to put up with each other for a loooooong time.”

I looked between her and Meredith while they looked back at me without saying anything. Holding up my hands, I closed my eyes and started my breathing exercises again. “Let’s take a step back here. You’re telling me I’m a vampire?” I looked at my reflection in the mirror. “Correction, you’re telling me I’m really a hot vampire girl? Then why am I… Well, why am I this? And when you say ‘undead’, what does that actually mean?”

“Some of us are born to it,” Meredith answered. “My mother was a witch; her mother was a witch and so on down the line. We’ve been white, we’ve been black and we’ve been grey when the needs must. However, sometimes we aren’t born this way, we become this way. We call emergent monsters like this changelings or fledglings. You know the old internet meme ‘when other girls wanted to be a princess, I really wanted to be a vampire?’ Chances are, if that resonates with you and you really, truly, want it you become like us.”

“It takes a very traumatic event to trigger the change, though,” Phyllis continued where Meredith left off. “Like a visitation from a God or Goddess or a car accident or suicide. Or looking into an ancient and potent artefact that reveals our true nature to us. As for undead, that’s like what it sounds. We monsters recognize that we come in some broad types, the undead are those of us who are clinically dead but continue to move like the living. Vampires, ghouls, ghosts, revenants and many others fall into that category, all linked to the underworld. You can also be referred to as liminal monsters, one of the types that stands at the borders between life and death.”

Artemis hopped down from my shoulder and sat in front of me. “I brought Meredith’s attention to you because I felt something different about you. We cat familiars are also liminal, when the borders between this world and the underworld such as on the night of Halloween, we are particularly close and can sense our own kind nearby. You must have walked by me time and time again without either of us even noticing but today I could smell death clinging to you.”

“The Mother’s Mark makes this more complex,” Phyllis said. “Having a fledgling join the fold during Halloween is not so remarkable. For that fledgling to be a vampire is cause for celebration. For that fledgling vampire to also bear the Mark before she’s even metamorphosed, that’s nearly unheard of. It represents an intimate two-way connection to the Goddess, a sign of her love and your love for her.”

I shook my head. “I mean, I’ve read about Nyx in mythology and I always thought she was cool but I’ve never worshipped her or anything.”

“It might be something deeper than that,” Meredith said. “It’s a personal, spiritual, oath that can only be created with consent from both parties. Sometimes, that connection is written into your soul from the moment of birth. It’s rare but not unheard of for witches to be pledged that way, I fail to see why it couldn’t be the same for any of us. We don’t know everything, or the people who do know aren’t talking.” She looked at Phyllis pointedly when she said that.

“I’m sure, if any such people are remaining silent, it’s because they think it’s for the best,” Phyllis replied equally pointedly, hopping spryly to her feet and offering me her hand. “Besides, we’re being rude to your guests and the night is still young.”

Accepting her hand, I let her help me up, my knees still a little weak. “W-wait, you said I’m going to transform into…” I paused, glancing at my reflection. “Into her? When? How? I mean…”

The four girls laughed at me but I felt like I wasn’t in on the joke. Leaning over, Meredith kissed me on the cheek. “Honey, your eyes have turned blue. It’s already happening.”

Phyllis took my hand and led me towards the crowd waiting for me, the others following despite my protests, my brain furiously trying to work out a way for me to see my own eyes without my reflection despite the impossibility. One of those small voices in my head accused me of being far too happy about this but it was easily squashed. When I entered the room, a round of applause erupted that made me blush.

“Um, I’m sorry about the screaming,” I apologized, “I got a bit overwrought.”

“No need to apologize,” the man in the cape with the featureless mask said, “the revelation is always upsetting and it’s on us to remember that. Don’t worry, you’ll come away from all this wondering why you were ever afraid of yourself.” He reached up and pulled his mask away, revealing a face composed of writhing worms. After a moment, he covered it back up. “I should know that better than anyone.”

He extended a rubber-gloved hand which I accepted. Looking over his clothes, I noticed that his cloak was really a torn, heavy plastic raincoat. “I’m The Gardener, local urban legend. My wife’s lover had me murdered and buried in my own greenhouse, police never did find my body for obvious reasons.”

I glanced at Meredith, who nodded at me reassuringly. “I… I’m sorry but, you wanted to be like this?”

He laughed. “My girl, let me regale you some time about what wonderful creatures worms are and their necessity to life on this entire planet. They feed on me, I feed on them and the whole life cycle continues. Though, I guess you’re exempt from all that now. Each of us to their own. Acceptance is something I never thought I’d find in this world but I found my real family with these people. It’ll be the same for you.”

As he walked away, I looked to Meredith. “I really want to hug him,” I told her earnestly.

“I know, right?” Lily giggled, ignoring Meredith to answer me. A long cat tail snaked out from under her dress and began twitching back and forth.

Meredith shivered but nodded. “On one hand, I agree,” she murmured, “on the other hand I’m afraid some things still creep me out.”

Several more people came, introduced themselves and shook hands before apologizing for imposing themselves on me and going back to the party. It came as a surprise to find Hans leading Livia to me. The scarred girl was hugging herself and couldn’t look me in the eye. Hans looked at her, then turned to me. “Livia would like to say hello,” he told me tonelessly.

Blushing, I scratched the back of my neck. “Um, I’m sorry, Livia.”

She blinked a few times before finally looking at me. “You’re sorry? What for?”

“Well, I feel like my brain’s going to melt out my ears,” I explained. “I’m nervous and excited and elated and at the same time I don’t know what to make of all this. It’s like a dream where I’m getting everything I ever wanted. And I look at you and some of the others and I feel like I don’t deserve it.”

She seemed to relax a little at my admission. “Oh, no, sweetie, that’s how all of us feel. We all feel like we’ve won the jackpot after the revelation. That’s how this works, we become what we should always have been. Even guys like Gardener and Adam, you might look at them and wonder why anyone would want to be hideous but they’re not vain. What they wanted wasn’t beauty. For a long time I thought that beauty was what I wanted but in reality, what I really wanted was something very different. At the same time, you might ask why would anyone want to have to drink blood to survive.”

“Livia is a necromancer,” Hans explained, “and a recovering blood doll.”

“Hans!” Livia rebuked, slapping him on the shoulder angrily.

He stared at her blankly. “I told you I’m not good at this.”

You don’t read as much vampire literature as I have without coming across the term. Depending on which mythology you believe, a vampire’s bite could induce great pleasure, either because of the vampire’s hypnotic powers or drugged saliva to name but a few means. “So, um,” I began, stumbling over my words, “if you’re a recovering vampire addict, then we should avoid each other.”

She nodded, absently rubbing her arms. “We should but I’m probably not going to be able to. I moved out here away from my ex because I couldn’t stop myself from going back to her. I was in a death spiral and it took everything I had to leave her. Losing me embarrassed her in the eyes of the domain. I needed to tell you so that you knew that if I, um, beg you to bite me at some point, you shouldn’t.”

If my eyes could get any wider, they’d have inverted and consumed my entire face.

“I think Sam here can exercise that much self-control,” Phyllis interrupted, sparing me, “and I think you downplay your own abilities too much.”

“That’s kind of you to say but…” she trailed off helplessly, her voice getting smaller as she continued. “But even now, I want her to.”

I was quiet because there was a base, primal, part of me screaming that I should take her. The lizard brain part that didn’t think except in the simplest terms. Girl. Warm. Blood. Inside her. Get it out. Drink. Her body language screamed ‘prey’, making my teeth ache and my throat feel dry. I could make her want it, make her mine. But it hadn’t bargained for the other, stronger, part of me that was used to beating down intrusive thoughts. This demon was no different to any other trying to drag me down. I grabbed that thought and thrust it aside. I was the queen of my own mind. I control my desires, I am not an animal.

“You are a temptation,” I admitted aloud, “but I think I can keep my fangs to myself.”

She fidgeted, almost seeming disappointed. “I-if you ever want to talk, like, about being a vampire I’ve been in the culture for years,” she suggested tentatively. “We shouldn’t be unsupervised,” she added quickly, “but I can tell you about the domain and how other vampires I know handle their situation. It can be very difficult and I know how good it is to talk to someone who understands a little.”

“I’d like that,” I said evenly, “but supervised, as you say.”

Meredith and Phyllis looked at each other. “Do you know anyone who could stop a vampire from drinking someone’s blood?” the witch asked. Phyllis bit her lip, “Maybe if I called in all my sisters to chaperone.”

“Um, are the scars from being bitten?” I asked hesitantly, ignoring my escorts while hoping that I wasn’t being too forward with Livia.

“Oh, no,” she said, managing a smile. “It’s ritual scarring from practicing blood magic.”

“Necromancers deal in the magic of life and death while remaining alive,” Hans explained, “which is why she’s particularly susceptible to vampiric influence. Your people stand on the border of life and death, feeding from both to sustain themselves. Liminal monsters tend to be drawn into the vampiric web of influence one way or another.”

“I also went through gender transition,” Livia revealed, “a lot of us liminal types do. And I always did have an addictive personality. Guess I didn’t totally leave my problems behind me when I changed. But if you want to talk to someone who knows what it’s like to become a girl…”

I couldn’t help it, before anyone could stop me I had my arms around her in a gentle hug. I could feel Phyllis tensing up behind me, probably wondering if I was about to bite her after all or if I was going to force her hand, but all I did was stroke Livia’s hair. She was very still in my arms, like a delicate animal hoping for the predator to move on. I immediately let go, taking a step back. “I apologize, I overstepped my bounds.”

“N-no,” she said, shaking her head vigorously even though her hands were balled into fists, “you were fine. I should be able to deal with just that.”

The shoe was on the other foot and I knew it. Was this what it was like for other people to deal with skittish little old me? Probably. When I’d entered this house, they’d frightened me. Now everyone here was scared of me, of what I was capable of. It was the kind of reversal that could go to someone’s head. “I’ll leave you alone,” I told her, “until we can figure out how to interact safely. That was my fault, not yours. I’m sorry, Meredith, do you think I can go outside for a minute? Get a breath of fresh air?”

Artemis tapped Livia on the shin for a few moments before the necromancer noticed her. “Pick me up and pet me,” she demanded. Livia snorted and complied, happily distracted while Meredith and Phyllis escorted me through the kitchen and out the side door with Lily in tow. Taking a deep breath, I marvelled how vibrant the smells of the night were and how clear my vision was. It was dark and there were streetlights but I could see in the depths of the shadows around me and identify each of my companions by the distinct sounds of their heartbeats.

“Everything’s so much clearer to me now,” I told them giddily. “I feel hyperaware, like I’m on amphetamines.”

“Probably why you had the meltdown in front of the mirror,” Phyllis conjectured, “sensory and emotional overload.”

“That happens to me too!” Lily volunteered, raising her hand. I scratched her behind the ears, eliciting a happy purr from the little girl.

I looked at Meredith a sadly. “You two are scared of me now,” I observed. “Exactly how fearsome are ‘my people’ as you say? Is it inevitable that I’m going to abuse someone?”

Her worried look turned to cocky defiance. “Please, we can handle a fledgling. I’m more worried about how you’d handle the trauma of losing control of yourself and hurting someone.”

“Which is why I’m here to absorb the damage,” Phyllis reminded us. “You’re doing very well, I’ve seen much, much worse. It’s just a pity we don’t have an older vampire in town to mentor you.”

“You mean someone who can beat me down if I go batshit insane?”

“Yes,” Phyllis answered flippantly, “like I said, a mentor.”

“I’m going to have to drink blood, aren’t I?”

Meredith nodded. “Unless you want to sleep until someone feeds you.”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to brood like a petulant teenager over this,” Phyllis scoffed. “Sirens eat human flesh. Try explaining to local law enforcement about the leg you keep in the fridge you got from the funeral parlour.”

I had to really try not to laugh at that mental image but I’m sure they both saw me struggling not to grin. “Tell you the truth, no. I’m not going to brood over it. In fact, it sounds wonderful, I can’t wait, my teeth hurt just thinking about it and then I start trembling, not from fear but anticipation. What’s scaring me is how much I want it, how right it feels and the looks on your faces when I admit that openly.”

“There aren’t many monsters that look at other monsters and can think ‘prey’,” Meredith murmured, “it’s a little unnerving to have the tables turned on me like this.”

Phyllis shrugged. “Nothing new to me. Sirens are cannibalistic, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what that means when we can’t die from being eaten by each other.”

“Wow,” Lily said, “that sounds a bit… Um… What’s the word?”

“Frightening?” Meredith suggested, her cheeks a little green. “Disgusting? Horrifying?”

“Homoerotic!” Lily finally finished, snapping her fingers.

I stared at her. “You aren’t actually a kid, are you?”

“Don’t I look like a kid?” she asked with mockingly innocent eyes. “I’m only little.”

I didn’t dignify the question with a response. Savvy enough to know that none of the girls were telling me the full truth, I opened my mouth to ask more questions just as the door to the kitchen opened behind us.

“Hey, girls,” Gardener called from inside, sticking his head out the door, “come in for a minute, you’re going to want to hear this.”

Curious, we all filed inside. Sitting at the table was one of the other party-goers that I hadn’t met yet. He looked like a hobo with long grey hair, a matted green longcoat and grey fingerless gloves. He was wrinkled with age and weathering. When he smiled, his teeth were metal. On the desk in front of him was a police scanner, currently tuned to local chatter. “Hi,” he said, waving to me, “I’m Ian. Nice to meet you.”

The scanner bleeped. “Shit, we lost ‘em. East Thirteen, the pickup was last seen turning off Aniseed Drive into the national park. Can’t see ‘em in the trees and no lights, crazy bastards. Continuing patrol in case they double back onto the road, tell the Rangers they might have a crash on their hands.”

“Roger, Thirty-One.”

Ian grinned. “Car Thirty-One reported a speeding pickup truck with a broken side mirror. When they attempted to pull them over, it took off.”

“It’s them,” Lily said with certainty, looking up at me, “it’s crazy enough.”

I wracked my brains trying to remember where Aniseed Drive even was. “Isn’t that all the way across town? No way we can get there.”

Everyone was smirking at me in the way that told me I was still the newbie who could say stupid shit. “Come on,” Meredith said, tapping me on the shoulder as she grabbed her broom from the corner, “I’ll give you a ride.”

“A broom,” I scoffed, following her out, “seriously?”

Everyone was watching from the doorway expectantly as she held the broom out. “Grab on tight,” she ordered, “and do NOT let go until I say.”

“Okay,” I said, tentatively curling my fingers around the shaft.

We shot into the air like a missile, wind rushing past whipping through the holes in my clothes, threatening to rip it clean off. Meredith didn’t mount the broom, I felt air whipping past but no influence of gravity, like we were weightless. I didn’t scream, when I tried to open my mouth I felt like the air was going to be ripped from my lungs. I saw the town pass by in a blur far below, lights streaking past. Just as suddenly, we stopped dead over a dark forest, lit by the full moon above.

“Woah,” I gasped, keeping a firm grip on the broom, “you need to work on warning people.”

Meredith smiled at me. “Just remember we other monsters always have tricks up our sleeves, almighty predator queen. Speaking of which, can you see them?”

I looked. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I searched for Aniseed Drive. The road itself was easy to find, it was lit up to my eyes like it was glowing. It took me a moment to realize that I was sensing the heat from the tires of passing cars. Knowing that, I noticed a dirt track running from the road through the underbrush, concealed from the edge of the road itself, weaving through the trees. The track led right to a parked pickup truck at a campsite in a small dip in the landscape next to a creek. There were people moving about but no fire. I pointed at them, saying, “There, that’s them.”

Meredith looked, then the broom began to drift towards them, slowly descending below the canopy. Finally alighting on the ground, the witch giving me the nod to let go of the broom, we could hear loud music and cheering as we approached. I could smell them, I remembered the hit-and-run and I felt anger but at the same time, I hesitated. “What are we doing here?” I asked, as much of myself as Meredith as we stalked forward.

“What comes naturally,” she said. “Don’t you want to put a little fear into them? I know you do, I’ve seen that look you have before. I’ve worn that look before.”

“I do,” I admitted, “but should I?”

“Should we tell the police? How should we explain ourselves? What if they’re crazier than we think and some poor park ranger confronts them and gets shot? Will being arrested even teach them anything?”

I bit my lip, thinking over the questions. All of them were answered for me when I heard someone screaming for help from the campsite. I wanted to run but I walked, feeling my fangs push out of my gums, puncturing my lip bloodlessly as I chewed. My teeth were hurting again, eager to bite something and the number of excuses not to were rapidly diminishing to zero. My hands were trembling again but not from fear. I was like the racehorse waiting at the starting gate, anticipating the gunshot to set me off. I walked because part of me whispered that the anticipation would make the climax that much sweeter when it came. Meredith followed, several paces behind me to my right, the same resolve on her face that I felt.

The idiots at least had the presence of mind not to make a campfire after a police chase but they did have a boom box standing on a rock belting out late-night radio. Two large, athletic, men were struggling with a third, shorter, skinnier African American boy, forcing a burlap sack over his head. Another was drinking a beer nearby, laughing at the scene. They’d parked their pickup truck by the creek, I could see the scrape I’d left on the right hand rear view mirror after the hit-and-run. Fascinated, I walked toward it, counting each minute line in the paint. It wasn’t until I was standing by the truck, stroking the damage, that any of them noticed we were there.

“What the fuck?” the one who was drinking shouted in alarm, stumbling backwards over a rock. One of the guys holding the black kid looked, saw me next to the truck and swore. Leaving him to his friend, the boy stalked towards me. “Hey, asshole, what you think you’re doing touching my fucking truck?”

Looking in the cabin, I saw a gun rack full of rifles hanging over the seats. In the tray was a long coil of rope knotted into a noose. I had to remind myself that the only thing lighting the clearing for them was the full moon; he could hardly see me except as a shadowy figure. But I could see them clearly, each of their faces. I already knew their scent. When I looked at my hands, I could see my nails growing longer, sharper and darker, like claws. It made me grin.

“Having the time of my life,” I told him. I knew he couldn’t see my fangs because I was grinning wide enough that they’d be plainly visible in daylight from where he was standing but he wasn’t screaming and running in terror. Something about my tone of voice must have warned him, though, he paused in his stride and reached for something tucked into his belt at his back. I let him draw the handgun. I wanted him to feel in control before I took that control away from him. He pulled the hammer back, the click echoing through the valley. “He’s comin’ right for us, ain’t he Billy? Him and his bitch.”

The drunk kid laughed. “Yeah, nothing we can do Rod. Waste these bitches.”

Their captive tried to scream for help but the guy holding him kneed him in the stomach.

As he pulled the trigger, I saw the bullet leave the muzzle. Stunned, I watched it approach as he squeezed the trigger again. Staring in rapt fascination, I didn’t even try to move, I just watched as the bullets hit me in the chest, spinning like ballet dancers through the air. I watched them pierce my shirt, felt them drill into my flesh painlessly as they slowly mushroomed and fragmented, blowing holes out my back and covering the truck in viscera. I didn’t feel weak, I didn’t fall, I just stood there staring.

He surprised me by turning the gun towards Meredith. I felt a spike of adrenaline as a single bullet left the barrel. It was slow, like the others, and I wasn’t about to let it find its mark. My hand snapped up faster than a normal eye could see, blocking the bullet’s trajectory. It drilled into my palm, I felt it hit bone and stop as I caught it in mid-air.

“What the fuck?” Rod swore, glancing between my extended hand and the holes in my chest.

I could feel the blood and gore on the car crawling back to me, absorbed by my body as it regenerated. Muscle and bone crackled and popped as it reformed and re-shaped itself. “Look at me,” I growled the order in an unearthly, feminine, tone. When our gazes locked, I willed him to freeze by instinct. He stopped, frozen in place. His heartbeat started hammering rapidly as he tried to move but found himself incapable. I could hear his blood rushing through his veins.

“Rod?” the guy holding the kid asked. “What the fuck are you doing? Rod?”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, looking to the gunman in mock surprise. “You were the one driving earlier today! Don’t you remember me? I was walking peacefully on the shoulder when you veered wildly off the road.”

“Rod? What the fuck, shoot him! Shoot him again!”

Walking up to Rod, I sniffed, wrinkling my nose at the scent of alcohol. “Give me the gun,” I ordered. To his friend’s surprise, Rod did so without question. I extracted the clip and cast it aside before pulling back the slide and emptying the chamber. “Good boy,” I said, pushing him over with an open palm. He immediately snapped out of it as he hit the grass. Looking down on him in disgust as he pissed his pants, scrambling away from me on his back, I shook my head. “Why don’t you boys make this sporting and run for me?”

Billy was scrabbling, trying to find anything he could use as a weapon on the ground but he was running out of rocks and sticks as he discarded anything unsuitable. “What the hell are...”

He never finished his question. I moved, crossing the distance between us in an eyeblink. My claws raked his face, spraying foul-smelling blood across my shirt. He grabbed his cheek and screamed, rolling around on the ground like he was on fire, watering the soil with his blood. While he was busy bleeding, I turned around and threw the gun straight at the only aggressor who was still standing, the one holding the kid between me and him like a hostage. His head snapped back as the hilt smacked him in the forehead. I didn’t need to tell the black kid to run, he took off despite having a bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back. Meredith followed him. That left me and Rod, who started screaming when I turned my attention back to him.

“I told you to run,” I said calmly.

Now that I wasn’t between him and the car, he took my advice seriously. At first on all fours before he found his feet, he reached the driver’s side door and flung it open. Unfortunately, rather than grab the steering wheel, he chose to reach for the gun rack. I was beside him before he even brushed the gun with his fingertips, my right hand wrapped around his throat. Enraged, I slammed the side of his head against the truck before throwing him five feet across the clearing, handling him like a child handles a rag doll.

While Rod reeled in a daze, I caught sight of his friend, Billy, the one profusely leaking blood from his face. He’d managed to roll to his feet, hopping away from me like a scared rabbit. Just as I was about to give chase, a rubber-gloved hand burst from the ground, grabbing his ankle and tripping him up. The Gardener rose from the earth, soil dripping from his black hooded raincoat. “Sorry, fledgling,” he apologized without facing me, a long, rusted and pitted sickle emerging from his right sleeve. “We can’t let you have all the fun tonight.”

Billy looked over his shoulder and screamed at the sight of the armed figure looming over him. “Run!” Gardener taunted raising the sickle over his head before slashing down, piercing Billy straight through his calf. I shuddered in rapture at the smell of fresh blood, warmth spreading from my abdomen down to the tips of my fingers and toes. “Run, little piggy!” Gardener laughed maniacally. Billy really tried but, as it turns out, running with a wound in your leg is very hard.

I left Gardener to his sport as Rod managed to gather enough wits to stagger into the woods towards the road. As I chased, I felt like time was slowing down around me again. My every footfall was perfect and graceful as I skipped from tree to tree, scampering around trunks and climbing branches like I was weightless. When I stopped in front of him, he screamed and skidded to a halt, almost falling in his rush to change direction. I realized he couldn’t see me move. I repeated the trick a few times until he started screaming at shadows, thinking it was me in the darkness.

While I was following him, I became distracted. Sure, I was the cat playing with the mouse in this situation and I was having fun. The scent of blood was intoxicating and when he ran I felt compelled to chase. But why? What was I trying to achieve? Revenge was the last thing on my mind. The kid he and his friends were brutalizing was safe. What was my endgame? Was I really going to drink his blood? Drain him dry? Is that what I wanted? The sounds of traffic were getting distant as he headed deeper into the woods and I resolved to let this play out. He was already tiring while I felt that I could do this all night.

Rod finally collapsed in a clearing covered in a carpet of orange and brown leaves. The trees around us had been planted in a neat circle, now bare and spindly, denuded by the season. Nearby were the foundations of a collapsed cabin, overgrown and rotting as it was slowly reclaimed by nature. He scrambled weakly on the ground, unable to get enough of a grip to move quickly in the leaves and mud. The scrapes on his skin oozed blood, tantalizing my senses, calling to me.

I paused as I entered the clearing, feeling the moonlight on my skin as I bathed in it, reeling from the elated tingling as the light washed over me. Looking up at the stars, I felt the pull of the void, my spirit drawn towards the fathomless depths. It was a beautiful night away from the lights and noise of the town. Slipping out of my shoes, which were getting too large for my feet, I felt the mud squish between my toes, heedless of danger. After all, what in nature could hurt me now? I was the queen of vermin, the predator’s mistress. The hunt was making me high, the climax so close I could taste it, my instincts proven right. Anticipation was the greatest drug of all.

As if nature itself could sense my elation, the forest came alive around us. Ravens and crows swooped down, passing across the moon as they announced their presence with a plethora of caws and unearthly rattles. Wolves howled in acknowledgement of my mastery from a distance as worms crawled from the mud, insects and spiders emerging to bow in reverence. Throwing my head back, I howled, keening in answer to the outpouring of respect from the wild around me.

Shadows of the trees began to flow around us, reaching with claw-like hands as if to grab on and pull us into darkness. Rod screamed but I wasn’t afraid. I felt a presence at once familiar yet utterly alien enfold me, washing away my elation to draw me into the cold comfort of her embrace. As she emerged from the shadows, black shroud hanging from pure white shoulders, her luminous face surrounded by hair that drank in all light adorned with twinkling stars. A cape of raven feathers fell down her back, attached to her wrists by delicate silver cuffs. Her lips and nails were black but her eyes were ice blue, like mine. Feeling my right wrist begin to burn, I looked down to find the shadows insinuating themselves into my skin, forming writhing snakes entwined with the phases of the moon. The Mother’s Mark.

Nyx looked down on Rod and beckoned to me as she moved to his side, each step several inches from the groundcover. I couldn’t help but obey, I was entranced. Moments ago, I’d been elated by the hunt, drunk on the blood and fear of my prey, every atom of my body focused on the chase. Now all I could do was stare at her in wonder. She looked into my eyes as I approached, our gazes locked as she pulled me close, at first with the nest of shadowy limbs that emerged from the edge of her shroud but then laying her perfect hands on my hips. Our bodies pressed together as she drew me into the deep, lingering, kiss of her black lips. She didn’t need to ask my consent, I threw myself into the embrace with willing abandon as our tongues danced together between our lips.

I felt giddy as we reluctantly pulled apart. She ran her fingers through my hair and I felt it grow at her touch, curling as if to entwine itself with her. I gasped when her hand slid down over my shoulders to my side, bones melting and shrinking as my waist contracted. Her aura was like the moonlight, suffusing my body with pleasure as I allowed her will to change me. “Beautiful daughter,” she addressed me, her voice sending pleasant tingles down my spine, “I rejoice to finally meet you.”

Struggling to find the words for what I was feeling, I gave off a tiny, feminine, gasp. It was like an emptiness in my life that I didn’t know I was missing was immediately filled. All my worries about the meaning of the Mother’s Mark fled and I was happy that she’d given it to me, that I was hers and she was mine. I didn’t even entertain the idea of monogamy for a moment but I didn’t care. It was a different relationship, so much more than any mortal can give or receive. “And I you,” I finally said, deciding that was all that needed to be stated.

She smiled and kissed me again before looking back to Rod, lying on the ground before us. “You’ve driven the fight from him,” she observed. “I’m curious, what will we do with him now? Shall we drain him dry and leave his husk for the ravens? It would be a fitting celebration of our reunion.”

It was tempting but my genuine loathing and disgust looking down on the wretch made me want to crawl out of my skin. “No,” I spat, “his filthy blood shouldn’t touch our lips.” I didn’t want to break contact with her, so I allowed my hand to drift down her leg as I knelt beside him, meeting his petrified gaze. “Rod,” I ordered, subduing his will, “you’re going to sleep and forget everything you saw tonight. When you wake up, you’re going to have a change of heart and turn yourself in to the police. You’re going to confess to everything and throw yourself on the court’s mercy. Once you’ve made recompense, you’re going to turn your life around and be a good person. Now sleep.” He breathed a sigh as his body relaxed, collapsing into blissful slumber.

Sighing, I stood back up and buried my face in the Mother’s shoulder, weeping at the thought of what I might have done. She wrapped her arms around me, enfolding me in her cloak as she stroked my hair. “Good girl,” she said soothingly, “I knew you’d make the right choice.”

After a few moments she pulled away from me and I tensed up, but she continued to hold my waist to prevent me from moving away. Raising one hand to her shoulder, she lifted her chin to pull her skin taut and drew one nail across her throat. I gasped as a slender line of red began to leak from the fine wound. The scent alone was intoxicating, as much as I wanted to protest I let her draw my lips closer until I found myself sucking the rich fluid from her veins. As I drank, pulling the warmth from her body to enflame me, I felt myself changing even more. Entwined with her, as safe as a babe in the womb, my bones popped and cracked, muscle flowing under my skin like water. I felt her blood writhing inside me, empowering me, perfecting me. My hips bloomed as my skin softened and I felt my manhood simply melt away into nothingness, as if it had never been. I could feel my breast press against the Goddess as it grew, bringing me into womanhood. When I was finally done, I licked the wound clean and watched it close as she looked down on me and smiled beatifically.

“A newborn needs a new name,” she informed me, making some show of consideration as I waited breathlessly. “From now on, you are Ciara.” The sound of the name hit me like a blow to the chest. As the shock settled down, I searched my feelings and found that it felt right. Just another revelation of who I really was.

Hearing a clatter behind me, I looked over my shoulder to find Meredith staring at us, mouth agape. I licked my thick red lips clean, feeling my fangs with my tongue as I grinned. “Welcome, Meredith,” I said, reaching out for her, “please, come.”

For a moment I thought she was going to come, taking a tentative step forward but then shaking her head and pulling her foot back. “No,” she said, though I could feel her attraction.

“Hello, Meredith Blackwood,” Nix greeted her, stroking my cheek as my hand dropped. I felt like I could purr.

“Mother Night,” Meredith greeted the Goddess formally, immediately kneeling.

“How are the other humans?”

“Gardener got a bit too enthusiastic,” the witch reported. “The one known as Billy will be in hospital for some time recovering. The other has significant head trauma but will survive.”

“My wife can take care of them,” Nyx informed her. “I entrust her to your care.”

“As you will,” Meredith agreed.

My eyes met Nyx’s as she drew me in for one last kiss before parting. Removing her cloak, she settled the garment comfortingly over my shoulders. “I am always watching you, my love,” she whispered into my ear before dissolving into mist and shadow. She was gone but I knew the truth of her words. “I know,” I whispered back to the emptiness. Her presence was still with me, I could feel her everywhere.

I was pleasantly cold and everything was still. My heart no longer beat but I was whole. Looking down at myself, I recognized the form that I’d seen in Medusa’s Mirror. Crimson curls graced slender shoulders with two delicate breasts visible beneath my oversize shirt. Thanks to losing several inches of waistline and gaining hip size, my jeans no longer fit so I simply discarded them. Nyx’s cloak bore her scent, which was all the comfort and concealment that I needed.

“You truly are beautiful, Priestess,” Meredith complimented as I approached, still kneeling.

Shaking my head, I placed two fingers under her chin and lifted her up until she was standing. “I’ll never ask you to kneel, not you,” I told her. “You’ll have to tell me what’s between you and Mother Night sometime.”

“Maybe,” she sighed. She gestured toward Rod’s body. I watched him slowly levitate to follow us through the woods as she led me back to the campsite.

“Damnit, Gardener,” a man in a Ranger’s uniform snapped as he examined Billy, who was unconscious on the ground, “you’ve really torn ‘em up this time!” He wasn’t lying, Billy had acquired a multitude of shallow cuts since I’d last seen him, his clothing in tatters.

Lily waved at us, sitting on the hood of the park ranger’s four-by-four with a plastic box full of mice. Occasionally, she reached in, picked one out and popped it into her mouth. I could hear the bones crunching as she chewed. The guy I’d hit in the head with the gun was still out cold where he lay and the kid with the bag over his head was weeping with his back against the pickup truck. Gardener shrugged, several worms dropping to the ground from under his raincoat, “Sorry, I got carried away. He really did squeal like a pig, you know.”

“Ranger Gareth Stone, this is Ciara,” Meredith introduced us, “she’s our newborn vampire.”

Stone raised his eyebrows. To his credit, he looked at my face before his eyes drifted to the Mother’s Mark. “Ciara, welcome to Bridleigh.”

I nodded. “Thank you. I didn’t know the Rangers were in on our secrets.”

“Who the hell do you think protects the yetis?” he grumbled. “If you’re a vampire, you can take care of these kids, right?”

“Yes, I just need a moment,” I said, looking to the weeping young man. Walking over to him, I was pleased to find that his smell and the sound of his heartbeat didn’t make me want to drain him. I was pleasantly full, though I wondered how long it would last. Removing the bag, I winced when the kid flinched away from me. “It’s ok,” I whispered soothingly, “what’s your name?”

“C-Christian,” he said.

Smirking, I held in a chuckle. “Maybe a little unfortunate but that’s fine. Christian, look at me.” The moment our eyes met, I felt his will fall into my grasp and for a moment I worried that I was getting used to this power. Remembering the fears of Meredith and Phyllis and the ease with which I’d almost fallen into the role of the merciless predator, I shuddered at the thought of what choices other, less ethical vampires might make. “You’re going to forget us, ok Christian? The one known as Rod had a change of heart and let you go. You’re going to tell the police that. You’re going to get therapy and get through this trauma because you’re strong and you’re going to use that strength to make the world better. Now get some rest.”

He nodded before falling asleep. Meredith gestured and lay Rod beside him. Neither of them would wake until morning. “I’ll have to wait for the other two to recover their wits before I can mesmerize them,” I sighed.

“I can handle them,” Meredith said. “Spells might not be as fast but they’re just as effective. Lily, can you get princess here back home? She needs proper clothes.”

“Sure!” the little catgirl said, hopping down and skipping over to me. “Brace yourself, this takes a little getting used to at first.”

“I’ve ripped the band-aid off so many wounds tonight, what’s one more?” I asked rhetorically.

She wasn’t lying. There was a lurch as time and space revolved around us, twisting and warping before snapping back into place. Or, rather, snapping back into another place. It was a room with a double-decker bed, thick red carpet and pink curtains, definitely a girl’s room. Looking down, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that my feet weren’t muddy anymore and I wasn’t about to ruin the carpet. Looking at the desk in the corner and the computer stacked neatly on it, I couldn’t help but feel there was something familiar about it.

“Wait,” I said, “that’s MY computer!”

“I took the liberty of retrieving the important things from your flat,” Lily told me, wrinkling her nose. “There wasn’t much. And I squared everything with Mrs. Pea. She’s a nice old lady.”

“How? Wait, don’t answer that, I don’t think I’ll like the answer. Where are we? Why is my stuff here?”

I was interrupted by a polite knock on the door, which opened a moment later to reveal Greta. She looked at me with bored disinterest. “Oh, you’re back. Hi. You look good.”

“Thank you,” I said, perplexed.

“Lily, when you’re done with the fledgling, Doctor Dreyfus is having a psychotic rant in the dining room.”

Lily rolled her eyes and sighed. “I’ll be right down,” she told her. Greta ducked back out and closed the door. “Sorry, I better go calm him down before he pulls out the death rays. Clothes are in the wardrobe, take whatever you like and join the party when you’re ready.”

“Wait,” I said, stopping her before she could walk out on me, “what if none of the clothes fit?”

“Vampires are shapeshifters,” she told me as she stepped past, “make them fit.”

“Huh,” I said stupidly, watching her close the door behind her. Opening the wardrobe, I started cussing the girl out. It was indeed full of girl’s clothing. For a ten-year-old. It took me a moment to remember exactly what she’d said before leaving. Pulling out a pretty red dress, I held it up in front of me. Could I? Is this what she meant? Smiling, I closed my eyes and concentrated. I felt my muscles and bone melt again as I shrank, annoyance becoming joy as I opened my eyes to look at myself in the mirror on the wardrobe door. My heart leapt when I found myself looking back at the cute ten-year-old me in the mirror, Nyx’s cloak still on my shoulders, having altered itself to fit my body.

Setting the cloak carefully on the bed, I retrieved some underwear from the wardrobe and dressed before slipping the cloak back over my shoulders and skipping into the bathroom. I had to stand on the tips of my toes to get a proper look at myself in the mirror, but there I was, a little ten-year-old redhead vampire dressed for trick or treating. Opening my mouth, I watched my fangs extend and contract at my will, taking in the sight from different angles as I posed for myself. Twirling in front of the mirror, watching the cape and dress swirl around me, I giggled hysterically. The only thing out of place was the Mother’s Mark, which made me frown. What ten-year-old girl has a tattoo? I was considering trying to pass it off as body paint, when I noticed that is was slowly fading on my reflection in the mirror. I could still see it and feel it but I knew that it was no longer visible to anyone unmarked.

Elated, I skipped down the stairs to the foyer of Meredith’s house. Adam smiled at me from the formal lounge as I walked past. “Evening, little lady,” he called, “it seems the hunt went well.”

“Brilliantly, thanks Adam,” I called back, moving into the dining room.

Lily was patting the hand of a man in a dirty labcoat comfortingly as he sobbed in the corner. “What did you do?” I asked, putting my hands on my hips in cute mock indignance.

“I didn’t do anything!” Lily protested. “I just solved Fermi’s Paradox for him! I can’t help if he doesn’t like the conclusions.”

Hopping to her side, I grabbed her from behind. “Ok, Lily, that’s enough tormenting the nice mad scientist…”

“Engineer!” the man snapped despite his sobs. “I’m a mad engineer, damn it!”

“Sorry,” I apologized. “Either way, I’m stealing Lily for a bit. There’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I need her to walk me through it.”

Lily looked confused as I led her by the hand towards the door. Hans and Greta had reconvened, sitting at the foot of the stairs and were staring at us. “What are you two doing?” Hans asked in the same toneless voice he’d used before.

I grinned at them, extending my fangs. “It’s Halloween, don’t you know? We’re going for a walk.”

The twins looked at each other then stood. “Sounds fun,” they said together.

“Adam,” I called across the room, “if Meredith comes back, do you mind telling her that we’re only out for a little bit?”

“Have fun! But not too much fun,” he warned.

“We’ll be careful,” I reassured him. I was about to lead our little group out when a pair of hands grasped my shoulders. Looking up, I squeaked at Phyllis glaring down at me. “And where are you going, young lady?”

She hadn’t seemed quite as scary when I was her size but now she was frightening. In a kind of little kid caught trying to open the cookie jar kind of way. “Trick or treating,” I said truthfully but feeling like I was about to get in trouble anyway.

Phyllis’s glare darkened before a wicked grin spread across her face and she let me go. “Oh, is that all! Well, I’ll have to come along to watch over you little tykes like a responsible parent, won’t I? I’m sure it won’t be a hard job, considering that neither of you would dream of getting into mischief, would you?”

Lily and I looked at each other guiltily.

“Now, be good girls and say Happy Halloween,” she ordered, turning us around to wave at the crowd behind us. “Happy Halloween everyone!”

“Happy Halloween!” Lily and I repeated with all the cheerfulness we could muster. Hans and Greta also repeated it but in their own idiosyncratic, toneless voices.

“Happy Halloween!” my new family shouted back as the four of us little monsters, and one big monster, stepped out into the night.

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