Tuesday, 12 July 2022 00:00

The Catch (Jordan Winters 7)

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Jordan Winters 7

The Catch

By Bek D Corbin
Gilded by Steve Zink

 

Being important sucks. 

I mean, you’d THINK that being important would be cool, with people telling you what a great job you did, and how you really pulled it off under fire! But NO, being important means that people are interested where you are, and what you’re doing, ALL THE TIME.

Oh, and just because you’re ‘important’ doesn’t mean that you actually have any SAY in what you’re going to do. Nope, now everything’s a fucking committee decision!

Hell, I didn’t even have a weekend off before it got started. Saturday morning, after a hard night of setting things right that had been wrong for years, I come down to a late breakfast, looking forward to getting together with Jazz that afternoon, and Axel McKay jumps me, right there in my living room. Seems that he was there at the crack of dawn, and had been waiting for HOURS to start telling me my business.

Now, Axel McKay is not an unlikable man, but the most unlikable thing about him is that he is genuinely doing what he thinks is for the best. Then, the same can be said of Hitler, and we all know how well THAT turned out.

Mr. McKay isn’t on the High Council, but you couldn’t tell that from listening to him. The High Council gives him a few chores do to for them every so often, mostly to keep him from bitching and moaning about it, and he’s just the sort to take this as sign that he’s on the fast track to the big time. Mr. McKay is the ‘little tin dictator’ type, who is absolutely convinced that he knows what’s best for everybody about everything, and if he were a Christian, he’d say that it was his bounden Christian duty to set the errant sinners a-right. Which is only ONE of the reasons why I am so thankful that I am not a Christian.

He got up from the couch and looked at me, his feet set wide and his hands in his pockets. “So, you finally got up.”

“Hey, it’s Saturday, and I had a busy night, last night.”

“So I heard. Hell, everybody’s heard. Especially the Spirits.” He leaned over and gave me a sharp look. “You DO know, that we have a history here with the local spirits. A very LONG history. And the cornerstone, the very bedrock foundation of that history, is that we respect our Good Neighbors. We don’t go around, slapping slave collars on them!”

I gave him a ‘God, you are such a fucking moron’ look and said, “Hey, the Lurker started it. I just finished it.”

“Yeah, you finished it in a way that’s got every spook and wight in the Berkshires in an uproar!”

“Oh?” I cocked an eyebrow at him. “There’s another way to get loose of the Lurker, once he’s got his hooks into you?”

“YES, there are other ways!”

“Oh? Tell me about them! Tell me about all the times that you went into Hobb’s Woods and came out, after tweaking the Lurker’s nose.”

He pulled out his hand and pointed a finger at me. “Do NOT give me lip, Boy! After what you’ve done-”

“And exactly what HAS my son done, Axel?” Dad said quietly, looking at Mr. McKay over his cup of coffee.

“He went and broke more pacts and covenants than I have time to list!”

“Well, it’s not like the Lurker gave him a lot of choice.”

“Like that’s going to mean anything, when the Tribunal of Seven hear about it! The Wise Ones alone know what they’ll do when they get wind of it! The High Council will have to-”

“Axel, the High Council heard about this three seconds after the Aubreys left our house. They’ve had days to think about this, and the only thing that we’ve heard from them was when they sent Alan Shawcross with the rest of us, to act as the Lore keeper, when Dan called the children out of the woods.”

“Hey, don’t you think that they aren’t giving this a ton of thought!” Mr. McKay’s eyes got all squinty.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. I wouldn’t dream of trying to second guess them, and go and do something stupid, to try and make amends, before there are amends to make.”

“Do you realize what this MEANS?”

“It means, the boy did good, and he shouldn’t have to get grief for it.”

“Well, that’s a matter of opinion.”

“That’s MY opinion, about MY son, in MY house!” Dad was starting to raise his voice. Dad doesn’t do that a lot. He’s a very relaxed, laid back kinda guy. When the roof gets raised around here, it’s usually the Mom rattling the shingles. But Axel McKay’s the sort who affects people like that.

Mom got between them, and sent Mr. McKay off, saying that when the Council called, we’d come right away. Mister McKay didn’t like that much, but there wasn’t a lot he could say, that didn’t imply that he was acting on the Councils’ orders; and he knew that Mom would call him on it. He crammed his hat on his head, and grunted out something about someone having to make sure that things turned out right.

And then I hadda wade through THREE HOURS of the ‘rents yapping at me about how I had done a real great thing, and great things were gonna be expected of me from now on. Now, I have spent a LOT of time honing my skills at flying under the radar, and this ‘being important’ sounds a LOT like people are gonna be telling me that I gotta do a lot of stuff that I don’t particularly wanna. Like I said before, being important sucks.

I did manage to slip away from the Penal Compound and bicycle into town. But, I swear I met more of the local Families on the street biking in that morning than I did in the last ten years. EVERYBODY seemed to want to stop and know every little last thing. And, worst of all, every so often, I caught a glimpse of McKay ducking around a corner. Now, I dunno which was more pathetic: him following me around like that, or the piss-poor job that he was doing of it. Or, maybe he making it easy for me to see him, so that I’d think that he wasn’t any good at it, and he could snoop on me later.

Anyway, it was a chore and half, getting away to where I could change into my girly seeming, but once I did, the pressure dropped a lot, and I was only a half hour late. Jazz was waiting for me impatiently. “JAZZ!”

“JOR!”

We did the big hug and loud reunion of friends who either haven’t seen each other for years or hours thing. “Dammit, Jor, where have you BEEN? And what happened to Dan?”

“errr… Same thing. Would you believe that we were captured by nefarious agents of KAOS, a diabolical secret organization dedicated to overthrowing the world, flown to a remote volcanic island, and tortured to reveal the secrets of the Sharashka Process?”

Jazz shot me a semi-amused look. “You watch a lot of Nick at Nite©, I guess.”

“Arrrggg! The Gaijin is too clever for me! It’s true! I am a member of the secret Adirondack Mountain Ninja Clan. Dan and I, and several other members of our Adirondack Clan were sent on a secret mission against our mortal enemies, the Hudson Valley Ninja Clan-”

“Now we’re on the Anime Channel.”

“errr... Would you believe that Dan and I are actually the same person, and that I’m a 20th generation witch, depending on whose family tree you use, and there are actually hundreds of practicing Witches in the general Millbridge area? Real, honest-to-Gods-you’ve-never-heard-of Witches, not Neo-Pagans or New Agers. And I was trapped in a haunted wood by an evil wood spirit that was holding the spirits of dozens of kids against their will, but I whooped its ass, and all of that took four days?”

Jazz blinked. “So, you’re a member of the Adirondack Mountain Ninja Clan? Aren’t those the Taconic Mountains, over the border in New York?”

“Such is the cunning of the Adironack Mountain Ninjas! We fool our arch-rivals, the Hudson Valley Ninjas, by hiding in the Berkshire Hills!”

She assumed a faux-Martial Arts stance. “Ah, but your training cannot stand before my Down-Home Butt-Whoop technique!” she snapped in a bad-anime-dub voice.

We cat-yowled and arm-flailed at each other for a moment, before we broke up into giggles. As we went into the Soda Fountainbleu, Jazz asked, “So, this is one of those ‘Small town politics, you wouldn’t understand it, and would probably be bored if I explained it to you’ things?”

“Pretty much.” Then I spotted McKay, all too casually wandering down the other side of the street, all to obviously keeping an eye peeled for me, while trying to look like he wasn’t. “Though, I can let you in on one thing. See that guy over there? The chunky guy with the jowls, in the gray hat, tan poplin jacket and chinos?”

Jazz looked over. “Y’mean the guy who kinda looks like that astronaut guy on that old ‘Northern Exposure’ show?”

“Yeah. His name’s Axel McKay, and he’s sort of a Deacon at the Unitarian Church that my family goes to.” True enough. “Anyway, he’s got a boner out to here to get onto the local council, and I hear that he figures that the Unitarian Congregation is his springboard to get there.” Also true. “Anyway, in the grand old tradition of political hacks, McKay over there seems to think that he can use ‘poor, misled youth’ as an issue, and he’s decided that I’m his poster child, or something like that.”

“And he’s behind what happened last week?”

“Behind? No. But he is involved. And that’s as much as I can tell you, without giving McKay something to beat me over the head with.”

“Woof! I didn’t know that Unitarian politics were so cut-throat!”

“Normally, they’re not. This is more McKay trying to make a mountain out of a molehill than anything real. If I just lay low, and don’t give him anything to raise a ruckus about, he should get bored and move on to something else. Maybe he’ll go and try this crap with someone who can hand him his head.” I knocked on wood.

Jazz paused, her mouth around a spoonful of frilly parfait thingie. “And Dan’s involved in this?”

“Close enough. I don’t think that McKay knows that you and I are buds, so if he asks you anything about Dan or me, just shine him on. What he doesn’t know, can’t hurt us.”

“This is dangerous?”

“McKay? Dangerous? Hah! He wishes! Annoying as all get out, and he can cause trouble for me and mine, and you and yours too, if he put his mind to it, but I doubt that McKay has it in him to actually be dangerous.”

“Wow, you lead such an interesting life, it turns out!”

I did an anime bit where you hold your fingers in a Vee, framing one eye, my face set like stone. “Such is life, for an Adironack Mountain Ninja!”

Jazz let me know what had happened in the week that I’d been away, and the afternoon passed pleasantly. Paris and Della dropped by, and we all got caught up, and I managed to pass it along to the rest of our little clique that McKay was bad news, and not to let on that they knew either ‘Dan’ or Me. And I managed to do all that without telling a technical lie.

Getting back to being ‘Dan’ was a lot easier than getting out from under. No one in the Families was looking for a young girl, and I was able to get back to my bike, after only being stopped twice, and having to talk nice-nice with someone that I barely knew from the High Holidays. Is this what it's like, being a TV star?

But, as I was on my bike and making my way out of town proper, I saw something impossible. I saw Sarah Aubrey. She was sort of half-walking, half-playing hopscotch down the sidewalk, like she was going somewhere, but not in anything like a hurry to get there.

But that’s impossible. Sarah should still be asleep, like I was. And I was only catching up on a few days lost sleep. Sarah has to catch up for thirty-five lost years.

Sarah was hopping along, using the lines and cracks in the cement for hopscotch squares, just another local kid on the street. The adults didn’t pay her any more attention than they normally would. Why would they?

I pulled over and started to ride toward her. As I got closer, I could hear her counting out some rhyming game. I got off my bike and started to walk toward her. But, just as I was getting close, I felt hands grab me and pull me around a corner of one of the storefronts. “HEY!”

“Shhh!!” Leo Thorpe shushed me. “You wanna ruin everything?” He and Cody Ashden peered around the corner. Sarah was skipping along, and she passed this one storefront. She paused to tie her shoe, and started again, going around the corner. Just as she went around the corner, the door to the storefront opened up and a man shot out, looking like he’d seen a car on fire or something. He rounded the corner, but he just stood there, his jaw scraping the sidewalk. He stood there, just looking for a while, and then he trudged back into the storefront, trying to pull his suit back straight. He was trying to pull himself together, but you could see that he was rattled.

When the guy was back in his shop, Leo and Cody just sort of ambled along, like they were minding their own business.

Okay, this is NONE of my business, and I should know better’n to be poking my nose in it, but I gotta know. I followed. Leo and Cody walked around the corner, and casually picked up a barrette that was lying on the sidewalk. “Okay, I’ll bite - what was that about?”

Then Reese Aubrey walked up. “Perfect, guys! A few more, and we should have Kelton bouncing off the walls, and all set up for the punch line!”

I looked at the sign for the storefront, and it was the place that Gilbert Kelton ran his insurance business out of, along with a real estate agent and a couple of other small local businesses. “You’re pranking Mister Kelton?”

Reese grinned evilly. “Actually, I’m sorta setting him up for Uncle Pol.”

Oh, yes. Mister Aubrey had said something about some payback coming Mr. Kelton’s way, for what Kelton had done to Sarah, thirty-five years ago. I worried my lip over that one. On one hand, Mr. Kelton had been a kid back then, the same age as Sarah. On the other hand, thirty-five YEARS of not knowing. Thirty-five years, where what had happened to Sarah had only been a guess. And I remembered the looks on Dinah and Pol’s faces. A lot of pain there. “You’re not gonna mess him up too bad, are you? He does have kids, and I don’t think that either Jason or Casey have done anything to you.”

“When did you become such a wimp?” Cody asked.

Reese gave him a slap with the back of his hand.

“Hey, I’m not saying that your Uncle Pol doesn’t have cause.” I held my ground, “But if I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that going to far with the payback can backfire on you.”

“Not to worry,” Leo breezed, “we’re just rattling his cage a little. He’s had a long time to forget what he did. We just wanna make sure that he remembers.”

I started to say something about not dragging Jason, Casey, or Mrs. Kelton down with Mister Kelton, when Cody leaned over, real interested. “So, is it true?”

Wise Ones, Blessed and Bright - how many times have I heard THAT question today? “Yep.” I sighed, and launched into my – how many has it been? - re-telling of the story. By the time that I finished, Lacy Barrows and Gwen Spenser had walked up and joined the conversation. Like Cody and Leo, Lacy and Gwen were of The Families, so I continued.

“Whoa,” Lacy breathed, “so, those kids, they’re still out there...in the woods? Can’t you get them out somehow?”

“How? If you know a way, lemme know! ‘Cause I have NO idea, and those are MY woods now, and I don’t want them out there, in the cold!”

“But you called all those others out of the woods.”

“I knew their names. But I don’t know their names, and the Lurker won’t tell me.”

“Can’t they tell you?”

“I’d have to ask them, and the way it’s set up, I can’t ask them their names, because I’d need their names first, to single out one of them. See? Catch-22.”

“So,” Leo asked, a look of awe in his eye, “was he really there? Judge Ainsworth?”

“Yep. In person. And in the flesh. Not at the same time, but he was there.”

“I heard that he gave you his gun.” You gotta be a guy, to appreciate that. The judge gave me his gun. In guy-circles, that really means something.

“Yep, a Colt Patent Arms percussion cap revolver, circa 1840, in very good condition.”

“How do you know that?” Gwen asked.

“My Dad took it to a gun collector for appraisal. The guy said that it was worth maybe one and half, maybe two large. More if they could connect it to some historical bigwig.”

“What? Judge Ainsworth doesn’t count?”

“Hey, to us Witches, he was big, but to the Profane, he was just another antebellum lawman.”

“So, wha’cha gonna do with it?”

“Well, my Mom wants to fill the barrel with lead-” All the guys stiffened with outrage. Blasphemy! “-but my Dad says we just keep it unloaded and on display.” The guys relaxed. The sacred relic was safe.

“But couldn’t your little brothers just re-load it?” Lacey asked.

“Hey, do you know how involved loading a Cap and Ball gun is? Not as involved as loading a black powder gun, but it’s still a lot more than a 5-year-old is up to. Besides, they’re putting one of those trigger locks on it, and mounting it.”

“I also heard that he gave you his knife and some kind’a wand.”

“Yep. Big ol’ Arkansas toothpick, THAT long-” I held out my hands in demonstration, “-hand-forged silver, razor sharp, with inscriptions in the Old Tongue. Mom says that it’s a Hundred Blessing Blade.” Gwen and Lacey joined the boys in appreciative ‘aaahhs’. The gun was a guy thing, but a silver Hundred Blessing Blade, now that’s just a flat out Witch thing. Most of them were still working on their Second Blessing. And since the Judge had passed it on to me from his own hand (or whatever), it was MY blade. I’ll still keep the old one that I was First Blessed with, but it’s accepted that you can step up to a Legacy Blade.

“What about the wand?”

I let out a hmmm... “Hard to say. It’s magical as all get out, but it’s not a tool, like the athame. It’s...more...it’s alive and aware. And it has power.” I looked at them. “If I hadn’t’a been able to convince it that I was doing pretty much what it wanted, I get the feeling that it could’a kicked my ass. It held the Lurker at bay, while old Creepy was in his own place of power. That’s power, right there. I dunno what all it can do, but the Judge acted like it was a person, worthy of respect, and I’m takin’ my cue from the Judge.”

Gwen gave me this weird look. “So, the Lurker. I heard my parents say that they only reason that they put up with that thing, was that The First Covenants, the ones that the Twelve First Families sealed with the Council of Seven, insisted on it. And, there’s the Covenant against Witches binding spirits to service. If the Council of Seven is gonna get their panties in a bunch about any spirit being bound, it’s gonna be the Lurker. So, what’s going to happen now?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. The Seven? We’re talking about Greater Spirits here! They don’t operate in Time the way we do! On one hand, I’m sorta surprised that they’re not already raising the roof. On the other hand, my great-grand-kids could be called to answer, or a Raven could be waiting for me at the Gate to the Other Side when I die. Who knows? I dunno. I just played the cards that I was dealt, as best I could. The Judge said that I did good, but I dunno how much ice the word of a ghost is gonna cut with the Seven.”

On that rather down note, I had to leave. Council of Seven or not, I still had to help with dinner.

Dinner was more of what I’d managed to escape that morning. Stars and Garters, I’ll probably have to put up with even MORE of it tomorrow, at church. AND, Mr. McKay will be there, and on his own turf this time. On my way up to bed, I took the cat-headed cane from the umbrella stand. “Well, YOU were there, you saw everything. What do YOU think?”

For once, the loquacious piece of lumber was silent.

I had just fallen asleep - or at least I think I had, who can be sure about those things? - when I heard Brett’s steam-whistle scream of terror. I was out of my bed, and down the hall like a shot. Mom and Dad were right behind me. There, in Trey and Brett’s room, the Lurker was no longer in the Wood. It was hunched over Brett’s bed, sort of melded in with the shadows and and reaching out for Brett, who was all huddled over as far as he could go on the bed, scrambling to get away. The Lurker was grinning, and brining one clawed hand (?) down in that molasses in January way that you see in dreams. One look, and you could tell that the sick fuck was digging on the sound of little Brett’s screaming. Trey was huddled up in his bed, a ten-year-old bundle of fear.

On pure reflex, I ran down the stairs and got Solomon’s cane out of the umbrella stand. Woody gave a growl, but it wasn’t protesting; it was gearing up for battle. As I charged up the stairs, I heard a crashing, loud barking, hissing and Mom speaking loudly in the Old Tongue. When I got to the room, Dad was on the floor, and he looked like he’d gone a couple of rounds with Jet Li. Clyde, his familiar was standing over Dad, snarling furiously at the Lurker. Mom was throwing balls of witchfire like a pitching machine, as Boris and Natasha arched their backs and hissed. And the Lurker was wading through it, barely slowed. The Lurker reached out and grabbed Mom by the throat.

I got there just as the Lurker was bringing it claw back for a strike, and clocked him with the staff. Woodie screamed and sent the Lurker flying back into the wall. I held the cane up as a ward and yelled, “HOW DARE YOU? You miserable heap of compost! You come into MY house and - how DID you come into my house? You’re not supposed to be able to come out of the woods?”

Where am I supposed to be? The Lurker jeered, Those woods are no longer mine. And you are my loving master, No? Why else would you leave out these tasty morsels for me? Where else would I be, but at my master’s side?

Spirits - they’re worse than lawyers.

“Okay, here’s a command straight from your master! You are to return to Ho- err, Jordan’s Wood, and STAY there until you are called from it! You will NOT go outside it, nor will you lure people inside it. err...What else? Oh yeah! Even if someone does come into Jordan’s Wood, you won’t play your sick little games with them, unless I TELL you to! Now, GO! Get the hell OUT of here!”

The Lurker pulled itself together and still grinning, started to slither through the window. What was it so happy about?

Then, I heard Brett whimper, and I understood. The evil bastard was happy, because it got what it came for. It couldn’t get at me, so it did the next best thing. It got Brett. Hell, Trace didn’t look that steady on his pins, either. They’d be having nightmares for weeks. That is, if they ever really got over it. Like hell...

“Lurker! Stop!”

What? It hissed, halfway through the window.

“Don’t move. Don’t move a THING. Stay right THERE.” I went over to Brett’s bed, and carefully picked him up out of his cocoon of blankets. He whimpered, terrified. “Brett, don’t worry, I’m not gonna hurt you.” I picked him up and carried him over to the window.

Oh? For ME? The Lurker jeered, and reached forward. You ARE such a kind master.

“Still! Don’t. Move. An Inch. Or I’ll command you to jump into a blast furnace.” I held Brett up. “Brett. Kick him.”

“What?” Brett asked in a quaver.

“Kick him. He can’t hurt you. I’ve ordered him to stand still. And once this is over, I’ve ordered him to go back to Jordan’s Wood and stay here. He can’t come out and get you. Ever. Go ahead. Kick him.”

Dangling from my hands, Brett gave a timid kick to the Lurker’s bark-like hide. The Lurker snapped, but didn’t do anything. “Go ahead. Do it again.” Brett did, and again, the Lurker snapped, but couldn’t do anything. Getting the idea, Brett started kicking with all the fury of a kindergarten berserker. All the fear and terror that he’d been shaking with turned to an all out mad at being made afraid in his own bed. He kicked himself out, threw in a few punches, and ended with a big juicy razzberry.

When I was sure that little Brett had it all out of his system, I let Trey work out his aggressions on ol’ Creepy with a baseball bat. When he was feeling better, I shoved the cane in what passed for the Lurker’s face and told him, “Get going. And if there’s anything even LIKE this shit ever again, there will literally be Hell to pay!”

Then there was a croaking voice from outside the window. “Well, if THAT isn’t an opening line, I don’t know what is.” Perched on the sill was the biggest, blackest, most Edgar-Allan-Poe-knew-what-he-was-talking-about Raven I’ve ever seen. It looked at me with one eye and then the other. “You. The one with the cane and the bad attitude. You’re Jordan Jesse Winters?”

Okay, this is weird, even for a family of witches. “aaahhh... Yeah. That’s me.”

“I am the Bailiff of the Council of Seven. Jordan Jesse Winters, you are called to Judgement.”

Oh, Shit. So, this is what it’s like, when the Cops come knocking. I swallowed, nodded to the big black bird, and nodded. “Understood. Just let me get dressed, and I'll be with you.”

I pulled on some jeans, a sweater, my heavy jacket, a knit cap and some hiking boots. From what I hear, Wisdom Quests don’t lead you downtown, or anywhere with paved streets. When I got out into the hall, Dad was dressed and pulling on some boots too. “What are you doing?”

“What? You think that I’m going to let you face the Council of Seven, all by yourself?”

“aaahhh... Yeah. That’s sort of the point. Dad, I didn’t get busted shoplifting or joyriding. This is the Council of Seven! They’re not gonna be interested in hearing from my Dad that I’m really a good boy, and that I’ve learned my lesson, and I’ll never do it again! This is Major! I might never be coming back! And even if I DO ever come back, there’s no way that we’ll ever know WHEN I’ll come back. Dad, you have three sons. We only have one Dad.” MAN, the things you say, when you’re trying not to piss in your pants!

Dad started to complain, but Mom laid her hand on his shoulder and shook her head. They did that thing that some married couples do, where they have this whole long involved conversation without words, just looks. Dad slumped, hung his head and then looked at me. You shouldn’t have to see that kind of pain in your parents’ eyes. He gave me a big long, ‘I really don’t wanna let go’ hug. “Dammit, Jordan, you come back, y’hear me! Or I’ll...”

He let go, and turned his face. Then he herded Trey and Brett back into their room. Mom followed me down the stairs. I stopped at the landing, and looked at the Judge’s cat-headed cane. Even in the gloom, I could see the sapphire twinkle in the eyes. Maybe I could-

No. You don’t go to Judgement carrying a weapon. I have to show The Seven respect.

There was tapping, as of someone were gently rapping, rapping at our back kitchen door. I wonder who.

Mom stopped at the back door. “Dan, I wish that there were something that I could give your, or tell you...”

I just wrapped my arms around her and gave her a big ‘I’m going away and maybe not coming back’ hug. “Just...just don’t let Trey move into my room, until you’re really sure that I’m not coming back. Once he was in there, it’d take dynamite to get him out.”

Mom just hugged me right back, and kissed me. Then she let me go.

Past the door, out the back, the Raven was waiting for me. Squatting beside the Raven, ugly as sin and twice as sassy, was the lurker. It grinned that Hannibal-Lecter-picking-from-a-kindergarten-menu grin and said, Well, ‘Master’, what orders for your slave have you now?

“I’d say ‘Go to Hell’, but I figure that that would be redundant right about now.” I looked at the Raven. “Well? Lead on, McDaw!”

The Raven took wing, and the Lurker and I began walking. Odd, though we weren’t walking very fast, we managed to somehow stay the same distance behind it, though it was flying. We walked through the dark and gloom and late night mist into the nearest copse of wood. And from there, we went up into the hills. Now, I was born and raised in these Berkshire Hills, and I know most parts of it like the back of my hand. But I’d never before seen the likes of the paths the Raven took us up, and it had sort of that ‘traveling montage’ feel, where the director of a movie doesn’t wanna bog the audience down with every little detail, but just gives you a bunch of symbolic images. I knew that I was traveling, and going a long way, but I was removed from the nuts and bolts of it.

And, then, as the slope got even steeper, the woods gave way and we broke into a summit. The summit was a bear, the biggest, grizzliest bear ever to crawl out of a cave. And it was the mountain as well. And it was the entire mountain range, and the entire continent and all the dry land on the face of the Earth. And it looked at me with eyes older than stone, infinitely patient, but terrible in its wrath. On the peak of the bear-mountain, grew the great-grand-Matriarch of all Oaks. It was huge enough to sweep side the clouds, and in its branches where entire other worlds. And it was the sum and substance not only of every tree in these Berkshire Hills, but every tree ever’where.

Coiled around the trunk of this impossible Oak, was a huge snake that glared at me with eyes of merciless wisdom. It was so big that even coiled seven times around that immense trunk, its body trailed off down the side of the mountain, and was a river that ran into the greater river, and joined with the sea and was one with all lakes, rivers, seas and oceans. Beside the Snake, its feet in the river, but not lessened by it, stood a Stag. It was huge, and its antlers threatened to lock with the branches of the Oak. It was powerful, and its heart beat with the life force of all living things ever’where.

On the other side of the Oak, on a jut of rock, crouched a big black wolf, which looked at me with eyes of insatiable hunger. I got nothing from that wolf but a sense that it devoured all before it, and took it all as it’s due.

And looming high up in the sky, way above the Oak Matriarch, somehow framing those impossible branches with the strands of a web whose joins were the stars in the night, was a huge glowing spider. With the eight eyes of utterly alien insight, it watched the Lurker, the others, and me, each with one eye, as it worked the strands of the web that hold everything together.

The Raven flew up, and became more than just a bird. It became huge, and its wings were the wind and the storm and the night, and its talons and beak became flashes of lighting. But even the Storm-Raven couldn’t block out the uncanny light of the spider in its web.

And so, seven local spirits left their usual roles, and like a judge who stops being a simple citizen, and becomes the very voice of the Law, they became faces of Primal Forces. And so, the Council of Seven conjoined to pass judgement on me.

Y’know, if my ass weren’t on the line here, I’d be honored?

Then there was a rumbling, as of thunder, and the whole shooting match spoke.

COVENANTS HAVE BEEN BREECHED, PACTS HAVE BEEN BROKEN, AND THAT WHICH MUST BE FREE HAS BEEN ENSLAVED

JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, YOUR IS THE HAND THAT HAS SET ALL THIS AGLEY

DO YOU RECOGNIZE THAT THE PACTS AND COVENANTS THAT YOUR ANCESTORS SEALED MANY GENERATIONS AGO ARE SQUARE AND JUST?

I took a deep breath. “Yes, I do.”

Then the Lurker jumped in. See? See, the thief ADMITS it! He admits that I had my rights! He admits that I took what I was owed, and he STOLE it from me! He lied and cheated and BROKE the Covenants! And I warned him! I WARNED him that The Seven would send for him, and that he would have to answer to Judgement! He laughed! He said that he didn’t care! And then he enslaved me, without so much as a thought to the consequences!

IS THIS TRUE?

“No.”

WHAT?

“I never lied, I never cheated and I never laughed. Believe me, it wasn’t a laughing matter! No, come to think of it, I did laugh, but not when Creepy there threatened me with you. And as for doing it without so much as a thought to the consequences- Please! I was all too aware of the consequences.”

BUT YOU DID IT ANYWAY

“Hey, it wasn’t like he gave me a lot of choice! Everything has a right to defend itself!”

DO YOU ADMIT TO DOING WRONG?

Okay, first thing you learn watching Cop and Lawyer shows on TV: Never admit that you did anything wrong, unless you were 100% wrong and you know they can prove it. “Wrong? I set souls free, which had been caged for years, for decades! How can that be wrong? That THING lured innocent kids, and kept them those woods for years, even beyond their dying, drinking their tears and keeping them in the dark!”

I am a Hunter, and I have a right to Hunt!

“Oh? And you have a RIGHT to keep them beyond their dying? Even now, Ho- err, Jordan’s Woods are full of little kids, who aren’t dead, they aren’t alive, all they are, is lost! This is an ABOMINATION! You, the Council of Seven have allowed this foulness to go on for Centuries! Why?”

WHAT HOBB DOES IN HOBB’S WOOD IS HOBB’S DUE

Yes! It is My Due and My Woods! And I have been robbed of my due and my wood! This is the Covenant! I stay in my wood and keep what must be kept! But as you have seen, my wood is not my own, and I am reduced to slavery and beaten and humiliated! Where is the Covenant? Where is the Pact? Where is Justice? Hobb looked over at me. Where is this one’s heart, beating in my hand? Where is this one’s shade, running from me, until the final sifting of things?

“Bullshit! Even if Hobb here does have a right - and I don’t allow that it HAS such a right! - by the very terms that it has just set, it had NO RIGHT to hunt me.”

You were in my woods, you were my prey, that is the Covenant

“Didn’t I tell you watch the LIES, Creepy? I WASN’T in your woods when you began to hunt me!”

You came with the boy, to do strange perverse and unnatural things.

“Mind your own beeswax, punk. Yes, I came into your woods with Griff. But, I LEFT. I GOT AWAY. Once I was out of your woods, I was out of your power. But you hunted me, anyway.”

HOBB MUST HUNT IN HOBB’S WOOD

THAT IS THE PACT

“Oh? But it hunted me outside the wood. It sent a lure out of those woods, and brought me back into the woods, without my knowledge.”

And what of that? How I hunt in my woods is my affair. This is the Pact!

HOBB SPEAKS TRUE

WHAT IS DONE IN HOBB’S WOOD IS HOBB’S OWN AFFAIR

THIS IS THE PACT

WHAT IS DONE IN THE WOOD IS NOT THE COUNCIL OF SEVEN’S AFFAIR

THE COVENANT IS THIS COUNCIL’S AFFAIR

THE PACTS ARE UNDONE, AND MUST BE MADE RIGHT

JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, IT IS BY YOUR HAND THAT THIS HAS BEEN SET AGLEY

WHAT WILL YOU DO, TO SET IT ARIGHT?

THE PACTS MUST BE KEPT

Yes! The Pacts! That is all that matters here! Pacts that are made, must be kept! No one is too young, too old, too powerful or too puny to ignore The Pacts!

Oh, you have been pushing around kids for too long, haven’t you, Creepy? “So, a Pact which has been made, no matter who makes it, or when or where they make it, MUST be kept?” I tried not to smile.

OF COURSE

ALL PACTS MUST BE KEPT

TO ALLOW ANY TO BREAK THEIR WORD, IS TO INVITE CHAOS

THE SUN MUST RISE, CLIMB IN THE SKY, AND SET, TO RISE THE NEXT DAY

THE RIVERS MUST FLEE THE MOUNTAINS AND RUN TO THE SEA

THAT WHICH IS DEAD MUST STAY DEAD

THE COVENANTS MUST BE OBSERVED

Yes! And the Pact says that Hobb must hunt in Hobb’s Wood!

“So, your stated position is that when one party makes an agreement, the other party MUST keep their end of the bargain, no matter WHO, WHEN, WHERE, or HOW those agreements are made?” C’mon, c’mon sucker, I already have you by the balls, I just need you to admit it.

Yes. The Lurker grinned and licked its chops, and you have broken Covenants which make you MINE.

Gotcha. “If that’s so, then why did you break your oath to Sarah Aubrey?” When you only have one card to play, you have to be very careful about when you play it.

Silence, stony silence fell over the summit. The storm made no thunder, the river made no noise, the stag was as still as death. Hell, you could hear the Spider stepping on the strands of her web.

WHAT IS THIS?

“Oh? You didn’t know this? Hobbsie here must have *ahem!* ‘neglected’ to include that in his report.”

It’s a lie! It’s nothing! I tricked a child, nothing more!

“You just won’t learn about LYING, will you Hobb?”

So, I tricked a child? What of it? What I do in MY WOODS-

SILENCE

JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, WHAT IS YOUR CHARGE?

I think I just trumped Creepy’s Ace. “In order to lure me back into what was then Hobb’s Wood, Hobb here promised Sarah Hortense Aubrey-”

I did not PROMISE! I SUGGESTED!

“You PROMISED her, that if you let her out of yo- those woods, and came back with me, that you would let her out again, for good, free from your power.”

I never said that!

“That was what was agreed on, and the Law of the Letter - which is greater than any Covenant-” I spared The Seven a sharp look, “-states that when an agreement is made, but not in good faith, then the exact wording of that agreement are the terms of that agreement. Sarah Aubrey kept her side of the bargain to the letter, and you just ignored it, like it never happened. You, who are here making such a noise about how the Covenants must be kept, broke your word, without so much as a second thought.”

Liar! I TRICKED the girl! I owed her nothing! It wasn’t enough! I-

“I can prove it.”

HOW?

“By the simplest and most concrete of proofs. I bound Hobb. Even with Solomon’s Cane, there’s no way that I could force Creepy here to part with its True Name on its own ground, let alone bind it. But I did. This is because in exchange for forgiving her for tricking me into that awful fix, Sarah passed the debt that Creepy here owed her, to me. He OWED me. And I demanded the Wood in repayment. I called on the Wise Ones, the Lord, Lady and Light, to keep the bargain. They did. Hobb can’t hunt in Hobb’s Wood, because Hobb’s Wood doesn’t exist anymore. Now, it’s Jordan’s Wood. It is MINE.”

Liar! What if I DID cheat the brat! What Hobb does in Hobb’s Wood is Hobb’s Due! That is the Covenant!  

“Irrelevant, Immaterial and Incompetent!” I heard that on old re-runs of Perry Mason; I dunno what it actually means, but it y’gotta admit, it sounds cool. “The PROOF is that the Wise Ones kept the bargain! Past that, so what?”

The Seven went silent again. Hobbsie was really antsy, but didn’t say anything. Don’t get cocky, Winters. The shoe may be on the other foot, but the race isn’t over, not by a long shot. Then the Storm coalesced into a raven and flew off.

THE BAILIFF GOES TO BRING WITNESSES

Okay, I’m off the witness stand for a bit. I looked over at the Lurker. Hobbsie gave me what was probably supposed to be a menacing leer, but its heart obviously into it, and it only looked lame.

Okay, focus, Winters. There is some serious shit going down here, and if you can’t figure out what it is, you’ll probably be buried in it. Okay, why did the Council respond so quickly? I mean, it’s been, what, five days since I bagged Creepy over there? I mean, spirits like the Seven are supposed to see things on a whole different level. Did the Lurker go to the council, whining about how it had been ‘cheated’? Hey, how DID Creepy get out of the woods, in the first place? That ‘where would I be, but at my Master’s side’ was obviously SO much bullshit. For a spirit, Hobb lies like a rug. There’s something important there. Dunno what it is yet. And why is it so important that the Lurker ‘hunt in Hobb’s Wood’? And why are they focusing on this, instead of what I’ve been expecting, namely that it’s against the Covenants for one of the Witches to bind a spirit? Come to think of it, why are the Seven doing the whole ‘Spirits Court’ bit in the first place? I mean, why would it be important to them that _I_ admit that I was in the wrong? Spirits of that level of power should be above that, right?

The thoughts were coming together in my mind, when two ravens broke out of the woods. Following behind one was a sleek black panther, with eyes like sapphires. Behind the other one was Sarah Aubrey. The panther walked up between the Lurker and me, and sat silently. Sarah walked up to me. “Jordan? Where are we? What’s going on?”

I smiled as reassuringly as I could, and held out my hand. “You don’t have to worry about a thing, sweetheart. All you have to do is answer a few questions, and you can go back. By the way, how did the Raven wake you up?”

“He didn’t. I’m still asleep.” Y’know, it says something that I didn’t find that weird.

The ravens flew up, merged into one raven, and became the stormbird over the great Oak again. In one voice, though considerably gentler this time, The Seven asked Sarah about her agreement with the Lurker. Very fearfully at first, Sarah started. She told them how the Lurker had trapped her in his woods, how he tricked her INTO the woods itself. Then, surer of where she stood, she told how the Lurker had promised to set her free. “He promised! He PROMISED!” Sarah was still mighty pissed at Creepy. You could just feel it in your bones. Never break your word to a kid - they’ll never forgive you.

The Lurker tried to call Sarah a liar, but the panther snarled it into silence. The Lurker shrunk into itself, and Sarah continued. When Sarah finished, the Seven called the ‘next witness’. The panther got up and, one by one approached each of The Seven, even climbing the branches of the Oak to confer with the Spider. Finally, it climbed down, and sat beside me again. It never made a noise.

The Seven were silent again for a long while.

THE COVENANTS ARE CLEAR

HOBB MUST HUNT IN JORDAN’S WOODS

JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, WOULD YOU VIOLATE THE COVENANTS?

Jordan’s Wood. Oh, now it becomes clear.

“Oh, if by that, are you saying will I release Hobb here from its binding, if you want it, it’s yours. Hell, I never wanted the sack of shit in the first place.”

AND WOULD YOU RELEASE THE HUNTER’S TRUE NAME?

“What am I? Stupid? It already came after my family! Its True Name is the only thing coming between my entire family and blood-soaked walls!”

IT IS NEEDFUL FOR THERE TO BE A CERTAINTY

“I agree, One Hundred Percent.” I turned to the Lurker. “Hobb, I, Jordan Jesse Winters, Master of the place known as Jordan’s Woods, specifically ban and forbid you to EVER enter those woods, without my specific and direct invitation. How’s that for certain?”

Both Creepy and The Seven reacted as if I’d set fire to them.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

The summit echoed with thunder and outrage.

“Oh, I just made sure that you couldn’t just flush me down the toilet, as a matter of expediency. And, while I’m sure that you all take the Covenants as seriously as the Witch-folk do, I’m also sure that to get your way, that you’d just drop both Sarah and me down whatever hole that you thought that you could. After all, it’s not like the Coven could call you on it.

“BUT, now, you can’t do that. You need me now. Because, you need Hobbsie over there to hunt in Jordan’s Woods. And they ARE Jordan’s Woods. They’re MINE, and you can’t change that. The Wise Ones, the Three-who-are One put their mark on that themselves. They overrule you. The Lurker, you need him to hunt in my woods. Why? Because there are things out there that make Creepy look like a cute fluffy bunny. Hobb is your watchdog, right? There’s something about those woods - somehow, I dunno, but things come through those woods, maybe on their way somewhere else. And you need Hobb to sound the alarm if anything that it can’t handle comes through. That’s why you let it have a free hand, even though you knew what it was doing to the natural order by keeping those kids there. But it can’t hunt there anymore, can it? Because, those aren’t its woods anymore. They’re mine. The reason that it could get out and get at my brothers, was that it couldn’t stay IN. The only reason that it showed up in the woods last night, was that I specifically Called it. But once we left, it was shut out again. Because, those are MY woods, and I won’t have it in them.”

YOU ARE ARROGANT

“No, I just realize that it’s not in my best interest to let you railroad me into handing over control of those woods to you. And that’s what this is really about, now isn’t it? You don’t have any power over those woods, do you? You can’t make the Master of the Wood do anything in, or about those woods, can you? So, in order for Hobb to keep its part of your pact, it has to be in those woods. But I have to allow it back in, and give it permission, because that’s the way it works.”

WOULD YOU DENY THE COVENANTS?

“No, but then, I haven’t broken any of the Covenants. My hands are clean.”

YOU BOUND HOBB, WITHOUT SANCTION OR CAUSE

“It was trying to KILL me. You call that without cause?”

PETTY MORTAL CONCERNS ARE BENEATH US

“Maybe, but I still haven’t broken the Covenants. Y’see, when I bound Hobbsie over there, we weren’t in Hobb’s Wood anymore. We were in Jordan’s Wood. And, since Creepy here hadda come sniveling to you all, like a bully runnin’ home to his MAH-MEE after he gets his ass whupped, then you didn’t know about it. If you had, you’d’a called this little coffee klatch before I let the Judge and the Kids out of the woods. But you didn’t, so that means that you didn’t know about it. And THAT means that the same perks that Hobb enjoyed as Master of the Wood, passed over to ME. So, what Jordan does in Jordan’s Wood is Jordan’s due. And that means, when I bound Hobb, I did it outside the boundaries of the Covenants. So, I have NOT broken any of the Covenants. I am innocent of all charges that I am aware of. And, as for intent to breach the Convenants, I could have made certain of my family’s and my own safety by destroying the Lurker. But, as I honor the Covenants, I allowed it to continue, despite its many sins.” See? I knew those reruns of Law & Order would come in handy someday! Spirits aren’t the only ones who can play Lawyer!

HOBB MUST HUNT IN THE WOOD

“Hey, I’m not arguing that point! Better it than me! But, if I’m gonna let that-” I looked at the Lurker, and tried to come up with a word to convey my utter disgust. My vocabulary failed me. “-THAT into MY woods, I’m gonna want some…considerations, for the privilege.”

SUCH AS?

Okay, I admit it, the first thing that came to mind was a Green Lantern power ring. Then, Sanity overruling Greed, it thought about maybe getting this stupid Fool’s Cap off my head.

And then I looked at Sarah, who was looking at me. Oh Hell. I promised. I looked at The Seven, in all their glory. “I want the Names of the Forgotten.” Never break a promise to a kid.

WHAT?

“My price, for allowing the Hunter back into my woods, is a complete list of the names that I’ll need to call the children who are lost in Jordan’s Wood, OUT of those woods. Whatever price was demanded, they have paid, in full, and then some. Let them GO. I will NOT have children, wandering around lost in MY WOODS!”

THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE

“WHAT? How can you SAY that? They’re DEAD! They belong with the dead! Didn’t you just say that the Dead must stay with the Dead?! It’s in the Covenants, you want to break the Covenants? And, they’re Kids! They’re innocents!”

INNOCENTS ALWAYS SUFFER

IT IS THE WAY OF THINGS

Then the panther got up from its crouch and climbed up the tree, and spoke - if that’s the word - with the Spider, and then the Oak. Then it crawled down, and returned to its place beside me.

“‘It is the way of things’? What a Crock! What about Justice? That’s what we’re supposed to be here for, isn’t it? Justice? Or is it only Justice, when something without bones gets its nose out of joint?”

THERE WILL BE JUSTICE

GO, AS WE WEIGH THE JUDGEMENT

“Hold the Phone! Judgement? For what? I haven’t broken the Covenants!”

YOU HAVE

“How? Where?”

YOU BOUND HOBB THE HUNTER

“So what? I bound it in MY woods! You have no say over what happens in MY woods!”

YOU ARE NOT IN JORDAN’S WOODS NOW

NOR IS THE HUNTER

THE CONVENANT IS, THAT NONE OF THE WITCH FOLK SHALL HAVE SPIRITS BOUND TO THEIR SERVICE

BUT HOBB IS BOUND TO YOU NOW

SO, YOU HAVE BROKEN THE COVENANT

_oh. shit._

I looked at the panther sitting next to me. “You back-stabbing sonnuvabitch.”

GO

WE MUST WEIGH THE JUDGEMENT

With that, two ravens flew down from the Great Storm-raven. One guided Sarah back to where her sleeping body was waiting for her. One guided the panther and me back through the first rays of dawn to the back door of my house. I let myself in the kitchen, and the panther just walked through the wall. I walked through the kitchen, suddenly too damn tired to call out and tell them that I was back already. Already? For all I know, it’s 2025, and I’ll have to call Trey ‘big brother’. The Horror! The Horror!

I was too tired even to climb up the stairs to bed. I just schlumped down on the sofa. I looked over to the umbrella stand, where the Judge’s cane was, looking back at me with sapphire eyes. “Well, I hope you’re PROUD of yourself,” I snarled.

And then, I was asleep.

The next thing I knew, a hand was shaking me awake. “Dan! Son, wake up! Are you all right?” 

I looked up and saw Dad. “Dad? What year is it?”

He started for a moment, but saw my point. “Same as when you left. What happened? What did The Seven decide?”

I let out a cavernous yawn. “Dunno. The jury is still out, deliberating.”

“Well, I suppose that’s a good sign.”

“It could’a been better. I almost skipped. I had-”

Mom interrupted me with a warm breakfast on a paper plate. “Later. Tell us in the car. Right now, go upstairs, and eat this while you change for church.”

“Church? Mom, I think that of all Sundays, that I’ve earned some rest on this one! He- Heck, I’ve only had a couple hours of sleep!”

“So, get some sleep during the sermon. Sweet Lady knows, it won’t be the first time.”

“Can I at least count on you to not wake me up?”

“Only if you don’t snore.”

Three hours later, I was honestly able to tell the Lay Reader that I never enjoyed a sermon as much.

After the sermon let out, I immediately noticed a way to immediately tell the difference between the ‘muggle’ members of the congregation and the practicing families. The adults of the Cowan families just looked at me like they thought that I was just another 15-year-old slob who fell asleep in church. The adults of The Families looked at me with a Baskin-Robbins assortment of interest: pride, curiosity, wariness, and on and on. The norm kids my age were still giving me the pariah treatment. The Witch-kids sort of drifted over one at a time and huddled in close and asked in whispers, ‘cause there are things that you just don’t ask around the norms, “Is it true?” And I’d tell them as much as I could, and threw in the bit with my session with The Seven last night.

Finally, it got to the point where I sort of got dragged off to one side of the outside of the church, and, I swear all the kids of The Families, from age Eight to Eighteen, were there, and I had to make sort of a press release. They asked a bunch of questions, like what does the lurker really look like, did I really see Judge Ainsworth, did he really give me his gun and his knife, and what about that cane that the Old Folks are so tied up in a knot about? And then the biggie: “And what are the Council of Seven gonna do?”

To which, I just shrugged, “I dunno. But I do know one thing. They ain’t gonna drag their feet - or whatever - on this one. They want the Lurker back in those woods, and they want it back there fast. What they’re gonna do to GET it there, I would dearly love to know.”

Then Trent Harrow, who was on lookout, gave a hiss. “Someone’s comin’! It’s Mr. Burke and Mr. McKay.”

Aw Crap. I straightened my tie, and said, “I think that wraps this up. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’d best skip the rest of the socializing, and get while the gettin’s good.” I ambled off, trying my mightiest to look like just another bored kid killing time while the ‘rents made nice-nice with the rest of the congregation. I trusted that McKay wouldn’t do anything too overt, with the Profane watching.

I was wrong. McKay and his buddy Darren Burke just marched up, grabbed me by the back of my jacket and started to haul me off. “Hey! Leggo! What d’you think you’re UP to?”

“Shut up, Punk. The Council wants to talk to you.”

Okay, now I know something’s rotten here. The High Council doesn’t work this way. McKay and Burke towed me into the Church building, and to one of the Event Rooms. They had a table set up, and there were five guys seated behind it. Burke dragged me to a position in front of the table and set me there, while McKay put a sprig of mistletoe over the doorsill, so that no one would interrupt them.

When McKay was finished with his spell, he and Burke took seats behind the table. Together the seven men glowered at me as one. The guy in the middle, who I recognized as Roger Palmer, who sat on the High Council, looked at me and said, “Dan Winters, you’ve been asked here to answer questions about what happened in Hobb’s Wood, and the repercussions of what you did.”

“Asked? Weird, I don’t remember being ASKED. I remember being tackled and insulted by those two clowns-”

“You will show your Elders some RESPECT, Young Man!”

“I do show respect. To people that I respect, Deacon Palmer.” I walked over to where some chairs were stacked up, pulled a chair off a stack and helped myself to a seat.

“I don’t recall giving you permission to sit down.”

“Oh, I need permission to sit down? Then why aren’t my parents here, if I’m being charged with something?”

“This isn’t a trial, Dan. We just need to get some straight information about what happened.”

“Oh? If it’s all nice and friendly-like, then howcum Burke and Hare-brain over there had to drag me in here? And what’s with the table, and all the faux-official crap, hunh?”

McKay shot up, his two fists against the tabletop. “I don’t think you understand how much trouble you’re IN, BOY.”

I gave McKay an amused look. “Was that supposed to be intimidating? ‘Cause if it was, you’re gonna have t’do lots better. Y’see, last night, I was up before the REAL Council of Seven. I saw Powers at work, and looked them in the eye. After that, I’m having a real hard time taking you guys serious.”

The mock council looked like I kneed them in their collective balls. “What?” Palmer asked. “You saw The Seven? When was this?”

“Like I just said, last night. The Raven came for me at about, oh, yeah, I’d say Midnight, and I got home ‘bout, oh, sunrise.”

“And what happened there?” demanded Nate Stillwell, who I knew for a fact wasn’t on the High Council, and from what Mom says, doesn’t have any real shot at it, either.

“I think I’ll save that for when I talk with the High Council.”

“I’m on the High Council,” Palmer said warningly.

“Yeah,” I shot back, “but THEY aren’t. AND,” I fixed Palmer with an equally warning glare, “I don’t remember anything about the High Council having the power to drag people off for inquisition.”

McKay blew that off and said, “Awww, the kid’s full of crap! The Seven would-”

“You callin’ me a LIAR, McKay?” Calling someone a liar is fightin’ words, in most places. Among Witches, it’s a declaration of War.

Before it could get any nastier, there was a thunderous knock at the door to the Event Room. It was followed by two more, equally thunderous knocks, and then the sprig of mistletoe that McKay placed on the sill flew off. Then the door opened, and Madeline Cosgrove - not the Mrs. Cosgrove who’d caught Julia ‘Let’s Play Black Magic’ Dunaway and saved her bacon, but a relative - walked in. Madeline Cosgrove was on the High Council, and her word packed a lot more clout than Palmer’s did. Mom, Dad, Pollard Aubrey and another member of the High Council followed Deaconess Cosgrove into the room. Cosgrove leaned over and picked up the bit of green. “And what is all THIS about, Roger?” She held up the mistletoe.

Deacon Palmer straightened his suit a bit. “There’s no need to get all huffy, Madeline. We’re just asking the boy a few questions, and we didn’t want any of the Profane stumbling in, and our business getting around with people who don’t need to know.”

“Oh?” Mom stepped forward, wearing the face that she puts on when she’s about to tear some member of the local B of Ed a new one. “And we don’t need to know that our eldest son has been dragged off to be grilled by some kangaroo court?”

Dad stepped up beside her. “McKay, what did you think that you were doing? Dragging my boy off like that, in front of everyone! Who the HELL do you think you ARE, anyway? Coming into my house, talking to my son like he was some sort of criminal-”

“McKay came to your house?” Cosgrove asked.

“HEY! SOMEONE had to take things in hand!” McKay yelped, “That Punk has put ALL of our necks on the block! The High Council has to take measures to prove to our Good Neighbors that-”

“What the High Council does is irrelevant!” I shouted. That stopped things dead in their tracks. “It doesn’t matter what the High Council decides or does. They’ve already been overruled by a higher court.”

“Yes,” Deaconess Cosgrove agreed. “As Marsha here,” she gestured to Mom, “was just telling us when Gwen Spenser ran up and told us that Dan was being dragged off for reasons not known to responsible parties-” she shot Palmer a glaring ‘you idiot!’ look, “-Jordan was called to judgement by the Council of Seven last night. I haven’t heard all the details yet-” she looked at me questioningly.

I nodded my head. “The gist of it is, that The Seven heard my case, and I’m still here. They’re ‘weighing the judgement’, as they put it. But no matter what they decide, the High Council isn’t a part of it. Either they clear me - in which case, any decision by the High Council is moot - or they’ll find me guilty. In which case, any decision by the High Council is even more moot, since you’ll probably never see me again. And speaking of not seeing me again-” I walked over to Mom and Dad, “-I have a game later this afternoon. Is it okay if I walk home now? You can set a date for me to answer questions from the-” I gave the faux­-council a long, despising glare, “-REAL High Council.”

“Don’t you go anywhere!” McKay roared, “You have NOT been dismissed!”

“Nope,” I agreed, “just plain dissed. But, unlike SOME people, _I_ actually have a LIFE to get to!”

McKay got up, but Mister Aubrey just rumbled at him. “Oh, shut yerself, Axel. Stop tryin’ t’make the boy out like some kinda criminal.”

McKay started quibbling, and I took advantage of that to slip out of the room, and let the grown-ups have their playtime. Reece, Leo and Cody were waiting outside the side entrance to the church, and Lacey Barrows and Gwen Spenser were with them. “So, what was all that about?” Gwen asked.

enh. High Council politics,” I answered as I slipped my tie off and tucked it in my jacket pocket. “I dunno what McKay’s up to, but he seems to think that I’m a big part of it.”

“From what I can tell,” Lacey offered, “he wants to play the White Knight, and ‘save’ us all from something, but there aren’t any Communists around to scare folks with. And, let’s face it, you’re the biggest to-do to happen around here in years.” 

I looked at them. “I assume you guys were the ones that went and got my folks and The Cosgrove herself?” They nodded. “Thanks. They didn’t have anything, but that’s never stopped a lynch mob before.”

“Hey, not to worry,” Cody breezed. “So, where you headed to?”

“Headin’ back home. Gotta get out of the straightjacket, and get my books for my game.”

“Book? What kind of game do you need books for?”

“He’s into D&D and all that crap,” Reese sneered. Thank the Light! I was beginning to worry. Reese being that nice for that long makes me really worried.

“Yepper, I got a regular game over at the college.” I offered to let them sit in, but as planned, they passed. D&D is one of those things that you’re either into or not. Still, it was nice that they cared enough to ask about it.

Lord Burningoak and his cohorts barely made it out of the wreckage of the Tulku Shinga’s Temple in one piece. But it was still considered a good run, considering that ‘Lord Burningoak’ had spent all of last game ‘standing over there’. That is, Lord Burningoak couldn’t DO anything, because his player - i.e. ME - had been MIA last week, and Mike made me bend over backwards apologizing for not telling them beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to show up.

Well, the dice-roll generated mayhem and havoc was a nice distraction from the fact that my soul was still on trial.

“So, ‘Miss Amanda’ - did you miss me?”

“Oh, were you gone?” Jazz said nonchalantly. Still, she slipped her hand into mine as we walked off the campus. Stars and Garters, I really set myself up for that one. This just keeps getting stickier. “So, what WAS all that, last week?”

“Well, what did Jordan tell you?”

“Just that it had something to do with the Adironack Mountain Ninjas.”

I gave her my best ‘hanh?’ look.

Jazz giggled. “Oh, she just trotted out her ‘I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you’ routine. But she did say something about your Unitarian Church, and some scumbag named McCoy.”

“McKay. So, she told you about that?”

“What, was she telling more than I should know? Have I violated some sacred Unitarian taboo?”

“Well, the Council really doesn’t want us taking this outside the church, at least until things settle themselves a bit. You know how churches are about scandals.”

“Oh? Scandals? And where does this McKay slob fit in?”

“Oh, he’s trying to get into politics somehow. Probably thinks that if he’s ‘important’ then people won’t notice what a loser he really is. And, well, Millbridge is a little town, not much really happens around here. So, he’s trying to make as much out of this as he can. And he thinks that he can get to the Council, using my back as a stepping stone.”

“And how does Jor fit into all this?”

“She doesn’t, really. And, believe me, it’s best that way. Still, McKay would love to drag her into this, if he thought that he could.”

“He’s that big a bastard?”

Weeellll… I’d say that he’s probably got it all figured out in his own head, where he’s doing the right thing for everyone. Of course, it’ll all wind up with him a little more powerful, and me utterly screwed, but he’d say that that’s what’s best for everyone.”

“Oh. One of those. Yeah, we got those up at the Campus, too. Funny, that’s how it usually works: the poor student who probably had the least to do with whatever happened gets totally shafted, and the Prof making the most noise gets something to shut him up.”

Then I heard a voice calling my name. A shiver of dread crawling down my spine, I looked for the source, and relaxed a bit. Gwen Spenser trotted up, looking very cute in a pleated white miniskirt and a blue-and-white jersey, and her dark hair pulled back into a high ponytail. Her expression of happy expectation fell when she saw Jazz’s hand in mine. “Oh, uh, HI, Dan. I just… Who, ah, is this?”

“Oh, HI, Gwen.” I paused, okay, how do I handle this? “Very well, gracious lady, allow me the privilege of introducing you to Lady Jasmine of the noble house of - what did you say your last name was, Jazz?”

“Thurston,” Jazz replied, eyes narrowed ever so slightly.

“And, in return, Jazz allow me to introduce to you Gwendolyn Spenser, of the Millbridge Spensers. I know her from Horace Mann, my school.” There was a silent impression of two cats laying back their ears and arching their backs.

But why would Gwen be getting all bottle-brushy-tailed? I mean, I’ve known her since kindergarten, and there hasn’t been anything… except…

Oh, Lord, Lady and Light…

I managed to get Jazz away from Gwen without any hurt feelings.

I think.

Monday, at school, was very different. Again, there were the mundane kids who thought that they could wipe their asses with me, and there were the Witch-kids, who mostly weren’t quite sure of what to make of me. But, for the most part, it was back to ‘school as survival course’, as per uze. There was the Dunaway Bitch-pack, the Pesloe swarm, and the other usual assortment of wise-asses and the like, and I was still Number One on their victim list. So, just before lunch, I was getting ‘prank on the horizon’ signals from the Fool’s Cap. Sensors indicate a trap, something subtle, something that requires that I actively do something. Too subtle for the Pesloe swarm. It’s been a while since Julia ‘who-died-and-made-her-God?’ Dunaway has pulled anything really worth calling a ‘prank’, so must be her and hers.

I paused. Whatever it was, was right around this corner. So, how do I get past this, without letting on that I’d been tipped off.

Then, there was the sound of several screams, and Dunaway and her two finkettes, Gail Edgerton and Rita Hewett came running around the corner squealing, covered in something that looked like it wouldn’t just rinse out. A moment later, Reese, Cody and Leo came sauntering around the corner, cat-that’s-been-at-the-cream smiles on their faces. “Should I ask what that was about?”

“Naw, the less you know, the less you can testify to, under oath.”

And that was the way that was for the rest of the day. It seems that Reese, Leo, Cody, Lacey and Gwen have decided that I need a ‘posse’, and they’re it. At the end of the day, as I was biking out, I managed to give both my new posse and the Pesloe swarm the slip at the same time, when Reese pulled his bicycle lock scam on them.

Not that it did a lot of good. While I didn’t have Reese or Cole following me around, my ‘Fools Cap sense’ told me that someone was dogging my trail. So, I decided to give them the Idiot’s Tour of Millbridge. Two hours later, I’d been through the Old Town, the campus, and was halfway through the wool-shearing district, when I finally got a good look at him. It was that fool, McKay. Which was sort of a relief - if Cole Pesloe or Buck Washburn could follow me like that, I was in BIG trouble!

Well, I dunno how he’s managed to keep up with me so far, but there’s one place that I KNOW he won’t follow me through!

When I last left there, I’d’a sworn that I’d never go into Jordan’s Wood alone. But, if what I got from The Seven was right, then these woods were MY place. If McKay wants to follow me around, let’s see him try it in here!

But there was someone waiting for me at the edge of the woods.

Well, you took your own sweet time getting here

“I thought I told you to stay inside those woods until specifically called!”

Yes, and then you locked me out, Idiot!  

“Oh. Right.” I walked inside, and felt a definite sense of some invisible boundary crossed. “Well? What are you waiting for? Come inside.”

The Lurker prowled into the woods, grumbling under its nonexistent breath about having to be invited into its own home. And then, as soon as it was completely inside the wood, it tried to disappear into the wood. Which, being a wood spirit, it should have been able to do, easy as pie.

But, these are MY woods, as I’ve pointed out so often. I knew exactly where it was. It gathered itself and pounced on me, knocking me to the ground.

“What do you think you’re doing, Hobb?”

You invited me back in. And, you kindly surrendered your mastery of me, before The Seven. So, your protection from me is gone. Now, I take MY Woods BACK!

“OFF!” Creepy went flying, and landed in a compost heap.

No, wait, it WAS the compost heap.

WHAT? You-

“Aaahh, shaddap, you animated hedgerow!”

I am the Lurker in the woods, I am MASTER here! I am-

“You are wasting your breath! That is, if you HAVE breath! First, you can’t hurt me, because you’re NOT the Master of these Woods, _I_ am! You’re in MY place of power now, not yours. Second, I may have given over my control of you, but I still know your True Name. So, I have power, both within and without. And third, you submitted to me; even if I gave that up, you submitted to me. You will always be weaker than I am.”

So, do you bind me yet again?  

I gave Creepy a non-smile. “Tryin’ to trick me into cuttin’ my own throat? Nope, Hobb, I am NOT your Master. BUT, I AM your landlord.”

What?

“Well, as I can figure it, while Jordan’s Wood may not need you, you definitely need Jordan’s Wood. You’re a wood spirit, and I don’t think the other spirits would be happy with you bunking with them, am I right?” Creepy just glowered. I grinned. “So, if you wanna crash here until The Seven make up their collective minds, you can stay. BUT, there are a few things that I want understood. First, no more of this jumping on me crap. Second, no more luring kids into these woods and playing your nasty little games.”

I am the Hunter! I-

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, I know! Now ask me if I care. Third, this stay is ONE SHOT. If you leave before The Seven call for Judgement, if you leave these woods, you’re OUT. Period. There’s no use coming to me and crying about it, ‘cause I won’t care.” I got up to leave, and remembered McKay. “Oh, one last thing. There’s a man following me. He may try to follow us into these woods. If he comes in, I give you limited permission to play with him. Let him out, come sundown, and don’t hurt or kill him. Past that…feel free to amuse yourself.”

I didn’t feel anyone following me out of the woods. So, I pedaled back into town, to get a book from the library before heading back home. As I locked my bike, Reece, Leo and Cody walked up. “Hey, Dan! Where you been? I heard that you’ve been running all over town!”

“Oh, that idiot McKay has been following me ever’where I go. What’s his problem?”

“What?” Reece hooted, “You need this spelled out for you? You dissed McKay major yesterday at Church. After you left, McKay started making a big deal, asking what you did after school and all that.”

“Yeah,” Cody cut in, “and when none’a us could tell him-”

“What?” Reece asked, “I told him that Dan hangs with that bunch of kids cross-town, doesn’t that count?”

“What?” I asked, “You told him about my friends?”

“Hey, not to worry!” Reece breezed, “It’s not like I know who they ARE, or where they live, or anything. And I even managed to avoid telling him about your girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?” Cody and Leo looked at each other. “You got a girlfriend?”

“She’s a girl, who is my friend,” I said stiffly.

“And CUTE!” Reece grinned.

Leo looked worried. “Does, ah, Gwen know about this?”

“They met each other yesterday, after my game up at the college.”

“Whoa,” Cody said, eyes wide, “You got TWO girls on a string? Man, I knew you were slick, but-”

Leo seemed to be kind of uncomfortable with the topic, so he dragged it back to my little chase scene. “So, how did you get away from McKay? I mean, he’s a lot older than you are, and he knows a lot more tricks.”

I grinned evilly. “I lured the putz into Jordan’s Wood. Right now, the Lurker is playing cat-and-mouse with him.” And just then, I felt something. “I don’t believe it. McKay got out! And I TOLD the Lurker to leave him in there, until sunrise!”

Reece gave me an odd look. “How d’you know that?”

“Well, first, Jordan’s Wood is my place of power, so I know who and what’s in it. Sorta. Comes and goes. Also, I was able to keep track of him using the Fool’s Cap.”

Uniform wide eyes. “You can DO that?”

“Sure! The Fool’s Cap is basically a sorcery cord, and I’ve figured out how to feel people who are concentrating on messing with me. That’s how I knew that McKay was on my trail. There’s sort of a drag on it when someone’s targeting me.”

Cody chewed on that for a bit. “Y’know, that could still be used agin’ you, Dan.”

“Oh? How?”

“Well, McKay’s been following you around like you got toilet paper stuck to your shoe, right? He must be following something. Maybe he’s trailing the Fool’s Cap?”

Reece nodded. “Yeah, and maybe that’s how he found his way out of Ho-, er Jordan’s Wood. He finally found the Fools Cap’s thread and followed it out of the wood.”

“ah, Yeah.” Lord and Lady, if McKay can follow the Fool’s Cap, then he’ll be able to follow me anywhere! And now that he knows that he can find his way out of Jordan’s Wood, there’ll be no getting rid of him!

“Hey, maybe you can turn that around on him!” Reece offered. “If you latch onto a sorcery threat too hard, it can latch onto you. So, maybe you can finally get rid of that stupid Fool’s Cap, and slam it on McKay.”

I looked at Reece with new respect. Talk about killing two particularly obnoxious birds with one stone! With the Cap screwing him over, there’d be no way that McKay could get anyone to take him seriously!

“Nope, nope.” Cody shook his head. “The Cap only affects kids at Horace Mann, remember?”

“Not necessarily.” I told them, in carefully edited terms, about the Cap’s little trip over to Tolbathy. “So, it might eventually return to Horace Mann - heck, maybe even to me - but it should mess with McKay long enough to pound the idea to not fuck with me into his little pin head. And even if it doesn’t mess with him that much, I could still use a vacation from being everyone’s punching bag.”

Weeellll…” Reece looked at me cagily, “Tell y’what, Winters. McKay’s gonna be on guard for anything that YOU might pull. But not for us. What say you help us out with our little, ah, ‘project’ with Kelton, and then we help you teach McKay what it’s like to walk in your shoes for a while.”

I gave Reece a hard look. “That sounds reasonable, Reece. Suspiciously reasonable.” Getting this Fool’s Cap off my head seems to be a big thing with Reece. Gee, I wonder why.

Reece gave a wide ‘What?’ shrug. “Hey, you KNOW that I’m not gonna fuck with you, Danny! If I did so much as Boo at you, my Aunt Dinah would skin me alive, and Uncle Pol would roll me in rock salt! Aunt Dinah thinks that you can walk on water.”

“I’ve been practicing in the bathtub.” Hey. “That reminds me, Reece. How’s Sarah doing? I’ve been meaning to drop by your Uncle Pol’s place, but things have been…”

“Yeah, I know…” Reece leaned forward. “Is she...really...?”

“Yep, Sara Hortense Aubrey, lost for some thirty-five years, or so my ‘rents tell me.”

Reese, his crew and I biked over to Pol and Dinah Aubrey’s place, to pay our respects. Missuz Aubrey took us down into the cellar, where they had a bed set up for Sarah. Sarah was asleep, but fitful. “We have to keep her down here,” Missuz Aubrey explained, “out of the Sun and close to the Earth. She has thirty-five years of sleep to catch up on.” Missuz Aubrey took a bowl of broth and sat by Sarah on the bed. She leaned Sarah up and carefully slid a spoon of broth down her lips, careful not to let it down the wrong pipe.

“Thirty-five years of sleep?” I asked, doing some quick figuring in my head. Okay, eight hours of sleep, twenty-four hours a day, means roughly one quarter of your time is spent asleep, more or less...so, “You’re going to have to keep her down here for Nine Years?”

Missuz Aubrey shook her head. “No, nor will the other children you brought out of the woods. We’re all working on a way of bringing them back completely. And you’re going to be a part of that, Jordan."

Well, that explains a lot. McKay wants me under his thumb, so he can soak the families of the children that I have to help. Even if I manage to weasel out of being responsible for the Lurker and Jordan’s Wood, if McKay gets the ‘mentorship’ that he seems to be wrangling for, any favors owed me, will be favors owed HIM. Of course, in his little rat brain, he’s probably got if framed that I’m running wild, my parents aren’t able to rein me in, and a strong hand is needed and all that crap, so all that influence will be just rewards for his valuable services.

Scumbag.

Tuesday afternoon, just after last bell, all five of my newfound (even if I didn’t go lookin’ for ‘em) ‘posse’ found me out back of the gym. “Okay, first thing, how do we get McKay offa Dan’s back?” Lacey asked.

“We?” I gave Lacey the inquisitor’s eye. “How did you two get involved in this?”

“Well,” Gwen caged, “y’know, small town, not much t’do - we figured that since things were happening around you at lot these days, that we’d be in on the action, when it went down.”

Right. I’d lay odds that Lacey is only going along with this, because Gwen’s her best bud, and Gwen seems to want to get close to me. And, since Lacey is just as cute as Gwen is, in a blonde, perky, ‘cheerleader-in-the-bud’ way, and that both Leo and Cody will go along with this, in hopes of getting close to either one of them.

Y’know, the really weird thing is, I can see this from the point of view of both sexes, and I can still smell a disaster brewing. I shrugged. “Okay, Lacey, there’s no reason why not, and it even gives me an idea of how to make best use of it. Okay, McKay can sniff out the Fool’s Cap. BUT, what if he thought that I’d found a way of ‘tacking off’ the cord of the Cap, so that he’s following someone else around?”

Reece perked up. “Now, THAT is a Killer idea! Why we could foist being the de facto Designated Victim off on almost anyone! We cou-”

“CHILL, Carrot-top!” I growled at him, “I haven’t figured it out. Yet. Buuuttt… If you pass along the grapevine that I’m experimenting with it - which I _am_, then McKay will get the idea that I’ve already found a way.” I reached into a pocket and pulled out the locket that I first used to create my ‘Girl-Jordan’ seeming. “This is a trick that I came up with, to get past Cole Pesloe. Now, Gwen, remember Jazz, that girl that I introduced you to Sunday?” Gwen did, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “Well, her best friend is a blonde girl named - get this - ‘Jordan’. Reece has met her, and you may have seen her around town. Anyway, this locket contains a picture that I drew of her and a few strands of her hair.” Not a lie, they were my hairs after all. I slipped the locket on, and activated the seeming. A few seconds later, and ‘Jordan’ was standing in front of them. Out of sheer practice, the seeming only took a moment, and the glamour adjusted the apparent fit on my clothes so that they looked like a rather sporty set of girls’ clothing. I even tweaked it so that the blue of the denim turned black.

They gaped at me. “Woof,” Leo said. “How did you pull that off so quickly?”

“Hey, when you’re the Designated Victim, you learn to think - and spell - on your feet. Now, the beauty of this is, that either by changing my definition like this, I throw the Fool’s Cap off a little, or McKay can track me, but every time that he goes looking for a blonde boy named Dan, he finds a girl named Jordan. So either way, he’ll think that this trick doesn’t work anymore, and move on to something else.”

“But, why is it so important that this girl’s name is Jordan, Dan?” Lacey asked, not quite getting it.

“His name isn’t ‘Daniel’,” Reece explained, “it’s Jordan. So, by the Rules of Similarity and Threes, there should be three points of similarity: Blonde, and named ‘Jordan’ - that’s two. What’s the third thing, ‘Dan’?” he finished, all too innocently.

“This girl Jordan lives in Millbridge. I can’t say exactly where.” Damn straight, I can’t. That would be suicide with this bunch.

“What if we run into this girl Jordan, while you’re spelled up like that?”

“Simple.” I took off the cameo and was Dan again. “All we have to do is keep an eye peeled. Gwen, also keep an eye out for Jazz - I don’t want to have to explain things. It would be...embarrassing.”

“You can say that again!” Gwen drawled. “Not to worry, I’ll keep on the lookout for your dusky ladylove.”

“Gwen, Jazz isn’t my girlfriend, she a girl, who’s my friend.”

Gwen pursed her mouth into a smile that didn’t need to say ‘Good!’.

I restored the spell, and went off with Gwen and Lacey. We’d meet up with Reece, Leo and Cody near the library. Sure enough, there was Cole Pesloe and his bunch, waiting on their bikes as we walked back. When we cleared the corner, Gwen and Lacey broke into a fit of giggles, and it took everything that I had, to not join in.

I gotta be macho, when I’m spelled up like a girl. Life sucks.

As we were waiting for the boys near the library, Lacey spotted McKay poking around the Town Square. Spotting Lacey and Gwen, McKay trundled over and glowered at them. “Okay, where’s that good-for-nothing little punk, Winters?”

“What do you mean, Mister McKay?” Gwen asked in her best ingenuous voice.

“I MEAN, where IS the little puke?”

“Why? Are you looking for him?”

“Would I be asking where he was, if I wasn’t looking for him?”

“Why are you look for him?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Well, then why should I tell you anything?”

“You’ll TELL Me-”

McKay grabbed her, and I was about to break out of my anonymity when Lacey said, “We haven’t seen him since school.”

“Well, he should be here, somewhere.”

“He agreed to meet you here?” Gwen asked.

McKay started to say something, and then he realized that he was pushing his luck. “I need to find him. About what, is none of your business.”

“Well, we haven’t seen him since school,” Gwen said, cool as a cucumber. “The last I saw of him, he was climbing on a bus. I think he was heading home.”

McKay looked at her hard. “Are you sure about that?”

“Well, I THINK he was headed home, but I don’t hang out with him.”

McKay gave her another hard look, and trundled off, not sure of what to make of it. Once McKay was well out of sight, I walked over. “uhm, thanks, Gwen, but you shouldn’t have lied. Sweet Lady knows what will happen.”

Gwen smirked up at me. “I didn’t lie. Asshole asked about that ‘good-for-nothing little punk, Winters’; how am I supposed to know where your little brother Trey is?” And that, Class, is why you should be very careful about what you ask a Witch.

Reece’s prank on Mister Kelton had Leo and Cody distracting the people that he was talking to, as Reece ran an illusion of Sarah past him. Gwen acted as the ‘catcher’ for the illusion. As Kelton chased ‘Sarah’, Lacey and I stalled him, keeping him from catching up with ‘her’. When he couldn’t spot ‘Sarah’, he asked us if we’d seen a little girl, so tall, yada yada yada, had come by this way. And since no girl, just an illusion of a girl had come that way, we very truthfully said, ‘No’. As he stumbled off, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the poor asshole. Still, this is Pol Aubrey’s revenge, not mine; I’m just helping Reece ‘warm him up’ for Mr. Aubrey.

Afterwards we got together, and planned our next move. “Okay, we have just one more prank on Kelton, and then we can move on to McKay.”

“Do we HAVE to, Reece?” I asked. “It looks t’me like Kelton’s reeling as it is. Much more, and he’s gonna bug.”

“I promised Uncle Pol five good pranks, and I’m gonna deliver.”

“Yer not gonna hurt him, for a capper, are you?”

“Lord and Lady, NO! C’mon, Winters, you know how it works! You can’t just DO a revenge on someone! Uncle Pol’s gotta get Kelton t’do the real work himself! But, there’s nothing that says that I can’t, y’know, set the stage, now is there?”

Wise Ones, I just KNOW that I’m gonna regret this. “Okay, what’s next?”

Reece grinned that grin that I know all too well. “I’m working on a Hex that will make his own sweat feel like blood. When he feels the blood, then he’ll smell the blood. When he smells the blood, he’ll start looking for it. And when he looks for it, he’ll find it. He’ll be covered in it.”

“And no one else will be able to see it?”

“Bingo.”

We thrashed it out that the simplest way to slip him a hex without him without him knowing it was the old ‘slip it into his jacket’ gag. The only places where he’d take off his jacket, would be at his office and at the diner where he takes his afternoon coffee break. It seems that Reece has been doing his homework. Be afraid, be very afraid.

There was no way that we could get into Mr. Kelton’s office, so the diner seemed like the best bet. Lacey would go in first, and find a way to finesse Kelton’s jacket so that it was right next to the door, on the right. When it was ready, she’d give Gwen the high sign, and she’d come in and join Lacey for a soft drink or something. As came in, she’d slip the hex paper into Kelton’s pocket. When Kelton came out, I’d come along and lay a ‘warmth’ spell on him. It’s a minor charm, that just makes you THINK that you’re warm, but your body believes what it’s told, so Kelton will start to work up a sweat. From there, the Hex kicks in. At the end, Cody and Leo trip up Kelton to get the hex paper out of his pocket. Since the hex would be in operation, it would still work. “I notice that YOU’RE nowhere to be seen in this, Reece,” I pointed out.

“Kelton’s seen me too many times. The fewer Aubreys around when the weirdness hits, the better.” I choked down a pointed remark about the fewer Aubreys around, the better all around.

We stopped talking when McKay’s buddy, Darren Burke walked into the BK. He walked past us, and knocked Gwen’s purse off the chair. He picked it up, and started to hand it back to her, when he spotted me. I’d shed my girlie seeming - didn’t want these guys getting the idea that I was too comfortable that way - so he recognized me. “You! Where the hell have you been, punk?”

I gave him a quizzical look. “Did we have some sort of appointment?”

“Don’t you give me lip, punk! Where you been hiding?”

“Hiding? Why would I be hiding?”

Burke started to really get his back up, when the BK manager stepped in. “Do we have a problem here?” He looked at Gwen’s bag in Burke’s hand. “Is that YOUR purse, with the daisies on it, sir?” He looked at Burke with pursed lips.

Burke just snarled and shoved Gwen’s bag back at her, and stalked off.

“D’ya get the impression that McKay’s taking all this a leeeetle too seriously?” Cody asked wryly.

“I get the impression that I should get the flock out of here, before Burke there gives McKay a call.”

“You still down for tomorrow?”

“I said that I’d be there, so I’ll be there, if a tree doesn’t fall on me.”

With that, I gave my farewell, and got to my bike. I was about to spin by the comic store, when I saw McKay himself, and he had Gwen by the shoulders. He was yelling at her, so I turned the bike around and pedaled at him, ramming speed. I braked to a screeching stop right next to him, just barely missing him. He flinched, and let Gwen go. “Hey, McKay! Your mother know that you’re picking on girls now?”

He snarled at me. “You! Winters! I’m gonna have a few words with you!” I let him come at me long enough for Gwen to get completely away, and then I started pedaling my bike so that I was just out of McKay’s reach. I strung him along for a while, but he wasn’t dumb enough to fall for that for very long. He got over to his truck, and then we had us a real chase. He had the advantage that he was in a truck, could go faster than I could, and he could force me to stop if I let him. I had the advantage that my bike could go off-road and could duck through things. Even so, McKay had me on the ropes, until Dad drove up in his county truck.

Dad leaned out of the window of his truck. “McKay, do we have a problem here?”

“Yeah, damn straight we do! You’n your wife let that latchkey kid of yours run wild! He needs someone to teach him respect! The little punk doesn’t have any respect for those who’ve earned it!”

“By that, I assume that you tried to push him around - AGAIN, and he didn’t let you - AGAIN.”

“Actually,” I cut in, “he was pushing around a fifteen-year-old girl. Gwen Spenser, remember her, Dad?”

McKay just gave an evil grin. “Hey, when a kid wears the Fool’s Cap, it don’t matter WHAT he does. He owes respect to fuckin’ everyone. And I claim to see to it that he pays me my due.” With that, he drove off.

Okay, now I officially do NOT like Axel McKay.

Tuesday, I biked into town with Lacey and Gwen, same as before. “Hey, what’s this I hear that you saved Gwen from Mister McKay yesterday?” Lacey asked in a leading way.

“Aaaa...no big deal,” I said, trying to balance the outer act with the inner tude. “Hey, Gwen, what WAS ol’ McKaveman tryin’ t’do with you, anyway? Maybe we could get the ‘rents to make a complaint.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Gwen said, making like it wasn’t anything, “he was just yellin’ at me, tryin’ to get me to tell what we were up to.”

“Why would he care?” Lacey asked.

“I think McKay’s decided that he’s gonna be the first scoutmaster for the Witch Scouts of Millbridge, or sum’thin,” I guessed. “You didn’t tell him anything, didja, Gwen?”

“What do I look like, a wimp?”

“I think you’re eight inches shorter and at least a hundred pounds lighter’n he is, Gwen.”

“Well, for your information, he didn’t get a THING out of me!” She paused and looked confused. “But he knew a lot, anyway.”

Lacey chewed on this for a while. “I think we ought’a get this thing with Mister Kelton over quick, and get down to business, getting that Fool’s Cap offa you and onto him, like STAT!”

“Does everyone in town know that I’m wearing this goddamn thing?”

“No. Just the Witches.”

The scam was going down, smooth as silk. Kelton was in the diner having his cup of Joe, Lacey was in one of the window booths, and she’d just given us the signal. Gwen went in, and a few minutes later, she appeared in the window. I was ready, the ‘warmth’ charm in my hand, ready for the second that Kelton came out or put on his jacket. Leo and Cody were around a corner, waiting for me to make my move.

Then it all went to shit.

Instead of Kelton, McKay came out of the diner, with a tweed jacket like Mr. Kelton had, draped over his arm. Then someone called his name, and he turned to see Darren Burke standing there with Roger Palmer and Mrs. Aldrich - the mother of Donna Aldrich, one of the kids I called out of the woods. Odd, I hadn’t noticed them earlier. They were standing near the diner, just about under where Gwen and Lacey were sitting.

As he walked toward them, McKay pulled on that tweed jacket. Just as it was settling on his shoulders, a flame shaped like a snake slithered out of the right hip pocket of his jacket and wrapped itself around his left arm. Yelping in pain, McKay tore the jacket off, and between them McKay, Burke, and Palmer managed to douse the fire-snake. Mrs. Aldrich cast an Aversion, that kept this little to-do ‘in the family’, as it were.

Lacey and Gwen came tearing out of the diner. “Omigawd, it wasn’t supposed to DO that!” leapt out of Gwen’s mouth before it occurred to her to keep her mouth shut.

As Burke was bandaging McKay’s arm, Palmer reached into the pocket of McKay’s jacket where the fire-snake had come from, and fished out the hex slip. He glared at Gwen and yelled, “What? Are YOU behind this?”

Gwen froze, and all that came out of her mouth was, “-it - it wasn’t - it wasn’t supposed-”

I ducked behind a corner, made sure that no one was watching - hey, almost 4 on a Tuesday afternoon on a quiet street, but you never know - and dropped the girl- seeming. I came charging out, but somehow, they’d already managed to drag Lacey and Gwen off.

Leo and Cody came up. “What the fuck happened?”

“I dunno. But I know one thing for sure - McKay’s gonna throw a fit like Mount St. Helens over this.”

“He’ll roast the girls over an open fire, if we don’t get them to believe that it was a mistake!”

“IF it was a mistake!” Leo growled, “Why else would Reece make a point of not being here?”

Part of me agreed. This was definitely Reece’s idea of a joke. And, since it wasn’t at me, it snuck neatly under the radar of the hex I had on him. No, it wasn’t. First, even Reece would know better than to send a fire conjureling at someone, just for a joke. Second, he said flat out that this was for his Uncle Pol. He wouldn’t lie, and one virtue that the Aubreys do have in spades is family loyalty. There’s no way that he’d drag his uncle into a mess like this. “We’ll ask him tomorrow. But, right now, we gotta get home and tell our parents what happened. If we can get OUR version of what happened heard, then McKay won’t be able to railroad them.”

“errr...Right, now, they don’t even know that we had anything to do with this,” Leo hedged. Cody gave him a nasty look and gave him a slap on the shoulder. “aaahhh... MAAANN, my Mom’s gonna KILL me!”

“You mean you WERE involved in that?” The Mom was not as supportive as one might have hoped. “WHY in the name of SANITY did you Attack Axel McKay? In front of witnesses, yet?”

“Mom, we DIDN’T attack him!”

“Oh? Then explain the Third Degree burns on his arm, then!”

“That wasn’t what the spell was supposed to do, and it wasn’t aimed at McKay!”

“How did you get INVOLVED in this, in the first place?”

“Well, I was helping Reece Aubrey pull-”

Mom stopped me dead. “You. Were helping. Reece. Reece Aubrey.”

“ah, Yeah.”

“You were stupid enough to get involved with that little ratsass? Dan! I thought that you were smarter than that!"

“Mom! It-” She wasn’t having any of it. I was banished to my room.

The next day, Cody, Leo and I managed to corner Reece in the boy’s room. “Okay, Aubrey, what happened?”

“I dunno! Honest, Guys, I swear! I dunno what happened! Even if my Hex was off, there’s NO WAY that it should have produced something that would attack anyone! What? Am I stupid? Do you think that I’m gonna set you up for something like THAT, when all you gotta do is turn around and finger me?” Okay, he’s got a point there. Reece may not be the sharpest crayon in the box, but he’s not dim enough to do something that would practically weld the Fool’s Cap to his own noggin.

The ‘Sinister Six’ (that would be us, the already convicted) managed to get together at Lunch at school. While I was used to the conspicuous cold shoulder that everyone was giving us, the others were really feeling the chill. When I asked, it was unanimous. When the ‘rents heard about it, they went postal.

“Okay,” Lacey opened, “they’ve called for a meeting of the High Council at your house, Dan. Our only chance of walking out of this with our hides still on, is if we stand together and swear that we weren’t targeting McKay, and we don’t know how he got hurt.”

“And what makes you think that McKay will let us get a word in edge wise?” Leo asked fatalistically. “I’ve seen him in action; he’ll just start yelling and pointing fingers, and keep yelling until he gets his way.”

“It would help, if we knew what the fuck happened,” Gwen said, glaring at Reece.

“Okay, from what I’ve seen on TV,” Cody started. We all groaned at this. Cody continued, “From what I’ve seen, what we need to figure out is what went wrong. Does anyone remember anything weird or out of the usual? For instance, isn’t it weird that there were so few people on the street, just then?”

We couldn’t make anything out of a lull in the traffic. Even when Witches are involved, coincidences do happen. We bounced around a few non-factors and then, Gwen said, “Well, I found a bunch of ashes in my purse, day before yesterday.”

“WHAT?” Reece and I looked at each other.

Gwen cringed a little. “I said, I found some ashes in my purse yesterday. I dunno how they got there.”

“When was this?” I asked very interested. Reece was pretty keen, too.

“Well, when I got home, after we met at the BK.”

“This was after McKay tried to give you the third degree?” Lacey asked. Apparently, Gwen told her about the incident with McKay, because she told the rest about it.

I looked at Reece. He looked at me, and nodded. “Hey, if YOU came up with it, then it can’t be that original a trick.”

I explained, with careful editing, about my burning hex slip trick. Gwen got it. “So, you think that Burke slipped me something? But what?”

Reece was all over it. “I’ll tell you exactly what it was - it was a questioning charm. He kept asking a bunch of questions, right? But you didn’t say anything, right?”

“Of course not! What sort of wimp do you take me for?”

“Wimp ain’t the issue. Either the charm made you tell him, without knowing it, or he read what you were thinking, or he got some sort of ‘Yes or No’ response. Any way you flip the pancake, McKay knew exactly what we were gonna do, and probably who we were gonna do it to, and when and how.”

Leo summed it up. “McKay burned himself. Like the Reichstag fire. The Nazis burned the building where the German lawmakers met, and blamed it on the Commies. They did it as an excuse to pass all kinds of laws giving the Nazis permission to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Now, McKay can go around screaming that us kids are running wild, throwing around hexes and burning people. I dunno exactly what he wants, but he’ll get it.”

I shook my head. “Nope, it doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“McKay would never do this, because he’d have to be too damn careful about what he says. He can’t say ‘somebody burned me’, because that would be a flat-out lie. If we challenged him and accused him of burning himself, he wouldn’t be able to deny it. And he’d never put himself in that position.”

“So?” Lacey asked, “What about his buddy, Burke? Burke already helped him, by slipping Gwen that hex. He was in the diner with McKay when I first came in; after Gwen came in and slipped the hex into Mr. Kelton’s pocket, he got up, put on his jacket right there and left.”

“You think he used putting on his jacket to cover swapping the slip?” 

“No, still doesn’t work,” Reece insisted. “If he put my hex slip in McKay’s pocket, then it still wouldn’t create the fire-snake that burned Mckay.”

“So?” Lacey said, “McKay already had the hex that created the snake ON him. He only needed our hex slip to frame us.”

Cody was still unconvinced. “Still shaky. McKay will probably make a big to-do about how Gwen admitted it. But he can’t say that he knows who did it, or he’ll be lying. And he’s still on some pretty thin ice, if he claims that he doesn’t know who did it.”

I had an answer for that. “Maybe he did the old Henry the Second ‘who will rid me of this troublesome priest’ number. He probably talked about doing it with Burke, but he never actually TOLD Burke to do it.”

“Hold it!” Reece lit up with inspiration. “If MY hex slip wasn’t responsible, then McKay had another hex slip on him. Hell, we don’t even know if McKay had the slip that Gwen slipped into Kelton’s pocket at all! He just pulled out a hex slip, and finessed Gwen into spilling the beans! Hell, it’s probably some residual effect from the questioning charm he slipped her. BUT, the slip that I made wouldn’t create a fire snake, and McKay would know that, and so would anyone who took a good look at it. So, the slip that he showed Palmer and Missuz Aldrich was a ringer! Gwen, if McKay shows you that slip, you can say NO, and mean it! From there, his whole case falls apart!”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Leo grumped, “IF McKay brings the fool thing to the hearing. And he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is call on Palmer and Missus Aldrich, and they think that it’s legit. And he knows that.”

“Reece,” I said with a sigh, “the only way that we can get a word in edgewise, is if there’s an adult there, who’s willing to stand with us. Right now, the only one that I’d say who’d believe us and stand up to McKay is your Uncle Pol. You promised him that you’d set up Mr. Kelton, right?” Reece nodded. “So, use that, and get him to hear you swear that you were keeping your promise. He’s the chink in the wall that the grown-ups are throwing up. They’re all so busy covering their asses, that they don’t dare even consider that we may not be guilty. But if we can get your Uncle Pol to listen, and get the adults to at least hear us out.”

“McKay will never let it happen,” Leo said gloomily. “His neck is out a mile here, and he knows it. This is his big gamble. If he pulls it off, he’s as good as on the High Council; if he blows it, he not only completely blows his cred, but he pisses off all of our families.”

“And, every Witch-kid in the Berkshires will be after his blood, too.”

“And, both Palmer and Missuz Aldrich will be pissed at him, for playing them for fools.”

“But McKay KNOWS all that,” Leo pointed out. “And the only way to get him to shut up long enough to swear an oath that we didn’t do it, would be to put a gun in his mouth.”

Reece sighed, “I can call Uncle Pol from one of the phones here at school, but that’s all. I’d try something like pulling the plugs on McKay’s truck, but the ‘rents have me on house arrest.” Oh. NOW the Aubreys get social responsibility.

“And McKay WILL find a way to be there, come hell or high water.” I gave the big sum up. “It comes down to this - we figure some way of tripping up McKay long enough to make a formal oath of innocence. We KNOW that we didn’t do it, and our only advantage is that McKay can’t call us liars.”

“He’d find a way,” Leo grumped.

“Maybe, but McKay is holding all the Aces, and it’s the only trump card we got. We just need to be able to play it at the right time.”

“We need to be able to play it, at all.”

As per orders, I went straight home. For some bizarre reason, the Pesloe swarm seemed to realize that anything that they could do would be gilding the lily, and they left me alone.

I was banished yet again to my room. Dad was furious, and wouldn’t listen to a word I said. I even tried writing it down and handing him the paper, and he just threw it in the wastebasket. Part of me wondered if McKay had some sort of charm on him, or if he was just mad that I’d screwed up so bad.

McKay rolled in to the house early, like he owned the place, and immediately started talking trash. For two freaking HOURS, I hadda listen to him yap about latchkey kids, and discipline, and respect, and how someone hadda come in and take charge of things. Three guesses who. And from the minute that he stepped in the door, to the time that the first of the interested parties showed up, he kept sneaking looks at Solomon’s Cane, like it was the cherry on top of the frilly parfait thingie to end all frilly parfait thingies.

Not that their showing up quieted McKay down. Nope, he just shifted into Public Prosecutor mode. Every time I tried to say anything, he just shouted me down, and waved his bandaged left arm like a flag. The rest of the ‘accused’ and their families came in. When Reece and his parents rolled in, they brought Pol and Dinah Aubrey with them. We shared a look across the room, and I knew that we had at least two adults on our side. Well, maybe three; Gramma Kell, from the Walthers side of the family was there, and she was on our side. Or at least, my side. She wouldn’t have minded blaming all of this on Reece. But then, the Walthers and the Aubreys never did get along.

The last of them finally got in, and the living room was pretty damn packed. We, 'The Accused’ were kept apart, no doubt so that we couldn’t present a united front of any kind. After all, they didn’t want us getting into anymore trouble, not while they were deciding our fates. Well, at least McKay didn’t get his bullshit ‘Judge’s bench’ made of card tables.

And, as Leo had predicted, every time anyone with more clout than he had so much as paused for breath, McKay jumped in and filled the silence. They started off with “This is NOT a rush to judgement,” and proceeded to rush to judgement like the house was on fire and they hadda declare us guilty before they could leave.

Palmer and Mrs. Aldrich testified as to what they’d seen, and as to the scars on McKay’s arm. Which struck me as odd - a guy who has the guts to burn himself, just to prove a point, doesn’t need to go pushing kids around to make himself important.

Once Palmer and Aldrich were off the stand, McKay was back on his hind legs, braying about how ‘it wasn’t really the kids fault’. Folks were just too damn busy these days to really look after the young’uns, and it was high time that there was someone to take things in hand, he said.

“Now you look at young Winters over there! Sittin’ there with the damn FOOL’S CAP on his head, for cryin’ out loud! And he claims that he’s got a right to a Hundred Blessing Blade!” He held up the Judge’s knife. I surprised myself for getting angry that he was handling MY knife, and all but saying that I should give it to him. “What right does HE have to a HUNDRED BLESSING BLADE? What did HE do, to deserve a Hundred Blessing Blade?”

Pol Aubrey stood up and said in loud voice, “He saved my little girl, that’s what! He went where none’a YOU lot ever had the GUTS t’go, and brought her back!”

McKay started to shout Mr. Aubrey down, but The Cosgrove said in a clear but level voice, “The blade that you’re waving around is a legacy blade, Axel. It was given to Dan by Judge Ainsworth himself. I think we can trust that Judge Ainsworth had the right to give his athame to whom he saw fit.”

“Hey, _I_ didn’t see that!” McKay bellowed.

“No, but I_ did!” Alan Shawcross said. “He said that Dan had saved his honor, and he gave Dan the athame in gratitude.” And, thank you, Lord, Lady and Light for that! At least someone broke the train of McKay’s rant.

But before I could stand up to declare that I was willing to take an oath, McKay yelled, “And what about THAT?” He pointed at Solomon’s cane, sitting in the umbrella stand, where it had been sitting, watching. “You can’t tell me that a reckless, dangerous, irresponsible BOY like Winters has a right to THAT? It belongs in the hands of a better man, who can use it to set things right!”

Bingo. Nice play so far, McKay, but I gotcha now. Thank you, Mister Shawcross, for tripping him up like that.

I was about to stand and make my play, the room went dead silent. There, sitting on the sill of an open window - and I’m not sure that it was open before - was that Raven. It looked at us with all the haughtier of a lord and said,“I am the Bailiff of the Council of Seven. Jordan Jesse Winters, you are called to Judgement.”

McKay sneered, “Oh, do you believe THIS? Winters, isn’t this just a LITTLE obvious? I mean, how convenient!”

The Raven opened its wings, and without flapping them, it flew into the room. It grew into a huge ghastly bird shaped shadow that enveloped McKay. We heard a scream, and then the shadow returned to being a Raven on the windowsill; McKay was kneeling on the floor, clutching at one of his eyes. The Raven said,“I am the Bailiff of the Council of Seven. Jordan Jesse Winters, you are called to Judgement. Does anyone else dispute this summons?”

Dad stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “Bailiff, I don’t dispute the summons. But I was denied the chance to stand by my son, the first time he was called. I insist that I go and stand by him, as Judgement is passed.” Well, THIS is a 360 from a minute ago!

“It won’t effect the Judgement in the least, so I will allow it.”

Ramsey Todd stood up and said, “Honored One, this young man’s fate touches on many issues that are being settled tonight. I request that I came along as well, to act as a witness.” The Raven sighed, and said, “Very Well. Be quick about it.”

McKay opened his mouth, but the Raven just said, “NO,” and that was that.

As Dad, Mr. Todd, and I pulled our coats on, I loudly told Mom, “Whatever you do, don’t let McKay try to get his grubby hands on the cane or my athame. He doesn’t deserve them.” McKay started to sputter, but we were out, and he had to try and bullshit the door.

The Raven didn’t fly us through that whole ‘the world on fast-forward’ bit this time. This time, it lead us to Jordan’s Wood, and perched on a branch of a tree at the very edge. “Well?” Dad asked.

“These are Jordan’s Woods. Even the Council of Seven must have Jordan’s leave to enter.”

Ah, the Judgement is going to be given in my woods. I’ll bet that they’re going to offer me a deal - they’ll let me off, if I ‘sign over the deed’ of these woods to them. Sounds like a deal, if I can get a guarantee that the Lurker won’t come for me or mine, and they let the Forgotten Kids out. I mean, Stars and Garters, it’s not like I WANT to own a nasty, rotten, Lurker infested woods. Or the thing that infests them, for that matter. Nope, I think the kid is walking out of this one clean.

I stepped across the invisible threshold of the woods, turned, bowed and said, “Bailiff, I have come to stand before you, to be Judged. I invite you, the rest of the Council of Seven, and these two witnesses, to enter my woods, and pass Judgment upon me.” I wonder if Spirits are impressed by fancy language. Well, couldn’t hurt.

We went through the woods, to the glade at the center, where Hobb was waiting beside the stump. The Raven landed on the stump and gave a loud caw that echoed through the woods. The glade rose up, and became both the summit and the Mountain-Bear. The stump grew a new trunk and branches, swept aside the stars and became the Oak Matriarch. Mother Weaver wove a new web of stars and comets around the leafy corona of the Oak Matriarch’s leaves. The River-Snake flowed up from the ground and wrapped itself seven times around the Oak’s trunk and glared at us. The Grandfather Elk and the Night Wolf walked out of the woods and assumed their places. The Raven flew up to its stormy perch, and the Council of Seven were met in Jordan’s Wood, to pass Judgement on me.

JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, ARE YOU READY TO HEAR JUDGEMENT?

No, I’m standing here for season’s tickets to the Red Sox! Of course, I’m ready! Let’s get the formalities over with, and get down to the haggling! Still, diplomacy: “Yes, Honored Ones. I am here to heart your judgement upon me.”

JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, YOU HAVE BROKEN THE PACTS AND CONVENANTS THAT YOUR ANCESTORS AGREED TO CENTURIES AGO

HOWEVER, THE HUNTER EXCEEDED ITS AUTHORITY BY REACHING OUTSIDE THESE WOODS TO DRAW YOU IN

YOUR BONDAGE OF THE LURKER IS MITIGATED BY THAT FACT THAT YOU BOUND HIM WELL WITHIN THE LIMITS OF YOUR RIGHTS AS MASTER OF THESE WOODS

BOTH YOU AND THE HUNTER HAVE BROKEN THE COVENANTS

BOTH OF YOU MUST BE PUNISHED EQUALLY

Excuse me?

OUR JUDGEMENT IS THIS

YOU, JORDAN JESSE WINTERS, ARE NOW NAMED AS WARDEN OF THESE WOODS

No! The Lurker all but screamed, these are MY woods! I must hunt here! It is the Covenant!

YOU ARE ENTRUSTED TO KEEP THESE WOODS SAFE WHATEVER THE COST

YOU WILL BE ASSISTED IN THIS TASK BY HOBB, WHO WILL BE YOUR DEPUTY

YOU WILL ALLOW HOBB TO HUNT IN THESE WOODS AND BE RESPONSIBLE FOR ITS CONDUCT

HOBB, YOUR PUNISHMENT IS TO BE JORDAN JESSE WINTERS’ SUBORDINATE IN ALL THINGS, AND TO OBEY EVERY ORDER GIVEN TO YOU

“Oh, Sweet Lady, I’m supposed to be responsible for that sack of shit for the rest of my life?” I yelled.

I am supposed to answer to that piece of MEAT for the rest of its life?

THIS IS THE JUDGMENT

“Hold it, hold it, hold it!” I yelled, “What about the Names of the Forgotten? That’s my price for letting Hobb back into these woods!”

IT IS A PRICE WE CANNOT PAY

“Can’t, or Won’t?”

CANNOT

THE NAMES OF THE FORGOTTEN ARE HERE, IN JORDAN’S WOOD

THEY ARE BEYOND OUR POWER

IT IS FOR THE WARDEN TO FIND THOSE NAMES

IT IS FOR THE WARDEN TO ALLOW THE WARDS FREE

Shit. The names are here, hidden somewhere. And I’ll bet that Creepy arranged it so that only the Warden could find them. So, to find the names, I have to play The Seven’s game and figure out what Creepy did. I could ask it, but I’ll bet a year’s allowance that that’s just too easy.

THIS IS THE JUDGEMENT

LET THE SENTENCE BEGIN

"Hold it!” I said sharply.

YOU DISPUTE THE JUDGEMENT?

“Nope, just one more little thing. I’d like you to seal a vow.”

WE ARE THE COUNCIL OF SEVEN

WE DO NOT CONCERN OURSELVES WITH MERE MORTAL MATTERS

“May I point out that you just appointed me the Warden of these Woods? And so, you recognize my complete authority here?”

AND?

“AND, as such, you can’t leave, until I say so.”

OH

GOOD POINT

PLEASE CONTINUE, WARDEN

I cleared my throat and held my hand on my heart. “I, Jordan Jesse Winters, son of John and Marsha Winters, Warden of Jordan’s Wood, do swear before the Council of Seven, that neither I, nor - to the best of my knowledge - the others accused along with me, acted against Axel McKay in the incident at Kelso’s Diner. We were there helping Pollard Aubrey pursue his rightful revenge against Gilbert Kelton. While I do not know for a fact who was responsible, I have reason to believe that Axel McKay arranged it with his friend Darren Burke, as a means of slandering and gaining an advantage on me, and possibly the others. We would have gladly told the High Council this,” I glared at both Dad and Deacon Todd, “IF we had been allowed to get a word in, edgewise!”

Mister Todd started to say something, but The Seven cut him off.

THE VOW IS GIVEN AND IS TRUE

IS THAT IT?

CAN WE GO NOW?

I bowed to The Seven. “I thank you, Honored Ones. You have leave to go, as you will.”

THIS WILL BE REMEMBERED, WARDEN

There was a swirl in the very fabric of reality, a twisting, and then the clearing was back to its usual dreary dankness. The only sign of The Seven was the Raven perched on the stump.

The Lurker crouched and glowered at me. Well, you win THIS one as well, Warden.

I sauntered over and leaned into its face. “Thass raight, deppitty. Warden. And Don’chew go forgettin’ it. Wail, wha’cha waitin’ fer? Yew got rounds, t’dew! Skat!”

Creepy slunk off to do whatever the hell it is that it does to earn its perks. The Raven flew down to my shoulder, and said, “Well, shall we be on our way?”

As we walked out, Dad said, “Dan, I-”

“Warden.”

“What?”

“Hey, until we get out of these woods, I am the Warden!”

Dad gave me a ‘very funny’ look, but he was so relieved that he let it slide.

Besides, I gotta have some fun!

When we entered the door to the house, McKay was in full cry - again. “Okay, the kid ain’t comin’ back! That means that there is a Hundred Blessing Blade-”

“WHAT? You tryin’ to steal my stuff already, McKay?” I yelled as I pulled off my jacket.

“What?” Deaconess Cosgrove asked, “Did you forget something?”

“What do you mean?” Todd asked, “We were out to Jordan’s Woods, and we heard the judgement. And now, we’re back.”

“Are you joking? You just left and came back!”

“No, we went to the woods and heard Dan’s judgement. Why would I lie about that?”

“Well, it’s not like we don’t know that Time gets a little funny when spirits like The Seven are involved,” I offered.

Deacon Todd described what happened, The Seven’s judgement on the Lurker and me.

“Wait a minute!” McKay was trying to keep the microphone. “Why would The Seven cut a little punk like him such a deal? He broke the Covenants!”

“Simple, Idiot,” I answered him, “the Lurker broke its word. It’s a spirit with a very heavy-duty job, and a lot of perks. When a spirit like that breaks a promise, that’s bad. More to the point, the Lurker was playing fast and loose with sacred things, like the Cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth. It was getting too big for its boots. The Lurker is like The Seven’s watchdog. Now, having a big watchdog is one thing.” I spared Mrs. Aldrich, who owns a dog that’s nicknamed ‘the Terminator’, a withering glance. “But it’s a whole other thing when that big dog decides that it’s the real owner of the house, and it’s only letting you in because you feed it. That’s bad. Now, old Creepy and I can’t stand each other, so I am its punishment for getting too arrogant. And it is my punishment, for MY arrogance.”

“WHAT?” McKay screamed, “They’re giving THAT a position of real power? There are people who have given their LIVES serving the community, who are passed over, and HE gets a Place of Power? I’ve EARNED-”

“You’re a trumped-up errand boy, and everyone knows it, McKay!” I snarled back at him. “Hell, everyone knows that the High Council only gives you those errands, so that you’ll shut up!”

McKay’s eyes went small and piggy. “Yeah, well, you STILL gotta answer for THIS!” He held up his ‘burned’ arm.

Deacon Todd started to say something but I shushed him. “No, I don’t,” I said with an evil smile.

“And why NOT?” McKay returned with just as evil as smile.

“Because you’re going to drop the charges. Against me, and each of my friends.”

“Or what? You’ll sic your pet demon on me, Boy?”

“First, I’d like to point out to everyone here, that McKay here brought that up, not me. I don’t think like that. He does. You remember that. No, McKay, you’ll drop the charges, because you want this.” I went over, picked up the Judge’s athame, presented it, and stuck it in my belt. Then I walked over to the umbrella stand and pulled out Solomon’s Cane. “And, more to the point, you want THIS.”

I held up the cane, and McKay’s eyes couldn’t stay off it. I switched the cane from one side to the other, and his eyes followed it, like that ‘watch the watch’ bit in old cartoons.

“Y’see? He’s tryin’ to buy me off, right here in front of everyone!”

“Oh, I’m not offering these to you, McKay. I’m offering you a dare.”

“A Dare? Y’mean, a bet?”

“Exactly. Now, as Mister Shawcross can tell you, the Judge gave this to me, saying that it must pass to the hand of a worthy man. Now, you want this. You want it BAD. And, if you ever managed to get me under your thumb, you might be able to weasel me out of it. BUT everyone would KNOW that you weaseled it out of me. You’d have the badge, but you wouldn’t have the respect. But, if you’re able to take this out of my hand, well then! You’re a worthy man! It’s been proven in a way that no one can ever dispute! Every time anyone sees you carrying this, they’ll know that you’re a worthy successor to Judge Ainsworth - whose family is conspicuously absent, I notice. Didn’t wanna piss off the Ainsworths, didja McKay?”

McKay bridled, but he didn’t bite.

“Okay, you need more incentive? How about this? If you can take this, you get the whole shootin’ match. The cane, the athame, the Judge’s six-shooter, the Lurker’s True Name, and you get to be the Warden of the Woods. Hell, we’ll even change the name to McKay’s Woods. Hey, I’ll even be your stinking protégé, just like you want, and I’ll have to do everything that you tell me to.”

He looked at me warily. “This is a trick. There’s a catch.”

“Of COURSE, there’s a catch, pinhead! If you can’t take this cane from my hand, then you drop these charges, and you admit that you and your buddy Darren Burke set this whole thing up.” I gave him another grin. “By the way, I notice that good ol’ Darren isn’t here t’night, givin’ you your back, as per usual. I guess he didn’t wanna answer any embarrassing questions, hunh, McKay?”

“Don’t you talk trash about Darren Burke, punk! He’s worth ten’a you!”

“Hey, all you gotta do, to get it ALL, is take this stick from my hand.”

McKay stepped up, his face screwed up with fury, and grabbed the cane, just below where I had it. “Very funny, punk. But you made a big mistake.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I AM a better man than you are. I’m a better man than you’ll ever BE.”

“And YOU made a big mistake.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“It takes more than roar to make a lion.”

He sneered and pulled. Now McKay is at least seven inches taller than I am, a good hundred pounds heavier, and he has hands like ham hocks. Still, not only didn’t he pull the cane from my hands, but he didn’t even budge me.

McKay paused, then gave another pull.

Nothing. I gave him a smile that I knew would get him where he lived.

McKay gave another pull, and really put his muscle into it. He grabbed the cane with both hands, and tried to wrestle it from my hands. Me? I just stood there, trying to look as calm as I could.

He grabbed it with both hands and propped up one foot on my chest, and still he couldn’t so much as get a quiver.

Finally, when he was red in the face, and nearly exhausted, I gave him a shove with the cane, and sent him flying halfway across the room, on top of a few of our guests.

McKay roared as he started to get to his feet. Now, I couldn’t have that! I came over and gave him a wide arcing swing with the cane, that landed on the sweet spot on the right side of his jaw. McKay reeled. Well, now that he can’t object, might as well check out a theory of mine. I pulled my athame from its sheath in my belt.

“What are you DOING?” screamed one of our guests.

I sliced open the bandages on his forearm, revealing the large, nasty scab of a third degree burn. I placed the blunt edge of the blade against the scar and pulled back. “No! Are you trying to kill him?”

The blunt edge pulled the scab off, revealing a perfectly healthy, unscarred stretch of skin. “Well? A Hundred and ONE Blessing Blade, McKay! See? It can heal!” I dangled the phony latex scar from my blade and showed it to everyone. Then I threw the ugly glob of plastic in his face. “I KNEW you were too chicken-shit to burn yourself, just to make a point.”

Mrs. Aldrich got up, her face screwed up in confusion and rage. “What--- what is the meaning of this?”

“It MEANS, Missuz Aldrich, that McKay here, and I’m guessing his buddy Burke, played you and Deacon Palmer for chumps. He needed a big flashy excuse to make a big stink that he could work for everything that he could get. As Lacey pointed out earlier today, what happened in my woods was the biggest to-do to happen around here in years; there was no way that he wasn’t gonna get something out of that.” I explained what we’d been doing for Mr. Aubrey, and how we think that McKay found out about it. “Well, he and Burke pulled some sort of switcheroo, and make it look like Gwen had planted a dangerous hex on him. Not only a hex that put him in real danger of his life - or at least it LOOKED that way - but risked letting the Profane see magic at work.

“Thing is, there wasn’t anyone on the street. Why? Because McKay and Burke made damn sure that there weren’t! And they also made sure that they had witnesses right there. You two. And, they made sure that you both saw the horrible Third Degree burn, despite the fact that the ‘fire-snake’ was just fool’s fire that McKay himself created. And everyone knows that you can’t burn yourself with your own witch-fire. He had this cheap plastic gag ‘scar’, which he probably got at a practical joke shop in Wooster, already on his arm, ready to scare the hell out of you.” I looked down at McKay, who’d finally snapped out of it. “Or am I lying?”

McKay snarled at me. “Fucking PUNK! You had it coming!”

The Cosgrove stood up and said, with obvious satisfaction, “Well, Axel, how do YOU answer to these charges?”

“Charges? What charges?”

“Oh, Slander, Fraud, False Accusation, like that.”

“I don’t have to answer for nothing! I had every right t’do what I did! That punk’s got no right to a Hundred Blessing Blade! I do! I deserve that knife, and I did what I hadda to get it, and the Judge’s cane, too!”

I set the flat of my athame’s blade against McKay’s jaw. “Okay, McKay, listen up. You had your shot, and you blew it. If you come after me or my friends again like this again, it’ll be war. And if you even look cross eyed at my little brothers, I’ll carve out those eyes and make you eat them.”

“Big words, little boy. But I ain’t afraid. You’re wearing the Fool’s Cap, and that means that I can do anything I want t’you.”

I grinned at McKay and sheathed my knife. “That’s the third time that you’ve brought up the Fool’s Cap. And, you’ve called me a liar, more’n once. Well, if the Fool’s Cap means so much to you.” I lifted the Fool’s Cap off my head and put it squarely down on McKay’s head.

I did not know that you could do that.

“Enough of that.” Dad came over and grabbed McKay by the collar. “Okay, You, outta my house. Now!”

I helped Dad march McKay to his truck. As McKay climbed into his truck, I said, “One last little thing, McKay. I know that you’ve got it in that little rat brain of yours that you’re gotta get back at me. But let me point something out. You are a middle aged, unmarried man, who’s been seen sneaking around watching fifteen-year-old kids. What are you gonna tell people, if they ask you what you’re doing, sneaking around following a 15-year-old boy? Now, I don’t wanna go there. The Unitarian Church doesn’t want to go there. And the Wise Ones know, YOU don’t wanna go there. So, let’s not go there, okay?”

McKay gave me a look of pure unadulterated loathing. “I’ll remember this.”

“I’m hearing that a lot these days.”

As McKay drove off, Dad sighed and said, “Well, that could have gone better.”

“What are you talking about? I caught McKay red-handed! If he tries anything, The Families will turn him inside out and cram him into a mason jar!”

“Dan, Axel McKay isn’t some TV villain. He’s a good man, who did a foolish thing. You should be able to sympathize with that.”

“BULL. He’s a loud-mouthed coward. He was willing to roast Gwen and Lacey over a slow fire, just to get at me. He put me in a position where I either hadda ‘fess up, or let Gwen and Lacey take the heat by themselves. He was ready to plow over two totally innocent girls, just to get a little power for himself. Now tell me that that’s a good man.”

Dad just gave me a wry look. “Maybe, but there’s always more to it than that. Your mother and I were still working on a way of getting you out of that mess, without making a Blood Enemy of McKay. I’m not saying that McKay didn’t have it coming, but a wise man doesn’t go making enemies when he doesn’t need to.”

“Maybe. But I can’t help but think that that’s what McKay was counting on. One thing you learn in Middle School, it’s that unreasonable people count real heavy on other people being reasonable. Reasonable people have to make sense. Unreasonable people just have to make noise.”

Dad laughed. “‘Unreasonable people just have to make noise’? You get that from the same book that came up with ‘It takes more than roar to make a lion’?”

“Hey, a bumper sticker slogan for a man with a bumper sticker mind. I was just trying to talk his language.”

The High Council let most of the Families go, so they could get around to talking about what had happened with The Seven. Now, if they hadn’t’a been Witches, I’m sure that most of the parents would have been saying stuff like ‘I knew you were innocent’, and ‘I was really on your side’ and face saving stuff like that. And they did a pretty good job of congratulating me on losing the Fool’s Cap, and putting it where it belonged. Reece, Cody, Leo and Lacey all walked out with that slightly superior glow of someone who’s been yelled at for no reason, and managed to show that they’d been wrongly accused. I had a feeling that Reece was gonna be playing the ‘Sinister Six’ card for everything that it was worth.

Gwen managed to be the last one out the door with her parents. She came in close and looked at me. “Dan. I wanna thank you for what you did.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You stood up for Lacey and me. You could’a just let us take the fall for what McKay pulled.”

aaahh, heh, Hey, what kind of friend would I be, if I let you take the rap alone? One thing about being the Designated Victim - you learn to appreciate friends who stand by you.”

She smiled a tight little smile. “Maybe.” Then she leaned in and gave me a big kiss, before her father pulled her along. “See you in school, Dan!”

Oh, Blessed Light, why does my life have to get so complicated?

Then I had to go in and listen to the High Council decide how they were gonna run my life.

See? What did I tell you? Being Important Stinks!

 

End
Read 780 times Last modified on Monday, 11 July 2022 23:56

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Pyro Hawk
3 weeks ago
Jordan is in no way going to run into major problems thanks to the three 'love interests' who are all focused on him. Only one of whom is aware that there's one other competitor, and might be aware of the second (I forget). Though I suspect that Jazz might pick up on Gwen soon enough in 'Book Eight' if it's been written yet.

Oh, who are we kidding, it's very much a promise of 'exciting times' in their future, especially if the Fool's Cap decides it really likes them and shows back up on their head. On the other hand, that would limit paths of story development since that 'arc' seems to be more or less wrapped up. So I can easily see it staying away, at least for a book or two if not permanently.

Very interested in learning just what's going to happen with Jordan's Woods as well. Especially the adventures that unfold as Jordan hunts down the names of the Forgotten.
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Jayjay
3 weeks ago
Jordan appears to me to be re-defining "interesting times". Great to watch. From a distance.
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