Authors: Constance Barker
Since the tours had started up again, Bailey had spent less time training with the coven ladies, Chloe, Aria, and Francis. Although they understood—she needed the work, and it kept her close to both Aiden and the Caves—they never seemed all that concerned about the fact that she had to work extra hard to cram the vast amount of knowledge necessary to learn her craft. Francis especially couldn’t have given a hoot how difficult it was.
“You’re late,” Francis said when Bailey arrived at Grovey Goodies. The place doubled as the coven’s headquarters, with a vast attic where the coven kept their book of spells, various reagents critical to many of them, and a space properly prepared for the working of magic. The place was technically closed, but the door hadn’t been locked. They’d expected her.
“Sorry,” Bailey said. “I got a little caught up with something. There’s someone else here to investigate the caves. An archaeologist with some odd ideas.”
“Plus,” Aria said, “maybe you had a little chat with Mr. Rivers?”
Bailey rolled her eyes, and shook her head. “Just business.”
“Best that way,” Francis said. “There’s plenty of other fish in the sea that aren’t wizards.”
“Lock the door, dear?” Chloe suggested before Bailey got too far from it.
Bailey did, and the four of them filed up the stairs through the back room and into the attic above.
It was a wide, simple room with only a little furniture—a low, round coffee table, four comfortable chairs (though the one Bailey used was markedly less comfortable than the other three), a pedestal for the book of spells, which Aria insisted was a book of shadows and which Francis refused to call that. There were a few old bookshelves and chests storing glassware, tools, herbs, powders, and a hundred other ingredients useful to the craft.
Tonight, all of that was moved to one end of the room. Where the chairs typically stood there was instead a long, thick pad like a yoga mat but softer, with two round pillows at either end. On each side was a squat little meditation cushion like the kind that Bailey was told not to use at the Caves as, in Francis’ words, she needed to build up her tolerance. There were candles in a wide circle around the set up, with chalked lines going between them in a kind of pointed spiral, with implements laid in the gaps between lines.
“What’s all this?” Bailey wondered.
“This is for tonight’s lesson,” Aria said, excitedly. “Your first astral projection!”
“You probably won’t get far,” Francis said. “No one normally does.”
Bailey glanced at Chloe. “I thought tonight would be more Koin Greek.”
Chloe rested a hand on Bailey’s shoulder. “You’re welcome to work on your Greek if you prefer,” she said, “but you’ve been saying you wanted to learn more interesting magic. Here’s a chance.”
What Bailey had been saying was that she wanted more answers. This didn’t seem to be exactly that; but then again it was more interesting that practicing her grammar.
“Okay. Well… what do I do?”
Aria and Francis both took seats on the meditation cushions. “You lay down here,” Aria said gently. “And try to relax. Frances and I will walk you through your part and we’ll assist the first few times until you get the hang of it.”
“It takes years to master,” Francis said. “Decades, without help.”
“And you?” Bailey asked Chloe. “Are you helping, too?”
Chloe’s lips pressed together for a moment and she shook her head. “It’s a two witch job. I’ll get the bakery closed down. Besides, I never had a talent for it like Aria and Francis.”
“Oh,” Bailey said. Lately Aria had been involved with almost all of her education. Which was fine—Aria was an apt, patient instructor who was always willing to answer questions. It was better than having to learn primarily from Francis. But Chloe and Bailey shared a similar gift for reading thoughts. Somehow, she’d always imagined that Chloe would become her natural teacher but it hadn’t ever really materialized. And Aria seemed to enjoy their time together so much that Bailey didn’t have the heart to admit she wanted to spend more time with Chloe.
“I’ll check in on you after it’s all done,” Chloe said.
She embraced Bailey briefly, and then withdrew from the attic.
Bailey took her coat off at Aria’s instruction, and emptied her pockets as well. She’d worn jeans, but Francis insisted she change into a set of yoga clothes instead. “Loose fabrics,” Francis told her. “You don’t want anything squeezing you too tightly. Makes it confusing on the other side and hard to get out.”
“Get out?” Bailey asked. The general premise of astral projection was something she’d looked at before, in the book, but there wasn’t much there on the subject. Most of it was experiential knowledge that couldn’t be easily put into words other than to discuss the utility of the skill.
“Out of your body,” Aria said. “Just for a little while.”
The thought of actually leaving her body was a little disconcerting, but witches throughout the ages had been doing it for a long, long time. Probably it was safe enough. Bailey pushed her uneasiness down and, after she’d changed, she laid down on the mat.
Aria and Francis each adjusted one of the pillows so that her knees were bent and her head was comfortable, until Bailey was able to lay in such a way that she almost felt as if she were floating.
“Close your eyes,” Aria instructed, “and listen to our voices. It’s alright if you can’t make out each of us individually. We’re both talking to a different part of you. Just try to follow along when you can hear us clearly.”
Both the women began to talk. At first, Bailey listened to Aria—she was instructing her to breathe deeply with slow breaths in and out through her nose. Francis, when Bailey’s attention drifted to her voice, was talking about things that didn’t always make sense. She was telling Bailey to feel herself floating on light, and following currents from the Earth to the Sky, and grasping onto ideas and centers in her body.
Her brain seemed to switch from one woman to the other, and at first, she was able to follow along purposefully; but after some amount of time—it was hard to say how long—Bailey became confused, switching between the two sets of instructions too rapidly to follow either. Then, she realized the instructions—if that’s what they still were—were no longer being given in a comprehensible language. Francis was speaking something in Sanskrit that Bailey could barely catch, while Aria was singing softly in Koin Greek. Something about a bright light that swelled like the ocean, and about guardian spirits, or maybe angels—the ancient Greeks had too many names for those beings and Bailey didn’t know all of them yet.
Just as Bailey was beginning to feel frustrated, the back of her mind itching the way it did when one tried to thread a needle unsuccessfully, she realized she couldn’t feel her hands or feet. Noticing it seemed to bring sensation back, but it didn’t last long, and when it went away again it was up to her knees and elbows.
She kept breathing, and kept trying to feel herself floating back and forth.
Then, there was a loud bang.
It broke the gentle, singsong point and counterpoint of Aria and Francis’ chanting so abruptly that Bailey nearly leapt out of her skin. In fact, she realized in a moment of terrifying realization that was exactly what she’d done. The shock of the noise had jolted her right out of her body.
At first, she only knew this because she couldn’t actually feel her limbs or her body, although she still had a generally sense of being centered in her ‘self’. She couldn’t see anything, either, until she realized that although she wasn’t using her eyes to look at the world she was aware of it—of the shape of it and even the textures and colors, in a different sort of way. In her mind, the world was laid out around her.
There was Aria and Francis. They had vastly different shapes and feelings about them—Francis was edged and cold, very much like the ice that was a particular aspect of her ability to manipulate weather. Aria was green, and vibrant, and teeming with vital life, reflecting her own ability to make things come to life and grow. Bailey wondered what she looked like, and upon that thought, she saw herself, or her body at least, but it seemed almost small in comparison, with hardly any shape or color to it at all.
There were lines of power between Aria and Francis and Bailey. They were like strings that she could reach out and touch, and when she did, she felt like they weren’t so many strings as vines—not because they had so much of a plantlike feel to them, but more that they felt alive. She could feel individual threads made up of something like small cells all working together.
She drifted like this for a time, until it occurred to her that she wasn’t really bound by the room itself. The thought alone and the curiosity about whether she could travel like this launched her upward, through the insubstantial ceiling and into the sky, spinning with the vastness of a world she could see, or feel at any rate, in all directions. It was like being set free. It was beautiful. The caves were a complex, swirling fount of energies, with roots that spread down and out through the land. All the people in Coven Grove milled about their evening lives, fireflies navigating a maze of hard lines and concrete currents.
In the midst of all that staggering movement and light, however, there was something else. A shadow of something, or some… things, which when she saw them seemed to react, scattering away from her vision. She tried to chase them with her attention but always they slipped away until she finally managed to catch one in the corner of her eye.
The moment she did, it seemed to swell and resolve itself into something sharp, and ravenously hungry and made of something that wasn’t exactly shadow so much as inverted light.
Bailey screamed without any voice and in her panic the world of structured things she had been viewing dissolved into a fog that left her alone and far, far from home. She could feel the distance, as though she’d been stretched out across all of it in an unnatural direction; some alien dimension that wasn’t length, or width, or depth, or time. She was heavy here, and felt herself falling, thrashing with limbs that had no substance until she felt something clamp down on both of her arms, and then something was covering her face and—
She gasped air and sat up from the mat. She was cold, and couldn’t get enough of a breath. Aria and Francis were nearly on top of her. Francis looked troubled, Aria nearly terrified.
“What… what was that?” Bailey gasped.
“You went too far,” Frances said. “Bolted right out of the ethereal plane and into the far astral.”
“We had to bring you back forcibly,” Aria said, apologetically. She handed Bailey a bottle of water. “Drink. Try to clear your head. What happened?”
“I saw something,” Bailey said after she’d taken a few swallows. The water tasted bitter. The air, for that matter, seemed too thick, too hard to inhale and exhale. “Some kind of darkness… shadows, all over Coven Grove.”
“Just astral parasites,” Francis said, waving a hand to brush the shadows away. “They’re all over the place.”
“I thought those were like… bugs,” Bailey said. She’d read about them in the book. “Astral fauna. Not these things. They were almost shaped like people. But, they were dark. Not really shadow, like they were hidden but like… light, turned inside-out.”
Francis only shrugged.
Aria, though, took it more seriously. She frowned; her eyebrows creased, and wrung her hands. “We’ll look into it,” she assured Bailey. “I’m sorry. This was my idea. I thought you’d like getting to experience something a little advanced. Maybe we shouldn’t have moved so quickly.”
“I need to go back,” Bailey said.
“Absolutely not,” Frances snapped. “Next time, Aria will go with you, and you’ll go the old fashioned way, so she can keep you close to our plane. For now, you need to get some rest.”
Bailey would have argued, but she hadn’t yet won an argument with the witches and didn’t expect to now. Plus, she had to admit she really was bone-weary. And she still had to make dinner for Ryan.
So she thanked the ladies for their lesson, and got a goodnight hug from Chloe, who apologized for keeping Bailey out so late.
“Late?” Bailey asked. She checked her phone. It was almost dead, for one thing—and it was nearly midnight.
She shivered, and said a quick goodbye before she bolted. Ryan would likely still be up, but he’d be hungry and probably irritated that Bailey had stood him up.
Just how long had she been gone? And was she certain she even remembered all of it? Whatever the answers were, she couldn’t help thinking that Professor Turner wasn’t the only newcomer to Coven Grove she was late to learn of.
Ryan had already cooked dinner and, to Bailey’s surprise, gone to bed when she got home that night. He’d left her a plate and a note that he’d been too tired to stay up but that he hoped her training was going well, and that he would see her tomorrow at the Library.
Bailey stroked the final, blotchy word on the paper where Ryan’s pen had leaked. It was an old fountain pen that Wendy had given him for their thirtieth anniversary, decades ago. He could have gotten it fixed, though it would have been expensive; but he’d told her once before that he rather like that it leaked—every time he noticed an ink stain on his finger, it reminded him of the love of his life, and how messy but wonderful they had been together.
She folded and pocketed the note, and picked at her food for a few minutes, trying to rouse her appetite, before she finally gave up and put it back in the fridge. When she slept, she had dreams of things moving in shadows.
She slept later than she meant, and when she got up, Ryan was already gone. He’d left her toast, and by now, she was finally ravenous. She ate what Ryan had made for her, and finished off her belated dinner as well. When she was done, and showered and dressed, she ran out the door and made her way to the Library as quickly as she could.
Avery was at the front desk. He sighed when she came in. “Sleeping late now?” He asked. “It’s a slippery slope, you know.”
“I had a rough night,” Bailey said. “And by the way, what were you and Aiden talking about?”
Avery hesitated before he shrugged. “Just talking. This and that. I like him; he’s very intelligent.” He paused, and then smiled. “Plus, easy on the eyes.”
She smiled indulgently at her friend, and pulled a cart of books away from the far side of the desk. “I’m taking fiction today,” she said.
Avery waved her on. He was reading something she could just barely see over the raised edge of the desk. Was it a math book? Only Avery would revisit something as dull as math on his down time.
She pushed the cart down the fiction row, but left it there to come back for it after she’d had a chance to catch up with Ryan. Predictably, she found him poring over microfiche in the back room. He didn’t notice her immediately when she came in, so she watched him for a moment, hunched over the small screen. He had his leaky pen in one hand, scribbling quick notes down on a pad of paper.
She waited until he turned the knob to look for another article before she knocked.
When she did, Ryan peered around at her in surprise until he saw her. “Oh. Hi, Red. Feeling better?”
Bailey walked the rest of the way into the room and kissed her adopted father’s cheek, her brows pinched together. “I’m feeling fine… why?”
“Tried to wake you up this morning, and you weren’t having it,” Ryan said. “Figured I’d let you sleep in. Not like there was much going on here besides books.”
“It is a library,” Bailey sighed. “Sorry I was out late last night. I didn’t mean to stand you up.”
Ryan shrugged a shoulder. “You’ve got important work to do,” he said. “I realize that. It must take a lot out of you.”
She folded her arms and frowned, looking off into the distance of her vague memory of the experience the night before. It had faded considerably, the images hard to piece together; now, it was more like a lingering sense of dread…
“Not always,” she admitted. “But last night it did. Aria and Francis worked with me on astral projection. Apparently I managed to screw it up.” She grimaced, and accepted a reassuring pat from him. “Anyway, there’s more that’s interesting. There’s an archaeologist at the caves. He got in yesterday. I met him… he’s a little strange, but interesting. Professor Owen Turner. Apparently Gloria called him.”
“Gloria,” Ryan grunted. “She just won’t leave well enough alone. How did she get him in?”
Bailey bit her lip, suppressing a smile. “Well, apparently he’s not very popular in his circles. I think he might have been the only one that would, and it probably didn’t take much. He says he’s seen caves like the ones here all over the place.”
“Is that so?” Ryan said, tapping his finger on the pad.
Bailey pointed. “What are you working on?”
“Oh, just a little research,” Ryan said dismissively. “Avery has some wild theories about some of the old murders from way back and I don’t know that they’ll hold up but I thought it would be an interesting historical piece to do.”
“Anything good so far?” Bailey pursed her lips when she heard the question. “That is, anything compelling? I guess there couldn’t be anything good about a series of murders.”
“Actually there is,” Ryan said. He turned the film back several frames, and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. He stopped at one in particular. “Look at this one.”
Bailey turned and pulled the other chair in the back room up to the table where Ryan was seated, and skimmed the article quickly. She had to do it twice before she caught it. “Huh… that is compelling, isn’t it?”
Back around 1902, there had been a death. It was never ruled a murder, but it happened right in the middle of the other deaths that had been ruled murders. This one, though, was about a young man who apparently climbed to the top of a familiar outcropping—it was the apex of the exposed rock that covered the caves—and hurled himself over the cliff side. It had apparently come out of nowhere, and had happened only days after the young man—Edward Finnley—had proposed to the then-mayor’s daughter.
Bailey thought of the old folk tale she’d recalled for Professor Turner. Granted, there was no talk of instrument playing, a magic pipe, or two lovers dancing into the sea… but the details were remarkably similar in some respects.
“The other murders,” Ryan explained, “were all spread fairly regularly apart. Fifty-six days, to be precise. But there was a gap. I went looking to see if perhaps one had been overlooked.”
“Did they catch the killer?” Bailey asked.
Ryan shook his head, “It wasn’t one killer. They weren’t really connected that way. They were all crimes of passion, essentially, though there were two that appeared to be premeditated. This one looks like a suicide, but it fits the pattern. June twenty-first, 1902; fifty six days after the murder that took place on the twenty-second of April the same year.”
“Well,” she said, “that sort of throws out Avery’s idea that the pattern is going to repeat itself. There hasn’t been a murder here since Martha died, and that was more than a few months ago now.”
“That’s true,” Ryan said. “But it’s still an interesting period. The piece I’m writing is more speculative and investigative than an expose. Strange time.”
“Well,” Bailey said, “I think that if you’re looking for something interesting to write about, maybe you ought to talk with Professor Turner.”
“Let me guess,” Ryan said, “he knows the secret of the Caves?”
Bailey laughed. “I don’t know about that, but I think you two would get along. He’s about your age. If nothing else, it might be nice to make a friend, and I suspect you’re both nerds of the highest caliber.”
“I’ll accept that title,” Ryan chuckled. “Maybe I will. I certainly wouldn’t mind scooping a story out from under Gloria. Or Trevor, for that matter.” Not long ago, Ryan had quit working at the paper after Trevor and Gloria both had continually needled him about Bailey and her connection to Martha, and Poppy, and the caves.
He didn’t know that Gloria had been inexpertly following Bailey lately, and didn’t need to. It was disconcerting, yes—but it wasn’t quite dangerous yet and in any case, Bailey could probably defend herself just fine if it ever got that way. Ryan would only worry.
Bailey left Ryan to finish his work, and went about shelving books like she was supposed to. Normally, she’d be involved in running the morning tours by now, and she would much rather have been doing that. But there was something relaxing about shelving books, and she came across several that she promised herself she’d get around to reading. Eventually. Lately everything she read had to do with herbs, or animals, or omens, or ancient languages and occult philosophy. She couldn’t remember the last time she just read a story for enjoyment.
Soon, though, she heard a familiar voice from toward the front, and then Avery’s comfortable laughter. When she crept up to look, she confirmed that Piper had dropped by. She had been smiling. It faltered just a little when she saw Bailey.
“Hi, Bails,” Piper said. “I came to see if… the two of you might want to have lunch.” It sounded like she might have come to see if Avery wanted to have lunch, not realizing Bailey was here. She considered letting them go alone; maybe Piper had something she preferred to speak with Avery about.
But ever since the night that Piper and Avery had helped Bailey and Aiden locate the stolen key stone with magic, Piper had been a bit distant. Before, when Bailey had first started learning magic, it had been entirely her own fault. She was wrapped up in a new world and momentarily lost sight of the one she was already in and the friends that were there with her.
Since that night, though, Bailey had gone out of her way to try and hang out with her friend, and see her son, Riley, who was barely two years old; but it never quite seemed to work out. It seemed very much like Piper was avoiding her, and Bailey hadn’t been able to work up the nerve to ask if that was the case and why.
“I’m free,” Bailey said.
Now it was Avery whose face fell a bit. “Um… well, actually I was hoping you’d be able to get the books shelved by noon,” he said. “And you were late coming in, so…”
Bailey glanced between the two of them. They knew, of course, that she could read their minds if she wanted. They trusted her, however, not to do that. Maybe that was why Piper had been so distant. Did she not trust Bailey to stay out of her thoughts? And even if Bailey would never do a thing like that… did Piper have something to hide?
Whatever the case, it seemed clear that Avery and Piper were trying to get some time on their own. “You know,” Bailey said, “I guess I wasn’t even really thinking about the time; I actually have some work to do at the tour office, as well. I suppose I’d better get caught up here. You two go on without me then. Maybe we could have dinner at my place tonight, though. I can cook for everyone. It’s been a long time since we all hung out.”
Piper took her up on it, at least. “That sounds great,” she said. “Gavin’s been trying to come home earlier at night, so he can take Riley for a few hours.”
“Great,” Bailey said. “I’ll see you both then?”
Avery agreed as well, and the two of them left together.
Bailey watched them go, and tried to convince herself that it had nothing to do with her. Avery and Piper were friends and had been for as long as Bailey had known either of them; it was fine for them to spend time alone.
And besides that, there was something happening—something magical—and if Avery and Piper were going to spend some time without Bailey; well that just meant she had a little extra free time to figure it out.