CHAPTER ONE – ORANGE JUICE
Mel eyed the sweating glass jar. Pale pulp drifted in the wake of melting ice cubes. Saliva secreted beneath her tongue. Swallowing against the dry lump in her throat, she longed for the thin fleshy fragments of fruit that would feel like tiny icicles. She could imagine the cool acidic burn of citrus as she licked her chapped lips. A perfect mixture of sweet and sour that would make the back of her throat tickle as it slipped down, finding its resting place deep in her belly.
There’s more than pulp in that juice.
“I know…” she said under her breath so Jeanie couldn’t hear.
Mel picked up last year’s Black Friday special, a shared tablet, off the porch table. Tapping the Minnesota public radio app, she opened the live stream function. A woman’s thick midwestern accent reported the latest news…
“The hashtag ‘save-the-children’ has been trending on social media over the last 24 hours as three more children have gone missing from Minnesota. The NMW, Neighborhood Mage Watch, has once again refused to comment while the local police authorities are urging citizens with information on the disappearances to contact them immediately using the 1-800 number listed on MPR.org...”
The newscaster’s voice grated on her nerves; a buzzing chainsaw. With a swipe of her finger, she closed the app and let the white noise of the yard console her. A cool September breeze ruffled the leaves and sent a crab apple to the ground, rattling the open porch window above her head. Mel liked listening to the thump, thump, thump of the apples falling, like a drummer boy announcing winter’s imminent approach. She pulled her knees to her chest and held her bare toes.
The four crab apple trees grew wild, their branches lingering dangerously close to the power lines that crisscrossed above their lawn. Neither Jeanie nor Mel had trimmed them since their mother’s disappearance four years ago. The trees had been Mona Black’s one source of happiness, believing they spoke to her through the wind. Mel sometimes thought she heard their secrets too and sat out on the porch to listen. She listened for a hint of her mother’s return. A clue to her whereabouts. Listening was a task she could only do in silence and she groaned as her sister’s melodic humming drifted through the window.
She’s coming. I have to go. Don’t forget to ask!
Ruthie hopped over the fence, disappearing around the corner. The wooden fence encaged the small yard, protecting the outside world from the disheveled state of the Black’s lack of pruning. Weeds had overgrown the sidewalk crawling towards the house, which already had its share of vines creeping up the plaster and paint. The yard entombed every season, carefully preserving the freshly fallen yellowing leaves.
The corners of her lips twitched, a hint of a smile, at the sound of Jeanie’s flat-footed steps that hammered onto the porch. Ruthie always said Jeanie sounded like an elephant, and that made Mel laugh.
The elephant was next to her.
“What do you want for lunch?”
“Hmm?” Mel didn’t look up. She was distracted by a bee between the shrubs. If she leaned in close enough, she could see the hairs on its fuzzy body.
“Fine. I’m going to make sandwiches then. Don’t forget your orange juice. You don’t want it to get warm.”
“Can I have lemonade?”
“Lemonade?” Jeanie said with an air of innocence, “We don’t have any. I told you yesterday.”
“Can’t we get some?” Mel asked picking at her toes. Dirt had built up under the nails from not wearing shoes.
“Vitamin C is good for you and you’re looking pale. Are you feeling well? Have you taken your medicine?” Jeanie raised an eyebrow. She always could read her like a book; lying was useless.
“I’m fine,” an admission to the question with just a hint of defiance. Jeanie breathed heavily through her nose and made her way back into the kitchen.
Mel watched the bee float over to the rotten fence. The soft dark planks sunk into the earth; decaying wood. The door hung off its hinges, it made it easy for Ruthie to come and go.
Mel wasn’t supposed to talk about Ruthie, but Ruthie was always there when no one else was. Ruthie was there when Mel’s mother disappeared and when the world was slipping out from under her.
Jeanie said she didn’t need Ruthie anymore. “We have each other,” she would say. But Ruthie wasn’t dangerous. Not like the others.
The others harassed Mel in the night. As long as Mel knew what Ruthie really was, she didn’t see the problem.
White paper plates, screen printed with blue floral patterns, floated through the doorway followed by Jeanie, who was twisting her right hand methodically. These were the delicate hand gestures that all Casters learned. It allowed them to manipulate the objects around them. In her left hand, Jeanie gripped her phone. Her thumb roamed over the screen texting as the plate of egg salad sandwiches landed on the porch table, covering the tablet.
Triangles of squashy white dollar store bread oozed out the egg and mayo concoction. The soft yellow innards were flecked with pale bits of celery. Mel hated celery but obediently grabbed a triangle. The bread gave way to the weight of her fingers. Her thumb broke through and was coated with filling. She swapped hands carefully and licked the salty tang off her thumb.
Jeanie pocketed her phone and sat down. A sandwich floated gracefully from the table to her willing hand. The square birthmark on her left wrist exposed her as a Caster.
Mel scowled, looking down at her own Mage’s Mark. A circle, the color of milky tea, filled the inside of her left wrist. She often tried to convince herself that she liked being a Conjurer, but there was no denying it was less practical. What use was summoning the dead in comparison to manipulating inanimate objects? Living with a caster as an older sister made her bitter at times. They chewed in silence.
Jeanie wore wire-framed glasses that magnified the bags under her eyes. Her eyes, blue as denim, had earned her the childhood nickname of Jeanie. It had started as a joke and stuck through the years; Norma never seemed to suit her anyway.
Only two years older than Mel, Jeanie was starting to look much older. Unable to finish her degree, she was overworked and devoted to taking care of the house, code, they both knew, for taking care of Mel. That sacrifice showed in every line of her sister’s round face. It was one of the reasons Mel hated to look Jeanie in the eye.
“What will you do today?” Mel asked, spitting celery pieces out onto her plate.
Jeanie chewed and pulled out her phone, eyeing the screen, “What?”
“What will you do today?”
Jeanie’s eyes followed her thumb’s path over the screen.
“Do you have NMW tonight?” Mel asked. Jeanie had an active social life, a waitressing job, and pulled late night shifts with the Neighborhood Mage Watch despite being her sister’s caregiver. Jeanie tried, unsuccessfully, to hide this from her. The fact that Jeanie thought her pathetic enough to hide it was what bothered her the most. But she had more important matters to discuss. Bigger issues to tackle.
It had to be tonight.
Jeanie looked up; the screen reflected in her glasses. “Not tonight, no. Thankfully! I’m so tired. I had three shifts last week,” Jeanie pocketed her phone again. “Why do you ask?”
Mel picked at the crust of her bread, peeling it slowly from the white interior.
“It’s going to be a full moon tonight. The second this month. A blue moon.”
Jeanie eyed the overcast sky. A hint of the full moon hung suspended among the clouds. “I suppose it is.”
“I was wondering…”
Jeanie took another bite, bits of yellow yolk clung to her bottom lip, “Don’t beat around the bush. I hate it when you do that.”
“I was wondering if I might be able to have my blood baptism tonight?”
Jeanie wiped her face with the back of her hand, her magnified eyes searching Mel’s face. The crease between her thick brows deepened, “You know what they’ll say…”
Mel took a deep breath, remembering the speech Ruthie had practiced with her. “I know the Cabal is apprehensive about it. But I ought to have it. It’s my blood right. I was born a mage, no matter what my mental state is. Plus, I haven’t had a serious episode in at least six months. The NMW needs members. People are going missing.”
“How’d you know? Mel, are you listening to the news again?”
“It’s only Minnesota public radio,” Mel said rolling her eyes. The accusation that she couldn’t handle the news without the others influencing her was insulting, though justified. “The news is one horror after another. Children are disappearing more and more. The mortals…”
Jeanie had stopped eating. She hated talking politics. “So, what are you saying?” she leaned in; all pretense gone. “You seem pretty well informed of how dire our situation is and if we don’t figure this out, the mortals will turn on us. There’s a rumor they’re going to send in the National Guard again. It puts the High Practitioner under a lot of pressure.”
“Exactly. The Cabal needs all the mages they can muster. We are stronger together, and the ritual might bring us closer. The High Practitioner is superstitious, they won’t be able to resist a blue moon blood baptism. Besides, it might lift peoples’ spirits. When was the last blood baptism?”
Jeanie chewed her bottom lip. “I’ll ask,” she said “I was going to the House of the Cabal anyway,” she twisted her hands in the air sending the empty plates floating back into the house. With a flick of her wrist, the sound of running water trickled through the wall as the dishes washed themselves. A snap of her fingers stopped the running water as she stood.
“Promise me that if you get too cold, you’ll go in?”
“You’re going to go ask the High Practitioner?”
“Do you want a blanket? Your cell phone?”
Jeanie shook her head, “Take your phone in case I need to call you.” She disappeared inside only to return wearing a bomber jacket with the Nokia in hand.
Mel took the plastic brick. The buttons were archaic, but she was in no position to argue about the phone her sister provided her. Jeanie herself had an android.
“You’ll ask the High Practitioner…” was all Mel said.
Jeanie looked down at her. “If they say yes, I’ll call and come straight home. I promise,” she leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Don’t forget to drink your juice.”
Stepping off the porch, she walked across the yard under branches that twisted above her like an archway. She left through the intact fence door next to the cellar, turned down the alley, and made her way for the main road.
As soon as Jeanie was out of sight, Ruthie appeared.
“She’s going to ask the High Practitioner,” Mel said twisting her phone between her thumb and middle finger. It slipped and clattered to the porch. Mel shrugged, picked it up, and continued spinning it. It was near impossible to break.
Do you trust her to go through with it?
Mel looked deep into Ruthie’s eyes, big and puppy-dog-like. It was like looking into the eyes of her inner child, full of mischief.
“Are you saying that we should follow her just to make sure?”
Mel shivered. A swarm of bees was creeping into her brain buzzing in her inner ear. The buzzing was telling her that she couldn’t do it. That she was a fool. She rubbed her temples knowing there was a cabinet of medicine inside that would quiet them.
Standing, Mel dumped the orange juice on the wild rhubarb that grew next to the porch. A bee drifted toward the sticky branch, using its feelers to enjoy the fresh bounty of sugar.
Is that okay to feed the bees?
Mel didn’t stay to watch. The screen door creaked as she entered the kitchen. The floors of her childhood home were dark and slanted, someone had once painted the hardwood floors with thick brown paint. She moved through the kitchen into the hall. A dark tunnel-like space of the house, where the only light came from the living room window, splitting the darkness with a single beam. She eyed the light switch but left it off. Instead, she moved through the darkness like a trekking guide, able to find her way to the stairs taking them two at a time. The stairs curved in an awkward angle to the left. Mel navigated her way seamlessly. She skipped the uneven short step at the top and stood on the landing.
She’d lived in this house her whole life, not counting her three-month stint at college. After her breakdown, her therapist advised her to go home and rest. Two years later and Mel was still resting.
Mel trailed her fingers along the fading floral walls. Pausing near her mother’s closed bedroom door, she picked at the peeling wallpaper. Her mother’s chiding voice played in her mind Melba Delilah, quit peeling our house apart.
Dry wallpaper flaked off and became embedded under her nail. Wiping her hands off on her joggers, she walked into their room.
Despite having the house to themselves for the past four years, Mel and Jeanie still shared a bedroom. Two beds were crammed into the room angled in to avoid the poorly insulated walls. The circular window was trimmed in stained glass roses. Looking out onto the little yard she could see the apple trees arched and leading toward the cellar entrance. The cellar was another part of the house that had been left untouched like a ruin since Mona Black had disappeared.Mel changed into jeans and a black sweater. The late September breeze could be felt through the thin plaster walls. She shivered into thick wool socks, cursing Minnesotan weather, and left their room.The bathroom smelled of her sister’s make-up powder. Dry and musty. A dusting of peach film coated the little white sink beneath the mirror. Mel gripped the rim and leaned in. Jeanie was right, she was looking pale. Thin blue veins swam across her cheeks up to her eyes. She had blue eyes like her sister, but Mel’s were a grey-blue. Murky like a lake during a storm. Jeanie said it gave her a smoldering look; Mel thought it gave way to her condition. She brushed her teeth and drank water through cupped hands. When finished, she tried to smile. It was one of the exercises that Jeanie made her practice. If she wanted to be accepted into the Cabal, she’d need to look more personable. She knew this. Breathing through her nose, she pulled at the cracked corners of her lips, exposing her teeth. It looked wrong. Creepy even. She never could get the smile to reach her eyes. She breathed in deep, letting her belly expand, and tried again. She wanted to get into the Cabal. She needed to.Once you’re in, you’ll be strong enough to conjure her.Ruthie was watching from the hallway. Mel had forgotten to close the bathroom door.“We don’t even know if she’s dead,” she said pulling open the mirror to expose the bathroom cabinet. The four narrow shelves were crammed with medicine bottles. The bottom shelf was the only one devoted to Jeanie. Make-up bottles, under-eye cream, and bobby pins were neatly stacked as if cowering in fear of the plastic orange bottles. Some with the white safety caps screwed off and some lying on their sides. Some were expired, but most were empty. All the bottles had her name in bold: Melba Delilah Black.A slight pang of guilt stung her stomach seeing how even in a cabinet she overshadowed her sister’s life. Mel considered organizing the bottles, tossing the old ones and appropriately disposing of the expired medicine. She shifted a few and found some that dated back years. Experimental drugs before they’d found what worked. But it was too much and she stopped trying when she found the most recent bottle. One solitary pill rattled in the bottom. She’d already called in the refill and knew it was waiting to be picked up. The buzzing was growing louder in her mind. She shook her head and dry swallowed the last pill. She’d pick up the prescription tomorrow. Jeanie would be annoyed she’d let it go so long, but Jeanie didn’t realize how awkward the pharmacy was now that he worked there.Mel closed the cabinet to find Ruthie standing behind her in the mirror. I can’t believe you did that.Mel dipped her head to drink from the faucet. The feeling of the pill hovered in her throat. She could feel it dissolving slowly inside her. “You know I have to,” she said wiping her mouth with her sleeve.Do you want me to leave?“I just need the rest of them to shut. The fuck. Up,” she slapped her ears with each word. The thumping of her hands echoed inside her skull.Giving her head a shake, she ran wet fingers through her hair. It was greasy at the roots and she pulled it into a high ponytail. A chunk of bang kept falling into her eyes and she secured it with a stolen bobby pin from her sister’s stash. She looked up and tried to smile again. It didn’t look right: forced, strained, and unsettling.You’ll need a jacket.She nodded in the mirror before making her way downstairs. At the front door hung her favorite jacket. It had been their mother’s. Sliding her arms into the leather sleeves, she felt comforted by the weight on her shoulders. Her sneakers were tied in a permanent knot and she jammed her heel into them. She didn’t have her own set of keys, but she knew where Jeanie kept the spare. The metal was cool in her hand as she locked the door behind her.In the pocket of her jacket was her outdated iPod touch, the one she’d gotten as a birthday gift in middle school. Untangling the headphones, she clicked on YoYo Ma’s cello playlist. The familiar sonata began and her heart gave an ache of longing as she remembered playing this for her university auditions. It was less than a year ago they had to sell her cello. They sold Jeanie’s Subaru too, but Mel complained selling the cello was the greatest loss of her life. “Greater than losing our mother?” Jeanie used to ask her voice full of scorn. Mel smirked remembering how well she could push her sister’s buttons. Sometimes it was too easy.Now that’s a good smile.“Thanks,” Mel whispered to herself pushing the earbuds in further. She wove her way through the residential streets and past the small lake. Seagulls drifted above her, flashes of white amongst grey clouds. The wind smelled of pine, always cooler off the lake, and she gripped the leather jacket tight around her. Her feet guided her; they knew the way by heart. She came out on the main road near the statue that commemorated the Mage Conflict. The dates 1950-1989 were inscribed below the names of the mage and mortal who drafted the peace declaration. The sonata faded into a cello suite as Mel paused to look at the statues. The mage, Tobias Earthenstone, was immortalized wearing a long flowing robe, an orb in his outstretched hand. Tobias’ chiseled facial features were abrupt giving him an unearthly feel. The mortal, Samuel Herrick, was remembered in a business suit, clutching a book to his chest. While it didn’t say, Mel rolled her eyes at the obvious depiction of a Bible resting over Samuel’s heart. “Go back to the underworld” was scrawled in white spray paint on the base of the statue.The House of the Cabal was visible down the road. As she walked, Mel mulled over the Mage Conflict. Her mage history books had recorded their arrival. World War II had ended but the Americans were hungry for justice. Afraid of the unknown, mages had been depicted worse than communists. Propaganda quickly spread across the country. Vandalism of their homes led to physical attacks. The whole country had been in an uproar, particularly the Republicans and religious groups.Her thoughts drifted to one gruesome story where a mortal kidnapped a mage. They put a noose around their neck and dragged them at the back of their truck; a victory lap around town. That was right before the National Guard had been sent in to intervene in 1951. There was a plaque commemorating the event on the corner of Maple Avenue and Pine Street.Mel shuddered at the bloody image floating through her mind. The music ended and a momentary silence made room for the others to swim to the front of her brain. She hummed a nondescript melody, cupping her hands around her ears. The couple ahead of her crossed the road to avoid walking past her. The next track started as she reached the House of the Cabal.
CHAPTER TWO – BAPTISMAL PERMISSION
Mel walked up the steps flanked by stone jackhodarves, a tiger like beast from Levarthulian legend.
“Agored,” the password granted her safe passage through the heavy wooden doors. A precaution taken because of their contentious history.
Having purchased the old high school in 1990, the Cabal renovated and rebranded the building into their embassy. The doors were replaced with eight-foot-tall oak adorned with brass serpentine handles. The windows were replaced with stained glass, depicting stories of their old world, Levarelthule. The underworld, as the mortals called it. The only thing the mages had kept about the building was its shape: a large circle with a courtyard in the middle, the inner doors of which were always locked.
Mel and Jeanie had looked it up on google maps once, curious to see what was inside. While the GPS showed green space, no relevant data was available when they zoomed in.
Walking into the main hall was a reverent act. Marble pillars held up the muraled ceiling that stretched in either direction. She had walked the circle many times seeing the history of her people unfold across the ceiling. It showed the Great Move, the ten years of secret peace, the trauma of the Mage Conflict, the banishment of the Night Mage, and the sealing of the portal. Where the storylines met, directly above the main entrance, was their geometric insignia. A square, circle, and triangle intersected to represent their three branches of magic: Conjurers, Casters, and Cursers. All three signs were under the grace and blessing of the High Practitioner’s veil, represented by a dark glass pentagon inlay.
Mel titled her head back too far, unintentionally tugging out an earbud. Relief flooded through her as she realized her medicine had kicked in. The others were silent. Ruthie was gone. Switching off the iPod, she wrapped the headphone wires around the chunky square model.
A weeper dressed in a butler’s uniform, as if to seem more human, greeted her. Six feet tall, the weeper had a large hairless head and a long flat face. Its lipless mouth was empty of both teeth and tongue, cut across the face like a slit in fabric. Where eyes should have been, grey flesh stretched over its sockets, leaving two shallow craters in its wake. Mel never knew how they saw or sensed the world, but they were graceful creatures. They moved as if walking through still water, a slow glide, each step planned and precise. In her mage history books, weepers were the protectors of the soil. When Levarelthule began to die, before the Great Move, they did nothing but weep. Tearless sobs described as the sound of pure sorrow. Mel had never heard it but knew that was how they got their name.
The weeper extended a hand, a gesture of goodwill and service, offering to take her coat.
“It’s okay, thanks,” she said and the weeper retreated, rejoining two others who were in a muted conversation near the stairs; murmuring sounds like whale songs. She nodded in their direction and they nodded back.
Mel started up the spiral staircase that looped around the room’s circumference. Doors branched off leading deeper into the donut shaped building. The marble handle was smooth and cold as she rested her right palm against the stone. She made her way up and around, counting the different levels. Her nostrils flared with heavy hushed breaths of exertion.
“Initiates only” read the sign above the ninth-floor library door. The library housed the texts that were only accessible for blood baptized mages, an outdated system of hierarchy that the High Practitioner loved to enforce. The secret archives. Controversial history records. The Cabal’s classified information. It was all here, and if her sister was staying true to her word, she would be in there. The ninth-floor library was where the High Practitioner could always be found studying, reading thick history volumes, or recording their teachings.
Mel slipped through the door and crept along the towering bookshelves. It wasn’t her first time sneaking through the looming bookcases. Locations of mirrors and windows were well known to her, making it easy to avoid her reflection being seen. She skipped over the creaking floorboard between shelves 38 and 39 when she heard voices. Real voices, she thought. She was getting better at deciphering what was really out there.
Holding her breath, she inched between the shelves, following the hushed conversation. Crouching down, one knee resting on the floor, she pressed her ear against the antique leather-bound books. Her ear pricked at the sound of their voices. The High Practitioner’s nasal voice sounded muffled. She could imagine the black veil that hung from the metal crown they wore.
“And why are you petitioning for this again? I’ve made my sentiments clear. I will not risk tainting the entire Cabal with her blood. She is broken.”
Mel’s cheeks flushed. Chancing a glance over the tops of the books, she could see Jeanie’s thin calves too close to the black robes of the High Practitioner.
“Your sentiments have always been made clear, and I can understand it. But you must know it is a superstition. Mel’s blood holds magic, nothing more. I didn’t think you were one to be afraid of rumors based on prejudice and judgment.”
“I am the voice of this Cabal. You would do well not to question it.”
“I dare not question you, High Practitioner. I merely beg for the chance to enhance our powers. The NMW needs mages. Our numbers are too low. You know this.”
The High Practitioner started pacing, black robes swayed across the sliver of her vision.
“Can the Cabal trust her?”
“It can,” Jeanie sounded rushed. Too hopeful, “She is doing so well. She’s taking all her medication on her own accord and…”
“Have you gotten her to drink the orange juice yet, Norma?”
Mel’s stomach knotted, replaying all the times she’d refused her sister’s simple request.
“With all due respect, drinking orange juice is of no concern, now. We have disappearances happening. The Night Mage is breaking through the portal. The proof is in these disappearances. And if the Cabal can’t stop it, who knows what the mortals will do to retaliate? You stand on the cusp of social reform, and we do not have the upper hand.”
A pause. Mel could hear heavy breathing.
“We need her. The NMW, the Cabal, needs Mel.”
The pacing stopped, closer to her sister than before, Jeanie’s legs disappeared from view.
“She is a threat.”
Jeanie recoiled; stepping back, legs visible again.
“Do you deny her blood right? She is two years past the age of initiation. She needs the protection and we need numbers. We cannot deny a rightful mage their rights! It goes against the writings of Master Sonjem Keller. His texts have shaped our way of life. Are you against the way of the Cabal?”
Mel’s jaw dropped and she covered her mouth with her palm. She had asked her sister to go to the High Practitioner, begged even, but she never expected Jeanie would be so… strong. Did Mel even know who Jeanie was?
“Mel hardly needs the Cabal for protection…”
“She does. I’m the only family she has left, and I’m never home. I’m always pulling my share of the NMW shifts. Our home has protective charms, but they may not be enough. Not if the Night Mage is gaining power!”
A moment of silence hung thick in the air. To question the High Practitioner was to question allegiance to the Cabal and the Cabal was the only legal protection they had. They were a minority here, and the mortals were only one generation away from the Mage Conflict heroes, or murderers, depending on who you asked.
“Please,” it was a whisper. Desperation clinging to every syllable. “I beg of you. Allow her the blood baptism. It’s a blue moon tonight. A good omen. Please?”
The High Practitioner started to pace again, and Mel knew the conversation was running out of steam. Jeanie was pulling every string and didn’t stop.
“Make history, High Practitioner. Be the first to admit a mage in Mel’s condition. How do you want to be remembered?”
Another pause. Mel thought she’d gone too far, and then…
“Tonight, is a blue moon?”
Jeanie breathed, “Yes. The same moon that greeted our ancestors in this world. The moon that saved us. Couldn’t it be a sign?”
Silence. Waiting. Mel’s foot was falling asleep.
“Nine o’clock. Tonight. I will gather the Cabal. Don’t be late.”
Jeanie sighed, “Thank you. We won’t.”
“Good,” their cloak billowed as they left Jeanie in the aisle. The clicking rhythm of their boots echoed across the high-ceilinged room.
Mel’s heart soared as fast as it dropped. Her phone was vibrating. The pixelated screen showed her sister’s number. She couldn’t get caught now, not when she was finally getting what she wanted. Initiation. Acceptance. Power.
She made her escape; jamming her thumb on the end call button, she wove through the bookcases, flew down the stairs, and skipped all the way home ignoring her sister’s repeated phone calls. She was out of breath by the time she reached their house. Its rotten fence and peeling white paint lifted a weight off her chest. She looked over her shoulder as she hopped over the fence. No sign of her sister yet.