The Witches of Portland, Book One
Chapter One: Cassiel
It was Solstice Eve, the longest night, and the coven had gathered. It was the time that ancient people thought the sun stood still in the sky before reversing itself.
Some said it was the night the sun would be reborn.
So much in her life was uncertain right now; Cassiel welcomed the moment of stillness and the promise of rebirth. Twenty-two years old and healthy, with a pretty enough face and a mass of curly red hair people admired…on the surface, Cassie’s life looked pretty good.
Inside, though? She was worried all the time.
The slanted walls of Raquel’s attic were painted creamy white, including to the knee walls. The dark planks of the fir floor gleamed in the light from the candles massed on altars in each corner of the space. Nine people sat on bright cushions in a rough circle.
Raquel was not only a coven mate, but Cassiel’s boss at the café. A regal black woman with dreadlocks flowing down her back, Raquel looked around the space, making certain everything was ready and in place.
A clap of her hands set a row of metal and beaded bracelets snapping on her wrists. Two more claps, and Cassiel felt her attention snap itself in place along the column of spine. She felt the rest of the coven exhale around her, and exhaled, too. Ready for magic. Ready for the night.
Raquel gestured toward the center of the room and Moss, a slender Japanese American man in his early twenties, picked up his athame, a double-bladed witch’s knife, and began slowly turning in a circle. Cassie felt Moss’s blade sweep by her, causing the edges of her skin to prickle and stand at attention.
She could almost see the blue flame she’d been told was the vital energy of magic, and of life itself. Prana. Mana. Essence. She certainly imagined it now, snaking from the blade tip as it traced the edge of the circle.
When he reached the place he had started from, the blade swept up in an arc overhead and then back down, forming a glowing sphere, a sphere of safety, a sphere to focus, a sphere of protection for those within and those without.
Cassie let her soul wander deeper. She let herself open to the magic of the night.
“Cassiel, is your cantrip ready?” Brenda said. The cantrip. The poetry that helped tune magical operations and rituals. Cassie was a poet, and the coven had started looking to her to weave spells of words.
Brenda had been Cassiel’s main mentor for the year and a day of her coven apprenticeship. The white woman was in her early forties, with a messy array of brown hair piled on her head. As usual, she wore a flowing tunic over slim pants. Tonight’s tunic was black, shot through with purple stars. A chunky silver pendant at her breast reflected the candlelight.
Cassie smoothed her hands on her jeans, tossed the heavy fall of red curls over her shoulder and stood.
Stepping forward to face the north, she said “By earth…” She turned, pointing to each cross quarter in turn, charging up the energy, speaking as she went. “By flame. By wind. By sea. By moon, by sun, by dusk, by dark, by witches’ mark…”
Cassie felt the energy build as the words moved through her. They were simple words, but like all magical poetry, their very simplicity increased the potency. What mattered was that they focused the witch’s will. What mattered was that they called the planes of existence closer together, joining above and below, within and without.
“…We consecrate this holy ground, with sight, and sound, and breath twined ’round. With will and love, from below to above…”
Cassiel felt as if the whole hub of the cosmos spun around her, within her, and then locked into place. “Let the magic portals open,” she said, then stood, vibrating in the hushed, still center of the space for one long breath. Then she bowed and took her place in the circle of the coven once again.
“So mote it be,” eight voices responded.
Two other coveners, Alejandro and Lucy, carried a small table and a large black mirror into the center of the circle. The buttoned-up IT guy and the house painter, tall and short. Alejandro saw the future, and Lucy did a lot of work with the ancestors. Those two couldn’t have been more different, yet their magic fit together like dusk mirroring dawn.
“Tonight we scry,” Raquel said. “We look into the other worlds to see what we can find there. We ask for guidance for the coming year. We ask for help. We ask for visions of what may be, and visions of that which must fall away, and we ask on this, the longest, darkest night, to feel the promise of new light. So mote it be.”
Cassie was drifting in and out, between the worlds of matter and æther, feeling the weight of the longest night around her, feeling the magic in the room. She felt a sense of home, as she always did when surrounded by the Arrow and Crescent Coven. She could taste that sense of home, just like she could taste the mulled wine the coven had toasted with before heading up the stairs. The memory of it slept on the back of her tongue.
But she also had to admit the sense of home wasn’t as strong as it was before, because even though she still let herself float in the in-between, her anxiety was back.
Cassie watched her coven mates move in and out in groups of two or three to kneel in front of the big black polished mirror, gazing into it, seeking prophecy or reassurance, a way forward or a way to release the past. She realized she was scared—terrified, actually, and growing more frightened by the minute.
The things that were in her past were things she had hoped to keep buried—the ghosts clamoring for her attention, day and night. The inquests. The police calling her for help on cases. Her fourteen-year-old self, shaking and stammering as she tried to testify on a witness stand, testify to things that no one should ever see. To things that no person except murderer and victim should ever know.
Except the victims were ghosts. And Cassiel could see them. Could hear their terrible stories, and see the images of their murders all too clearly in her head.
The ghosts were the reason she fled Tennessee.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered, “I can’t, I can’t do this.”
Raquel moved towards her, put an arm around her shoulders. Her friend and boss drew Cassie in, and cradled her against her chest for a moment. Then, with a squeeze, she released her and turned Cassie’s face toward her with her fingers.
“Cassiel,” she murmured softly, “you are a child of the Goddesses and the Gods. You are beloved of this coven, and of the Goddess Diana herself, and we will not forsake you. Whatever it is you see tonight, I will personally help you bear it. You can do this. You got this, girl.”
Cassie still felt the tension of sickness clamping down her throat and churning the mulled wine into a sour liquid in her belly as she nodded.
“Guess I’ll get it over with,” she said.
She moved forward with two other coven mates, Alejandro and her best friend in the coven, the elegant Selene.
She watched as they bowed their heads, gazing into the black expanse, Alejandro’s face forming a sharply backlit profile. Selene’s face was obscured by a fall of straight black hair. Then she leaned forward herself.
Staring into the black mirror was like staring into the curved bowl of space. Cassiel remembered nights out in the wilderness of Tennessee, coming upon a high place, nothing but black night and stars, so many stars, the kind you couldn’t see in the city, the kind of stars she hadn’t seen in years. Closing her eyes for a moment, she took three deep breaths and looked once again into the mirror. She saw the glimmering wink of candles, and the dark reflection of her own face. She saw a hand reaching out as though in friendship. She saw her parents. Her grandmother.
Feeling tension rising in her shoulders and belly again, she willed herself to calm down and drew in another deep breath.
“Help me see,” she whispered to the mirror, “help me see what I need to see.”
All of a sudden the mirror was wiped clean. There was nothing. Just blackness, deep, deep blackness. Cassie leaned in further, trying to keep her eyes soft as they wanted to focus, trying to find anything, something. “Show me, please.” And there it was—an image of a burning tower. Cassie gasped and rocked back on her heels.
“No, no, no, no, no,” she said.
She felt Raquel next to her. “You’re fine, girl. Anoint yourself and look again.” Raquel was holding out a small blue bowl of water.
“I don’t think I can,” Cassie replied.
Raquel was silent, still holding out the bowl. Cassie shook herself, dipped her fingertips into the bowl, then bathed her face and ran damp hands through the top of her hair. She lifted the heavy fall of hair and placed one cool, moist hand on the back of her neck and breathed.
It felt good. “Thank you,” she whispered to Raquel, who nodded and moved back again.
Cassiel evened her breathing out and leaned toward the black mirror once again. Her eyes unfocused and Cassiel dropped into the black mirror. She was flying.
Flying through stars, flying through the air, then steering her spirit lower.
She was flying above the city of Portland and then she saw the room that her coven was in—she saw Alejandro and Selene, still kneeling by the black mirror, the other six lying down or sitting in a circle around the altar. She saw that some of them had left their bodies, shimmering silver cords attaching their spirits to their flesh.
She saw her own silvery cord and followed it down. It was as though her spirit were in two places at once, the observer and the observed. Cassie watched herself gazing in the mirror, and felt things go black again.
And then her eyes opened on to the face of a beautiful black woman with the strong, tall body of a warrior, a small tape recorder in one hand and a pen in the other.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Who I am is not important. I don’t exist here anymore, except as memories, ambitions, and work that still needs to be done. I need you to finish it because he can’t. He’s not able.”
“Who? Who can’t?”
The woman just shook her head.
“Follow the tower on fire.”
“What? I don’t understand. What do I need to do?” she asked.
The woman just looked at her with firm eyes, then scribbled something on a piece of paper.
“You will know,” the woman said. “Tell Joe I still love him. And tell Darius I said hi.”
The woman held up the piece of paper. Cassiel peered at it, trying to make out the word.
And then the woman was gone...