Izra snatched an umbrella and snuck out the door. The rain had held off, but one look above to the darkening grey clouds left no doubt in her mind. The storm would come soon. And probably before she reached her house.
She moaned and lengthened her strides. As she found the path and passed into the forest, Izra tripped on an exposed tree root and nearly fell to the damp ground. She grumbled as she looked down at her torn dress, realizing it was much too long and cumbersome for the mile hike. She had considered changing into a pair of jeans, but she was already late and chose against it. Though she had woken early, Izra rushed at the last minute to complete several house chores after having had procrastinated the entire morning. As usual, the teenager regretted most of her decisions.
“No, no, no!” she said, straining her eyes above the red oak trees.
Rain droplets began to fall, periodically striking her nose. Still, for the moment she remained dry, and held the umbrella in her hand, closed. The trees provided sufficient protection.
Izra followed the winding, hilly path south. Difficult to traverse, she was not accustomed to the terrain, which had become muddy. She held on to the handle of the umbrella, attempting to stay as clean as she could, balancing her cumbersome steps. After she slipped and fell in the mud for a third time, she picked herself up with a loud grunt and flung the umbrella beneath a nearby tree.
“Akh!” she exclaimed, stopping in her tracks, regretting her impulsive behavior.
She exhaled forcefully, looking at the umbrella several feet away and puddles of muck in between her and it. She knew her mother, a judgmental and bitter widower, would be mortified, especially considering that Izra had just snuck out of the house, yet again.
“It’s lost,” she said, throwing the hood of her poncho over her head. “My mother will have to live without it or get it her damn self.”
With her decision made, Izra turned and set off along the path once again. The rain began to fall harder. Her shirt was dry and safe from the rain because of her poncho, but the entire path was now mucky. There was no way now to avoid her shoes and dress from getting ruined. Her socks became sodden. They soon squished inside her shoes with each step. The wet fabric from her dress slapped across her shins as she attempted a quicker pace. Her heartbeat quickened. Her breath labored. Thoroughly irritated, Izra growled under her breath, pushing her long black tangles of hair off her face.
“To hell with this weakness,” she said out loud, picking up the pace.
Izra crested a hill. Ten feet below lay a small pond. The path to it steep and slick, she descended the hill at the same quick pace and soon lost her footing. She attempted to catch herself, but misjudging her weight, she went sprawling to the ground on her chest and face. She slid the entire ten feet drop, running face first into something hard, narrowly avoiding a plunge into the pond.
“Fuck!” she screamed, picking herself up quickly from the ground, wiping away the mud that now covered her face.
Izra winced. Her fingers searched and found a fresh wound on her right cheek. She drew back her hand. Blood washed down it with the rain. Grumbling, Izra bent her neck and plunged her hands into the mud and rising water. She waded through the brown slurry, grasped something, and lifted it free.
“A piece of wood,” she said, scowling, turning, and inspecting it in her hands. She gnashed her teeth. “And a damn nail!”
It was large, rusty, and sticking out a few inches from the back of the wood. She flipped over the plank of timber.
“Solomon Pond,” she read out loud.
At length, she tossed the sign without further thought, her eyes skimming. The water in the pond continued to fill, flooding the bank. Izra sat there in the warm water, her thoughts numb.
Above her came the perpetuating rumble of thunder. Rain continued to cascade across the pond, crashing on its surface, splashing upward, and sending tiny waves propagating. The storm seemed powerful and steady, relentless. It drowned the noise of her sniffles. Tears threatened to swell and spill from her eyes, lost with the rain.
At that moment, the melodies of music mingled with the storm. Izra flinched,
turning her head and snorting. In the near distance, a chimney rose among the trees. Smoke drifted up from it in large puffs, floating, vanishing in the wind.
“Abigail,” she mumbled, squinting. Izra managed to get to her feet. “The devil with this moping.”
She stepped away from the pond and began walking along the muddy path again, following it east and up a hill.
As Izra crested the hill her heart began to settle. The rain still fell hard. Her face and body still stung from her fresh wounds. However, the thought of soon visiting Abigail remained at the front of her mind and brought a smile to her face.
They had met a few months ago in a most unusual manner. Izra had been sitting by herself in their town’s market square, wearing a blue dress and minding her own business. She should have been in class but had decided to skip school on a whim.
As usual, she had walked toward school by herself earlier that morning. However, rather than turning left on Perth Avenue, she had turned right, which led to the center of town. She stopped at a local clothing store, sitting down on a stone wall in front, and dangled her sandals nonchalantly in front of her. Several pedestrians walked by her. Each person looked at her oddly, as though wondering to themselves why a school age girl would randomly be sitting in the square at this time of day. And each time Izra would respond with a simple smile and an effervescent wave of the hand. This ploy effectively and consistently allayed each person’s concern. Izra was a clever and quite attractive girl. She had learned long ago to exploit such qualities for her own aims.
She remained there on the wall for nearly ten minutes, eating an apple with one hand, twirling her hair with another, casually looking around while surreptitiously scanning shoppers as they exited the store. She was looking for her next victim.
Although beautiful and clever, at her core, Izra was a thief. An exceptional one, in fact. She had developed this skill set longer than any other. She did not necessarily need to steal. Her family was neither poor, nor destitute. Her drive for thievery was also neither petty, nor impulsive. She considered the act a true art, and distinctly enjoyed relieving someone of something pertinent or special. She held no remorse or guilt in the slightest for her socially inappropriate deeds.
Izra finished her apple and tossed it aside behind her. No one noticed. She heard laughter from her left. She looked up at the sky for a moment and then centered her attention on who was laughing. A remarkedly attractive looking woman came out of the store, holding two bags likely full of clothes. She was in the middle of a conversation with a man. He himself seemed ordinary, not ugly, but by no means attractive. He wore a green apron with the name of the store printed on it.
They stopped just outside the doors of the store. The woman bumped a shoulder into him, winking, saying something. He nodded and shrugged. It was clear they were flirting with each other. Indeed, in the very next moment, the man leaned over and kissed the woman. After several seconds, they pulled away and smiled at each other. She turned to leave. He stood there a moment, waving goodbye.
Meanwhile, Izra jumped off the wall and walked in front of the store as the man returned inside. She produced a second apple from an expensive purse, took a bite, and followed the woman. She stayed several feet behind, keeping at least one pedestrian between herself and the woman. Izra glanced casually at different storefronts, people, and even herself. There was no need to mark her victim frequently. The woman was walking straight ahead and slowly. She would occasionally stop, briefly window shop, and then move on again. Izra noted this pattern and would sometimes similarly window shop at a store nearby. Other times, she would enter the store, walk around, pick an item or two up, and then leave. When reaching the street, Izra would see the woman had continued her walk and easily catch up to her.
This pattern of pretense and disguise continued for several blocks. At length, the woman turned and walked into a clothing shop. Izra’s heart quickened with excitement. She stepped forward, stopped at a window, and peered inside store.
It was busy.
“Perfect,” she said to herself, grinning.
Izra tossed her half-eaten apple into a nearby waste basket, sidestepped to avoid a person exiting, and entered the store.
A bell jingled overhead. Izra immediately spotted her victim rummaging in a nearby shoe section. She delayed a minute or two. The woman soon sat down, setting her bags next to her, and began to try on a pair of shoes. She soon stood up and glanced at herself in a mirror, leaving her shopping bags next to an empty box, disregarding other customers.
Izra grinned. She began to meander through a nearby section. She flipped her fingers across a rack of dresses, nimbly took two from their hangers, and slung them over her shoulder. Keeping the woman’s back to her, she made her way closer, making sure to glance at shoes along the way, touching and fretting over a few pair she genuinely liked. When the woman twirled in the mirror, Izra immediately stopped, reached for a box, and took out a pair of shoes, quickly examining them. Sweat beads formed at her forehead. She was only several feet away from the bags.
The woman sighed, walked over to her bags, and took off her shoes. She returned them to their box. For a moment, it looked as though she was going to pick up her bags. Izra bit her tongue and cringed a moment. However, the woman then produced another box.
Izra wrinkled her brow. She had failed to notice the box.
Her astonishment swiftly passed because the woman nimbly put on a second pair of shoes. Izra stood, stepped softly near the bags, carrying two boxes of shoes and the two dresses she had grabbed earlier. As usual, the woman walked away from her bags without turning around, without noticing any other customers.
Izra seized the moment. She glanced around, making sure no one close was watching. In the clear, she bent down, placing the boxes and dresses on the carpeted floor. Next, she opened her purse and deftly emptied the contents of the woman’s two bags inside it. Then, she put one shoe box at the bottom of each bag, followed then with one dress on top of each box. Finally, she closed each bag, grabbed her purse, and stood. Tasks accomplished, she proceeded to trace the exact path in which she had taken in the store, returning to the first section, stopping momentarily to look at dresses, and then, without turning around, exited the store.
Once outside, her rush of excitement took hold, but she still managed to keep to her plan. Izra walked toward the original clothing store. When she arrived, she turned right and continued down another street for several blocks. At last, she came to a predetermined alley and went several feet inside. She found a covered pail, took off its lid, and pulled out another purse. This second one, far less expensive than the first. Izra reached inside, took out a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, and then transferred the contents of first purse into the second. Next, she changed out of the dress into the jeans and shirt. Then, she stuffed her original dress into the expensive purse, placed it inside the pail. Izra completed this well-rehearsed change by pulling back her black hair and tying it into a ponytail.
She stood there in the alley for a minute. Her heart thumped beneath her shirt. She grinned, bathing in her victory. She breathed deeply one final time, and then exhaled. Ready to set off toward school, the hairs on the back of her head stood on end.
Izra swung around. The woman who she had just robbed stood, staring at her.
“Well done, my child,” said the woman, clapping her hands softly without effort. She stopped clapping, twisted her head, and scrutinized Izra before she continued. “You sensed I was here, didn’t you?”
Izra blinked and regained some of her composure. She turned and began to run.
The woman shook her head, sighed, and rolled her eyes at the sky.
“Come now, child,” she said. “That won’t do. We’ve just met.”
The woman raised an arm and twirled a finger. Izra had no chance to see the trash can that came crashing into, sending her flailing to the ground with a loud shriek.
Once on the ground, Izra turned and raised herself onto her elbows.
“How did you do that?” she asked, her fear only stifled by sudden jealously.
The woman paused, exhaled, and then walked to the girl. “Take my hand,” she said, offering her arm.
Izra squinted and recoiled.
The woman laughed. “It is your choice, always,” she said. “I’ll answer your question. But only if you take my hand.”
Izra hesitated. She stared at the woman, expecting a trick. “You’ll turn me in to the peacekeepers.”
“I will do no such thing,” said the woman, shaking her head, frowning.
“Why not?” asked Izra.
The woman shrugged. “I’d be a hypocrite,” she said, winking. “I didn’t exactly pay for those clothes you hoodwinked either.”
Izra blinked. She had not expected such a comment. The woman kept her arm extended and patiently motioned with her fingers.
“Do you want to know what I know, or not?” asked the woman.
Izra slowly smirked.
“I do,” and took the offered hand. It was cold.
“My name is Abigail,” said the woman. “I’m what most call, a Red Witch.”
Izra watched as Abigail’s eyes began to glow. At first, orange, then gradually red. The teenage girl now grinned without restraint, showing her perfectly white teeth, revealing her potential poisoned nature.
“If you want,” continued Abigail, now cocking a smirk herself. “You can become one as well.”
One moment, they were holding hands. The next, they vanished.
The rain at last stopped as Izra stepped into a small clearing among the pine trees. A triangular house loomed ahead of her. Its familiar orange framed windows glistened.
She sighed. Exhausted and hungry, she walked through wets leaves. They squished beneath her boots, sinking into the earth with each step. Wet and filthy herself, Izra no longer cared. She was visiting her Red Witch. She was going to continue her red magic lessons. More importantly, she was eager to see mentor. Over the past couple months of their relationship Izra had gradually grasped an odd truth, she considered Abigail a friend, her only friend. In the Red Witch, she could confide anything.
Her thoughts whirling, Izra walked up an old staircase. The wood creaked with each step. Standing on the porch, she now only noticed each window had its curtains completely drawn. Izra stood still and turned an ear. The typical movements of a forest surrounded her. Rain dropped from trees. Birds chirped and flew above her. The branches of trees moaned in the wind. She strained her ears for movement within the house. There was nothing. She glanced at the chimney. Gray smoke continued to billow into the sky.
“She must be home,” thought Izra.
She raised her hand and rapped on the door three times, waited three seconds, and then knocked three more times. This was their typical safety signal. Several seconds later Izra tried knocking louder with the same pattern. Still, no movement stirred from inside the house. Her chest suddenly seized.
She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Abigail! It’s Izra!”
Her voiced echoed in the lifeless and miserable surroundings. Izra clenched her hand into a tight fist and began pounding on the door. It rattled on its hinges. She attempted to open the door. Of course, the knob did not turn. She quickly ran to each window and rapped hard on the glass. Any harder and the pane would break.
“Abigail! It’s Izra! Abigail! It’s Izra!”
She then returned to the door and proceeded to bang on it once again. Tears emerged and flowed down her face. She pounded until her hands bled. She ignored the pain and attacked the door without restraint. Only when her strength had finally left her and her lungs stung with each breath, did Izra cease her struggle, collapsing to her knees.
Time passed without awareness.
At length, she lifted her head, and stared at the door.
“She’s abandoned me,” she whispered. “Why, why would she leave me? What did I do to deserve such a cruel punishment?” The selfishness of her life surfaced in her mind. She pushed it down. “I thought Abigail understood me…She was the only one…I can’t drag myself alone.”
Wiping away her tears, Izra sat up and put her back against the door. She rested her hands on her lap and sat for a long time staring at the forest ahead of her, wishing against the truth.
She eventually stopped crying.
Izra dropped her hands to the wet porch. Her fingers brushed against something. She tucked her chin to her chest, rolled her head to the left, and peered down. There at the base of the door was a corner of an envelope. Hope rekindled, she quickly tugged at it.
The envelope slid out easily. She held it out in front of her, one hand on either side, and read the inscription out loud to the forest.
“My friend,” she read bitterly.
Izra sniffled once and then shuddered. She tore the top of the envelope open, reached in, and produced a folded letter. She propped herself against the door and began to read:
I hope this letter finds you not terribly distraught. I realize my departure may seem…sudden. It was without forewarning. I do not want you to think you have somehow wronged me, or that I have reconsidered your magical potential. Quite the contrary, your training in the red way has gone tremendously well, better than I could have imagined. It is for this fact that I have taken my leave.
I am afraid there comes a time when each Red Witch must abandon their pupil. You are meant to finish your training alone, giving yourself over to the master how you see fit. The amulet in which I had you swear your oath is also contained in this envelope. Take it. Keep it safe. No one else must possess it. Wear it on your person, always.
On the back of this letter is a list of several remaining tasks you must perform to come fully into your own. As you progress through the list, your gifts will increase. There is no consequence for not finishing the list. You are only limited by your own ambition. If you do indeed finish, well, you will achieve exquisite immortality, and no one, save the Master or a seasoned Blue-Mother, will be able to defeat you.
May we meet one day as friends, or enemies? I will let you decide.
May the Master Deem Your Worthy!
PS - I left you some food and dry clothes. Please feel free to consider this cottage your own. Use it as you wish. I trust I will not return for quite some time.
Izra finished the front of the letter, scoffing as she read the end. She haphazardly flipped the parchment over and read the task list mentioned. Once finished, she reread it again. She said the first item out loud with reticence, “Obey your guardians long enough, and well enough, to have them sincerely consider you again trusted and loved. Only at this point should you move to the next item on the list.”
She scanned the list a third time, pausing on the last item. She closed her eyes. She kept them shut for quite some time.
At length, her stomach growled. Izra flung her eyes open, sighed, and stood. She turned and faced the cottage door. She reached for the doorknob, then stopped abruptly.
“I wonder,” she whispered, smirking.
Izra scanned the knob, reaching out with her thoughts and mystifying vision. She raised her right hand and hovered it a few inches from the handle. She flicked her index finger in two small circles while simultaneously raising the hand a couple of inches. A concealed locking mechanism popped.
She reached for the doorknob again and twisted it.
“Yes!” said Izra.
The success of using her magic renewed her spirit. Izra remembered the envelope and now lifted it closer. She reached inside and brought out her opaque amulet. It hung from a black necklace. Abigail had once mentioned she would give it to her someday. She would have much preferred to receive it from her mentor in person.
“But this will do.”
She hung the necklace around her neck and let the amulet settle against her skin beneath her shirt. There was a spark of light. It faded before she could reach inside to investigate.
At that moment, a few drops of rain fall on her head. She craned her neck. The clouds had darkened once more. Another storm approached. The sun had begun to set.
“Best to stay the night,” she said, grinning. “I’ll leave in the morrow.”
Izra opened the door and walked inside her new house.
Izra slept very well that night, despite the storm which had raged within the forest. She woke up early, dressed in extra clothing Abigail had left behind for her, and headed out the door in fantastic spirits. She made good time and soon came to the spot where she had nearly fallen into the pond yesterday. She stopped and began to giggle, remembering how angry and desperate she had been. It somehow felt like a lifetime ago. Without realizing what she was doing, Izra pointed her hand and flicked her finger a couple of times. The sign that had injured her face yesterday now abruptly came flying out of the mud. Her hand and mind steady, the sign hovered in midair, twirling on an invisible axis.
She dropped her hand; the sign continued floating.
Her eyes widened.
“Damn the Three Gods, I’m getting good at this!” she snooted.
Izra dropped her eyes to an open patch of thick mud several feet away. The sign descended and sunk in firmly.
“Looks like it’s always been there,” she said, studying her work with youthful pride.
She dawdled no further, turning her back to the pond and ascending the hill. The path was still muddy, but far less cumbersome than it had been yesterday.
Izra followed the hilly path north, tracing its complex pattern through the limes and acacias. When nearing her house, she grinned. Her breathing was quickened. She sweat everywhere. Her legs ached. But these facts, not one of them, irritated her. She reveled in them. If, at that juncture, anyone asked her why, she would have been unable to explain.
At length, Izra came to a familiar clearing. She stepped out from the trees and agitation stirred, seizing her soul, halting her steps.
“Akh! My mother!” she hissed. “The nagging and nonsense! Why must I return here?”
Izra snorted, knowing the answer to her own question. Nevertheless, she reached into a pocket and produced the letter from Abigail. She turned it over to reread the first the task item in her head. She then read out loud the most important part, as though it was a meditative mantra to help her through an upcoming challenge.
“Obey your guardians. Well enough, and long enough.”
She walked toward her house. Hesitating in front of the thick oak door, she shut her eyes, recognized the agitation, allowed it to settle, and then assumed a remorseful and concerned expression. As such, Izra knocked on the red wood twice, timidly, and then once more.
A few moments passed. Izra was going to knock again, when the door flung open in quick fashion, sucking air with it. A woman, tall and pale, with splotchy skin, stood underneath the doorframe. Her lips trembled. Her grey eyes looked blood-shot. She stayed silent for a several seconds.
“Mother,” began Izra, but was quickly interrupted.
“Thank the Three Gods!”
Izra was abruptly pulled into the house. Her mother closed the door behind them and began to dote her with kisses, stroking her hair and giving her a close hug. Their heartbeats raced together. Tears streaked down her mother’s face.
Silence ensued in the house with their prolonged embrace. The wind beat against the windows, rattling their panes of glass. The many clocks in the room eventually chimed in unison.
At length, when Izra thought perhaps she would not receive any punishment, her mother abruptly let go of her and slapped her across the face with all her strength.
“How dare you sneak out of this fucking house!” screamed her mother.
Izra received another slap.
“How dare you stay out all night!”
A third and final strike came, producing a bloody nose.
“And how dare you take what is not yours!”
Her mother glared with eyes bulging and chest heaving. The affection shown not a moment earlier had been replaced by clear rage and disgust.
Izra slowly reached at her nose, wiping away the blood that trickled over her lips.
“You mean…wicked child!” said her mother, her voice faltering. Tears still streamed down her face. She trembled, attempting to catch her breath. “Tell me…what do you have to say for yourself?”
The sting from the slaps raging and her own blood pulsating in her veins, Izra chose not to move, fighting the urge to twirl a finger.
“It would be so easy,” she thought. “So very easy.”
Ticks from the clocks filled the room.
Izra then did something she never thought possible. She frowned, began to cry, and then threw herself into her mother’s arms.
“Forgive me, mother!” she pleaded. “I am wicked. I am mean. I have been awful to you. Not just this day. But for so awfully long! Forgive me!”
Izra stood in her mother’s embrace, weeping, her body now trembling as well. Her tears genuine. Her remorse heartfelt.
They remained there for a few minutes until her mother sighed and pulled Izra away, slowly this time.
“Izra,” she said, softly.
The young teenager sniffled, keeping her eyes closed and chin tucked to her chest.
Her mother raised a hand to her daughter’s chin. Izra cringed, flinching out of habit.
“My love, please, look at me.”
At length, Izra opened her eyes. Her mother smiled silently, apologetically. Tears stood in her eyes.
“Izra, forgive me,” she said, kissing her daughter on the cheek. “I have been blaming you for our troubles. You are not to blame. And you are certainly not wicked. You are my daughter. I love you.”
Her mother frowned. Her eyes narrowed.
“Let me look at you for a second.”
She put both of her hands on Izra’s face and turned her head, examining her nose.
“The bleeding seems to have stopped,” she said. “But there will be bruising. Be so good as to make an ice pack. Keep the swelling down.” She sighed, wincing. “We don’t want others to notice.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Izra.
Her mother looked at her for a few seconds, her face paled and then twisted with confusion.
“I’ll make you some lunch,” she said. “Until then, rest in your room with the ice.”
Izra walked to the kitchen, opened a pantry door, and grabbed a cloth. She went to a corner, spotted a rusted iron ring, and lifted the door to the cellar. A rush of cold air enveloped her. From a nearby hook she grabbed a lantern, and then snatched a set of matches from a nearby shelf. The lamp burning, she descended a steep and rocky staircase.
Here in the cellar, everything was dark and damp. Above her the floorboards creaked as her mother began to get dinner ready, but Izra ignored the sounds and stepped carefully. Eight paces forward, nine paces to the right. Along the brick wall was a chest. She wiped off dust and condensation, and then lifted the lid. It squeaked as she rushed to take out several rectangular chunks of ice. She wrapped them into the cloth and pressed it tightly upon her nose and cheek.
Her shoulders relaxed.
The relief was immediate and wonderful.
But, at that moment, her mother beckoned.
“Izra! Please hurry now! You’re burning a lot of oil child!”
Izra released the cloth from her face. The pain intensified, but it was more tolerable. She shut the chest and returned upstairs, closing the cellar door behind her. She turned out the lantern and returned it to its hook.
“Go rest now,” said her mother, smiling, putting a kettle of water on their tiny stove. “I’ll come find you when lunch is done.”
Izra smiled back. “Yes, ma’am.”
She walked behind her mother who abruptly halted her cooking and grabbed her. Izra, half-expecting another hit, flinched, but was given another hug.
“I love you, my child,” said her mother, kissing Izra on the forehead. “You just vex me sometimes.”
Izra nodded, sorrowfully. “I know mother,” she said. “Forgive me. I love you.”
Her mother wiped a tear from her own face and then waved at Izra.
“Off you go, off you go!”
Izra obeyed, making sure to take the ice pack with her. She walked through their narrow kitchen, down a short corridor, and then opened the door to her room.
Everything was dark here as well. She walked several paces to the window and thrust open the curtains. Light washed in, blinding Izra for few seconds. She squinted until her eyes adjusted and finally sat down on her bed, the coils creaking loudly.
At length, Izra exhaled, fell back on her bed and pillow, placing the ice pack on her throbbing face. She lay there, nearly falling asleep a few times, but briskly shaking her head. She desired to stay awake. She was starving. After several minutes, she released the ice pack from her face. Her fingers gently massaged the swelling. It would bruise, but not much. That would please her mother.
Izra sat up, groaning, sore from her long walks through the forest, but grinning as well. A thought possessed her. She reached into her pants pocket and pulled the letter from Abigail out. She disregarded the message, and turned it over, rereading the list of tasks several times.
A change came over her face as she whispered the last task, laughing, snickering, all her teeth showing.
“So, you have regained the trust and love from your guardians. Now you must kill the one who loves you the most. You must do this without magic. You must do this with your own hands. Only then will you become immortal.”