Summer went by without me making any obvious progress towards my goal of somehow making my dead friend into my spirit familiar against Persephone’s wishes. I didn’t stumble upon a lead until one night in late September, when Genevieve and I went out for dinner and a couple of pints of craft beer at a tavern on Queen Street called The Undying Rose. I'm not much for nightlife, but it was quiet enough and had a beer garden that offered a view of the Avalon river. Genevieve and I had to split an entrée though since, despite the froufrou name, I'm pretty sure their core clientele is 200-plus pound straight guys. It was, however, that name and the tavern’s logo of a dark purple rose that really caught my interest.
You may recall that the rose left upon the ancestor’s grave was also purple and seemingly undying. When I realized this, I replanted the rose, and to my delight it took root and grew into a small bush. Recently though, it had started to nag at me that no matter how thoroughly I read through the ancestor’s books, I could find no mention of it. It seemed very odd to me, given how meticulously they had been with journaling their occult activities, and the only explanation I could think of was that maybe it had been a later acquisition by one of their descendants.
But The Undying Rose got me thinking about it again, and luckily the owner happened to be in that night. I asked him about the tavern’s name and history, and he said that it dated back to at least the early 19th century, but that the exact date and original owner had been lost to time. None of the subsequent owners had ever changed the name though, so it had always been The Undying Rose. I thanked him, and spent the rest of the night pondering the implications. It seemed entirely possible that the tavern had originally belonged to my friend’s ancestor, and that name was in reference to the rose from the graveyard, but why?
Afterwards, I took Genevieve out to my cemetery to spend the night. I'd only had two pints over a couple of hours and a full stomach, so I was good to drive. Once we were home, we smoked some weed, made love, then passed into a deep, pleasant sleep. It was a good night. While I slept though, I had the same dream I had the first night I’d spent in the cemetery. It had become one of my most frequently recurring dreams. I knew it was trying to tell me something, but since it was always exactly the same it had to be something that I was overlooking. I watched the same scene I had watched many times before, the shrouded ancestor carrying out their ritual to turn the cemetery into an astral nexus, then coming to rest in the dead center and… then it hit me. I wondered how I had never realized it before, though I suppose critical thinking skills aren’t at their sharpest during REM sleep.
The ancestor was standing in the exact center of the cemetery, where the mausoleum was. It wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t originally part of the cemetery, but something that had been built after the ancestor had made it hallowed ground. But why would they do that? Ostensibly as a tribute to Hades and Persephone, I'm sure, but at that moment I was certain there was some ulterior motive to it.
I jolted awake just before sunrise, the epiphany I had been waiting for finally clear in my mind, and I knew what I had to do.
“Evie! Evie! Get dressed!” I commanded as I shook her awake, jumping out of bed and scrambling into my own clothes.
“What? Why?” she asked groggily.
“I need your help. Right now,” I said hurriedly. “You need shoes, and your sunglasses, and as much protection as you can find.”
Before she could ask any follow-up questions I was already out the door and in the maintenance shed, donning my gardening gloves, safety goggles, and grabbing a pair of rusty old sledgehammers that were far older than I was.
“Wait, Samantha, stop! What are we doing!” Genevieve asked as she chased after me.
“I need to see who or what’s entombed in the mausoleum,” I explained as I resolutely marched towards it.
“Entombed in the – you mean we’re smashing it open?” she asked dismayed. “Why?”
“I dreamed of the cemetery being hallowed again, only this time I realized that the mausoleum wasn’t there,” I told her. “The occultist made the mausoleum after, and they must have had a very specific reason for doing that. There’s something crucial in that tomb and I need to know what.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Baby, baby, baby; slow down,” she urged me. “This could be dangerous. Desecrating the tomb might enrage Persephone, or it might have other occult protections, and what about you? I know how much you love this place. Do you really want to vandalize it?”
I paused by the mausoleum door, considering what she’d said.
“I have to know for sure,” I replied grimly, fully aware I was echoing what my friend I said when I caught him digging up the ancestor’s grave. I pushed the door open, threw off the table cloth covering the tomb, and immediately set to work smashing it open. Genevieve and I aren’t exactly ideally built for that sort of manual labour, but we pummeled the top slab of marble until it was in small enough pieces for us to remove by hand. When the tomb was finally open, we beheld a body wrapped entirely in a scarlet burial shroud embroidered with golden sigils.
“What the hell? That shroud looks brand new,” Genevieve remarked. “How is that possible if it’s been rotting here for two hundred years?”
I didn’t answer, in fact I barely registered she said anything. I was mesmerized by the pristine shroud, the implications for the body beneath it all too clear.
“Evie; brace yourself,” I cautioned as I pulled back the shroud, revealing the perfectly preserved body of an elderly man. His skin had the exact same pale, silvery pallor as my friend. His hair, bushy with a prominent widow’s peak, was just as white, along with a pointed beard and long handlebar moustache. He had a pronounced pointed nose and sunken cheeks, and his boney fingers clutched a leather-bound book and purple rose to his chest.
“An incorruptible corpse, like the one you said your friend dug up?” Genevieve asked in wonder. I nodded, and slowly pulled the book out of the corpse’s hands. Other than being room temperature, it didn’t feel like a dead body at all.
I succeeded in freeing the book, and when I opened it my eyes began to tear up with joy at what I saw on the first page.
“The Journal of Artaxerxes Crow,” I read aloud, my voice flooded with pride, satisfaction, and relief.
“Artaxerxes?” Genevieve asked in disbelief. “Wait, Crow? As in Crow, Crowley, & Chamberlin, the old financial firm on Druid Street?”
“Almost certainly,” I said softly, though I was hardly concerned with that at the time. “Evie, this is my friend’s ancestor, the occultist who made the deal with Persephone and created this place. I knew it didn’t make sense that he would be buried in some random grave. The first time my friend told me that, I knew it didn’t make sense! He was on the right track though. That must have been what drove him to dig up the grave.”
“But then who’s buried out there?” she asked.
“No idea. Just someone Artaxerxes sacrificed to the wisps in his place,” I surmised. “Genevieve, I don’t know how he did it or even exactly what he did other than that it involves the roses and the mausoleum in some way, but somehow he cheated Persephone! He condemned every one of his descendants to a fate that he weaseled out of, the bastard!”
“This is unreal,” Genevieve murmured with an incredulous shake of her head. When she was finally able to pull her eyes away from the body, she saw that I had a shit-eating grin plastered across my face. “Samantha, baby, why are you smiling?”
“His soul is still in there. Can’t you feel it?” I asked. I hadn’t noticed it at first either, but I could clearly sense the presence of a soul within the corpse. “He’s astral projecting, but his soul is still bound to his earthly vessel which is why he hasn’t fallen into the Underworld despite being such an epic piece of shit. He’s literally been evading divine justice for centuries.”
“So why are you smiling?” Genevieve repeated.
“Persephone is going to want to make Artaxerxes pay for what he did,” I whispered, gesturing to her portrait. “She made it very clear to me that she will not tolerate being tricked or cheated. She’ll want him, and she can have him, for a price.”
Genevieve stared at me aghast, like I’d just gone completely insane.
“You’re saying you’re going to ask Persephone for your friend back in exchange for this asshole?” she asked bewildered.
“Not ask; demand,” I said resolutely. “We’ll set up wards that the Elder Kin can’t cross like last Halloween, and if Persephone won’t agree to my terms then she’s out of luck.”
Genevieve took a step back, her body quaking at my proposed sacrilege.
“Samantha, baby, I really don’t know about this,” she murmured. “I love you, but Persephone is still the Maiden Goddess. Still our Goddess. Forcing her hand like that seems disrespectful, and dangerous. Maybe we should just let Persephone have him, and she can decide if and how to reward us.”
For a moment, I was hurt. She knew how much this meant to me, and now that I finally had an ace in the hole, she just wanted me to give it up? But I knew how much her faith meant to her, and that I really was asking a lot.
“I understand,” I said, hanging my head in resignation. “And I’ll understand if you don’t want to have anything to do with this, but that’s not going to stop me. I… I’m a Wiccan now too, and I do want to revere and respect all incarnations of our Goddess but… there’s still a Humanistic streak in me that thinks standing up to a tyrannical god who could torture me for all eternity is the most righteous act I could ever do. Goddess or not, Persephone wronged a fellow human being that I called my friend, and if I can hold her accountable for that, I will.”
Genevieve just stood there, tears welling in her eyes. I could tell she wanted to talk me out of it, but knew that she couldn’t. I could tell she wanted to tell me that she wouldn’t have any part in it, but knew that she couldn’t do that either. She looked at me, then at the portrait of Persephone, and then back to me.
“Fuck it,” she said. “The great thing about being a polytheist is that if you piss one god off, you got plenty more to choose from.”
We spent the next few weeks preparing for our ‘Halloween Party’, consulting our occult tomes and readying everything we would need, and soon Samhain was upon us. I had turned Moxley into my animal familiar as practice, and it went off without a hitch. We both became able to communicate with each other much more intuitively, even when we were apart if one of us wanted to, and he developed a very un-catlike obedience to my instructions. I left him at Genevieve’s house for safety with her animal familiar, a black cat named Nightshade, both of whom were to be taken care of as part of Genevieve’s estate should we not return. We could tell both of them knew something was up, and they were worried, but they obeyed our orders to stay at the house. After a heartfelt goodbye with our darling kitties, we set out for the cemetery.
We had carved a large Triple Moon Sigil into the ground with a pentagram for a full moon, and filled the lines with black salt. There were twelve jack-o-lanterns, one for each point on the pentagram and one to sit between the tips of each crescent moon. They weren’t carved with faces though, but with carefully selected sigils and glyphs meant to ward off Chthonic or ill-meaning spirits and ensure the protection of the Mother Goddess and Horned God. We had similar sigils drawn on our bodies or inscribed on our clothes. We both wore pentagram talismans and pointed hats, serving both as festive costumes and ceremonial attire. I had selected a long, flowing black dress for the occasion, whereas Genevieve – who cannot abide restrictive clothing – wore only a deep green minidress. My hair was half a foot longer than it had been a year before. I hadn’t cut it in all that time since I thought a Witch should have long, beautiful hair, and a Witch was what I was now.
Within the center of the pentagram were myself, Genevieve, and the incorruptible corpse of Artaxerxes Crow. I had brought my altar out as well, along with the addition of the jack-o-lantern shaped candle holder I had placed on my friend’s memorial nearly a year ago. It was our lucky 13th jack-o-lantern, and I had drawn a sigil on it as well. It was what I intended to bind my friend to should I succeed in freeing him from the Underworld.
As soon as the sun set, we began our rituals, lighting the hallowed virgin candles in their hollowed pumpkins. We danced, chanted and prayed, recited oral spells, and burned written ones in the candle flames. This went on for nearly two hours until dusk finally fell, when the Veil was the weakest it would be all year, and the will-of-the-wisps began to appear over the gravestones. Persephone would now be able to come here in her astral form, and all I had to do was summon her.
“It is All Hallow’s Eve, and the Great God Pan is dead,” I pontificated, grabbing my walking stick that I had engraved with sigils and topped with a crescent moon, a string of select gemstones dangling from the upper tip. “The God of the Hunt and Harvest has sacrificed himself to ensure the survival of his people. We thank and praise him for this sacrifice, and grieve with the Mother Goddess at the loss of her consort. As the Horned God descends into the Underworld, so too doth the Maiden, so that she may take her rightful seat by Hades’ side, and grant her father dispensation to be resurrected once again come Spring.
“But before she sits upon her obsidian throne, I would like to have a word with her.”
I drew the invocation sigils into the dirt with my stave, and Genevieve filled it with white salt crystals.
“Dread Persephone, Summer Maiden and Winter Queen,
Heed my summons under waxing crescent,
To cross the Veil on this Halloween,
And greet me in my presence.
For a speaking of things that need bespoke,
From this moment hence,
Thy powers do I thus invoke,
Let our bargaining commence.”
As soon as I had finished the spell there was a bright blue flash from behind the tree line, where the spirit portal was, and seconds later the astral form of Persephone came marching forth, the wisps reverently lowering themselves to the ground in her presence.
“Persistent as ever, aren’t we Samantha?” she said as she came to a stop behind the protective wards we had made. “At least you’re not trying to steal from me. Alright then, I’ll humour you for a moment. What little trick have you learned that you think might be worth me giving you your friend back?”
“No tricks; a treat,” I smiled, bending down and pulling off Artaxerxes’ burial shroud. “Recognize this guy?”
Finally, I saw that smug smile leave her face as she just stared completely dumbfounded.
“That’s… that’s -” she murmured.
“Artaxerxes Crow!” I finished for her. “Body and soul. If I’m not mistaken, he agreed to sacrifice both of those to your wisps in exchange for your services. He cheated you, Persephone. Made a fool of you, which I do recall you saying were things that you wouldn’t tolerate.”
She attempted to cross the outer circle to seize him, but the wards held firm.
“Give him to me!” she ordered, her face distorting in otherworldly rage.
“I’m not one of your subjects or followers, Persephone. You have no authority over me,” I proclaimed. “If you want Artaxerxes, it will be on my terms!”
She glared at me in wrath and shock, but then let out an acquiescent snicker.
“Alright. Alright. Fine. You win. Give me Artaxerxes, and you can have your friend as a familiar,” she agreed.
“Not good enough,” I told her. “You need to forfeit your claim on every single one of Artaxerxes’ descendants, and let any that are able to leave the Underworld.”
“What?” she growled, an enraged expression returning to her face.
“Artaxerxes broke the terms of your agreement. That means the entire contract is invalid and you no longer have any right to those souls. Release them, and you can have him,” I replied.
“You want me to give up seven generations of descendants for one man? That’s nearly twelve dozen souls!” she screeched.
“My conditions are non-negotiable. Take them or leave them,” I said coldly. Persephone screamed and howled, bashing at the invisible barrier that kept her at bay. I couldn’t help but smirk, remembering how she had so condescendingly assured me that I had no idea what I was doing and that I would be powerless to defy her.
After a minute she managed to regain some composure, and I watched her eyes flitting back between me and Artaxerxes, trying to decide who she wanted to punish more.
“State your full terms,” she said at last.
“You can have him if you swear, on the River Styx, to forsake your claim to all of Artaxerxes’ descendants and release the Blessed ones from the Underworld, to give me the name of the man who died here last year and let me bind him to me as a familiar, and that neither you or anyone at your behest will ever harm or harass me or my loved ones, or trespass in my cemetery!” I answered.
“I swear, on the River Styx, to forsake my claim on all of Artaxerxes’ descendants and to release the Blessed ones from the Underworld, to give you the name of the man who died here last year and let you bind him to yourself as a familiar, and that neither myself or anyone at my behest will ever harm or harass you or your loved ones, or trespass in your cemetery,” she repeated. “Now, give him to me!”
I admit, this was still a bit of a gamble, since I wasn’t actually sure if an oath sworn on the River Styx was truly unbreakable, but it was a risk I had to take. Genevieve and I picked the corpse up by each end, carried him to the edge of the wards, and threw him across it. Persephone caught him with superhuman strength and agility, cradling him like he was a baby she intended to devour, a gleefully sadistic smile spreading across her face. She gave me a wayward glace, and I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake.
“His name is Elam. Elam Crow,” she sighed. “Don’t push your luck with me again, dabbler, or I swear – on the River Styx – that I’ll find a way around my oath to make you pay for your insolence.”
With that, she flew back through the portal in a single bound, carrying Artaxerxes across the Veil with her. I wonder at the physics of that now, carrying a material body into the Underworld, but it was hardly my priority at the time. I grabbed my wand and traced the sigil I had assigned for Elam in the air seven times.
“Elam Crow! Elam Crow! Elam Crow! Elam Crow! Elam Crow! Elam Crow! Elam Crow!” I shouted each time I drew the sigil. I then knelt by my altar and grasped the jack-o-lantern candle holder.
“I, Samantha Sumner, the Hedge Witch of Harrowick Woods, hereby invoke your presence and call you forth from the spirit world. I offer you this vessel as an earthly binding to anchor your soul to the material plane. I offer you protection and shelter in return for your willing fealty as a familiar spirit. If you accept, heed my summons and come serve your Lady. So mote it be!”
I knelt there, holding the tiny porcelain pumpkin in my lap, fearing with each passing second that I had done something wrong or that even on Halloween in an astral nexus I still wasn’t powerful enough to summon a spirit to me.
“Samantha,” Genevieve whispered, nodding her head behind me. I spun around and saw a humanoid astral form standing at the edge of the circle. Its features were ill-defined, and I wasn’t sure if it was my friend or not. I ran to greet it, holding the candle container across the barrier so that it could touch it. It gingerly accepted, lightly placing its fingers upon it, and its features immediately solidified into those of my lost friend. I felt an instant psychic connection, just like the one I had with my cat, and I knew for certain that this was my friend, and that he was now safely bound to me and free of the Underworld.
He stood there in shocked silence. He never expected to see me again. He never expected to see Earth again. He stared at me, at the cemetery, at the sky, before finally letting out a barely audible but abundantly sincere ‘thank you’.
Tears of joy running down my face, I threw my arms around him in an embrace more genial than anything we had shared while he was alive. I pulled him into the circle where we'd be safe until the wisps vanished at midnight. He was weeping now as well, a mix of joy, relief, gratitude, and confusion.
“Miss-” he started.
“Samantha,” I corrected him. “You can call me Samantha now, Elam.”
“Samantha… why? Why would you do this for me?” he asked, as bewildered as he was thankful. I smirked incredulously, still somewhat confounded by the confusion that Genevieve, Persephone, and even the Green Man had presented at my determination to rescue Elam from the Underworld.
“Because you’re my friend, and I really don’t understand why or care that no one else seems to think that that’s reason enough,” I told him. “You needed me and… I’m just sorry that it took me a whole year.”
Elam half-laughed, half-cried, at my modest self-depreciation.
“A year is a hell of a lot less than the eternity I was expecting,” he assured me. “I can never repay you for this, Samantha. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
He was at a loss for words after that, the whole situation being understandingly overwhelming. Genevieve and I just sat with him in our spell circle, taking turns telling him about everything we’d been through over the past year, indifferent to the waiting horde of wisps hovering just beyond our ward of salt and pumpkins.
And that’s my story. And, after having written it all down like this, I’ve come to the realization that it wasn’t actually a horror story. Parts of it were horrifying, but in the end - I won. I uncovered arcane secrets about the spirit world, developed supernatural powers, made myself a home in a beautiful and hidden cemetery, found an amazing girlfriend, and bent the Queen of the Underworld to my will just to help out a friend. I came through this experience more content and confident than I’ve ever been, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
Before all this happened, I considered myself an anti-nihilist. I believed that the lack of any objective meaning to the universe was a good thing, since it made everyone’s subjective sense of meaning equally valid. That's why the existence of literal gods was so existentially horrifying to me at first, the idea that there were objective arbiters of meaning and morality. But one of those gods did something that I found immoral, and I was able to get her to undo what she had done. Gods or not, I proved that mortals are not their playthings, that we still have some agency over our own fate, and to me, that's the exact opposite of horror.
I’ve since learned through divination that Persephone did keep her word and release Artaxerxes’ descendants, and in particular that Elam’s young daughter Rosemary was able to ascend to the Summerland. He’s extremely happy about that, as you can imagine, and he hopes to join her there one day. I hope he does too.
For now though, he’s content to serve as my faithful familiar, guarding me and Genevieve on our astral journeys and carrying out tasks I assign him. Otherwise, he comes and goes from the cemetery as he wills, but he’s never failed to answer my summons. And – in case you were thinking it – he’s always been respectful of mine and Genevieve’s privacy.
As for me, I’ve started a new career as a part-time metaphysical counsellor at Genevieve’s spiritual wellness center, sharing my newfound expertise as a Hedge Witch with those who seek it. It's definitely not something I would've seen myself doing a couple of years ago, but so far, it's been going well, even if I’ve been restricted to doing it over Zoom lately. It’s especially nice being able to work alongside Genevieve. I never would have been able to save Elam without her, and I will be forever grateful for the guidance and love she gave me during a crucial time in my life.
My life’s actually been pretty mundane since last Halloween, but I don’t expect that to last. Harrowick County can be a pretty weird place, and I know there are plenty more mysteries and anomalies left to find. Plus, now I have Artaxerxes’ final journal, the one filled with secrets he literally took to the grave. That obviously has a lot of potential I’ve yet to tap into.
The story of how I became the Hedge Witch of Harrowick Woods may be over, but it certainly won’t be the last story of mine I decide is worth telling.
Written by The Vesper's Bell