The door chime rang as I stepped into Sandbrook’s Saint Street Deli, a favourite local eatery of mine since
childhood. I gave a nostalgic side glance to the now off-limits seating area where my father and I had often shared a meal, hoping wistfully that we’d be able to do that again before too long.
“Hey Samantha, perfect timing. Just got finished with your order,” Sam Sandbrook Jr. smiled at me from behind the plexiglass partition.
My dad and I had always been on good terms with the family-owned deli, even though my mother and sister’s ‘Kareness’, for lack of a better word, almost always brought them into conflict with the outspoken Sandbrook Senior on the rare occasion they visited the deli at all. More than once, he’d remarked that I was so quiet because all my mother’s verbosity (not his word) went to my sister.
"Perfect, thank you. Moxley's been cooped up in my trailer all day and I need to get home before dark to give him some outdoor time," I remarked as I fumbled through my purse for my debit card.
“You’re still living out in Harrowick Woods? That forest is haunted you know,” he teased as he rang up the total on the 1980’s cash register they’d used since before I was born.
“Yeah, I know,” I said with an enigmatic smile, which he couldn’t actually see because of my mask.
“That’s a very pink mask you’ve got there. I thought the surgical ones only came in blue,” he commented.
“Genevieve ordered them for us. I’m working out of her New Age shop over on Albion now,” I explained as I tapped my card to the modern peripheral that had somehow been jerry-rigged to the ancient till. “She’s convinced that surgical masks are the best after N95’s, but she wanted ones that were still distinct and feminine.”
“Distinct and feminine – that’s Genevieve alright,” he agreed as he slid the bag through the hole in the plexiglass. “Umm…. I don’t mean to pry, but you’re dating Genevieve, right?”
I froze, my eyes widening as the familiar, noxious feeling of my social anxiety began to churn in my stomach.
“Ah, yeah. Over a year now,” I said softly, uncertain about where the conversation was going. “Why?”
“I know it’s silly and none of my business, but I was wondering about your sandwiches,” he chuckled awkwardly. “I noticed late last year that whenever you came in here for take-out, you started buying two sandwiches instead of one. I knew it wouldn’t be for your dad, so I started thinking that maybe you were seeing someone. But Genevieve’s a vegan, isn’t she?”
I let out a sigh of relief and nodded.
“Yeah, she is. She checks every box on the Left pretty hard,” I chuckled.
“So – and again, I know it’s not my business – what’s with the extra sandwich?” he asked curiously. “Are you squirreling them away for when you can't stomach any more kale?"
“No, it’s not that. I like Genevieve’s cooking,” I laughed awkwardly, considering what I should tell him. “No, its for a friend of mine. Someone I meant out in Harrowick Woods.”
He furrowed his brow, his curiosity peaked but too polite to pry too much.
“Anyone I know?” he asked.
“Not anyone you would remember,” I answered.
Not twenty minutes later, I was home in Harrowick Woods, in a cemetery that a 19th-century occultist by the name of Artaxerxes Crow had made hallowed ground, weakening the Veil between the physical and spiritual planes, and hiding it from the notice of unenlightened mortals. It was beautiful, and secret, and sacred, and I loved it more than anything other than Genevieve, my family, my cat, and one other person.
I bent down by my altar, which I had placed by my fire pit, and lit the candle within the jack-o-lantern shaped holder that I had marked with a special sigil. I took my wand, tapped it to my command chakra, and then traced that same sigil in the air with it.
“Elam Crow. Under Sacred Sky and upon Hallowed Earth I invoke our pact and call you hence from the astral plane. Heed my summons and come serve your Lady. So mote it be!” I incanted, bidding my spirit familiar to appear.
Right on cue, a translucent blue astral body in the form of a lean man with white hair and a long coat manifested on the other side of the fire pit.
“Hi, Elam! You can have a seat. I just want to talk tonight. Here, I got you an Italian hoagie from Sandbrook's."
It’s very important for a Witch to show her appreciation for her familiars so that their relationship doesn't deteriorate into just giving and obeying orders, but how you show your appreciation can take many forms. On two occasions when Elam had still been alive, including the night he died, I had shared sandwiches with him from Sandbrook’s deli, so I thought that would be a meaningful tradition for us.
He also just seems to enjoy the chance to consume food again, though I’m as confused as you are about how that actually works.
As far as I know, consciousness is the only thing that can exist on both the physical and astral planes. I think it is possible to transmute physical matter into astral material, so long as the lost mass is compensated for somehow, kind of like Hawking radiation from a black hole. Elam might be doing that, or his astral body might just be telekinetically grinding up the sandwiches into such minute crumbs that they're dissipating in the air without me noticing.
Or it could be something else altogether. I've never asked him about it. Seems rude.
Elam accepted the sandwich with an appreciative nod and sat in the chair next to mine. I unwrapped my own Rueben, tossing a piece of beef down to my cat Moxley, who was already eagerly pawing at my leg.
“So, what’s on your mind, Samantha?” Elam asked before he took his first bite.
“Well, I’ve been trying to research Artaxerxes, since the only information I have on him is from his own journals, which are very obviously biased towards glorifying him,” I began, already tearing off a second helping of beef for Moxley. “But I can’t find anything else about him, or you, or the rest of your family. The will-o-wisps ate it all. I was wondering how much you knew about him.”
“Very little. I didn’t even know his first name until you told me,” he admitted. “I do know that he was my Great Great Great Grandfather and that before she died my daughter Rosemary was the seventh generation of Crows to bear Persephone's Favour, as we called it. The reason I mention that is because the seventh generation Crow was to be significant somehow, or at least that’s what got passed down to me. Did you find anything about that in the journal you dug up with him?”
“Not exactly. That journal was obviously meant for his eyes only, so a lot of it’s pretty cryptic,” I answered. “More than once he rambles on about how he’s ensured the greatness of his bloodline, and how when the stars finally align it will be one of his descendants to usher in a ‘rapturous iconoclasm’ that will leave the mortal plane forever altered.”
“Well then, I guess we can safely rule out prophecy as being one of old Xerxes’ gifts,” Elam scoffed, hints of bitterness and sorrow seeping into his voice.
I considered dropping that line of inquiry entirely, but I still had a few nagging questions.
“One aspect of the Favour I'm a little unclear on; did all of you inherit the physical aspects as well as the spiritual ones; your white hair, silvery skin, and bright blue/green eyes?" I asked.
“Every relative I ever met looked like this, though it’s milder when we’re younger,” Elam nodded. “Rosemary, for instance, had platinum hair and pale skin, so she didn’t really look too unusual. Why do you ask?”
“I just wanted to rule out the possibility that I am not some unaccounted-for descendant of Artaxerxes,” I admitted, modestly averting my gaze.
“With red hair and brown eyes? Not a chance,” Elam assured me. “No Samantha, you are a monkey wrench in Xerxes' most well-laid plans, and had you discovered this place one month later then you did, I and every Crow except for Xerxes would still be in Hades right now.”
“Yeah. It’s funny to think about how different my life and your afterlife would be if we’d never met,” I mused, sneaking in a bite of my sandwich before moving onto my next question. “What do you think the odds are that there are Crows who have yet to shuffle off their mortal coil?”
"Zero," he said flatly. "Xerxes' deal with Persephone was that he and every descendant would sacrifice themselves to the wisps here on All Hallow’s Eve, by no later than their 70th year. Each of us who failed to honour that deal brought compounding waves of misfortune upon our entire family, which eventually became fatal. By the time my father’s 70th birthday rolled around it was down to just him, me, and Rosemary.
"I pleaded with him to sacrifice himself, so that Rosemary wouldn’t have to grow up without a father, or so that I wouldn’t have to bury a daughter, but he was too damn stubborn. He said he was too healthy and had too much to live for, that he didn’t trust me to manage what was left of our assets on my own, and that he was not to blame for the curses of the Elder Kin. So, his 70th Halloween came and went, and… Rosemary never saw her third Christmas.”
He paused, putting the sandwich down as he buried his face in his palms. I could feel the heartbreak of his daughter’s death welling up in him.
“Elam, you don’t need to go on if you don’t want to,” I said softly.
“Thank you, but I can continue,” he assured me. “I blamed my father for Rosemary’s death, and for my wife’s suicide not long after. We fought, physically, and that was the last time we spoke before he died. That was the really cruel irony, as far as I was concerned; that his refusal to sacrifice himself for me or my daughter hadn’t even bought him an extra year.
"He died of a stroke, suddenly but not surprising for a seventy-year-old smoker, and had already cut me out of his will. Chamberlin, the conniving bastard, took advantage of that and was able to scoop up most of what was left of my family’s assets for himself and, well… you know the rest.
“So no, I don’t think there could be any more living Crows out there. I only managed to survive until Halloween by hiding out here. Any long-lost relatives would still be cursed and would have died sometime between my father’s death and you turning Xerxes’ body over to Persephone.”
I nodded, satisfied with his answer, and unwilling to dwell on such an unfortunate topic any longer than was necessary.
“You mentioned Chamberlin. Crow, Crowley, & Chamberlin seems to be the only place that the name Crow wasn’t forgotten,” I told him. “How well did you know Chamberlin?”
“Not very. Like I said, my father didn’t trust me with the business. I only ever met Chamberlin a handful of times,” he replied. “He was a hard man to read though, both conventionally and clairvoyantly. At the very least, he had enough occult knowledge to occlude my extra-sensory perception.”
“You mean he’s a psychic dead zone, like Saint Aria’s Church?” I pressed, simultaneously intrigue and alarmed at the prospect. Elam nodded in the affirmative. “There are a lot of weird rumours about Chamberlin, including that he’s the same Chamberlin that founded his financial firm two hundred years ago. Did you ever get that impression?”
“He doesn’t seem to have aged since I first saw him as a child; but, you know, neither has Cher, so make of that what you will,” Elam shrugged, before growing pensive. “Do you still have all the keys from the keyring I left you?”
“Of course, why?”
“I have a safe deposit box at CC&C, box 373, under the pseudonym Cyril Vance,” he replied.
I took out the keyring he was referring to and quickly flipped to one with the numbers 373 engraved on it.
“This one?” I asked.
“That’s it. With that, my pseudonym, and the password Asphodel, they'll let you access the box. They won't ask for ID. That's their safe deposit boxes' main selling feature, actually. They don't need to know who you really are. Assuming that Chamberlin never figured out that box was mine, it's probably still intact."
“What’s in it?” I asked. He took a moment to consider his response.
“I'd like to call them scrolls just to sound dramatic, but I suppose they're just rolled up pieces of paper," he replied. "The occult dealer I bought them from said they were spell scrolls made by a Witch who came here with the first settlers. I could sense they had astral properties, but I was never able to read them. The Witch who made them had taken measures to ensure that only clairvoyant women would be able to uncover her secrets. I bought them with the intention of giving them to Rosemary when she was old enough but now, now I want you to have them.”
“You’re sure?” I asked carefully.
“Absolutely,” he nodded without hesitation. “You know, if Rosemary had gotten the chance to grow up, you’re the kind of woman I would have been proud to see her grow into.”
I blushed at the undeserved compliment.
“A socially awkward, bisexual, technically grave-robbing pagan illegally squatting on municipal land?” I scoffed dismissively.
“A gifted, independent, well-learned Witch who accomplishes what she puts her mind to no matter what,” he answered back. I accepted the compliment without further resistance, and we finished our sandwiches without any more talk of the past.
A couple of days later, after my last counselling appointment at Genevieve’s, I took a walk over to Crow, Crowley & Chamberlin to see if I could get access to Elam’s safe deposit box. It wasn’t a long walk, and for reasons I couldn’t quite place my finger on, I didn’t want to risk them getting my license plate number. Maybe it was just my anxiety, but even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong or dangerous, it still kind of felt like I was.
I had told Genevieve about Elam’s scrolls, and she was extremely interested in getting ahold of first-hand accounts of another Harrowick Witch, but there didn’t seem any need for her to come with me. It was a simple enough errand for me to handle on my own, and she had her afternoon backyard yoga class to teach. CC&C wasn't really her kind of place either, and she hinted she was a bit wary of Chamberlin himself.
I eschewed my customary witchy dress in place of more generic dress pants and the nicest long-sleeved blouse I had, in the hopes of both blending in and avoiding recognition. I wore my mask, a large pair of sunglasses, and I put my hair up into a bun under a wide brim hat, thinking myself to be as inconspicuously incognito as I could possibly be.
Crow, Crowley, & Chamberlin was a Greek Revival style building with big stone columns lining the front entrance and a pair of marble sphinxes flanking the stairs. The inside was just as ostentatious with dark marble floors, mahogany panelling, and a three-tiered fountain in the lobby.
Behind the counter was also a large portrait of three 19th-century men, and I recognized Artaxerxes Crow immediately. The tall, slender, scarlet-clad likeness of either Chamberlin or his ancestor was familiar enough as well, as he often made himself noticeable at public events. The third man was presumably Crowley, who I don’t actually know anything about.
I was so fixated on the portrait, I almost didn't hear when the teller waved me up to the counter. “Hello. I’m the beneficiary of Cyril Vance, owner of safe deposit box 373. I’d like to collect its contents,” I announced as I presented the key. The teller inspected it briefly before typing the information into her keyboard.
“Password?” she asked.
“Asphodel,” I replied. “Excellent. Right this way Miss,” she said, leading me across the counter and down to the vaults. She punched in a code to open a cabinet full of keys, picking the one marked 373. She signed it out on a nearby clipboard and then opened the vault to the safe deposit boxes. She led me straight to 373 and, using both of our keys, unlocked for it me.
“Take all the time you need,” she said, politely refusing to open it and excusing herself to wait outside.
I took off my sunglasses and, after taking a furtive glance around for any spies or cameras, I pulled open the drawer. Inside - along with a heavy Manila folder, a velvet case, and a leather coin purse - were the scrolls Elam had described. They were essentially just rolled up sheets of paper held closed by a brass ring. I picked one of them up and examined it carefully, weighing it in my hand. It was old and yellow, but didn’t seem like it would disintegrate on me if I tried to open it. I cautiously slipped off the brass ring and unfurled the paper.
At first, it was blank, but being observed by a Witch activated whatever latent enchantment it was under. Dark, nebulous vapour of astral matter was summon into existence and began to swirl about the page, forming an elegant, floral border around its edges. Something like a living contour map began to form upon the page itself, and as I skimmed over the fleeting calligraphy and sigils that marked them, I realized I was looking at a map of ley lines.
I’ve read a lot of varying conjectures on what exactly ley lines are, but my personal theory is that they’re currents in the aether, a primal substrate that underlies all reality. They're most prominent in the astral plane, but they seem to affect paranormal activity on the physical plane too. The Veil between planes is always a little weaker around ley lines, and especially where they intersect.
The undulating lines danced upon the page, their strength waxing and waning, their positions shifting subtly over time. I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a record or a forecast, which suddenly became relevant as a powerful convergence of ley lines briefly came together before disbanding again.
If I was looking at a forecast, when and where was that predicted to happen, and how long would it last? The implications of such a convergence were, though vague, still significant, and it seemed like something I should be prepared for. I began scanning the scroll to see if I could decipher any system of coordinates or dates, when the map instantly dissipated right before my eyes.
“What?” I muttered, unsure about what had just happened.
“Why hello, hello, hello,” a man’s voice came from the vault’s entrance. I spun around and saw who I instantly recognized as Chamberlin leaning in the doorway. Tall, slender, and dressed in a dark red three-piece suit with a matching top hat, hardly any different from his portrait.
His mask was actual gold and looked like the bottom half of an Oni mask, with a snarling smile and prominent fangs, the black cloth behind it giving the impression of an abysmally dark and deep gullet.
Most disturbingly of all, I couldn’t read him at all with my clairvoyance, exactly as Elam had said.
“Ah, hello,” I responded, rolling the scroll back up and sticking it into the bag I had brought with me. “I’m sorry, was I taking too long?”
“Oh no, of course not. I just happened to be available at the moment and I always like to offer my personal attention to our clients whenever possible,” he explained, introducing himself with a curt bow. “I’m Seneca Chamberlin, Chairman of Crow, Crowley, & Chamberlin. How may I be of service to you, Miss?”
He spoke with a ‘Mid-Atlantic’ accent like an old movie star. Since Chamberlin was supposed to have been born locally, it was logically an affectation, but for some reason, it gave me the impression that it was a worn-down native British accent.
“Um, ah, thank you, but, but no thank you. I’m just here to collect some personal, private, documents, and I was just verifying their contents before taking them,” I said, quickly shoving the remainder of the box’s contents into my bag and pocketing the key.
I fumbled with my sunglasses before making my way to the door, but Chamberlin refused to move aside. He glanced up and down my completely occluded face before letting out a short chortle.
“May I just say Miss that I admire your choice of such a distinctly pink surgical mask. The blue ones are so common as to be positively blasé,” he remarked with a roll of his eyes. “I suppose that for their traditional purpose, an easily identifiable mask is counterproductive, but since our masks are solely for medical purposes, it’s advantageous for them to be easily recognizable, isn’t it?”
I swallowed nervously and nodded, but said nothing. He stepped aside then, gesturing politely that I was free to go. I nodded my thanks, and scurried out with my bag of occult scrolls clutched tightly to my side. Just before I reached the exit, I heard him shout from behind me.
"If you're ever interested in opening up your own account with us, I'd be happy to see to it personally, Miss Sumner.”
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Written by The Vesper's Bell