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It was a little past Seven O’clock, and we had just closed up Eve’s Eden of Esoterica for the night. Genevieve had seen off her evening class and was counting the till, I was going over my schedule for the next day, and Charlotte was facing the shelves in the front lobby.

I was beginning to glance anxiously at the front door, wondering if our after-hours appointment was going to show up. None of us had met him before, but a friend of ours had, and she had told us that he might be able to help explain a bizarre and possibly extremely dangerous artifact that had recently come into our possession.

I sighed softly with relief when we heard him strike the door knocker four times in a row, not evenly spaced but rather in the rhythm of two twin heartbeats.

“That’s him. That’s the signal Rosalyn told him to use,” I said, getting up from my seat in the parlour and heading for the door. Genevieve protectively took her place behind me to dissuade our guest from causing any trouble, and Charlotte excitedly scurried up beside us to see if he matched the description that Rosalyn had given him.

I opened the door, and was greeted by the peculiar sight of a short and lean dark-haired man dressed in a three-piece tweed suit and proffering a drink tray filled with the distinctive bamboo cups from the Round Table Co-op Café down the street.

“Ms. Romero insisted I bring these, in retaliation for me using her as a delivery driver during our first encounter,” he explained apologetically, evidently fully aware of how ridiculous he looked.

“Professor Sterling, welcome,” I smiled, reaching out to relieve him of the coffee. “Thanks so much for coming. I’m Samantha, and this is Evie and Lottie. Girls, this is Lucretius Sterling; Professor of Arcane Studies at Avalon College.”

“Rosalyn was right. He does look like Doctor Who,” Charlotte whispered, though not quietly enough for him not to hear her.

“Ah, she said he looked like ‘the best Doctor Who’, and he doesn’t look like Jodie Whittaker to me,” Genevieve objected.

“Oh my god. You are just being a troll now. I know you’ve never even seen the show,” Charlotte replied. “If Whittaker’s your personal favourite, that’s fine, even if it’s solely because she’s the only woman to play the character, but by no objective criteria is she the best Doctor. David Tenant is the most talented actor to ever play the Doctor, he’s the clear fan favourite, he's the best looking, and once the BBC talks Disney into leasing them their Deepfake Luke tech, they’re probably just going to slap his face on every actor who plays him until the end of time. He’s already the Doctor so nice he regenerated into him thrice, so why not? Samantha, you’ve seen Doctor Who, right? Back me up.”

“I’ve… actually never seen a Whittaker episode, so I can’t comment on her performance,” I admitted. “I stopped watching a couple of episodes after Clara left, since I never really cared for Capaldi and once Clara was gone there was nothing keeping me invested. Amy’s my favourite companion, so I do like Matt Smith as the Doctor, but he’s too zany for when they want to do anything serious with him. Of the Doctors I’ve seen, Tenant’s performance is definitely the best.”

“Is that settled then? We’ve got that out of the way now? Are we good?” Sterling asked, crinkling his nose slightly.

“Yes, I’m sorry. You’re probably sick of people saying you look like Doctor Who,” I apologized, stepping aside to let him through.

And to clarify, he looked like David Tenant (the best Doctor).

“One minute there, Professor Spacetime. Before you come in, you should know that I have protective wards placed on this house,” Genevieve warned him. “If you try to harm us or mean us harm, that ill will is redirected back towards you.”

“Does… ill will include disagreeing with you on who the best Doctor Who is?” he asked cautiously.

“…Maybe,” she shrugged.

He nodded in understanding and, after a moment of consideration, stepped across the threshold.

“Ah yes. I feel them now,” he said, scrutinizing the subtle ethereal sensations as they washed over him. “These are remarkably strong and stable, drawing down strength from the higher realms of the Astral Plane. A dead Witch made these, didn’t she?”

“My great aunt Evelyn. She carved the runes and laid the salt into the very foundations of the house. She rests now on the Isle of Maidens in the Summerland, and her blessings help keep me and our home safe,” Genevieve replied.

“You’re Sibylline Witches, then?” Sterling asked, his tone implying it was a foregone conclusion, but that it was best just to make sure.

“Of course,” Genevieve nodded, visibly straining to hide her offence at the question.

“Ah, we are?” Charlotte asked.

“We are,” I said. “The Sibylline Sisterhood refers to the informal network of gifted women that’s existed for time beyond memory. It’s not offensive, but it’s also not a term we use ourselves very much.”

“Outsiders use the term to distinguish us from those they call ‘Baphometic Witches’, a distinction we don’t need to make because women who serve Baphomet are not Witches,” Genevieve added. “Real Witches worship the Threefold Goddess and use our knowledge and gifts to help others and fight injustice. Any woman who serves malevolent spirits for her own selfish reasons isn’t worthy of being called a Witch.”

“Apologies. Didn’t mean to touch a nerve, there,” Sterling said as he made his way into the parlour. “It was probably an unnecessary question anyway. Your décor here definitely screams New Agey empowerment and wellness, not ‘May our Dark Lord lay waste to our enemies and reign over an epoch of antinomy and bloodshed. Ave Satani,’. The Earl Grey tea is mine, by the way. The rest are all oat milk pumpkin spice lattes.”

He loudly cleared his throat as he puttered about for a moment, and I got the impression he was deliberating whether or not to simply move on to the reason he had come here in the first place or if more idle preface was needed.

“Would you like to see it, Professor Sterling?” I asked bluntly.

“Absolutely!” he replied enthusiastically, with no need to ask me to clarify.

I nodded, and gestured for him to sit down at the parlour’s table. I sat down across from him, setting down the coffees on the window sill and pulling out a small hexagon-shaped jewellery box, locked and carved with sigils to ensure what was kept inside remained there. I opened it slowly to reveal the otherworldly entomological specimen contained within.

It was a type of scarab beetle, about an inch long with a shiny, iridescent carapace that sparkled like sunlight off the ocean. Sterling eagerly pulled out a monocular magnifying glass from his pocket and began to inspect it.

“You read my account of how I acquired this?” I asked.

“I did,” he replied. “You astrally projected yourselves to a Flea Market on an alien world and found these little guys living in the dunes outside. Despite the lack of any physical travel, one of them managed to stow away back with you, though it doesn’t appear to have survived the trip. You’ve never seen it move?”

“No, but it hasn’t decayed either. I’m terrified that it may just be dormant,” I confessed. “The Flea Market was swarmed by these things because of me. If this one’s still alive and can reproduce, it could be a devastating invasive species.”

“Understandable. Are you aware of the Dreadfort Facility up north?” he asked. “They contain things a lot worse than eldritch entomorphs, and I have some contacts with them.”

“I’ve come across the name on the forums, but that’s it. I don’t know anything definitive about them, and certainly not enough to entrust them with something like this,” I replied. “I’m not giving this away, at least not tonight, so don’t try to steer our conversation in that direction. You’re here for an appraisal and consultation, nothing more.”

“I was just making a suggestion,” he said, putting away the monocle and pulling out a device the Ophion Occult Order refers to as a parathaumameter and started taking readings. “Hmmm. From a metaphysical standpoint, it’s definitely dead. It is, however, completely intact, and its exoskeleton seems to have a rather high thaumic capacity. If it absorbs enough of the right kind of astral energies, it probably could reanimate. Please tell me you’re not keeping it out in that hallowed cemetery you’re so fond of.”

“She’s not, don’t worry. We’re keeping it here,” Genevieve assured him. “Not only did my Great Aunt bless this house, but my evil Great Great Grandfather built it with lots of hidden nooks and crannies to keep his darkest and most valuable secrets safe. That bug is every bit as safe here as it would be in Dreadfort.”

“But enough about our specimen for now. I want to see yours, Doctor,” I said. “Er, Professor. Sorry.”

He gave a half-hearted nod of forgiveness before reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a marble-sized orb of crystalized, bluish-green Ichor. It was glowing, shrouded with a nebulous, pulsing aura. Inside I could see a rotating pupa, marked with a strange sigil that I had never seen before.

“So, to review the provenance: I got this from Ivy Noir via Rosalyn Romero in order to study it,” he explained. “Ivy got it from Mary Darling as an apology for her attempt to kill her sister, and the Darlings claim to have gotten a purse full of the things from a realtor.”

“I’m sorry, a realtor?” Charlotte asked.

“That’s what they called him. He wanted to buy that pocket universe they call their playroom off of them,” Sterling replied. “He tried to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse, and they refused by feeding him to their pet abyssal sea serpent. Pool Noodle, I believe they call her.”

“Well, they’re not out of hot water yet,” I said. “At the Flea Market, we met a strange being called Mathom-meister who wants to see the Darlings brought to justice for their crime against his kinsman, and he’s teamed up with Emrys to do it. Rosalyn had a vision of these people killing their own god, and their Flea Market was made from the corpse of a Scarab Titan. To put it mildly, I’m concerned that they might pose a bit of a threat. Have you been able to learn anything more about this race of Planeswalkers since Rosalyn gave you that orb?”

“I’ve been able to coax a few more visions out of it, yes,” he replied. “As near as I can tell, they are just Planeswalkers and not expansionists or conquerors. They walk between worlds, either alone or in small expeditions, mainly to expand their knowledge, taking only those few rare objects or locations that meet their lofty criteria of ‘worthy’. They don’t want our world, and they want very little of what’s in it. For now, at least, I believe that Mathom-meister is only interested in the Darlings.”

“What about the orb itself?” I asked. “Have you been able to confirm if it’s actually Ichor?”

“Oh, absolutely. This is the blood of a Titan Incarnate. There’s no doubt about that,” he replied. “More importantly, its power is completely self-contained, and not emanating from any divine source, Incarnate or otherwise. That means that the god this came from is dead. Their god is dead, their god remains dead, and they have killed him. Must they not now become gods, simply to appear worthy of the deed?”

“Don’t quote Nietzsche in my house,” Genevieve ordered him.

“I wasn’t quoting Nietzsche. I was paraphrasing Nietzsche,” Sterling objected.

“No Nietzsche,” Genevieve insisted.

“Evie, these things have killed at least two gods. Allusions to Nietzsche aren’t unreasonable,” I said. “While we’re on the topic, we still need a proper name for them. ‘Zarathustrans’ seems as good a name as any, don’t you think?”

“What’s wrong with Squid Wizards?” Charlotte asked.

“It lacks gravitas. A race of god-killing, dimension-hopping sorcerers needs a name with some oomph to it,” Sterling replied. “I vote for Xarathustrans, but with an X.”

“Why?” I asked.

“No, X. When does Y ever make a zed-sound?” he asked, and I had no idea whether or not he was joking.

“Fine, you can call them Zarathustrans and spell it even more pretentiously than it sounds,” Genevieve relented. “Now can we please focus on the orb? Have you been able to get any sort of use out of it for anything other than visions?”

“No. I wasn’t even able to chip a sample off for analysis,” he lamented. “I’m fairly certain that if you could revert this to its liquid form, imbibing it would imbue you with a fraction of the Dead Titan’s power. As it is now, swallowing it just leads to it coming right out the other end unscathed. Don’t ask me how I know that.”

“We’re smart girls. I think we can guess,” Genevieve winced in disgust, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“So nothing you’ve done, including… that, has been able to break or melt the orb?” I asked.

“Not a thing. My best guess is that it might be susceptible to some kind of humour-based alchemy or thaumaturgy, but well beyond anything that I’m capable of,” he speculated. “I can’t get a good look at the pupa inside, and I have no idea if it serves any sort of purpose or if it’s just decorative.”

“But you think it might be the pupa form of the scarabs we encountered?” I asked.

“Their thaumatological readings are very similar, and a cursory visual inspection suggests it’s at least within the realm of possibility,” he said thoughtfully. “You combine that with the fact that you encountered the scarabs at a location owned by one of only two Xarathustrans we have any knowledge of, and it does seem a little too much to just be a coincidence.”

“You said that the scarab could resurrect if it could absorb enough of the right astral energies. What if that’s what the Ichor is for? To bring the pupa back to life?” Genevieve suggested. “You said the Squid Wizards used these as money. What if that’s so that they can get them circulating and scattered amongst the occult societies of worlds they take an interest in? These things could be trojan horses.”

“But Mathom-meister wasn’t able to control the ones at the Flea Market. Everyone had to either evacuate or hunker down when they started swarming,” Charlotte objected.

“Maybe those ones were wild. Our scarab doesn’t have a sigil on it, does it? The pupa does. Maybe that’s how they control it,” Genevieve replied.

“Professor, may I use your magnifying device?” I asked, pulling out my Book of Shadows. “I’d like to copy down that sigil.”

“By all means,” he said, handing it over to me. “Don’t worry, I sanitized it thoroughly after its… digestive detour. It’s occurred to me as well that the pupas might be intended to hatch at some point. The problem with the theory of them being some kind of sleeper weapon is that we know the Darlings still have some of these in their possession, and that Mathom-meister is actively pursuing the Darlings. If he could control or trigger them remotely, he probably would have.”

“The core of the sigil is a Z stylized to look like an hourglass,” I commented as I drew it down. “There are seven signs inside; three at the bottom upper half, three in the bottom lower half, and one in the top lower half to indicate the flow of time. The signs are all spirals, none of them are identical, but all seem to be reminiscent of grains of sand. I saw the scarabs burrowing into the sand at the Flea Market. It seems logical enough that that’s where they would pupate. Maybe the Zarathustrans dug these up from the sand and preserved them in Ichor, with the sigil allowing them to reanimate if they were ever returned.”

“That’s an interesting idea. I would have liked to use the Sigil Sand at Pendragon Hill to see if it would’ve absorbed any of the Ichor’s energy, but given the situation, it’s completely off-limits,” Sterling explained. “I don’t have access to any other source of Sigil Sand, and I doubt that just tossing it into regular sand would do anything at all.”

“What about Witches’ Salt? Did you try that?” I asked.

“…Baphometic Witches’ Salt,” he admitted with a bit of trepidation.

“So ‘no’, then,” Genevieve said flatly.

“I buy most of my paranormal provisions off of Mothman, and he’s not the sort Sibyllic Witches normally do business with,” he explained. “Orville’s even worse for quality and legitimacy, so I wouldn’t even know where to –”

He was cut off by the sound of Genevieve plopping down a two-ounce glass jar of Witches’ Salt that she had barely even had to stand up to get.

“Made it myself under a new moon with the ashes of willow branches from Samantha’s cemetery,” she said proudly. “It doesn’t get any more authentic than that.”

Stirling picked it up and examined it closely, first taking back the monocle and then scanning it with the parathaumameter, before finally uncorking it and taking a deep sniff.

“It does smell like burnt willow, with a hint of chamomile,” he murmured. “And you just sell this stuff here, to anyone who walks through those doors?”

“Charms are popular around here, for obvious reasons, and Eve’s Eden of Esoterica has been providing them for over half a century, because real Witches use their gifts to help the innocent,” she replied. “Place the orb inside the jar. Since I hallowed that Salt myself, I’ll be able to sense and guide any reaction it might have to the Ichor. Lottie, please make sure all of the doors and windows are closed just in case that pupa hatches.”

Charlotte nodded and went to check all the windows and entrances. Sterling looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded my assent. With a nervous half-nod, he set the jar down in the center of the table, picked up the orb, and gingerly set it down into the Witches’ Salt.

The initial reaction, though subtle, was immediate. The aura surrounding the orb expanded and became more diffuse, as if the Salt were physically repulsive to it.

“Hmmm. The Salt is dispelling the spiritual energies in the orb that are contrary to its own resonance, but it’s not cancelling it out. That’s interesting,” Genevieve remarked.

“Confirmed,” Sterling said, looking over his parathaumameter. “None of the orb’s intrinsic properties have been neutralized, I’m just getting a fuzzier reading. It’s still a better result than what I got with the Baphometic Salt. Can we try burying it in the Salt, to see if that increases the effect? This might not be a bad way to limit its sphere of influence, if it ever became so inclined to expand it.”

Genevieve nodded, extending her index finger to gently push the orb beneath the surface.

The instant she made contact, the orb’s aura condensed back around it, glowing brightly and levitating it slightly above the Salt, preventing it from going any deeper in.

“Shit!” Genevieve shouted as she drew her hand back.

“What happened?” Charlotte asked.

“When I touched it, I increased the flow of astral energy through me into the Salt. It enhanced its effect, but that seems to have triggered some kind of countermeasure,” Genevieve replied.

“Again, confirmed. It did not like that,” Sterling said.

The sigil on the pupa was now glowing an incandescent orange, and the orb was darting around in place, like a roving eye taking in as much information as fast as it possibly could.

“Oh God, it can see us! Can it see us?” Charlotte asked.

“I don’t know!” Sterling replied.

“Quick, Spacetime, cork the jar!” Genevieve ordered.

“Why me?”

“You saw what happened when I touched it. You’re the only one here who isn’t a Witch,” she insisted.

“But if it just makes things worse, then it’ll be my fault, then, won’t it?”

“Just do it!” she demanded.

Reluctantly, Sterling grabbed the cork and slammed it back down on top of the jar, forcing the orb deep into the salt, sending some of it overflowing before the jar was sealed.

The jar was glowing faintly now, the light of the orb still emanating through the grains of Salt, its resonance having failed to snuff it out.

“It looks like the Salt is pushing against the glass,” I noted. “The orb’s still not touching it. It’s just pushing it away.”

“Ummm… is it vibrating?” Charlotte asked. “I think it’s vibrating.”

Sure enough, the jar had begun to shake. It was barely perceptible at first, but it was getting stronger.

“It’s going to blow!” Sterling shouted, swiping it off the table and dashing for a nearby wooden chest. “Take cover!”

As he threw the jar in the chest and started piling anything within reach on top of it to block the shrapnel, Genevieve overturned the parlour table and the rest of us took cover behind it.

Only a few seconds later, we heard the muted sound of the jar exploding. It wasn’t powerful enough to break through the chest, but when it shattered, Genevieve let out a cry of pain and fell backwards into my arms.

“Eve! Eve!” I screamed.

“No, I’m fine. I’m fine,” she insisted, though she sounded far from it. “It’s just, that when the jar exploded, I felt a wave of something pass through the Salt and back through me. Something hostile, and otherworldly. Something… malevolent.”

“Ladies. You might want to come see this,” Sterling called.

He had opened the chest and was standing over it, his face cast in an eerie blue-green light.

Helping Genevieve to her feet, the three of us cautiously crept over to see what was inside. As we approached, we could hear a soft, guttural chanting in our minds, fanatical whispers in some hideous alien tongue.

“That’s the rallying cry I heard in the vision where the Xarathustrans slayed their god,” Sterling told us. “Roughly translated, it’s saying ‘no gods, no masters,’.”

In the center of the chest sat the orb, its glowing sigil facing upwards as if staring at us in defiance. Scattered around it amongst the glass shards from the jar were the grains of Witches' Salt, only now they were no longer black but the same luminescent bluish-green as the orb. Each grain was pulsating in rhythm with the orb, amplifying its power rather than dispelling it.

And, with a grim irony, I noticed for the first time that the rhythm was the same as the one Rosalyn had told Sterling to knock with earlier. Four beats, like twin hearts; or the sound of drums.

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA