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A Cast Off Coven

Excerpt

A Cast Off Coven

"I need something to guard against ghosts . . . ," whispered the young woman slouching at the counter. She cast a nervous glance around my shop floor, empty but for racks upon racks of vintage clothes, cases of costume jewelry, and shelves lined with hats. "A protective . . . thingamajig."

"A talisman?" I asked.

"That's it."

"Talismans don't really guard against ghosts, per se—"

"Whatever." She shrugged. "It's better than nothing."

Her feathery bright pink hair put me in mind of a silly children's toy, the kind one might win after stuffing ten dollars' worth of quarters into the mechanical contraption at the Escape from New York Pizza parlor a few blocks down from the store on Haight Street. But from the jaded look in her heavy-lidded amber eyes and the multiple piercings that marched along her left eyebrow, I suspected the overall effect she was after was "aggressively alienated youth" rather than "cuddly stuffed animal."

"You're a student at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts?" I guessed as I opened the back of the glass display case and pulled out the black velvet-covered tray that held my rapidly diminishing collection of hand-carved wooden medallions. There had been a run on them lately.

"How did you know that?" Her eyes flew up to meet mine. "Can you read minds?"

"No." I shook my head and stifled a smile. "My assistant, Maya, goes to the School of Fine Arts. We've had a lot of students stop by in the last week or so, asking for protection."

"Did I hear my name?" Maya emerged through the classic brocade curtains that separated the back room from the shop floor. Petite with delicate, unadorned features, she wore her hair twisted into thick locks, ending in a series of beads that clacked pleasantly against the silver rings and cuffs embellishing each ear. "Oh, hey, Andromeda."

"Um, hey," the customer said to Maya with a nearly imperceptible lift of her chin. Pink feathers swayed as she tilted her head in question. "Where do I know you from again?"

"Sculpture class," Maya answered. "We've met a few times."

"Oh, right, my bad. So, you've told her about the ghosts at the school?" Andromeda asked Maya. "The footsteps out in the hallways, the heavy breathing, doors opening and closing . . ."

"As a matter of fact, I have."

"It turns out that the main building"—Andromeda leaned across the counter toward Maya and me, her voice dropping to a fierce whisper—"was built on top of an old cemetery."

"That's mostly a movie device," I pointed out. "It doesn't actually mean there are ghosts lingering."

"I've heard something, too, though, Lily, along with half the school," Maya put in.

The trepidation in my assistant's serious, dark eyes gave me pause. Maya rarely asked for—or needed—anyone's help, and she retained a healthy dose of cynicism about the world of the paranormal. So I had been more than a little surprised a few days ago when she asked me for a protective talisman, and even more so when she brokered an unusual deal with the school's provost, Dr. Marlene Mueller: If I could calm the students' fears of ghosts running amok in the campus hallways, I could help myself to the contents of a recently discovered storage room chock-full of Victorian-era gowns and frilly unmentionables.

As a purveyor of vintage clothing, I leapt at the chance.

There was only one fly in this supernatural ointment: I don't know much about ghosts.

I'm a witch, not a necromancer. Few outside the world of magick appreciate the difference, but trust me: The two vocations don't necessarily involve the same skill sets. My energy attracts spirits like flies to honey, but I can't understand a cotton-pickin' word they say. Interdimensional frustration is what I call it.

One thing I do know is that all of us walk over interred corpses, all the time. People are born; they live; they die. It's been the same story throughout the millennia, and the physical remnants of our earthly sojourns—our bodies—have to go somewhere. If simply walking across a grave incurred a curse from beyond, none of us would live long enough to graduate from kindergarten, much less college.

"We're supposed to meet Dr. Mueller's daughter, Ginny, at the school tonight to take a look around," Maya told Andromeda.

"You're trying to see ghosts on purpose?" Andromeda gaped at both of us for a moment, then shivered as though a goose had just walked over her grave. "With Ginny Mueller. Huh. It figures. I hate that bi—" She looked up at me and stopped herself. "Never mind."

Looking down at the selection of talismans on the counter, she picked up a medallion, weighing the cool wooden disk in her hand. Each full moon, I make the talismans from the branch of a fruit tree, carving ancient symbols of protection and consecrating them in a ceremony of rebirth. However, just as in the natural world, there are few absolutes in the realm of the supernatural. The medallions are powerful sources of spiritual support, but they can't stop a determined force of evil on their own. I liken it to having a big dog at home: It might not chase off every ne'er-do-well, but your average mischief-makers go elsewhere.

"Does it matter which one I get?" Andromeda asked. "Or are they all the same, protection-wise?"

"They're—," I began.

Andromeda dropped the medallion and screamed, flattening herself against a stand of frothy wedding gowns. The rack teetered under the pressure.

"What the eff is that?"

Oscar, my miniature potbellied pig—and wannabe witch's familiar—snorted at her feet.

"That's Oscar, the store mascot." Maya smiled. "He sort of grows on you."

"He won't hurt you, Andromeda," I said to the pink-haired young woman still cowering against the pure white wall of silks and satins. Clearly she wasn't a pet person, or maybe she just wasn't a pet pig person. "Oscar, go on back to your bed."

Oscar snorted again, looked up at me, rolled his pink piggy eyes, and finally trotted back to his purple silk pillow.

Andromeda wiped a thin hand across her brow. "I'm a nervous wreck. Ghosts, now pigs . . . I just wish everything would get back to normal."

"This should help," I said, holding up a pendant carved with the ancient symbol of a deer—a powerful sign of support and protection—and an inscription in Aramaic. It hung on a cord made of braided and knotted silk threads in the powerful colors of red, orange, turquoise, magenta, and black. It suited her.

When Andromeda bowed her head to allow me to slip the talisman on, my gaze landed on the pale, vulnerable curve of her slender neck. Her vibrations were clear as a bell: Bright and frightened, almost tangible, and though I was only ten years her senior, I felt a surge of maternal protectiveness. Like her mythical namesake, who had been offered—bound and naked—as a sacrifice to the sea monster, this young Andromeda had a whole lot on her mind.

As we used to say back in Texas, she was scareder than a sinner in a cyclone.

But not only of a ghost, or even a pig.

Andromeda was scared of something altogether human.

© Juliet Blackwell


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