I value — … no … that’s not what I want to say. I treasure enlightenment. Because it is a treasure. Because of how much of my life was spent in the dark. And how I might’ve spent my whole life like that, if Bellbrun hadn’t found me — us. If we hadn’t started on the road to burning away all the lies. I thought about burning away Reggie Peak and Deacon Ripp: oblivious to me, too busy setting the air around them on fire. I was sure I could do it, even then, you know — set them on fire … even if I didn’t know exactly how to do it. To this day, I wonder if they felt a change in the temperature when those thoughts came to me. Did the air around them get a little hotter, when I had that thought? Now, of course, I’m glad I didn’t do that. Setting fire to things by thought alone takes an incredible amount of exertion. It’s a waste of blood. Why expend the energies of the universe on what you can accomplish with a book of matches? Why expend an unfathomable amount of your own personal energy to bring the universe only a sliver closer to where it’s actually going? That’s wrongbody thinking: the need to burn things until they’re gone. And, sure, there are exceptions — but, even now, I think those exceptions are born of desperation. I remember, in that moment, thinking of the the Jamie Hiltrauds of the world. Then, I remember dismissing that thought; people like Jamie are easily rendered moot, and are so small in number compared to people like Reggie and Deacon. No, it’s the Reggies and Deacons who represent the wrongbody in its purest form. The ones who have to run, and set fires. The ones who want so badly deep down to burn themselves out. The ones in a hurry to end it with a flash before the darkness. To this day, wrongbodies move so slowly, to me. That’s how it was; that’s how it is. And I can see them so clearly, even now, just as they were that nigh. At play. As if the clearing in the woods were their personal playground; they couldn’t see all the paths of blood that showed it to be anything but that. And, you know, in a way I loved them for that. These are the kinds of wrongbodies I even now still treasure; the ones I most want to oblige, even to this day. There must be time for benevolence. Time must be made for it, on Earth, because it is so naturally-absent from this wrongworld. That’s why I watched Reggie and Deacon as they ran and jumped and sweat and screamed, as they waved their arms, as they roared, as they clutched and tossed fireworks; the two of them pretending to make war on each other, pretending torture of their toys. Deacon had some kind of barrel-shaped firework in his hands that was spitting out smoke and bright green light that was strong enough to cast the entire clearing in its glow. Reggie had a bag of those plastic Army men; each of the little figures in the bag had a cherry bomb taped to it, and he was throwing them so they’d explode on the air or on the ground. I remember watching him do this three times; then, on the fourth throw, the little plastic figure landed near me and then exploded — close enough to me to make me shield my face and cry out.
That’s when they noticed me.
“Whoah!” cried Deacon. He panted as he came to a stop midway through a dash, lowering a lifted foot back to the ground and turning toward me. “Uh, so, uh, hey,” he added, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck. “Shit!”
In hindsight, I’ve since realized that the actual sight of me might’ve been as surprising as my appearance; my legs and arms and face bloodied, my hair a mess of dirt and bits of greenery. He perhaps-instinctively lifted the arm holding the flare-like firework over toward me, his movements leaving light-and-smoke trails.
“Huh?” Reggie had been looking at his friend, but then followed Deacon’s gaze toward me and started, jumping back two steps. “Shit!” he cried, repeating his friend’s estimation.
“Hey!” I said. And, yes, I said it as a friendly greeting, but I remember now how I almost shouted it. I’d figured that maybe Reggie’d hurt his hearing — temporarily or permanently — from being so close to such loud fireworks.
Bloth their shoulders went straight up as I shouted.
I remember how that amused me, and how I decided to push that reaction further. “Are you two supposed to be out here?” I realized that my ears were ringing. But not just from the explosions of the fireworks. From the rush of blood as I spun through my choices of what I could do to them, whether I’d hurt them both, whether I’d make one watch what happened to the other one before it happened to him, too.
“Hey,” Deacon said, loudly. I read his lips more than heard him. He looked like he was suspicious of me. Which was smart of him.
Reggie just looked at me with big eyes.
I remember wondering if he was guileless or good at hiding his guile. There was a little moment of silence.
Then, the two of them drew closer together, like tandem spirits defending each other, as if drawing strength.
The flare-firework in Deacon’s hand changed color from green to blue.
And, under this new light, I noticed that Deacon and Reggie were glowing more brightly, to; or, rather, the blood inside their bodies was glowing — …
… — and in that moment, I realized that I was seeing fear.
As their little hearts started to beat faster, their blood-glow got stronger. Strong enough to push through what looked to me in that moment like almost translucent skin, like flashy coils of light underneath rice paper.
I decided to test the theory: “Don’t run. Trust me — that’d be a bad idea.” I gestured toward the bag in the clearing just behind them. “Your fingerprints are all over this stuff. Fireworks are illegal,” I shouted. “You could go to jail — … ”
Their blood-glow brightened even more.
” — … Reggie Peak. Deacon Ripp.” ” I said. The ringing in my ears was abating as I named them. “Quite a pair of vandals.”
Their glow got exponentially brighter at that.
I folded my arms across my chest and smiled. “But what fun would that be?” I asked. “Relax. I’m not going to rat you out.” I tried to remember how the boys on the set of TK Wanderlad had talked to each other. I wished I’d paid better attention to them.
Their blood-glow faded a little. They stepped slightly farther apart.
“I told you — don’t run,” I warned them. “Or I’ll change my mind and tell the cops. Or your parents.”
Their blood-glow flared again, Deacon’s more than Reggie’s this time, but an dramatic increase in the intensity for both.
They settled in their places, fidgeting nervously.
Reggie, for his part, looked like he was debating whether to run at me instead of away. He might’ve been able to do some damage to me, too, if he’d tried. He looked strong, in that particular way kids who spend all their time outdoors often look. His blood-glow really started to fluctuate, then; fight-or-flight made visible by the power I now had.
Deacon just kept blinking at me, rubbing his free hand over the opposite arm. His face looked kind of like he was crying, except no tears were falling. His doughy body began to tremble. His glow had become consistently bright.
“So — what to do with you both? Do you know who I am?” I asked them. I spoke even quieter then, testing to see if their own hearing had returned like mine had, assuming it had been affected at all.
Reggie shook his head.
“You’re Mr. Leek’s kid,” Deacon said.
I prenteded offense. “Kid?” I said. “I’m nineteen. What’re you — like, eight?”
“We’re both ten,” Deacon said, shakily.
Reggie threw him a savage look. “Shut up!” he said, in what I’m sure he thought was a whisper. It wasn’t. He looked right back at me, then. I remember how his face was glowing with sweat that reflected the blue light in odd places across his features. It was hard to tell, but in recalling that night I now think he was mustering up what to him might’ve been a formidable expression. “Aw, FUCK this!” he said, sounding like he was having trouble getting himself to say the word. Then, he shook his head; his mussed black hair flicked sweat droplets on me. “Look — either get us in trouble or don’t; we don’t give a shit.”
“That’s a lie,” I said. “Nobody wants heat for no reason. Especially not in the summer. You want to be grounded the rest of your vacation?”
That got through to Deacon, at least. “Reggie,” he murmured. He looked even more pale under the blue light than when I’d seen him in the daytime. His chest was heaving and he was outright shivering at this point. ” Look, Reggie, maybe — … ”
“Shut UP!” Reggie repeated. Reggie’s fingers tightened into fists and he took a shaky step toward me. “I told you — we don’t care.” Then, another too-loud, sidelong whisper toward his friend “Don’t be a bitch, Deacon. Christ.” He looked back at me. “This is our spot. Deacon’s dad owns these woods. It’s part of his property. Not yours. You can back right off and –”
“Silence!” I said. I don’t know why. It’s what came to me. Perhaps it was meant to pretend toward grandeur. It felt right.
“Fuck’s sake!” Reggie said. He sounded shaken-up, though. I remember thinking that it was good that he felt that way. I hurriedly continued before he could interrupt again: “For now, I’m going to let your language slide.” I said, looking into Reggie’s eyes. “Because I know you’re not speaking for your friend, Deacon, here. Deacon — ?”
“Yeah?” Deacon said.
“You know that no one owns the woods of Fell-Munch, Deacon. Don’t you?”
“Fuck’s sake,” Reggie repeated.
I looked at Reggie, feeling further inspired. “These woods … own themselves. Nature cannot be owned by man. This place is alive, you know.”
“It — it is?” Deacon said, in a voice barely above a whisper.
Reggie palmed at his face with both hands. “Aw, Christ,” he whispered to himself, in disgusted exasperation. “She’s messing with us, Deke. I mean, come on, man.”
“You’re playing with things you don’t understand.” I said plainly, toward Reggie.
“Bullshit; my dad’s a chemist.”
“I don’t mean the fireworks, Reggie” I elaborated. “Give me that thing in your hand,” I said, my eyes still meeting Reggie’s even though I was talking to Deacon. I reached out with my left hand. I remembered the truth of Bellbrun, that we must take away the powers of evil weapons with your bad left hand, and beat for goodness with your right.
Deacon’s hand shook as he reached out to give me the flare-firework; he turned it sideways to level the flame away from both of us for the exchange. “That’s right. Play safe now.”
I took the flare. Then, I braced myself and held out my hand and quickly brushed my palm across the very top of the flame. I knew it might hurt a little, but I also knew from playing with candles that doing it fast enough wouldn’t hurt too much. And with all the cutting of myself, I knew even then how to control — even to master — my pain.
But it had the desired effect. The blood-glow positively blossomed inside of them, as their eyes widened and their jaws went a little slack. The synchronicity of their shock is funny now, in hindsight. They really were two of a kind, back then, those two.
“Wicked,” Reggie said to himself, out-loud.
“Ominous,” murmured Deacon, likewise to himself.
“Why are you both acting so surprised?” I asked them. Then, an idea struck me. That I would have to tell them something about the blood. And that there was a way that I could make use of them for having crossed my path. That I might teach them that majesty I’d promised. So, I told them both: “You shouldn’t be surprised. I mean — I am a witch, after all.” Not really a lie. That’s what they would have called my faith in another time. Under different circumstances. Then I gave them a big smile — like the ones I’d used as a child, at auditions. That smile. The one that MOTHER said was made of out of stardust. “You saw my hand cross the flame. That’s the mark of a witch.” I cast a look right at Reggie. “And I’ve been patient up until now. Do not test me further.”
Deacon shook harder.
Reggie went very, very still.
“Why else do you think I’m here?” I asked. I held out my free arm, wrist up. “Do you think this is my blood?” Most if it was, but I saw no reason to tell them that. “It’s the blood of someone who crossed me.”
“A person?” Deacon squeaked.
“Buh-bullshit,” Reggie stammered.
I looked toward Deacon, answering him first. “A dog,” I told him. “So I guess it’s all in whether you think a family dog counts as a person,” I said. Then I looked over toward Reggie. “Your tongue’s betraying you,” I told him. “I’m telling it to.” Another stardust smile. “I could burn you where you stand, if I wanted to. Or stick you like a pair of piggies. Put you on a roast in my hut.”
I remember thinking that Deacon might’ve pissed himself a little at that, because the smell in the clearing got acidic; it might’ve been the fireworks, though.
The blue flare changed to white. The hiss of its burning harmonized with the ringing in my ears.
I looked back toward Deacon. “But you two have interrupted my ceremony.”
Reggie opened his mouth to speak.
I held the palm of my free hand, holding back just before my skin would make contact with his lips. “No. You don’t speak. I’ve cursed your tongue. Your tongue is sharp.” I tipped my head to the side. “So — yes — a fitting curse. Your tongue is like a knife, so it will become one. Sharper and sharper, over many days. Until it will cut you — just like a knife — while you sleep, slitting your throat from the inside. Unless … I take back the curse. Will you listen? Will you be silent?”
He made a little gasping sound, but was otherwise quiet. He closed his mouth. Then, he nodded — rather enthusiastically, actually.
I closed my fingertips together in front of his mouth and made a little pulling motion. “I’ve lifted the curse on your tongues — but now you both owe me a favor for it. A favor you will do, if you want to live.”
Their eyes got even wider than they had before. Wisely, they did not speak. Already, I had taught them better than that.
“First, I will tell you a story,” I said. “About why I am a witch. About why we Leeks are here, and about just exactly why we’re performing this ritual tonight, of all nights.” I knelt and, dramatically, forced the flare-tip into the ground, which had the desired effect of extinguishing it. It got very dark, but I could feel and smell the dark smoke billowing from the ruined firework. I continued: “You will listen, the both of you, and you will do so in silence.” I let a little pause worry them. “And then — at the end of the story — and if you value your human lives as I believe almost all mortals do — you’ll be willing to do whatever I say.” And I remember thinking that, yes, this was the perfect path — and, by the end of it, I would see their blood spilled, too.