Hard florescent light beat down in humming waves onto Job’s curly, upswept hair. The young witch had made the mistake of letting their mind wander while staring upwards, and was now trying to blink away the spots that had been burned into their vision. A few feet down the hallway, the bathroom door opened and Renna stepped out, rubbing at the corner of her eye. Job took care not to notice how smudged the rest of her eyeliner was.
“Feel a bit better now?”
Renna gave a weak smile and nodded. It was officially fifty-two minutes into her premier journey away from her most comfortable, memorable home. Her collection of troubles and emotions, which up to this point she had balanced so precariously on a shelf just a bit too small, had come tumbling down, and the clothing outlet of a mini-mall had seemed like a good place as any for an old-fashioned breakdown crying session.
While not comfortable existing in any physical way around a person so distraught, Job had managed to perform admirably with gentle ushering and encouragement. After they had gotten Renna into the privacy of the bathroom behind the Kid’s Spring Collection, however, they were surprised at how much Renna’s outburst had affected themselves. Job was not used to being intruded upon by another human’s emotional wavelengths, and they did not much like it at all. The awful florescent lighting, which felt like the visual and auditory equivalent of being smothered with a mechanical pillow, was not having a rejuvenating effect on their mood. However, seeing Renna’s spirit back up managed to raise theirs as well.
Renna, at the moment, looked a little bit better than she felt, but a good cry had done a lot to wash out the bad feelings bubbling at the surface. At the very least, she could say that the strongest sensation she felt right now was hunger. And so they moved from the clothing outlet to a bookstore across the way, where they found a cafe to settle into.
“So, sorry if this spoils some sort of surprise,” said Renna, sipping at her coffee, “but unless I’m forgetting something, you haven’t told me exactly where we’re headed to.”
Job placed the end of a biscotti onto their plate and dabbed reflexively at the corners of their mouth. “I may not have, and I apologize for that. I figured such a detail would be quickly forgotten amongst the rest of my news. We’re heading up north to a small town called Asper, where Order of the Redeemed have their Rectory. I spent many years living and training there. It’s filled with strong, trustworthy people, and I can’t think of a safer place for you while we get a handle on the situation.”
‘The situation’ was apparently a new euphemism for the demon, Renna realized, as if the unworldly force seeking to kill her was the next-door neighbor’s unplanned pregnancy.
“Alright … sorry, dumb question number one of many, but what exactly is a rectory? I know it’s some kind of church thing …”
Job nodded, appreciative of Renna’s interest. “Yes, it’s technically any kind of residence that a clergy member lives in. The Order has taken that a little bit further, though—our Rectory is more of a fortified mansion where many of us live, and it serves as the seat of our parish.”
“Huh …” Renna tried to imagine what that might look like. “What do you mean by fortified? Against what?”
“Against anything that wishes to do harm. To the human eye, there is little to stand out from the other beautiful old houses and surrounding nature that makes up that area of the Adirondacks. But in the deeper world of magic, we are a veritable fortress. A bastion against the malicious and unholy. Our spellcrafted wards have held fast for well over a hundred years, and we’ll be damned if even the likes of that demon can tear them down.”
Renna blinked. “Well yeah … but from your earlier story, it sounds like my grandmother got a bit more than damned when she had her run-in with it.”
Job hastily cleared their throat. “Yes. Well, in any case, any sense of security you have right now will be justified once you pass into its hallowed walls. Trust me on that.”
Job appeared surprised by Renna’s genuine vote of confidence; they lapsed into silence and finished their tea, and then started rooting around in one of their bags. The first thing to come out was a dogeared pocket atlas, which was tossed carelessly onto the table before Job pulled out a small something wrapped in a silk cloth.
“You’ve gotten a lot of wonderful presents today, so I hope you don’t mind one more, from me.”
Renna accepted it and delicately unwound the wrapping. In her two hands she held a silver pendant, thoroughly tarnished and with various scuffs and scratches, but its beauty stood out from beneath its surface. It was in the form of a small bird, wings outstretched, partially surrounded by a crescent-moon-shaped nest.
“It’s a magpie,” said Job, ready with an explanation. “Mab talked about you a few times, back when I was living with her. She often referred to you affectionately as ‘Magpie.’ I have to admit, I recalled that as soon as I stepped into your room yesterday and saw the nest you had built for yourself. Apparently, this pendant was part of a pair—one of them she gave to you, when you were still very young. It likely was lost after the fire. When I left her house, she made sure to send me along with this one. I don’t know if she anticipated you and I meeting someday, but I really can’t put anything past that woman.”
Job’s story gave a new warmth to the ornament that Renna held. Even if she had met Mab when she was little, the memories were lost amongst a dark haze in her mind. During her earlier years, when the trauma from the fire was still fresh and menacing, she had had no means of separating the good from the bad; every little thing had the potential to hurt, so there was nothing from her past she could trust. There were brief occasions when Renna wished she could remember more, but she greatly preferred nights without night-terrors and days without dissociation. The few happy memories were not worth the risk to salvage.
“This is great, Job. Thank you so much.”
Job, not one to allow such heartfelt gratitude to break their composure, accepted it with a quick wave of their hand and kept speaking. “This is more than a memento, I assure you. It serves a very practical and important purpose.”
Of course. Just as Renna had already come to expect of her companion.
“I don’t anticipate any trouble with the demon on our journey to Asper, but we can’t ever be too careful. That’s why several members of the Order have used their spells to turn this pendant into a multipurpose protective charm.”
Renna’s eyes widened as she realized what she was looking at was not just beautiful and sentimental, but also apparently some kind of magical item. “No way. What does it do?”
“We’ve attuned it so it will respond to energies similar to what we expect our demonic pursuer to be giving off. Thus, we’ll have plenty of warning, even if our best-laid plans go awry.”
“So it’s like a demon detector. That’s pretty neat.”
“Indeed. And, if worst comes to worst—although it most certainly won’t—there’s a spell in that pendant that can be released to transport you far away from danger in mere moments.”
Renna quickly placed the pendant down on the table, momentarily worried she would set the magic off unintentionally. “Whoa, what? That’s crazy…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you the proper way to use it, it’s not going to happen accidentally. And you need to keep in mind that this should be the very last option available to you—it’s a one-way trip, and once you’re gone, I will have no way of knowing where you went. It will get you away from immediate danger, but only until it manages to seek you out again. Does that make sense?”
Renna nodded solemnly to appease Job.
“Good. For now, find a place to keep it close, and keep it safe. I’ll explain the details later.” With that, they reached for the pocket atlas and opened it where the spine had broken. Pencil marks and unreadable scribblings criss-crossed with blue contour lines and red highways.
“This mark here is where we are—or where we were about an hour ago, which is unfortunately not too much further on. And the dot up here is our destination.”
“You’re kidding, that’s so far north! You could spit and hit Canada from there. How long’s it gonna take?”
Job pulled out a couple other folders from their bag. “All in all, about six hours. Once we locate the bus terminal in this town, we shall take the bus leaving at 12:42 and be on our way. From there, I have a ride arranged from the terminal to the rectory.”
Renna raised an eyebrow. “Wow, you’re really on top of this. I guess I should have expected as much.”
Job let their chest puff out a bit with self-satisfaction. “Naturally. Your safety is at stake and it’s not worth taking any risks. I’m used to making clear, concise plans and carrying them out to perfection. And this time is nothing special really, just a simple bus trip. Now then, if we’re finished here, we’ve got enough time for a comfortable walk to our 12:42 departure.”
“Like I said, the bus left at 12:24.”
The ticketmaster’s eyes, already heavily lidded from the first half of a twelve-hour shift, stared into and straight through Job’s snowy gaze, which was now melting out of confusion and frustration. Job slapped the ticket counter once, and then again more softly to demonstrate that they didn’t actually intend the initial show of force.
“But … but I’m quite certain, on the schedule, that it was 12:42! Was there a time change?”
“No, Ma- uh, Si- … No, I can assure you we do not change our times like that. Is this the schedule you were looking at?” The man reached up and yanked a pamphlet out of a holder on the wall, and slid it under the protective glass that separated him from the world. Job grabbed it and smoothed it open, their eyes roving intently over the small columns of numbers. After a full minute, Job could no longer deny that they had been mistaken, but was somehow still searching for a way that this could not be. Finally, they admitted defeat, folding up the pamphlet neatly and returning it.
“Well, alright, I guess I just … misread things.”
“What’s the next direct bus to Asper out of here?”
The ticketmaster took the schedule back, unfolded it and took his own, minimally-paid time looking over the rows that Job had just investigated. “We’ve got a 4:15 on here. Should be leaving from Platform 3 today. Do you want that?”
Job sighed. “No choice. I’ll take two tickets.”
Renna shifted about on the plastic seat of the bus terminal, trying to employ her luggage as a footrest while watching the TV in one corner of the room. It was tuned to a national news station; Renna was rarely ever exposed to news media, as cable was nonexistent at Inglenook, and the painfully slow internet had to be shared between all the homers. It made her feel slightly sick to watch all the stories about kidnapping or natural disasters or random acts of cruelty that flashed across the screen, but at the same time it was presented in a way that was hard to ignore. Thankfully Job had just returned, so she turned her attention to them.
“Got the tickets?”
Job had a sour face and didn’t immediately respond.
“I know we missed our first bus, I could hear that part of the conversation from here. Are we still going today?”
Job pulled some small slips of paper out of their pocket and offered them to Renna, who expected to be taking her ticket, but instead received a small handful of crumpled Canadian bills.
“Wait, don’t tell me this is all you have?”
Job shrugged aggressively. “I don’t understand what the problem is, it’s still perfectly good money! In Asper it would be hard to find a place that won’t accept it!”
Renna knew Job was frustrated, but she couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “Yeah, sorry, but you’re not in the Great Northlands anymore. American money isn’t nearly so colorful. This sorta looks like some fake money you’d play a board game with.”
Job threw up their hands weakly in response, plopped down on a seat next to Renna, then immediately got up again and stalked over to the terminal’s entrance, where they stood staring out of the dirty glass. Renna decided to let them cool off a bit before interacting with them again, so she let her attention be drawn back to the special report that just broke on the TV. The camera switched over to a sharply-dressed reporter on the scene.
“This is Desiree Chase, live from downtown Los Angeles, where several connected reports have painted a strange picture outside this high-rise apartment last night. Many say it was a magic trick, but some others are claiming it was true magic; a man in the penthouse suite allegedly climbed over his balcony, and while he appeared to be jumping to his death, did NOT, according to reports, fall once he was in the air. All eyewitnesses claimed that he was ‘floating’ in midair, and even walking around. We have a couple of captured footage videos from cellphone cameras to show you, but the quality may not allow us to judge exactly what methods this man used, allowing the insistent claim that he was using ‘magic’ to continue to be part of the debate.”
Renna guessed that they had run out of tragedies and crimes to talk about for the day, so they were now on to attention-grabbing entertainment stories. Even though a witch’s apprentice had just yesterday assured her that magic was an entirely real thing, she wasn’t yet ready to accept stuff like flying and teleportation. Sure, witches on broomsticks and all that … Job didn’t seem like the type to ride one though. But what about astral projection or precognitive dreams? Did the revelation of magic prove those things to be real, or disprove them as people who were “faking it”? Any normal standards were completely out the window here. Her curiosity was growing.
Renna looked back at Job, who was still sulking against the large, dirty windows of the terminal. She thought it a little bit excessive for a minor scheduling setback, but Job also seemed to her like the type to make mountains out of molehills. Perhaps they just needed a bit of cheering up. As insecure as they had been in trying to comfort Renna earlier, their calm and mature demeanor had managed to help Renna out of her emotional faceplant, and she wanted to return the favor in some way.
“So, my grandmother taught you how to be a witch, right?”
Renna posed the question to Job while the pair was seated on the edge of a playground not far from the station. For the first few minutes, they had been content to watch in silence a group of children running about and playing a game that involved jumping in and out of circles that the others drew on the ground. This seemed like a good time for Renna to start doling out the questions she wanted answers to.
“Yes, she taught me the basics. I would not call myself a witch in the same tradition that your grandmother was, despite the fact that I received much of my formative instruction from her. But I’ve had more than one teacher during my training, and ultimately my style of magic diverges fairly widely from the ways Mab adhered to. That might not give you much context at the moment, however. To be frank, there’s not much about ‘real’ magic that intersects with what the non-initiated public imagine it as, especially with its portrayal in recent popular culture.”
There was a lot to unpack in that answer, and Renna wasn’t entirely sure what to poke at. “I guess I figured that much. I’ll admit that I don’t actually know that much about it, but it seems like it’s all sort of … either dark culty Satanic stuff or hippy Earth-mother stuff. Sorry, I know those are probably not images you like to associate with.”
Job shifted about uneasily. “You’re right, but at the same time it’s not my place to denounce aspects of those ideas—what I should be saying is, if you want to have a clear understanding of what magic can be, beyond strictly what it is or is not, you have to start with a clean slate. Assumptions and preconceptions do nothing but distort your ability to imagine … well, what one can do.”
“What one can do? Like what I could do?” Renna cocked her head.
“Yes. To truly ‘understand’ magic, you have to live it. It’s like asking a dog what being a dog is like, provided the dog could reply to you, of course.”
This made some amount of sense to Renna. She leaned back and started kicking her feet back and forth. “So basically, someone like you or me can ‘understand,’ but for people who aren’t born as witches, they’re S.O.L.?”
“Not at all. Magic may be held by any hand and bred by any soul. That was one of your grandmother’s most insistent lessons. It is all just a matter of discipline, and passion. The threads of magic are woven in every interaction we have with others, no matter how mundane or fleeting. They can guide our actions and thoughts in unseen ways.”
“Wow. That’s some mystic-sounding stuff right there.”
“Only if you think of it as such. The children over there are an example. In many earlier ages, the games and fancies of young children have been potent sources of spellwork.”
Renna scoffed at this. “Oh come on, now you’re joking. Some of those kids are like, not even in kindergarten probably.”
Job frowned at her. “Like I said, you need a clean slate if you want to understand, rather than letting your established judgments take hold.”
Renna hopped up and stepped out a couple paces. “I’m not being judgmental, I’m being realistic. I might not know anything about magic, but I can assure you I do know kids. I know how they play and why. It’s not cuz they’re casting spells or anything like that. You should try playing with them too sometime, I feel like you don’t do a lot of that in your Rectory.”
To illustrate her point, Renna skipped on over to the group of kids, whose game had been slowly crossing the playground in their direction. With experienced ease, she made friendly with the leaders of the game, and they were willing to let her have a turn. Renna hopped from circle to circle on the ground, as per the instructions that the kids sometimes chanted in warbling disharmony. She finished by making a flying leap and drawing a circle where she had landed. She turned back to Job and was utterly surprised; they were not sitting on the side of the playground anymore. They had rushed forward suddenly and leapt into the first circle.
Renna started laughing as she watched Job jump from circle to circle at the commands of the chanting kids, with an air of utmost seriousness. They really didn’t know how to let loose around children, even when they were so earnestly trying! Renna was about to move closer when Job called out to her.
“Do not move from that circle!”
“What?” Renna was arrested by the urgency in their voice. “What are you talking about?”
Job’s expression was exceptionally stern, even as they balanced on one foot in a particularly tight circle. “You’ve grasped the rules of the game. If you step outside that ring before I make it through, you lose.”
Renna laughed again. “Yeah, and so what? You want to win that badly?”
“We both do, trust me. Just whatever you do, do not leave that circle.”
Part of Renna felt like doing exactly the opposite of that, but she decided to see what they were going on about, so she remained where she was. Job continued through the game with a strong, spritely grace that made Renna wonder if they had ever practiced gymnastics. Finally, Job reached the last circle and took a mighty leap forward, beating out even Renna’s jump, which she had been personally proud of. They landed and scratched out a circle around them, but then proceeded to add a few more lines and basic shapes, to the point where it looked like a bonafide magic circle. The kids all gathered and watched. When Job was satisfied, they calmly strode out of it and made a motion to Renna that it was safe for her as well.
They then turned on the oldest child and started speaking to him in a scolding manner. Renna moved quickly forward to find out what was wrong. The child held something out to them and Job snatched it from their hand. The rest of the children recoiled a bit at the sudden tension. Renna came up to them.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
Job ignored her for the moment. “Alright, the rest of you need to disperse. I’ll be taking this.”
There was much muttering and kicking of dirt as the kids followed Job’s order. Renna turned on Job.
“Hey, seriously, what the hell? What’s gotten into you? That didn’t seem cool at all.”
Job was closely studying the object that they had wrested from the child. Renna was repulsed by her first look; it was like a school art project put together by a student who had a lot of dark thoughts on their mind. A long, misshapen tube of clay had been blackened with charcoal or paint, and skewered with crow’s feathers all around the top portion. Strings of black beads had been fused into the clay, which wound around the tube and dangled off in loops at the base. Small charms of metal and plastic were attached at various points along the strings; Renna could see a few skulls, and one of them was a particularly grotesque goat head motif.
Job sharply exhaled their held breath. “I can’t believe something like this would be in the hands of children.”
“It’s ugly, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t look especially dangerous. Maybe if you tried to swallow it. Why’d you want to take it from that kid so badly?” Renna wanted to hold it, but Job was careful about letting her get too close.
“I took it so that they wouldn’t be in grave danger from such a malicious spell.”
“What? That thing’s a spell?”
“A component, or a catalyst for a spell, more accurately, but yes. And it’s absolutely … fuming with heinous energy. It would be irresponsible to make this at all, let alone allow it to fall into the hands of unknowing children.”
Things were finally starting to make sense to Renna. “You recognized this thing as something magical, and that’s why you wanted to get it away from the kids so badly? Why did you play the game before then? Why didn’t you just grab it from them as soon as you knew?”
“The magic was already in effect. I told you earlier—anyone has the ability to cast magic, which means there are occasions when people do so without even knowing. As I mentioned earlier, children’s’ games are rife with connections to older traditions of The Craft. The inclusion of this totem just happened to inject their game with a sinister energy. Energy that, if the rules of the ‘game’ were not followed properly, could have manifested in some way that seriously harmed the participants, or worse.”
Renna’s eyes widened. “So … in order to keep that from happening … you had to play along with the game first? That’s why you were so serious?”
Job nodded. “It’s impressive you noticed, though. I was doing my utmost to remain casual and calm, as to not arouse any suspicion.”
Renna thought she might have to have a talk with Job later about some better methods for “remaining casual”.
“Well, I had no idea what you were trying to do until you told me, at least. Now I get it. But … where in the world did those kids get a hold of something like that?”
Job looked around the now-empty playground. “That’s the most important, and unfortunately, unanswered question. I should have asked before sending them away … I guess what you said was true, I’m not exactly great with kids after all.”
Renna shook her head. “You just jumped through a whole bunch of hoops—literally—to protect those guys. Maybe your face-to-face interactions could use some work, but it’s obvious your heart’s in the right place.”
Job made a face that showed they weren’t satisfied with that answer. “You’re saying I can’t externally express the goodness I supposedly have on the inside?”
“It’s not as bad as that. Kids are good at sensing that kind of stuff in people. They’re much quicker to know when a person’s being fake or too nice on purpose—the kind of stuff that seems to get past adults so easily. Kids might call them out on it, but they choose to value different things in people, I guess.”
Job was still waiting for the bottom line, so Renna took pity and gave it to them. “I’m just trying to say that you’ve got good intentions, and they can see that. I’m sure once you get better at being around them, you’ll find that most kids will like you a lot.”
“Oh. Huh.” Job seemed pleased but still perplexed, like getting a high mark on a test they expected to fail. “Well, I never really spent much time thinking about that part of my persona … but I appreciate it.”
Renna decided to steer their conversation back to the freaky item Job was still holding. “So what’s the plan for that thing? How does one usually go about destroying cursed objects? Ooh, do we get to burn it?”
“Too risky. Unfortunately, any proper method of dispersing this kind of negative energy will be time-consuming, and we’ve still got some place to be. We could hide it, but there’s never a guarantee it won’t find its way back into innocent hands again. I believe our only choice is for me to bind its magic the best I can and take it with us. At the Rectory we’ll be able to obliterate it for good.”
Renna’s enthusiasm dimmed when it seemed that they wouldn’t be having an impromptu evil-object exorcism. Now more than ever, she wanted to see an example of some real spellworking. But perhaps there was still a chance.
“What does binding the magic entail?”
“Speaking logistically, we need to create a seal around the totem—a magical field that ‘envelopes’ the negative energies inside, at which point it can be handled without fear.”
It sounded to Renna like the witch’s equivalent of putting something nasty inside a plastic baggie. But surely it would be more dignified than that. “Alright, sounds like a plan. Where are we gonna go do it?”
Job was already rummaging through their luggage. “Right here as is good a location as any.”
Renna was a bit taken aback. She glanced around the playground and saw that it was indeed deserted, but at the same time, it felt like actual, real magic—if that really was going to be happening here shortly—should be done in a more secluded place. (Isn’t that why witches had houses? Lairs?)
“And why do you think that?” Asked Job, after she had voiced these concerns.
“Well, I’d think you wouldn’t want just any non-witchy person seeing some actual magic going on. Like, wouldn’t it break their minds or something? It’s all supposed to be … secret, right?”
Job had retrieved two long strips of white linen from their bag and was now unfolding them carefully. “There are certain practices and rites that witches prefer to keep hidden from public eyes, yes. But the existence of magic was never meant to be a secret, kept from the many by the few. You can go to nearly any bookstore and pick up manuals and stories about spellcrafting, can you not?”
Renna shrugged, trying to find a way to make Job see the same bigger picture she was seeing. “Okay, yeah, sure, but that’s like … no one really takes that seriously, you know? It’s only for a certain kind of people … It’s … I guess what I’m trying to say is that, there’s magic like that and there’s magic like people might perform on a stage in Las Vegas or something. If you were able to do the Las Vegas magic for real, that would be, like, a game changer. Worshiping nature gods and chanting in circles of candles doesn’t really have the same effect …” Renna trailed off because she started to realize the more she talked, the more she didn’t know what she was really talking about. Job didn’t seem to be too bothered by it though—they were thoroughly focused on the task at hand, even as they spoke to Renna.
“To put it as simply as I can right now, magic has always been a force in the world, just like water or air or weather. The customs and cultures of humans have caused us to change how we view it—or sometimes lose sight of it altogether. But, even if someone doesn’t believe in something, that doesn’t make it any less existent; it just changes the way they perceive the thing— magic, in this case—in their world. To quote Mab again, ‘Anyone can garden. Those who do so with intent are called gardeners.’ That’s who we witches are.”
Job’s words were wise, even if they didn’t exactly address Renna’s thoughts. She was going to continue the conversation, but fell silent because it seemed that Job was ready to begin their work. They removed their jacket, and for the first time Renna was able to see their bare arms. They had silvery tattoos running in spirals all the way up from their wrists to their shoulders. Renna could read the letters, but not the words, and realized the script was all in Latin, or at least what she recognized from the few lessons she gleaned at Inglenook. There were symbols too, composed of lines and circles and angles all intersecting at purposeful points, filled with meaning that Renna could not grasp. She guessed that this was straight-up witchcraft, or at least it looked the closest to what she had always assumed witchcraft was before she met Job. Maybe all of her “assumptions and preconceptions,” as Job called them, weren’t completely off-base. Overall, the words and symbols blended together into an inked tapestry that left a beautiful and intimidating impression; it was artwork that had a menacing purpose.
She could only stare for so long, however, as Job began to wrap the linen strips around their arms like a long bandage. Once they had gotten them in place, the stylish mage assumed a meditative pose and closed their eyes. Renna backed up a bit, unsure of how much room they needed to work. They began to chant in a low, breathy voice, and Renna managed to catch enough words to recognize it as Latin. She felt she had to be imagining it at first, but it appeared to her that while Job performed their ritual, the linen wraps began to shift about. They seemed to compress, tighten and stretch from one place to another, as if some serpentine spirits had gotten into the threads and were trying to slither their way around Job’s arms.
As soon as Job finished their chant, the effect ceased, and they quickly removed the wraps. Renna stepped forward and was astounded by what she saw. On the inside of the fabric, where it had been in contact with Job’s arms, their tattoos had been perfectly replicated. The images were ink-black, rather than the silver of the originals, but Renna wasn’t sure what had made them. They didn’t even show up on the outside of the wraps. If Renna had wanted to see bonafide magic, this was surely it.
Job gingerly laid the cursed totem’s feathery tip on one end of the linen and quickly wrapped up the rest, with the tattoo prints on the inside. Once they were done mummifying it, they managed to thoroughly eradicate the wonder and mystique of the magic by tying the whole thing together with rubber bands and shoving it in a plastic bag. “And there you have it,” said Job. “A jury-rig of a seal, but it’ll hold until we get to the Rectory.”
The two young travelers traversed the narrow sidewalk that ran alongside the road, careful to make sure their luggage didn’t stray off the path behind them. Job was in front, their gaze caught up in the pocket map that would supposedly direct them to a different bus station across town, that may or may not have buses that could eventually get them where they needed to go … And may or may not take a handful of Canadian money. That was less of an issue now though, as Renna had graciously offered up some of her own personal funds to pay for the trip, which Job had thoroughly assured her that they would repay in full as soon as they made it to the Rectory.
It hadn’t felt like they’d gotten any closer to that goal in the past hour and a half, however. This second bus terminal seemed like the legendary El Dorado of this small bedroom community; some people they asked about it assured them that it existed, their cousin had used it two Christmases ago, and it even had a no-fee ATM, while other folks had given them blank faces and said that it had never existed in their whole time living there. Most unnerving were the frightened stares or silently shaking heads they received to their inquiries.
Renna had spent this time figuring out exactly how she was going to vocalize the decision she had made back when she saw Job cast the spell. She finally decided that there was no more benefit in waiting, so she came to a stop on the sidewalk and Job carried on for a good fifty feet before realizing that they had lost their caboose. They returned to Renna and waved the map as a sign of encouragement.
“We’re not that far off now, I believe. Now that we understand that Highland Street and Highland Circle are, in fact, two different locations and neither have any close relation to Highland Boulevard…”
“Job, I want to learn magic. And I want you to teach me.”
Job took a moment to process this before closing the travel book with a snap.
“I see. Where has this sudden resolve sprung from?”
“I can’t say for sure. I mean … I’ve been dealing with my weird supernatural episodes for my whole life, and then you show up and tell me it’s all happening because of my exceptionally witchy blood. And then I get to see you do that cool binding thing with the cloth. I dunno. It feels like something that’s always been around me, but this is the first time I’ve wanted to embrace it, rather than try to hide and ignore it. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to be a gardener. Or a witch, per se. A gardener-witch. You know what I mean.”
Renna finished her appeal feeling a bit foolish, but was reassured by Job’s smile. “An answer befitting Mab’s kin. Very well, Renna Porter—I shall honor your request. Just know that while I will be your instructor, there are many ways in which I still consider myself a neophyte. I can only teach you what I know, and there is much to know beyond that.”
Renna nodded confidently and felt herself swelling with anticipation.
“Furthermore,” Job continued, “You must realize that while the magic I performed earlier was relatively rudimentary, it’s still spellwork that requires many years of disciplined study to understand and create. Only those who are confident and skilled in what they do can make something complex appear simple. Frustration and confusion are constant companions along this path. And to have any hope of moving forward, you must listen well and think well upon everything I tell you. Does this make sense?”
“Of course,” Renna said again, although she felt herself deflating just a little bit. She wasn’t afraid of hard work and practice, but she had no idea what level of discipline Job was talking about. Their respective viewpoints on the subject might be savagely different, as Job seemed to be a person for whom discipline was a lifestyle, rather than an accomplishment. But what use was worrying now, before they had even begun?
“Then that’s that.” Job pushed the map into a side pocket of their backpack. “And if that’s the case, I believe a change of destination is in order. Blast this ephemeral bus station, it’ll be closed for the night before we find it, if it exists at all. Getting you to Asper is still a haste-oriented operation, but training you as a witch will give you the basic means of self-defense, so I think it’s worthwhile to make a detour along our way. A couple hours straight north of here is a town that hosts a library with an impressive collection of magical tomes, guides and grimoires. Spending some time amongst them will be good grounding for you, I think.”
Renna wasn’t one to say no to lots of books all in one place. “Sounds like a time. So do you have a non-bus-related plan to get there?”
Job threw their gaze down the road, which the setting sun was now crawling over in bands of yellowing light. “We … May have to find lodging and resume our travels in the morning.”
An idea leapt into Renna’s mind. “Never mind that. Hey Job, check this out, I can already do magic. I’m gonna summon us a ride out of nowhere.” She went to the side of the road and stuck out her thumb, turning to see if Job would laugh or groan. They seemed to just be confused—they probably hadn’t learned much about hitchhiking in the Rectory.
Renna wasn’t expecting much to come of her joke, so she was just as surprised as Job when the very next vehicle that came down the road—a beat-up blue pickup truck— screeched to a halt in front of Renna’s thumb. Job’s mouth opened a little.
Renna dropped her arm as the cab door swung open. “Wow. Not sure if I really meant to do that, but I’ll take it.”
Four minutes later, Job and Renna were soaring down the open road away from town, packed into the cab of a truck that they now shared with a large man in his mid-thirties, a baseball cap holding down his blast of ginger hair, which spilled down his cheeks and danced freely upon his wide chin.
“Headed into Groutney, huh? Real nice place up there!”
“You’ve been there before?” Renna asked. She had to carry most of the awkward conversation, as Job was acting quiet and cagey, like a young cat that had just been introduced to a member of a different, larger species of animal. After observing them yesterday and this morning, Renna had noticed that Job was not great at sudden interactions with gregarious or blunt people; they did best when separated by a healthy margin of manners and social propriety. It was probably a good thing they had spent less than a day at Inglenook.
Their driver didn’t seem to notice any of this, however. “Oh yeah, I’ve driven through a couple times. Traveled all over this part of the country, back some years ago with my job. See all kindsa places, meet all kindsa people. Then one day I decided to finally follow the advice a coworker gave me.”
“What was that?” asked Renna.
“Quit.” The man gave a hearty laugh, which pressed Job momentarily against their side of the cab. “Yeah, traveling was nice and all, but when you’re only there to see the bad stuff, it sours the experience after a while. After a year floating around, I found money in transporting auctioned antiques from here to there and back again. Keeps me on the open road and puts some cash in my pocket. Not a lot though, ‘specially compared to the network news business.”
“Oh.” Renna fumbled around in her own pockets, meaning to produce some compensation for the ride, but only came up with the Canadian bills Job had passed off to her earlier that day. “Whoops. I guess you don’t have much use for this either.”
The man’s eyes brightened. “How about that! As it so happens, I’m headed to Canada once I drop you folks off in Groutney. I was actually thinkin’ about how I didn’t have any Mountie Money with me …”
Renna offered it up to him, and he accepted it graciously. “Thanks so much! This is perfect. Wow … Y’know, I’m one to believe that fate plays a bigger part in our lives than we realize. Most people would probably say it all boils down to coincidence, but then again, there’s an equal chance you coulda been holding pesos or lira.”
Renna wasn’t sure this was accurate, but she wanted to go along with the spirit of his words. She hadn’t given much thought to fate, even when her dormant magic had caused her trouble in the past. It had just been one more thing that made her who she was. However, now that she knew there was demon hunting down her bloodline, with her at the end of it … The concept of fate felt much heavier than it ever had before. If she let the thought sit with her for too long, she could almost feel its weight laying across her. She shook it off for now, though, and proceeded to keep lively conversation with their driver, allowing Job to remain quiet, as they sped on between the banks of tall pine trees and into the deepening vernal dusk.