prologue ~ crow
crow black crow her crow sees girl his girl naked no feathers no fur angry fighting sick magick black magick smells bad cold night dark stars big moon man too strong want to peck out his eyes pull his hair out taste bad blood…
“What the f - !” Arnoux hit the empty air above his head, missing, and the girl beneath him took the opportunity to wriggle away. He reached for her ankle but that thing, that stupid bird was pecking at his head, yanking his hair out. He cursed again but his words had no power; he’d used it all up in the spell and before his fingers could tighten around her pale skin she kicked him hard in the face, sending him flying backwards into the wet grass. The last thing he heard was her words, her curse, biting into him, holding him until she was gone.
chapter one ~ court
Arlen Howard rose, looking up at the Council, dressed in an outfit that would do little to elicit mercy. Although she wore a plaid skirt, it was much too short, revealing long legs covered by black tights with some sort of design running along the back seam. The overlarge cashmere sweater did not hide the white tank beneath it nor the snake tattoo that curled around her neck, winding its way down over her left shoulder all the way down to her wrist. She wore her dark hair short, like a boy, bangs hanging down over coal-rimmed eyes, and a silver choker around her neck. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she looked up sullenly at the five men who sat behind the raised curved desk. The eldest spoke.
“Do you have anything to say regarding the events culminating in the destruction of your parents’ barn?”
Arlen knew they would ask her to speak but every time she had tried to think what she would say all she saw was the barn going up in flames. Even now she could almost smell the way the air had been fragranced with the last scents of summer and smoke from the burning hay. She could see in her mind’s eye the way the fire had grown so quickly, leaping like an acrobat, orange flames climbing like vines through the structure. And she could remember the heat of it, so hot, like hell she thought, wondering, just for an instant, what it might be like to walk into that fire and burn. But what could she say? How could she make them understand how seductive the flames had been? How could she explain the way it had felt to be so close to burning?
She said the only other thing she could think of.
“It was an accident…it just got…out of control.”
Although that wasn’t strictly true. There had been a moment when she knew she could call it back, draw the flames back into herself. But something whispered, something dark and vengeful. And it had felt so wonderful to reach out, like stretching a muscle that had been crampt too long. The heat had rolled off her like sweat, dripping from her outstretched fingers. And by the time she changed her mind it was too late; the flames had caught and multiplied. They were everywhere.
“Are you saying you were practicing at arts beyond your control?”
Arlen looked up at him, the old man who led the proceedings. He was her grandmother’s brother, her Uncle Theo. But here, of course, he was no relation at all. Here he was a judge. Her judge. Was he giving her an out or was he guessing? She wondered. It was hard to tell. She wasn’t any good at reading, not like her mom who could tell all kinds of stuff about people just by looking at them, listening to them speak. It was a talent she didn’t have.
“Yes,” she agreed, “I was.”
He nodded and they all drew away in a huddle to discuss her case and what sort of punishment, if any, was warranted. She supposed she deserved something for burning the barn down. But she knew she’d get nothing more than a slap on the hand, a warning. First offenses were almost always a by.
“Arlen Calvinia Howard,” the council turned back to face her, her Uncle’s voice like that of a stranger, “The Council has decided to give a warning. This will be your only warning. Should you choose not to heed it the consequences will be dire. We hope you will take this opportunity to consider the choices you make more carefully in the future. You will be under our watchful eye.”
Arlen almost turned around to give her mother a triumphant smirk, stopping herself just in time. The judges would probably not appreciate her celebratory mood. She waited until they had filed out of the chamber. Then she turned around and gave her mother that smirk.
“See, I told you,” she said.
“Let’s go,” her mother said, heels echoing on the marble floor as they walked toward the double doors where a bright December day awaited them. Outside the temperature had risen and the frost that had tipped all the grass in silver had melted, leaving it glistening beneath the noonday sun.
Arlen found their car, her mother’s Jaguar, which was parked conveniently next to the handicapped spot.
“You were lucky today,” her mother said once they were both seated and buckled. “I’m not sure if you realize just how serious this is.”
Arlen shrugged and turned her face to the window.
Her mother sighed and started the car, backing out of the space.
They drove in silence until they pulled into their drive twenty minutes later.
“You know,” Evelyn said when they pulled into their drive twenty minutes later, “Your – ”
“Save it,” Arlen said, “I’m not interested in being compared to my namesake anymore.”
She got out of the car and slammed the door and as soon as she reached her room upstairs she put her headset on, which essentially cut her off from the real world. Nonetheless, she was able to navigate the concourse of her room unerringly due to the simple fact that she’d done it so many times before.
She logged in and closed her door, casting a simple ward around the crystal door knob. She would feel only a slight pressure but it would be enough to warn her, give her time to hide her headset and pretend she was doing something on the ‘approved list of acceptable activities.’ Personally, she didn’t see the big deal in escaping the real world. At least it wasn’t drugs. And it wasn’t illegal. But ever since the fire her parents had decided that cyberspace was a bad influence and her use of it was limited to school projects. Luckily they didn’t know about this headset. It was older than the one her parents had confiscated and the right eyepiece slipped sometimes but otherwise it worked just fine.
She found her chair, the one in the corner with the cushioned footrest, and made herself comfortable as she entered her password and IP address. A second later an alert blinked in the upper right corner of her vision, telling her that Simone was logged in, no doubt skipping lunch in favor of a fix.
Arlen logged in and within seconds she was an avatar walking toward their café, which sat between the bookstore and the library, the outdoor tables all in a row opposite the star magnolia tree that bloomed so prettily each spring. Simone had seen it somewhere and suggested it as their own private place. Anyone who came to the site could see it but no one could enter without an invitation.
Arlen sat down, noting that Simone hadn’t bothered to change her appearance, but rather wore what she’d probably come to school in; a short black corduroy jacket with silver buttons, all her bangles on one wrist, skinny jeans and a red cami. It was her usual understated sexy look. Blue eyes and straight pale blond hair completed the picture.
Simone gave a smirk at Arlen’s once over. “Don’t say anything,” she warned, “You didn’t change either.”
Arlen looked down and swore. Damn. She was still wearing her court clothes: black tights, flats, a short plaid skirt and an oversized cashmere sweater that had been her dad’s before she’d snagged it.
“Oh, well,” she said, sitting down across from Simone. None of it was real so it didn’t matter who saw – not that she cared, of course.
“So what happened?” Simone asked, giving her blond hair a little toss. She knew it was her most striking feature and she made the most of it, even here in cyberland where anyone could look like anything.
“I was given a warning, just like I said,” Arlen said.
“You were lucky,” Simone said.
Arlen shrugged. “It was my first offense.”
“Yeah, your one and only. Now you have to be careful.”
“I know. They said they’d be watching me.”
“And they will,” Simone said, “You’d better be careful.”
They were quiet a moment more then Arlen asked Simone if she’d seen Dylan, the third member of their triumvirate.
“No, but I saw Arnoux . He asked where you were – again.”
“I told you I don’t want to talk to him.”
“He said he was sorry, whatever that means.”
“It doesn’t mean anything.”
Simone sighed. “I wish you would tell me what happened between the two of you, I mean, all summer long the two of you were like – ”
“It’s over,” Arlen snapped, “Alright?”
Simone shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I’m sorry,” Arlen apologized, “I’m being a shite.”
Simone cracked a smile. “Yeah, you are, but I’ll forgive you.”
“Gotta go,” Simone said, “someone’s tapping me; lunch must be over – ”
She was gone instantly, and Arlen was left sitting at their cyber café alone. Inside there were three AIs acting as employees and before long one came out with a refill of the caramel latté Arlen was drinking. It always amazed her when it tasted exactly like the best caramel latté she’d ever had. She’d been in hundreds of Virtual Reality Programs but this was one of the better ones. She especially liked the way it was open, so that anyone who could figure out the code could create their own space here, private or public. At first glance it looked like any small town but the more you explored it the more doorways you found. This place had only been running a year or so but already it had expanded from a few brick buildings along Main Street to a whole downtown area including an old fashioned cinema, bookstore, three restaurants, a discount store, pharmacy, and library. There were a number of Victorian houses, which were mostly private, a bank, and a small park along the waterfront. Their café had been one of the last downtown spaces left and the three of them had pooled their savings to buy the node.
Now Damariscotta was their home page so that every time they logged in it brought them here. And what was really cool was the fact that they’d gotten in before the place got too popular. Now that it was on the Top Ten Up and Coming list they could sell their little node if they wanted and make a huge profit. It was something they talked about though they were all still enjoying the place too much to give it up. Still, selling could give them each a nice chunk of change to go off to college with next year.
She was about to walk over to the park when a quiet buzzing warned her and she pulled the headset off, sliding it beneath the chair into the space she’d created, a little hidey hole that would never be noticed unless someone was using magick to find it.
“What is it?” she asked, even though she knew.
“Supper is in a half hour,” her mother said.
“Ok, I’ll be down in a minute,” Arlen said, wishing she could skip it. The tradition of having supper together as a family was a relic of the past as far as Arlen was concerned, especially when they so seldom had anything to say to one another. Unfortunately it was a tradition both her parents insisted upon keeping even though there had been entire dinners where no one had said a single word.
She sighed and went down to help, setting the table before her mother could ask.
“Put another place on,” her father said from the living room where he had his nose in a book. “Alice is coming.”
Great, Arlen thought. Now her grandmother would be obliged to give her opinion on the court proceedings as well. It was an opinion Arlen could have done without but one she would’ve gotten sooner or later. She supposed she might as well get it over with. She grabbed another place setting and set a glass above the napkin. No sooner had she done so than the little bell that announced visitors rang sweetly. A few moments later Alice Howard, matriarch of the Howard witches, swept in and immediately gave Arlen one of her disappointed looks. But she waited until they were all seated at the table before she said anything.
“You were very fortunate, my dear,” she said, taking a warm roll from the basket and slathering it with butter. “Why, I remember when I was young one of our classmates was banished for an entire year for breaking the rules. Spent half his junior year in some private school in northern Maine, miles from the nearest hint of civilization.”
Arlen made no reply, spooning a small helping of salad onto her plate along with a single marinated chicken wing. Her father looked at her plate with disapproval but didn’t say anything.
“She was lucky,” Evelyn agreed, “And I am sure she will keep that in mind. Won’t you?” she gave Arlen a pointed look and Arlen mumbled something that sounded like agreement, picking at her salad and chicken until it looked like she had eaten enough to warrant being excused. Then she raced upstairs to her room, warded it, and got out her headset.
Downstairs Evelyn sighed, shaking her head.
“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she sighed, looking at her mother.
Alice shrugged. “She’s a teenager.”
“Was I ever so difficult?” Evelyn asked.
“No,” Alice admitted, “But you weren’t named after an infamous relative either. Really, I don’t know what possessed you…”
“I liked the name…”Evelyn said.
Alice shook her head. “You should’ve given her her own name.”
“I know. I know!” Evelyn glared at her mother. “But it’s a little late now, isn’t it?”
“You’re right,” Alice said, “I’m sorry.”
“I think she’ll be just fine,” John said, pulling himself away from the book he’d had his nose in throughout most of the supper. The two women glared at him and he offered a sheepish look and went back to reading.
“What are you going to do?” Alice asked.
“What can I do?” Evelyn replied, “I certainly can’t take her to London with us as planned.”
Alice made no reply, and for a few moments no one spoke at all and there was just the quiet sound of the house at night: the last notes of a requiem from the ceiling speakers, the solar heater humming low, and the quiet patter of a light rain falling outside.
“Why don’t you and John go to London on your own,” Alice said at last, “Arlen and I will stay home.”
Evelyn’s mouth nearly dropped open. “But we’ve been planning this trip all year…”
Alice shrugged. “I know, but it’s important that you go.”
“It is important,” Evelyn agreed. “But are you certain you don’t mind? I would hate to put you out, and Arlen has been more than irritable, ever since school started. I know she isn’t sleeping well at all. I hear her sometimes. I just…” Evelyn shook her head. “I wish she would tell me what’s going on. Maybe she’ll tell you.”
“Maybe,” Alice said, though without much hope.
The two of them spoke a while longer, discussing the details, until the hour grew late and Alice took her leave. Upstairs Arlen logged in to the site.