Witch Way

I’m not lazy, I just do things in my own time. I had every intention of doing as the Hags asked, but I’d nearly reached my wits end with them, so they were just going to have to wait for me to run my errand first.

“Don’t be too long, Rachel. You know we need that laurel wreath for the ritual tonight,” Marian said.

“And do try to find a fresh one this time. The last one was so old and dried out, I’m pretty sure the sacred elements conspired to throw it out the tower window,” Sorita said.

I resisted rolling my eyes. The laurel wreath wasn’t the only thing old and dried out in the tower.

“Oh, and stop by the liquor store, will you? We’re out of Merlot,” Althea said.

I sighed as I snatched up my bag and their shopping list. “You do realize I’m your apprentice, not your errand runner.”

“Same thing,” Sorita said with a wave.

“We do appreciate it, dear,” Marian said with a smile. Fake, I was pretty sure.

“Be a good apprentice and run along, or I won’t share the mulled wine,” Althea said, and while the words were gruff, I could hear the affection there.

“You wouldn’t dare.” I gave her a look of mock horror, and she gave me a shove.

“Off with you.”

As I made my way out the tower door, I could hear them discussing me.

“You’ll spoil the girl, Thea.”

“We all went through the same thing.”

“Pish. I’m not any lighter on her than any apprentice we’ve had over the decades. Besides, don’t you think the girl could use some spoiling?”

I bit back a grimace as I eased the tower door shut. I knew they all meant well, each treating me as they thought best, given the situation, but sometimes it chafed too much. Ever since my father had passed, seven years ago, I’d been fairly self-sufficient. I had an apartment, a cat, and a job I actually liked. No car, because I took the bus anywhere I needed in town and traveled with my witchy powers anywhere else I needed to go. Not a lot of friends, because people are a lot of work. As the Hags well demonstrated.

Outside of the tower, I stood in what I considered their vestibule, although it was really more of a magical airlock. When I’d first found them, the room had been set up for a series of trials, to see if I had what it took to become a witch. When it wasn’t being used for trials, it was whatever it needed to be. Today, it looked like a high school auditorium. I was standing on a stage, and the Hags’ tower door was part of a set made to look like some fantasy play, with a tempera painted castle on a backdrop, dragon flying in the background. Fake bushes made of Papier-mâché and tissue paper hid the wings to back stage on either side. There was a moat made out of blue cellophane with a little wooden bridge over it.

I walked to the end of the stage and looked out into the auditorium seats, eyebrow raised. I was never sure if the room reflected the minds of the Hags, or if it had a mind of its own.

I hopped off the stage and made my way to the back of the auditorium. When I was about halfway back, I slowed and pulled out my keychain.

On it was a palm-sized, ornate golden key that glowed softly, pulsing in time with my heartbeat.

“Hello, little friend. Ready to help me make some mischief?”

The key winked at me wanly. It had led me to this strange new world I was part of, but it didn’t seem to appreciate my penchant for ditching the Hags to wander.

The truth is, I’d learned a lot from them, but they had their own way of doing things that didn’t mesh with my way of doing things. They stayed in their tower, did their rituals, drank wine and ate bread. There’s nothing wrong with all that, but there’s a whole wide world out there. Besides, I’d fended for myself most of my life. Sometimes I needed to get out there and do my own things.

I used the key to duck out into the real world and headed for the bus station. I had a lead on my mother, and despite asking the Hags once or twice, they hadn’t produced one shred of tangible evidence about what happened to her. To be fair, they hadn’t exactly promised information about her, but they had teased me with the knowledge that they’d known her. And I had a feeling they knew at least something about what happened to her.

But if they didn’t want to tell me, that was fine. Just meant I had to do my own exploring

Away from the stuffy old tower.

To take a stuffy old bus, but hey. That was only the first leg of my journey.

The bus bumped over the old brick road past new downtown. Most of the people got off at the stop at the square. I stayed on until the bus made its way to the edge of old downtown. Most of the shops were closed or boarded up. A few people milled around, smoking cigarettes on the corner waiting for the bus or making their way to the cheap laundry mat or the payday loans place.

I got off and made my way past all those places, to the dead mall at the end of the strip.

There are a lot of doors in malls, and dead ones are great places for people like me. I was looking for a door to a place between worlds. I was looking for an oracle.

Okay, so I didn’t exactly have a lead on my mother. I had a lead on someone who might have a lead. And the only way to get to her was to go through the right combination of doors. And it just so happened, after a little meditation with the witchy hive mind, I heard the whisperings of a book that had a map.

It took a while, but I found the book.

My wanderings away from the Hags wasn’t always recreational.

The book was a whole different quest, but it was boring. This one had the potential to be more fun.

I used my lunar key to get through the lock on one of the dead mall’s doors and slipped inside.

The place had been abandoned for years. People liked their independently owned stores in town, so the newer downtown side had popped up in opposition to the mall. It made me a little sad. I had memories of holding mom’s hand as we made our way through the massive hallways of the mall, sounds echoing in a cacophony near the toy store as we threw pennies into the fountain.

It was quiet now. No more children laughing or fountains burbling. No more smells of the food court or the cinnamon roll place. Malls across the country were nearing their ends, we’d just killed ours before the trend.

The empty halls were lonely, so I didn’t dally. I hurried down the main thoroughfare, down to the old food court, and into the customer service area. Just past the abandoned desk was another short hallway with drinking fountains and the restrooms. Pressing my lips together to avoid snickering, I pushed into the men’s restroom. Inside was disgusting, but probably not as bad as it had been when it was in use. Sinks and urinals were crusted with rust stains and dirt. Mirrors were streaked with grime. There were two stalls, one with a faded, curling sign that said, “Out of Order.”

I said a quick incantation to start my journey to the oracle and opened the stall. When I stepped through, I was no longer in a gross dead mall men’s room with a broken toilet, but a long hallway with plush carpets and dozens of doors on either side.

A swanky hotel. Behind me was a door to the stairwell. I was pretty sure if I opened it, it would be a stairwell, but it might also lead somewhere else entirely. I knew it wouldn’t lead back to the dead mall.

My quest had begun.

Now I just had to find the next door. I pulled up the map of the book in my mind’s eye. A dozen steps forward, half a dozen back, three steps forward for the triple moon goddess, and one back for the wise crone. Left hand of darkness. I was standing in front of room number 1313.

I raised an eyebrow as I used my key to unlock the door. Hotels didn’t typically have a thirteenth floor. Bad luck and all that. I was pretty sure I had the right door.

Instead of a hotel room, I was in a…I paused and looked around. A bank?

“Hey, you there! How the hell did you get in here?”

I blinked at the cluster of people at the far end of the room. They were wearing masks, most of them had guns, and they were crouched in front of what looked like a safe door.

My eyes widened. Really? I’d landed in the middle of a bank robbery? I swallowed hard and tried to make my expression as nonchalant as I could.

I held my hands up. “I’m the other man. Sorry I’m late.”

The masked people exchanged confused glances.

“We’re not expecting…”

I waved my hands as I stepped forward. “Of course you are. You’ll never get the safe opened without me.”

“I don’t trust her. Let’s just shoot her and get it over with,” one of the masked men said.

I held my breath as the rest hesitated and exchanged more glances. I resisted the urge to put my hand on the door behind me, which would lead me away from the oracle, but back to safety.

“You really think you can open the safe?” the one crouched next to the locking mechanism said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Not having any luck, are you?”

Trigger happy guy shoved a gun in my face, but another one of them put a hand on his arm.

“Let her try. But no funny business, lady, or we’ll blow your head off.”

I nodded and tried really hard to keep my arm steady as I reached for the combination lock. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and asked the hive mind for help. I let go of my control on my body and allowed a presence slip into me, and it turned the combination lock this way and that, until there was a click. I sighed and took control of my body once more, then encouraged my little lunar key to open the keyhole lock. The safe door clicked open.

“I can’t believe it. She did it.”

I put my hand on the lever to open it when the gun man put his gun back in my face.

“She doesn’t get to go first.”

I took a steadying breath. “Don’t be silly. Of course I do. Who do you think is going to disarm the alarm on the other side for you?”

“Alarm on the other side?”

While they all hesitated and assimilated that new—false—information, I pushed through the safe door, bracing myself for them to unleash gunfire on me.

“Hey!”

I pushed the door shut behind me quickly and leaned against it, breathing heavily. That was close. Too close.

I looked up to find I was standing in a waiting room. Chairs were lined up against one wall, a handful of people sitting in them, and a receptionist sat behind a desk. This was supposed to be it, though. I checked the door behind me. It was the door to a doctor’s office.

I went up to the receptionist and cleared my throat. She finally looked up at me.

“Do you have an appointment?”

I blinked. “Um. No?”

“Take a number and take a seat.” She gestured to one of those number dispensing wheels.

I looked from the numbers to the receptionist to the waiting room. “Um. I’m not here to see a doctor. I’m here to see…”

The woman gave me a severe look. “If you don’t have an appointment, you’ll have to take a number.”

My eyes went wide as I took a number. The woman hadn’t looked entirely human for a moment.

I looked around the waiting room and took a seat a few seats away from one of the people. I looked at my number. I picked up a magazine from the table and flipped through it. The line didn’t seem to be moving at all. I bit the inside of my cheek. This stupid quest to the oracle reminded me a lot of my trials to get initiated as a witch, each step of the way having puzzles. I assumed each door was to test my metal. The first door had been faith, of course. The second had been courage. And now, what, patience? That last one wasn’t my strong suit.

I was about to get up and bother the receptionist again, especially since nobody had been called, when the at the far end of the room opened, and someone called my number.

“That’s me.” I stood up and glanced at the other waiting room folks, but none of them even looked up.

With a shrug, I walked through the door and closed it behind me.

I was standing in a clearing with a wishing well in the middle. A smile tugged at my lips. It was exactly as I’d imagined it would be, so I had to assume that’s why it looked the way it did.

I dug around in my pocket and pulled out a penny. A penny I’d kept on my person for two decades. I clutched it in my fist for a moment, then gave it a kiss before I stepped forward and tossed it into the well. A voice echoed up from its depths.

“Hello, Rachel. What can I do for you today?”

The voice reminded me of mom, in a way. It wasn’t her voice, but it was close. Close enough to hurt.

“You’re an oracle. Don’t you already know?” I snapped.

There was silence for a moment, and I regretted my sharp tone.

“Oracles know many things, child, but the minds of mortals are a mystery to us. I can see you coming to me with questions, but the questions are unclear until you speak them.”

I blinked back tears. “What happened to my mother? Why did she die? Why was she taken from me so young?” My voice came out strained. I hadn’t meant to fall apart. I’d thought I’d cried all the tears I could ever cry about Mom. Apparently not.

“For your last question, dear, it was to put you on the path that you are on. Loss tempers humans like a blacksmith tempers a sword. It makes you sharp and strong.”

I sniffed against a sudden rush of snot. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. “Well it sucks. I don’t want to be hard and strong.”

“And for that, I am sorry, child.”

“Not your fault. I imagine it sucks being able to see things but not be able to change them.”

Silence again, but it was friendlier silence.

“So? What happened to her?” Mom’s death had been a mystery. By all accounts, she was perfectly healthy. And then she just…died. Doctors said it had probably been an aneurism or heart failure, but they hadn’t found evidence of either one.

“Rose was victim of a curse.”

I blinked as I considered that. “A curse?”

“Yes. And that is the answer to your first two questions.”

I broke out in a cold sweat. I should have prepared better. Three questions. That’s all I got. I’d let emotion get the better of me.

“Wait! Who cursed her? Why?”

“I’m sorry, Rachel. I can answer no more questions.”

“No! I take it back. The last question. I don’t care about that. Tell me who cursed her!”

More silence, and I sank to my knees in despair. I’d wasted the whole trip.

Well, not the whole trip. Knowing there had been a curse was a start.

“Thank you, oracle, for answering my questions.”

“Thank you for your gift.”

The coin. My mother had given it to me to throw into a fountain when I was six years old. But as I stood making my wish, she’d collapsed, dead, beside me. I’d kept the coin ever since.

At least now I had more information about why.

“Rachel. I cannot answer any more questions, but I can give you a warning.”

Goosebumps rose along my arms.

“What is it?”

“The curse is not yet through with your family.”

I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. That explained why the Hags treated me with kid gloves. And why they were so hard on me when I missed things. The curse was coming for me, too.

“Thank you for that.”

“Remember what I said about tempered weapons,” the oracle whispered as the clearing before me began to fade. The well was the last thing to go, shifting from the wishing well to a ticket booth.

I was back at the bus station.

My shoulders slumped as I got on a bus back to the tower.

A curse, was it? Well, curses could be broken. Asking the oracle would have been easier, but I could find out the other answers on my own. It would take time and hard work. But surely the Hags would help me with that. Although even if they didn’t, I’d find a way.

“You missed the ritual, Rachel,” Marian scolded when I pushed through the tower door.

I nodded. “Sorry. I hope it went all right.”

“You know very well it didn’t. No laurel wreath and no mulled wine. Honestly. What were you thinking? How could you be so irresponsible?” Sorita said, picking up the scolding where Marian had left off.

I looked to Althea, who was quiet.

“What are we going to do with you?” Marian asked with a put-upon sigh.

“Nothing. Or fire me. I don’t care.” I left the way I’d come, back into the vestibule, which was now a porch overlooking a green screen that had a forested creek. I sat on the porch swing and brooded.

I was surprised when Althea joined me. It was rare that they left their tower, even to go as far as the vestibule.

She gingerly settled herself next to me on the swing, and we were quiet for a while.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” she finally asked.

I shrugged. “Sort of. But the answers I found just brought up more questions.”

Althea nodded. “That tends to be the way of things.”

A pre-recorded soundtrack played the same bird sounds intermittently, along with the hum of insects and the occasional gusting of wind. It wasn’t anything like being outside, but it felt safe.

Maybe it was time to stop feeling safe.

“What should I do?” I finally asked.

Althea took a long, deep breath. “I’m afraid that’s a question we can’t answer for you. Only give you the tools to find the answers yourself.”

I snorted. “They won’t help.”

Althea smiled fondly. “They will. Give them a little credit. They may not exactly be happy about it, but we all help you in the ways that we can.”

I pursed my lips as I thought about that. She wasn’t wrong. They each had their way of doing things. Each prepared me in different ways. Perhaps they really were giving me the tools to find my own way.

“And my mother?”

Althea let out a long sigh. “You know as much as we do, at this point.”

I had figured as much. I badly wanted to ask Althea about her. To tell me a story. Talk to me about her training. Speak fondly in the way I sometimes heard all of them talk about her.

But I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for that kind of reminiscence. Not until I figured out the curse.

I squatted down and reached under the porch. “Here. I know it’s a little late for the laurels, but at least we can have some wine tonight.”

Althea’s eyes twinkled as she twisted off the top and took a swig. “How about we keep it between us, eh?” She passed me the bottle.

I smiled back and took a long pull myself. “Deal.”


Inspired by the title “Wayward Witch” by Kita Haliwell (with additional inspiration from the title “Two Sides to Each Door” by Ashley Hill).

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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