The Apprentice

April 28th

Ever since I left the family business to pursue my own career, I have lived under the deluded belief that the reason Mom never found another apprentice was that she was hoping I would eventually change my mind. I realize now that was not the case. The real reason, I now surmise, is that young witches today are…well…how do I explain?

Anastasia, whose birth name is Margaret but insists on being called by her Spiritual Name, is one of Mom’s regular customers. She’s sixteen years old. Everything Anastasia knows about magic she learned from watching reruns of Charmed and reading Silver Ravenwolf books. Most of her purchases over the last year have been crystals and jewelry making materials. She wears what she makes. Often all of it at the same time.

“My mom said I should try to find a summer job for the summer,” says Anastasia while browsing the collection of semi-precious and simulated gemstones during her weekly after-school visit. “Because I’ll be able to get my learner’s permit soon and I’ll need gas money.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I reply while ringing up a female customer’s purchase of jasmine, vanilla, and sandalwood essential oils and a pair of diffusers. “I hope he appreciates it,” I say to the woman.

The woman blushes. “He damn well better,” she whispers and then giggles.

“Two-parts jasmine to each one-part vanilla and sandalwood,” I say as I tap her hand. “Do you have any grape seed oil?”

“No, why?”

“Makes an amazing carrier for massage oil.” The woman’s face lights up so I give her a free sample I have behind the counter. “Make sure to come back and tell me how it works out.”

Anastasia walked over to the counter with a small pewter unicorn figure in her hand. “What was that all about?” she asked as the door closed behind the woman.

“Get that smirk off your face. She’s planning a romantic evening with her husband.”

“Oh my God, how did you know that? Did you read her mind?”

“I read her purchase.”

“Oh, I didn’t see what she bought! Which oils did she buy? Is it for a love potion?”

“Not your business. And no. Just oils to set the mood. Is that all your getting?” I pointed at her hand.

Anastasia nodded and placed the figure on the counter. “You knew she was planning on getting freaky just by her purchase?”

I shook my head. “$4.29, Anastasia.” She handed me a $5 bill. “And she stopped at Victoria’s Secret before she came here.”

“How did you know that!?”

“You didn’t see the Victoria’s Secret bag she was carrying?” I handed her the change.

“Oh, no,” she laughed. I wrapped the figure in tissue paper before putting it in the bag. As I handed her the bag, she gave me an impish grin.

“So, how do you know it’s her husband?”

“She was wearing a wedding ring.”

“Yeah, but how do you know she isn’t planning a romantic evening with her boyfriend on the side.”

I shake my head. “Because she was still wearing her wedding ring.”

Anastasia shrugs and puts her purchase in her purse. “Are you going to hire anyone to help with the shop? Because, I’m, like, here all the time so I know where everything is already.”

“I’m not looking for summer help. I need someone full time.”

“But I could help out until you found someone!”

Keeping Three Wishes open, even on a reduced schedule, while also trying to maintain my clients has proven to be a burden. If it had been any other normal shop, I would have hired Anastasia for the summer. Stocking shelves and running a register is easy enough for a teenager. But there is an inventory of items that can only be handled by me or someone I could trust. How exactly would I explain to a sixteen-year-old why a customer needed a vial of goat’s semen? Hell, I still don’t exactly understand why a customer would need a vial of goat’s semen, but Mom’s supplier actually was promoting it in last month’s sales catalog as one of the “Hot Buys” of the season.

And considering how Anastasia carried on about something as simple as essential oils, I don’t think I want her handling orders for goat’s semen.

I chase Anastasia out of the shop and close up for the day. I have an evening session with the Breyers’ and still need to check my Help Wanted listing on WitchNet.

You won’t find WitchNet with a Google search for witches or magic or occult or stuff the average person would associate with the Craft. It doesn’t hotlink with other occult sites. In fact, the domain isn’t even WitchNet or anything close to that. The domain name is deliberately long and complicated to prevent people from accidentally stumbling across it. It is invitation only, with various levels of technological and mystical security protocols in place to protect the site.

You might wonder why all of the secrecy when witchcraft is so out in the open and accepted. The thing is, the Craft isn’t accepted. A watered-down illusion of the Craft is what people accept. The Craft is shielded under the combined ruses of religious freedom and pseudo-science. We don’t brew potions. It’s holistic healing or homeopathy. We don’t cast spells or rituals. We practice anthroposophical medicine. Most people think of witches as New Age hippie environmentalists. And we’re totally cool with that. Because if they actually understood the truth, it could get ugly.

See, the Inquisition didn’t finally end because mankind suddenly became enlightened. It ended because people stopped believing the supernatural was real. There is a scene in the original Men in Black when Kay says to Jay, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” This pretty much sums up the situation with the supernatural.

Can you imagine the panic if people realized that I could summon a Class Three Succubus? Not that I have any reason to. But I could. Or what if they knew that zombies were real? Granted, we aren’t talking Walking Dead zombies. Technically, those are ghouls, not zombies. Zombies are harmless. But that isn’t really the point. The point is, if the general population had any understanding of what was really going on around them, things would get very scary very quickly.

I log on to WitchNet to find another seventeen applications for the apprenticeship. This brings the total count to over seventy applications in just under a week. You’d think that out of that many applications I should be able to narrow it down to three or four of the best candidates and start interviewing. But the fact is there isn’t a single decent candidate in the whole bunch.

The first problem is that nobody read the requirements. I specified that this was an independent apprenticeship. Meaning it was for an adult student already educated in the Craft who was looking to specialize. Over half of the applications are parents trying to place their pre-teens in a residential apprenticeship. I didn’t officially become Mom’s apprentice until I was fourteen, and even then, it was only because I had been raised with a demonological education, so I already knew most of the risks. Most of these kids wouldn’t know a boggart from a pooka. More importantly, they are kids. I don’t want to raise someone else’s kids. I’m not running Hogwarts. I’m running a business.

About a third of the applications are what I like to refer to as Fairy Princesses. Your typical Fairy Princess is a witch between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four who spent most of her formative years studying enchantment or illusion. Kind of like Anastasia, only they actually know some incantations. The problem with Fairy Princesses is that they tend to be rather sheltered. They’ve never confronted anything truly dangerous. They have a romanticized notion of the Craft, which gets reinforced by their liberal use of mind-altering magic to make men fawn over them. Most Fairy Princesses don’t live pass the age of thirty, however, because eventually they try those stunts with some other witch’s husband or, worse, some shapeshifter, vampire, or incubus-possessed skin puppet.

The rest are either underqualified to pursue demonology or suspiciously overqualified. You have to worry why a Rank Two Transmuter or a Rank Three Necromancer would suddenly want to take up Demonology. Particularly in this economy. With gold selling at $2,000 an ounce, a Transmuter would never have to work again if he was careful and didn’t overplay his hand. And you might not think it, but necromancy is a rather lucrative profession, albeit a creepy one.

After skimming the newest batch of applications, I head over to the office for my appointment with the Breyers. Just as I get over the Ben Franklin Bridge, there is a detour because of a traffic accident.

Have you ever suffered the displeasure of driving in Philadelphia? It is not a driver-friendly city. It’s a spider web of one-way roads, often blocked due to double parking or oversized trucks, and highways that have off-ramps that creep off in all directions without any warning. Once you know a route, it isn’t a big deal. But a detour through Philadelphia just as well could be a detour through one of the upper levels of Hell.

The detour leads me right into a second detour, this one because two lanes are blocked off for construction. While stopped behind a Septa bus trying to navigate the single lane that was still open, I called the Breyers’ to let them know I was running late.

“Oh, I’m glad you called! Will forgot he was supposed to meet with his brother tonight, so we have to cancel,” says Ms. Breyers.

“I’m almost at the office. Can he just meet with his brother later? I don’t know when I’ll be able to reschedule.”

“He left already.”

“When did he leave?”

“About an hour ago.”

“So, you knew an hour ago you weren’t coming, and you are just now telling me? What have we been talking about the last three sessions? Haven’t we been talking about improving your channels of communication and recognizing the needs of others?”

“Um…oh…well, Will and I have opened up channels of communication! He apologized before he left and acknowledged my feelings! We’ve made real progress.”

The bus in front of me came to a complete stop. The car behind me did not.

“I’ll call you Friday to reschedule.” I hang up and put the car in park.

The guy who rear-ended me is already out of his vehicle, cursing about women drivers. The bus still hasn’t moved, and now the driver in the car behind the car that hit me insists on blaring his horn.

Have I mentioned how much I hate driving in Philadelphia?

“Do you not see the giant bus stopped in front of me?” I say as I step out of my vehicle.

“Why didn’t you just go around it?” the man slurs. Drunk and belligerent. Wonderful.

“Sure, next time I’ll go up on the sidewalk, so you can slam into the bus instead of me.” I step around to the back of my car and look at the bumper. There is a little chip in the paint, but no real damage. He has a small dent in his front bumper, but otherwise the vehicle is fine.

“Alright already!” we both yell at the guy who keeps leaning on his horn.

The drunk guy looks around and shakes his head vigorously. He looks at his car, looks at the bus, and then looks in his car. “Look, lady, I’m sorry. Been a long night just trying to get home you know?” He fumbles with his wallet and pulls out a pair of twenty-dollar bills. “Will this cover the damages no reason to call the cops or anything just paint right is this okay?”

The bus finally starts moving again. I wave off the drunk. “Just go home. That’s what I’m going to do.” I turn to get back in my car when the man grabs my arm. “Take the money!” He shoves the hand holding the money into my chest.

“I don’t want it!” I push his hand away.

“Leave her alone!” The drunk gets pulled away from me by another man. He pushed the drunk toward his car. The drunk turns around and makes a fist. The other man just stares into his eyes and says, “In your car. Now.” The drunk shakes his head again and gets in his car.

The man, who doesn’t look older than maybe eighteen or nineteen, approaches me. “You okay, Miss?”

“Yeah, thanks for that.” I put a hand to my face as the idiot with the horn starts leaning on it again. “I gotta get off this street. Holding up traffic.”

“Yeah, no problem,” he says as he touches my elbow. “We’ll talk later.” He turns and walks off before I can ask his name.

I finally got home just before 10 AM. As I step out of the shower, I feel an energy shift in the house. I wrap my robe around me and slowly open the bathroom door. I sniff the air. No sulfur smell. I quietly chant the Third Eye incantation and look around. No residue anywhere. I hear what sounds like wind chimes coming from downstairs.

Oh crap,” I think and try to sneak into my bedroom without alerting my unwanted guest.

If you think of each nether realm as its own continent, the astral realm would be the oceans that simultaneously connect and separate them all. Find the right route, and you can travel the astral plane from the Aether all the way to the lowest level of the Abyss. Not that I personally have ever traveled the Astral plane. Nor have I ever wanted to. I get frustrated enough when I have to fly across country for some conference. I can’t imagine trying to plan an itinerary for inter-realm travel.

The Astral realm isn’t exactly empty, however. It is home to all sorts of entities. Djinn, Daeva, Rakshasa, and a host of others. Unlike poltergeists and demons, these folks don’t need a host to enter the material plane. They don’t need to be summoned. They just need to find a tear in the Veil to slip through. Powerful entities don’t even need an existing tear. They just need the Veil to be thin enough to rip open. And unfortunately, one of the perils of Demonology is that our work tends to make the Veil in our immediate vicinity thin.

I pull out my pair of silver scissors from my nightstand. It’s been ten years since I’ve done any sort of binding or banishing. Please don’t be a Rakshasa, I kept saying to myself. I am too out of practice to be dealing with a Rakshasa at this hour. At least I have kept up my subscription to Demonology Today, so I was still in the loop with the most recent research. But reading the articles and practicing the rites are two different things.

I walk downstairs to find the astral form of my rescuer going through my mail.

“You have thirty seconds to explain yourself or I am gonna snip your cord!” I snap the scissors in front of me to show him I mean business.

He jumps and drops the mail. “Crap, she can see me!” he says.

“Of course I can see you!”

“Wait, you can hear me?” He seems genuinely surprised by this. He pushes his astral cord behind him with his foot.

“Who are you and why should I not cut your cord?”

The ability to just astrally project into any building unseen has a host of nefarious applications. The only thing that keeps the power from being abused is the fact that astral projectors are vulnerable to disembodiment. The astral cord connects the projector to his real body. If someone has the appropriate skill, and a properly enchanted pair of scissors, one snip severs the soul from the body and leaves the projector a ghost and his body a corpse. It’s far more complicated dealing with native entities of the astral plane, because their cord serves more as a conduit between the worlds. Severing the cord weakens them but won’t banish them outright.

“Houston,” he finally blurts out. “Houston Vaughn. You glow, so I followed you. I was gonna stop by maybe over the weekend to see if you might know anything about this but I needed to know where you lived first. And I couldn’t follow you on foot and you were in a hurry to get going earlier so I just tagged you and followed you.”

“What do you mean, ‘know anything’? And what tagging? You aren’t making sense.”

Houston pointed toward my arm. I looked down and realized that my elbow was glowing with a pale blue light. I couldn’t see it before the incantation, and after I had casted it I wasn’t paying attention to what was glowing on me because I was looking for an otherworldly intruder.

What kind of power is this? I think. Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

“Wait, wait, wait!” exclaims Houston as I approach with the scissors. “I’m sorry. I thought you would help me because you glow but not like the others.”

I stop. He looks like he’s about to cry. “What others? What do you mean by glowing?”

“Look, I was in a motorcycle accident last year. I was in a coma for a month. When I came out of it, I started to see things. I think ghosts, I guess. But real people, too. They glow with these weird lights. I don’t know. At first it was cool. But then I started floating out of my body. And then my mother showed up and she died when I was six. And now Aunt Ruth is flipping out because I asked her—”

“Stop,” I finally say. “I get it.” I start pacing. This guy manifested powers from a hit to the head? That didn’t make sense. “What was your mother’s name? Was she a witch?”

 “A witch? You mean like a real witch?”

“No, Houston. I mean like a fake one with a Halloween costume and a plastic wand with a little star on the tip.”

“Geesh, no need for the hostility.”

“It is almost 11 PM and I have an unwelcome astral intruder in my house. Be grateful all you are getting is hostility and not a snip.”

“Sorry.” Houston dropped his head and looked down at the ground. “Vivika. Vivika Marchan-Vaughn.”

“Wait, Vivika Marchan? Grande Madame Vivika Marchan?”

“Did you just call my mom a hooker?”

“Not that kind of madame! By the gods, did she not teach you anything?”

“She died when I was six. What was she supposed to teach me?”

Madame Vivika was one of the most powerful psions of the late twentieth century. Some might argue one of the most powerful psions of the last two hundred years. Her death was something of a scandal. Her first husband was convicted of killing her and her second husband as a crime of passion, but nobody in the occult community believed that. She would have sensed his intent from a hundred miles away. That’s how powerful her telepathy was rumored to be. Speculation ran the gamut from a disreputable rival to getting on the wrong side of one of The Nine to faking her own death and achieving Ascension.

And here was her son, or her son’s astral body, floating around in my living room and rummaging through my mail.

“Houston, we have a problem,” I say. “You shouldn’t be able to do this. You’re too old to start manifesting powers now and your mother was a woman.”

“Of course my mother was a woman. What else would she have been?”

“No, no, I mean, hereditary witchcraft is gender-specific. You shouldn’t have inherited your mom’s powers.”

“Wait, my mother was a witch? Witches aren’t real!”

“So says the guy floating in astral form!” I’m pacing at this point. Now less annoyed by his presence than challenged by the prospects of it. “Was your father a witch?”

“I didn’t even know my mom was! How would I know if dad was?”

“What about your Aunt Ruth?”

“I don’t know. I doubt it.”

“You’re too old to be manifesting hereditary powers. And you’re completely the wrong gender,” I say more to myself than Houston. “When did you last talk to your mother? You said you’ve seen her since this all started?”

“Yeah, I see her sometimes when I’m sleeping. She taught me the tagging thing and explained about my cord.”

“Okay, Houston, you need to go.”

“But—”

“Come by the shop tomorrow.”

“What shop?”

“Three Wishes. 113 Peach Street. I need to sleep and think and go through some of my books. I don’t know much about psionics. It’s not my field.”

“Okay. Cool. Um, I can stop by after work.”

Houston vanished. I sit on the bottom step and considered what had just transpired. I thought about summoning Mom, but I had just done that last week and while she hadn’t been mad at me, I knew I shouldn’t have done it so soon after the funeral. But we are talking about the son of Grande Madame Vivika. That’s some serious gossip to share with the rest of her new pals on the other side. But I still don’t have enough information to even know what questions to ask her. And she is still settling in to being dead. Best just to leave her alone for now.

April 29th

Houston walks into the shop around 6 PM. He’s dressed in heavy blue jeans, work boots, and a short sleeve shirt that says Hessman Construction. A couple of the ladies in the shop stop browsing the selections on the shelves and watch him walk over to the counter. I hadn’t taken a good look at him last night, because between the drunk driver and then Houston’s astral act, I wasn’t paying attention to his attractiveness.

His hair is light brown, but sun-bleached in places to a sandy blond. He hasn’t shaved today, and the stubble makes him look a few years older than he did last night. He would be carded if he walked into a liquor store, but at least he looks old enough to be out of high school. Still about ten years too young for me. But at least I don’t need to feel dirty from looking.

He wipes his cheek with the back of his hand to remove non-existent dirt as he looks around the shop. He accidentally makes eye contact with a customer, forces a smile, and looks away.

“Houston, you can just go wait in my office,” I say and point to the door.

A customer with a hand basket full of dried bundles of fenugreek, chicory, and dandelion root nods approvingly as he walks passed the counter and goes into the office. I ring up her purchase and try not to acknowledge her inference. After taking care of the last few customers, I lock up the shop and go into my office.

Houston sits on the corner of my desk, browsing through one of my wholesale occult supply catalogs. He flips through the pages, shaking his head in disbelief. “What’s a linworm and what do you do with its scales?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. That’s the premium catalog. I only order from that if it is a special-order item.” I take the catalog from him and put it in the desk drawer.

“Why do I feel like I just walked into an episode of True Blood?” he says as he collapses into a chair.

“Did you get any sleep last night? You look exhausted.”

Houston puts his elbows on his knees and drops his head into his hands. “I got into a fight with Aunt Ruth this morning. I confronted her about Mom being a witch and she freaked out.”

“By the gods! Why would you do that?”

“You asked me all these questions last night and I realized that I know nothing about my parents except what Aunt Ruth and Uncle Harold told me. And everything they told me apparently is a lie.”

“Okay, look. My bad. I didn’t warn you. Rule one. We do not talk to mundanes about the Craft. Not in any real, meaningful way. We can play the religion card. We can talk around it by referencing things like aromatherapy or colorology or other faux scientific dribble. But we do not, cannot, tell people anything remotely close to the truth.”

“Yeah, too late now. She kicked me out of the house and said I could rot in Hell with my mom. And I’m pretty sure the only reason Uncle Harold hasn’t fired me yet is because we’ve got three guys on vacation this week.”

“Are they Catholic?”

“Evangelical Protestant.”

“Damn. Sorry.”

Contrary to popular belief, modern Catholics are rather mellow about the occult. I think it is because the Catholic Church itself is rather matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Miracles. Exorcisms. Stigmatas. Bleeding statues. They got plenty of their own mysticism going on. Not that they are warm and supportive of witches or magic. They just don’t find the concept all that alien. Evangelicals, on the other hand, get crazy at the mere thought of anything supernatural. You’re dealing with people who believe Earth is only 6,000 years old. Taking “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” literally is not a big jump for them.

Houston looks up at me. His eyes are red and tearing up. I resist a sudden urge to rush around the desk and hug him. “What am I? Did you learn anything? How do I get rid of this?”

“You don’t get rid of it,” I say. “Look, I’m not an expert on psionics or anything. I’m a Demonologist. So—”

“You worship demons?” he asks with a look of horror.

“NO! Geesh, that isn’t what a demonologist does.”

“What exactly does a demonologist do, then?”

“First things first, not all demons are what you would call Christianized demons. Demons existed before the rise of Christianity. The Church just lumped all of the existing types in with the Fallen and mucked up the works in the process. Think of demons more like, like alien races. Only instead of living on other planets, they live on other planes of existence.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.”

I take a deep breath. He’s wrapped his arms around himself and he’s rocking back and forth in the chair. He looks so vulnerable and adorable and…sexy.

“What…what was that just now?” he asks as he leans back in the chair.

“What was what?”

“What just happened? The glow around you changed. It went from silver to red.”

I blush. “What…um…shade red did you see?”

“I don’t know. Red. How many shades of red are there?”

I exhale in relief. He can see auras but doesn’t know how to interpret them yet. “Never mind. We can discuss that at another time.” I regain my composure. “You…can’t turn it off, can you?” Houston shakes his head.

For most witches, invoking any sort of power requires manipulating the energies around them through incantations. Think of it like a recipe. Mix two parts of this with one part of that to get the desired result. But for a lot of psions, their powers are always on and they have to learn how to manually shut them off.

“Houston, you’re a psion. A Psychic.”

“But how? You said last night that wasn’t possible.”

“I said it wasn’t possible for you to inherit your mother’s abilities. But I did some research into your family. Your accident occurred near the anniversary of your mother’s death. I think you had a near-death experience that tore the Veil and allowed your mother to Imprint on you.”

Houston closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair until his face looked to the ceiling. “I died on the operating table. That’s what the doctor’s said. I was dead for about three minutes, but they were able to revive me.”

“I’m guessing your mother has lingered around to protect you, and when the Veil tore, she took the opportunity to Imprint on you to pass on some of her power.”

“Like a Guardian Angel?” He looks back at me with those beautiful, tear-filled eyes.

“Kind of like that,” I say. Ye gods I want to rip your clothes off, I’m thinking.

“What did you say about my clothes?” He looks confused. He didn’t even realize it was a surface thought and not a spoken statement.

“Right. Psion. No off switch.” I utter the Iron Wall incantation to shut him out of my surface thoughts. Thank the gods his ability is so clouded. “Anyway, imprinting has been known to happen during near death experiences. It usually occurs from a demon or spirit that wants the recipient to achieve some goal, however. Sometimes poltergeists or specters will imprint on a person to avenge some wrong that happened to the spirit. Or a demon might imprint on a person to manipulate the person into helping it enter the material plane later. It’s very rare for a relative to imprint on a family member, but it is theoretically possible. And considering how powerful your mother was, it doesn’t really surprise me.”

Houston looks at me with his head tilted to the side, as if studying me. “You don’t glow anymore. How did you do that?”

“It’s an incantation. I figured my aura was distracting you, so I walled it off.”

“Can you teach me how to wall people off so I don’t see their auras?”

He’d make a great apprentice. I look around the room instinctively, though I don’t actually expect to see anyone. It’s a vaguely female voice, muffled by the Veil so it is only barely audible. I smile and shake my head. “You are just loving this, aren’t you?” I whisper.

“Who are you talking to?” asks Houston.

“My mother,” I reply. “So, how would you like to be my apprentice?”

“Apprentice? Like a sorcerer’s apprentice?”

“Like a demonologist’s apprentice. I can teach you the various incantations to control your powers. And you can help me around the store.”

“I don’t know. I guess I need to learn this stuff, but I need to find a job before Uncle Harold fires me.”

“An apprenticeship is a job,” I say. “It’s a full-time position with health benefits and all of that. Though it is an HMO and due to the unique nature of some metaphysical ailments you need to use healers in network. But they’re all specialists in the Restoration school.”

“This is all weird. okay. I guess I’m in. So, what do I call you? Master? Mistress? Archmage?”

“How about just Nancy.” I go over to the file cabinet and pull out the apprenticeship agreement and related employment forms. “Just fill all of these out and I can get you set up on WitchNet.”

“So, do I sign these in blood or something?”

“Oh, sorry.” I hand him a pen.

Houston starts to fill out the paperwork, but then pauses. “Hey, I don’t know when I’ll be able to start. I still have to find a place to stay.”

“Where are you staying now?”

“I just got a room at a motel right now. But I can’t stay there permanently.”

You have a spare room in the house.

“Enough, Mom!” Houston raises an eyebrow. “I have a spare room you can stay in until you find your own place.”

“You sure that’s okay?” The side of his mouth curls up into a smile. I don’t even think he realizes he’s smiling.

“It will be fine,” I lie.

From across the Veil, I hear a muffled laugh.

Excerpt Three from Nancy Werlock’s Diary (Episode One)

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