We traveled by night. Like all young girls and boys in Duskwood, I kept inside at night. Even the Coven traveled as a group, Claret, myself and three others. I didn't know them, but I knew we all wore the same robes. It was the first time she let me wear the robes.
She spoke to me, telling me about the night. She pointed at the moss on the stones on the side of the road, telling me how it marked the way. She told me about the leaves and how they overturned in the wind, foretelling a storm. She spoke more that night than I ever remember, and all I could do was listen.
The others were always at work, even as we walked. One held a long chain with a cauldron on one end, and another a ladle. He dipped the ladle into the cauldron again and again, sweeping his arm back and forth, pouring a tincture onto the road. I remember seeing how it evaporated before it touched the ground; it disappeared as a fine mist and sizzled like water on fire.
The third hid their hands in her cloak and muttered incantations. Even with my ears filled with Claret’s voice, I recognized a few of the incantations: They were snippets of spells I perfected when I first joined the Coven. I couldn't recognize all of it, only the parts that were mine. They flowed into other stanzas, using words that were crafted by my Coven brothers and sisters.
As we walked, I began to see roads I never knew before, trees that were thicker and darker. I'd never left my own town and I thought it was plenty big enough. When people spoke of Duskwood, I always considered the border just right outside town, just beyond the line of trees. It was then I knew that the line of trees didn't end; it continued thicker and darker into the wood. The wood seemed endless.
We came upon a trail that to me was unmarked, but Claret knew the way. We twisted and turned through the trees, ever deeper, but I didn't feel a moment of fear. I kept thinking how rare it was to see things like this, that these were things that Claret did when she was gone, that these were things that no Coven brother or sister would speak about, because to speak about such things was forbidden by tradition. No one dreamed or dared of being the broken chain link. That dream was a nightmare and felt close to death.
Claret was silent when we arrived at the clearing. I never heard of this place, but the Coven hardly spoke of things other than what was immediately around us. We never talked about far away places. Then again, I wasn’t sure just how far away this was. It felt as if we walked all night.
The tree line finally broke apart, but the edges twisted and wove together, the saplings braiding until they formed a circle. Lights were already lit between the branches; they hung there as if suspended. It was strange, because I didn't remember any of us striking out ahead to light the lights. They looked like little green lanterns and glowed with a faint, droning hum.
Saplings from the outer circle wove into the ground like a carpet and rose again in the center of the ring. They gnarled together into a raised platform that was pointed at its edges. I didn’t know what it was for, but my other brothers and sisters were quick to distribute themselves equally around it. Claret kept me by her side and I was glad to stay.
The chanting of our one brothers quickly spread to the others until they were all channeling the same spell. As their voices rose, I recognized even more parts of the spell, all of the tiny portions I helped craft during my first Coven days. As their voices grew louder and louder, I could better hear how the separate portions of the spell came together and worked a powerful magic that was impossible if the spell’s pieces were kept apart. Pride again swelled within me that together, the Coven was capable of such a working, such a tumultuous spell, and I was part of it. I was part of it.
Something writhed in the center of the clearing, something that looked like it clawed into being from sheer nothingness, something that gasped and hissed and flung unseen venom and unspoken curses from the green slits of its hateful, hateful eyes. Our spell chanted on unabated, forcing the creature to its bidding. It was a creature of darkness, and our spell deftly ensnared and forced into our plane.
I saw it all… such a twisted visage. And even though I’d never see one of its kind before, I knew what it was. I knew what it meant, and yet denied it. I remember thinking of so many other things it could be except for what it truly was. All it was. All it could be. Nothing else. My stomach, the most honest part of me, churned in step with the shackled demon writhing before us. It strained beneath its bonds, hissed between clenched teeth, and cast a seething gaze upon Claret. Though its eyes were not meant for me, I felt its gaze. I felt the heat, the hate, the silent curses and promises of death and vengeance. I trembled. I nearly fell to my knees. My teeth chattered and my stomach heaved altogether. My heart thudded in my chest and my breath strangled into gasps.
I tore my eyes from its own and looked at Claret. She stood unmoving, her lips still, and dark eyes staring straight into the demon’s fiery green. Though she seemed so much smaller, much more human, and somehow more beautiful than ever before, I felt a pang of fear at the sight of her that struck deeper than what the demon ever struck in me — and then it was gone. My fear choked like a stifled flame and the sight of Claret reclaimed me. I felt my confidence swell again, even as my stomach still churned in lonely protest.
I kept my eyes on her throughout all the rest of the ritual. It carried me through. I did not know it then, but my brothers’ and sisters’ eyes did the very same as mine.