A Coven of the Bowler Story by Yvette Keller
Illustrations by Wirt Salthouse
Grey stopped, reaching into the cart, and I spotted another movement. A figure approaching from Carpinteria Street. Blood double-timed through my veins. No interruptions for eight generations…why me?
I’d kept watch over Grey Wolf for three uneventful hours of shuffling, chanting, pushing a shopping cart around…and around…and around…in a traffic circle pool of light. Now someone in an oversized sweatshirt appeared out of the darkness, hood pulled low. The scenario that popped into my head was bad: Grey’s disguise was too good. Easy blood. The intruder would be a gang initiate assuming nobody would miss a crazy homeless person. Grey’s “ritual” costume amused me, but maybe what he considered an innocuous disguise had introduced run-of-the-mill street danger to our casting.
Assuming the intruder was a criminal, he had to know he wouldn’t get much from a bum. Grey’s weathered suit had been black once, or maybe smoke. Under the street lights, it looked pale, the color of driftwood. It made him easier to see in 3 AM darkness, so I was all for it…unless it made him a mark.
Grey had just finished a circumnavigation and declared it in a clear voice to no one in particular. He was at 497, grabbing the last full plastic bag. In case an insomniac pedestrian happened to walk by, the cart bulged as if filled with the necessities of a transient life. Grey used a rumpled sleeping bag to hide the arcane ingredients. I preferred my trench coat with custom pockets but it was his turn this year.
Eyes on the slow moving figure, I wondered: Had the old-fashioned bowler hat attracted attention? It seemed precarious on Grey’s head –a facade. The hat would stay put, just like mine. Unlike mine, Grey had enhanced his hat. Stringy grey hair fell limply from the brim. The fake hair impaired his vision less than his concentration. I knew from 2012 when I’d drawn the short straw, that the casting required hyper-focus. Grey couldn’t see outside his circle. He would be oblivious to the figure approaching, and even if he could see, he couldn’t stop and do anything about it. That was my job.
I watched long enough to take a grounding breath. I shifted my weight, pulling out my cell. The intruder was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but man, the time was really wrong. Poor dude. I wasn’t sure the operation was threatened, but a criminal stereotype was heading toward my wizard. Theft made no sense, and if the guy considered Grey disposable thanks to his disguise, he was so completely wrong.
He didn’t know about the skittering evils able to prey on human emotion. Sketches from the coven’s book of shadows hadn’t given him nightmares for weeks. That was me, unable to get a good night’s sleep for most of August, after studying up on how to treat necrotic wounds left by septic ghouls…just in case.
I knew our coastal town wouldn’t miss Grey specifically if someone made him a trophy kill. But the whole world was sure gonna miss the relative safety of a couple hundred years if the protections didn’t get renewed tonight.
Grey rummaged for components. He had no idea he might be in danger. I phoned it in.
Cell to my mouth and tipping my chin down to muffle sound, I dialed and whispered, “Dispatch, we have an intrusion.”
“Copy, Black Cat. What circuit?”
The dispatcher swore, “You’re kidding me. Bystanders?”
“Cast storm. Wind too. Knock the intruder down, hard. We’ll power you up from here. Hold him for the last three circuits. I’ll anonymous tip the SBPD to look for…?”
“A dark hoodie and jeans. Ding-dong-ditching? Climbing fences?”
“Right. I’ll come up with something and send them north of your location.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
I hung up as Grey crouched to scatter blessed quinoa, starting Circuit 498. Hoodie reacted, checking all directions for witnesses and stepping off the curb.
Standing up, I breathed in deep and fast until my ribs creaked audibly.
I whispered a typhoon incantation and dispatch focused a couple members of the coven through me. Our combined intention sent my exhalation billowing down Milpas Street. At East Beach, air plunged into the sea. My magic sculpted rushing winds into an invisible bucket. Three of us scooped enough ocean to sink the cruise ship docked off the coast. I controlled my magically extended breath, forcing watery air into a curve, turning back toward the roundabout.
My lungs reversed, now empty and aching, becoming a vacuum. My jaws ached from keeping my mouth open, sucking breath back in to conjure a brutal northward squall. Inhaling a mini El Niño that targeted the intruder, I checked Grey’s progress in my peripheral vision.
Halfway around the traffic circle, sorcerous power and the sudden weather made Grey increase his pace. Disciplined, trusting the coven to guard him, Grey’s lips constantly whispered the protection renewal spell. No nasty goblins, ghosts –or worse– would be sneaking in via our portal. Circuit 500 would protect us for another year.
The wind wracked tall palm trees, street signs vibrated, and Grey hunched further over the handle, threading his fingers through the cart’s grating. His suit flapped wildly. The weak edge of the typhoon caught him but his bowler never moved.
The intruder wasn’t so lucky. Breaking waves of wind smashed him to the ground, and his hood slipped. A black emptiness and demonic violet eyes turned an execration on me. My eyes opened as wide as my mouth and I struggled to sustain the casting.
Not a criminal. Not even human. It lifted soggy arms toward me and my breath –my spell– caught in my throat. The air around me turned thick with palpable loathing and I choked, unable to continue inhaling. The fiend had closed my windpipe from 100 feet away, which wasn’t possible. I was losing a magical battle to an unnamed paranormal horror. I’d studied. And if I’d never seen it in the book of shadows, that meant it didn’t exist. No ancestor had ever seen it.
Without air, the night started to fade. Sparkling bursts encroached on the edges of my vision. The air and water raised by the spell started to lose momentum, increasing my panic. I was about to blackout when the linked coven members sensed my predicament. My bowler began to vibrate and a white rush of new energy surged down through my hat. Blinding, immense power filled my body, reopened my throat, and intensified my spell.
Eleven times the normal magic current rushed from my scalp to trachea. My poor brain, caught in between, ached from occult concussion. I struggled to channel the overwhelming force, burning my sinuses and sizzling my eyeballs until all I saw was green afterimage blindness.
Worried that somehow it hadn’t been enough, that Grey might still be in danger, I squeezed my eyes closed, blinking hard to fade the viridescent glow. Sight returned just in time for me to watch the monster go rolling by like a twig in a flash flood. Thankfully, whatever it was, it was corporeal enough to be swept away, past the stoplight at Quinientos.
I released my breath and the magic. Staring up the street, red and blue lights approached the intersection. Dispatch’s anonymous tip was wrong: the suspicious hooded figure wouldn’t be caught. It would hide, or dematerialize if it could.
My phone vibrated with a text:
Nice work, Black Cat. Brace for Circuit 500.
I ducked back behind my car for protection against a geyser of light and a second blinding. I couldn’t see Grey Wolf, but it was over, I didn’t need to. Instead, I let my head fall back against the door, enjoying the spellbinding amber fireworks. Familiar glowing pinpoints rose silently in a column toward the moon. Falling outward, the net covered the roundabout and sank into the concrete. The protection had been renewed, and Grey’s conjuring was complete.
A cart rattle and three thumps meant that Grey had jumped the fence, landing on the driveway near his tossed bags. Heaving myself onto rubbery muscles I rasped, “Let’s get out of here.”
Grey threw bags over his shoulder into the backseat, “Another year, another portal sealing. What was with the wet magicking, Cat?”
“Intruder,” came harshly from my seared throat. I turned my Prius onto the 101. Away from police lights and violet demon eyes. After a swig from the water bottle in the car’s console, I croaked out, “We’re not safe.”
“Not safe from what?”
“Whatever I just saw. Something not in the book of shadows. A darkness with purple eyes. It saw me.” Chilled in my soul, I kept swallowing hard and wincing from the pain.
“You took care of it? That’s impressive.”
“The coven had to boost my power.”
“Everyone but you.”
“The whole coven!”
I nodded. Speaking was painful and there wasn’t much to say. The car wobbled a little, my shaking body transmitting shock and fear through the steering wheel. I had practiced my whole life to keep our community safe and it had only barely been enough. What the hell were we going to do?
Grey put a hand on my shoulder, warm and solid. “Loosen up on the wheel, Cat. You saved my life. Saved the town. We’ll figure it out. We turned back the ghouls in 1792, and whatever this new threat is, we’ll fight until we’re safe.”
I wanted to believe Grey, but even as I relaxed clenching fingers, my eyes kept flicking to the rear view mirror. Any moment I might see those violet eyes looking back at me with otherworldly hatred. Not safe, I thought, pushing my bowler down to protect a little more of my exposed neck. That was real. Never safe again.