16. Scribbling

2022, March 16th
Collapse – 27 years

“And how far away can you sense them?” Katherine asked.

Sibyl shrugged. “A hundred meters, maybe more. They don’t disappear. I just don’t notice them anymore, if that makes sense.”

“I think so.” Katherine scribbled in her notebook. “What about if they’re mad or something? Can you sense stronger emotions from farther away?”

“Now that you mention it.” Sibyl leaned back. “Once, we were at a local harvest festival in France. This was just before we met Josephine. I sensed fear far away in an alley. When we passed by, a few brutes were robbing someone, but I’d only sensed the fear at first. It wasn’t until we were closer that I sensed the others. So I guess I can. I never put much thought into it.”

“Really?” asked Katherine. “You’ve never tested that? You never tested the range limit of your own power?”

Sibyl shrugged. “My power has always been good enough for me.”

Katherine’s face lit. “Would you let me test it for you?”

“I… suppose so.”

Josephine smiled at this exchange. Ever since they’d picked Katherine up from near the school, her reclusive attitude had turned inside out. During the car ride, she barraged Alexander and Josephine with questions. What’s it like to take memories? Can you make people forget anything? Can you make them remember? What’s it like to read minds? Why do you need eye contact? Can you read minds through glasses? Foggy glasses? Stained glasses? Mirrors? One way mirrors?

She and Alexander answered as best they could, but many answers ended up being, “I don’t know.”

The coven had rented a row of connected suites at a nearby Hilton. Sibyl was waiting in the presidential suite when they arrived. Katherine bombarded her with a fresh round of questions, only this time she had her notebook. She was like a pressure cooker of excitement; Josephine wondered if she might explode.

“What about walls?” she asked Sibyl. “Can you see through walls?”

Sibyl found the idea amusing. “No. No, I can’t see through walls.”

Katherine furrowed her brow. “Why not? Didn’t you tell me earlier that you once sensed someone sneaking up on you when they thought you were asleep?”

“Yes?”

“Weren’t your eyes closed? Didn’t you see their aura through your eyelids? And wait! You said you could see auras from behind.”

“Well…” Sibyl’s fumbled for words. “I don’t really see them. I sense them.”

“Then how come you can’t sense through walls?”

“I’m… I just can’t”

“Can you see my aura right now?”

“Yes.”

“My whole aura?”

“Yes.”

“But you can only see my top half. The rest of me is under the table. What if I lowered? When would you stop sensing my aura?”

“When you’re out of view.”

“But what’s that mean? When I’m completely out of view? So if you could see a few hairs on my head, you could see my aura?”

Sibyl didn’t have an answer.

Alexander laughed. “She’s got you there, Sibyl.” He helped himself to a tiny bottle from the suite’s mini fridge. “I think I might have an idea what her witch power is.”

“What?” asked Katherine.

“A never-ending well of questions.”

He said it with a smile, but Katherine’s energy receded. “I’m not annoying any of you, am I?”

“No.” Alexander sat on the bed next to Josephine. “On the contrary. I find this endlessly amusing.”

“Oh, okay.” Her smile bounced back. She resumed scribbling notes.

Josephine marveled at how different this girl was. When they’d first seen her at the airport, she was pitiful—a frumpy child no one would look twice at. Now with her face alight, she was actually kind of cute, if only she took care of herself more, and wore something other than that hoody. Now that she’d taken it off, her figure wasn’t too bad. Sure, she had a bit of weight in her thighs, but with only a few pounds less, she might be curvaceous, maybe even attractive.

That school was poisonous for her. The bullying and the poor home life had been slowly transforming her into something ugly and forgotten. It warmed Josephine’s heart knowing that they were going to be her heroes. Now Katherine would become the person she deserved to be.

Katherine looked up from her notes. “What about clothes? Clothes don’t stop you from seeing auras, right?”

“Right.”

“But what if I put my hoodie on and turned away from you? You wouldn’t see any of my skin, but you’d still be able to see my aura, right?”

“I…”

“Can we try it? Then can we try the table thing?”

“I suppose—”

A knock interrupted them.

“I guess it will have to wait.” Sibyl stood quickly. She couldn’t reach the door soon enough.

Sakhr, Anton, and Christof entered. Each carried supplies and groceries.

“Ah,” said Sakhr. “I see our guest has already arrived.”

Katherine gave a tiny wave and tried to smile. She was back in her shell. Josephine couldn’t blame her. Sakhr had a severe, paternal aura about him. It had accumulated over centuries of living among mortals. It gave others the impression of being near royalty.

After dropping his bags, he bowed majestically. “It is my pleasure to meet you. Katherine; yes?”

Katherine nodded.

“My name is Sakhr, and I am the father of this coven. I am pleased to welcome you to our group.” He held out his hand.

Eyes wide and body tense, Katherine took his hand. “Hello,” she said, then nearly yelped when he planted a kiss on her knuckle.

Once he let it go, she cradled her hand as though it had become foreign to her. Sakhr continued. “Allow me to introduce you to Christof Schuster. He is the man who spotted you.”

Christof greeted her with a casual smile. Katherine responded with less reserve. Unlike Sakhr, he kept a younger and more approachable body. It made him less intimidating.

“And here is Anton Formenko,” Sakhr continued.

Anton nodded.

“Hey,” said Katherine. “You’re that guy from the airport. The guard without a uniform.”

“Yes.”

“What were you doing?”

“I was finding out where you and your father lived.”

“You were using powers on him, weren’t you?”

Anton nodded.

“What’s your power?”

“It is Authority. When I give orders, others feel they must obey.”

Katherine stared at him in awe. Josephine could sense questions forming inside her head.

“Wow,” she said. “Is there any limit to it?”

“Limit?”

“Could you, and I’m not saying you should, but could you order someone to shoot themselves?”

Anton chuckled. “No. It is not absolute. They have their will. They only see me as someone they should obey. Not even a peasant would listen to a king if he tells him to kill himself.”

“Could you order someone to count all the blades of grass in a field?”

“They might start. I don’t think they’d finish. Reason would find them. Think of it this way. A law officer can order you to do a lot, because you fear them. You respect them. You act without thinking, but still within reason. That is my power, only stronger. It works better if they see me as an authority. That is why I told your father I worked for the airport.”

Katherine scribbled furiously in her notebook. She looked up when she finished. “May I see it?”

Anton looked around, like a magician looking for a suitable volunteer. He settled on Katherine. “Stand on your chair.” Beneath his words was a tone Josephine had heard many times. Even after more than a century, the small fight-or-flight part of her brain hiccuped. Something automatic tried to kick in.

Katherine, however, didn’t hesitate. She was on her chair instantly.

“Did you try to disobey?” asked Anton.

“I… wow. No. I didn’t. I feel like I could have. Just…” She laughed. “Try it again.”

“Try to resist this.” Once again, in that strange voice, Anton said, “Take off your clothes.”

Katherine’s eyes widened. Her body went rigid. Her hand drifted to the sleeve of her T-shirt and hesitated.

“Do it,” Anton said.

Trembling, she pulled the sleeve over her arm.

Josephine looked around. Everyone watched. Alexander was smirking.

“Stop it,” Josephine said.

Anton did nothing.

“Anton. I said stop it.”

Sakhr spoke. “Anton, enough.”

Anton relented. “Stop undressing and sit.”

Relieved, Katherine dropped into her seat.

“I hope I did not scare you. You see though that you would have done so. Not easy to resist.”

Katherine nodded. Her body still quaked a little. “I see. Couldn’t you… I don’t know… have shown me on one of them?” She looked at the coven.

Anton shook his head. “I wish I could. If my power still worked on them, I’d be running this coven.”

Sakhr gave a dry laugh at that.

“No. People hear my power… they build tolerance. Their minds learn it’s a trick.”

Katherine nodded in understanding. “So you won’t be able to do that again?”

“Don’t worry. I won’t. Just for demonstration.”

Katherine nodded. Her eyes drifted to Sakhr. “May I know what your power is?”

“You may. Although my power is better demonstrated than explained. Shall I?” He sat and extended his hands across the table toward her.

She took them.

Josephine circled and got ready to grab Sakhr if necessary.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes?”

Then it did happen. Sakhr jolted upright. He would have fallen out of his chair if Josephine hadn’t caught him. Alarmed, he looked about. His frantic gaze fell on Katherine, who observed him calmly. He stared in disbelief, then slapped his hands to his chest and felt himself over. It’s when his hands fell to his crotch that his panic took over. A wordless noise escaped his lips. It turned to a yell, and then a scream.

Alexander burst out laughing. The others chuckled. Josephine rested a calming hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. To an outside observer, one might suspect that something terrible happened that Sakhr hadn’t expected. To Josephine and the others, they’d seen this panic many times over.

Sakhr and Katherine had switched bodies, and now Katherine was discovering what it felt like to have male genitalia.

From within Katherine’s body, Sakhr held out a hand. “Here,” he said in a calm female voice.

Katherine was too busy panicking, so Sakhr reached and touched her arm. Instantly, the switch was undone.

Sakhr, back in his own body, calmly retook his seat. He stated the obvious. “I can switch bodies with others.”

Katherine was still recovering from her hyperventilation. Involuntarily, her hand strayed between her legs, just to make sure. Even Josephine grinned at that.

“Is it permanent?” Katherine asked.

“It is.”

“What happens if your body dies while you’re in somebody else?”

“Then it dies, and the other person dies with it.”

Katherine pondered this. All panic was gone. Curiosity was back.

Finally, “How old are you? Chronologically?”

Josephine was impressed. Katherine had skipped past the question of whether he was in his original body, and jumped straight to the logical conclusion: immortality.

Sakhr grinned like a smug cat. “For my first switch, I left my slaver to build the pyramids in my stead.”

That wasn’t entirely true, but Sakhr told it that way for effect. He was born as a slave in Egypt. However, he later admitted that he’d actually been a servant to an overweight politician, and that he was born about five centuries after the pyramids were constructed, but everyone agreed that Sakhr’s pyramid version was punchier.

“Wow,” said Katherine. “What if… How do you…” She giggled. “I have so many questions I don’t know what to ask first.”

“You have all the time in the world to ask them.”

Katherine chewed her lip a moment. “When do I get to know what my power is?”

The others didn’t respond.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing’s wrong,” said Sakhr. “We’re just not sure yet.”

“How did the rest of you learn your powers? Is it through experimentation?”

“Normally I tell them,” Christof said. “When I look at people, I see these things in my head, like living blocks of clay, or physical metaphors. Somehow, I always know what they mean, like how you know things in a dream.”

“But not with me?”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can tell you are a witch, I’m just not sure what your power does.”

“Can you tell anything?”

“I think… I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it can do anything.”

Katherine’s smile faded. “You mean I can’t do anything special?”

“Maybe not now, but it’s not nothing. I can see it… wriggling. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

“Was it doing that at the airport?” Sakhr asked.

“No. At least I don’t think so.”

“But it’s going to change?” Katherine asked.

“Don’t worry, Katherine,” said Sakhr. “We will figure out what you can do. If it can be unlocked, we will.”

“And if it can’t?” Katherine’s expression was pleading, like a child asking if their parents were going to be okay. Josephine wanted to hug her.

“It will,” Sakhr said. “Whether it takes days or centuries, we won’t give up.”

“Centuries? How could we take centuries to…” Her eyes widened. Her apprehension was forgotten. “I get it. Body switching. Right? You’ve been keeping the others alive. You switch with one of them, then you switch to a stranger’s body, and then back to your own. That puts you back in your own body, and leaves one of you switched with the stranger. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Very good, Katherine,” Sakhr said.

“Are you all really old?”

“Some of us are older than others, but yes, everyone here is at least a century old.”

“Are you going to do that for me one day?”

“If you choose to join our coven, yes.”

“I’ll join!”

“Just like that?”

Katherine nodded violently.

“We travel, Katherine. To avoid detection. You would be leaving your old life behind. Your education. Your father…”

Katherine paused. This might be the first time since Josephine had introduced herself that Katherine had thought of home. For Josephine, joining had been a simple choice. Her family had been dead. The Russians had executed them when they invaded in 1870. They had let her live, as though they’d forgotten she was there. She only understood why years later after Christof explained her power.

Katherine nodded slowly. “I still want to do it. I hate my life here. I want to leave. I can finish learning on my own. I just… I should call my dad. He’s probably worried about me right now. Can I see him one last time?”

Sakhr almost laughed. “We just arrived yesterday. I don’t plan on leaving for at least a week. Take time, Katherine. Make sure this is what you want to do.”

The, “take your time” speech was comforting. He had told it to Josephine too. She always had appreciated it, even if she’d already made up her mind in the first minute.

Though sometimes she wondered what he’d do if a new witch said no. She knew Sakhr too well now. He wasn’t someone who would take no for an answer. Perhaps this choice—this time—was just a gentle illusion. It never came up for Josephine. And it clearly won’t come up here either.

Katherine would become the seventh witch in the coven.

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