19. Testing

2022, March 22th
Collapse – 27 years

“How about now?” asked Katherine.

“Yes,” said Sibyl.

Katherine was hiding behind a wall from Sibyl, Josephine, and Alexander. Only her gloved hand stuck out from around the corner, and she slid it out of view until only her four fingers were visible.

“Now?”

“Yes.”

Her fingers shrunk away until they disappeared. “Now,” said Sibyl.

“You can’t see my aura now?”

“Right.”

The tips of her gloved fingers reappeared.

“And now?”

“I can see it again.”

Katherine groaned. She emerged and sat at the table. “It doesn’t make any sense.” She tugged off her glove. “You can see my aura if I’m completely covered in clothes, but for some reason, a wall stops you. I’d think it was a thickness thing, but you can’t see through my hoodie when I drape it in front of me.” She tossed her glove aside. “It’s like your power just decides to ignore a barrier so long as I’m wearing it. That’s so stupid.”

Sibyl shrugged. She’d already returned to reading her magazine. Six days had passed since the coven had introduced themselves to Katherine. Each day, she’d come straight to the hotel from school, once even skipping classes. She’d inundate whoever was free with waves of fresh questions and tests. It didn’t matter who; she had fresh questions for everyone scrawled in that notebook of hers.

This weekend was particularly heavy. She’d convinced her father that she was going to a sleep over. From what Josephine understood, he had been too glad to hear she had friends at all to hamper her with parental restrictions. Josephine had indulged Katherine on Saturday. They’d wandered the mall performing every conceivable permutation of talking with people and making them forget specifics of the encounter. Today, Sunday, she hassled other coven members, those who were around anyway.

Alexander and Anton’s amusement had waned last week. They’d escaped to go do whatever they do together: probably alcohol, women, and a few drugs. Christof was here, though he was managing coven finances. That left Katherine alone with Josephine, Sibyl, and Sakhr for these marathon testing session.

“Okay,” She scribbled a note. “Sakhr, can I ask you more questions?”

“Sure.”

“You said you need physical contact to switch bodies.”

“Yes.”

“Could you do it with gloves on?”

“No.”

“So, not through their clothes either?”

“No. Skin to skin contact.”

“What about skin to hair? Or skin to nail? Or enamel?”

Sakhr chuckled. “You come up with the strangest ideas.”

“I’m not saying you should. I’m just wondering if you can.”

“Hair is no good. I’d assume the same for teeth and nail, but in all of my centuries, I’ve never tried.”

“Do you want to?” Katherine bared her teeth and leaned forward.

After a pause, Sakhr relented and lightly touched her front tooth. “No. See. I need to touch them, living flesh to flesh.”

She made notes. “Next question. Animals. Can you swap bodies with animals?”

He made a face. “Once. Never again.”

“Was it unpleasant?”

“Thoroughly. And no, we will not be conducting any tests with them. To that, I draw a line.”

“Okay.” She shifted targets. “Sibyl, what about you? Can you sense animals?”

Sibyl gave an exaggerated sigh and lowered her magazine.

“No, never mind,” Katherine said. “I’ve been bugging you all day. I’ll leave you alone.” She turned to Josephine. “What about you?”

“Oh, Honey. Can’t we take a break? We’ve been doing this all weekend. Aren’t you getting tired?”

Katherine set down her notebook. “Okay. I guess we can stop. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“But how does it not bother you?” she said. “Your powers don’t make any sense.”

“Whose?”

“All of yours. Josephine, you can drive a car into somebody’s living room and make them forget everything, but if you knock over somebody’s drink with a tennis ball, they’ll remember the ball. You can make somebody forget about a car, but not a ball? And Anton. He can order someone to do something over a telephone, but not if he leaves a message. Why? A telephone already converts his voice into electrical signals. Why should it matter if it’s put on disk first? And Alexander can’t read minds unless you make eye contact, sure. And he can do it through a fish tank, but he can’t through a mirror for some reason.”

“That makes sense,” said Sibyl. “A mirror isn’t eye contact.”

“But what does that mean? A fish tank refracts light a lot. Let’s say he makes eye contact with you through one, and then someone lifts it out of the way. He’d suddenly be looking past you. That means it’s okay for light to bend a little, so then why should a mirror stop it? Every time a photon hits a particle, it gets absorbed and reemitted. The only difference between reflection and refraction is the direction of reemission after an electron absorbs a photon. On an atomic level, they’re basically the same thing, so why does it make a difference!”

Everyone responded with blank stares. Josephine brushed up on science every decade or so, so what Katherine said wasn’t completely lost on her. Even so, Katherine clearly had a passion for physics. She cited many atomic laws during her questions, so why were her science grades only B’s?

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out in time,” Sakhr said. “You have all the time in the world.”

“Okay,” She took some notes. “Can I ask you something? I promise it’s not about powers.”

Sakhr smiled. “Of course.”

“Back in ancient Egypt, did you ever switch places with a pharaoh?”

“No. I switched places with rulers before, but never someone as grandiose as a king or a pharaoh.”

“Why not the pharaoh? It would have worked, wouldn’t it?”

“Certainly it would, but why would I?”

“Why wouldn’t you? You could have ruled Egypt.”

Sakhr smiled knowingly. “Why bother? Beyond a point, more power does not improve luxury. Well… not in any way that’s worth the trouble. I’d be burdening myself with the affairs of politics, and unless I revealed myself for who I am, any legacy I built would die with body I was in. I’d rather live as I am: with a close pack of compatriots, free to go wherever I want. Besides,” He leaned in conspiratorially, “I know I can take the place of any ruler. In that way, I already am the most powerful person alive.”

“I suppose so,” said Katherine. For a while, she remained silent. “Can I ask another question?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever met any other witches? One’s that didn’t join the coven?”

“A few, centuries ago.”

“What could they do?”

“Back when the coven was only Christof and myself, we met Celine de Launois. Her power was desire. Every man wanted her, without question. When we met her, she was married to a Belgium viscount. It was a bad relationship; abusive, both ways. She cheated on him constantly, and he hated her, but he’d always come back to her bed.

“I knew the risk of getting involved with her, even if she was one of us, but of course, her powers already played their magic. Christof and I both became smitten with her and told her everything of her powers and ours. We were obsessed.” Sakhr shook his head, “and she was the most manipulative bitch I have ever met. It was her little game to turn us against each other.”

“What happened?”

“Like with Anton’s Authority, we grew resistant. We saw what she was doing and left her behind.”

“You didn’t have any leftover feelings for her?”

“No. Once we got away, the effect popped like a bubble.”

“Oh,” Katherine turned to an early page in her notebook and added “Desire (proximity?)” under a list of powers.

Sakhr had told the same story to Josephine when she joined, just as he’d told Sibyl, except Sibyl sensed a lie. She and Josephine had learned the truth years later from a drunk Alexander.

“You know that moment right after a guy shoots his wad?” he’d said. “There’s a moment of clarity there. Guys think straightest then, because there’s no lust. That’s when Sakhr slit her throat.”

Sakhr must have known Alexander would find out. Maybe Sakhr told him the truth up front. Which would mean Anton would know too, since those two share everything. That left only the coven women in the dark. It’s not like Josephine and Sibyl would be horrified that Sakhr had killed someone. They all killed each time they stole a body. So why lie? It always bugged her.

Katherine finished her notes. “Were there any others?”

“No,” Sakhr said. “Every other witch I’ve met is in this coven.”

“That’s it? Wow. Eight witches in all the world. Why are we so rare?”

“I don’t know. There may have been more, but until I met Christof, I wouldn’t even have known another when I saw them. Christof was the one who recognized me. Even now, this coven can only be in one place at one time. Many may be passing us by.”

“But there are all those stories about witches and wizards…”

“They’re always charlatans. Those with real powers keep it to themselves. As late as fifty years ago, people like us would be killed for witchcraft. Most, I suspect, never find out they have powers at all. No one in this group knew until Christof and I showed them.”

“Why not? Wouldn’t Alexander have figured out on his own that he could read minds? How did you figure out you could switch bodies?”

“My first switch was entirely by accident. As for Alexander, from how he describes it, he didn’t realize the thoughts in his head were not his own. We had to point it out to him.”

“Oh, I see.” Katherine pondered a while, then turned to Sibyl. “Can we do just one more test? Please. Just one?”

Sibyl sighed and set down her magazine. “Fine.”

Katherine scampered into the other room. After much banging around, she returned wearing her black hoodie, unzipped and with the hood up.

“Just to make sure,” she said, “you can still see my aura when I do this.” She tucked her hands into her sleeves, turned around, and held her arms out like wings. None skin was visible.

“I can.”

“And it’s centered on me, right?”

“That’s right.”

Katherine disappeared around the door. Everyone could hear her moving. Then her hooded head popped into view. Beneath it, she stuck out her arm with the sleeve still tucked over her hand, giving the impression she was handless.

“Before we start…” She popped her head out of view, “you can still see my aura when I hold my arm out like this.” Her arm waved.

Sibyl sighed with exasperation. “Yes, I can still see your aura.”

A long pause. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“You’re certain?” She waved her handless sleeve about.

“Yes. Get on with it.”

“Okay. I just wanted to make sure…”

Slowly, the sleeve of the hoodie pulled back. Instead of her arm, what appeared was the end of a wooden coat hanger.

“…Because I’m not actually in view at all.”

Sibyl stiffened. Her breath caught. Christof snapped his head up from his work to look at her. She turned to look around. Her petrified gaze skated up and down, as though the walls and ceiling were covered in bugs.

Katherine, unaware of Sibyl’s reaction, continued. “You’re still able to see my aura, right?”

With no response, her head popped back into view. Her huge smile faded when she saw Sibyl.

“Sibyl?” asked Christof. “Your power… what are you experiencing?”

“Everybody.”

“What?”

She stood and backed against the wall. “I can see everybody in the hotel.”

Katherine’s smile returned. “You did it. You can see through walls. You just had to know you could. All I did was—”

“Shut up!” snapped Sibyl. “Make it go away. There are too many of them.”‘

Katherine’s face blanched. “I thought… I didn’t…”

Sakhr spoke. “Christof, what are you seeing?”

“It’s like her power just sprouted. It looks different now. Bigger. And Katherine’s power… it’s like it’s simmering. I think their powers interacted somehow.”

“Change it back,” Sibyl snapped. “I don’t want this.”

Sakhr turned to her. “Calm down, Sibyl.”

“No. I won’t. Her silly questions caused this. How am I supposed to sleep? How am I supposed to block them out?”

“Relax. You’re just startled.”

“No. Stop talking. I…” Lost for words, Sibyl raced from the room. The slam of an adjoining door marked her exit.

Katherine was on the verge of tears.

Josephine rushed to hug her. “It’s okay,”

“I’m sorry. I thought she would be happy.”

“She will be, honey. She will be. Sibyl has a tiny comfort zone. It’s very small, and very comfortable. She just needs time.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. The tears began to flow.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Sakhr said. “That was amazing. I think we’re a step closer to figuring out what you can do.”

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