Ash felt the sensation of butterflies in her stomach. "Me? I could be a witch?"
"It's up to Shekka, dearie," said Mistress Toadfoot. "But she'd accept yer, I'm certain."
"Ash," began Shane. He was frowning in that way that made his brows draw together. That meant he was troubled. He had had a very strange night. She patted his arm.
"I'd 'ave to find and stop whoever wants to bring this Lord of Shadows back?"
"The villain called 'imself 'Shadow King,' dearie," said Mistress Toadfoot. "An yersse… Witches can do what yer least expect. Not everyone likes that mind. Not every lord and lady of a region is kind like Isolde."
"What you say is true," said the ghost of Isolde, her clear voice seeming to echo, "and the ritual of Shekka is by all accounts life changing and irreversible. I would not want my sister to be transformed, even if she were so inclined."
"That's nice," said the witch. "But a witch can defend strapping boys against ghosts, and necromancers. You've seen old me stop a mad ghost. A girl with no magic can do nothing. A witch can do things above her class and get what she wants." She looked from Ash to Chad to Shane.
Ash could feel her palms sweating. She glanced around at the all, her gaze lingering on Chad's face. "I – I can do this," she said.
"Gnarly," said Chad.
Shane still look troubled and he opened his mouth to speak, but Ash gently touched his arm. "I gotta," she said.
The witch beckoned at them to follow her into the woods. They all filed out and followed the strange green woman as she led them deep into the dense tangle of trees with this clawing branches. They emerged into a clearing where the moonlight was strangely bright. Much brighter than it should be. Shining bright as day.
Ash peered at the clearing. "What's that shape?"
"A symbol, dearie," said Mistress Toadfoot. "Now stand in the middle.
Ash stood in the middle of the clearing. She felt a strange tingling sensation.
The others all hung back by the trees.
"Take care," said Isolde, her voice echoing in the cold air.
"We have to leave the rest to Shekka," said Mistress Toadfoot. "Look at the moon, my pretty."
Ash looked up at the moon. It was so strange. The moonlight was blinding… She felt bathed in its ethereal radiance.
She could hear the witch's voice: "Repeat after me: I dedicate myself to Shekka, Dark Moon Goddess. I let her power flow through me so that I will be transformed. In her embrace, I am reborn as her creature."
Ash repeated these words shouting them out loud at the moon.
Suddenly she found herself paralysed. She couldn't move or speak. She felt herself rise into the air and spin around, unable to see anything but the light otherworldly light. Her heart hammered in her chest. And then she felt a burning sensation spread through her…! Her bones were on fire and her flesh was bubbling. A burning smell filled her nostrils…
The overpowering light turned lurid green. She was spinning round and round, caught in a maelstrom of lurid light and agonising sensations. Swirling round and round and round…
Then she was released and she collapsed onto the floor of the clearing, gasping and sobbing. She looked at her hands. They were bright green. She pulled up her sleeves. Her arms were green. She rolled up her ragged frock. So were her legs. It was hard to see, but out of the corner of her eye, it looked like the tip of her nose was green too.
"'Tis done. Shekka accepted yer. Yer one of us." That was Mistress Toadfoot sounding relieved.
Ash scrambled to her feet and ran into Shane's waiting arms. He looked at her face with strangely wide eyes. Chad patted her on the back and she put her arms around him as well, feeling her heartbeat quicken as she did.
"It is done then, for better or worse," said Isolde.
Ash felt something wriggle in her pocket and she reached in and pulled it out. It was Horace, the wooden horse Shane had given her! But now it was bright green like her hand, and struggled in her grasp. She and Shane gazed at it in dull blue wonder.
"My li'l Horace. You're alive," said Ash. "It's OK, Mummy's here." She touched his shiny green muzzle.
On the way back to the witch's cottage, Ash noticed that the boughs and brambles seemed to part for her, so that she could easily make her way through the woods faster than any of them except for Isolde.
Back in the cottage, the witch handed Ash the leatherbound book. The pages were covered with strange symbols and peering at them, Ash had the sense they were whispering to her, like she could somehow, magically understand them. There were no mirrors in the cottage. Ash wondered uneasily what she looked like with green skin. Still, there was no point in worrying about it.
Mistress Toadfoot snapped her fingers. "Yer should 'ave another familiar, girl," she said. "Not just that funny little 'orse thing."
A bat fluttered down from the rafters and perched on Ash's arm. She grinned at it's funny little face as it crawled up her arm and onto her shoulder. Then the older witch thrust the heavy book at her. "There. Take this an' go to the Keep. Yer'll find answers there."
"Wait," said Ash, "this ain't safe fer Shane 'n Chad."
Mistress Toadfoot tsked tsked. "An' who exactly can protect 'em better than you? An' the ghost lady?" She pointed emaciated green fingers and Ash and Isolde in turn.
"That is correct," said Isolde. "I cut down those brigands who waylaid me on the more. They could not lay a hand on my spectral form, but this ethereal copy of my sword, Nightslayer," she held up her blade that gleamed with an icy white sheen, "it cut them down quickly enough. Any miscreant who would dare take arms against any of you will be sorry."
"I s'pose you're right," said Ash mulling this over in her mind.
"Gnarly," said Chad.
Shane looked uneasy, so Ash squeezed his hand. "I'll look after you," she murmured.
In order to get to the Wintershold, the four of them had to cross an old graveyard. It had clearly been neglected for some time. Headstones lie tumbled amidst briars and thick tussocks of grass while a number of freestanding tombs looked like they had been broken into – or perhaps the bodies inside them had broken out.
Ash, Shane and Chad drew together instinctively as Isolde led the way, her ethereal form giving of a faint glow in the dark.
"Something is amiss here," said Isolde.
"No, really?" mumbled Shane.
They were half-way across the cemetery, when a ghost appeared, rising from the turfed mound of a grave. This ghost was a young woman, her face emaciated. "Help us, stranger," she pleaded.
Another figure stepped out of a crumbling mausoleum. This time it was the spectre of a severe looking old man, dressed in the clothes of a notary. "Yes, help us," he begged, "for we are slaves to a fiend that will not let us depart this world."
"Free us," said the ghost of a bearded woodsman who sat up through the turf of an unmarked grave. "We bin 'ere too long."
"Of course I shall help," said Isolde.
"Oh thank you, lady, thank you," said the ghost of the young woman, almost weeping in relief.
Shane groaned. "What's she getting us into?"
"Tell me," commanded Isolde, "what is this fiend that has you in its thrall."
"The ghost of a great evil-doer that defiled this place," said the notary, but at that point, a tremor passed through the graves at their feet.
"It comes," said the young woman, a terrified look in her eyes.
Suddenly the ghosts of the graveyard all vanished as though they were sucked back into the ground. And then the tremor came again as the ground in which the dead lay rose up before them as a colossal mound of mouldering earth, studded with splintered coffin lids and the remains of those buried within.
The mound of grave dirt shuddered once more and took a lumbering step towards them as arms and legs took shape from within the crumbling conglomeration that stood before them. The looking, roughly humanoid figure exuded a palpable aura of death as it stalked towards them with bron-crunching steps, lumpen arms outstretched, while ghost voices cry from somewhere within it while the faint ghost voices cried from somewhere within it: "Help us! Save us!"
"I have come to put an end to you, fiend," said Isolde, just exuding confidence. The other three were not so sure of themselves. Shane looked white as a sheet, his eyes round in terror. Even Chad was trembling. Ash felt an icy sensation of terror in her stomach, but she had to defend her dear Shane and the gorgeous Chad.
As Isolde lunged at the monster with her ghostly sword, screaming a battle cry, Ash leafed through the book of spells, willing herself to find some magic of use. She got a dizzy sensation as she peered at the page and started screaming strange sounding syllables. The bat on her shoulder which she had taken as a familiar began to glow brightly, its eyes shining silver and it flew up into the air. Ash felt suddenly disorientated, as though she were seeing through the bat's eyes as well as her own. As though her familiar had become in some way an extension of her mind and magic power.
Isolde stabbed at the grave-monster. "Die, abomination," she cried.
"Noo… I'll eat youuuuu, spooook," it replied, in a voice like rusty nails being scratched across an iron coffin.
Ash poured all her effort of will into directing her magic against the fiend, but what happened was that the bat started fluttering around the misshapen mound of its head.
"What'sss this?" grated the monster. "A tasssty little spoook?"
It swiped at the bat, and its distraction was enough. With a scream of fury, mIsolde brought her scintillating ethereal blade in a flashing arc through the air and pierced the monster's heart. The necromantic spell animating it was broken. The earthy body burst apart, showering them all with grave dirt, human remains and rotting coffin wood.
"Success!" said Isolde in triumph.
"Eurgh! Not cool," said Chad, gingerly brushing the remains off his shoulders and dyed golden hair.
Shane retched, and Ash put her arms around him to steady him as he vomited.
The souls of those that had been bound by the grave golem now ascended into the night sky. They called down their thanks and praises in their mixture of dialects. Ash looked up as their shining lights ascended into the heavens and felt a warm glow.
The ghost of the young woman gazed down at her, beaming. "Oh thank you, thank you."
"You have done a great thing, this night, good maid," said the notary, before he soared up above the clouds.
"Fine lookin' gel, if green in the cheeks," burbled the woodsman as he too ascended.
Shane was still trembling, so Ash kissed him on the cheek. "It's alrigh', I'm 'ere," she murmured, wondering how she could reassure him.
"Interesting though unconventional move, distracting the horror like that," said Isolde, laying a ghostly hand as light as a cobweb on Ash's shoulder. "We'll make a warrior of you yet."
"I'm a witch, not a warrior," said Ash, looking down at her green hands.
"You enchanted that bat into being a weapon?" said Isolde. "He looked no different from bats I might see in the chapel when it is time for the Vespers."
"I'll call 'im Vesper," said Ash, pleased with that idea.
"Yes, well, why don't you leaf through that book for an offensive spell," said Isolde. "We will certainly need them. We'll have many battles with supernatural foes soon enough."
"Man, that sounds awful," drawled Chad in his charming accent. "Are we actually gonna, like, survive the night?"
"Psh," said Isolde. "I make it my business to take care of beautiful young men. They always know they can depend on me." She lay a hand on Chad's arm. "And I prop up the weak, just so we're clear," she added, touching Shane's arm as well.
Ash cringed. Was that her idea of being a comfort? Calling Shane weak and babbling about Chad's beauty? She flipped through the book, hoping it would fall open at a page with an offensive spell, like Isolde suggested. She peered at the page.
"Um… here's one for explodin' moon beams, or something," she said doubtfully. "Works on pebbles." She picked up a pebble as the book instructed and murmured the strange syllables. The stone glowed silvery white and Ash squeaked in shock and dropped it onto the tortured earth, where it exploded with a little pop. She felt a little light headed afterwards. Presumably these spells cost energy.
They left the graveyard. Night lay over the sleeping village like a bejewelled cape, the wind chasing black clouds across the sky, like a wolf after a shepherd's flock. Ahead of them lay the stone built buildings and thatched cottages of the village. There were few lights visible in the windows of the village, although there were plenty within the windows of the Castle of Wintershold. Most of the villagers who predominantly worked on the land had retired for the night.
Ash smiled as Horace the tiny green horse crawled up her arm and perched on her shoulder and Vesper the bat flitted around her head.
"Will your little green foal grow into a mighty stallion one day, I wonder?" said Isolde. "Let us hope he does and is a steed that makes you proud. My steed bolted when I was killed tonight." She sighed. She sighed and Ash instinctively took her hand to comfort her. Both of them were astonished when Ash actually gripped her hand! Isolde looked down, violet-blue eyes wide. She touched Shane's arm and her ghostly hand phased through him like a shadow.
"Sorry about that, my boy, but I had to test," she apologised. "Well… It would appear a witch is a being of both worlds."
The tolling of the temple bell rang out through the cold night air, the sound muffled by the whipping wind. And then the wailing of the wind became what sounded to Ash like a moaning voice. The voice was joined by others, all wailing in torment, and they were getting closer. A phosphorescent mist moved directly towards them as though it were sentient. It moved over the fields that lay between them and the village. It was no natural mist… As she watched, Ash saw anguished faces, their eyes closed, surface from within, before sinking back into the cloud.
"Ghosts?" said Shane, his voice trembling. "More ghosts?"
"I think not," said Isolde. "I have actually heard of this phenomenon. A manifestation of collective nightmares. The dance of the Phantasmagoria."
"Them nightmares… they're alive?" said Ash, feeling a queasy sense of anxiety again.
"Not cool," said Chad. "That's like, no dream of mine."
Isolde laughed and cupped his face in her hands. "You shy away from combat?" she asked, though she was grinning. "You would not want to be my squire?"
"No Ma'am," said Chad, blinking at her.
Isolde turned to face the oncoming nightmare, and held her spectral sword high. "Keep your distance," she urged. "Boys, stand well back. This predatory thing… it will take you to the brink of insanity if it possibly can."
Ash frowned. She was scaring Shane, talking like that. He was already shaking. The nightmare closed in on them, its misty tendrils groping hungrily for them…