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Rogue Agent: Chapter 7 (Part 2)
SEVEN (Part 2)

"There."

"Where?"

"Just past that gatepost, then pull around back." Hax pointed through the darkness at a vague shape made barely perceptible through the rain, but plain to him by a lifetime of memories.

As a young lad, he relished the treat of accompanying his grandfather to the Black Sheep Arms: being hoisted up to his spot at the bar, spending hours listening to the old codgers reminiscing about the war, the landlady filling his pockets with sweets to take home to his sister. Sometimes one would have a puzzle book of some kind, requiring logic to solve some riddle, or some tome on his favourite topic, robotics. Young Hax would pore over the books in fascination, chuffed in the glow of young children's importance as he heard the older gentlemen. "Look at young Charlie Haxor," they'd say. "Had we had a chap such as he in '39, Hitler would have been snuffed in a month."

Then his grandfather, grumbling good naturedly from behind his pint, would admonish them for filling his young lad's mind with claptrap. "We all know there was a lot more going on behind the scenes in that war than just some overzealous Jerries stomping around the continent. Personally, I'm glad my children and grandchildren don't have to know what that life would have been like."

"Are you sure they're open?" Mary's words broke into Hax's thoughts. She gazed uncertainly at the ancient wood sheep creaking overhead as she eased the Astra back the narrow alley.

Her companion groaned. "You drug me out of bed at 4 AM in the middle of a goddamned thunderstorm to meet with an alleged sorceress, and you aren't even sure if the place you agreed to meet is open?"

Mary glanced over at him, then screamed as she turned the corner and a dark figure suddenly shone in the Astra's headlights. She slammed the brakes, skidding slightly on the wet cobblestones before coming to a stop just in front of the figure. A pale face shone out from the dark folds of the cloak, then beckoned the pair to follow her into the building.

*****
"Gwendolyn Stein?" Mary's voice called out in an authoritative tone as she and Hax made their way in from the storm. The cellar of the Black Sheep was dark, the only illumination coming from a few small candles spaced along the ancient stone wall around the entrance.

"That is my birth name," a soft, low voice came from the shadows. "Though in the Circle, I am known as Ebony Starchild."

"Well, this certainly seems promising," Hax mumbled under his breath as Mary jabbed him with her elbow.

A match flared up, illuminating the face the pair had seen outside as she lit a row of five large white candles. As she lit the final pillar, she pulled back the hood of her cloak to reveal a pretty blonde who reminded the web ninja of a middle-aged incarnation of the actress Grace Kelly. Her hair swooped down the sides of her laugh-lined face and was pulled neatly in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. If it hadn't been for the dark cloak, one might have expected to see her at some art reception or high-class cocktail party. Silently, she turned to hand two of the candles to Hax. Mary took another two, and the woman picked up the remaining candle before pressing a stone on the floor. A hidden door popped open slightly, and when she pulled it open further, Hax could see it was attached to a spring that would pull the door closed behind them. Ebony pulled the door wide, then nodded for them to follow her down a passage.

The ground periodically sloped slightly downward as they moved, and as they stepped silently along, Hax wondered about the hidden subterranean passageways. Having grown up around the village, he knew by this point they were some ways away from the Arms, though because of the slight twists in direction along the path, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where. Along the way they passed various other corridors, presumably secret passages to other establishments around the village. The web ninja marveled at the world that had been hidden beneath his feet his whole life. Had they been shelters left over from the war, their tunnels extended and connected for extra space or escape routes? Possibly, though the tunnels felt older than that. Odd, also, that in spite of the fact he was traipsing about deep underground in the wee hours of a stormy night, after having practically no sleep, with a complete stranger claiming to be a witch and no idea where she was taking them, Hax felt surprisingly calm about the whole ordeal.

Finally, the tunnel opened up into a cavern. The room was illuminated by large candles set in niches hewn into the stone walls, casting a soft glow over the large pentacle carved into a smooth, black marble floor. Taking one of the pillars from Mary, Ebony set each of her candles in a small indent at a different point of the star, then took Hax's candles and did the same as the three drew into the circle. Mary mumbled something quietly to herself, setting the fifth candle in its place. When this was done, Ebony smiled at her before calling out:

"By the dragons light,
On this spring night
I call to thee
To give me your might
By the power of three
I conjure thee
To protect all
That surrounds me
So mote it be
So mote it be!"


As she spoke, Hax noticed she walked around the inner edge of the circle three times. Peculiarly, the flames of each candle seemed to flare up as she passed, almost like someone turning up the gas on a cooking stove and then back down again. He glanced over at Mary, who was sitting cross-legged toward the middle of the circle with her eyes closed, mouth barely moving as they formed silent words.

A thought suddenly occurred to him.

"Wait," he said under his breath, dropping to the ground next to her as Ebony completed her circuit. "Was this the reason you needed me? To have a third person for some sorcery mumbo-jumbo?"

Mary's eyes popped open, staring into his accusing brown eyes. "Charles, please," she whispered. "There's more to this than you realise."

"I cannot believe," he hissed, "that you roused me in the middle of the fucking night to trick me into helping with some...hocus-pocus..." It was strange, but even as he felt his blood pressure rise along with his indignation, the web ninja also felt a change in the atmosphere around them, a kind of shifting of energy that at some deep level of his psyche felt familiar to him. He couldn't place the feeling, exactly, but he felt it enveloping him from the outside in, like a blanket of comfort to soothe the irritation. He was still annoyed, but as the energies swirled invisibly about them, his breathing slowed and Hax's rage subsided to quiet grumblings.

"We should be safe to speak now," Ebony said as she joined them at the centre. "The incantation I used is a powerful one, and should protect everything in and immediately around the chamber. First of all, thank you for coming to see me. I apologize for the inconvenience of needing to meet in secret, but after what happened to Genevieve..." She trailed off, her eyes growing misty for a moment.

Mary spoke soothingly as she started her questions. "Why don't we start from the beginning? What is this place?"

Ebony smiled as she sank to the floor, tucking the edges of her cloak underneath her. "This is the meeting place of the Circle. We are a coven whose roots trace back to the founding of the Black Sheep Arms in 1646, when the wife of the tavern's landlord started a secret meeting place for the local cunning-folk. These were the times of Matthew Hopkins and his reign of terror persecuting suspected witches in County Essex, times where the practice of magic was being painted by religious fanatics as immoral and evil." She paused, a wan smile forming in the candlelight. "Interesting how then, as now, the majority of magic practitioners dealt in the arts of healing and protection, but were threatened and branded as evil by groups that actively took part in false accusations, torture, and murder to 'cleanse' their towns and villages of this terrible menace. Anyway, Elizabeth Reynolds founded the Circle as a sanctuary to protect the practitioners around Alderbury village and had a secret room built underneath her tavern for their rituals. Over the centuries, that protective tradition has been passed down; successive generations have expanded the tunnels and added passages from various homes and establishments to ensure complete secrecy and protection of its members."

She paused again, lifting her head to stare solemnly at the ancient walls. Her pale grey eyes seemed elsewhere as she continued, "I am the thirteenth-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Reynolds, directly descended, and heir to the protection of the Circle. In four centuries, you two are the first persons outside of the order to set foot in the inner sanctuary." Ebony finally lowered her gaze, looking into Hax's eyes with a mixture of hope and distress. "That should tell how concerned we are over the way in which we lost Genevieve."

Mary cleared her throat, shifting on the cold marble. "You stated on the telephone that you knew of some strange persons Genevieve had been caught up with shortly before her death. What can you tell us about them?"

The other woman was quiet for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Genevieve was always an ambitious person, though she had a very difficult time cultivating lasting, meaningful relationships. The primary focus of the Circle's magic is on healing, protection, and self-discovery - using different methodologies to find signs to guide one in their personal path. But Genevieve quickly became interested in the other, hidden powers that could be harnessed through magical arts. We sought to teach her to protect herself, to use magic as a guide that would help her achieve her potential. And for a while, I thought it was helping her. She was very lonely when she entered the sisterhood, but over time, as she practiced her craft, she seemed to be growing warmer, more content. But then..."

"Go on."

Ebony choked back a sob, though her eyes glistened as she went on. "I only saw him once, from a distance, but I could feel the danger even then. He called himself Lord Bistervan, though you can be certain there's no such family listed in Burke's Peerage. She met him on a trip to London..." She trailed off again, the weight of the memory forcing her head to drop. "She'd wanted me to go with her up to Treadwell's, and I'd told her I couldn't leave the Arms that day. Had I known...but I can't dwell on that now. I'm certain it was he who struck up the conversation, preying on any vibe of anxiety and using charm to lure her in. He was all she could talk about for days afterward..."

She stopped again, pulling her black cloak more tightly about her as she tried to contain the emotions roiling through her. Hax and Mary looked at one another, then back to the blonde head racking with silent sobs in front of them. It struck him, rather oddly, that the only other person Hax had ever known to cry without making a sound was the Baroness, but he didn't have time to ruminate on that further as Ebony drew a shaky breath and continued.

"Practicing magic, of course, takes an open mind. Any time one deals with the hidden or the unknown, it requires an open mind - even logical scientific discoveries only happen when one starts by asking 'what if?' and then opens themselves to the possibilities. And there are many, many magical paths one could take. Magic, really, is all around us, all the time; modern medicine's roots are the traditions of poultices and potions from ancient cunning-folk, just as all our technologies and radios and internet have their beginnings in sorcerers' attempts to harness and enslave energy. What magic does is provide us a way of opening our minds to things that cannot be explained, to give us tangible controls over our everyday lives. The better covens and practitioners practice the substance of magic; the focus of energies, the use of different herbs and plants, the interpreting of signs as a guide. These are groups and individuals devoted to using magic for the betterment of oneself and the world around us, and they make up the majority of magical practitioners.

"But the problem that comes in boils down to the intent of the practitioner, and especially in regards to initiates new to the craft." Ebony closed her eyes a moment, and the next words she spoke came out hard. "There is a dark side to the magical world. There are groups that devote themselves to stylized ritual and ceremony, convincing others and possibly even themselves that through these rituals, they can gain secret knowledge and power. There's a danger, and a sort of sexiness that goes along with it, that draws people in. And that can be exceptionally damaging to those who find themselves under the spell of manipulators and charlatans who use the naivete or emotional instability of their initiates to further their own, selfish ends." She spat the final words out, rocking back a little bit as she raised her face again toward the ceiling. Her fists clenched as though she were trying to draw power into herself.

"So you believe this Lord Bistervan lured Genevieve into the darker aspects of magic?"

Ebony opened her eyes, looking in Hax's direction but with a fire and distance that clearly didn't see him. Her voice rose higher as she went on. "I know he did. I know he did. It started with promises of secret knowledge, of introductions to 'people learned in sacred arts.' Then it moved on to using sex energies to focus these 'arcane rituals' he'd lured her in with. He would... she would tell me about their exploits, gush about how I'd been right, how she'd just needed to focus on attraction and the 'right one' would come along. But there were odd things about the whole situation, like how he never seemed to be able to make it to Alderbury, or how he would disappear for weeks without notice and then come back wanting her to immediately go to him. The one time he did come here, as I said, I only got to see him from a distance."

"When was this? And what did he look like?"

"About...six months ago, I'd say. It was autumn, early October, I think. I remember it was after the equinox but before Samhain. He was handsome, I'll give him that. He was probably mid-thirties, blond, fit, about your height," she nodded at Hax. "Snappy dresser, too. But you could feel the negative energy. Lady Cora was in having a chat at the time and saw him too, and she said his aura was-"

"Wait," Hax interrupted, "Lady Cora as in Cora Redblum, the druggist's wife?"

"Yes," Ebony replied, somewhat surprised. "Though I'll ask of course for your discretion in regards to our group, especially given the circumstances."

"Of course. Please continue."

"She said his aura was muddled and predominantly dark pink, which indicates dishonesty and immaturity. Given the hissy fit he had before driving off, it certainly validated the immature part."

"Do you know what they were fighting about?" Mary asked.

"Yes. Genevieve taught courses at the University of Southampton, and Bistervan wanted her to drop everything and fly off with him to South America or something. She was terribly upset when she told me about it later. Apparently there was some rich businessman down there who wanted to learn magical arts and Bistervan wanted to take her with him, and was furious when she said no. He apparently berated her for not being a 'true believer' of his brand of magic. They reconciled after that, but it was back to her going to him all the bloody time for their 'sex magic.'" The last words came out like Ebony was trying to get a bad taste out of her mouth. "Although he never did give it up, really. For her birthday, he told her he had arranged for them to go to Rio over Easter break. Of course, then she..."

While Ebony choked up again, Hax's tired mind suddenly burst into activity. It could be coincidence, but he somehow didn't think so: the resemblance to Baroness, the push to go to Rio to meet a wealthy but shadowy businessman...it smelled like a set-up, and if he was right, Baroness was walking right into it. "Ms. Starchild," he hesitated, "did Ms. Petersen say anything else about this businessman? What he did, or perhaps a name?"

"No," Ebony shook her head. "No, nothing except that he was very wealthy, and there was supposed to be some fancy party while they would be there that she had to buy a new dress for. She started to choke up again. "The dress is up in her closet, never worn..."

"We understand how difficult this must be for you, and thank you for reaching out and for trusting us to help you," Mary chimed in, putting a hand on the other woman's shoulder. "Your information is helpful, and we are dedicated to finding out who is responsible for Genevieve's death and bringing them to justice."

"One last thing," Hax broke in. "How was it that you met Ms. Petersen?"

Ebony went ashen as her body slumped. "I always knew her," she replied, her voice quiet and eerily calm. "She was my sister." Her body shuddered, the grey eyes going wide as she started rocking back and forth again, dissolving in a blubbering of tears. "She was my baby sister, and he took her from me. He..." Her throat let out a torturous gurgle as she clutched her hand to her chest. Mary got a hold of her before she fell over completely, hugging her with compassion.

A new round of sobs quaked through Ebony's frame as she exploded, her anguished voice reverberating through the stone chamber, "SHE WAS MY SISTER!"

*****
All the way to the beginning
Crap, what happened last time?
ON WITH THE STORY!
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